Marriage: How to stay the course

As you would expect from the author
of The Good Granny Guide, Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, a very
young-looking 70-year-old, has her feet firmly on the ground. In her new book For
Better, For Worse
, subtitled “A light-hearted guide to wedded
bliss”, she celebrates the institution of marriage while wondering how on earth
any of us manages to stay the course.

She talks about the domestic front
line – housework, the television remote, snoring – and the vexed issue of
in-laws. She talks about flashpoints that signal danger, like financial anxiety,
and whether infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. With candid comments from
those she has interviewed, and extracts from novels, letters and songs – by
everyone from Winston Churchill to the Beatles – she presents a down-to-earth
picture of marriage that makes it seem both a source of joy and plain hard
work.

Fearnley-Whittingstall manages to
champion marriage while suggesting tactfully that all long-term relationships
are equally valid.

“I don’t think that it’s the
role of government to manipulate people’s choices about the way they live their
lives. If at the moment the tax system is unfair to married people, it should
be evened out, but I don’t think it should be made more advantageous to be
married.” In Britain today, after all, many couples live together without
tying the knot: her own children Sophy, 46, and Hugh, 45 (the well-known chef),
had long-term relationships with their partners before they married.

At the same time,
Fearnley-Whittingstall, who becomes, with the arrival of Hugh’s baby this
month, a grandmother of six, is clear about the advantages of marriage.
“There is something about going through the ritual – making promises in
front of all your friends and family – that makes the whole thing more serious
and is, for some people anyway, a stronger and greater commitment.”

She has always been a keen observer
of relationships. She remembers her own father coming back from fighting in
Egypt after the Second World War, the Union Jack hung out to welcome him.
“I think my mother’s generation had a very difficult time in their
marriages because of the long periods of absences and separation.”

But she says she wouldn’t dream of
offering advice to her own children without being asked. “It is sometimes
agonising to watch when things go wrong, but that’s the whole thing about the
book. It’s to say that arguments and rows don’t mean that a marriage is on the
rocks.”

The Fearnley-Whittingstalls married
in July 1962 in Henley-on-Thames, where Jane’s parents had settled after
returning from what was then Rhodesia. In those days, she says, weddings were
usually in the afternoon, and the reception tea consisted of cucumber sandwiches,
strawberries and cream, and a choice of tea or champagne.

After staying at home to bring up
Sophy and Hugh, she embarked on a new career (encouraged by her husband Rob, an
advertising copywriter) and trained to be a landscape architect. The idea for
the book came from looking at the relationships of couples who had created
gardens together – Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, Rosemary and David
Verey.

“I just got a flash,” she
says, “that there was a much broader issue here – marriage in general and
how couples manage to live together.” And there is, she says smiling, a
link between gardening and marriage: in both cases, you have to be patient and
nurturing, and be prepared to wait for results.

If Jane is an ambassador for marriage, she’s
also a realist. She knows, as she says in the book, that the promises we repeat
when we stand at the altar are easier to make than to keep. But, as she says,
“I would hope that people with strong, long-term relationships can somehow
pass on whatever wisdom they have gained. Which, I suppose, in a small way, I’m
trying to do – blow the trumpet for marriage a bit.”