Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
- Kate at Kate Rae Davis; Reading Culture, Finding God (on break this month)
- TJ at My Book Strings
- Eva at The Paperback Princess (on break this month)
What a treat this book was. The kind of book that has me wondering why I don’t read more like it. I ended up having to buy it for this occasion, and it was worth every penny. So pretty and it has a wonderful smell! I have to confess that I’m now strongly considering signing up for a Persephone book subscription. Don’t tell my husband!
As it happens, it’s also a great choice for the Literary Wives.
Synopsis from Goodreads: Mrs Heyham’s daughter leaves home to get married and suddenly Mrs Heyham is left with no family and nothing to do (the servants ensure that she does no work in the house). The daughter, who is young and modern in outlook, suggests that her mother takes more interest in the family business… ‘she discovers that these poor creatures [the women who work in the tea shops] are wretchedly underpaid; that they have to stand for too long hours; that they have to eat their meals in damp cupboards.’ The result is a serious strain on the marriage.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
One thing I loved about this book is that the husband, James, is not a brute, which means our feelings for him (and his wife’s feelings for him) are not straight forward. He’s actually very kind and loving in many ways, and the ways he’s not are in line with men’s thoughts and attitudes about women at the time. When he treats her like a frail child, I think he really believes that she needs protecting and that it’s his job to do it. And though to us it sounds patronizing, Mary does not seem to mind it. (She’s quite possibly just happy to have a husband who doesn’t beat her.)
But once Mary gets out there and discovers how other people live – other women, in particular – and realizes how comfortable she’s had it all these years, she feels a responsibility to help make their lives better. Her husband wants things to remain as they are. When he agreed to “let” his wife take an interest in the business, he believed she would tire of it, or that she wouldn’t be capable of understanding it. So it takes him off guard when she is persistent with her request of raising the women’s salaries.
He wanted the business to be a success, and, to his credit, an honest success; she wanted that too, but she wanted more that it should make the people who worked for it happy. How were they – James and she – going to surmount these opposing attitudes?
This new dimension of their relationship allows Mary to see another side of her husband. And, like most things, if you look too closely, you’re probably going to see things you don’t want to see. As the story moves forward, both husband and wife work through their thoughts about each other; how they feel about these new revelations, how they feel about each other after these revelations have come to light, and how they are going to negotiate their new relationship.
Mary’s feelings about her husband severely waver when she finds out about his infidelity. She could never have imagined her loving husband doing such a thing to her, and is very hurt. On the other hand, James can’t understand why she would be so horribly upset about something that felt practically insignificant to him. At the time, he felt he was doing the other woman a kindness – he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. (This is what he says, but can he really think that?)
Mary, thinking of her daughter, in light of what happened to her…
This lovely child whose body Mary had made, who only a few years ago had lain, a little soft laughing thing, on Mary’s lap, was to be at the mercy of a man – she was to see the whole of life through his love – her children were to be his children. She would give herself to him, and in return, if he chose to sin, he would lie to her.
Mary’s mind spins as she tries to work out how she feels about infidelity and deceit. Is it a forgivable sin? More forgivable for some than others? She also ruminates on the differences between men and women. These are things we are still grappling with in today’s society and our own relationships.
Why did men exist? Why couldn’t they be trusted? Why couldn’t they keep away from girls? Why did girls ever want to have anything to do with them? Always these troubles on account of men!
Amber Reeves does an amazing job clearly articulating each of their thoughts as they go through this turmoil. The reader comes to see both points of view, keeping in mind the attitudes of the day.
Unlike some of the other books out there about imperfect marriages, this one ends relatively happily. No suicides or wallowing in self pity. (Hooray!) Mary decides to forgive her husband in light of all he has done for her and been for her in the last 25 years. And she believes he truly loves her. But she is also going to move forward with plans of her own, and be more firm in her business decisions, even if her husband may not agree with them.
In future she would have a life of her own, and importance greater than the importance of her smiles of of her sympathy.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
For the first 25 years of their marriage, Mary performed a “traditional” wifely role; passive, nurturing, and putting her husband’s and children’s needs before her own. But as the wife of a well-to-do man, she was also very sheltered from the rest of the world. And when she finally got out and had a look at it, it triggered other interests and ambition. She’s no longer content to be solely a “housewife”. She wants to do something more, and has to find a way to make her husband accept this “new” wife; to prove to her husband that she has a brain and a mind of her own. (And that that’s okay.)
Though Mary was willing to move out on her own to live a more independent life, she prefered to work things out with her husband, even though she knew their relationship would never be the same as it was before. Unlike in other books like The Awakening, Mary loves her husband and is willing to compromise in order to make things better between them. I consider this to be a pretty happy ending compared to most of the books we read about marriage.
One of the messages I get from this book is that things don’t need to be perfect in order for one to be happy; including a marriage. A good message in a world where we constantly see images of our friends’ and neighbours’ “perfect” lives, and compare them to our own.
Now she was middle-aged, and her life was failing her. With the children went its purpose and its meaning.
Men, for her, had been creatures to be pleased and to be cared for, and men had loved her and been good to her precisely because of this attitude of hers.
His authority, to her, appeared as an ultimate fact.
There was no doubt in her mind that most of the wives she knew understood their husbands thoroughly, thus sparing them the trouble of understanding their wives.
… she must – in addition be scrupulously loyal to James. James’s wisdom, his deliberate decisions, must come first, her own little vanities and disappointments, her inrestrained longings, fell naturally into a second place.
Never for a moment, she thought, had she been free.
[In anger that she had left him] She was his – his possession – his woman – and she had defied him.
The whole thing came, he went on to explain to himself, of educating women and encouraging them to express their absurd opinions.
A favourite passage… Miss Percival’s rant against men:
When I look at their faces in the street, in a bus, anywhere, their mean stupid faces – men who get their ideals out of the half-penny papers, men who think about money on an office stool all day, and then go home and treat some woman as an inferior – I wonder that any woman has ever loved a man…. They’ve taken the whole world and made it theirs; everything we have in it is only ours, now, becasue they choose to give it to us. We haven’t even a right to our own children. And if we don’t like what they give, if we loathe it, if we’re in anguish, they don’t care. They’re not interested in us, they don’t want to know what we are in ourselves, or what we think of our lives, it saves them trouble to call us mysteries… To one another they’re civilised people, but to us to whom they’ve denied their civilisation they’re savages – arrogant, intolerant, vain, angry with anything that disturbs their comfort.
She goes on for another page, but I’ll save the rest for you to discover yourself!
From what I read in the Preface, Amber Reeves sounds like a remarkable woman. I’m very happy to have read her book.
Have you read this? What is your favourite Persephone book?
Next: The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt, February 5, 2018 – Join us!