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“Just as one has forgotten the intense pleasure of reading Trollope, along comes another flawless novel.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“A pleasure to read.” —The Washington Post
“Despite its title, Marrying the Mistress is no mere sexy romp detailing the lurid details of a juicy affair. Instead, Joanna Trollope offers a domestic drama that gives us an insider’s view of what happens to a family when the respected head of the household—60-year-old judge Guy Stockdale—announces he is leaving his wife of 40 ...
“Just as one has forgotten the intense pleasure of reading Trollope, along comes another flawless novel.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“A pleasure to read.” —The Washington Post
“Despite its title, Marrying the Mistress is no mere sexy romp detailing the lurid details of a juicy affair. Instead, Joanna Trollope offers a domestic drama that gives us an insider’s view of what happens to a family when the respected head of the household—60-year-old judge Guy Stockdale—announces he is leaving his wife of 40 years to marry his much younger mistress, Merrion. From his teenage grandson who thinks it’s cool that Gramps can still snag a hot young babe to his feisty daughter-in-law who sets up a secret meeting to check out the Other Woman, this is a nuanced tale that manages to be both familiar and surprising. What makes the situation complex—and the book beach-bag worthy—is that Merrion is far from the stereotypical villain/slut/husband stealer. She is intelligent, independent, successful and impossible not to like. Reading Marrying the Mistress is like spying on the neighbors that everyone on the street is gossiping about—without the guilt.” —Salon.com
“A modern-day Austen.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Masterful storyelling and memorable characters…a wise and gently truthful take on a highly charged subject.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This novel should easily vault onto the bestseller lists.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[Marrying the Mistress] must be the popular British writer’s most daring novel, as well as one of her most interesting…bracing and original…Trollope at her most challenging and thought-provoking.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Entertaining…great beach reading.” —USA Today
“A novel rich in accurate, piercing detail of domestic life and populated with strongly developed, realistic characters…absorbing and excellent.” —Booklist
“Splendidly nuanced.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A great beach or vacation read.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Trollope again displays her extraordinary gift for representing the intricacies of familial relationships and the vicissitudes of domestic life…None of the themes here—betrayal and anger, the lovers’ age difference, the grasping mother, the daughter-in-law’s resentment—are terribly unusual, but Trollope’s proven ability to present them intelligently, as moral and emotional tangles faced by thinking, interesting people, satisfyingly combines the universally recognizable and the intellectually engaging.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Essential.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“This is Trollope at her best.”
— Woman and Home
“Intelligent and thought-provoking.”
— Toronto Sun
“You know [with Trollope] that you will get a readable story. That it will somehow involve the human condition and, at the end of it all, there will be some satisfying conclusion that is not necessarily the one you anticipated.”
— January Magazine
It would be advisable," the court official said to the security guard, "just to keep the laddie up here for half an hour."
They both looked along the courtroom waiting area at the defendant. He was smoking rapidly. He was also head and shoulders taller than the little group of women clustered round him, like hens preening a cockerel, clucking and soothing and flattering.
The security guard rattled the bunch of keys chained to his belt.
"Trouble downstairs then?"
"Not exactly trouble," the court official said, "but there's a few of the girl's friends and family waiting. Just waiting. Like they do."
The security guard sighed.
"Wish he hadn't got bail. Wish I could just take him back inside. At least I'd know where he was then."
The court official glanced again at the defendant. Good-looking chap, in a flashy, come-and-get-it-girls way. But not reliable-looking; not reliable, at least, where his stepdaughter had been concerned.
"He won't skip."
"I'd still rather have him behind bars."
A young woman went past, a briskly walking, black-clad young woman with reddish-brown hair tied back behind her head with a black ribbon. She was carrying a square black attaché case and she had a black coat over her arm. She nodded to the court official as she passed.
"Night," she said.
The security guard watched her go. He'd been watching her all day in court, Miss Merrion Palmer, counsel for the prosecution, and admiring the way the tail of her wig sat so precisely above the tail of her natural hair.
"Nice legs," he said.
The court official blew out a little breath and heaved at the slipping shoulders of his black gown.
"Oh," he said, "nice all right."
He glanced along the waiting area to right and left, then said, sotto voce, "Know our judge?"
"Come on," the security guard said, "I'm here half the month, aren't I? Course I know the judge."
The court official leaned closer.
