Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Unequal Marriage

I've been reading Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday, which doubles as both autobiography and a cultural history of turn of the century Europe. Zweig grew up in Vienna (he was born in 1881) in an upper middle class Jewish family, and he wrote this memoir while living in exile in 1942. He had been a successful writer since his late teens, and so in the course of writing about his own life he writes about a lot of the leading lights of central European art and literature at the turn of the century.

One of the chapters that I've been doing a certain amount of thinking about is titled "Eros Matutinus" (early love). In it, he writes about the attitudes towards sex in his youth (in this chapter, he writes almost exclusively about the wider culture, he's fairly reticent about what his own personal experiences were.) Zweig is generally pretty critical of what he sees as the hypocritically buttoned-up attitudes towards sex in the 1890s, which he contrasts with what he sees as much more natural and open attitudes "now" (the 1940s) and even in the 1910-1914 period.

While reading the chapter, I was trying to decide how seriously to take his view. Some of his claims don't hold up well against the test of time. For instance, he argues that freer attitudes towards sexuality have resulted in pornography and prostitution becoming virtually unknown. To my knowledge, even today prostitutions is less pervasive than it was in the late 1800s, however, the idea that loosened views on sexual morality have removed pornography from circulation is pretty laughable at this point.

Zweig particularly speaks against the double standard that was applied to the sexes in terms of sexual propriety: He writes that young men were pretty much expected to rack up a series of sexual experiences with prostitutes, lower class women and unfaithful married women while girls were intensely sheltered until marriage. Of girls he writes:
I cannot deny that, on the other hand, this ignorance lent young girls of the time a mysterious charm. Unfledged as they were, they guessed that besides and beyond their own world there was another of which they knew nothing, were not allowed to know anything, and that made them curious, full of longing, effusive, attractively confused. If you greeted them in the street they would blush -- do any young girls still blush? Alone with each other, they would giggle and whisper and laugh all the time, as if they were slightly tipsy. Full of expectation of the unknown that was never disclosed to them, they entertained romantic dreams of life, but at the same time were ashamed to think of anyone finding out how much their bodies physically craved kind of affection of which they had no very clear notion. A sort of slight confusion always animated their conduct. They walked differently from the girls of today, whose bodies are made fit through sport, who mingle with young men easily and without embarrassment, as their equals. Even a thousand paces away in our time, you could tell the difference between a young girl and a woman who had had a physical relationship with a man simply by the way she walked and held herself. Young girls were more girlish than the girls of today, less like women, resembling the exotically tender hothouse plants that are raised in the artificially overheated atmosphere of a glasshouse, away from any breath of inclement wind; the artificially bred product of a certain kind of rearing and culture.
This is put so strongly, that I couldn't help wondering if it was a bit of a retrospective exaggeration. However, though I have a certain protective affection for the mores of times past, I also have to be clear that I haven't lived with the social restrictions of times past, even though I have strong sympathies with the idea of socially reinforced moral codes.

Having this section of Zwieg's book I (which I'm reading in print) at the back of m mind, during my commute today I reached the point in my reread (via audiobook) of War and Peace where we hear about Prince Andre's courtship of Natasha Rostov.

Prince Andre if one of my favorite characters, and as in past readings I find myself wanting the romance between him and Natasha to work out. She's a likable character, and being in love seems to be good for him. Yet, this time through, one of the things that was hitting me with great force is that Prince Andre is my age (mid 30s) and a widower while Natasha is sixteen. And although here we're reading about Russia circa 1809 rather than Vienna circa 1890, Zweig's point about the extreme girlishness of young women seems to apply here. For instance, here's 16-year-old Natasha coming in to discuss another potential suitor with her mother a few weeks earlier:
One night when the old countess, in nightcap and dressing jacket, without her false curls, and with her poor little knob of hair showing under her white cotton cap, knelt sighing and groaning on a rug and bowing to the ground in prayer, her door creaked and Natasha, also in a dressing jacket with slippers on her bare feet and her hair in curlpapers, ran in. The countess—her prayerful mood dispelled—looked round and frowned. She was finishing her last prayer: "Can it be that this couch will be my grave?" Natasha, flushed and eager, seeing her mother in prayer, suddenly checked her rush, half sat down, and unconsciously put out her tongue as if chiding herself. Seeing that her mother was still praying she ran on tiptoe to the bed and, rapidly slipping one little foot against the other, pushed off her slippers and jumped onto the bed the countess had feared might become her grave. This couch was high, with a feather bed and five pillows each smaller than the one below. Natasha jumped on it, sank into the feather bed, rolled over to the wall, and began snuggling up the bedclothes as she settled down, raising her knees to her chin, kicking out and laughing almost inaudibly, now covering herself up head and all, and now peeping at her mother. The countess finished her prayers and came to the bed with a stern face, but seeing, that Natasha's head was covered, she smiled in her kind, weak way.

"Now then, now then!" said she.

"Mamma, can we have a talk? Yes?" said Natasha. "Now, just one on your throat and another... that'll do!" And seizing her mother round the neck, she kissed her on the throat. In her behavior to her mother Natasha seemed rough, but she was so sensitive and tactful that however she clasped her mother she always managed to do it without hurting her or making her feel uncomfortable or displeased.

