In 1941, Canadian author Judith Kelly published Marriage is a Private Affair
, a vaguely auto-biographical novel examining the early years of a marriage through a psychological lens. The work went on to win the Harper Publisher's literary award, and several years later was made into a movie starring Lana Turner. The novel’s premise hinges on the idea that even marriages which start out with the couple passionately in love with each other can easily become eroded and bitter as idealized happiness gives way to ennui. Contemporary critics praised Kelly’s insightful interior narration and her deep understanding of her characters – the minute detail with which she scrutinizes her main couple allows for honesty and realism.
In the middle of World War II, our protagonist Phoebe Schofield is a popular young woman whose lighthearted approach to love means that she has many suitors vying for her hand in marriage. Phoebe lives in New York City, where she often visits the officers’ club in order to flirt. But then, on the spur of the moment, Phoebe accepts a hasty marriage proposal from Tom West, a dashing Air Corps lieutenant (the Air Corps was the predecessor to the United States Air Force), who is due to ship out in a few days.
The wedding ceremony is hastily arranged but beautiful. But even though Phoebe is deeply attracted to Tom, she is aware as she walks down the aisle that the marriage isn’t exactly starting off on the right foot. For one thing, it’s not at all certain that Tom will return from the war. But for another, Phoebe has no good examples in her life for what it takes to manage a long term relationship. Her mother, Mrs. Selworth, has been married many times, ending each marriage in a shambles as soon as the idealism of first love gave way to the reality of having to live with someone else’s flaws and foibles. Consciously, Phoebe decides that she will do the best she possibly can with the love she feels for Tom.
After the couple’s short honeymoon, just as Tom is about to leave to go to war, a tragedy strikes the family: the death of Tom’s father, a very important defense contractor whose company makes lenses for bomber sights. Because of how crucial this equipment is, and how grave it would be to disrupt the production of the lenses, the War Industries Board furloughs Tom from shipping out with the Air Corps, and orders him to take over the lens production operation instead.
At first, this seems like good news for their marriage – Tom’s safety is assured. But soon, Tom’s excitement about going overseas and fighting quickly turns to resentment, stress, and boredom as he is forced to stifle his adventurous side and run the high-stakes lens making operation. The company isn’t doing as well as his father had let on, and on top of that, Tom has to put in increasing hours in order to cover for Joe Murdock, a business partner whose alcoholism makes him more and more unreliable until he finally starts simply disappearing for long stretches of time. The external pressure mounts as Tom’s defense contracts are always in danger of not being filled.
Meanwhile, Phoebe at first tries to please Tom as much as possible, downplaying her own desires in order to cater to his. Even as she is sure that she never wants to get pregnant, worrying about losing her physique and sex appeal, she nevertheless ends up having a child. But rather than finding her maternal side, the baby only makes Phoebe feel terrible about herself, hating the idea of becoming matronly and growing older. Eventually, she is forced to admit to herself that she doesn’t feel love for or a bond with the baby. To compensate for what she thinks has been taken from her life – and because Tom is absent so much of the time on business – she starts once again going to parties at the officers’ club, wishing she could once again become one of its regular “girls.”
But soon even this acting out isn’t enough, and Phoebe starts flirting with an old boyfriend, the handsome Major Lancing. She considers having an affair, which seems like one possible way to blow up what has become a stifling marriage and thus escape the situation. Tom also faces his own opportunities to find romance outside the marriage.
In the end though, Phoebe realizes that if she follows her whims, she will end up just like the under-grown adults around her, living without meaning or purpose. Resisting following their terrible examples, she reconnects with her child, and starts over in her relationship with Tom, as the pair start working to understand one another better. As John Selby wrote in the San Bernadino Sun
when this novel was first published, “the idea of the book is simply that the first years of marriage are not after all the important years, except as they lay the foundation for the period that really matters… nobody will forget the people she has created, nobody will forget the genuine quality of her dialogue and its charm and flavor.”