Is this the path to self-actualisation? (Challengers/YouTube)

February 15, 2024   7 mins

What happens when the fantasy of getting everything you want collides with cold, hard reality? Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility attempts to answer that question by plotting the love lives of two young women: the cool-headed, pragmatic Elinor Dashwood, and her feverishly emotional younger sister, Marianne. Together, the pair embody the novel’s titular struggle: of practicality versus passion, decorum versus desire, the head versus the heart (or the hormones). More recently, a pair of memoirs released in the US has made it clear that Austen’s age-old conflict is still with us.

On the sense side, there is Rob Henderson’s Troubled: the story of the author’s turbulent childhood in America’s foster care system. Removed from a drug-addicted, criminally neglectful mother, Henderson ultimately escapes the delinquency to which many of his peers succumb, to become a highly educated member of the media class. On the sensibility side, there is Molly Roden Winter’s More — in which the author, a middle-aged writer and musician who lives in upscale Brooklyn, ruminates about the ups and downs (and ins and outs) of her open marriage.

More, which was released last month, was fortuitously timed — or, possibly, the catalyst — for a surge of public interest in polyamory. The question of what form romantic and sexual commitment should take, or if it should be taken at all, has been visited and revisited countless times through the years, often in rhythm with evolving questions about how women should live, and love. Freely, perhaps — but how so? And at what cost?

The polyamory discourse, including Roden Winter’s memoir, circles these questions in much the same way Austen’s Regency-era heroines do. When Elinor Dashwood cautions her younger sister that what is pleasurable and what is proper are not always one and the same, Marianne protests that of course they are: “for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure.” This vaguely hedonistic notion — that if it feels good, it must be good — is echoed in the conviction of contemporary polyamorists that having multiple partners is the path to not just sexual satisfaction but a more enlightened state of being: a commitment “to the journey of the truth of my own soul”, to quote one polycule participant from a much-discussed article in The Cut. One imagines these 30-something Brooklynites confronting some poor, monogamous schmuck with the same earnest indignation that Marianne aims at her stoic sister: “Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”

If 17-year-old Marianne Dashwood had lived in contemporary Brooklyn instead of late 18th-century England, perhaps her marriage to the older, honourable Colonel Brandon would have seemed like less of a compromise: perhaps she would have ended up like the heroine of More, bed-hopping her way across the boroughs in middle age, wondering why, if this is the path to self-actualisation, she feels so damned miserable all the time. “This is supposed to be about my fun, my pleasure, my freedom,” Molly laments, after a partner stealthily removes his condom and then ghosts her immediately after sex. “How have I arrived at this point?”

More may read like a portrait of a life ruled by sensibility in the Austenite sense, but this looks very different on a frustrated mom in her forties than it does on a flighty teenager — especially given that the sensibility in this case isn’t actually the author’s, but instead belongs to her husband, Stewart, who both wants to sleep with other women and gets off on the idea of his wife schtupping other men. As other reviewers have noted, the idea of More as a memoir of sexual fulfilment Ă  la Eat, Pray, Love is belied by Molly’s obvious unhappiness in her open marriage, which she agrees to more out of duty than desire. Polyamory is a pile of lemons from which she relentlessly makes pitcher after pitcher of barely palatable lemonade. She doesn’t want this life so much as she wants to be the kind of person who wants it, which turns out about as well as you’d expect it to. “I feel like shit,” she eventually tells her therapist. “I thought freedom was supposed to be fun.”

“Polyamory is a pile of lemons from which she relentlessly makes pitcher after pitcher of barely palatable lemonade.”

Meanwhile, Henderson’s Trouble puts in a good word for sense, rather than pure sensibility. His story is one of an unruly youth for whom prudence, honour, and duty were not just social graces but a path to a better life. The irony, as Henderson notes, is that he had to join the military to get the structure and stability he needed; meanwhile, people who’ve benefited from these things all their lives tend to performatively dismiss their importance.

The current vogue for polyamory is a prime example of what Henderson has termed “luxury beliefs”: the phenomenon whereby wealthy, educated progressives talk a big game in favour of prison abolition or permissive sexual norms to signal their political bona fides, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never bear the costs of the ideas they promote. His classmates at Yale, for instance, would privately acknowledge that they themselves planned to get married, have kids, and practice monogamy — but only after loudly decrying the practice as old-fashioned, outdated, and unnecessary. “We now live in a culture where affluent, educated, and well-connected people validate and affirm the behaviours, decisions, and attitudes of marginalised and deprived kids that they would never accept for themselves or their own children,” he writes.