"What's just gone past," he said, his eyes fixed on the glazed door at the end of the waiting area that led to the judges' corridor, "is not just an advocate, any old lady advocate. What's gone past is His Honor's babe."
Back in his room the other side of the glazed door, Judge Guy Stockdale took off his wig and hung it on its wooden stand. Both wig and stand had belonged to his father, as had the pocket watch in his waistcoat pocket which he carried every day out of a superstitious apprehension that he might make a public fool of himself if he didn't, and the silver pencil with which he made his meticulous notes up there, alone, on the Bench.
He then took off his robe-purple, claret, and black silk-and hung it on the plastic hanger from a nationwide dry cleaning chain that seemed to have replaced the heavy, curved wooden one he had brought in especially for the purpose. Then he removed his black coat and put it over the back of a gray vinyl armchair and sat in the chair, leaning his head in his hands and putting the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.
"Would you like me to take off my wig?" he'd asked the girl-child witness over the courtroom's video link at ten-thirty that morning. "Would it be easier for you?"
She'd stared back at him, a clever little foxy face framed in a fake-fur coat collar.
"I don't mind," she'd said. She hadn't seemed daunted. She hadn't seemed daunted by anything, all that day, except, occasionally, by the miserable intensity of remembering what she had felt, what had happened to her. "You suit yourself."
Oddly, he had rather wanted to take his wig off. He didn't usually. Usually, he was so conscious of being an upholder of an office and a representative of justice, rather than Guy Stockdale, aged sixty-two, height six foot one, shoe size ten, no need yet-impressively-for spectacles or false teeth, that he was happy to have his wig and gown remove him from the particular to the impersonal. But today had been different. Today had been different because he had come, without particularly intending to, to a point when he had to implement a choice; he couldn't go on just looking at it and thinking about it and laying it carefully to one side to act upon some other day when the light was clear and courage was high. This knowledge had made him look at the girl on the video link not just as an abused child-there were thirteen charges against her stepfather, six of indecent assault, five of unlawful sexual intercourse, two of rape-but as something of a fellow traveler in a world where things you wanted and needed began to conflict badly with the things you already, acceptably, had.
There was a light knock and the door opened. Penny Moss, a young clerk who had come to work at Stanborough Crown Court as an intern, came in with a file. Guy took his hands away from his face and blinked at her. She took no notice of having found the Resident Judge with his head in his hands. She took no notice, ever, of anything except the immediate matter she had in hand at any given moment. She put the file down on the desk.
"It's Mr. Weaverbrook of the animal sanctuary, Judge."
Guy looked at the file. Mr. Weaverbrook ran a so-called animal sanctuary as inadequate cover for dealing in stolen farm machinery and horse-trailers. When required to come to court, he pleaded acute anxiety levels. His wife usually came instead and sat shaking in her seat, worn out with the effort of trying to divide her loyalty between Mr. Weaverbrook and the need for law-abiding conduct. Guy felt pity and admiration for Mrs. Weaverbrook.
"Do you want the case reserved to you, Judge?"
"Yes, Penny, I do."
"And Mrs. Mitchell and the order concerning her children?"
Guy shut his eyes again. Mrs. Mitchell was a nymphomaniac with sadomasochistic tendencies whose three children, by three different fathers, were being removed, with difficulty, from her nominal care.
"That, too, Penny. I'd like an earlier date for that case."
"Penny," Guy said, "I'm not delaying. I have the future of an eight-year-old to consider."
Penny opened her mouth. She was going to say, as she always said when asked to do something she didn't want to do, "Martin won't like it." Martin was the court manager.
Guy stood up.
"Good-night, Penny. And thank you."
She picked up Mr. Weaverbrook's file. He noticed that she wore, on her wedding finger, a band made of two little gold hands clasping one another. It looked vaguely Celtic.
"Night, Judge," she said.
* * *
* * *
Outside, in the early spring dark, the narrow court car-park was bathed in a weird orange glow from the street lights beyond its wall. The buildings that ringed the court were as modern and uncompromising as the court itself, mixtures of blood-red brick and concrete, with a lot of glass set into brushed metal frames. They managed to look, without exception, profoundly inhuman, with elements even of menace, such as the great steel doors that slid shut across the court entrance at night. Guy was all for the impressive in architecture, and especially in architecture pertaining in any way to the rule of law, but not for threat, not for anything that suggested pitilessness, inclemency.
