Emma Chapman, author of How To Be A Good Wife, uses famous literary marriages to reflect on womanhood and wifeliness, and where the two intersect.
When I wasn’t ogling Backstreet Boys posters, much of my adolescence and early adulthood was spent pondering a woman’s role. Rationally, I wanted to be more than somebody’s wife: to make my own mark on the world. But I also wanted the romance of falling in love, to be a wife and mother, to have a family and to take care of them. Even now, 27 and excited to be engaged, I often feel the undertow of past literary marriages, and their suggestion of marriage as limiting of a woman’s individuality.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were four cardinal virtues of being a ‘true’ woman: domesticity, piety, submissiveness and purity. The wifely duties interspersed throughout my novel, How To Be a Good Wife, are loosely based on a 1954 article in an American women’s magazine. It would be wonderful to think that these ideas of ‘woman’ as equal to only ‘wife’ are outdated in modern times. It’s true that women have many more choices now. But it is also true that marriage can still be seen as a destination: an end point after which our womanly existence is complete. Meeting the right man and getting married is still something that is considered a life achievement rather than an add-on, as it is with men. Once we have reached the verge of marriage, it is easy to forget about other things we may have wanted to pursue. I think that Emily Dickinson brilliantly suggests the inherent dangers in the issues facing women even today in her Poem 199:
I'm ‘wife’ – I've finished that –
That other state –
I’m Czar – I’m ‘Woman’ now –
It’s safer so –
How odd the Girl’s life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse –
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven – now –
This being comfort – then
That other kind – was pain –
But why compare?
I'm ‘Wife’! Stop there!
However, it’s also easy to be overly negative about married life: to focus on the limitations rather than the rewards. Your marriage will only be as strong as your relationship: a ceremony isn’t going to change or fix things. Today, there seems to be an unhealthy focus on the day itself: the wedding industry is big business, and many young brides seem to focus more on this than on the future. It seems somewhat unbalanced that there is so much pressure on a wedding as ‘the biggest day of a woman’s life’, after which traditionally she is only to expect the humdrum and the domestic.
There are many reasons to get married, but the one we all hope will apply to us is formalization of an already great relationship. Most modern couples live together, sleep together, and share some finances: all of which couldn’t be done in the past until you had walked down the aisle. All we can really ask is that the person we marry sees us not only as someone to help him, but someone who is his equal. I don’t think any literary figure puts this better than Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in a struggle of wills with Mr Rochester, who ultimately does respect and care for her: ‘Would it not be strange to be chained to life to a man who regarded one but as a useful tool?’
Elinor and Edward of Sense and Sensibility are also described as having a relationship of compliance and equality: ‘They were brought together by mutual affection… their intimate knowledge of each other seemed to make their happiness certain.’
Conversely, the relationship of Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night shows a relationship of inequality, with Nicole relying too heavily on Dick as a saviour figure. Shown to be destructive, we watch this dependence lessen both members of the relationship, preventing them from reaching their full potential as individuals.
Marriage shouldn’t be a hindrance to women, but should allow us to reach our potential in the same way as it does for a man. Being together, you should be more than you both are alone, rather than less. It seems common for women to minimize themselves, to make compromises, to fit in with their partner.
To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude.
As I look forward, this is what I hope for my own marriage. In my novel, How To Be A Good Wife, I explore the limitations of the traditional wifely role on women, and its effects on their psychology in the long term. Of course, these themes are not new to literature: novels such as Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth explore female autonomy, to name only a few. How To Be A Good Wife is not a condemnation of marriage, but a probing of the ideas, both past and present, surrounding marriage and domesticity. Marta and Hector’s marriage is a particular one, an unbalanced one: to what degree is for the reader to decide.
Emma Chapman's life in books
Read an extract from the novel