Uncommon Arrangements, by Katie Roiphe

Bohemian tales of sex and sensibility
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The Independent Culture

Katie Roiphe is a sort of literary oyster. She can absorb masses of gossipy, ephemeral background and turn it into a pearl of distilled wisdom. In her uncommonly enjoyable Uncommon Arrangements, she looks at seven famously crowded marriages in London literary circles from 1910 to 1939. Among them are Ottoline and Philip Morell; Una Troubridge, Radclyffe Hall and Evguenia Souline; Jane Wells, HG Wells, and most of literary London – all relationships either "depraved or innovative, according to your point of view", and presented with vivid concision. All are examined for what they can teach us about love.

Roiphe describes her interest as "not purely the interest of a scholar" but a greedier approach, a milking of history for how it can help us to live. (Although she never mentions personal disappointments, interviews reveal a recent divorce.) "I wanted to go inside of a marriage, to look at the oily mechanism, to feel it in my hands and see how it worked." The result is an invigorated kind of scholarship, a work of domestic archaeology that feels fresh and revelatory, even when its subject is the familiar web of Bloomsbury emotion.

Roiphe puts Vanessa Bell at the centre of that chapter, adroitly sketching her sadnesses and strengths, her gift for "converting volatile subterranean emotions into an atmosphere of freedom and domestic calm", and her ability to "create an impression of naturalness" even when living with three sometime lovers. She "made a haunting painting of a woman standing next to a bath, with a vase with three flowers in the window. Later she tinkered with the painting and changed it to two flowers."

While Roiphe sees most of these love triangles, hexagons or, in the case of HG Wells (who emerges as the presiding satyr), decagons, as brave experiments in living, she offers a perspicacious précis of the reasons they so often failed. Vera Brittain's writerly self-mythologising doomed her marriage to George Caitlin, which was less real to her than her first, lost love. In importing her dead fiancé Roland and her friend Winifred Holtby into the relationship she "ingeniously crowded the field".

Likewise, Radclyffe Hall "seemed, at times, almost to revel in the tension in her ménage". She could have chosen to separate her lover Souline from her "wife" Troubridge, but she elected not to. Roiphe acknowledges her debt to Diana Souhami's The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, and shares her stylistic emphasis on the telling detail. "At one point, she [John] bought two bullfinches, one for Una and one for Evguenia. She named them Caterina and Bambino, and she put them in the same cage. When they nearly pecked each other to death, she separated them."

You can enjoy this book for its rich detail (when Elizabeth von Arnheim left her husband, John Francis Russell, he sent her a copy of the Bible with every mention of faithless wives underlined) but what makes it special is the quality and confidence of Roiphe's character judgements. "There was definitely something mad about Russell, but in his madness lay his charisma." There is a discriminating academic brain at work here, but the writing has a popular touch. Consciously emulating the "becoming brevity" of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, Roiphe executes this group portrait with grace.

She resists generalisations, but if a conclusion can be drawn from these fantastically disparate arrangements, it might be that the tug of convention never quite goes away: "At least three of the women" here, she notes, "lived with rather a large amount of sexual disorder, and maintained a secret passion for Jane Austen."