His car was one of only three left. The other two belonged to the two regular district judges who, like him, were inclined to work on until six most evenings, even though the courts rose at four-thirty.
"I work," he said often, and meaning it, "with lovely people."
He opened one of the car's rear doors and put his work bag on the back seat. Then he climbed into the driving seat and turned the engine on. Then he turned it off again, and sat looking at the neat little red lights on the dashboard, bright, precise little lights who knew what their business was and how to do it.
I do not, Guy thought, want to go home. He took his hands off the steering wheel and put them on his knees. I do not want to go home and confront the fact that I have finally decided and must now implement that decision. What I hate, he told himself, closing his eyes, is the inevitable infliction of pain. Whatever I do, I'll cause that, to myself as well as to everyone else. In fact I am already, have been for years. It's just that they haven't all known.
Merrion had looked at him-when she did infrequently look at him-very directly that day. She had never appeared in court before him until today, and he had thought, and said, that she never should. But she had accepted this case, had indeed never considered doing otherwise, and when it became plain that they two would be in public together professionally and for the first time, she'd said he wasn't to make anything of it.
"It's no big deal," she said. "A three-day trial and I won't even be staying in Stanborough. You know my feelings about Stanborough."
He did. He knew her feelings about most things. It was one of the elements of her character that charmed him most, her directness, her candor, her capacity and courage to see and describe things as they were, and not as they might have been or as she wished they were.
"You're married," she'd said. "You've been married for over thirty years. You've got two sons and you've got grandchildren. I'm young enough to be your daughter. I'm not married. I'm mad about you. Mad. We have a big, big problem and it's going to get bigger. No question."
She'd been twenty-four when they met. That was almost seven years ago. He'd been taking an evening train up to London to have dinner with his son, Simon, one of those attempt-at-bonding dinners that Simon's mother, Laura, was so keen on.
"Do go. Oh do. How will you ever cross all these gulfs between you if you won't even try to talk?"
There was a girl in his train compartment reading a book which was convulsing her with laughter. She was helpless, crying with it, holding the book up to her face every so often so that she could shake privately behind it. He could see that it was a battered old paperback of Lawrence Durrell's Esprit de Corps. He could also see that she had wonderful hair and long legs encased in narrow blue jeans. She wasn't in the least pretty, in any conventional sense, but once he had started looking at her, he found he didn't much want to look anywhere else. So he stopped trying. He watched her steadily, smilingly, until she put the book upside down on her knees and said, still laughing, "I can't help it."
He bought her a drink at Paddington Station. She'd been to see her mother in South Wales and was on her way back to London and work. She was pupil in a set of barrister's chambers specializing in family law. She had a lot of theories-which he admired-about the need for more women at the Bar, especially in family law.
"People want it. The public does. They feel safer with us in this particular area."
He didn't tell her he was a judge. He didn't tell her anything much except his name, and roughly where he lived and why he was in London. Then he took her telephone number, put her in a taxi, and went to meet Simon. He ordered a bottle of champagne.
"What's this for?" Simon demanded. "What are we celebrating?"
Guy raised his glass. "It's purely medicinal."
Almost seven years ago. Seven years of what the newspapers would call his double life-home with Laura and the house and the garden and the dogs and the familiarity, and away, with Merrion. Sometimes away was in London, sometimes in hotels, sometimes abroad when he went to conferences, once-when they were desperate-it was a ten-minute meeting in the buffet on Reading Station.
"I'm your mistress," she said.
"No," he said, flinching a little, "no, not that. My love-"
"Nope," she said, "sorry. Mistress it is. We sleep together, you pay for some things for me, I keep myself exclusively for you. That's what they do, mistresses."
Guy lifted his right hand and turned the ignition key again. He'd heard that word again today in court.
"Did your stepfather," the defending counsel asked the girl witness, "ever refer to you as his mistress?"
"No," she said. She licked her lips. "He said, 'We're lovers, we are.' That's what he said. And then-" She paused.
"And then what, Carly?"
"He'd say, 'You're better than your mum.'"
"Better? In what way were you better?"
"At sex," the girl said clearly.
Guy reversed his car out of its parking space and drove slowly out into the one-way system of central Stanborough. There were few people about, but the roads were busy, streams of cars with their headlights on passing beneath the orange sodium lights.
