I have before me three novels about adultery, taken from my bookshelves:
They are Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head, published in 1961; John Braine's Life at the Top, published in 1962; and Guy Bellamy's The Secret Lemonade Drinker, published in 1977. One woman author and two men. Two of these novels were published just before The Permissive Society came into being; one when it had firmly taken hold.
The chief protagonist in Iris Murdoch's novel, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, is a sophisticated and Oxbridge-educated forty-something London wine merchant, who inherited the business from his father. He dabbles in military history-writing. He has a glitteringly successful (but childless) marriage to an older wife. He is very comfortable with her. They share a consciously civilised life, and deeply care for each other. That caring does not stop him having a young mistress, a university don of bohemian ways, whom he can indulge with ridiculously gaudy presents that he could not possibly buy for his wife. The story is all about relationships, overt and hidden, between well-educated, talented persons at the top of their game, all of whom have enough money to do whatever they like. Self-development and personal growth is the theme. It is also a study in how power and initiative can shift from person to person. At the end truth and honesty prevail, and everyone pairs off differently. The future looks challenging, interesting, hopeful, but not necessarily successful. The atmosphere of the book has been called 'Jacobean'. I wouldn't say it's as dark as that. But there's plenty of London fog before the sky clears.
John Braine's chief protagonist, late-thirties Joe Lampton, is a Northern grammar-school lad made good, chiefly because he married the boss's daughter. Married her because he got her pregnant. He is never allowed to forget that he has achieved his position the 'easy' way, and has not worked his way up through hard graft. This takes the shine off his otherwise sleek, comfortable and privileged life. But he puts up with his father-in-law's disrespect because he dearly loves his little daughter. Nevertheless, Joe Lampton's world is hemmed in by keeping up appearances, and leading a respectable life beyond public reproach. In his part of the world, tongues will wag if there is any slip. Such is the atmosphere in his stuffy, pretentious suburb. He longs to break out, and he gets the chance, but is haunted by unfinished affairs from the past and his father-in-law's scornful control. The novel is a sequel to an earlier one that chronicled his rise to success - a story that included the suicide of an older married woman. He is himself now older, has had ten financially rewarding but humdrum years at the top of the steel-making business, and his marriage is tired. They bicker constantly. Only physical lust seems to be left. The story is a tale of escape, of the importance of children, of understanding what really matters, and finally making a fresh start with the original partner.
Guy Bellamy's book is a lighter affair. Whereas the other two were, in their different ways, a 'serious read', his fast-paced and decidedly more salacious book is easier to absorb. The characterisation is of course less profound, but for all that the chief protagonist, Bobby Booth, is engaging enough. He was once an inspirational teacher, very good with kids, but had to give up his profession for better-paid work. He has become a launderette manager, working under the wing of a wealthy friend who is constantly thinking up money-making schemes. Bobby regrets leaving teaching. His present work is utterly routine and boring, even if the money is useful. It was needed so that he could set up home with an apparently wonderful girl who walked into his life just as he was turning thirty, and his carefree lifestyle of easy but loveless lays had suddenly come to a shuddering halt. It seemed like a fairy-tale. But as the book begins, that marriage is not going so well either. One badly wants children, one doesn't. The unfolding story has Bobby's life turned upside down by the revelation of certain truths, a callously-contrived murder, and the unexpected arrival of a third party.
For me Iris Murdoch's 1961 novel was seminal. When I first read it at age seventeen, in 1969, it was still a recently-written book. It had relevance to the times. It seemed to be nothing less than a handbook on How Adults Behaved. I had suspected that grown-ups didn't play by The Rules, and this book confirmed it. I certainly modelled myself on its characters, and regarded it as an authority on what I should expect once I left school. (I was disappointed: people were not nearly so sophisticated)
I first read John Braine's novel much later, in the late 1970s, when I was twenty-six or twenty seven. By then I was starting to feel internal pressure to find someone at all costs - despite observing work colleagues pairing off and coming unstuck. The book was a timely warning about marrying for material benefit alone. It also gave me an insight into what it might be like to have children. And although the book portrayed children as magical beings to die for, somehow that made me feel I could never be parent enough to be worthy of any child. So it was influential in my avoiding making babies.
It was 1980 or so, when I was nearly thirty, that a girl friend lent me her copy of Guy Bellamy's book. It only took a weekend to finish. But it alerted me to the possibility that at any moment Someone New And Unexpected could come into one's life, out of the blue, and make a huge difference. I still believe in that. The only thing now is that they would most likely get a polite brush-off. I feel twenty years too late to start an affair. It's absolutely not going to happen.
So much for fictional adultery, and stories weaved around it. I rather think there is hardly a real person on the planet who, while in a relationship, has not considered their position and had the notion, fleetingly or otherwise, that Somebody Else They Know would have made a more suitable life-partner. But actually stealing someone away, and being a willing party to a deliberate and heartless betrayal? To flaunt the misdeed, and be heedless to the hurt caused? Surely that takes a high degree of lust, passion and selfishness. Even ruthlessness. Clearly many people do possess that combination. It's entirely the sort of thing weak, frail ordinary human beings will get up to. (And not just politicians)
I won't condemn people for being ordinary human beings. Nobody can escape the darker sides of being human, and I'm not one to moralise with a Book of Rules in my hand. But if it leads to the destruction of a happy family, as it's bound to, then in my view they do deserve some negative feedback. But I would regard an honest analysis of the mistake, the learning of a lesson, and finding a way to move forward with a fresh heart, as much better things than punishment.
I am of course somewhat unqualified to discuss modern adultery. I avoid forming relationships. I do not have affairs. I feel no internal urging to make me throw myself at somebody else - and present them with a conflict of loyalties. Nothing at all of that lust and passion just mentioned. A vanishingly low libido means that I am very comfortable with a life without sex. And celibacy is a valid mode of living, not a failing. It frees your energies up for other things.
Of course, other people might still see me as a potential threat. It won't be from anything I've said or done: for them, my simple existence as an unattached woman will be enough. Any woman in my position is likely to be treated with a certain degree of wariness, as if we have secret designs, as if we might be predatory. I'm just hoping that my age and lack of sex-drive are very obvious things. I want them to blunt the fears of any insecure spouses I may encounter. I would be dismayed to be seriously thought a potential adulteress and home-wrecker.