Ashes or chocolates? Or both?

Tomorrow is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a rare coincidence. In the 20th century, this happened in only three years -- 1923, 1934 and 1945. This century, it happened in 2018 and 2024 and it will again in 2029.

It’s a thought-provoking juxtaposition. Valentine’s Day is all about greeting cards, and chocolates and roses, romance and sentimental excess. It’s a celebration of love as sugary consumerism. Ash Wednesday is almost the polar opposite. In Christian churches it is a day of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Ashes on the forehead in the shape of a Cross reminds believers that “thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return”. It’s a celebration of love as bitter sacrifice.

Wearing ashes is not a custom which has died out, by the way. One of the press secretaries who passed through Trump's revolving door, Sean Spicer, was mocked mercilessly on Twitter for appearing on a brief on CNN with ashes decorating his forehead.

Perhaps the two days have more in common than meets the eye. We know very little about Saint Valentine, but surviving accounts agree that he was tortured and killed as a martyr for the Christian faith. So perhaps the message of the dual celebration is a reminder that romantic love finds its ultimate fulfilment in sacrificial love.

For decades now love has been debased in popular culture to the cloying sentimentality of Valentine’s Day. "Love" is a passion, a will-o-the-wisp, mutual narcissism. It’s not a commitment.

This is not just a contemporary trend. There are surprisingly few eulogies of married love in modern literature. In the canon of works in the English language, there are volumes upon volumes of romantic passion, but little about faithful marriages. Perhaps Jane Austen comes closest, with her ironic but affectionate dissection of courtship in early 19th century England. Even Dickens, the most humane of English novelists, often features marriages that are loveless and harsh.

I’m a bit more familiar with Australian literature, which certainly deserves to be better known -- but not for idealistic portrayals of married life. Our only Nobel laureate for literature, Patrick White, was a cantankerous homosexual; his married characters are boorish, uncultured, and coarse. The best-selling Australian novel of all time is The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough (1977). It’s a family saga – about a priest’s passion for a woman in the Outback. One highly praised novel about married life is Christina Stead’s 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children (which for some reason is set unconvincingly in the United States). I almost felt physically ill after reading it.

But there is one gem about married love, although it’s more notes for a novel than a novel. The first really great Australian writer, Henry Lawson, wrote a collection of loosely-related short stories called Joe Wilson and his Mates. Lawson (1867-1922) is little known outside Australia, but as a short story writer, he ranks with his contemporary Rudyard Kipling. A handful of his stories are world class. In recent years, colonial-era Australian literature has been neglected but Lawson is such an iconic figure that he and his gigantic moustache were featured on the ten-dollar note and postage stamps. He wrote about “the Bush”, the vast, harsh, untamed land outside the big coastal cities.



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Lawson was no saint. He grew up in the country, failed to enter university, and worked at odd jobs while writing poetry and short stories for magazines.  His marriage ended disastrously, with his wife complaining that he was a drunk who beat her mercilessly. He spent time in jail for petty offences. He hadn't a religious bone in his body; if anything, he was a dreamy socialist. But he was a genius at depicting the nobility of ordinary people in stress and poverty. He was greatly loved and when he died in Sydney, indigent and alcoholic, he was given a state funeral. 

In the first handful of stories in Joe Wilson and his Mates, Lawson describes a few unrelated incidents in his character’s married life. Joe and his wife Mary are dirt poor on their uncultivated plot of land, but she battles to keep the family civilized. The stress of raising children and maintaining a cultivated home life causes them to quarrel, but they remain united by a deep love and loyalty. Lawson probably meant to turn the stories into a novel, but sustained effort was not his strong suit.

The last story to be written, but the first in the sequence, is “Joe Wilson’s Courtship”. It could have been a bit stereotyped and sentimental but it’s rescued by Lawson’s artistry. What made it memorable for me is the narrator’s advice to the reader about living chastity in courting a girl he really loves:

I think that the happiest time in a man’s life is when he’s courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn’t a thought for any one else. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, and keep them clean, for they’re about the only days when there’s a chance of poetry and beauty coming into this life. Make the best of them and you’ll never regret it the longest day you live. They’re the days that the wife will look back to, anyway, in the brightest of times as well as in the blackest, and there shouldn’t be anything in those days that might hurt her when she looks back. Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps, for they will never come again.

I suppose that this brilliant sketch of how Joe woos Mary is the chocolates and roses of St Valentine’s Day. Ash Wednesday follows quickly in the succeeding short stories. “Brighten’s Sister-In-Law” relates how their son almost dies as a result of a kind of epileptic attack. ‘Water Them Geraniums” and “Past Carin'’’ describe a crisis in the marriage when both Joe and Mary feel that they have been crushed by unremitting hard work; that their lives have been failures.

Somehow they work through it. In the final sketch Joe pulls enough money together to buy a surprise present for Mary -- a double buggy. It ends:

When we were alone Mary climbed into the buggy to try the seat, and made me get up alongside her. We hadn’t had such a comfortable seat for years; but we soon got down, in case any one came by, for we began to feel like a pair of fools up there.

Then we sat, side by side, on the edge of the verandah, and talked more than we’d done for years—and there was a good deal of ‘Do you remember?’ in it—and I think we got to understand each other better that night.

And at last Mary said, ‘Do you know, Joe, why, I feel to-night just—just like I did the day we were married.’ 

And somehow I had that strange, shy sort of feeling too.

Lawson’s message is that romance is just the faltering beginning of married love, which becomes stronger, richer and more devoted with years of mutual sacrifice. "For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part" is a successful formula for happiness. What better message for Valentine’s Day?

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator

Image credit: Bigstock


Showing 3 reactions

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  • Michael Cook
    commented 2024-02-14 09:38:47 +1100
    Admittedly, I read it a long time ago, but the characters, as I remember them, were appalling human beings. Such people exist, of course, but I only like to read about them with some fortifying refreshment close at hand.
  • Jean Seah
    commented 2024-02-14 09:25:23 +1100
    I looked up the book that made you ill — “‘The Man Who Loved Children’ was originally set in Sydney but the setting was altered to suit an American audience, to Washington, D.C., somewhat unconvincingly due to linguistic nuances.”

    In a 2013 interview, novelist Robert Stone said:

    “I always thought one of the great American books was The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. The funny thing about that book is, you think that she has gotten a certain kind of American character down, a certain kind of American family nailed. And as it turns out, it was originally set entirely in Australia and all the characters were Australians, and her publisher talked her into making them all Americans for the U.S. edition. They were never intended to be Americans.”
  • Michael Cook
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-13 17:23:37 +1100