When my girlfriends and I were young and single and new to a working world full of people older and more experienced than ourselves, we were so routinely propositioned by married men that we had a bitter shorthand for these approaches. "You're so smart; you're so pretty. My wife doesn't understand me."
I remember one suspiciously leisurely lunch with a friendly colleague full of kind inquiries about my background and flattering consideration of my future career. On the way back to the offices of the regional newspaper where we both worked, he told me only one thing about himself, informing me with meaningful emphasis that his children were the most important thing in his life.
I got the message loud and clear. He was looking for an affair but I was to make no mistake about his marital status: He was not leaving home. Pondering his oblique offer, I could only wonder what he thought might be in it for me.
My friends and I, what we really wanted was to be married, too. We planned to be wives and mothers some day. But in the meantime, some of us did settle for whatever was on offer that day, not questioning too hard what might be in it for us, regaling our friends with tales of passionate assignations or crying on their shoulders when heartbreak inevitably ensued. I didn't lunch with my colleague again and a few months later, I heard he was having a torrid affair with a younger woman who had turned up at his house one night, demanding to see him. To me, he seemed amoral, she seemed destined for disappointment and his long-suffering wife, who apparently tolerated all this, was such an incomprehensible figure she was barely visible.
But then something happened to my friends and me: We grew up. Many of us got married in our turn, we got older and, from the perspective of middle-aged marriages, we became a bit less righteous about our young heartbreaks or our singletons' contempt. We knew of our own troubles; of how much work it takes a couple to keep a marriage lively and a family afloat. We came to sympathize with wives and husbands, to understand that either spouse might be neglected, bored or frustrated. As a writer, I began to understand that there might be three sides to this story.
No doubt kind inquiries and oblique offers were the order of the day when the 45-year-old Charles Dickens first approached the 18-year-old Ellen Ternan, the actress who became his mistress sometime in the late 1850s.
As biographer Claire Tomalin argues in The Invisible Woman, her 1990 book about Ternan, acting might not have been an entirely reputable profession in Victorian England, but the pretty young Nelly was giving up good chances of achieving respectability through a middle-class marriage when she entered into a clandestine relationship with the famous novelist.
I have been pondering that infamous affair and its many modern equivalents for the past six years as I researched and wrote Serial Monogamy, a novel about a contemporary Toronto novelist who is coping with her own domestic problems by writing about Dickens.
Sharon, my novel's narrator, is a successful writer of popular women's fiction whose life is disrupted by her husband's infidelity and a cancer diagnosis. For distraction, she accepts an assignment to try writing serial fiction for a floundering newspaper and picks Nelly Ternan as her protagonist.
Of course, she is also telling her own story as she struggles to recover from chemotherapy and fix her failing marriage. Like some modern-day Scheherazade, the wily narrator of The Thousand and One Nights, Sharon hopes to craft a tale so compelling it can seduce a husband and save a life.
Dickens was also a wily storyteller and yet, for all his manifest talents, on the one occasion where he tried to shape his own life story, he failed miserably. As he separated from his wife, Catherine Dickens, in 1858, he wrote two statements, one directed to the Times of London, and the other passed to a friend who eventually released it to the New York Tribune. Both letters make sad reading; the second is particularly self-serving, accusing Catherine of a mental disorder, maintaining their separation was actually her wish and insisting that some young person whose name had been associated with it was as virtuous and pure as his own daughters. The letters are stuffed with doth-protest-too-much and readers at the time seem to have been shocked, disbelieving and unsympathetic. When the stakes were high and highly personal, the world's greatest author failed to spin a convincing tale.
Still, at a human level, I think we can sympathize, or at least understand, his misguided approach: It is typical of the self-justifying and the myth-making that happens when marriages break down. If you think of any couple you know who has broken up, you have probably heard two very different versions of what has transpired and unless they – and you – are very lucky, you have probably been asked to take sides, to pick the narrative that is going to win the day. Just think of the competing accounts of the Mia Farrow-Woody Allen-Soon-Yi Previn scandal with the three participants still lining up their spokespeople and supporters more than 20 years later.
None of this is pleasant for those concerned but it makes rich material for a fiction writer. Whether they are sending letters to 19th-century newspapers or hiring high-priced New York publicists – or simply crying down the phone to a friend – the participants in a love triangle are filled with suspicions and justifications as they question the others' motives and expound on their own. In fiction, they are wonderfully loud characters, bursting with their desire to convince readers of their version, demanding their creator examine and explain each of their three points of view. Husband. Wife. Lover. Theirs is a situation just ripe for storytelling.
Kate Taylor's novel Serial Monogamy will be published by Doubleday Canada Aug. 23.