He'd glanced very briefly at the jury when the girl said that. They'd started the day, as most fresh juries did, looking reasonably alert and capable and then, as the time wore on and the alleged facts of the case were spelled out in the baldest language imaginable, they had shrunk in their seats, their gazes fixing, their minds struggling to take in precisely what they were hearing.
"He liked it in the mornings before I went to school," the girl said. "When I had my uniform on. In the living room."
"In the living room?"
"Yes. With the door open."
"With the door open? While your mother and sister slept upstairs and the foot of the staircase was immediately opposite to the living-room door, he liked to have that door open?"
"Oh yes," she said, "he liked the idea that Mum might catch us. That's why he liked it in the bathroom and the kitchen."
A picture was emerging, a picture of an apparently commonplace three-bedroom terraced house on a housing project on the edge of Stanborough in which a family lived, an apparently equally commonplace modern family of a woman and a man and the woman's two child daughters by a previous husband, where nothing was in fact what it seemed.
"He never touched Heather," the girl said. She sounded almost proud. "She's younger than me, but he never touched her."
"Why," the defending counsel demanded, "did you let him touch you?"
She looked sulky, almost angry. "He conned me."
"He said, 'You want periods, don't you? If you have sex, your periods will come.' And they did. I wanted-I wanted boys to like me. He said they would, if I let him. But they don't."
The defending counsel leaned forward. He had a full, fleshy face and his manner was mildly abrasive.
"But you say he conned you."
"But if you knew you were being conned, why did you let him continue?"
There was a pause. The girl looked down. Perhaps she was twisting her hands but they were hidden below the bottom frame of the television screen.
"Carly," the barrister said, "did you hear my question?"
"I will repeat it. If you knew you were being conned, why did you let your stepfather continue?"
She whispered something.
"Carly, the court cannot hear you."
She took a breath and said tiredly but with a simultaneous small pride as if she was quoting something authoritative, "He was like a god to me."
A god. A forty-five-year-old man playing god to a besotted woman and her equally spellbound child. The terraced house, with its neat front garden and rather less neat back garden where the girls were allowed to keep pet rabbits in hutches, was, it seemed, less a family home than a cage for playing games in, improper, dangerous, degraded games, power games, cruel, harmful games. The jury had looked drained. Several of them looked as if, for all their worldly knowledge already gleaned from television and the press, they'd heard more than they'd bargained for, been faced with a raw reality they couldn't just switch off when they'd had enough. And this was only the first day.
But a god! That was what she had said, this fifteen-year-old child who had lived with her stepfather from the age of eight until a year ago, when she had finally told her mother what was happening. A god. You could, it seemed, go on about equality between the sexes until you were blue in the face, you could legislate, you could try to educate, but then along comes this child, this late-twentieth-century child, with her boldness and her unquestioned prospects, talking quite simply and unselfconsciously about a man being like a god to her.
Guy wondered, detachedly, if he had ever seemed like a god to Laura, even in that first glory of love when the love object is truly something quite extraordinary. They had met at university, he reading law, she reading French and Spanish. They had both worked diligently-she because she was conscientious, he because he was ambitious-and had emerged with similar degrees. He had gone immediately to Bar School and she had applied to join the Foreign Office, failed, and taken a translating job with a firm of small manufacturers who were developing their business in Europe. It was a dull job. Guy urged Laura not to take it.
"Try the BBC," he said. "Try the World Service. Try publishing. Try teaching."
"I can't," she said. "If one of us doesn't make some money, we can't get married."
"We can. We don't need money to get married. And if we do, I'll borrow it. I don't mind borrowing until I'm earning. But you can't do something your heart's not in."
"I can," she said. "I don't mind."
But she did. He remembered, now, how much she did. She didn't say anything because she had been brought up to endure in silence, but her attitude, her moods, even her walk indicated that she felt she was drudging, that she wasn't allowing her brain to race ahead of her, as his was doing.
"Are you resentful?" he asked, every so often.
And she'd look at him, with that clear hazel gaze that appeared to display such transparency of mind and heart.
"No," she said.
He used to take her shoulders, give her a little shake.
"Can I believe you?"
"Yes," she said.
So he did. Or, at least, he lived as if he did. He read as assiduously for the Bar as he had read for his law degree, and every so often he asked Laura to change her job. She refused. Once, he went to their bank manager and secured a loan for six months, to enable Laura to leave her job and take time to find a more congenial one. A week later, she too went to the bank manager and canceled the loan.
