Wedlock or deadlock?

Marriage is a snare, a delusion, a refuge, a circus. It spells the end of romance and the beginning of... what, exactly? Is it just `a nice, soft wife on a sofa with a good fire', as Charles Darwin described it, or the greatest challenge of our lives? Roy Porter examines the secret history of an imperishable institution, and, overleaf, we hear from its advocates.
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Everyone knows what it's like to be in love. It's to be all made of fantasy, all made of passion, and all made of wishes, all adoration, duty and observance, all humbleness, all patience, and impatience; all purity, all trial, all obeisance, as Rosalind, aka Ganymede, tells the soon-to-be-hitched pairs who have congregated around her in the Forest of Arden like the creatures arriving before a new Flood. But what was it like, soon after, to be Mrs and Mrs Orlando? Sorry, As You Like It doesn't say.

Or try novels: "Reader, I married him." But what happened next? What did being the second Mrs Rochester really feel like? A lot better, we all hope, than being the first, but the point is that we aren't told. Seemingly that wasn't what concerned Charlotte Bronte; it's not what fired her fantasy.

And, to judge from Eng Lit, the silence of the married Jane Eyre was a familiar story. How did Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, actually get on once the knot was sealed? Or Beatrice and Benedick? (Especially given his laddish dread about having to parade before his mates as "Benedick the Married Man".) What was it like being at home with Mr Darcy? Did Mr D feel pride to be hitched with Elizabeth? Or was it all a summer birdcage?

It seems as if, for most poets and playwrights, once you've walked up the aisle, there's nothing more to be said - at least until the stage is reached where what Tony Tanner has called "the novel of adultery" takes up the thread. Maybe it would be absurd to expect otherwise: art is all great moments and purple passages; the reader wants suspense. That's not to say that matrimony itself cannot be more than "a nice, soft wife on a sofa with a good fire", as Charles Darwin, contemplating his nuptials, put it; but, as a steady state rather than a fateful deed, it may be harder to depict. And, indeed, the Dickensian comic muse aside, and with a few honourable exceptions - The Rainbow, for sure - the great tradition, and Shakespeare above all, is a bit meagre when it comes to portraying holy wedlock day in, day out.

And that's a shame, as our society as a whole is losing the sense of the specialness of being married. Today, whether or not one is joined in the eyes of God/the Law has come to make very little difference at all - or, at least, the difference has become harder to fathom. In the modern moral maze, who can be sure of any clear connexion between someone's marital status and the way they conduct their personal life?

Everyone knows folks who go through all the motions of the time-honoured marriage - a match made in heaven, forsaking all others, settling down, starting a family - but who then will be elbowing their way to the head of the divorce queue; in other words, the sort of people who make you suspect that the Tory anti-divorce cavemen are right after all, so long as their scheme would make it tougher to get married in the first place.

We equally know of people who have been cohabiting for decades, even utterly monogamously - but whom wild horses wouldn't drag to a church. Marriage, she thinks, will compromise her independence (so what's so wrong with that?). Wedlock, he suspects, may mean fatal alimony and the dreaded CSA (though you don't have to be "legal" these days to face palimony and financial ruin). And both he and she agree, upholding the old Protestant aversion to ritual conformity, that all the outward show - horseshoes and rings and licences - is obsolete and frankly sordid, an echo of the horse trading that arranged society weddings used to involve. Isn't wedlock at best the last refuge of the insecure and the conventional? "The dread of loneliness is greater than the fear of bondage," mused Cyril Connolly, "so we get married."

A true relationship, they will smugly tell us, is about a union of hearts or minds; it's a gift, not a contract to be enforced by legal fetters. These days, people sidle up at parties and introduce their "partners", when one knows full well that (tell it not...) they are, in fact, husband and wife, but it's not quite PC to admit it; we all know those married couples, mildly embarrassed lest they seem fuddy-duddy, who make a play of saying they only got hitched for the tax relief.

It's a sign of the times that the percentage of the population getting married is declining quite fast - that's especially true of the young - and even women (traditionally those who yearned for white weddings and married bliss) are fast losing their appetite for it. How ironical that the most clamorous propaganda on behalf of marriage now comes from the one group excluded from it: gays. The case for gay marriage is at the top of Andrew Sullivan's recent gay rights manifesto, Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality. Maybe what has always kept marriage going is the allure of the unattainable.

