Just not our class, dear
A lawyer weds a plumber. So who cares? Probably both their families, reports Angela Neustatter. Background, it seems, still counts
Sunday 22 February 1998
The third man in Yvonne's life and father of Joseph, 7, was "definitely working class" and it was his uninhibited lust for fun, his emotional openness and "towering, illuminating" sexuality which were the pull this time. Yvonne explains: "I felt completely at ease with him and I felt more classy, more educated than him - my own working-class origins were thoroughly blurred by this time - and that was a relief after so often feeling inadequate before." But here, too, their differences got in the way and they separated. Yvonne says: "What I learned was just how much class does seem to have a meaning when you choose a partner."
Yvonne's attempts to find a match where class seemed, as she had always hoped and assumed "at best an interest, or otherwise unimportant" may be extreme, but the significance of place in the social scale when people fall in love is a popular theme these days. The much-publicised films Titanic and The Woodlanders are both pivoted on the impossibility of love from different sides of the tracks. When Madonna had her daughter Lourdes, a great deal was made of the fact that the father was her personal trainer, with the implication that she had coupled down. Last week, Sharon Stone married Phil Bronstein and although nobody has talked family lineage, in America, where social mobility has as much to do with what you earn as who your parents are, her pounds 60 million a year to his pounds 55,000 is tantamount to a member of the hoi polloi marrying into the upper echelons.
At the Islington Rosemary Branch Theatre, Gilly Fraser's hard-hitting play about a cross-class relationship, A Bit of Rough, which she wrote in the Seventies, has been brought back precisely because the central faultline in the relationship between Ray, a working class market trader and middle-class Julie, who works in an art gallery, has resonance today. Fraser, who comes from a working-class area of Leeds and has written many plays in which the clash between class expectations is a central feature, says: "We delude ourselves if we pretend love conquers class. When the crunch comes, different classes can be like another species to each other and that hasn't changed." Fraser was a founder writer of EastEnders, as well as belonging to the clique of feminist writers and dramatists in the Seventies which included Fay Weldon, Caryl Churchill, and Carol Hayman. In A Bit of Rough, actors Graham Martin and Victoria Willings play out the unravelling of a relationship built on sex, made dangerous and erotic by the fragile fantasy each has of the other, finally leaving the blood and gore of expectations and aspirations that cannot be sustained under stress.
Justine Fear, 29, a psychologist now working on a masters degree, lives with 35-year-old Laurence McMahon, who left school with no qualifications and runs a market stall. She raises arched eyebrows above large blue eyes in a pretty, refined face at hearing how closely the characters in A Bit of Rough mirror herself and Laurence. But she is very clear that, within their partnership, the difference in class is a strength, and that they have achieved an emotional equality and closeness that is not the stuff of Fraser's play. Justine explains: "Laurence is very up front and emotionally articulate. In relationships with middle-class men, I've found difficulties with emotion and honesty. But the fact that Laurence is very intelligent is as important as anything. He doesn't feel threatened by my education and although he may not read the books I do or discuss things in quite the way I do with my friends, we have found a great deal of common interest and we communicate as equals when we talk about these. And he makes me laugh, because he's a great joker. The other day in Marks and Spencer, two women were looking at G-strings and he said to them: 'I wouldn't buy those, they're seconds - look, they've got no arse in them'. I can't imagine the men of my own class I've been with being so uninhibited. In fact, too often with middle-class men there's a cautiousness about whether they are getting into something suitable, a kind of cost benefit analysis."
Yet, however wonderful the attraction of opposites may be in private, it can be harder to handle with friends and family. And yes, Justine admits, there have been times when she's taken Laurence to a drinks party with her circle and noticed him feeling an outsider, becoming tense. Nor does he like the smart gym she attends, preferring the "steam" at Ilford. But if some might see these as danger signals, she sees them merely as things to be compromised over.
Too often, parental ambitions can be the problem. Martha, a 25-year-old lawyer doing articles, had a passionate affair with a car mechanic, but her parents' dislike of him eventually broke the relationship. She says: "They were so hostile to him, because he threatened all their dreams for me, and whenever we were at my home, I felt miserable for him. But in the end, I didn't want to be alienated from my family, so I ended the affair." Whereas another woman, who fell in love with a window cleaner, incurred her father's disapproval, broke it off and felt so miserable that they got together again, married and had children. They are "blissfully happy" together, she says. Justine and Laurence are lucky, because both sets of parents take the line that whatever makes them happy is fine. But isn't this an outmoded discussion? Surely in today's world, caught in thrall to a vision of a classless society, such distinctions are unimportant? Not so, says Michael Argyle, author of The Psychology of Social Class. "The indications for a cross-class relationship are not all that good, especially if the wife is higher class than the husband. When it's the other way around, there seems to be less problem, with the wife moulding herself to fit into his world." But these relationships have a better chance of success when the couple share leisure activities and interests. On the whole, people do not marry out of their social class in Britain. Nor is it promoted as a good idea. From the glossy pages of Tatler and Harper's to the print-outs of computer dating firms, the emphasis is on like coupling with like. Hence, when a duke marries a chorus girl, a debutante falls for a drains inspector, it hits the headlines. Look at the furore when Marina Ogilvy, cousin of the Queen, married photographer Paul Mowatt, a former comprehensive schoolboy, no less, declaring famously: "Nobody cares about background any more"; when Lady Alice Douglas, the daughter of the Marquess of Queensberry married former soldier and ex-prisoner Simon Melia; when Paul Hill of the Guildford Four married Courtney Kennedy, the daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy. And look at the Schadenfreude which follows in the press when these relationships fail.
So what are inter-class relationships about? Psychotherapist Diana Laschelles says: "Sex may be particularly exciting, because partners sense they are breaking taboos or choosing someone whose experimentation or lack of inhibition makes them seem dangerous. They have not found this by mixing with like." But if this is the most important thing, the relationship may hit trouble when passion dulls down. Or, Laschelles suggests, "it can be an Oedipal thing, an attempt to be as far removed as possible from the mother or father, because someone who resembles them may feel somehow incestuous."
Most importantly, says Vivienne Gross, Clinical Director of the Institute of Family Therapy, "People need to think what the actual experience of crossing cultures will be when they marry out of their class. For instance, how will the person from the upper class feel if their partner is rejected or insulted by friends or family, and equally, on the lower class side, there can be real pressure that the family will feel they can't entertain appropriately or fear that they may be snubbed for their values. These are not small things, but they can certainly be overcome if couples confront them and work out how they will deal with them."
Cross-class relationships where people commit themselves for the long haul, and are helped to make a go of it, are the litmus test of how genuinely an integrated and tolerant society we are. Elena Anna Ford, millionairess great granddaughter of Henry Ford and plumber Joseph Daniel Rippolone, are said to be fine, as are Rosie Pearson, daughter of Viscount Cowdray, who married Rastafarian musician Palma Taylor. Equally, inter-class liaisons among more ordinary mortals are often not even remarked upon if they work, but are being accepted as part of the melting pot of love and sex and the whole damned thing.
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