Monday, May 18, 2009

Marrying Well

On this day in 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry, the Duke of Normandy and soon-to-be King of England. It was her second marriage. Until six weeks earlier she'd been married to the King of France. Two of her sons with Henry II would become Kings of England too.

Richard I and John were difficult offspring, fighting between themselves and with their parents. Eleanor and Henry were played in the 1968 film by Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole. For those of you keeping score, that's Queen of France, Queen of England and an Academy Award. At one point Eleanor conspired to take her husband off the throne, after which Henry put her in prison for 16 years. It wasn't an easy marriage but it was far from dull. Eleanor of Aquitaine has been the subject of several excellent biographies. She appears on page 101 in A Book of Ages.

There are dozens of other famous and cringe-making marriages in A Book of Ages. The horrifyingly funny union of Martha and George, as played by Dick and Liz in Mike Nichols' film of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Also Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and George and Martha Washington, the famous Shelleys, the happy George Eliots and unhappy T. S. Eliots, the E. B. Whites, the serial Updikes and Hemingways and Mailers and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Tudors. Marriage is one of life's significant landmarks, or watersheds, depending how you look at it. The institution contains an odd assortment, and each couple writes its own rules of engagement, has its own habits and rituals, which I enjoyed collecting and putting into words.

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