For some reason the opening lines of Jane Austen’s Emma came to mind when I was reading Sally Rooney’s latest book, Beautiful World Where Are You? Superficially, Emma Woodhouse and Rooney’s character, Alice Kelliher, are as different as the societies that shaped them. However, Alice somehow brought Austen’s introduction of her eponymous heroine, ‘handsome, clever and rich’, into my mind. Alice’s wealth, of course, is all earned by herself while Emma’s is inherited. Alice’s cleverness is schooled towards engagement with the world’s big questions while Emma’s is honed by observation and life lessons within the narrow social circle that defines the bounds of her world, her interests and her curiosity.
Emma and Alice are both single women as their stories begin. Both tend to be opinionated and cutting if provoked. Both of them have female confidantes who regard them with a mixture of envy and awe. The readers of both their stories know from the onset that the plot will hinge around the men who will, by story’s end, one way or another, redefine their emotional lives. But the differences between the paths their respective stories are set to follow are as sharply differentiated as a peaceful, country lane from a chaotic multi-laned highway.
For both protagonists, we guess the course of true love is unlikely to run smoothly. In fiction this is invariably the case because otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a plot. There is however one essential difference between the expectations of both characters as well as the readers. The course of Emma’s love will almost certainly follow a socially predetermined path. Whatever detours, delays or misunderstandings arise along the way, the reader can realistically hope she will eventually find love and security within the institution of marriage. For Alice there are no such expectations. Anything can happen and marriage is not a particularly likely outcome at all.
For both Alice and her creator, marriage is a failed institution, outdated as the bonnets and parasols of Regency England. Despite the angst of negotiating a relationship in the postmodern, moral wilderness, neither Sally nor Alice give serious consideration to the thought that there might be something to be said for the family structure that has provided the bedrock of our civilisation for millennia.
Beautiful World Where Are You? nevertheless carries a sense that these questions are forming themselves at the edge of the text. When Alice speaks of the ‘formlessness’ of life, the sense that our civilisation is falling apart, the feeling of ‘standing in the last lighted room before the darkness’ she is tacitly acknowledging that life in a post faith society is by no means an improvement on what it displaced. Many things weigh on her and they keep cropping up throughout the book. Chief among them are climate change, covid and the manic consumerism that oppresses the masses and favours elites. The book was written before the horror of the war in Ukraine, an even greater self-inflicted human calamity, which would have further deepened the gloom that envelops Alice. Humanity, however, has always lived with dark things, even more starkly and immediately present than the ills of today, without succumbing to utter despondency.
It is not clear how much Rooney’s characters realise that their anxiety and restlessness is rooted most of all in the realm of the personal. If human beings don’t thrive in the intimate spaces of relationships they won’t thrive at all, no matter how well ordered a universe they inhabit. If they thrive in the personal realm they will find the resilience and self-belief to hope in dark times. If personal life is blighted, no achievement, success or even public acclaim will make a difference either. Rooney’s Alice finds literary fame and fortune not alone hollow but spirit sapping. There is no ‘beautiful world’ at the end of her striving. Her emotional fragility in the pursuit of a nebulous notion of ‘love’ in a world where there are no norms, no givens, no assurances continues to undermine her sense of self. She tells her confidante Eileen, she is ‘frightened of being hurt…..’ In a striking admission of the normalisation of transience in romantic relationships, she adds, ‘ … not of the suffering which I know I can handle, but the indignity of being open to it’.
It is very clear that the separation of sex from commitment in western culture hurts women. It is equally clear that freewheeling sexual permissiveness promotes the ‘toxic masculinity’ which the culture refuses to see as it own creation. The unmooring of sex from loving, responsible, committed and exclusive relationship in the sexual revolution of the 1960s was the beginning of a chain of unmoorings that unhinged marriage from procreation, marriage from gender, gender from sex, families from genetic ties and finally sex itself from procreation. Sex is no longer in any sense a consummation. It is more usually a precursor to what might or might not become an on off hook up, which might or might not progress to the status of ‘seeing each other’, which might or might not move to the stage of becoming partners, boyfriends or girlfriends. This progress is still some distance from anything resembling marital commitment as it was traditionally understood.
Rooney’s female characters wonder why modern therapeutic solutions offer nothing for ‘stress’, apart from advice on how to manage it. Those who have discarded, however equivocally, a belief in transcendent happiness have turned to believe in its earthly possibility instead. There is no acceptance that struggle and sacrifice, love and joy are inextricably meshed together in the human story. Rooney’s assertion that all marriages ultimately fail in some way implies that failure means putting up with the weaknesses of others as they put up with ours, forgiving them as they forgive us and consciously and sometimes painstakingly nurturing the links that brought the relationship into being in the first place.
