Sunday, October 23, 2016

Marrying a Stranger

I've been thinking a lot about the enduring appeal of marriage-of-convenience romances. It isn't my favorite trope, but I've read many of them over the years, generally those by favorite authors or novellas included in an anthology that appealed to me.

Mary Balogh has written several marriage of convenience stories over the years, and she writes them very well. Her characters always have depth and redeeming qualities, even those who seem abrasive.

There is something both compelling and repellant in the notion of being intimate with a near stranger. The imagination can have full reign in the absence of known facts. An optimist may experience a night with his or her ideal lover. Time and further acquaintance may bring disappointment, but that first time holds a wealth of possibilities. That excitement can be sought in a one night stand, but our society judges women harshly for engaging in casual sex, and that was even more true in centuries past. In the world of historical romances, an arranged marriage is a socially acceptable way to experience sex with a stranger.

On the other hand, there is tremendous risk in legally tying oneself to an unknown quantity, especially in previous centuries, when women had few protections against an abusive or profligate husband. Of course, a romance novel always has a happy ending, so we know the husband will turn out to have a heart of gold under his cold exterior, or that he will subdue his demons with the love and support of his new wife.

Getting to know someone after physical intimacy rather than before has its ups and downs. For women, sexual activity usually stimulates the production of oxytocin, which may increase emotional bonding. A new bride may develop feelings of affection for her husband based entirely on that physical intimacy, even if they spend their days apart. That can make her emotionally vulnerable, however. A perceived rejection or sense that her husband finds her less than attractive will truly sting.

Fortunately, studies have shown that, contrary to the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, faces actually seem more attractive with repeated exposure. There is something in human nature that seeks to put a positive spin on things. I remember reading First Comes Marriage a number of years ago, and I still recall the way Vanessa's husband considers her plain at first but eventually comes to admire her looks. In part that is due to her new fashionable wardrobe and flattering haircut, but mostly it is because she is no longer a random acquaintance; she is his wife. There is also the example in Pride and Prejudice, where Mr. Darcy's first impression of Lizzy is that she is not handsome enough to tempt him. Later in the book, when speaking of her, he declares himself "meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow."

The ancient myth of Eros and Psyche contains a marriage-of-convenience romance. Psyche is told she is to be married to a monster to satisfy the wrath of the gods and protect her family. Her bridegroom comes to her in the dark and proves to be a tender lover instead. But she never sees him, and her sisters convince her she is being fattened up to be devoured later. She tries to reconcile the truth she experiences in the dark with everything she has been told by her family to expect. Like Pandora, she allows curiosity to get the better of her, with disastrous results. For her husband is none other than the god of love himself, and he cannot abide her faithlessness in disobeying his order to never try to see him. But like all true romance stories, the heroine perseveres in the end.