Top 10 difficult marriages in fiction

Whether they induce schadenfreude or pangs of recognition, mismatched couples have inspired brilliant novels by authors from Evelyn Waugh to Jean Rhys

‘Married in haste, we may repent at leisure.” This piece of cynicism from William Congreve’s play The Old Bachelor (1693) has since become proverbial. Not least, because it’s true. Just think of one marriage you actively envy. Go on. I dare you. Got one? Thought not.

Reading about unhappy marriages is just so much more … not fun, exactly. Bracing? Comforting? Real? There’s the inevitable, ghastly thrill of schadenfreude. But also the creaturely pang of recognition. The Chosen, my novel about Thomas Hardy’s fraught marriage to his first wife, Emma, features a writing career that’s gone well, and a marriage that’s gone badly. It’s 1912. For 20 years Em and Tom, now in their 70s, have been living in virtual isolation from each other at Max Gate, the large house on the outskirts of Dorchester which he built for her. They occupy separate rooms and barely speak to each other. Once Em was intensely involved in his writing, acting as his copyist and daily support. But their marriage has long been soured by his success and self-absorption. And then quite unexpectedly, one November morning, Emma dies.

In the days that follow, Hardy, still stunned by this sudden loss, discovers a cache of diaries that she had secretly kept about their life together, ominously titled What I Think of My Husband. In particular, she accuses him of having been her jailer, and of having deliberately deprived her of the chance to have children. He’s thrown into utter confusion and must start re-evaluating his entire marriage – and himself. In my novel (as in life) the Hardys have a particularly trying marital setup, but they aren’t unique in this. Here, in all their awfulness, are my favourite depictions of coupledom gone wrong:

1 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
You’re a brave Scottish general, doing your bit for king and country, when you run into a trio of witches who predict that you will one day become king of Scotland yourself. No sooner have you gone home to your castle and shared this surprising news with your lady wife than she’s twisting your arm to commit regicide. The result: civil war, hellish regret, and madness all round. Codependent marriages don’t get much worse than this.

2 Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Unless of course you’re Ethan Frome, henpecked Massachusetts smallholder. Your wife, Zeena, notices everything, especially your new habit of shaving daily and the shy glances you’ve been exchanging with the help, her gentle cousin Mattie. What hope do you and Mattie have of living together? None. Pretty soon you’ve decided to die together. But your plans – a sled, a tree, a crash – go wrong. You end up lame, and Mattie is paralysed for life. Zeena is now in full control. Nightmare.

3 A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
Landed country gentleman Tony Last thinks he’s happily married to Brenda, the mother of his eight-year-old son. But Brenda is bored and starts an affair with a total scrounger. Her attempts to fix Tony up with a mistress are all unsuccessful: he’s too uxorious. Their boy is killed in a riding accident, Brenda demands a divorce, and Tony tries to escape the wreck of his life by taking a trip to the Amazon. He loses everything – including, perhaps, his sanity: when we last see him, he’s being held captive in the jungle by a monomaniacal Dickens enthusiast. What’s worse than being married to Brenda? Being forced to read the complete works of Charles Dickens aloud for the rest of your life.

4 Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
This is the backstory to the ultimate dysfunctional landed country marriage, the Rochester-Mason union in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. You’ll remember that while wooing Jane, Edward Rochester was, inconveniently, already married to a Creole heiress called Bertha Mason. And that she was mad. And locked up in the attic of his grand pile, Thornfield Hall. Rochester insisted that Bertha’s insanity was hereditary, but Rhys devastatingly suggests the ways in which his emotional abuse of his vulnerable young wife contributes to her deteriorating mental state.

Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft in the 1964 film of The Pumpkin Eater.
Peter Finch and Anne Bancroft in the 1964 film of The Pumpkin Eater. Photograph: Ronald Grant

5 The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
Mrs Armitage is an imprisoned wife of a different kind. She has an “army” of children from three marriages and is now on her fourth, to philandering scriptwriter Jake. Her capacity for love has made her weak. When she falls pregnant by Jake, he asks her to have a termination and sterilisation and she agrees, before discovering that he’s expecting a child with his actress girlfriend. In their marital war Jake is clearly going to be the winner.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler in the 2008 film of Revolutionary Road.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as Frank and April Wheeler in the 2008 film of Revolutionary Road. Photograph: BBC/Evamere/Neal Street Prods/Kobal/Shutterstock

6 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
George, a middle-aged academic at a New England college, staggers home with his wife, Martha, after a boozy faculty evening. Martha mentions that she’s invited over another couple, Nick and Honey, to continue the party. Cue spectacular drunkenness, ferocious mind games, and queasy revelations. By the end of this Walpurgisnacht, Martha has bedded Nick, Nick has disclosed Honey’s “hysterical” pregnancy, and George and Martha are left to confront the reality of their own childlessness and contempt for each other.

7 Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Frank and April Wheeler are a pair of thirtysomething suburbanites in the 1950s US with failed bohemian dreams. Frank once had vague hopes of being a writer in Paris which were foiled by marriage and parenthood. Now he’s really going to do it! At the crucial moment April tells him that she’s pregnant again. Frank (who’s been screwing a co-worker and doesn’t in fact want to leave his mundane job) is secretly relieved – only for this story of ordinary disappointment to balloon into tragedy when April dies during a mismanaged abortion.

8 Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Bathsheba Everdene has it all: good looks, wit and her own farm. What she doesn’t have is reliable taste in men. She rejects a proposal from steady shepherd Gabriel Oak to marry the sexy, flashy Sergeant Troy. In a short time, she’s reeling from the news that Troy had a fiancee who died giving birth to his child. Troy vanishes, only to reappear and claim Bathsheba just as she’s about to make another disastrous match. Luckily Gabriel is around to pick up the pieces.

9 Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Delectably acid, this is the quintessential marital revenge novel: a roman à clef, based on the collapse of the marriage of Ephron (then a food writer) to the political journalist Carl Bernstein. Rachel Samstat and her husband Mark Feldman have moved to Washington, DC, for his career. Then Mark has an affair with Thelma Rice (AKA Margaret Jay) who resembles a giraffe “with big feet”. Small-footed Rachel not only dumps him but writes this bestseller, too. Bonus: the book is studded with delicious recipes.

10 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
For the last 25 years Olive has been married to Henry, a self-effacing small-town pharmacist. She’s a terrible spouse. She’s irascible, blunt and never, ever apologises. Another local couple are at a concert when they see Olive come in with Henry. “I don’t know how he can stand her,” says the husband. “He loves her,” says the wife. “That’s how he can stand her.” Strout’s canny novel celebrates traditional marital values, even while acknowledging that these are rooted in fantasy.

• The Chosen by Elizabeth Lowry is published by Quercus. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Elizabeth Lowry

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