Big age-gap relationships are in the news again this week. Last weekend saw the seemingly rather happy nuptials between Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch (a 25 year gap; he’s 84, she’s 59). Whilst Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Liam Payne (10 year gap, she’s 32, he’s 22) are feeding a frenzy of social media gossip, saucy style.
Celebritydom has a fair sprinkling of May-November relationships. Celebrity couples with large age gaps. And it’s likely you’ll know someone who’s in one or had one too. For those of us married to a same or similar-ager, these relationships are rather fascinating. Yes there’s the “what attracted you to the richer spouse” line of enquiry. But what’s more intriguing, to me, is how they are daily lived; the dynamics, the practicalities, the contrasts in attitude and outlook. Then there’s the lack of a mutual heritage or cultural hinterland, the unshared past. Can love really surmount all this disparateness?
These relationships are not just interesting to our times; they’ve been examined across the centuries;
Older man relationships:
This age gap is often represented in either of two ways. There’s the Sugar Daddies – an old man and a bit of arm candy – cliched yes but there’s a whole SD industry out there, didn’t you know. As figures of fun, a very old man marrying a very young girl, these stories have been retold across the centuries. Chaucer, probably wasn’t the first but he used this idea in stories with a typically bawdy theme.
In both The Miller’s Tale and The Merchant’s Tale the theme is cuckolding; if an old man is fool enough to marry someone much younger, the old fool deserves to be fooled. Often the old husband is domineering and jealous and keeps the young bride under such close scrutiny that there is no chance of being deceived. Therefore, the delight of this type of story lies in the clever methods the wife uses to deceive the husband or, in some cases, the “poetic” justice involved in having a domineering husband brought to his knees.The seducer is always much younger than the husband, much better looking, and always more sexually virile. The position of the seducer can vary widely: a boarder in the old man’s house, a person of the village, or, in some cases, a stranger passing through (as in the more modern traveling salesman jokes).
Both tales share a sense of high comedy and bawdy immorality (a hot poker up the arse in The Miller’s Tale!) Rupert Murdoch might find re-reading these offer little comfort (Wendy Deng/ Tony Blair allegations) for marriage number 4.
The alternative representation explored in literature is that of power and influence. Here the older man is a mentor, manager, or manipulator (or a combination of all three). Jane Eyre a perennial favourite on stage and screen is just one example (of many).
Revered now for its literary style, this Victorian tale is grim and gritty and gothic. Yet ultimately it’s is a love story with a 20 year age gap. Jane, so mature in head, but girlish in heart falls for the remote and emotionally cool, Mr Rochester. Not much is made of the age gap, the themes of passion and conscience are more dominant, maybe because for many unbalanced marriages were more normal for the time. There’s an audio drama version on BBC Radio 4 now.
Older woman relationships:
As Cheryl Fernandez-Versini is finding, Western media is quick to judge a Cougar (the slang term for a woman who seeks sex with younger man). There are several other high profile examples – Joan Collins, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Madonna. And some well known American screen offerings; The Graduate, Cougar Town, Cougar Club.
This feels like a new thing, reflecting perhaps the economic and social freedoms of modern women. Indeed there are studies examining the phenomenon. But of course there are historical examples too; Cleopatra, Catherine the Great and Elizabeth I are amongst the most high profile. But these women were also in positions of power and independence. So to discover an example, in history, amongst the less mighty, strikes as a real find;
These relationships appear to be based on gift-giving (mutually perhaps so) but this is high maintenance love and it’s hard to keep it up (pun intended). It would be nice to think that love can transcends all age-gap obstacles. But for many of these marriages there seems to be a slim chance of a happy ever after. According to most of the research; the bigger the age gap, the more likely the divorce. Will technology fuel this disconnect in the future? As our cultural interests become less common (TV more disparate and less uniting) and the shared times between the generations less frequent, age-gappers might become less common. What a shame, any relationship rooted in love should be embraced and the genuine ones (Murdoch and Hall?) offer us all hope. Let’s not head for a life lived in silos.
Featured photo source: thenewdaily.com.au