Marriage as a civil and religious institution, as defined by Christ, is foundational to family, community and society at large. Historically, both Church and state materially and spiritually affirmed and supported the relationship that embraced its norms. Marriage is no longer that cherished social institution. Secular society and the state no longer attach any special value or significance to it. Its downgrading has not eliminated the effort required to make relationships work. On the contrary, it has made that effort a much harder task. Couples are entirely alone with no road map, apart from the code of consent, as they negotiate the awkward corners, pitfalls and snares of living without rules.
Our culture has been throwing away the rule book on many other fronts too over the last century. As Douglas Murray pointed out in his insightful book, The Strange Death of Europe, the rules and disciplines that underpinned all art forms, literature, painting, music, sculpture and architecture have been discarded in favour of a free flowing style open to idiosyncrasy and experimentation, where function, whether that is ideological messaging, emotional release or mere convenience, trumps aesthetics and form. Murray finds this abandonment of form has not led to more vibrant, authentic expression but to incoherence, vulgarity and ugliness.
Defenders of the rules and conventions, whether of artistic composition or musical harmony, from Samuel Coleridge in the 19th century to Murray in the 21st have something in common with those who affirm ‘the laws of the Lord’ from the psalmists of ancient times to orthodox theologians of today. Discipline gives direction and form to our relationships as well as our work. The restraints of discipline are empowering in both life and art. Through discipline we gain a higher freedom, a freedom akin to the fluency of accomplished performers’ mastery of their instruments, or the strides of a well trained athlete.
Two to three thousand years ago, the psalmist wrote how ‘happy, indeed is the man, who follows not the counsel of the wicked…… whose delight is the law of the Lord and who ponders his law day and night. He is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season.’
Our unchanging human condition notwithstanding, post faith culture has swerved far from what ancient texts identified as the laws of our being, the laws through which we flourish personally and as societies. Jesus, of whom Alice says “Everything about his life moves me. He seems to embody a kind of moral beauty and my admiration for that beauty even makes me want to say that “I love him”;’ affirmed and even exceeded those laws by demanding we conform our hearts as well as our actions to them.
The questions Alice and her confidante, Eileen, ask have been asked since the dawn of human civilization. Both reject the Christian faith and its answers but yet cannot break away from them entirely. Eileen wonders if her life would have been better if she had ‘done the Christian thing’, married and settled down to family life instead of opting into the hedonism of the age. The age old questions are endlessly tossed about but the time-honoured answers are only superficially considered.
Many of Rooney’s characters’ religious and moral instincts are, surprisingly perhaps, very finely tuned. Alice marvels at how easy it seems to be forgiven in the Gospel like the woman who wept at the feet of Jesus before adding, ‘maybe (it’s) not easy? Maybe genuine sincerity is the hardest thing we could ever do?’ She says there is a ‘hard little kernel’ within her own being that would make it impossible for her to ‘prostrate herself before God, even if I believed’. She intuites that sin cuts deep into every soul, asking ‘what if it’s not only a small number of evil people who are out there waiting for their bad deeds to be exposed? What if it’s all of us?’ St Paul had already answered the question. It is indeed ‘all of us’. ‘ All have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God’ ( Romans 3:23). Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that the line between good and evil cuts through every heart. His words carry the fullest understanding of the parable of the wheat and tares. The entanglement of good and evil is not only external in the world but internal too within the heart of every man and woman.
Conscience is even harder to eradicate than faith for Rooney’s female characters. Clearly, this is problematic. Again with rather surprising emotional honesty, Alice asks, ‘When we say some things are right and others wrong, to what standard are we appealing?’ She rightly concludes that ‘to believe in absolute norms of right and wrong is to believe in God’. With quite amazing theological acuity, she goes on to say ‘she feels she can’t serve God by doing right, yet the idea of doing wrong disgusts me’. Without humble repentance and the grace of forgiveness, ‘doing right’ is hollowed out of the love and purity that make it authentic.
Rooney has been described as ‘the voice of her generation’. She can be more accurately described as the voice of both her own gender and generation. The first person voices in her book are those of the two female characters. We never get to hear very much of the inner lives of the men in their lives but we hear enough to know that sex without love is something they can emotionally adjust to more easily as they become coarsened by online pornography, dating sites, sexual incontinence and substance abuse. Her book makes it clear that women are the real losers, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. In an era that has cancelled words like ‘promiscuous’ and ‘dissolute’ as unacceptably denigrating and ‘shaming’ they no longer have the moral language to interrogate the way of living their society presents to them. It appears to be a violation of new norms of equality to say that women and men have different emotional needs and expectations in relationships. The poet, Lord Byron, not noted for his virtue, once wrote that ‘love in a man’s life is a thing apart; it’s woman’s whole existence’. Alice’s statement, ‘ I’m writing about love and sex. What else is there ?’ makes much the same point. Byron’s formulation leaves him open to charges of sexism and no doubt his statement would raise feminist hackles today, but both Alice and Eileen illustrate its truth in the contrast between them and the men they have sex with.
