By Guy Somerset
Among the very young and the very old (and generally the very bitter) is a common misperception of undesirability concerning romantic partners with an age disparity.
Typically "May-December Romances" are characterized by a difference of at least eight years though sometimes a far more significant figure. Yet despite what some would initially dismiss as unlikely, a great many such pairings result in positive experiences for both parties.
Indeed, some of the most important men and women have enjoyed partnerships whose artistic and intellectual products have significantly increased the beauty and charm of the world - much to the chagrin of the envious unhappy hordes...
It All Began With a Girl
Although the attraction of opposites has been going on for millennia we begin with one of the most famous romances in all of Russian history - Conchita and Rezanov. The tale of the demure young girl, daughter of the Spanish Commandant of California, encountering the dashing older ambassador has enchanted generations. At the time she was 15 and he was 42. It was an age difference of 27 years.
Captain Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov arrived in the San Francisco Bay of California by way of (then-Russian) Alaska in the year 1806. He had been appointed to high rank by three succeeding monarchs, culminating in his becoming Chamberlain of Czar Alexander I. Rezanov and his men were stationed at the then struggling fur-trading outpost of Sitka and embarked south in search of desperately needed supplies.
During negotiations the Russian met Maria de la Concepcion, child of the leading Spanish official. Unfortunately trade negotiations were not to end well, though where commerce withered romance bloomed. Conchita immediately took a liking to her distinguished visitor even as she was herself described as vivacious, brilliant and having "a thousand other charms."
Throughout their weeks spent at the site the couple would take long walks along the shore and explore the Presidio together. Eventually a compact was proposed and it was agreed Rezanov would commence to the Court in order to receive permission for the Russian Orthodox-Roman Catholic wedding.
The Captain rushed toward St. Petersburg. During his journey he contracted pneumonia three times yet carried onward and traversed the expanse of Siberia at tremendous peril. Tragically, for both the lovers and world history, a relapse and fall from his horse midway upon his route resulted in death.
Conchita would not learn of the passing of her fiancé for a half-decade though true as ever to her one true love, she later entered a Dominican convent and never married for the remainder of her days. She died in 1857 at the age of 66, outliving her beloved by nearly 52 years.
Happier Endings Lie Ahead
Though the above is the quintessential romantic tale of enduring ardor history offers many relationships since whose endings are quite happier. Moreover, these pairings frequently involve the more remarkable individuals in the annals of the ages.
Far from being a function of lasciviousness or mere lust, one explanation may be that nothing - absolutely nothing - is as it seems in this world. Wisdom requires time and solitude for the contemplative man to even begin to ascertain the true nature of reality. Only then can he pursue more pleasurable aims.
Yet, the abundance of prominent examples is such one must try to condense the topic into some kind of order. Given the medium, this is best done with authors and their paramours.
Perhaps the preferred subject with which to begin is the man who invented the modern novel. Miguel de Cervantes was born near Madrid in the city of Alcala de Henares, Spain in the year 1547. Though today he is remembered primarily as the writer of Don Quixote it bears mentioning he also was a solider during one of the greatest clashes in history, The Battle of Lepanto of 1571, in which the Muslim scourge was turned back, thus beginning the defense of Europe.
After participating in later campaigns Cervantes was captured by the Turks who kept him a slave for five years in Algiers, only narrowly escaping execution. His return home in 1580 permitted him to begin writing by 1585 with his masterwork only seeing print in 1605. It is dually notable he did not find literary success until nearly sixty years old.
In any event, the marriage of Cervantes took place in 1584 when he was already 37. Catalina de Salazar y Palacios was born in 1565, making her only 19 at the time and an 18 year age difference between the pair. For those who would decry that May-December romance is a function of mere lucre it must be repeated that the duo wed well before Cervantes achieved either wealth or fame.
Though the frequent and prolonged separation of the couple has been interpreted by the small-minded as evidence of marital discord, the fact remains that contemporary descriptions of the two comment on them as both "loving" and "in harmony." Thus, this character trait of absence evinces a wanderlust inherent in Cervantes far prior to his betrothal than anything inherent in their relations.
Further demonstrating this truth was the ample financial provision the husband made for his wife, her rearing of his illegitimate daughter from a previous interaction as well as that they remained together unto death with her insisting to be interred near the body of her darling upon her own demise.
Mark Twain, the American humorist, was married in 1870 and it was a union which would last 34 years until the passing of his wife in 1904. Olivia Langdon Clemmons was born in 1845, making her 25 when the pair wed, with Samuel Clemmons born in 1835 being a full 10 years her senior. Together they had three daughters and one son who died with Diphtheria as a child. By all accounts, most importantly the spouses themselves, they and their family were cheerful and contented throughout the decades.
Across the Atlantic the author George Orwell married his second wife in 1949. Being born in India the year 1903, Orwell was all of 46 when he made the altar. His wife Sonia Mary Brownell, also born in India the year 1918, was 31 at the time. The difference in their ages was 15 years, which is roughly considered to be one half of a generation. It seems not to have mattered in the slightest. Though to her detractors Sonia was derided as a "literary groupie" she in fact remained with George through the final months of his life as he was ill and suffering from Tuberculosis, and is later reported to have bitterly mourned him.
