A storyline in a popular work of historical fiction
illustrates how marriage has (thankfully) already been "redefined."
illustrates how marriage has (thankfully) already been "redefined."
Yesterday's Wild Reed post contained some insightful examples by Peg Helminski of how marriage, contrary to what opponents of same-sex marriage may assert, has already been "redefined" in numerous ways throughout human history.
It just so happens that I'm currently reading The Black Moon, the fifth novel in Winston Graham's Poldark series. An example of historical fiction at its finest, the twelve Poldark novels are set in Cornwall at the turn of the nineteenth century (1783-1820). You may recall that the first seven novels in this saga were made into a highly successful BBC television series in the mid-1970s.
The series' protagonist is the non-conformist, near-rebel Ross Poldark. In the first novel of the series he is introduced as a young, battle-scarred veteran of the American Revolutionary War returning to his derelict family estate on the windswept coastline of Cornwall. Here he finds his widowed father dead and the woman he loves, Elizabeth Chynoweth, engaged to his cousin Francis. Bitterly disappointed, Ross nevertheless vows to move on with his life. He restores his family's estate, reopens the family copper and tin mines, and scandalizes his fellow gentry folk by marrying a miner's daughter named Demelza. After the tragic death of Francis in book four, Elizabeth marries George Warleggan who, for a number of reasons, has become a bitter rival of Ross.
One of the storylines in The Black Moon involves the arranged marriage of the shy and gentle Morwenna Chynoweth to the odious Rev. Osbourne Whitworth. Morwenna is Elizabeth's cousin and the governess of Geoffrey Charles, Elizabeth's son by her marriage to Francis Poldark. It is, however, Elizabeth's second husband, the extremely wealthy and ambitious George Warleggan, who is the driving force behind the arranging of a "useful marriage" for Morwenna. (In the popular Poldark television series, Morwenna is played by Jane Wymark, pictured above.)
I offer this background information so as to set the stage for the following excerpt from The Black Moon, one that entertainingly though disturbingly illustrates a once common way of perceiving and undertaking marriage. In so doing, it strikingly brings to life Peg Helminski's observation that for centuries in the West, and still today in many parts of the world, marriage was rooted in patriarchy and thus primarily about the securing of property and heirs, and the forging of alliances, and not about mutual love. I don't know about you, but I'm certainly glad that this way of defining marriage is not as dominant in our world as it once was.
. . . Elizabeth was still not sure whether George really approved of Morwenna. He was unfailingly polite to her, but Elizabeth, skilled as she was becoming in reading his far from communicative face, thought him extra guarded in Morwenna’s presence. It was as if he thought, here is another of them, another of the Chynoweths, highly bred in spite of her modest looks, listening with sharp ears and downcast eyes for some error of taste that I may make, showing up my vulgar origins. One is enough; one is my wife. Must there be two?
“I have been thinking of Morwenna,” George said, stretching his strong legs in his fashionable but uncomfortable chair.
When it was clear that he intended to add nothing more, Elizabeth said: “And what have you been thinking of her? Does she not please you?”
“Do you think the experiment has succeeded?” When he met Elizabeth’s eyes he said: “I mean, do you think she has been successful as a governess for Geoffrey Charles?”
“Yes. I think so. Indeed. Do you not?”
“I think she is a woman and would be suitable to teach a girl. A boy needs a man.”
“Well . . . that may be true. In the long run that may be true. But I think he is very happy with her. Indeed sometimes I feel jealous, for I believe he has been happier this last summer than I have ever in my life seen him. He made little demur at being left behind [for the summer at Trenwith House].”
“And his studies?”
“Summer is not the best time for learning. We shall know better when he comes next week. But on the whole I would have thought there was good progress. Perhaps that is saying little, since before he depended on me for what he could learn!”
“No mother could have done more. Few would have done as much. But I think if he is to go away to school he will need a man’s care. In any case, Morwenna’s stay with us was agreed only for a year, wasn’t it?”
