A Marriage Below Zero (1889)

Author: Alan Dale

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

There is perhaps no clear connection between the author and the queer community. Like so many authors of this period, it is difficult to know the nature of their sexual orientations, as people did not talk openly about attraction outside of a heteronormative context. We do know that Alan Dale was a pseudonym for Alfred J. Cohen (“Alfred J. Cohen”). The author was born in Britain, but he moved to New York and became a theater critic and novelist (“Alfred J. Cohen”).

What is the plot of this book?

Elsie Bouverie, the main character of the book, is an upper class woman in London who is an outsider. According to her narration, she appears not to conform as strictly to the norms of women in her milieu. Elsie derides the open expression of emotions and affection that afflicts the newly-weds of her age. One might even characterize Elsie as rebellious in her prudery. Nevertheless, she does desire to marry.

To Elsie, Arthur Ravener is unique, despite his bad reputation and constant presence around Captain Dillington. Elsie appreciates that she can have a genuine conversation with Arthur without him flirting with her. Ironically, in the absence of flirtations, Elsie falls in love with Arthur, even though Elsie despises Arthur’s close friend Captain Dillington. Although Arthur readily agrees with Elsie’s standoffishness, he notices her romantic glances, and he asks Elsie to marry him. Arthur convinces Elsie to forego a honeymoon because he claims that honeymoons are out of style. However, Elsie cannot bear Arthur absconding to London on their wedding night, leaving her confused and alone at home.

The wedding night escape is not a singular event. Time and again, Arthur is away from home for long stretches. When Arthur is at home Captain Dillington is regularly with him, to Elsie’s chagrin. Arthur rebuffs Elsie’s advances and desire for intimacy, and Elsie becomes frustrated and despondent. Arthur notices Elsie’s discontent, and the two have a heart-to-heart talk, not before arguing extensively. Both wonder if their marriage was a mistake. While Arthur states his fondness for Elsie, he understood that their marriage would only consist of pleasant conversation. Elsie needs more out of her marriage.

Elsie resorts to seeking the advice of her aloof, pretentious mother, with whom she has a distant relationship. After Elsie describes her husband’s inattentiveness and frequent absences, her mother is convinced that Arthur is having an affair with another woman. Elsie’s mother refers her to a private detective, and Elsie enlists his services. Impatient to hear the private detective’s findings, Elsie breaks into Arthur’s locked private study in their home. Once in the study, she finds a payment for rent on a house in London.

Barreling through her grief and fury, Elsie breaks into the London house to confront Arthur and his alleged mistress. Elsie is not surprised to find Arthur with Captain Dillington inside the house, as she had suspected Dillington of arranging Arthur’s meetings with his mistress. Elsie’s fears about Dillington are confirmed when she finds him with Arthur in the house.

After Elsie’s discovery, Arthur falls very ill. Captain Dillington attempts to visit him, but Elsie turns him away. Miraculously, the relationship between Arthur and Elsie improves dramatically, and they are suddenly a loving couple. With hopes high, Elsie goes with Arthur to New York for a vacation. One day, as they pass a hotel, Arthur pauses curiously, but Elsie dismisses this hesitation. Later, Arthur feels ill and stays in the hotel while Elsie goes to the opera with some friends. Upon her return to the hotel, Arthur is gone.

Through dogged detective work, Elsie discovers that Arthur has boarded a ship back to England with Captain Dillington, whom she believes Arthur saw as he paused by the hotel. Despite Elsie’s attempt to find Arthur and save him from Dillington’s influence, she eventually relents. Realizing that her marriage is probably irreparable, Elsie gives up looking for Arthur and goes into seclusion. After some time has passed, Elsie discovers that Dillington is embroiled in a scandal in Paris. She goes to Paris and locates his hotel room. Elsie discovers that Dillington has been arrested and Arthur has killed himself in the hotel room. Before leaving the hotel room, she finds photographs of Dillington and Arthur and destroys them.

