#LiteraryWives: A Lady and Her Husband

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:

On February 5, we’ll be reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. Feel free to join us.

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14 comments

  1. I’ve just read Naomi’s review of this too and I’m finding it very hard to resist buying a copy! It really does sound wonderful. Your description of the ending is compelling – it sounds balanced & realistic but still hopeful.

  2. Hmm interesting. I had not heard of this seeming gem from 1914. It sounds like Mary’s self-education or journey of self-discovery – really opens her eyes to things both outside her home & within. I like those themes!

  3. Despite being published in 1914, hoe incredibly relevant the book still is, TJ! I want to know how Mary coped with all of it in the later stage of her life; as in, her daughter is married and then she recieves a shocker. I am curious to know more about her. I think I will read this book, TJ. 🙂

  4. Oh, I like that point about it being undramatic. That’s exactly it. It is showing a real-life situation and not trying to make it into high drama. I’m sorry I posted late. I was on vacation and meant to post from the hotel, but forgot.

    • I was afraid something had happened to prevent you from posting. I’m glad to hear it was a vacation, and not something bad. The pragmatic way Mary handled her changing outlook on her life and her drastically changing view of the men in her life really appealed to me.

  5. Interesting about the title – I’d never really noticed that the man always comes first till you mentioned it! Also intriguing that you and Naomi felt so similarily about this one – sounds like a well balanced look at the subject as opposed to the many melodramas out there…

  6. We agree on so many things! That the book was worth buying, that it was a treat to read, that James’s excuse for cheating was really lame, and that it’s a refreshing chnage to see the woman work out her feelings rationally rather than choose to end it all. Although, to be fair to the characters who do commit suicide, I don’t believe they loved their husbands as Mary does.
    I’m glad you pointed out the great title!
    I’m so curious to know how Rosemary’s marriage turned out…

    • It is wonderful that we agree on so many things! It was refreshing to see a woman who decides to work through the problems in her life and her marriage because she can still see how good her life had been, even if it is no longer perfect. I’d love to know how Mary and James get on and also how Rosemary’s marriage turns out. That would be a great follow-up. 🙂

  7. Oh wow, this sounds terrific – the era and setting are right up my street. I really need to put aside some time to take a proper look at the Persephone catalogue. It must be full of hidden gems like this, lesser-known treasures just waiting to be discovered. Lovely review.

    • Jacqui, I believe you would really enjoy this book! It does give you a great sense of time and place, so I agree that it should be right up your alley. (I am afraid to look too closely at the Persephone catalogue… :))

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