There are many things I didn’t do when I got divorced seven years ago at the age of 34: I didn’t set up a divorce registry; I didn’t throw my arms out behind me like wings while walking across a car park; I didn’t send an announcement that I was consciously uncoupling with a picture of me and my ex sitting on a lawn in happier times; I didn’t throw a party; I didn’t order a cake iced with “Boy, bye”; I didn’t erase all traces of my married life, burn love letters or throw my rings into the sea.
I don’t disapprove of these things – I laughed out loud when I came across the “Boy, bye” cake online recently, and if a paparazzo had cared he could have caught me dancing down the road that first divorcee summer – but what I most remember about that time was a feeling of plotlessness. I had chosen to come off the conventional path. What next? Not this, I kept saying, working my way slowly and haphazardly towards the things that did feel right. One of the first of those things was selling my wedding dress. I had felt beautiful in it, and though I didn’t want to wear it again, it wasn’t because it felt cursed. I could let it go. I feel happy when I think of someone else unknowingly giving that gown new life. I bought a new dress in silk jersey, covered in poppies, primroses and blue hydrangeas.
I made more graceless gestures towards freedom, too. I deleted my Facebook profile, I propped up the bar, I dated chaotically, I talked endlessly about myself, I cried when challenged instead of facing things. Much later, I read Annie Ernaux’s The Years and recognised the way I behaved in my post-divorce period with delight tinged with horror: “As if the marriage had only been an interlude, she feels she’s picked up the thread of her adolescence where she’d left it off, returning to the same kind of expectancy, the same breathless way of running to appointments in high heels, and sensitivity to love songs.” Post‑marriage, I was a teenager again.
From a distance, I can now see something in the attempts I was making. I was trying to keep a space open. I was trying not to decide quite yet. For so long I had been in the grip of the marriage plot, the from-ballroom-to-altar storyline developed in 18th- and 19th-century novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In literary-critical terms, this was simply a revival of medieval romance for the middle classes gorging on modern print media for the first time. Ennobling love, once reserved for damsels and knights, was now for everyone. Can Romeo and Juliet get their parents to accept their marriage? Would Lizzie take Wickham or Darcy? Will Angel find out that Tess isn’t a virgin before their wedding night? Will Anna go back to Karenin? (Even novels of adultery were in thrall to marriage.) Matrimony was a goal, not a state: for centuries it was what novels, plays and movies hurtled towards.
It was an antique way of thinking for a modern woman, admittedly, but it had been in the air I breathed for so long. My marriage could have been anything I wanted it to be if I’d had the imagination, but imperceptibly it reverted to the mean, and I felt trapped. I had everything I was supposed to want, and yet it didn’t feel right. In The End of the Novel of Love, the writer Vivian Gornick groups together Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and Diana of the Crossways by George Meredith as stories with heroines “in whom the need to own her soul is more imperative than the need to love”. As the 19th century tipped over into the 20th, they get to the point of marriage but go cold when they discern what’s in store. Half the time they marry anyway. But their struggles to get free continue, and they discover that love is a supreme test of self-knowledge that they do not always pass. “Love, contrary to all sentimental insistence, cannot do the job” of climbing out of our shame for us, Gornick writes. “For better and for worse, that effort is a solitary one, more akin to the act of making art than of making a family.”
Is the end of the marriage plot the beginning of a woman’s self-knowledge? A trajectory that takes a girl from household to household, from daughter to wife, does not leave much space for working out who you are outside of those structures. I had never lived on my own before I was divorced; I had never holidayed solo; I had barely gone to the movies by myself. I could attempt self-knowledge. Who is the divorcee and what does she want? She was a new figure in the 1920s, when divorce became widely obtainable to women in the UK and states in the US such as New York and Nevada removed obstacles to splitting up. In Ursula Parrott’s 1929 novel Ex-Wife, a seen-it-all divorcee lays out three options for life after divorce in jazz age New York: celibacy and career, sleeping around or finding another husband. Patricia, the eponymous ex-wife, tries all three. (The novel was made into a movie, The Divorcee, which won its lead actor, Norma Shearer, an Academy Award.) Like an extended episode of Sex and the City, complete with knock-off Vionnet dresses, five-Manhattan evenings and misinterpreted phone messages, Parrott’s heroine, who is not yet in possession of her decree, cannot imagine life on her own. She is still trying to win her ex back on page 92. If there is self-knowledge gained by the end, it’s of a wry sort: it’s safer to marry a friend who can provide a secure lifestyle, Patricia wagers, than to believe that romantic feelings will carry you over life’s inevitable vicissitudes.
With the arrival of no-fault divorce in the 1970s (though the concept came into force in England and Wales in 2022) came another wave of movies and books about divorce. Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and Kramer vs Kramer have more to say about the legal wranglings and bad behaviour a soon-to-be-divorced couple can indulge in than what a man or woman can discover about themselves when their marriage is over. It is a relief when the semi-fictional divorces and child custody battles are over – the viewer is left in no doubt that these couples needed to part. I’d had a more 21st-century divorce: no day in court, no offspring to consider, not even a cat. Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is superficially of the same structure: a married couple make a life, betray each other and divorce over the course of 282 minutes that were shown as a TV series in Sweden in 1973. I watched it over a day with a friend at BFI Southbank, astonished: it was the first time I’d seen something that captured truthfully the deterioration of a relationship over time. The tiny shifts in tone and the grand declarations, the betrayals and the awakenings, the romance and the disappointment. As in Heartburn and Kramer vs Kramer, blame isn’t laid at one character’s door, but here also the love that held the couple together for more than a decade is still present, even after both spouses have remarried. Bergman drew on his own four dissolved marriages for the screenplay, as well as that of his parents; Liv Ullmann, who plays Marianne, the wife, had been his lover for five years and would continue to collaborate artistically with him. Divorcing, these movies showed, could be as intimate as marrying.