How is this book queer?

Unlike many novels in the Queer Male Canon Project, this novel is told from the perspective of a woman. This may seem like a novel conceit, except that it leaves the main queer characters nearly voiceless. Equally disappointing is the desperation of Elsie as a heartbroken wife. Taken together, the book implicitly serves as a testimonial for marriage equality so that queer men can love and women can be spared from marriages based upon lies.

The character of Elsie is problematic because she elicits both empathy and frustration from the reader. Is Elsie simply an awkward, isolated, and foolish young lady, or is she also a calculating, unreliable narrator who portrays herself as a victim? Does Elsie marry Arthur knowing that he was queer in order to sabotage her own happiness or to rebel against her pretentious mother? The reader never really discovers the answers to these questions, but there are clues.

Elsie is attracted to Arthur because he is different. They are both introverts, and they share a disdain for social functions and customs. However, Arthur’s peers return the hatred, seemingly because of his close relationship with Dillington. From the beginning, there are suggestions of a queer relationship and the peers’ homophobia. Elsie misses the subtlety, and she actually admires the close friendship. However, does she miss the subtlety? Before they are even married Elsie says, “I had already seen them often together, and I knew Arthur Ravener was a different man when removed from his friend.”

The details of the wedding and honeymoon should have given Elsie pause. Arthur rushes the wedding and cancels the honeymoon. Before the cancellation, Elsie had jokingly wondered what Dillington would do during their honeymoon. Does Elsie use humor to deny the truth? Indeed, Arthur spends the night of the honeymoon with Dillington instead of Elsie. This must alarm her, yet Elsie retreats into denial.

Arthur’s lack of affection toward Elsie manifests itself physically. Right after the wedding, Arthur “could not have looked more hopelessly subdued if he had been sitting in a funeral coach, and going to bury a friend.” Elsie demands a kiss from Arthur as he leaves the house, but he kisses her “so coldly and undemonstratively” that she feels surprised and even “chilled.” Elsie must know that this is not normal behavior for spouses.

Nevertheless, Arthur is not cruel, nor does he exactly lie. Arthur takes constitutionals with Elsie, and he maintains pleasant conversations with her during meals. Elsie tries to make Arthur jealous by hosting another man at their home, but Arthur politely engages the man in chatter. Sensing her frustration, Arthur tries to provide a sensible explanation, without outing himself. Arthur tells Elsie that he thought he would never marry, claiming “that women were too exacting.” He even tells Elsie the truth: “I came to the conclusion that you were unlike other girls—that we would live quietly and happily together as friends—you going your way and I going mine.” Arthur believed that Elsie was serious when she claimed that she “would be satisfied with quiet friendship instead of impetuous passion.” Since Arthur is not cruel or abusive and he is surprisingly candid about his emotions, it would be very reasonable for Elsie to consider Arthur’s intense feelings for Dillington as she ponders his aloofness toward her.

Clearly, Elsie is very daft or very much in denial. The reader nonetheless feels sad for Elsie as she overhears two men talking on the train about the rumors of Arthur’s relationship with Dillington. The men quite reasonably theorize that Arthur married a foolish girl simply to quiet the rumors, and that he surreptitiously continues his relationship with Dillington. Even after hearing this, Elsie still does not understand, or at least she claims ignorance. As time and again, she finds Arthur with Dillington, she only perceives that the latter has some unknown evil influence over the former. Her confusion continues even when she discovers Arthur’s secret house with Dillington and when Arthur and Dillington run off together on a ship from New York to England. Only then does she begin to worry simply that another woman may not be the source of the mysterious iniquity.

Why does not Arthur tell Elsie about his relationship with Dillington? Why does not Elsie give up on her marriage? The answer to both questions is that Elsie was on a mission to “save” Arthur, and Arthur knew this. Elsie commits herself to separating Arthur and Dillington: “It was only by removing him from this man, whom I felt to be his evil genius, that I could have hoped to win my husband.”