Only slightly besting Orwell comes magnificent Joseph Conrad. Originally from the Ukrainian region of Imperial Russia, Polish by blood and English by nationality he is perhaps the greatest writer of the Nineteenth Century. In 1896 he married his wife who was an Englishwoman. Born in 1857, he was 38 at the time even as Jessie Emmeline George, born in 1873, was but 22.
The difference between them was 16 years and to many outside observers his choice was curious to say the least. Jessie was variously described by witnesses as a plain, solid working-girl. Virginia Wolf was less kind, referencing her as a "lump of a wife." Even so, they were married until his death in 1924 with a product of two sons.
Fellow citizen Charles Dickens beat them both though never married the girl in question. Born in 1812, at age 46 the writer divorced his first wife Catherine Thomson Dickens in 1858. He had become smitten with a young actress named Ellen Ternan. Having herself come into the world in 1839 she was barely 18 years old when they met.
Despite the age difference of over 27 years the two had a torrid assignation which is plausibly believed to have led to a surreptitious pregnancy in France. This pairing ended only with his death 13 years later and its effect is credited with some of the aspects of the novel Great Expectations, among his best.
Reaching the Continent, we come to giant Alexander Dumas, Pere. Born in 1802, Dumas did not marry until 1840, when he was aged 37. His wife was Ida Ferrier, born in 1811, aged 29. Their respective age difference was 8 years, making them on the light side of our disparities though well within the seasonal difference. In fairness, this match was not so idealistic.
Dumas had numerous dalliances, at least four known illegitimate children during his life with three more discovered by researchers a century later as well as possibly forty mistresses in total. He lived in Russia for a time and his retelling of The Nutcracker as a play is credited with being the source material upon which the Tchaikovsky ballet is based.
In Germany we find Thomas Mann. Born in 1875 and married in 1905, he was age 30 at the time. His wife, Katia Pringsheim Mann was born 1883, making her age 22 for the ceremony. It was another difference of 8 years though this time much happier. They had six children together before his death in 1955, a union of 50 years total.
Fellow German Heinrich Hesse entered into a similar arrangement though a tad more prolific with the wives than the children. Born in 1877, Hesse was 27 when he walked down the aisle the first time in 1904. Maria Bernoulli was born in 1868, making her the older woman by nearly 10 years.
Interestingly, all three of the children of Hesse were born to the foremost partner rather than those who followed. Second wife Ruth Wenger was from Switzerland and born in 1897, making her 20 years his junior at the wedding in 1924. Third wife Ninon Auslander was from Ukraine and born in 1895, making her 18 years younger at their ceremony in 1931.
Finally arriving in Russia, Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 and wed in 1901, at age 41. His wife Olga Knipper was born in 1868, making her 33 at the time. Their age difference was 8 years. He passed away only three years later from Tuberculosis. Though, it is said that the most ardent affair of his life was with a girl named Lydia Lika Mizinova who was 19 years old when Chekhov encountered her in 1889. He was 10 years older than her when they met.
Seemingly irresistible to women, the author continued with Lika for more than ten years. The liaison apparently ended when Mizinova was not content to be immortalized and merely wanted to be married. This evidently pushed the writer away. She moved to Paris where she had an illegitimate child by a man who soon left her. In subsequent years she married a Theater Director in Moscow though that likewise ended in a divorce after twenty years. In time, Lika drifted back to the French capital where she died in 1939, outliving her most renowned lover by 35 years.
Russian Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in 1821 and married his first wife in 1857 at age 36. Maria Dostoevskaya was born in 1824 and age 33, being only three years younger. The marriage continued until her death in 1864. At his second marriage the author was 46 years old while Anna Dostoevskaya was born in 1846 and was age 21 when they married in 1867. Their age difference was 25 years.
Stories are myriad of how while totally focused on his work Dostoevsky was cared for by his wife, even to the extent she would remind him to carry money and choose the clothes which he would wear each day.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 and married his first wife in 1940 at age 22. Natalia Alekseevna Reshetovskaya was also born in 1918 and age 22 at the time. Despite their relationship lasting 43 years, they divorced in 1973 and it was a match described as tempestuous at best. In fact, they married two times and divorced two times in total.
For his second marriage the writer was 55 years old while Natalia Solzhenitsyna was born in 1939 and was 34 years old when they married in 1973. Their age difference was 19 years. Yet this attempt proved far more suitable, lasting unto the death of the author. Indeed, they had three children together.
History is Sealed with a Kiss
We end much at the place we began - a Russian nobleman, though of the contemporary variety. While never quite officially confirmed, it is strongly suspected that President Vladimir Putin has long been seeing the lovely gymnast Alina Kabaeva. Evidently they have been together for at least five years though possibly more.
As a beautiful Gold-Medal winning Olympian, Kabaeva could have had her pick of millions of men. She needed no protector or powerful figure lest it was a match born of genuine passion - once more showing sincere affection trumps the cynicism of any who allege venal motives.
He was born in 1952 which makes him 66 years old as of this writing. She was born in 1983 and is 35 years old. The age difference is 31 years and whenever photographed together the couple could not seem to be happier - a May-December dynamic which would undoubtedly make Rezanov smile.
Which only goes to prove that everything old is young again.
Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America.