Column: Marriages, past and present

Forgot to put this up on Sunday. This was in The Mag.

The Curious Case of Unhappy Marriages

Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End begins with a bride being visited by a gentleman who is not her fiancée. Robe and negligee are ripped apart and some passionate writhing ensues. Incidentally, this is not how Some Do Not…, the first volume of Ford’s Parade’s End begins. Stoppard, who has written some of the most charming romances of our times, has seriously sexed up Edwardian England for television audiences.
Considering his own love life, Ford Madox Ford would probably have approved of Stoppard’s version. He married Elsie Martindale in 1894 and even though you could form a regiment with Ford’s lovers, Elsie refused to grant Ford a divorce (like Christopher in Parade’s End). Nominally, Elsie remained his wife while Ford defied all conventional logic and seduced a legion of women, despite looking like a moustachioed egg with bad teeth.
Although Christopher is the hero of Parade’s End and there are resemblances between Ford and Christopher — exceptional memory; working for the British government and fighting in World War I — there seems to be more of an emotional ricochet between the author and Sylvia, Christopher’s adulterous wife.

Rebecca Hall as Sylvia

Sylvia, like Ford, has numerous affairs and even elopes with another man (whom she nicknames, of all things, Potty) after marriage. Graham Greene, one of Ford’s staunchest fans, described Sylvia as “the most possessed evil character in the modern novel”. Stoppard’s contemporary reading of Parade’s End doesn’t depict Sylvia as a villainess. Instead, Sylvia (brilliantly enacted by Rebecca Hall) is a tragic, melancholic hero who is woefully misunderstood by her husband. Seeing how Stoppard milks audience sympathy for Sylvia, while retaining her many angularities, it struck me that the
worldview described by Ford fits neatly upon present­day India. Ideas that the West would probably consider exotic for their antiquated logic — like staying in an unhappy marriage because, as Christopher puts it, “there’s the child to consider” — remain widely prevalent in contemporary India.
Over the past century, the big change in Indian social attitudes towards marriage has been accepting domestic abuse as a good justification to leave one’s husband. Infidelity and incompatibility, on the other hand, are not.
These issues are rarely even acknowledged publicly and remain the subject of rumours. As far as public persona are concerned, we’re not sympathetic towards the flawed. In contrast, Western cinema, theatre and literature positively revels in them. Stoppard, for instance, shows immense fondness for characters that make deviousness seem charming. His Sylvia reflects how Western society has evolved a less judgmental attitude towards both women and adultery than what we in India possess.
It struck me while watching Parade’s End that if it were set in India, the Christopher­Sylvia angle would barely need to be adapted. Two people from the elite set are married to one another in order to avoid a scandal. She’s a socialite; he’s an introvert. They’re miserable together but they don’t divorce because they must keep up social appearances. I’m willing to bet most of us know at least one real­life couple that fits this description. If you widen the net to include gossip,
numerous high­profile marriages resemble Christopher and Sylvia’s. Add an instance of infidelity from her, and the wife would be described as Greene did Sylvia while the husband could occupy a moral high ground, as Christopher did when Parade’s End was first published. For all the elements of modernity that populate our lives today, it’s sad that the conventions of Edwardian England are remarkably in sync with those of contemporary India.