Even at the end of the novel, Elsie remains possessive of her husband: “He was mine, and I would cherish him forever.” Only at the very end of the book is Elsie suddenly “repulsed” to see photographs of Dillington and Arthur in the same frame. She smashes the frame, tears the photographs, and throws the fragments out the window, her hands bleeding profusely from broken glass. She then leaves the hotel room, without another look at Arthur’s dead body. Elsie becomes a villain because she cannot bear Dillington and Arthur being together once again in death.

Although Arthur and Dillington suffer a tragic fate, their love is real and glorious. Among their peers, Arthur and Dillington are known as Damon and Pythias, after the Greek legend of two friends with a profound friendship (“Damon and Pythias”). All of their peers deride their closeness, joking that they would dance with each other at parties if that were socially acceptable.

Sadly, Arthur and Dillington are in constant fear that their love for each other will be discovered, knowing that the discovery of their love will separate them. In fact, when Elsie asks Arthur how Dillington is, she observes a pained Arthur: “There had been a smile on his face as I began my speech. It froze at once—as they say in the novels. A pained blush spread slowly over his face.” Later, when Elsie discovers Arthur’s secret house, Arthur asks her why she has come to the house. Dillington interrupts and explains that Elsie expected Arthur to be with a woman at the house. Elsie retorts that she does not have “business” with a woman, only Dillington. Thinking Elsie has discovered his relationship with Arthur, Dillington “gasped,” which is a word that carries with it a connotation of dramatic queerness.

Eventually Dillington quite bravely fights for his relationship with Arthur. When Elsie objects to Arthur returning home with her, Dillington says it is Arthur’s right to do so because Elsie is his wife. Elsie fires back, “And you- ?” This reply startles Dillington, as he again believes that Elsie has discovered his relationship with Arthur. Courageously, Dillington answers, “I am his friend, and I am not ashamed of it.” They were at college together, and their “intimacy has continued since those days.” Dillington proclaims that he would “aid Arthur Ravener whenever [he] can; [he] will do anything for him.” Dillington virtually professes his love for Arthur to Elsie: “He is my bosom friend, and I am ready to say so before anybody.”

Although he may not be as brave or vocal, Arthur reciprocates Dillington’s love. When Elsie questions the hotel detective in New York about Arthur’s interaction with Dillington at the hotel, the detective describes a romantic rendezvous: “The young man seemed to be much excited. He could hardly reply to the glib remarks of his companion. He appeared to be in a dream.”

One could interpret the title of the book to be the marriage of Elsie and Arthur. Their romance is frigid and fraudulent. In contrast, the true, unofficial marriage is that of Arthur and Dillington. Their marriage is “below zero” because society spurns the idea of queer male romance. Only below zero, in the hidden corners out of the public’s view, can Arthur and Dillington love each other honestly.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

One can imagine this story being retold, perhaps in a film adaptation, in a sensitive way that portrays the anguish of the queer characters, like Todd Haynes captures such anguish in his film Carol. Nevertheless, tragedy mercilessly ravages the lives of all the main characters. Some lose their lives, and all lose love. One wonders about the real purpose of this novel. If the purpose is to convey this anguish, the author could have more effectively done this by telling the story from the perspective of one of the queer characters. In fact, the novel actually transcends the queer relationship by serving as a cautionary tale of rushing into a marriage at a young age. Indeed, Elsie ignores the warning signs to her own detriment, and Arthur naively believes that he can continue his relationship with Dillington without consequences. If you like tales of jealousy, tragedy, and unrequited love, then this novel is for you.


“Alfred J. Cohen.” Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4852-dale-alan. Accessed 30 Nov. 2018.

Dale, Alan. A Marriage Below Zero. Kindle ed., Amazon, 2017.

“Damon and Pythias.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10 Jan. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Damon-and-Pythias-Greek-legend. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.