In a fascinating chapter of her book To the River, Olivia Laing reflects on two literary marriages:
"John Bayley and Iris Murdoch were married for 43 years, until her death in 1999, and for most of that time they lived in a sprawling and quite spectacularly filthy house near Oxford, where with a grand disregard for health and safety John dug a swimming pool in the greenhouse and heated it by dangling an electric radiator by its flex."
In the latter years of Murdoch's life, when her mind was ravaged by Alzheimer's, she took to "collecting pebbles and scraps of silver foil and asking again and again When are we going? The house -- a different house by now -- is filled in addition to its usual chaos with odd objects she's gathered on her excursions: dried worms, twigs, bits of dirt; the indiscriminate final mutation of a lifetime fondness for inanimate objects....
"This marriage, in which a clever and kindly man takes care of his more brilliant wife, bears a distinct resemblance to that of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who also lived rather sluttily. Virginia, Leonard once wrote, was a ferocious creator of what he called filth-packets: 'those pockets of old nibs, bits of string, used matches, rusty paper-clips, crumpled envelopes, broken cigarette-holders, etc., which accumulate malignantly on some people's tables and mantlepieces,' while Leonard himself had a marmoset call Mitz that regularly relieved herself down his back.
"Grubbiness aside, the resemblance goes deeper than the superficial similarity of trajectory, for all marriages must end in bereavement of some kind. Instead, it's something about the mechanics of the two relationships, for they each resemble delicate instruments that rely on careful weighing and judicious use of space. Both women were pulled in opposing directions throughout their lives: inward, toward the intense, almost febrile life of the mind; and outward, towards a melange of external love affairs and passions. Despite this both felt their husbands to be the steady centre of their lives, something I think [Martin] Amis had in mind when he wrote that Iris settled, in all senses of the word, for Bayley.
"These two couples nurtured a kind of fertile separateness, a solitude à deux that seems totally at odds with our modern concept of marriage. It is striking how frequently Virginia Woolf and John Bayley in particular write of the pleasure of writing alone in a room, knowing that somewhere else in the house, in their own private sphere, their spouse is also happily at work."
I love the term solitude à deux. I find it deeply pleasurable, too, to be working in the blessed solitude of my studio while music drifts from Howard's cabin, which is just over the hedge from mine. As Rainer Maria Rilke famously wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet (1929):
"The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky."
If you're interested in literary/artistic marriages and partnerships in all their permutations, I recommend Significant Others, an anthology of essays on the subject edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron.
Images above: Books by Iris, the Dame hrself, and two photos of Iris & John at home in Oxfordshire (the first one by Eamonn McCabe). Virginia & Leonard with their dog Pinka in their Tavistock Square house in London (which was destroyed during the Blitz); Virginia's writing shed in the garden of Monk's House (their country place in Sussex); roses in the garden at Monk's House; the first book published by Leonard & Virginia's Hogarth Press; and Leonard & Virginia's earlier London home (where the Hogarth Press began). The last two photos of are Howard's "Little Cabin by the Woods" (his office and theatre/music/puppetry rehearsal space) and my studio next door, reached through an opening in the hedge between them. Solitude à deux.