Husbands in books, from bad to worse

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.

It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.

This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.

I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.

He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.

And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.

The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.

It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.

There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.

Any other contenders folks?

18 thoughts on “Husbands in books, from bad to worse

  1. Suggestion: “Mother’s Milk” by Edward St. Aubyn, “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt are just 2 that spontaneously come to mind.

  2. Your well-chosen excerpts present a deliciously grim view of marriage. I particularly enjoyed the one from Alice Munro with the implication that the married man is getting his revenge for the humiliation of courtship. I like the ambiguity of the husband’s character in Emma Chapman’s How to Be a Good Wife which I wrote about him one of my posts along with another character who assert the ultimate revenge on the Bad Husband in Season to Taste:
    http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/annecdotal/woman-stranded-debut-novels-from-aria-beth-sloss-natalie-young-and-emma-chapman

    Any horrible husbands in your own writing, Clare?

    1. ‘Deliciously grim- I like that! Thanks for the link.
      I do have a horrible husband in my novel, a controlling predatory type who is connected to two women in the story.
      And there’s a flash fiction piece on this site called June Sailing about an abusive husband.
      I find it hard to write these days while submitting.

  3. I’m deciding whether to make the husband in my next novel horrible. It’s so hard to do. I want everyone to be good.

  4. Well-chosen extracts, Clare. If I had to choose a book to read after this, I think it would be the Donna Tartt. Your post put me in mind of the ever-present trope of bad fathers in Irish literature, something the critiques usually link to our colonial history, but like bad husbands, it’s mostly about power, isn’t it? Oh, and then I see the first comment refers to Angela’s Ashes containing the quintessential bad father/husband. I’m currently reading ‘Music and Silence’ by Rose Tremain in which the wife of King Christian IV is much worse than the husband, whose love is undying. Oh, she’s a strumpet 17th century style, but a sumptuous character.

    1. Maybe you can use her as a starter for a ‘horrible wives’ post … If we are including memoirs (I think Angela’s Ashes qualifies as a memoir), then we should also have the husband/father in John McGahern’s Memoir, an appalling tyrant. Power was at the core of his behaviour too, wielding the little power he had as destructively as possible.

      1. I haven’t read JMcG’s memoir, but from what you say, I reckon he didn’t have to dig too deep for inspiration for Moran in ‘Amongst Women’.

    1. We could start a new (very long) list of horrible Irish husbands and fathers in fiction. Thanks for the tip, I’ve just ordered a second-hand copy of The Countrywoman. Surprised it’s out of print!

      1. That is terrible! And unsurprising. I still can’t get over Patricia Lynch dropping out of print almost as soon as she died. I wrote to her publisher asking what they were thinking of and they replied that yes, it was sad, that her books were beautiful, and yes they had all been brought up on her books. But no explanation as to why they had stopped publishing them. Fashion, I suppose. Not enough awesomeness in them. Paul Smith paints a very unflattering picture of Irish society and he does it far better and far more subtly than Frank McCourt in my opinion. Less sensationalist too. Maybe that’s the key? Celebs only succeed.

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