The pleasures and disappointments, the frustrations and joys of living together under its legally binding yoke continue to be the subject matter for serious analysis, dramatic presentation and frothy fun.
In popular fiction, the landscape of contemporary marriage is laid out in familiar scenes of domestic chaos, demanding children, marital tensions and the impossibility of trying to do it all and have it all. We enjoy identifying with characters and situations which, in part at least mirror our own lives.
Even descriptions of the painful aspects of marriage and marriage breakdown provide a strange kind of comfort and reassurance that our problems are universally experienced, that they are part of a common narrative.
So what do we make of our thirst for the latest genre of marriage fiction? Novels loosely categorised as domestic noir or chick noir are flying off the shelves.
These are stories in which, typically, the central protagonist is a wife whose husband may or may not be a murderer, a psychopath, a swindler, a criminal, or living under a false identity. Ha, that made you think, didn’t it?
Are you absolutely sure that the man who is sleeping peacefully beside you, or helping the kids with their homework, or ‘at the office’ or ‘playing squash’ – are you certain that he is who you think he is?
These novels tap into our hidden fears and anxieties. They bring horror into the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room. The threat doesn’t come from a stranger or a dodgy internet hook-up or a serial killer, it comes from the person who stood beside you as you exchanged vows, the person you have always trusted implicitly.
The purpose of domestic/chick noir books is to create suspense. They don’t invite you to savour the journey as you rush through the pages to find out the ending. And having reached the reveal, you’re done with the book. It’s like going on a rollercoaster ride, or a ghost train. The experience takes your breath away, but it doesn’t remain with you.
Charlotte Bronte’s novel ticks many of the black boxes.
Jane gains employment as a governess at Thornfield Hall, a gloomy, imposing mansion, and becomes engaged to its owner, Edward Rochester.
The mysterious and unnerving atmosphere of the house is the backdrop for their developing relationship.
No one visits the third storey, except for a strange and uncommunicative servant who may be seen disappearing into its recesses. Odd sounds are heard, demoniac laughter, snarling, scratching.
Oblivious of readers crying ‘Don’t do it, Jane!’ she goes ahead with the marriage. Except, of course (SPOILER ALERT) the small matter of Rochester’s existing wife gets in the way, a reveal whose dramatic force and moral implications outweigh the plot machinations.
The man with a secret and lots of baggage, a woman prepared to love and trust him, loads of indications to the reader that all is not well – this could be a blurb from a current chick noir but Jane Eyre covers and offers so much more.
The society in which it is rooted is created with so much more than a few carefully placed brand names and cultural references.
We engage with issues about class, education, England’s imperial past and its relationship with colonial countries.
Aspects of women’s experience permeate the book, the economic and social restraints, the fight for public and personal recognition and independence. Questions of ethics and morality are embedded in the story.
This is a book you can return to again and again and re-read with a mixture of pleasure, irritation and fascination.
A story of intimate betrayal
The past will always haunt you
A house of secrets
Jane Eyre as chick noir might be underselling the novel, but if it draws readers in, they will be well and truly hooked.