In the case of gays, the reason for this enthusiasm is obvious: a desire for recognition. And that's what marriage always used to be about for most players: a matter of status. I don't necessarily mean in the gross, vulgar sense, but rather as the indispensable means of establishing your place in the sun, in the system. Traditionally, at all social levels, the woman who got married could hope to escape the heavy hand of paternal power - and also the helplessness and shame of spinsterhood - while the groom who said "I do" instantly acquired a pack of prized possessions: he could lord it over a wife, a household, and then a family; the married man could swank it.

Classic here is Samuel Pepys. The diarist didn't need to be married to be waited on (he could hire servants to do that); or to get sex (au contraire, marriage may have fired his philandering). But he did need to be married so as to flaunt a wife before his colleagues at church or at the theatre - even if, as a deeply jealous man, he was always in a bind about vaunting pretty Elizabeth; she was to be an object of display, but there must be no doubt that she was his - and beautifying her shouldn't make too much of a dent in his savings.

Marriage (we are repeatedly told) is an institution you can't disparage. But St Paul certainly did his best. It's better to marry than to burn, the Evangelist grudgingly conceded to the Corinthians, but preferably you should be chaste. Yet that line never really rang true. It always was best to be married, because the wedding ring was the pass-key of someone on the inside, the person who'd made it. Even if, as in Sam Johnson's somewhat sombre formulation, matrimony had many pains (but celibacy no pleasures), few really believed in the gospel of single blessedness, because that always seemed like missing out on things, withering on the virgin thorn. In any case, those, like Pepys, whom marriage did not fully satisfy, could always seek a bit on the side; you had to be married, observed Oscar Wilde, to indulge in the delights of deception.

But all that's changed. Democracy, women's lib, legal reforms, the Pill, the Sixties youth revolution - all have eroded the idea of matrimony as the royal road for ensuring an orderly succession of lineage and property. Nowadays, the alternative isn't burning. And so it gets harder to envisage the unique aura of being married - what it is to feel, above all, like a husband or a wife as opposed to feeling I'm me in some settled, loving, trusting, enduring and ecstatic relationship with a bedfellow. Or at least that's what I suppose - and everyone, I guess, can only speak for him or herself.

I've been married. I've known (I'm sure) what it's like to be in love, to have that melting, insistent ache for someone else, to want to share my life with a lover, to be intimate with them, truly, madly, deeply. The better-or-for-worse, for-richer-or-for-poorer and the till-death-us-do-part bits have all made perfect sense (forsaking all others is perhaps another story). But though I've been married for a quarter of a century, I've never had much of a feeling of being a husband or having a wife; being uxorious, in the Pepysian manner, is not something I've ever felt any more strongly than, say, being male, or English, or thinning on top. If I've worn a wedding ring (as I have) it's not because I've wanted to flash it in someone's face; it's because I basically feel that, if you enter into a public state such as matrimony, then you shouldn't be ashamed to show it.

Now you may say the fact that I've never much had the feel of being a husband - and have never been a father - is precisely why I haven't made that much of a go of it: those 25 years have to be divided, like Gaul, into three. But who's to say what's chicken and what's egg? More to the point, surely, is to ask: why do it? why get married in the first place? And then why keep on doing it (if twice is carelessness, then three times...? And then?)

Jocularity aside, it's here that my responses descend to mumbling into my beard. In the absence of an overriding belief system (such as Catholicism) or of some lofty social ethic such as "Back to Basics" - a notion that to the historian in me seems like dubious nostalgia, or reactionary twaddle - I don't feel I've got a coherent line to spin. I suppose I do believe in the importance of social signals, and bosom relationships surely need all the help they can get; if getting married is a pledge of loyalty and a token of hope, then practice makes perfect must be the motto.

But whether in my case that's been much helped by trips to Camden Register Office is another matter. If I'd got married in Westminster Abbey back in 1970 with trumpets and all the trimmings, would I still be married to the same person? Or, if I'd remained a confirmed bachelor, would I have had a larger or smaller number of lovers? And who's to say in either case whether it would have made much difference to the sum of human happiness, not least that of the good women who threw in their lot with me?

What I really feel, after all these years, is how odd it would be to be single. I have no conception what it would be like to be either unwed, or post-married (the term "divorced" is now laughably quaint). And there, as with matrimony itself, the novelists and playwrights aren't much help.