Why is marriage of convenience such an enduringly popular romantic theme despite the fact that marriage as a life goal is losing popularity? Why like such a story? Maybe the simplest reason is that it’s a very efficient means of getting the hero and heroine into the same building, indeed, the same bedroom, for much of the tale. And their being constantly around each other leads to a very intimate relationship. Living with someone on any terms is intimate. The best romance is about the development of intimacy, both physical and emotional. In real life, a courtship is a series of meetings. The marriage of convenience compresses these meetings by establishing just one house (or mansion or castle or estate) as the basic physical setting.
Another reason, for those of us raised in restrictive cultures, is that the sanction of marriage allows a woman to have sexual thoughts and desires and even needs without the reader thinking she’s bad or of low moral fiber. She might have these thoughts as an unmarried woman and either she or the reader could think less of her. But once she has gone through a form of marriage with the hero, no matter how businesslike and cold the marriage is, she is freed from the hypocritical sexual restraints of her upbringing. Or at least, from most of them. The sexual tension thus comes more from what the woman wants or does not want (sex in marriage) than from what the woman thinks she should not want or is not allowed to have (sex before marriage). Although many marriage of convenience stories are really about the deflowering of a virgin bride, reluctant or otherwise, others are about more mature sexual issues. The marriage situation opens the door to the bedroom and actually makes it the primary battlefield of the relationship.
A third reason to like marriage of convenience stories is that they often show the struggle a new bride has to create her place in a family. In cultures in which newlywed couples live by themselves and lead lives far different from their parents, maybe this isn’t an obvious issue. But in cultures where the couple must live with or very close to parents, extended family such as aunts, cousins, sisters, brothers, or more, the bride’s necessity of fitting in with this new family and yet making her own place as a person is critical to her future happiness. Her husband can play a pivotal role in her family success, or he can sabotage it. Or, in the course of the story, he can change from one behavior to the next. Forging a good relationship with in-laws or stepchildren is a very important aspect of a woman’s life. (I remember an old Rock Hudson movie in which the heroine was separated from Rock behind the Iron Curtain for years. When she finally was reunited with him, she had to figure out how to create a relationship with her own daughter, and there was fighting with another female figure in the home as well. An appeal to Rock got the heroine nowhere; he told her that it was her business. A pre-feminism kind of division between a woman’s life and a man’s even though they lived in the same house.) A marriage of convenience can cover some very significant territory in a woman’s life beyond that of the core relationship with the husband.
And a final reason to like marriage of convenience stories is that they are about power. Every transaction between a man and a woman is about power as much as it is about love or sex or money. In the typical marriage of convenience, the woman is constrained to offer up her physical self (let’s face it, she is prostituted) to a man because of monetary imperatives. Maybe she’s in dire poverty; maybe it’s her family that is selling her. Maybe an inheritance depends upon her marrying this man, even briefly. Maybe the marriage is to protect the honor and good reputation of the parties involved. (In modern times, protecting one’s honor by marrying seems an antique idea. But people still do marry when an unexpected pregnancy is involved. And I am sure that marriages made to protect the reputations of the man and woman involved are still important in some places in the world.) The marriage of convenience also constrains the man. He is no longer able to continue his bachelor ways. (If he does, he often faces censure.) He has to consult the wishes of this woman whom he hardly knows. His relatives and his social world also weigh in on their opinion of her, so even if at first he does not care about her, her social acceptance becomes an extension of his own and thus important to him. The meat of the story is the main characters’ struggles with themselves, with each other, and with their wider world. Whereas usually one party to the forced marriage is at a power disadvantage at the story’s beginning, by the end, they have reached equilibrium. A real marriage has been created
The best writers can make marriage of convenience a fascinating dance of entwined personal and social and even sexual issues. Merely competent writers tend to focus just on sexual battles, often fueled by insecurity and social competition (i.e. the other woman who interferes with the marriage). But I confess I like them all. The marriage itself, no matter how hollow it starts out, gives the heroine a stake in what happens that no other romance situation has. And it also gives the situation a basic limitation, that this story is about this marriage, that appeals to me as creating the unity that the ancient Greek playwrights cited as key to good drama. So bring on that hoary old plot line!