"I hate it. I can't do it. You know Mum and Dad were always in debt and how much I dread it."
"But we aren't like your parents. We don't have their problem with money. And I'm going to be earning. In two years' time, all being well, I'm going to be earning reasonably and I'll go on to earn well."
"I can't believe anything," Laura said, "until it happens."
That was not, he thought now, the sort of thing you said to a god. Laura's anxious practicality was not likely, ever, to find itself swept away by the presence of superhuman possibilities. Not as a young woman; certainly not now. Now! Well, how to think about that without a clutch of dread, of panic? Impossible. Laura was sixty-one. Not a particularly young or old sixty-one, but a nice-looking, well-kept, largely unassuming woman of sixty-one with the same clear hazel eyes but set, somehow, in a different context. Indeed, the way Laura's still-young eyes looked out of her much older face was a metaphor for the way things had changed place, moved round in the last seven years: since meeting Merrion, the whole landscape in which Laura lived in relation to Guy seemed different. It was like walking very, very slowly away from something you knew very well, something you could visualize minutely when you were parted from it, and as you moved away, that something shrank against its background and lost solidity, lost significance.
Guy cleared the last of Stanborough's raw, newish suburbs and turned down a minor road toward open country. The street lights petered out into darkness and the tires of the car began to click stickily through mud. Five miles now. Five miles, and then, across a curve in the road and before he got to the village, he would see the lights glowing along the façade of his house and the twisted bare black outlines of the apple trees in the little orchard in front of it.
They'd bought the house thirty years ago, when Simon was eight, and Alan was five. It had been three cottages, run-down and discouraging, sitting in a muddy welter of disused sheds and pigsties. But there was the orchard, and a modest hill behind it, and a village with a church and a pub, and there were good rail connections to London from Stanborough, ten miles away. And, in any case, Laura wanted it. She had finally given up her job when she became pregnant with Simon, and presumably because Guy was now earning, she didn't mention getting another one after he was born. She became a conscientious mother just as she had been a conscientious student. From the tiny terraced house in Battersea which they could scarcely afford, Laura took him out to Battersea Park every day, and played with him. She cut out letters and taught him to read when he was four. She fed him bread she had baked herself and rationed his hours of television-he saw enough to enable him to fit in at school, but not enough to prevent him using his own imagination.
When Alan came along, three years later, he joined in this earnest and busy enterprise.
"Is this what you like?" Guy said to Laura, intending to be supportive whatever her reply. "Is motherhood enough for you?"
"For now," she said, not looking at him. She was pulling a soft tangle of colored clothes out of the dryer. "There's nothing else we can do for now."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, with you working so hard."
He crouched down on the little kitchen floor beside her. He was still in his dark suit from court, his black shoes, his sober tie. "Laura, I have to work hard. I'm self-employed. Barristers are. You know that. The harder I work, the better I'll do."
She sat back on her heels, holding the plastic laundry basket of clothes on one hip. "Will it always be like this?"
"You working all the hours there are, most weekends, ring-binder files even in bed-"
"Not if I become a judge."
"I can't even think about it for fifteen or twenty years. But if that's what you'd like-"
She got to her feet. "It's not my choice."
"Laura, it is. It's as much your choice as it's mine."
She'd looked down at him, holding the laundry basket, biting slightly at her lower lip. "I didn't quite visualize this."
He stood, too. "What?"
"Well, when I was working and you were still a student, I didn't think we'd-well, we'd get so uneven."
"But we needn't be. You could go back to work. Alan's four, for heaven's sake."
She rumpled some of the clothes in the basket with her free hand.
"Could we move to the country?" she asked.
"Would that help?"
She gave him her clear, open look. "Yes."
Even then, even temporarily relieved by a seeming solution, he hadn't been quite convinced. If she wanted to do it, if she was sure that a change of scene and society would, as it were, round her out once more, then they would do it. But he was haunted by feeling that it was possibly the worst thing they could do, that the hours he would have to travel would be added to the hours he would have to work, that a separateness would happen, that their priorities would cease to be united.
"Are you sure?" he said over and over.
"Yes," she said, "I want to be somewhere where I can make my own life. I'm-I'm confined here. I want the boys to have a garden."
"You won't be lonely?"
