A long marriage is one of the most common relationships but also one of the most extraordinary. I ask myself, how do two people stay married?’
Author Jane Rogers explores the mystery of enduring love
is very driven and can be very selfish, but I don’t empathise with one over the other,” replies the author, who teaches on the MA Writing course at Sheffield Hallam University and edited OUP’s Good Fiction Guide. “When you’re writing a character and getting into their head, you empathise totally with them. One of the aims of this book was really to show both sides of this marriage, not to favour one over the other. I needed to explore it from the male and female side, particularly the power struggle when both sides are evenly matched.”
Is it based on her own marriage? “It’s not autobiographical,” she replies. “Characters are drawn from some people I know and bits are aspects of myself I have taken to the extreme in order to understand them.
“In that sense I think writing is like acting. A writer will inhabit a character and will push to learn what she can.”
Exploring the reversed gender roles was a deliberate decision: a woman, she says, is judged more harshly if she’s ambitious and following a career.
Even her children are critical of Eleanor. It’s a comment on the fact that since she and her husband were young parents in the 1980s, little has changed for working mothers – or indeed for house husbands.
“A woman is judged more harshly if she exhibits those male qualities and we are also judge a man for choosing to stay at home with the children. We’re very, very unfair. In the years between our two female prime ministers, nothing has changed and the glass ceiling still exists. Men still have the more well-paid, powerful jobs than women.”
Is Conrad and Eleanor’s a typical modern marriage? “There’s no such thing,” retorts Rogers. “One of the reasons I wanted to write about a long marriage is that it’s one of the most common relationships but also one of the most extraordinary. I ask myself, how do two people stay married?
“I’m interested in how over 20, 30, 40 years we move through love to like to irritation and real hatred, and hopefully back again. It shifts through all the emotions in big waves of change that overtake us.
“It is perhaps a rather unfashionable thing to write about now, but I do love reading about long marriages in the great novels like Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Patrick White’s The Tree of Man.”
While her catalyctic opening is undeniably effective, the process of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion for this novel was more problematic.
Rogers had abandoned the novel (whose working title was The Experiment) in 2004 when it was halfway through at around 40,000 words. Not for nothing does she describe it as the “strange” book in her impressive canon of work.
“I had all the key characters but I couldn’t move it forward,” she says. She went on to write the Man Booker Prize longlisted The Testament of Jessie Lamb, using much of the scientific research she’d already done for Conrad and Eleanor. “I never went back to it; I just thought it was a book I’d never finish.”
Scroll forward ten years to January 2, 2014, and at the age of 61 she is in intensive care and “very sick” having
I am interested in how, over 20, 30, 40 years, we move through love to like to irritation and real hatred, and hopefully back again