"Well, what is it tonight?" said the mother, having arranged her pillows and waited until Natasha, after turning over a couple of times, had settled down beside her under the quilt, spread out her arms, and assumed a serious expression.

These visits of Natasha's at night before the count returned from his club were one of the greatest pleasures of both mother, and daughter.

"What is it tonight?—But I have to tell you..."

Natasha put her hand on her mother's mouth.

"About Boris... I know," she said seriously; "that's what I have come about. Don't say it—I know. No, do tell me!" and she removed her hand. "Tell me, Mamma! He's nice?"
And here's Prince Andre (called Andrew by this translator) falling in love with Natasha at her first ball:
Like all men who have grown up in society, Prince Andrew liked meeting someone there not of the conventional society stamp. And such was Natasha, with her surprise, her delight, her shyness, and even her mistakes in speaking French. With her he behaved with special care and tenderness, sitting beside her and talking of the simplest and most unimportant matters; he admired her shy grace. In the middle of the cotillion, having completed one of the figures, Natasha, still out of breath, was returning to her seat when another dancer chose her. She was tired and panting and evidently thought of declining, but immediately put her hand gaily on the man's shoulder, smiling at Prince Andrew.

"I'd be glad to sit beside you and rest: I'm tired; but you see how they keep asking me, and I'm glad of it, I'm happy and I love everybody, and you and I understand it all," and much, much more was said in her smile. When her partner left her Natasha ran across the room to choose two ladies for the figure.

"If she goes to her cousin first and then to another lady, she will be my wife," said Prince Andrew to himself quite to his own surprise, as he watched her. She did go first to her cousin.
One of the things that always has struck me in re-reads of Austen's novels is the maturity of her younger heroines like Elizabeth Bennet (though 27-year-old Ann Elliot in Persuasion does definitely seem more mature.) Natasha, however, is still very much a girl and seems like a girl. I find myself feeling almost guilty rooting for her and Andre's relationship to work out.


August said...

The propaganda is strong, not only to demonize the sort of relationships that result in a large and happy family, but to promote relationships that actually tend to isolation and despair. They could pull off, and indeed they probably already have, a romance between a 30 year old woman and a 16 year old boy. That would be something to sell the cougars, and not too far off the mark. I was only four years older when I got into a rather unfortunate relationship with an older woman.

MrsDarwin said...

August, I'm not sure I understand what you're saying here. Who are "they"?

August said...

The 'they' in that sentence would be modern day romance writers, though I suppose one should include publishers, T.V., and film people as well, for they all happily bring awful stuff to market. I wonder at the sheer number of bad decisions and bad decision makers necessary to make something like Eat, Pray, Love a hit.

Darwin said...

I'm not sure that Tolstoy (or Zweig) really counts as a modern romance writer, though...

bearing said...

When I read this passage -- and I should note that I've never read Tolstoy and Austen isn't my style -- I react with revulsion. I realize that part of that is projecting my own cultural assumptions onto another one, but there it is.

It's revolting to me because the girl, though by her chronological age must be sexually mature or nearly so, is described as having characteristics that I associate with prepubescent girls. The whole thing smacks of pedophilia, even if I "know better." It's incomprehensible to me as a reader, in the sense of getting into the story and letting the author show me rather than tell me about the characters, how an adult man could be attracted to that kind of behavior unless he suffered from a pathological desire for children.

I mean, of course I understand intellectually the concept of a wealthy gentleman needing a healthy young woman to be his wife to produce an heir and all that, but the level of the textual description is just gross.

The other way that it reads to me is highly unrealistic and patronizing, as if the author thinks that sixteen-year-old girls, and by extension women, are totally brainless. (If I recall correctly, that's one reason why I never got into Tolstoy when I attempted to read it.). But your comments about Zweig cause me to re-evaluate this assumption; it suggests that the description of Natasha is an accurate description of the behavior of high-born sixteen-year-old girls, because of their having been subjected to a cultural conditioning almost unimaginably more restrictive than the one I was subjected to.

It certainly wouldn't be the first time that I came across a book character whose affectations (because of a certain cultural context) made it difficult for me to read him as he is, because I kept wanting to interpret them from my own cultural context in which those affectations would imply something entirely different. Case in point: Brideshead Revisited.

Jenny said...

I wonder if teenaged girls acting like seven year olds was just a passing fad of the era. Because reading that description, it is the behavior of an elementary aged girl. Or, as bearing suggests, a result of the highly restricted life of upper class girls.

Darwin said...

To be fair, I picked out the bedtime conversation between Natasha and her mother because it struck me as showing Natasha acting especially immaturely. Plus, we have the issue that I'm not always convinced that Natasha is a very realistically drawn character. Tolstoy clearly intends her to come off as "natural" and "high spirited" and at times that comes off to me (as a modern reader) as just plain unrealistically girlish even for 16.