She took a little breath, as if she was about to speak but she didn't say anything. He had an uneasy feeling that she'd been about to say, "I'm lonely now," and in her self-disciplined way had decided against it. Sometimes he wished she had less discipline, less reticence, that that elusiveness which had so captivated him when they first met-coming as he did from a family of loudly outspoken, opinionated people-was less opaque. Mystery was one thing, so was understatement and obliqueness and self-containment-but quiet stubbornness was quite another.
"Look," he'd said, with some energy, "I can't give up the Bar because it's all I'm trained to do and I'm good at it, but I'll do anything else you want, anything. Move house, move to the country, have another baby, anything."
She put her arms around his neck.
"I'd like to go to the country. I'd like to be somewhere where I'm visible. To myself as well as everyone else."
"But if you wanted to work again-?"
"I won't," she said.
But she had. Two years into the restoration of Hill Cottage, and she had.
Guy changed gear to negotiate the curve of the road before his drive, and saw the familiar pattern of lit house lights: sitting room and hallway, landing and main bedroom, front door and-glow only visible-back door. It was twenty years ago-twenty years!-that he had begun to see that Laura was feeling, however much she battled against it, that she had paid too high a personal price in marrying him.
And now. Now what was he about to do? He turned the car into the drive and felt the tires crunch into the stones of the gravel.
"I feel like a slut now," the girl on the video link had said that day. "I'm not a virgin anymore. I feel dirty. I feel naive and stupid."
Guy let the car coast quietly to a halt in the graveled yard outside the back door. Inside the house the dogs began barking, rapturously welcoming however long or short his absence. He turned off the engine. That's how I feel, he thought. Dirty. Naive and stupid and dirty. He opened the driver's door and climbed out, a little stiffly, onto the gravel.
—Reprinted from Marrying the Mistress by Joanna Trollope by permission of Viking Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Joanna Trollope. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
1. As Trollope portrays the dissolution of a marriage, she also explores the effects of that dissolution on the members of the families it affects. Discuss some of these effects, as well as the ways Guy and Merrion's respective family members cope with their relationship.
2. Three of Trollope's characters are mothers, yet each woman is markedly different. Discuss and compare Laura, Carrie, and Gwen's mothering styles. How has each, for better or worse, helped shape the lives and personalities of their children?
3. What do you think of Trollope's treatment of Laura? Do you think she is fairly drawn as a character? How do your feelings for her change over the course of the novel?
4. Compare the marriages of Guy and Laura, Simon and Carrie. What role does age and socio-economic background play in these relationships?
Likewise, compare the roles of the children of these marriages. How are Jack, Emma, and Rachel's relationships to their parents different from that of Simon and Alan?
5. Discuss Guy and Merrion's relationship. Do you think they were right in their decision not to get married? Does it anger you that their affair, which caused such turmoil in their families' lives, never ends in marriage? How large a role did the forbidden element of adultery play in their relationship? Was theirs a true love tragically thwarted by the constraints of society, or did they merely fill a void in each other's life?
6. Guy and Merrion's relationship begins to change after Jack seeks out his grandfather's help with his own romantic problems. Why is this such a pivotal event? What impact does Jack and Guy's new closeness have on Merrion?
7. Although theStockdale family is not large, it extends through three generations, and nearly a dozen people. By contrast, Merrion's family is small — just her and her mother. How does having a family help, and hinder, Guy?
8. Of all the many different kinds of family relationships portrayed in the novel, discuss which, if any, you identify with — and why.
9. How do you think Trollope chose the title of this novel? What sorts of images does the word "mistress" invoke? Does Merrion seem to you like a typical mistress? Why or why not? What sort of comment do you think Trollope might be making about infidelity and marriage?
10. Imagine that Marrying the Mistress was made the basis for a debate about family values. How would that debate play out? What arguments does the novel provoke? Do you think it supports the idea of family values, or calls it into question?
It is not an unusual story: A married man falls in love with another woman. He decides to end his marriage and start a new life with his mistress. This decision sends shock waves throughout his family, disrupting not only his life, but the lives of his children, their respective partners, and their children. What is unusual, perhaps, is the sensitive way Joanna Trollope's provocative novel examines the repercussions of such an affair on family members. Her portrait of the Stockdale family—its married and unmarried couples, the parents and their children, grandparents and grandchildren, sisters and brothers—reveals the wonderful and sometimes terrible ways people respond to one another in a crisis of the heart.
