Happy Marriages by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

Although a strong modern school of writers care only to talk of misery and gloom and frustration, I retain a taste for joy and sweetness and kindliness. Life has so many sharp crosses, so many inexplicable sorrows for us all, that I hold it good to snatch at every moment of gladness, and to keep my eyes on beautiful things whenever they can be seen. During the days when I was pondering the subject of tragic marriages, I read the letters of the great Lord Chatham. The mighty statesman was not distinguished as a letter-writer; like Themistocles, he might have boasted that, though he was inapt where small accomplishments were concerned, he converted a small state into a great empire. John Wilkes called our great man “the worst letter-writer of his age.” Yet to my mind the correspondence of Chatham with his wife is among the most charming work that we know. Here is one fragment which is delightful enough in its way. He had been out riding with his son William, who afterwards ruled England, becoming Prime Minister at an age when other lads are leaving the University. His elder son stayed at home to study, and this is the fashion in which Chatham writes about his boys–“It is a delight to let William see nature in her free and wild compositions, and I tell myself, as we go, that the General Mother is not ashamed of her child. The particular loved mother of our promising tribe has sent the sweetest and most encouraging of letters to the young Vauban. His assiduous application to his profession did not allow him to accompany us in learning to defend the happy land we were enjoying. Indeed, my life, the promise of our dear children does me more good than the purest of pure air.” Observe how this pompous and formal statement is framed so as to please the mother. The writer does not say much about himself; but he knows that his wife is longing to hear of her darlings, and he tells her the news in his high-flown manner. He was not often apart from the lady whom he loved so well; but I am glad that they were sometimes separated, since the separations give us the delicate and tender letters every phrase of which tells a long story of love and confidence and mutual pride. That unequalled man who had made England practically the mistress of the world, the man who gained for us Canada and India, the man whom the King of Prussia regarded as our strongest and noblest, could spend his time in writing pretty babble about a couple of youngsters in order to delight their mother. If he had gone to London, the people would have taken the horses out of his carriage, and dragged him to his destination. He was far more powerful than the king, and he was almost worshipped by every officer and man in the Army and Navy. Excepting the Duke of Wellington, it is probable that no subject ever was the object of such fervent enthusiasm; and many men would have lived amidst the whirl of adulation. But Chatham liked best to remain in the sweet quiet country; and the story of his life at Lyme Regis is in reality a beautiful poem.

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Why did this imperial, overbearing, all-powerful man love to stay in retirement when all Europe was waiting for his word? Why did he spend days in sauntering in country lanes, and chatting during quiet evenings with one loved friend alone? That question goes to the root of my subject. Chatham was happily married; when he was torn by bitter rage and disappointment, when his sovereign repulsed him, and when not even the passionate love of an entire nation availed to further the ends on which the Titan had set his heart, he carried his sorrow with him, and drew comfort from the goodness of the sweet soul who was his true mate. It is a very sweet picture; and we see in history how the softening home influence finally converted the, awful, imposing, tyrannical Chatham into a yielding, fascinating man.

From the world’s arbiter to the bricklayer’s labourer, the same general law holds; the man who makes a happy marriage lives out his life at its best–he may fail in some things, but in the essential direction he is successful. The woman who makes a happy marriage may have trials and suffering to bear, but she also gains the best of life; and some of the purest and most joyous creatures I have known were women who had suffered in their day. When I think of some marriages whereof I know the full history, I am tempted to believe in human perfectibility; and at chance times there come to me vague dreams of a day when the majority of human beings will find life joyous and tranquil. What one wise and well-matched couple achieve in life may be achieved by others as the days go on. Surely jarring and misery are not necessary in the great world of nations or in the little world of the family? Confidence, generosity, and complete unselfishness on both sides are needed to make the life of a married pair serene and happy. I know that the demand is a heavy one; but, ah, when it is adequately met, is not the gain worth all the sacrifices a thousand times over? There may be petty and amusing differences of opinion, quiet banter, and an occasional grave conflict of judgment; but, so long as three central requirements–confidence, generosity, and unselfishness–are met, there can be no serious break in the procession of placid, happy days. I abhor the gushing talk sometimes heard about “married lovers;” the people who dignify life and honour the community are those who are lovers and something more. Of course we can all feel sympathy with Fanny Kemble when she says that the poetry of “Romeo and Juliet” went into her blood as she spoke on the stage; but there is something needed beyond wild Italian raptures before the ideal match is secured. Some of us are almost glad that Juliet passed away in swift fashion when the cup of life foamed most exquisitely at her lips. How would she have fared had that changeable firebrand Romeo taken to wandering once more? It is a grievously flippant question to ask when the most glorious of all love-poems is in question; yet I ask it very seriously, and merely in a symbolic way. Romeo is a shadow, the adored Juliet is a shadow; but the two immortal shades represent for all time the mad lovers whose lives end in bitterness. I say again that only reasonable and calm love brings happy marriages. It is as true as any other law of nature that “he never loved who loved not at first sight;” but the frantic, dissolute man of genius who wrote that line did not care to go further and speak of matters which wise men of the world cannot disregard. The first blinding shock of the supreme passion comes in the course of nature; but wise people live through the unspeakable tumult of the soul, and use their reason after they have resisted and subdued into calm strength the fierce impulse which has wrecked so many human creatures. When writing on “Ill-Assorted Marriages,” I urged that men and women who are about to take the terribly momentous steps towards marriage must be guided by reason, and I repeat my adjuration here. When Lord Beaconsfield said, “I observe those of my friends who married for love–some of them beat their wives, and the remainder are divorced,” he knew that he was uttering a piece of mockery which would have been blasphemous had it been set down in all seriousness. He meant to say that headlong marriages–marriages contracted in purblind passion–always end in misery. No marriage can bring a spark of happiness unless cool reason guides the choice of the contracting parties. A hot-headed stripling marries a handsome termagant–her brilliant face, her grace, and rude health attract him, and he does not quietly notice the ebullitions of her temper. She is divine to him; and, though she snarls at her younger brother, insults her mother, and to outsiders plainly exhibits all sorts of petty selfishness, yet the stripling rushes on to his fate; and at the end of a few miserable years he is either a broken and hen-pecked creature or a mean and ferocious squabbler.

