Virtues of wifeliness

August 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

By coincidence, I found myself reading two books about marriage and wifehood at the same time: Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Wife and Julia Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever. That one was a staid historical investigation and the other a genre romance seemed to me to be a rather serendipitous and fitting reflection of the current conception of Wifeliness, particularly here in Southeast Asia; one that requires a wife to be appropriately sober and sensible in tandem with being the ideal embodiment of femininity and the as the supreme gatekeeper to romance. Or perhaps not. I wouldn’t know, not being a wife. But from my perspective as wildly unleashed Single Woman it was vicarious fun to romp in satin sheets via the Quinn book and take a long, detailed walk through the history of Western wives via the Yalom book.

Yalom tries to be specific with her title, yet one still feels that it should have been subtitled: “The White Wife of America and Western Europe”. Full of historical facts and figures, and plenty of primary sources including letters and speech transcripts, Yalom’s book attempts to paint a broad yet cohesive picture of the white wife from the time of antiquity until the present day. I realise that my use of the term “white” is also fraught with complexities, but it refers precisely to Yalom’s focus of the book. In sections where there was a need to mention black wives (such as during the time of slavery) or Native American wives (during the conquest of America), Yalom, to her credit, does give a few pages to the subject, and then carries on with her primary subject – the white wives.

But this is not to devalue Yalom’s focus or historical approach, as a whole – typically, historians who set out to write a complete history of anything will naturally find themselves as at an impasse that must be breached or simply avoided when it comes to the curious matter of which groups of people to focus on, and why. While reading it, I tweeted about this book being a “sprightly romp” because it is – an extraordinary feast of historical nuggets ably extended to 400 pages thanks to Yalom’s strong sense of narrative and the genuine enthusiasm she seems to display for her material. It’s an able historian who’s able to draw attention to the changes societies have accrued over the years while still pointing out the many ways in which the changes can sometimes be at best, superficial, or limited to only certain groups of people. To wit:

In ancient Greece, a young woman was her father’s possession until she married. Then she was “given by her father to her husband. Remnants of this idea still exist in the Western marriage ceremony when the minister asks, “Who gives this woman?” and the bride’s father response, “I do.” A marriageable woman was a human commodity, to be transferred from her father’s home to her husband’s, where she assumed the latter’s name and was subject to his control.

When Yalom tells us that “legal wife beating did not disappear with the Middle Ages”, she contextualises the beliefs and mores of past societies that condoned the practice and assumed it to be as natural as breathing, while leaving readers with the uncomfortable reality of beliefs that persist in brutality and in number even when it stops being normal. The history of a wife, as Yalom tells it, is also the history of a husband – and because marriage was necessarily an integral part of life for all adult males and females up to the very recent 18th century – it is, also, quite simply the history of humankind.  Mediaeval Europe, heralding the birth of courtly or romantic love, emphasised flattery and wooing as means of winning over the female, but also sanctioned – in fact, promoted – rape and forcible sexual overtures as a way of breaking down the female’s “natural modesty”. It’s endlessly fascinating, the inherent conflicts that seem to be weaved into the very fabric of society itself, because a woman’s “natural modesty” is a construct of society, while rape also becomes a societal construct that is used to break down those defences that everyone knows might not really reveal a woman’s true feelings. That is, she might be shy and retiring because she is expected to be, but if you really love her and she really loves you, push her into a corner and sexually coerce her, because who knows? She might be really into you!

To that effect, Yalom’s book is also a fascinating glimpse of how “woman” is continually being made and remade to fit the exigencies of society. As she writes in her chapter on ‘Victorian Wives on Both Sides of the Atlantic’: “In keeping with the new view of woman as angel, she was stripped of all physical desire. The distinguished English doctor William Acton opined that ‘woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband’s embraces, but principally to gratify him.’ “

Quinn’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever is set just before the Victorian age in that small bright flicker of a flame that was the Georgian/Regency period – where simplicity governed fashion but social norms and mores were given to controlled, elegant flights of fancy. In this time, women were still not expected to make the first move and actively lust after or pursue their delicious man-dish of choice. They could, however, primp and preen and display a little bit of delicious bosom in order to subtly and deviously get the right man-dish to be served at their table. Enter Miranda Cheever, only 10 years old, but already maligned for not looking the way pretty young girls who will soon be potential brides should. Enter also Nigel Turner, elder brother of Miranda’s best friend, Olivia, who on one particularly serendipitous day, tells Miranda this: “Someday you are going to grow into yourself, and you will be as beautiful as you are smart.”