Before Guy and Merrion take the tumultuous step to be together, the Stockdale family resembles many middle- and upper-class families. A prominent judge with two grown sons, Guy is neither demonstrative nor neglectful as a husband and father. His wife, Laura, has dedicated herself to raising her children and making a comfortable home. Birthdays and anniversaries are remembered, gardens are tended, work gets done—and problems are tactfully swept under the rug. But some problems simply won't stay put. And as Guy's passion for Merrion grows, he realizes how unhappy he is in his marriage to Laura. This realization, and the steps he takes to address it, create a chain reaction of self-examination that exposes the considerable fault lines beneath the surface of nearly every relationship in the Stockdale family.
And they are relationships worth examining, not least because Trollope's characters are so richly drawn that their stories feel both unique and universal. By blending moments of intense emotion with intricately wrought scenes of domestic life, Trollope skillfully conveys the euphoria of new love through the eyes of both a sixty-year-old man and a sixteen-year old boy. She walks readers through the desolation of a not-quite-elderly-and certainly not grown-up-woman's broken heart as well as the haphazard and fragile days of a self-conscious adolescent girl. And somewhere in between we come to know Simon and Merrion, tentatively straddling the path between youth and middle age, painfully coming to terms with the doubts that arise when you realize that you're not going to have everything you want in life, and trying to figure out what is worth sacrificing and what is necessary for happiness.
An acute and observant chronicler of modern life, Trollope raises important questions about family and marriage, loyalty and responsibility. Should we root for Guy, who seems to have found happiness in a bright, energetic and lovely woman who happens to be younger than his own children? Should we sympathize with Laura who, though clearly demanding, self-involved, and possibly unlovable, is nonetheless forced to rebuild her life at a less than tender age? To whom does Simon owe his loyalty: his mother, who has always depended on him and now seems to need him more than ever; or his wife Carrie, whose own capable nature has made her both indispensable and invisible? And what about Merrion? Should the Stockdale children welcome her for the joy she brings to Guy's life? Or treat her like an interloper, for the havoc she has brought to theirs?
There are no easy answers, nor should there be. We may not agree with these characters' choices or actions, but we can empathize with the complexity of their predicaments because real life is messy—it doesn't matter if a home is as beautifully appointed as Laura's, with its country garden and embroidered cushions, or as cluttered and unkempt as Carrie's, with its dish-strewn kitchen and creaky pipes. The messiness comes from caring for other people—whether or not the object of that devotion is socially acceptable; whether or not the object of that devotion wants to be desired.
The shock waves that emanate from Guy and Merrion's relationship tempt us to carry the earthquake analogy one step further: After the tremors have subsided, leaving those buildings with strong foundations still standing while weaker ones have crumbled, it is time to assess the damage; to demolish what can't be saved and reinforce what remains. It is an opportunity to rebuild for the future, and to be stronger than ever.
ABOUT JOANNA TROLLOPE
Joanna Trollope, a descendant of Anthony Trollope and a #1 best-selling author in England, is most recently the author of The Best of Friends and A Spanish Lover. Her novels, The Choir and The Rector's Wife, were both adapted for Masterpiece Theatre. She is the 1999 writer-in-residence for Victoria Magazineand lives in Gloucestershire, England.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA TROLLOPE
What inspired your decision to write about an illicit affair between and married man and his mistress?
I was interested in how the dynamics change when the unorthodox or forbidden relationship becomes orthodox. A mistress has a very exclusive hold on the person who is her lover, and the secrecy of the relationship can be very important. People in this situation sometimes want the secret relationship to become acknowledged and visible, without then being able to take on the consequences of that visibility.
I have a friend or two who are almost professional mistresses. Women would never call themselves by that name because it sounds so "Mayfair madam." We need a new word for them, but there are as many of them as ever and a lot of men still operate on this extraordinary basis without much of a qualm.
Your portrait of Laura, Guy's wife, is rather harsh, if not unforgiving. Why do you think that is?
All people abandoned and caused pain are to be pitied, but I also wanted to show that sometimes if women become the victims in their lives, they have jolly well colluded with it. There are an enormous number of women of my generation who have never worked and who are quite—defiant—I would say. No one should belittle how hard it is to keep house and bring up a family. But what you must never say is that it is a sacrifice. Laura has used it as an excuse and she is quite manipulative.
