The slightest and most seemingly insignificant utterance may in fact be a window on an entire world-view, and therefore worthy of reflection. For example, when leafing through a literary magazine recently that consisted entirely of book reviews, my eye alighted on a brief notice of a recently-discovered pre-World War II crime novel by C S Forester, best-known for his Hornblower stories.
The review was only 113 words long, and contained the following:
It is the story of a brutal husband who is murdered by his
wife and mother-in-law. It’s not really credible, but gripping
all the same – and a salutary portrait of marriage before
Note that the reviewer does not state that it is a portrait of a marriage, or even of some marriages, but of marriage, that is to say marriage in general, before women’s liberation. This is a pretty large claim, with important practical implications.
Although the plot of the book, according to the reviewer, is implausible, the portrait of the terrible marriage that gave rise to the murder is claimed to be in some way emblematic, typical or representative of pre-war marriage as a whole. Association between men and women is not like that any more, implies the reviewer, thanks to women’s liberation.
Now let me describe an actual, not a fictional, recent case from England. A man of the name of Shane Jenkin strangled his girlfriend, Tina Nash, to the point of unconsciousness, gouged her eyes and broke her nose and jaw. He then went to sleep, his work done. Tina Nash was permanently blinded.
Nash had called the police nine times before the blinding because of Jenkin’s previous violence, but had declined to press charges against him. ‘But this time,’ she said on television, weeping copiously from her sightless eyes, ‘he went too far.’ She was the mother of two children, not by Jenkin, and from my experience of having worked in the social milieu from which both she and Jenkin almost certainly came, I should have been surprised if Jenkin were the first violent boyfriend she had ever known.
My question is this: will the reviewer of a future book about this terrible case (surely one is in the process of being written) write:
It’s not really credible, but gripping all the same – and a
salutary portrait of sexual relationships after women’s
I rather doubt it; and it is interesting to speculate why.
If someone were to take the case of Shane Jenkin, who seems to have been a monster of jealousy, an Othello-figure quite without a positive side, as being emblematic of relationships between men and women in our time, he or she would almost certainly be accused immediately of golden-ageism: that is to say, the unwarranted and rather naïve belief that at some time in the recent past things were so much better that such terrible things were never done by men to women. He or she would be accused of wanting to return to that supposedly golden age, either openly or surreptitiously, of wanting to roll back the reforms of, say, the past half century.
But of course the reviewer of the book by Forester is guilty of a mirror-image attitude, that until those reforms all was horribly violent and repressive from the woman’s point of view. Thanks to those reforms, nothing like it is known today. This is not the historiography of the golden-age, but of the leaden-age.
How might one assess the competing and indeed diametrically opposed historiographical claims? The first thing to say is that, when it comes to human wickedness, there is no new thing under the sun, that practically no hideous act is totally without precedent. The second is that one swallow doesn’t make a summer; remarkable cases are remarkable precisely because they are out of the ordinary.
Nevertheless, remarkable cases may be (if I am allowed to mix a metaphor) the tip of an iceberg. Forester might have been using his murderous wife and mother-in-law to make a general point about the marriage of the time; and Shane Jenkin might just be the worst of a very large cohort of violent, jealous men.
Let us suppose that both cases are in some sense emblematic of the relationships of their time: which would be worse? It depends partly on statistics, of course: how many women were subjected to brutal husbands in such a way that murder was their only escape, and how many are now subjected to Jenkin-type violence?
I confess to a prejudice that in certain respects the arrangements of the past, far from perfect and necessitous of reform as they undoubtedly were, were better than those today, at least for those in the lower half of society – that is to say the half upon whom the effects of reform can safely be disregarded by reformers.
Certainly the Shane Jenkin story was all too familiar to me from my work as a doctor in an inner city. There marriage as an institution had collapsed entirely, to the extent that no child, except if it were of Indian subcontinental descent, was born legitimate. What had replaced marriage was a kind of Brownian motion of the affections: couples came together and split up in an almost random fashion.
Unfortunately, this was not accompanied by any loss of the desire for the exclusive sexual possession of another person, a desire that had more to do with the maintenance of self-importance than with love. Where relationships are inherently unstable, and can break at any moment, but the desire for exclusive possession remains, it is only natural that there should be an overgrowth of insensate jealousy. Such jealousy is the cause, or at any rate the occasion, of the worst violence between sexual partners. Where social arrangements increase jealousy, therefore, they increase violence.
So when the reviewer of the book by Forester implied that it was a portrait of marriage before Women’s Liberation, she was willfully ignoring the unpleasant consequences of the changes of which she was no doubt strongly in favor. What one must always remember, of course, is that no human arrangements will ever produce bliss without a residue of misery.
First published in the Library of Law and Liberty.