Miranda goes home that night and writes in her diary: “Today, I fell in love.” As would anyone fall, 10-years-old or not, for the person who finds in them the promise of beauty. We’re not so much enraptured by the idea of being beautiful as much as we’re charmed by someone else’s revelation of the potential they see in us. How much more energising and vital to hear about our potential for beauty – which could be life-changing and GREAT, as it’s not in evidence yet – than it is to be told that “You’re beautiful”, which could mean nothing, really, once you go back home and look in the mirror.

And so the stage is set for the drama of love in Quinn’s book. Quinn is a clever writer with a great ear for fast-paced dialogue that’s ripe with casual wit and banter. Yet it still feels like she keeps reminding herself to stay well within the boundaries of genre, lest she go too far and allow her characters to say or think things that grasps the narrative by its petticoat and shoves it toward an unplanned direction. Because of this, situations or dialogues that initially develop with ease and spontaneity often end on a note of cliché or predictability. No doubt, that’s one of the challenges of writing intelligently in a genre. But in the case of this book in particular, it often feels lazy and uninspired.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy parts of the book or the occasional wit that transpires over the course of the narrative. Miranda is a character whom one is compelled to rally around, especially when she’s made out to be the underdog from the very first page. In a line of pretty, perfectly-behaved women waiting to be selected by men, Miranda earns herself the spot at the head of the line of the Interesting but Not Ugly women. In the Regency era, as is the case now, being interesting often left you with a good many men willing to dance with you, but none with the temerity to actually propose marriage.

Turner finally does propose marriage to Miranda, and that’s no surprise, because we pay for a romance novel in order to earn ourselves the right to enjoy the happily-ever-after. How it comes about is rather a twist; in this case, it’s Miranda who wants to marry for love, and because Turner has ex-wife issues that he has not dealt with, love is something that exists on the periphery of his consciousness. He likes Miranda, but marries her out of duty as he has “robbed” her of her virtue before they were engaged. The sex was consensual, but the handing over of virtue is the business of society. As Yalom outlined in her book, society was keen to look the other way in terms of pre-marital sex in pre-Victorian Britain, so long as the couple finally got engaged in the end. If this was pre-marital sex between the working classes, of course, no one really gave a flying chemise who did whom.

Miranda could have happily stayed single and enjoyed her father’s economic protection, if not his emotional one (he was distant and scholarly, if affectionate, and her mother is dead). There was no real urgency for marriage, unless she was pregnant (a scare that did come up as a momentum-creating plot device, but just as soon comfortingly dissolved). The fact that she could refuse Turner once doesn’t seem to have affected the relationship – as Turner is fulfilling his duty, he sketches out to Miranda a lifetime of good companionship, great conversation, and fantastic sex. She gives in, because she loves him. The thorn in her side at the beginning – that Turner never told her he loves her – is ably resolved in the end when she actually DOES become pregnant as a legitimate wife, undergoes a traumatic birth, and is recognised by Turner as the love of his life because she made a baby for him.

If Foucault wants to keep reminding us that power travels along a continuum and is never centred in one exact position forever, then perhaps Miranda and Turner’s marriage is a “modern” one that demonstrates how both husband and wife are able to antagonise and entertain each other, as well as keep the other in line. But in this particular world, it’s a power-balance that can be enjoyed only because Miranda herself is well-off. Furthermore, Quinn doesn’t so much write a central narrative that breaks the boundaries of the traditional marriage conventions as prescribe different methods of being within a marriage, assuming that all other factors – race, religion, class, and nationality – are all well under-control. But it’s clear, in the end, that Miranda is the only one who will ever play the role of the wife in this marriage.

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