Marriage to a Difficult Man - Book Review

After reading about Sarah Edwards in this month's book, I wanted to know more about her, so I went and bought a copy of Elisabeth Dodds' Marriage to a Difficult Man (which is the book that Noel Piper relied heavily upon for her chapter). The title itself (funny story about that here) raises questions straight away about the way the author's views can impose in biography. At first I presumed that she must be referring to some quote about Jonathan Edwards - perhaps a line from a contemporary critic of his, or even a phrase from one of Sarah's letters - but after reading the book, it appeared that Dodds herself had labelled him as 'difficult'! What Dodds seems to mean by the term 'difficult man' is that Edwards was a man of conviction that lead to much opposition and pain for him and his wife and family throughout his life. By all accounts he was a man of conviction, but it is also widely acknowledged that the couple had a loving marriage, and Jonathan himself described it as an 'uncommon union' on his deathbed.

I also thought that Dodds tended to be a bit 'sentimental' when describing Sarah Edwards' relationship with Jonathan. At times it seemed like she was describing something which just didn't fit with the 'voice' of Sarah we read in her letters, and felt a little forced. One example is where she talks about Sarah reaching middle age and says that "Sarah and Edwards had time again for each other and the harvest of middle-aged love" and then goes on to reflect on what "middle aged love" looks like. As far as I can tell her musings weren't based on any evidence. It would have been far better just to let the letters and other quotes speak for themselves - which were far more romantic anyway!

As well as the sentimentality, there were also some interesting interpretations of events in the book. A major difficulty for any biographer is trying to making sense of events in the person's life from a great distance of time. It is especially difficult when world views collide. Not only is it hard to know what happened, it is also very difficult to understand the way people thought about things and interpreted the events in their life. Sarah's spiritual/psychological crisis is an obvious example of this (Noel Piper writes this on pp. 27-32) . The one event is interpreted very differently by both Piper and Dodds and neither of their interpretations completely convinced me! As Piper mentions, Dodds interprets it as a nervous breakdown and suggests that the way Jonathan dealt with it was a form of early psychotherapy. Piper dismisses all talk of breakdown and describes it only as a spiritual experience. After reading Dodds' version, I actually thought the 'breakdown' theory was probably the most convincing, but still thought that Dodds had layered too many modern values over the top of Sarah's story and didn't let it stand alone.

Reservations aside, I actually loved reading this book and couldn't put it down. I thought it was a solid attempt (with the limitations mentioned above) at trying to piece together the details we do know of Sarah Edwards' life, so we can have a more complete view of her. And Dodds' willingness to interpret events meant that the book had real colour and was a compelling read.

Dodds looks at the primary sources like letters, shopping lists and accounts by other well known visitors to their house. I soaked up all the details she included - descriptions of their family life and their daily routines. I found myself amazed by how much I could identify with her - her struggles as a mum, some of her experiences as a pastor's wife, some of the aspects of her relationship with her husband. I liked reading about the way she and Jonathan would get away and talk about things and discuss his theology on their daily horseride in the countryside. I also liked the descriptions of Sarah knitting at night by the fire, while Jonathan would read his sermons to her. I could almost imagine Dave and me doing those things!

And yet, simultaneously, I felt that there were ways in which our lives could not be more different. When she struggled, it was with 11 children - not 3. Her difficult experiences as a pastor's wife, amounted to her and her family being shunned by their whole church - not my experience at all. And of course, there were the countless other ways where the practicalities of my life are so very different from hers - the amount of work she had to do to keep her family fed and clothed and her generous hospitality, for example. And I was freshly reminded of how close death seemed to those who walked the earth at the same time as Sarah Edwards, especially at the end of the book, where it describes the tragedy of the quick succession of deaths in the Edwards household (5 in all) in 1757-58. Even her attitude to her husband's death (6 months before her own) reminded me that I am no Sarah Edwards! Samuel Hopkins wrote:
Her conduct, upon this occasion, was such as to excite the admiration of her friends; she was sensible of the great loss...and at the same time showed that she was quiet and resigned, and had those invisible supports which enabled her to trust in God.
I do recommend this book. It's compelling and encouraging. I benefited greatly from taking just a little peek into the life of this woman!