Alice and Eileen both have mental health issues but don’t find the cause of their angst and anxiety within the ordering of their personal lives. They tend to project it outwards as a consequence of what they perceive as the ultimate futility of everything in the universe. ‘Humanity is on the cusp of extinction’, Alice says. For her, love and sex seem the only things with some sort of foothold, as civilisations rise and fall through history, as everything learned is forgotten and then re-learned only to be again forgotten. It is a nihilistic view that ignores the dynamic continuity of generations, transmitting what they value to their children down the decades and centuries, always looking ahead as new life takes its first faltering steps under their watch. Yet, the family, as it was always understood, is the thing that for now at least ‘appears to be ‘on the cusp of extinction’. The lack of an overarching faith narrative to support marriage and family is the largely unidentified root problem. One might ask if Alice’s life would be really better if she did not feel humanity as a whole was ‘on the cusp of extinction’? What difference should that make to someone whose stated position is that ‘life is random, nothing matters, feelings are reducible to chemical reactions’.
Rooney’s book shows the dichotomy between the needs of the heart and the tenets of contemporary culture, between the mores and beliefs of a discarded but not forgotten way and the trackless moral wasteland that has taken its place but failed to fill it. Like all novels about love, there is a sort of happy ever after vista of sorts that is revealed by way of two final emails between Alice and Eileen. It is more an epilogue than an organic conclusion such as we get in a Jane Austen novel. Jane Austen’s heroines follow a path already mapped by social mores and the trajectory of their social and romantic interactions. There is a natural progression. After marriage, there will be children or the expectation of children, to continue family lines and secure inheritance but also to build a future based on the more important legacy of ideals of community and country as well as family.
When Rooney’s Eileen, settled now with a former on-off lover, becomes pregnant her partner first asks her if she wants ‘to keep it’ -she does- before expressing his happiness at the news. At this point, the point of parenthood, the balance of power shifts in our world. The woman is now in control. An expectant father has no parental rights. Questions about equality do not arise here for if they did it would acknowledge the no less equal claims of a third party, the child in the womb.
The social world has changed a lot between the ages of Jane Austen and Sally Rooney. In Austen’s day nearly everything was ‘a given’. Acquaintance came before courtship, courtship before marriage, marriage before children. Life had familiar rhythms and measures. Nowadays, very lttle can be described as ‘a given’. Ironically though, even as moral and social norms collapse, civil law is hardening and expanding, encroaching more and more into the personal lives of citizens, even to the point of policing opinions.
In a scene from Robert Bolt’s, A Man For All Seasons, a play about the life of St Thomas More, More speaks of the protection the laws of the land offer its subjects. Even though he is speaking about ‘mans’ laws, not God’s’, he nevertheless asks ‘who could stand upright in the winds that would blow’ if they (the laws) were ‘cut down’? Maybe it is because we have abandoned God’s laws, the norms of faith, that underpinned our social order for so many centuries that the state’s laws are now taking such a controlling and ever extending role in the private lives of its citizens? The fundamental laws of our nature which humankind from the beginning was capable of intuiting, which humankind has pondered and refined in the light of faith for centuries, that offered us a sort of user manual for our personal lives are now being abandoned. In their absence, the social ordering of the state is no more than damage limitation. It can never keep up because rescuing those who keep getting lost or waylaid in the moral wasteland is necessarily an endless task. While the way of truth and life has its challenges, its ups and downs, those who walk in it follow clear signposts and they carry the hope and promise of a destination ahead.
Rooney’s writing is fresh and well paced and has a literary feel that sets her above other authors of her genre. However, the sexual scenes are in a different voice, one that draws from the cliched stock of soft porn. She has said she did not enjoy writing these scenes. It shows. They are physically explicit but devoid of emotional nuance. There is none of the warmth and confiding intimacy that characterises communication between the two female friends. There is nevertheless a disconnect here too as the confiding intimacy is largely confined to email exchanges. They use each other as soundboards and emotional valves. This is of course consistent with the spiritual and moral isolation of the individual in a culture that sees the abandonment of norms as empowerment and freedom.
- Author : Sally Rooney
- Publisher : Faber & Faber; Main edition (7 Jun. 2022)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0571365442
- ISBN-13 : 978-0571365449
- Dimensions : 12.9 x 2.1 x 19.8 cm
Photo Credit: Chris Boland : www.chrisboland.com