Marriage? No, I'd rather live

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The Independent Online
Frank Johnson, the editor of The Spectator (of which I am the assistant editor) recently invented a conceit concerning my marriage prospects. It goes thus: "As light faded last night, the search was called off for a husband for Petronella Wyatt. Officials say that the search may `be resumed at day break', but that `they are not hopeful that a husband will be found'."

I should like to make it clear that it is others who have raised the question of my marriage - or lack of one. It would seem to have become a minor matter of public interest. In the past few weeks, The Daily Mail drew attention to the fact that I am still single at 28. Shortly after, The Independent, perhaps under the impression that it was composing a bulletin on London Zoo, noted that I was "unable to find a mate".

Being single seems an odd position to have to defend. "Yah, boo, spinster!" is the sort of accusation that used to be hurled by crusty Tory politicians at middle-aged suffragettes, not by supposedly liberal journalists at modern working women in their twenties.

According to a recent survey, moreover, most young women have abandoned the idea of marriage. Six out of 10 women aged 16-40 told researchers that they were happier pursuing a single life. But there I was, pilloried for being "unattached", like some poor creature in a Jane Austen novel.

It is telling that all the journalists who have remarked upon my spinsterhood are men. Indeed, the only people who ask why I am not yet married are male. They adopt an insulting tone, as if there must be something freakish about my character or temperament or sexual proclivities; they insinuate that a woman who lives on her own is physically and emotionally incomplete.

Men are not the only ones to blame, however. It is a legacy of Christianity that the world outside the family is often viewed as immoral, ephemeral and ultimately sterile, particularly for women. Yet the pursuit of conjugal love is seen to be both lasting and worthwhile.

The opposite, in fact, is more usually true. I would not necessarily encourage women to take the Henry Higgins line on marriage: "Let them buy their wedding bands/for those anxious little hands/I'd prefer a new edition/Of the Spanish Inquisition..."

But the failure of marriage to provide women with satisfaction is one of the most deep-rooted causes of discontent in our age, and one that my sex is finally beginning to recognise. In the past, of course, there were compelling practical reasons why women should marry, the most important being sex and money.

There is no reason why most modern women should be poor old maids. The single woman, providing she is not well below average intelligence and attractiveness, is now able to enjoy a thoroughly pleasant life. My contemporaries, understandably, wish to prolong this state and most are either determined not to marry or delaying a decision until their thirties.

Morality campaigners disapprove, pointing out that a fall in marriages corresponds with a rise in illegitimacy. But the problem is not as bad as is sometimes imagined. Of lone parents, unwed mothers are in the minority; 60 per cent of single parents are divorced, separated or widowed. Most of the women I know who married in their early twenties are now seeking a separation or divorce.

Marriage not only reduces a woman's independence but, in all but exceptional cases, imprisons her in the house to perform a thousand dreary jobs unworthy of her talent. Buried under this mass of triviality, she is lucky if she does not lose all of her looks and most of her intelligence. Children can provide but small compensation; they leave home with greater frequency than husbands.

But aren't any miseries suffered by a wife redeemed by the power of conjugal love? Baloney. There is no greater folly on this earth than being romantic about romance; much of what goes by that name is as evanescent as steam. It is vain and shallow, a mere reflection of self-love and weak, impermanent reflection of it at that.

The usual view is that from love derive all good things; kindness, tolerance, patience, peace of mind. Imperfections, ergo, do not matter.

Most women's decision to marry is based on sexual attraction for a man they find good-looking; this usually dooms the marriage to divorce or a lifetime of regrets. In my experience, sexual attraction runs its course in two or three years. Physical beauty, whether male or female, is chiefly imaginary. Most of us are involved in a constant effort to disguise and conceal our bodies. This is why love demands emotional gullibility, a Herculean capacity for illusion.

The sensible thing to do is to marry a man of exceptional character and unquestionable ugliness, so that a substantial affection may grow from prosaic reality. Such emotional ties can take many years to develop, which is why both men and women should delay marriage until their feelings are tried and tested. Ideally, if a woman wants to have children, she should marry in her thirties - and preferably choose an older man with the benefit of experience and enough wisdom to disregard the urgings of his libido.

But we do not marry our best friends, alas, alas; we marry our lovers whose appeal inevitably turns sour. None the less, we are compelled by pride to defend our choice. Thus a conspiracy of silence surrounds the delusions of marriage. As Thackeray said: "It is strange what a husband may do and a wife yet pretend he is an angel."

Stranger still is how romantic love affects the victim's attitude towards the rest of the world. When I am in love, I want to love everybody. I am filled with benevolence and my critical faculties disappear.

The lover's most common mood is one of moronic serenity, of complacency that prevents solid achievement. We may be inspired to dream of composing a symphony or climbing a mountain, but love prevents us from carrying out our ambitions. When I am in the throes of lust, I am even incapable of indignation. What does it matter who wins the election? Who cares if the stock market crashes? But it does matter and we should care.

So what happens if you do marry? Even if you are rich enough not to have to do housework and cook the family meals, you will be continually forced to think about your house, your children, husband and two sets of relations. Your world will inevitably become narrower.

Marriage is dangerous because it can be an escape from reality, a refuge from the important problems of life. But these things have to be faced eventually. I once had a woman friend who went from husband to husband because she said it blotted out everything else. Love, then, is intellectual and emotional paralysis - pleasant enough in the short term, perhaps, but disastrous in the form of a prolonged legal dose.

In answer to all those male columnists who have nothing more pertinent to consider: yes, I think I may well pass on marriage altogether. So what is the alternative? It is hard to think of a better one than work; the pleasure to be derived from professional success is one of the greatest life has to offer. Few of us, of course, possess anything amounting to genius, but there are many careers at which a person of only average intelligence may prosper.

Work bestows self-respect, without which contentment is scarcely possible. And it brings financial security as opposed to dependence (whoever said that money can't buy happiness never owned a cheque book). More importantly, a career gives women a consistent purpose, which is certainly not to be found in the vicissitudes of romantic love or the petty irritations of matrimony. "L'homme, c'est bien - l'oeuvre, c'est tout," as Flaubert wrote to George Sand.