Because my English degree from the dreaming redbrick of Hull University was rather progressive, we were encouraged to read great literature from Africa and the Americas, rather than the traditional syllabus.
And so it is only now that I come to the joys of Vanity Fair. Indeed, it is my half term project. This week, I will be sitting on a freezing Cornish beach enjoying Thackeray whilst intermittently shouting at four children to start building sandcastles and stop fighting over the Muller Corners.
Hence it was on a packed train to Newquay – during an interlude from laughing at Thackeray’s savage depiction of life in a Georgian London full of mothers egging their daughters to “set their cap” at dandies and bloods – that I learned of Zara Phillips’ “modern” take on matrimony.
Which is, to wit, that she and her spouse Mike Tindall enjoy independent careers, rather than insisting on walking around hand-in-hand the whole time. It is the fact that they spend a lot of time apart, says Phillips (who is also congratulated by the papers for refusing to change her surname), which is the secret to a flourishing relationship.
It seems to me that far from being modern, Ms Phillips’ position is rather revisionist. She is simply rejecting a recent development in how we are encouraged to view marriage, indeed one which Victorian social commentators such as Thackeray or Dickens would also find strange. Married couples these days are exhorted to live in each other’s pockets to such an extent that it would be unusual if they didn’t share headlice (caught from the progeny, of course). Marriage, goes the rom-com notion, must be a three-legged race through life, both parties bound together at the metaphorical shins, the husband (usually) leading the way.
Really? My parents, devotedly married for over 50 years, spent three or four years apart recently when my father set up a tuberculosis treatment programme in rural South Africa. It wasn’t my mother’s bag; she preferred to stay in London, go to the Proms and see her grandchildren. She may be in her eighties, but she has always been in the Phillips’ mould – as it were – with her own career, her own bank account and her own opinions. It doesn’t mean she didn’t miss her husband when he was away. But some people thought her “independence” incredibly daring.
Actually, I blame the rest of the Royal Family for promoting the absurd notion that marriage means you must be stuck together, as if on a plate. Or indeed, a teapot. The minute the Duchess of Cambridge is spotted doing something on her own, people shout out of the crowd “are you missing Wills, then?”, as if she was an abandoned six year old, rather than a grown woman who had managed to cope with several years of independent life at university. Far away in Scotland, too. Charles and Di were always doing things a deux, and look where that led them.
So hurrah to Zara Phillips for bringing a bit of normality into the picture. And let’s hope that her candour doesn’t make the institution of matrimony even more wobbly than it is at the moment. Because it has been so grievously threatened of late, hasn’t it?