"What fun it will be," responded Tuppence. "Marriage is called all sorts of things, a haven, and a refuge, and a crowning glory, and a state of bondage, and lots more. But do you know what I think it is?"
"And a damned good sport too," said Tommy.
What with one thing and another, marriage has rather been on the brain lately. One doesn't usually think of it from day to day, one just gets on merrily side by side in a pleasant battle against the world, tied together by the heartstrings. But lately it's been right up front and centre and I've noticed something which has been (probably) unconscious in the writing world which I thought I might drag into the light and address for my fellow writers. It's all positive, don't worry. I'm not shaking my finger at anyone today. It's a mere case of thinking about why one writes the way one does. The examined life and all that. Of course, ever since the turn of the century (by which I mean the turn into the twentieth century) this topic has become squiffy, but I think you're all pretty sound of brain so I won't go into feminism and all that if I don't have to. Of course (of course, of course) "anyone setting out to dispute anything ought always to begin by saying what he does not dispute," and it is my hope that in the course (of course, of course) of laying out these thoughts I will simultaneously deliver my views on equality of the sexes and all that.
the old set-up
I've begun to notice in my own writing, and in most novels, and certainly in 99% of the films one watches, that there is a man and a woman. The setting becomes jaded after awhile, I find: from the outset you know the only reason the man or the woman is coming alongside the woman or the man is because somewhere in the movie they have to get a bed-scene in. You know it's coming and your soul groans with a badly-concocted sham of longsufferingness. One goes into brand new novels with a wary brow lifted as the Significant Other makes his or her first appearance on the scene. Even I looked round at The Shadow Things and Adamantine, Plenilune and Gingerune (Between Earth and Sky?) with a bit of surprise and plenty of worry to find the old tag-team pulling merrily away as they have from the beginning of time.
But that's the thing. They have been going side by side since the beginning of time. Other than "in the beginning God," man and woman were the first significant creatures on this terrestrial ball, and the old pattern, when stripped of ungrounded passion and bawdy comedic streamers, rings as true now as it did then. It sounds like a cop-out to say "that's the way of things," but it is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a female character accompanying the male character of life or novel simply because God himself looked round on his plot and decided man wasn't quite himself without the woman.
I've had my dizzying turn on the grumpy-go-round of the definitions of biblical "masculinity" and "femininity." For heaven's sake I'm not going to get on that beastly contraption now. But if there is one thing I have picked up from all the sane men of God writing, probably without realizing they were painting a picture of him, it is a rather unorthodox and alarming view of Man. I say sane: I'm put in mind of Michael Card's song "God's Own Fool."
seems I've imagined him all of my life // as the wisest of all of mankind
but if God's holy wisdom is foolish to man // he must have seemed out of his mind
even his family said he was mad // and the priests said a demon's to blame
God in the form of this angry young man // could not have seemed perfectly sane
One gets images of men in armour thrusting their way into the Kingdom by violence. One gets pictures by turns of courteous words and hard knocks. One gets faces of flint and hearts of purity. One gets kings out of servants and lords out of the lowly. One gets an unexpected mastery over sin and Pan. One gets an impression that man is like Vesuvius, sleeping quietly in splendour until something causes him to erupt. One is made to take a good hard look at something one thought was perfectly ordinary and is surprised to find it unfamiliar. We tend to look at man as the antagonist of Gingerune does, "sacks of fluids bolstered by a framework of bone, led about by various divided passions," and that view is often accurate. But we run the risk of mistaking the "accident" for the "essential." Man, essentially, is a splendid creation put in a position of mind-boggling power over a world of mind-boggling proportions and possibilities.
