Slips and Suitcoats

"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?"
"What?"
"A sport!"
"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.

the god

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.

the goddess

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."
chesterton

9 ripostes:

  1. I personally favor having a lead character with best friend of a different gender. I think it gives a sometimes needed contrast in ways of thinking and problem solving, and lends some rich soil for humorous conflicts :)
    I don't like the assumption that because they're of opposite genders they're bound to fall in love by the end of the story, like a couple of magnates, and ride off into the sunset together. But at the same time - after the two of them had been through thick & thin together - it's almost impossible to write anything else, because you want them to be best friends forever. Not move on and find some Other, who feels like nothing more than an intruder!! :)

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  2. Some great thoughts here. I, too, don't always start out to write romances per se, but very frequently find a love interest developing in places where I hadn't planned it—or simply becoming more prominent than I originally thought it'd be. But it is true; it's a natural thing...and I love the way you put it: "...because God himself looked round on his plot and decided man wasn't quite himself without the woman."

    I also really like this bit: "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." That's a wonderful description. And I think that's where we part company with feminist woman, who scorns the idea of being protected or assisted at all and insists she can do everything by herself. I always wonder, though: can any woman really say she doesn't feel the natural desire for a protector as you describe it here? I know I've felt it, even though there's no man in my life as yet.

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  3. God has given us such beautiful gifts. "No restrictions, no oppression, only a thick-walled castle that no one can breach and a great warm fire within." This is precisely the image my mind conjures when thinking of marriage: not to be owned, but to belong to someone. Deep down I feel I'm far too much of a simpleton to grasp the fullness, the brilliance, and the gravity of this bond. To me it is both beautiful and terrifying. But very, very beautiful.

    /You/ are beautiful, Jenny, and your words are beautiful, and this post was beautiful. And I am crying now.

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  4. That is such a good post. I love your thoughts on this, Jenny. It is very true that in a way, it is meant to be, and God saw that it was good that man should not be alone, so it need not be trashed under a basket and hid away because we don't know how to 'deal with it'. 'To Love another person is to see the face of God' as Victor Hugo put it... and yet, there is a romance and there is another romance, there are the ones depicted in stories that have that sort of tender modesty to them, while others only have that sensuality and romanticism that can be very unhealthy in understanding this beautiful bond that God has so wonderfully created. I know others in the above comments have re-quoted your words, I too will add how much I loved this particular paragraph myself: "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." I like this idea very much indeed, and as Elizabeth said, I doubt indeed if any woman, deep down doesn't admit to have this desire and need for a loving protector and provider and hero.

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  5. I'll see your Proverbs 31 and raise you Ephesians 5:25. Yikes.

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  6. "One gets the impression of two Titans side by side, countenances shining, and a laughter that could crush you." Wow, that is amazing. I love how you put feelings into words and how they convey all the emotions of love with grandeur and yet make you weep for the beauty of it. Dear Katelyn Sabelko linked this post on Facebook, and I'm so glad she did. Thank You for a wonderful post!

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  7. Wow. This post was rich. Excellent point, Jenny. I love how you describe a woman as being protected behind a man because deep in my heart, despite the fact that I have yet to meet my Particular Gentleman, this is what is crying out. That's the natural feminine desire that we can't suppress, even if we wanted to.

    Romance has a way of crashing my writing somewhat uninvited too. But I work with it because I love a good underlying romance. It makes things - even the bleakest - a bit sunnier, a bit more hopeful.

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  8. Beautiful post, Jenny! I just love the way you've described the true and beautiful place of a woman in God's plan. You probably know by now which section I'd love to quote here, so I won't do it ;) I'll just repeat what most have affirmed here: that no woman can really deny deep down the need for the protection and the covering of a good gentleman. It's a natural, God-given desire...true, it's usually seen as being fulfilled in marriage. However, it's still also found, if still single, in a different but real sense, in good father-daughter or brother-sister relationships. I like stories in which romance does show up...as long as it's wholesome, God-honouring romance. However, I also find father-daughter or brother-sister stories just as amazing...I'm just thinking of Victor Hugo's 'Les Miserables' (especially the 2012 Movie Musical) for example, which depicts both a beautiful, touching romance between Marius and Corsette and also the touching relationship between Jean Val-Jean and his adopted daughter Corsette...beautiful care, protection, love, and sacrifice is seen so beautifully there! 'Silas Marner' also gives a depiction of both...these are just two examples from the top of my head.

    But, yes, there should be no pressure in a story for a romance to happen, but if it shows up, it's natural and beautiful...the way God meant it to be!

    Thanks, Jenny, for putting your thoughts on this important and beautiful topic (though a tricky one for our day and age;) ) into such a fittingly beautiful ensemble of words :)
    God bless,
    Sarah (from www.ofsimplethings-sarah.blogspot.com)

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  9. Gywn - You've hit on my belief that in order for a marriage to work, the two people must be more than "in love," they must also be friends. And friendship has a way of becoming stronger over time: when young minds have become seasoned and time makes bodies ache, the sturdy comradeship of friendship, warm and unassuming, remains.

    Elisabeth Grace Foley - I see you a lot about Scribbles and Inkstains, but not often here on The Penslayer. Don't I feel flattered. :) I liked your line about where we part company with the feminist. The "freedom" movement for women did have some sense: why should women be expected to pay up all the civic dues of the man without sharing any of the civic priviliges as well? But even in equality there is structure, and as I hope I have pointed out that structure is meant for comfort and safety, not oppression. As Chewie so eloquently pointed out, this structure is often hardest on the man!

    Joy - I didn't go into it here, because here was not its place, but another imbalance I find in "Christian" literature is that between tender modesty and passion. Just as you cannot have a good sound marriage without friendship, you cannot have a good sound marriage without that tenderness mingled with that passion. I have been wracking my brains these past few days trying desperately to find the correct word for what I mean, but the word still eludes me. "Modesty" does not of course mean long skirts and button-up blouses in this case: it is more a matter of decency of spirit which is borne out of the utmost respect. It does not negate passion or replace it: if anything, it often inflames it.

    Sarah - I believe the passage you may be looking for to answer your remarks is "The man - be he husband, fiance, or friend - slips wordlessly into the position of the woman's covering without me asking him to." The man-woman pattern in my literature is not always distilled into that of lovers: often, but not always. I have a great love of being unorthodox without really meaning to be... But as a writer married or a writer not married, we should never let our personal experiences, discontentments, or resolutions force us into twisting these relationships in our stories into what we might consider a more comfortable arrangement. Like our own lives, the lives of our characters have a way of shaking out properly and they do not appreciate unnatural disruption.

    Katie // Hannah Renee - I seem to have a knack for making people cry. Even myself. It makes reading out loud very difficult.

    Bree - I am reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy (hence the quote), and he talks a lot about the fairytale. Much maligned, particularly in this bleak, "realistic" modern age of ours, there is something abundantly relieving in the simple story of a girl doing what she is told by her fairy godmother, despite how irrational and bizarre it sounds, narrowly escaping a fate worse than death, and discovering she has unwittingly prepared for the future as her prince adamantly claims her and her tormentors fall into humdrum, uninteresting lives in a dull and dismal past. In the face of blind faith all is put to rights. The princess finds her prince. The wicked are punished. Out of a broken world a paradise is reborn. Much maligned, I know, but rather familiar in tone...

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