The secretive world of sex outside marriage

Usually when adultery is exposed in the lives of public people, it receives a bad press
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The Independent Online

It can be a surprising business, writing a newspaper column. Just when you have a sense of the people for whom you are writing, their reaction proves you wrong.

There was the Edwina Currie affair, for example. In book-puffing mode, Currie had blown the whistle on her affair with John Major and had been widely attacked as a self-serving, amoral hussy who had snared an innocent politician at a moment of weakness, grievously hurting his saintly wife. I argued that infidelity was more complicated, and that it was quite possible to see Currie as the victim. What if it really was a great love? What right had we to assume that a marriage is, by its nature, good and noble, and an affair, scruffy and shameful?

Here was the surprise. Far from going out on a limb (and it was not easy to present Currie as a romantic heroine), I was, to judge from the e-mails I received, among fellow thinkers. Several readers revealed that they had been involved in affairs that were long-term and serious.

They did not buy into the generally accepted notion that sex outside marriage was innately selfish - at best, an itch which should not have been scratched, at worst a tragedy of lust and betrayal. My adulterous correspondents argued that quite often the opposite was the case. Their affairs were a response to an unhappy situation, usually involving children, and were enacted in a spirit of tact, generosity and even self-sacrifice.

Of course, none of this can be said out loud. It is a secret shared by thousands, a twilight world of late nights at the office, after-work meetings, secret codes, snatched weekends and long, sad conversations in darkened cars. Theirs are stories that never have a happy ending as it is in the nature of marital infidelity that it can exist only in its own private little time capsule.

Usually, when adultery is exposed in the lives of public people, or in some ghastly divorce war, it receives a bad press. One side or the other often takes the cowardly Major line and denies that it had ever meant anything and is now no more than a seedy, shameful episode from the past. This plays well with moral paragons in the media who prefer matters of life and love to be kept simple.

But recently a couple of stories have been published that have revealed infidelity's true moral complexity. The seven-year affair between Joan Bakewell and Harold Pinter has already been given a couple of turns around the block - first in Pinter's play Betrayal, then in Michael Billington's biography of him - but the recent insights provided by Bakewell in her autobiography, The Centre of the Bed, have filled in some homely details and confirmed the ordinariness of it all.

Over a few years, there had been trysts in a London flat, occasional happy trips abroad but eventually the affair - and that of Bakewell's husband - was discovered. In herIndependent interview with Deborah Ross, Bakewell neatly summed up the weird never-never world of the adulterer, how guilt is kept at bay. "We didn't refer, you see, to our families very much. It was a matter of not spoiling something. We didn't think forward and we didn't think back. We just existed at the time ... It was a curiously out-of-time experience."

Bakewell's description of her marriage as "a trim little ship taking a buffeting in the open seas of an exciting life" finds a coincidental echo in the words of another woman whose affair has received recent publicity, Yvonne Cloetta, Graham Greene's mistress during the last three decades of his life.

Cloetta, who died three years ago but whose letters In Search of Beginning: My Life with Graham Greene are to be published next year, was a married woman with two young children when she first met Greene. Describing their relationship to the journalist Julian Evans, how down the years they muddled through, not mentioning it to her family, she quotes her lover's description of them as "two boats that had knocked about a fair amount in their lives, and then suddenly found their home port".

Greene, with his wayward, guilt-ridden sex life, has been the subject of some sneering biographies which have tended to play down the importance of Cloetta, who was less flashy and artistically respectable than earlier girlfriends, but Evans argues convincingly that there was nothing trivial about the affair. As her daughter Brigitte has put it, with a wisdom and moral generosity that is characteristically French: "He was the man she loved, who loved her. This is good, this is right. There's nothing to be said against it."

Of course, much will be said against it, and other messy affairs of the heart, by our smugly secure moral guardians. But, in their lives as much as in their work, Pinter and Greene have confirmed that love and desire are frequently too interesting and complex to play by society's rules.