One brilliant account of the Catholic novelist’s life published to wide acclaim last year catalogued, among many other things, those wanderings. But the biography by Richard Greene (no relation) missed out on the story of how Vivienne took the news of her husband’s betrayal: by putting her engagement ring into the collection plate at Mass and then remaining married to him for the next sixty years.
So much in that story now stands athwart our times.
In fact, after I tweeted about it a dear (lady) friend who never criticises even my most asinine thrusts into the Twittersphere responded (coolly and publicly): “I’d have had quite a different reaction. Just saying.”
The idea of holding to a vow, whatever the provocation, is so utterly un-zeitgeist. Many people will say “Amen!” to that. But it struck me as a gesture of such profound difference that I think it worthy of a little more reflection.
For one thing, it reminds us of the moribund notion of a dignified protest that requires no audience, save He Who Knows All Things. So many demonstrations of anger from those who feel themselves wronged are now performative. Consider recent attempts by Extinction Rebellion activists to smash bank windows in London on behalf of the environment.
Every chisel-stroke, no matter how unconvincing, was filmed and uploaded. As evidence of what? Had the banks broken sacred trust with the environment? In the eyes of the agitators they had. But it was a form of retribution that was as ostentatious as it was subjective.
For another thing, Vivienne Greene’s actions in church that day represented a repudiation of martyrdom. For many non-Catholics that might sound odd. After all, it was her husband struggling to constrain his libido, not her. Her husband who couldn’t stay the course, not her.
We live in an era of choice, unfettered by promises which turn out to be really quite conditional and not very binding at all.
But by morally downgrading her marriage – without ending it – she both stayed true to the vows she swore on her wedding day, while declining to wallow in victimhood. Because there is something, counter-intuitively sassy about her actions.
Why should she give up on an eternally binding promise because her husband felt fit to ignore his? Why must she suffer the rending of the fabric of her life, with all the financial and social sacrifice that divorce or separation entails, because of his iniquity?
Her vows were not just before God, but to Him. Graham Greene had promised – and failed – to ‘forsake all others’. But she had given the most solemn commitment to be his wife until parted – not by faithlessness – but by death. She retained the moral high-ground without abandoning her scruples. In the modern language of relationships, she retained power and agency.
The idea of holding to a vow, whatever the provocation, is so utterly un-zeitgeist. Many people will say “Amen!” to that.
And then there is the action itself. It may have lacked the impact of a tell-all expose interview to the tabloids, or the theatrical destruction of her errant husband’s favourite suits, but there was a flourish there. The sight of a be-jewelled gold engagement ring, sitting amidst the base metals of the collection plate. Not subversive exactly, but a point being made with élan. This ring will go the church. It will be sold on, or broken-up and melted-down, to raise funds for Him. Not you.
For many people none of these reasons add up.
We live in an era of choice, unfettered by promises which turn out to be really quite conditional and not very binding at all. A rhetorical flourish that can give even the tawdriest tying of the knot in Las Vegas a veneer of reverence and meretricious depth. When Milan Kundera took for his subject a man’s adultery, he characterised it as ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. A world where vows are taken lightly.
Of course, no marriage can survive persistent cruelty or selfishness in any meaningful sense. It’s clear that Vivienne Greene saw in her husband much to love and hold onto. Putting up with infidelity was also, it has to be said, part of the social milieu of the times. As a monarchist, I was appalled by the way Netflix played fast and loose with unprovable details of Prince Philips’s love life in The Crown.
But the notion that men of the Duke of Edinburgh’s class saw such behaviour as normal cannot be gainsaid. This is not to say he was unfaithful, as Greene was. Merely to point out that it is the wronged party who, in such circumstances, have the moral authority to decide whether vows are reversible.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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