I've been invited again to ponder the issue of marriage and class. Like writing about chastity, this is not my most favouritest thing in the world.
I grew up ignorant of any kind of class system, except the one in British books. I went to the local Catholic school, where we discussed what we ate at home, but never what our parents did. Nobody seemed to be rich, and nobody seemed to be poor. So the strict hierarchy of British novels confused me.
"What class are we?" I asked my mother.
"This is Canada. We don't have a class system."
"In Britain there's a class system."
"Your father is an intellectual," said my mother. "We're exempt from the class system."
I found this marvellously cheering.
"What class are we?" I asked my British husband, who almost had a heart attack. Class is no longer as rigid here as it is in, say, India, but it still is an incredibly difficult, thorny issue, easily causing bad feelings all around.
"You have a foreign accent, and therefore you are exempt from the class system," said B.A. "You should be thankful."
However, I niggled at him until he came up with an answer, which I'm not going to share because it would be a social solecism. Anyway, we don't believe in class. We believe in values.
It is a smart idea to fall in love only with someone who shares your values, especially those values shared by your family. If a liberal arts education is one of the most important ones, you probably shouldn't marry the suitor who reads nothing but The Sun. (I once recoiled in horror from the story of a man, who, retrieving a book his baby son had thrown from a crib, said "That's right! Wait till the movie comes out, just like your old man.") If you and your family hate consumer debt, you definitely shouldn't marry someone who believes in shopping on the credit card until the man at the counter cuts it in two.
The four things that married people fight most about are money, sex, housework and religion. I suppose money is where class might come in, although I worry about false stereotypes. For example, one might think the middle-class are canny savers and that the working-class is drowning in debt, but in my experience, it is usually the other way around. Dozens of my university friends have student debts; I bet my hairdresser doesn't.
There are stereotypes about housework, too, and they change from country to country. Rich people may assume that the poor are dirty, but as a matter of fact the working poor of 20th century Britain were so obsessed with cleanliness that Muriel Spark wrote a satirical story about it.
But I suspect many marriages fail not because of the Big Four but of a hundred thousand tiny pin-pricks of annoyance. For example, because my parents leave coffee cups and books all over their house, I find a cup-and-book clutter very comforting and homey. My husband, however, hates it. It makes him depressed to find unwashed coffee cups in odd places and books strewn about. He also dislikes when I stick a sybaritic finger into the sauce on my plate, but he lost that argument when I saw X, grandson of the Y of Z lick up the last of the tea from his saucer. There's no point telling me that what is okay for X, grandson of the Y of Z is not okay for me, for I am Canadian and don't believe it.
After thinking very hard, I can't come up with any personal habit of my husband's that annoys me. I would be annoyed if he used bad words in front of me, but he doesn't. According to one of his friends, he treats me like fine Dresden china. That had not occured to me, but if that is so, I am grateful, for I would hate to be treated like anything else.
Oh dear. I'm straying from class again. One reader wants me very much to agree that it is a disaster for a privately educated woman to marry a tradesman, or for a British Prime Minister to marry a plump tea lady, but I can't. It depends on which privately educated woman. It depends on which tradesman. It depends on which Prime Minister. It depends on which plump tea lady. My head is beginning to pound.
I just can't believe that there really is something solid and unchanging and hiearchical about class. Simone Weil gave lectures in philosophy to French workers; they could brag of having been taught by Simone Weil. One of the most interesting men I know is a retired postie. The idiots who tried to firebomb Glasgow airport were doctors. The man who personifies Scottish contempt for terrorists was a baggage-handler. One of the Historical House gardeners collects first editions. My delightful friend A, the granddaughter of the B of C, never went to university.
And what occurs to me, once again, is Bernard Lonergan's dictum that "Only the Concrete is Good." We cannot judge people according to rough, imprecise categories like "class". We can judge only each man or woman as we find him or her.
This is not to say that rich men and women do not have to guard against grifters and gold-diggers. Conmen and gold-diggers have always targeted the rich, but these conmen and gold-diggers include the (formerly) rich. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, English aristocrats married one heck of a lot of rich American heiresses for their money. And even now women of all incomes have to watch out for the man who just wants to laze around, working now and again as it pleases him.
And this is not to say that men and women who have grown up thinking all wealthy people act like footballers and their wives might not be nervous when they first sat down to an ordinary, old-fashioned wealthy family's dinner table. And unless they had actually read studies about ordinary millionaires, they might assume millionaires always buy flashy cars and sprawling homes. Someone who belongs to a family that has been on welfare for generations may indeed feel very uncomfortable away from the housing estate. Someone who has never been taught the value of books will feel rather left out at a dinner party of people chatting about books.
But I firmly believe we can only justly judge a man or woman on his or her own behaviour. And the only kind of "marrying up" I believe in is when you marry a man or woman who loves you better than the last man or woman you married, and "marrying down" is when you marry a man or woman who treats you worse.
Off to find the ibuprophen for my headache. But I have just put myself through a mental test, and the answer cheered me greatly: Would I be happy if my daughter (if I had one) married a boy from the nearby housing estate? And my first answer was, "Depends on the boy."
I once dated a man who came from a Canadian housing estate; now he's fluent in three languages and hold a Chair in Political Science.