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How different is the case of those who are not precipitate! Take the case of the splendid cynic whose words we have quoted. With his usual sagacity, Lord Beaconsfield waited, watched, and finally succeeded in making an ideally happy marriage in circumstances which would have affrighted an ordinary person. All the world knows the story now. The brilliant young statesman dared not risk the imputation of fortune-hunting; but the lady knew his worth; she knew that she could aid him, and she frankly threw over all the traditions of her sex and of society and offered herself to him. No one in England who is interested in this matter can fail to know every detail of a bargain which makes one proud of one’s species, for Lord Ronald Gower has told us about the married life of the brilliant Hebrew who mastered England. The two kindred souls were bound up in each other. The lady was not learned or clever, and indeed her husband said, “She was the best of creatures; but she never could tell which came first–the Greeks or the Romans.” But she had something more than cleverness–she had the confidence, generosity, and unselfishness which I have set forth as the main conditions of happiness. I must repeat an old story; for it cannot too often be repeated. Think of the woman who gathered all her resolution and uttered no sound, although the end of her finger was smashed by the closing of the carriage-door! Mr. D’Israeli was about to make a great speech; so his wife would not disturb him on his way to Westminster, though flesh and bone of her finger were crushed. She fainted when the orator had gone to his task; but her fortitude did not forsake her until her beloved was out of danger of being perturbed. That one authentic story is worth a hundred dramatic tales of stagey heroism. And we must remember how the statesman repaid the simple devotion of his wife. All his spare time was passed in her company, and the quaint pair wandered in the woods like happy boy and girl. Then, when the indomitable man had raised himself to be head of the State, and was offered a peerage, he declined; but he begged that his wife might be created countess in her own right. Could anything be more graceful and courtly? “You are the superior,” the first man in England seemed to say; “and I am content to rejoice in your honours without rivalling them.” All the fanciful rhymes of the troubadours cannot furnish anything prettier than that.

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If we leave the Beaconsfields and the Chathams and come among less exalted folk, we find that the same laws regulate happy marriages. Confidence, generosity, unselfishness–that is all. In this beautiful England of ours there are happy households which are almost numberless. The good folk do not care for fame or power; their happiness is rounded off and completed within their own walls, and they live as the lordly Chatham lived when he was free from the ties of place and Parliament. On summer days, when the quiet evening is closing, the wayfarer may obtain chance glimpses of such happy homes here and there. Some are inhabited by wealthy men, some by poor workmen; but the essential happiness of both classes is arrived at in the same way.

A young man wisely waits until his judgment is matured, and then proceeds to choose his mate; he does not blunder into heroic fooleries in the way of self-abnegation; for, if his choice is judicious, the lady will prevent him from hurting his own prospects. Whether he be aristocrat or plebeian, he knows the worth of money, and he knows how to despise the foolish beings who talk of “dross” and “filthy lucre” and the rest. Mere craving for money he despises; but he knows that the amount of “dross” in a man’s possession roughly indicates his resources in the way of energy, ability, and self-control. When he marries, his wife is reasonably free from sordid cares. It may be that he has only seventy pounds in a building society, it may be that his cheque for fifty thousand pounds would be honoured; but the principle is the same. When the woman settles in her new home, she is free from sordid anxieties, and she can give the graces of her mind play. How beautiful some such households are! An old railway-guard once said to me–“Ah, there’s no talk like your own wife’s when she understands you, and you sit one side of the fire, and she the other! It don’t matter what kind of day you’ve had, she puts all right.” The man was right–the most delightful conversation that can be held is between a rational man and woman who love each other, who understand each other, and who have sufficient worldly keenness to keep clear of lowering cares. A man rightly mated feels it an absolute delight to confide the innermost secrets of life to his wife; and the woman would feel almost criminal if she kept the pettiest of petty secrets from her partner. They are friends, gloriously mated, and all the glories of birth and state ever imagined cannot equal their simple but perfect joy. When the tired mechanic comes home at night and meets one whom he has wisely chosen, he forgets his sharp day of labour as soon as his overalls are off. No snappish word greets him; and he is incapable of being ill-natured with the kind soul whom he worships in his rough way. I have always found that the merriest and most profitable evenings were passed in houses where neither of the principal parties strove for mastery, and where the woman had the art of coaxing imperceptibly and discreetly. I reject the suggestion made by cynic men that no married pair can live without quarrelling. No married pair who were fools before marriage can avoid dissension; but, when man and wife make their choice wisely and cautiously, the notion of a quarrel is too horrible to dream of.

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