However, in particular the bits in the second clip there in which Andre is talking down to Natasha suddenly clicked with me, having recently read Zweig's piece, and my reaction was pretty much the revulsion that Bearing describes. The cultural assumption seems to be that when a couple gets married, the woman will be "a girl" in personality and she will grow up after getting married. Not only are men older, but not one of Tolstoy's male characters lacks sexual experience before getting married. So men, when getting married, are expected to be older, more mature in behavior, and sexually experienced (though at least in Anna Karenina in the romance between Kitty and Levin you get some hints that Tolstoy realizes this is a problem) while the women are expected to be essentially immature.

Here's a snippet from earlier when Andre first sees Natasha. She doesn't come off quite as young here (more like 16 than 7) but the essential inequality is definitely there:

Darwin said...

In 1809 Count Ilya Rostov was living at Otradnoe just as he had done in former years, that is, entertaining almost the whole province with hunts, theatricals, dinners, and music. He was glad to see Prince Andrew, as he was to see any new visitor, and insisted on his staying the night.

During the dull day, in the course of which he was entertained by his elderly hosts and by the more important of the visitors (the old count's house was crowded on account of an approaching name day), Prince Andrew repeatedly glanced at Natasha, gay and laughing among the younger members of the company, and asked himself each time, "What is she thinking about? Why is she so glad?"

That night, alone in new surroundings, he was long unable to sleep. He read awhile and then put out his candle, but relit it. It was hot in the room, the inside shutters of which were closed. He was cross with the stupid old man (as he called Rostov), who had made him stay by assuring him that some necessary documents had not yet arrived from town, and he was vexed with himself for having stayed.

He got up and went to the window to open it. As soon as he opened the shutters the moonlight, as if it had long been watching for this, burst into the room. He opened the casement. The night was fresh, bright, and very still. Just before the window was a row of pollard trees, looking black on one side and with a silvery light on the other. Beneath the trees grew some kind of lush, wet, bushy vegetation with silver-lit leaves and stems here and there. Farther back beyond the dark trees a roof glittered with dew, to the right was a leafy tree with brilliantly white trunk and branches, and above it shone the moon, nearly at its full, in a pale, almost starless, spring sky. Prince Andrew leaned his elbows on the window ledge and his eyes rested on that sky.

His room was on the first floor. Those in the rooms above were also awake. He heard female voices overhead.

"Just once more," said a girlish voice above him which Prince Andrew recognized at once.

"But when are you coming to bed?" replied another voice.

"I won't, I can't sleep, what's the use? Come now for the last time."
Two girlish voices sang a musical passage—the end of some song.

"Oh, how lovely! Now go to sleep, and there's an end of it."

"You go to sleep, but I can't," said the first voice, coming nearer to the window. She was evidently leaning right out, for the rustle of her dress and even her breathing could be heard. Everything was stone-still, like the moon and its light and the shadows. Prince Andrew, too, dared not stir, for fear of betraying his unintentional presence.

Darwin said...

"Sonya! Sonya!" he again heard the first speaker. "Oh, how can you sleep? Only look how glorious it is! Ah, how glorious! Do wake up, Sonya!" she said almost with tears in her voice. "There never, never was such a lovely night before!"

Sonya made some reluctant reply.

"Do just come and see what a moon!... Oh, how lovely! Come here.... Darling, sweetheart, come here! There, you see? I feel like sitting down on my heels, putting my arms round my knees like this, straining tight, as tight as possible, and flying away! Like this...."

"Take care, you'll fall out."

He heard the sound of a scuffle and Sonya's disapproving voice: "It's past one o'clock."

"Oh, you only spoil things for me. All right, go, go!"

Again all was silent, but Prince Andrew knew she was still sitting there. From time to time he heard a soft rustle and at times a sigh.

"O God, O God! What does it mean?" she suddenly exclaimed. "To bed then, if it must be!" and she slammed the casement.

"For her I might as well not exist!" thought Prince Andrew while he listened to her voice, for some reason expecting yet fearing that she might say something about him. "There she is again! As if it were on purpose," thought he.

In his soul there suddenly arose such an unexpected turmoil of youthful thoughts and hopes, contrary to the whole tenor of his life, that unable to explain his condition to himself he lay down and fell asleep at once.

Darwin said...

[me again -- not Tolstoy]

The negative counter-example to this is when Pierre marries Helene, who does act maturely (in her way) and seems to be sexually experienced (seemingly with her brother, though it's not clear whether with others as well.) In this case, unsurprisingly, the marriage works out terribly.

Enbrethiliel said...


I haven't read War and Peace (yet?), but this reminds me a little of the romantic dynamic in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

August said...

"I'm not sure that Tolstoy (or Zweig) really counts as a modern romance writer, though..."

Exactly. The old writers imagine the sort of relationship in which a young woman is just entering her most fertile years, and the man has some decent way of providing for a family. This appears to be anathema to the writers of our age, who seem happy to imagine everything deviant and non-productive.

Darwin said...

Got it. I guess I wasn't following all the connecting dots there.

bearing said...

It occurs to me to wonder whether anyone bothered to tell the young ladies what to expect on their wedding nights.

Jenny said...

Lie back and think of England?