Elizabeth said: “I feel sure she would be very upset to be sent home in March.”
“Of course there is no hurry. At least not that sort of hurry. And I was not thinking necessarily that she would need to be sent home.”
“Do you mean she would stay with us as an additional companion to me – and you would engage someone else for Geoffrey Charles?”
“That might be so. But my mind was running more on the thought that she is now of marriageable age. She is well-bred, well-mannered, and not at all uncomely. Some useful marriage might be found.”
Elizabeth’s mind went quickly over this; what he said came as a complete surprise to her; she had had no idea he had ever considered such a thing, or could be bothered to consider such a thing. She looked at him with slight suspicion, but he was idly tapping at his snuff-box.
“I have no doubt she will marry in due course, George. She’s – as you say she is not uncomely, and she has a gentle and sweet nature. But I think you may have forgot the big stumbling stone – she has no money.”
“No I had not forgot that. But there are some who would be glad of a young wife. Older men, I mean. Widowers and the like. Or some young men would be glad enough to ally themselves with us if only by marriage.”
“Well, no doubt it will happen in due course, and without our assistance.”
“In certain circumstances,” said George, putting his snuff-box away without having taken any, “our assistance could be had. I would be prepared to give her a small marriage dowry – that is if she were to marry someone of our choice.”
Elizabeth smiled. “You surprise me, my dear! I had not thought of you as an arranger of marriages, especially on behalf of my little cousin! In twenty years, perhaps, we shall be considering other and more important marriage prospects – for Valentine; but until –”
“Ah, well, that is a long road ahead. And your cousin is not little, by the way. She is tall and, properly dressed, would draw a few eyes. I see no reason why if a suitable marriage were arranged it would not turn out to everyone’s benefit.”
The general direction of George’s thinking, instead of being mysterious, was now perfectly plain to Elizabeth.
“Had you a suitable marriage in view?”
“No. Oh, no, I had not got as far as that.”
“But you have thoughts.”
“Well, the choice is not extensive, is it? It is limited, as I said, to an older man seeking a fresh young wife or a younger man of good birth but little fortune.”
“So surely some names will have come to your mind. Should we not make a list?”
“No, we should not. You find this amusing?”
“I do a little. I think Morwenna would be flattered to know you spare her so much attention. And now you cannot leave me in suspense.”
He looked at her, not liking to be laughed at. “One idly turns thoughts over. No more. One I had considered was John Trevaunance.”
Elizabeth stared at him. The laughter had quite gone from her eyes. “Sir John! But . . . what gave you such an idea? A confirmed bachelor. And he is old. He must be sixty!”
“Fifty-eight. I asked him in September.”
“Do you mean you have discussed this with him?”
“Indeed not,” said George restively. “Of course not. But did you notice the day he came to dinner he appeared to pay special attention to Geoffrey Charles after, while the others were at tea? It occurred to me that it was not likely to be Geoffrey Charles of whom he was taking this sudden notice.”
“Now you mention it . . . But why should it not be Geoffrey Charles?”
“Because they have several times met before without any such interest. This was the first time the boy had a governess.”
Elizabeth got up and went to the window to give herself time to think. She drew back the lace curtain and looked out at a farmer’s gig lurching over the cobbles below.
“I do not believe Morwenna would tolerate such an idea.”
“She would if it were put to her as her duty. And to be Lady Trevaunance would be a big enticement. Mind you I know nothing certain of his thoughts; but if at this ball he were to show her some preference I think it would not be unseemly to make him a proposal. He cannot relish leaving his possessions to his spendthrift brother. She could bear him a son. Also, he is a kindly man but acquisitive of money, and his affairs have not been going too well since the failure of the copper smelting scheme. For such a marriage I would be prepared to be exceptionally generous . . . And, of course, the thought of an eighteen-year-old girl can be a considerable attraction to an old man.”
Elizabeth shivered. “And your other thoughts?”
