Dear Brian: On Marrying and “Small House” — The City Online

Dear Brian: On Marrying and “Small House”

by John Mark Reynolds on October 23, 2012

Dear Brian,

The good news is that you have chosen wisely! Growing old with your beloved will be delightful and not age you immediately, something that will happen if you chose badly!

I have no idea if she should marry you or what will happen in the future, but your willingness to think as you fall in love is encouraging. Love and rationality each help a good man to find happiness. We live for love as we journey to Love, but it is a love that is sensible, moderate, and wants what is best . .. not just what is most satisfying in the short term. You cannot love well if you do it badly!

Anybody who wants to get married should discover the wisdom in Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope. You read the book and have now sent me what you learned from it.

I have edited what you said and will comment on it to add to your keen insights.

You said:

In chapter 43 Lily Dale says, “A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be, and a novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.”

 

I respond:

This is important. Nobody would marry anybody if they had to marry us as we are . . . this side of Paradise the truth is not pleasant. But for any of us the trajectory can be so glorious that any man could marry any woman or any woman any man. We are headed to glory. The  horror of the hellish trajectory of some reminds us that a man or woman’s direction can change. In that case, we must pray and stand what can be tolerated.

You found some lessons in the book. Let me comment on each in turn.

1. A wholesome lover should not pursue good things as ends but for the sake of loving the Good.

Things can be pursued, but not people. That is a most important distinction. Even for God, we do not treat humans as means to Him. Why? Because it suggests the possibility of abusing the image of God to see God and I don’t think that is possible. Humans are different and must always be treated differently.

Before there was sin and when Adam walked with God alone, the Lord God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Men and women need each other in all but the rare case of the man or woman given the gift of celibacy.

2. A wholesome lover should love with fortitude and resilience.

This is true, but not forever. In the West, after all, death parts the couple (in the East Christians have a different view). One truth demonstrated in Small House is that an inability to “move on” in romance is not always a good thing. Old goods must be let go so new goods can come.

Of course, a person can be hurt so badly that such healing is impossible, but Lilly Dale is not hurt that badly. She is too clingy. This false romance is destructive to the men and women around her.

3. A wholesome lover should have a community of good friends and mentors.

You bring a wife or a woman brings a husband into a community and family. If it is not good to be alone, then a man or woman should be cautious about joining themselves to anybody who already is alone. A spouse cannot meet every need, should not even try to meet every need, and trying to do so will almost always be destructive.

5. A wholesome lover must try to love with a complete arsenal and be willing to change it when needed.

People grow and change. The twenty-two year old I married is the same woman and yet different from the forty-nine year old that I love today. I love a person, not an unchanging ideal. As she changes, I must change my intellectual, physical, and emotional approach to Hope.

This is a lesson of Small House. If a man tells you that romance must die later in marriage, he usually is saying that his refusal to evolve with the beloved has killed romance. His lusts are static. Love grows . . . it is fecund by nature.

6. A wholesome lover loves with patience and not with haste for the unnecessary.

Our culture has reduced sexual relations to getting to know a person. First comes sex, then comes love, and then (maybe) marriage. This is a disaster for the poor, assumes birth control works, and has the added bonus of being immoral. Immorality often has no short-term liabilities, but defying God is never good for a soul in the longterm.

I assume you know that!

Of course, Small House assumes chaste behavior in the good characters. The bad lover in Trollope demands emotional intimacy he is not ready to fulfill. This is so bad, that it I think it worse than physical intimacy. “Nothing happened,” says the flirt, but something did happen if the person with whom he is flirting took him seriously.

A wise man, and I have played the fool here more than once, is not quick to say: “I love you.” This does not mean he acts as if he is in love, physically or emotionally, before saying the mere words. That is sophistry.

You finish with a few more wise observations you think of as minor:

1. Money is not the priority in a relationship.

I think you are wrong about this: both for Trollope and in reality.

Americans pretend that “love conquers all,” but after fifty years of counseling married people my Dad would say: “Money and class differences matter.” Big differences in background make a hard job: loving a lifetime, harder.

I think a major lesson of Small House is that marrying in your class is not the most important thing, but it does matter. The “climber” and the “slummer,” the person who aspires for a better life in marriage and the person who wants to escape the gilded cage, bring wrong desires to their marriage.

Love is not a way out of a “trap” that a man our women should escape through courage.

The wise course of Small House: never marry based on money, but hang out with your own kind. You should not marry someone you do not love for financial or class reasons, but this means seeking out worthy mates when looking!

2. Different personalities in a relationship can work out. If Lord De Guest believes that Lily and Johnny will get married then it is possible.

This is true. Oddly, we seek compatible “personalities” when money and class often tell more on a marriage. The hard truth is the personality changes in vital ways over time. A Christian husband may become an atheist husband. A quiet man may become a loud man.

The past, however, never changes: born to money means always born to money.

3. Receiving parental approval is not necessary but recommended. Johnny Eames was willing to pursue Lily because Lord De Guest, Mrs. Dale, and Old Christopher Dale approved of it as opposed to Crosby who merely had Lily’s approval.

I think parental approval is not necessary in the strong sense, but only because of extreme cases. In a healthy family, no lover would wish to pull the beloved away from her roots. Why cause such pain? In an unhealthy family, the “family” isn’t, but some other community must act as a substitute.

A person all alone, with no mentors or wise people in their life, should hesitate to marry.

4. If you’re Johnny Eames then find a friend besides Cradle. You need good friends who have similar aspirations. You are the average of your closest friends so choose wisely.

I don’t think a man is the “average” of his friends, but a man rarely will exceed his best friend. Trollope is teaching that a gentleman wants the best possible friends, not the worst. Friendship is not ministry nor are we speaking about cutting lose a friend in a bad spell, but one should be wary of a man or woman whose friends are markedly inferior. One assumes Plato found it difficult to hang with equals, but most of us (certainly me!) are not Plato.

 

The most encouraging thing about all of this is that you are learning from a book . . . and from fiction. Experience is a good teacher, but a hard one. I would avoid for you the lessons I learned about romance from mistakes, not mostly from the harm it did to me, though it was great, but for the harm I did to others in my immaturity.

Keep reading, praying, and being part of the long discussion that gentleman and a lady started when Adam and Eve talked with God in the cool of the Garden.

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