Today’s book for the Literary Wives book club is Amber Reeves’ A Lady and Her Husband (1914). I had to bite the bullet and purchase a copy of the book, but it was an investment well worth it. I already know that this book will hold a special place on my book shelf. Before I start talking about it and my reaction to it, I want to point out how wonderful I think the title is. In recent years, there has been a glut of books with the title “The XYZ’s Wife” or “The XYZ’s Daughter.” You can pick whatever profession you want to insert for XYZ, and you can probably find a book with that title. While some of those books are great (The Paris Wife and Galileo’s Daughter, for example), I’ve grown rather tired of these titles and very rarely feel compelled to pick up any of them. Here, though, we get the lady listed first. YES! It shows us right away that not only is the lady defined by her husband, but that the husband is defined by his wife as well.
The setup of the story is rather straightforward. After Mary Heyham’s daughter gets married, Mary finds herself with nothing to do. Her children are grown, and she has enough servants to ensure she doesn’t have to lift a finger at home. Her daughter suggests she take an interest in the family business to keep herself busy. Mary’s husband, James, has no objections, never imagining what might come of Mary’s involvement in their chain of tea shops. For Mary discovers a world completely alien to her; she is confronted with the full force of her own ignorance. Before she meets the female employees of the tea shops, she never much thought about poor people—there was no need to. Now she discovers that her husband, a loving and friendly man, grossly underpays the women who work in the tea shops and that their working conditions are very far from ideal. Even worse, once she takes a closer look at her husband, she discovers that he is also very far from ideal. James has been unfaithful to her, and his excuse is very lame. Mary’s awakening culminates in her hiding herself away for a week to think things over and decide what to do next.
Aside from the extremely readable style, what I like most about the book was how realistic and, in many ways, undramatic it is. Mary is distraught by her naïveté, once she becomes aware of it, but she doesn’t let that stop her from taking responsibility for it and trying to change it. She never truly doubts that her husband loves her, despite his infidelity and his inability to see what she needs from him. Mary can acknowledge that he is working hard and providing a good home for her, even if she finds some, if not most, of his actions and gestures misguided and unfulfilling. She understands the limits of her own situation and the fact that her life will never be the same again, now that she is able to see the flaws in her husband and the unfair conditions a large number of people face in society at large. Yet rather than let that hold her down, or worse, commit suicide because of it, she decides to deal with it and maybe even make the best of it.
I found Mary’s rational way of handling her situation rather refreshing. I can’t say that there was a happy ending, inasmuch as it is obvious that Mary will always be aware of how much the women around her, and she herself, are at the mercy of the men in their lives, but I think that there is hope at the end that Mary and her husband will be on a more equal footing in their marriage and their business in the future. I dare say that there is even hope that they might be happy with each other again at some point. Overall, this book is a real treat.
Don’t forget to check out the reviews of the other book club members:
- Kay at What Me Read
- Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors
- Kate at Kate Rae Davis; Reading Culture, Finding God (on break this month)
- Naomi at Consumed By Ink
- Eva at The Paperback Princess (on break this month)
On February 5, we’ll be reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. Feel free to join us.