I'm going to gamble on a pretty good mare and bet we have all read Proverbs 31 about the virtuous woman. We are all made to study her, feeling a bit guilty and wondering how we are supposed to live up to that standard. (I can't sew: does that make me a bad wife?) But I do have to say that, regardless of the patriarchal setting of the Middle East and the debate which rages among Western church philosophy about whether that model still holds, and the fact that women don't get a lot of stage time in the biblical narrative, when they do, they often come in crowned in light and laurels. One has Rahab and Ruth, Anna daughter of Phanuel, the woman at the well, the women who sat at Jesus' feet. One has the Song of Songs and the murex-red goddess of Proverbs 31.
all her household is clothed with scarlet // her clothing is fine linen and purple
her husband is known in the gates // when he sits among the elders of the land
Despite the Rachels, the wives of Potiphar (though I understood he only had one and that was probably more than enough), the Jezebels, the wives of Herod (can't comment on how many he had), one comes away with an impression that God has a high regard for woman and that woman can bear herself with a head held high. The only extra-biblical depictions which come close are those of the better medieval romances in which the women came down to their knights at the day's end looking like the sky and the earth at once, serenity coolly floating over a passion hammered out of sterner stuff than metal.
the lord and lady
In all of this, one doesn't get the impression that women are supposed to "submit" (as most people interpret "submit" as the bowing down of one's head so that someone else can place his heel on one's neck), nor that man is obligated to abdicate his position of first creation and God-given lordship to pamper the weakness and gentleness of woman. One gets the impression of two Titans side by side, countenances shining, and a laughter that could crush you. One gets a king and his queen, in each a special splendour made perfect by the accompaniment of the other. Beneath the piles of laundry, the bills, the dishwasher that needs running, the nine-to-five job, one gets a glimpse of the god and the goddess that careened about a garden in ages too long past, tripping over strange roots they had to stop to name and flinging themselves upon lawns to stare at a sky full of stars they had to make familiar to their eyes.
the avatar in fiction
Like any good homily, having got to the end, I am coming back around to the beginning. In my writing specifically I find once again the primeval god and goddess, veiled a little by the homeliness of ordinary life, but there nonetheless. Here is where I plunge into dangerous waters. It is easy to accept the fact that the man and the woman have always been there, but another fact is that they need each other. Not being a man, I am not sure what spiritual bolstering I give my husband save that 1) I know that I do, and 2) it's a devil of a lot of fun to see the envious, puzzled looks on other college fellows' faces when he introduces me as "his wife." I am well aware of what material good I do. I have got over the guilt and have moved smoothly into a warm appreciation of the woman of Proverbs 31.
As for the position of the man, he is the head of the woman, and even Paul calls all this a mystery so don't look too closely at me for an answer. But this little aspect of the duo, this mystery, is probably one of the clearest parts of male-female relationships among my characters, if you know what to look for. The man - be he husband, fiance, or friend - slips wordlessly into the position of the woman's covering without me asking him to. It is generally unspoken (such as Adamant's companion), though in The Shadow Things, when everything is up for Indi, he tells his friend to take care of Sillvia; and he doesn't mean, "Make sure she's got food and clothing and a roof over her head" - he means, "I want you to take her as your wife." Since pretty recently, it was understood that a woman alone in the world was up for grabs, and if she wanted to be that was indecent, and if she didn't want to be that was a dreadful misfortune. Regardless of what his purpose in the plot of the story may be, I've always found the man's role toward the woman was to be her provider, her protection, her owner not in the sense that she was a thing to be owned but that no one else could take her and misuse her. She was safe. She could shake her head at life and laugh because she did not have to grind her teeth in fear. No restrictions, no oppression, only a thick-walled castle that no one can breach and a great warm fire within.
the truth of tradition
I'm not peeved now, nor worried, when I find the opposite sex edging into my novel alongside my main character. I am not burdened by a sense of having to do it, otherwise the readership will be disappointed. Usually, something deep within my subconscious knows what the plot and the characters need, and things are sorted out without my having to give them much attention. If the woman comes, the woman comes; if the man comes, the man comes; and they all find their proper places within their lives and the life of the story as they always have since time immemorial because they understand tradition.
One has typically two views of tradition. The first is that it is oppressive rubbish that ought to be completely done away with, the other is that it is infallible and ought never to be questioned. A third and better tack is to discover whether or not the tradition is in fact a truth that has been enacted time out of mind, needs no discarding, and does the human spirit good in its continuation. I believe this male-female companionship to be just such a truth, passed down from generation to generation, and when I find this companionship springing up in my novels I am perforce less likely to be concerned that I am forcing a form upon my story and much more likely to be pleased that such a beautiful order has seen fit to blaze across the sky of my novel and crash to earth, disrupting and reorganizing the lives of all other things around it.
"Thus ends, in unavoidable inadequacy, the attempt to utter the unutterable things."