18 MARCH 2006, Page 22

The Fellowship of the Engagement Ring

Jemima Lewis says farewell to Planet Spinster — and gets to know the strange inhabitants of her new world Call me slow on the uptake, but I had no idea that getting engaged would be so ... different. There used to be a scifi series on television called Stargate, about a magic portal that was unearthed from some Egyptian remains. It didn’t look like much — a big metal ring with a watery substance undulating inside, a bit like staring into the bowl of a public lavatory — but in fact it was an interplanetary wormhole. You could step into it and be instantly teleported to, say, the desert planet of Abydos, there to join battle with the evil alien Ra.

Getting engaged is very much like that. One minute you’re pottering about Planet Spinster, thinking you’ve just about got the measure of life. Then your boyfriend appears, all buoyed up after an England rugby win and a few tequilas, falls to his knees and — whoosh! — suddenly you’re in a parallel universe.

The natives on Planet Marriage are friendly enough — overwhelmingly so sometimes. At parties, for instance, I now get introduced to other women as ‘Jemimawho’s-just-got-engaged!’ This provokes a sort of tribal dance of feminine ecstasy, especially among the wives: there are squeals and claps and the drumming of dainty feet. Then they fall upon me, breathless with curiosity about The Proposal and The Ring. (‘We haven’t got round to buying one yet,’ I find myself apologising, and they look at me curiously — where’s the romance in that? — before rallying with questions about The Dress.) I am grateful to these strangers for their excitement, and increasingly addicted to the warm glow of self-importance that it confers — but also a little suspicious. Can their delight possibly be genuine? Why should they care that someone they’ve never met before and probably never will again is doing something so utterly commonplace as getting married?

I can’t help feeling vaguely insulted, too, on behalf of the singles sorority to which I so recently belonged. It’s rather like losing weight: you don’t realise that everyone thought you were fat until they start congratulating you on being thin. The thirtysomething spinster is no fool; she knows that she is an object of pity to some. But it’s still a shock to realise the extent to which people have been commiserating about you behind your back.

I keep getting letters of felicitation from people I haven’t seen for decades, and hardly knew even then. ‘Why on earth are they interested in my love life?’ I asked a recently married friend. ‘You don’t understand,’ she replied. ‘They’ve been gossiping about you for years. They’ve spent so long feeling sorry for you, they think they know you.’ The assumption that I must be giddy with relief at having found a man is infuriating, even though it’s true. I was brought up a good feminist: a woman’s role, my mother taught me, was to be confident, successful and happy in herself. But ancient habits die hard. As soon as a woman hits her thirties, she is caught in a pincer movement of pressure: internal, because she might want to have babies before it’s too late; and external, because of the worry and sympathy she sees in other people’s eyes. Society is waiting, drumming its fingers in an impatient tattoo, for her to fulfil her female destiny.

The worst offenders in this respect are newly-weds — especially, I have found, those who were once irredeemable bachelors. A glassy-eyed evangelism seizes these men when they finally relinquish their sexual freedom: they long to convert the rest of the world to their happy state, to tidy up the pesky stragglers who remind them of their past life. ‘You really must get married soon,’ they opine, wagging a finger at the recalcitrant spinster, as if this possibility might never have occurred to her before. A couple of years ago, when I was going out with a thoroughly unsuitable younger man, I bumped into an old friend at a party. He had recently married, and the evangelical spirit was upon him. ‘How’s the love life?’ he asked, his eyes misting over as he mentally prepared his sermon. ‘Not great, actually,’ I replied. ‘I don’t think he really loves me. He’s terrified of settling down. Plus, the sex has gone off the boil.’ My friend nodded encouragingly, having clearly not heard a word. ‘That’s wonderful!’ he said. ‘Now all you need to do is give him an ultimatum.’ It is hardly surprising, then, that late arrivals to Planet Marriage tend to come laden with baggage. Everything about the matrimonial question is faintly humiliating for a modern woman. Accustomed to controlling our own destinies, we suddenly find ourselves powerless in the lap of fate, waiting for the right man to appear at the right time — or not. Even if he does, the wait isn’t over. Men can take a while to limber up to a proposal, and only the most formidable women are prepared to pip them to the post. In the meantime, there is nothing to do but squat, motionless, like a toad basking on a rock, willing your predator of choice to gobble you up.

The newly betrothed woman, therefore, is likely to be a little jittery. Her feminist sensibilities have been strained to breaking point, and it doesn’t help that everyone keeps exclaiming ‘Well done!’ as if she were a 17th-century governess clawing her way out of poverty by bagging the local squire. If she is defensive, it is because she has realised quite how little the condition of womanhood has changed — and how antediluvian her own instincts really are.

On the other hand, there are many wonders to be discovered in this new world. I never realised, for example, how self-deprecating many married people are — how discreetly they bear their contentment. Unlike the evangelical types, tactful couples tend not to bang on about the splendours of wedlock in front of their single friends. Only once you pass through the portal to the other side do they confess.

What they say, by and large, is modest but encouraging. ‘Marriage? It’s slightly nicer,’ was the verdict of one friend, for whom a career in advertising surely beckons. This seems to be the general verdict: you still get insecure and aggravated and sometimes want to run away, but on the whole it’s slightly nicer.

It’s hard to believe that this is what all the fuss is about — the earthly paradise to which we are all supposed to aspire. But perhaps it is precisely because it’s so mundane, so elusively ordinary, that marriage still provokes such excitement. W.H. Auden put it thus: ‘Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.’