“I did think once of Sir Hugh Bodrugan, who is a year younger than Sir John, but I am not so greatly taken with an alliance between his family and ours, and as he is such a lecher I did not think you would like him for your cousin.”
“I certainly would not!”
“Then there is his nephew, Robert Bodrugan, who presumably one day will inherit whatever is left of that estate. But at present he is penniless, and one does not know how the money is left. Constance Bodrugan is still a young woman.
Elizabeth let the curtain fall. “Go on.”
“I think I tire you.”
“On the contrary.”
“Well, who knows what is bred of idle speculation? . . . There is Frederick Treneglos. He is twenty-three and had more than a little time for your cousin at that same party. It’s a good family – nearly as old as yours – but he is a younger son, and the Navy is a dubious paymaster. A few make rich prizes but most remain poor.”
“I think I would like him better than any of the others so far. He is young – and boisterous – and has enthusiasm.”
“I also noticed at that party,” said George, “that he had more than a little time for you.”
“Well . . . he has manners. Which cannot be said of all the young. Yes, I like him. Are there others on your list?”
“You still find this a jest?”
“Far from it. But I must have some concern for Morwenna’s happiness. That must be of account too.”
“Morwenna’s happiness must be our chief concern. The only other two I have considered are both widowers. One is Ephraim Hick . . .”
“You mean William Hick.”
“No, Ephraim, the father. William is married.”
“But Ephraim is a drunkard! He is never sober after midday any day of his life!”
“But he is rich. And I do not like William Hick. It would be agreeable to see his father spawn another family and deprive William of his expectations. And Ephraim will not live long. As a rich widow Morwenna would be far more valuable prize than she is today.”
Elizabeth looked at him. As usual when thinking he sat quite still, his shoulders a little hunched, the big hands clasped together. She wondered why she was not more afraid of him.
“And your last choice?”
“Oh, there may be others. You may well think of others. The last I had in mind was Osborne Whitworth. He is young, a cleric, which might please your cousin –”
“He is married, with two young children!”
“His wife died in childbirth last week. You will notice I have added him to our list of guests. By the end of this month he should be sufficiently out of mourning to accompany his mother. I believe he is just thirty, and as you know recently installed at St. Margaret’s, Truro. With two young children to manage and considerably in debt, he must seek another marriage soon. One which provided him with a dean’s daughter and at the same time cancelled his debts would I think attract him not a little.”
“But what,” said Elizabeth curiously, “attracts you?”
So that was it. An alliance with a family now in decline but itself allied with half a dozen of the great families of England, and in particular the Marlboroughs.
“Yes,” said Elizabeth presently, “Yes.” She came back from the window and patted George’s shoulder lightly as she passed. “It is all a very interesting speculation, my dear, and I am still surprised that your thoughts should have gone so far. For my part I still think of Morwenna as a child hardly old enough for ideas of matrimony. I still think it premature. I am sure she is very happy with us and would like to continue with us for a while. Let us make haste slowly, shall we?”
“There is no haste,” said George. “But I do not think the question should be shelved.”
– Excerpted from The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795 (1972)
by Winston Graham
Related Off-site Link:
Winston Graham’s The Black Moon: Violence the Basis of Order; Coerced Marriage as Continual Rape – Ellen Moody (Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two, September 30, 2010).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Face of "Traditional Marriage"
John Corvino on the "Always and Everywhere" Argument Against Marriage Equality
Patrick Ryan on the "Defense of Traditional Marriage" Argument
Nathanial Frank on the "Natural Law" Argument
Marriage: "Part of What is Best in Human Nature"
God Weighs In on the Gay Marriage Debate
Lisa Cressman's Concise, Reasonable Answers to Marriage Equality Questions
Steve Chapman: "Time is On the Side of Gay Marriage"
Rediscovering What Has Been Written on Our Hearts from the Very Beginning
Images: Jane Wymark as Morwenna, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, and Ralph Bates as George in the BBC television series Poldark (1975-77).