Judith Viorst’s It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life
New American Library, 1968
(Also published by Persephone Books, No. 12)

When I was a girl, I used to pull Judith Viorst’s slim volumes off my mother’s bookshelves, but I was always disappointed. And, no wonder, for all their illustrations, their target audience is young and old marrieds (and once-but-no-longer-marrieds and soon-to-be-marrieds, though in the minority I’m sure), not little girls.[Although you could argue that the world would be a different place if more twelve-year-old girls did read these poems.]

I considered reading this 1968 volume for this year’s Persephone weekend, but I read Agnes Jekyll and Isobel English instead.

Truthfully, the book would have gone unread if I hadn’t picked up Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, if I hadn’t been so immersed in this 1964 novel about Emma Lawrence’s marriage and her difficulties being hip and the tragedies of her married life.

But, from the very beginning, the parallels in the two books are striking.

On setting out:

“Nobody believed us when we said we were getting married. And how right they were in their scepticism. in the end they all assumed that I must be pregnant, and started to offer me varying kinds of advice, of which the best came from my own father. Better an illegitimate grandchild, he said to me, after his first meeting with David, than an ill-advised marriage.”
From: Drabble’s The Garrick Year

My mother was grateful
He wasn’t barefoot.
His mother was grateful
I wasn’t pregnant.
From: Viorst’s “Marriage and the Families”

Soon after:

“After our marriage David and I got ground down. Until this point we had both deliberately kept each other at a breathless distance, with an instinct for sexual self-preservation of which we were not wholly aware. Once married, distance was no longer possible. Our passion for each other had been rooted, at the beginning, in our foreignness: in him, his flashy, commercial, charming, drunken, photogenic selfishness, and in me my cool professional aesthetic privileged photogenic eccentricity. And in bed and at breakfast selfishness is not charming and eccentricitiy is not even eccentric.”
From: Drabble’s The Garrick Year

The honeymoon is over
And he has left for work
Whistling something obvious from La Bohème
And carrying a brown calfskin attaché case
I never dreamed he was capable of owning,
Having started the day
With ten pushups and a cold shower
Followed by a hearty breakfast.
(What do we actually have in common?)
From: Viorst’s “The Honeymoon is Over”

And then there were children:

I often think that motherhood, in its physical aspects, is like one of those prying disorders such as hay fever or asthma, which receive verbal sympathy but no real consideration, in view of their lack of fatality: and which, after years of attrition, can sour and pervert the character beyond all recovery. Motherhood has of course infinite compensations, though I can well believe that some people are driven to a point where they cannot feel them.
From: Drabble’s The Garrick Year

Last year I had a shampoo and set every week and
Slept an unbroken sleep beneath the Venetian chandelier of our
discerningly eclectic bedroom, but
This year we have a nice baby,
And Gerber’s strained bananas in my hair,
And gleaming beneath the Venetian chandelier,
A diaper pail, a portacrib, and him,
A nice baby, drooling on our antique satin spread
While I smile and say how nice. It is often said
That motherhood is very maturing.
From: Viorst’s “Nice Baby”

And other complications:

The other woman
Never smells of Ajax or Spahetti-O,
And was bored with Bob Dylan
A year before we had heard of him,
And is a good sport about things like flat tires and no hot water,
Because it’s easier to be a good sport
When you’re not married
From Viorst’s “The Other Woman”

We drank a lot, and stared at each other over the food, and he told me many stories about his life: he told me about women, all sorts of women, and I liked him for the way that he seemed to have been ready to have a go at anything. His stories all had a hit-and-miss nature, and the naive and ready way that he rushed into them, willing to capture my attention by any extravagance…. And he compelled mine, for it was not a sense of pathos that he aroused, but rather an unwilling admiration for his perpetual readiness.
From: Drabble’s The Garrick Year, wherein Emma is a good sport with not-David whilst married to David

Neither the poet nor Emma is an overly sympathetic voice.

There is a sharpness to their styles, and irony polishes the edge, so that even the humourous bits have a tinge of sadness to them.

But they explore the terrain of courtship and marriage and the aftermath with  authenticity.

The experiences are the tellers’ and firmly rooted in time and place, but what struck me most about this pairing was not how different things were in the ‘60s, but how much the same they were.

More than 50 years have passed, but women are still following their husbands to places like Hereford, still wondering if they’re attracted to someone else, still exhausted by motherhood, still disappointed by the in-your-face intimacies that they might not have thought about on their first dates.

You could argue that the world isn’t that different a place now than it was for the women in Judith Viorst’s poems and Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year.