When my 14-year relationship ended in London’s central family court in 2016, it was one of 106,959 divorces that year in the UK. However intense my divorce felt to me, I was not special. And although in 2016 I hadn’t read Ex-Wife or The End of the Novel of Love or Heartburn, and I hadn’t seen Kramer vs Kramer or Scenes from a Marriage, it was comforting to know, statistically, that there were lots of other men and women out there in my position. I quickly realised, too, that I had already read books with divorces in them, books that I understood much better now I had experience of a marriage ending. As a younger woman, newly married, I had reviewed Rachel Cusk’s memoir, Aftermath, pulling apart her metaphors and thinking it was overblown to compare herself to Clytemnestra. But now I knew the territory myself and I could see I was wrong about that book. Married people do not want to know about the death of love, but I now appreciated Cusk’s honesty about even her craziest thoughts as her marriage was ending. And as I read the next three novels Cusk wrote as they appeared, I felt humbled. In the Outline trilogy, she takes her divorced narrator Faye through the world in near-silence, observing and demurring and thinking about the behaviour of the people around her. No longer the focus of the story, as a bride is at a wedding, Cusk’s divorcee is instead a receptacle for others’ stories. (Women and men come towards you when you are divorced, especially when they are going through something themselves. You become the keeper of many people’s darkest stories.) One of the more dignified options after divorce is to stay still, listen and see what happens. Faye quietly keeps counsel: she has time to write her own story, in her own time, in her own way, when she herself chooses. If the divorcee is an artist, then her medium is life.
I also went back to Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be?. Her protagonist, also called Sheila, was divorced, too, and an artist, interested in “a life of undying fame that I don’t have to participate in”. (Heti is joking, but it is the sort of joke that helps you see the truth of the proposition.) In the novel, Sheila borrows modes de vie from the friends she likes most and tries them on: what if she cut hair instead of made art? What if she created the ugliest painting she could imagine? What if she slept with this dude for fun? She doesn’t have to decide just yet – the future is open. “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like,” Sheila says at one point, and it is as if she’s daring herself. “It could be me.” This is the thrill of the blank page, gessoed canvas or unfilled diary page: it could be anything. The new existence needs new forms. Heti’s “novel from life” didn’t look like anything I’d come across before: here was a novel willing to be unfinished, to take risks, to shapeshift, to blur fiction with real events, to be OK not knowing what was coming next. Who could revitalise the 18th-century machinery of the marriage plot more thoroughly than a divorcee, who’d lived it from start to finish?
Midway through Heti’s novel, she includes an “Interlude for Fucking”, a funny, frank hymn to the revitalising quality of love after the death of love. I dated, hopefully and despairingly, but it was much more pleasurable to watch Hannah Stern fall back in love with her ex-boyfriend Christie, the one who got away, in Abi Morgan’s The Split. Divorcees are sometimes portrayed as jaded, cynical, the ghosts at the marriage breakfast – but who is more romantic, I ask you, than someone who believes so fervently that there is a better love out there that she lets go of the perfectly adequate one she has? Modern divorcees aren’t soiled goods but people who have loved and learned. Anna Kendrick’s character Darby in Sam Boyd’s Love Life leaves a marriage that perhaps she should never have entered into, but while writing a message in the guest book at her friend’s wedding she meets the man who’s right for her. Even in Beyoncé’s break-up-to-make-up album Lemonade, you witness the sort of energy that nearly losing love brings to the renewal of vows. In one marriage, there are always several marriages: could it be that the secret to lasting love was simply not wanting to divorce at the same time?
But you can’t hurry love, and it may not come again for me. Would a single life – loved by family and loving them back; turning up for friends in need – be so terrible? One of my favourite works of art about divorce is Mia Hansen-Løve’s movie Things to Come, starring Isabelle Huppert. She plays Nathalie Chazeaux, a university lecturer whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. What next? Her handsomest student invites her to stay with his friends in the countryside, but she doesn’t sleep with him. The cliches are simply not appealing. But her infant grandchild needs singing to sleep, a soft warm head nestled between her chin and her shoulder as she hums. It is enough; it is where the film ends. In Deborah Levy’s trilogy of memoirs, friends give her a writing shed and make sure no one interrupts her. When a reader asked Levy if leaving an unhappy marriage had worked for her, she answered quite simply: “It did work for me. You have to make another sort of life and gather your friends and supporters to your table.” From the middle of the other sort of life, I agree. It’s pretty nice here.
There was a point, maybe two years ago, at which I got tired of reading about divorce. It didn’t seem like my defining quality any more – so much had happened since my decree had been granted in 2016. And then a friend texted me a picture of the dedication page of Torrey Peters’s novel Detransition, Baby. “To divorced cis women, who, like me, had to face starting their life over without either investing in the illusions from the past, or growing bitter about the future.” That was it! That was the tone I’d been trying to take towards my post-divorce life. “It’s a homage,” Peters told Interview magazine. “Divorced cis women are my role models. We’re very similar. In my mid-30s, the excitement of transition is over, and that drama has passed. Now I have to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. How do I live? How do I find meaning? How do I figure out how to care about people and not be bitter, not see myself as a victim, not go back to some illusory idea of a Prince Charming saving me? The people who know how to do that are divorced women.” Celibacy and career, sleep around, marry again. Kill, fuck, marry. No, no, no. Thanks to Cusk, Heti, Morgan, Boyd, Beyoncé, Hansen-Løve, Levy and Peters, I had found new paths and new avenues of meaning: stillness, writing, art, loving again, family, friendship. What if divorce is the happy ending women have always wanted?