Prior to writing his book, Henderson was best known for his concept of luxury beliefs, and his tart critiques of America’s ruling class — from a guy who fought his way into their spaces but nevertheless dissents from their orthodoxies — have made him a thorn in the side of those who might have been otherwise sympathetic to him on the basis of identity alone. It’s not unusual to see progressives denouncing Henderson as the purveyor of a particularly noxious brand of old-school, bootstraps conservatism, while ignoring the fact that he is, by any definition, a marginalised person who has succeeded against enormous odds.

By some coincidence of the seasonal publishing schedule, Henderson’s memoir has ended up being not just an ideological counterpart to Roden Winter’s but a competitor in the same genre, which makes for an interesting exercise in the revealed preferences of the publishing community and readers alike. Roden Winter, who had virtually no public presence before More made her an overnight sensation, has been criss-crossing the country on a multi-city book tour while her memoir climbs the New York Times bestseller list. Henderson, who has a six-figure following on X, tens of thousands of Substack subscribers, and an extensive publication history including bylines in the New York Times itself, reportedly approached multiple bookstores about hosting an event, only to be rebuffed.

Henderson describes this as political snobbery, pure and simple: “If you grow up poor and aren’t willing to pledge fealty to the right causes, these places don’t want you. If you grew up poor, remake your fortunes, and then speak truthfully about the factors that fuel success (hard work, determination, sacrifice) rather than the factors elites speak about (luck, systemic forces, privilege), then these places don’t want you,” he wrote, before drawing a pointed comparison between himself and Roden Winter. “Maybe if I were a polyamorous upper-middle-class author with 94 followers and wrote a memoir of having an open marriage I would have better luck. Right background, check; right boxes, check.”

But having read both books, I wonder if Henderson’s snubbing is a matter of pedigree and politics, or if it’s down to something more basic — the same thing that makes Marianne’s Sense and Sensibility storyline so much more exciting and compelling than her sister’s. Because in many ways, Trouble and More are meditations on the same issue, just from different angles and through different lenses. Both books consider the implications of a belief system which argues, among other things, that a fully actualised life must be lived in defiance of the traditional social strictures that sometimes place honour and duty above desire and passion. Henderson points to the benefits of climbing into that box, while Roden Winter disconsolately kicks at its confines. But they’re still talking about the same structure, the same expectations, and the same culture that suggests we stop at nothing to achieve authenticity, no matter the destabilising effects of that journey on everyone else.

On one hand, the freedom to love with wild abandon is also the freedom to make a trainwreck of your life; on the other, the rules that seek to protect us from harm and heartbreak can easily turn into a cage of decorum. This tension, between the yearnings of sensibility and the principles of sense, is not easily resolved; nor is the question of what sexually liberated women want, and whether what we want is good for us, which is why we continue to revisit it in memoir and novels, dramas and documentaries, political polemics and religious sermons. And yet everyone who tackles such tensions, from Jane Austen to Rob Henderson to Molly Roden Winter, tends to reach the same conclusion — or at least, to point their audience toward it. More may style itself as a memoir of self-discovery, and its author may even believe that it is, but those who read it are unlikely to conclude that an open marriage is the key to personal growth — or a good idea in general.

And what of Henderson’s book? It’s more straightforward, more prescriptive, and yes, more conservative, but its weakness is not in its message. It’s that the responsibility and restraint he advocates make a good soldier, a good student, and a good man — but not, as it turns out, a good story. Troubled lacks the shamelessness, the self-evisceration, the sordid drama that is the hallmark of so many compelling memoirs — and that More offers up in spades. Henderson’s trauma is in his past, and he holds both it and his audience at a remove; his memoir reads more like a TED talk than a diary entry.

Roden-Winter, on the other hand, straps her audience into the passenger seat of her life and then pilots the whole thing over a cliff, naked, screaming all the way down. And given the choice between two stories that beg more or less the same moral conclusions, of course people are going to want the one where someone gets to third base in a karaoke bar.

Rob Henderson will be discussing his new book at the UnHerd Club on 12 March. Book tickets here.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.