Having written many novels about families and marriages in which the central characters are women, you've focused on the male perspective in this one. What sorts of challenges did you encounter writing from a male point of view? Did you learn anything about men—or women—in the process?
What I wanted to do was startle my readership, get away from the now routine assumption of the abused female victim. Women, you know, can so easily collude with the victim's view of themselves, almost encourage it in fact. Right through their marriage Laura had always told Guy that she wasn't really good enough for him, but, nonetheless, left him with the feeling that he'd got something fundamentally wrong, that he still owed her something. Yes, you could say that she was determinedly unfulfilled. In the age we live in, the stereotype is that of the insensitive man who, while his wife is pouring her heart out to him, will suddenly say, "Hang on a minute, it's time for 'Match of the Day.' Well, in this book, it's the men sitting on the kitchen floor saying to the woman, "Tell me what it is you want," and the woman replying, "If you don't know, I can't tell you." I wanted to push the reader beyond the "bad man, good woman" stereotype and show how destructive quite, selfish little women can be.
Do you, like many others, think that the institution of marriage is in some sort of crisis? If so, why do you think that is—and what, if anything, should be done about it?
Modern marriage is amazingly long. There's a scene in the book where Laura's friend Wendy asks her, "If you'd known that you were still going to be with the same man after 40 years, could you have faced your wedding day?" The post-war improvements in health mean we are all living so much longer, but it's a lot to ask of people to keep living together decade after decade.
You have a wonderful knack for portraying the mundane details of middle-class English life, which is particularly evident in the scenes that take place in Simon and Carrie's household. Clearly this is not your own background. How did you develop your sense of detail and empathy for these characters whose lives are so different from your own?
I do write about the middle class because that is what I know. Practically everybody is middle class nowadays anyway. Everything that has happened to me infuses my writing—it's called experience. And, like all human beings, the significant choices and sacrifices are those made relating to other people, to relationships.
Your books have been hailed for their psychological perceptions. One reviewer called you "the therapist you wish you had." Is helping readers deal with their own dilemmas one of your goals?
I have lovely times at signings when people come up to me as if I have a magic elixir in my pocket that will solve their problems. It's wonderful to feel as if you've succeeded in touching someone.
Surprisingly enough, Marrying the Mistress ends with no marriage at all. Do your novels change direction as you write them, or are they clearly plotted from the beginning?
I know my characters, the beginning, and the end of a book very well. But I give the characters an organic chance to develop in arbitrary and capricious ways.
Joanna Trollope is best known as the author of sparkling novels centered around domestic nuances and dilemmas of life in contemporary England. She was born in Gloucestshire and still lives there.
Posted October 14, 2014
This book was sooo good. I could hardly wait to get home from work and continue reading. It saddened me at the end. Great read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 1, 2007
Besides being well-written, this book told a story that rings true about the complex relationships that involve a married man, his jilted wife, his grown children, his grandchildren and the uncomfortable place his girlfriend occupies in these chaotic family entanglements.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2003
Posted July 20, 2003
Posted December 9, 2008
Resident Judge Guy Stockdale decides to end his relationship with his wife Laura after four decades of marriage. The sixtyish Guy plans to wed his mistress of seven years Merrion, who happens to be about thirty years junior to the Judge and is even younger than his children. <P>Obviously his wife is stunned by his announcement. However, it is his sons and their wives and his grandchildren who react by what they perceive is the family patriarch¿s callous action of thinking with the wrong body part. One particular son, Simon, finds himself being pulled in several conflicting directions. He does not know whether to emotionally support his mother or his father, but realizes he has no option but to help both of them. His wife wants him to do neither as she does not want to ¿fund¿ her in-law¿s folly. Worse yet, Simon and his children find the former mistress turned fiancee charming to the point Simon would not mind filling his father¿s shoes. The aftermath of Guy¿s proclamation is just starting to evolve and the impact it makes on his close circle of relatives is just beginning to emerge. <P>Joanna Trollope is known for her deep thinking look at middle class England. Her latest novel carries the author¿s trademark of complex problems encircled by conflicting emotions swirling about real people. What makes this tale work is the fact that Merrion is not a gold digger, but is a spirited nice person and the fact that Ms. Trollope does not provide gift-wrapped solutions with a bow on top. Anyone who enjoys a poignant relationship drama by one of the sub-genre¿s best will want to read MARRYING THE MISTRESS. <P>Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 17, 2008
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