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?

June Sailing (flash fiction)

What does a writer want? To be read. Since I started this blog I’ve written several short stories, some of which are short enough to qualify as flash fiction. My submission strategy is a bit haphazard, something I need to work on but it is based on the sound if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed principle. So I’m delighted to say that this weekend I saw my first story published online as part of National Flash Fiction Day UK. The link to June Sailing is here http://bit.ly/11XiU9g and there are lots of other stories to browse through if you’re curious. But if you only have time for my 500 words, read on!

June Sailing by Clare O’Dea

Nancy stuffed the ferry timetable under the tea towels when she heard the key in the door. Careless of her to be looking at it so late in the afternoon. Not that she needed to check this month, there was a sailing every day, sixteen down, fourteen to go. Quick as a cat, she sprang into the kitchen. It was important to be doing something when he arrived. She opened the fridge and started checking expiry dates. Bill appeared in the doorway, filling the space.

“Tea in ten minutes,” she said, gripping a milk carton. A welcome calm settled over the kitchen as the three men fell on the food. You could call them three men now; the boys had lost any echoes of childhood grace. Almost overnight they had changed into gruff creatures with hard arms and hard hearts. The spit of their father, people liked to say. Nancy leaned against the sink as usual, watching for a moment before she turned to start on the washing up. Bill spoke with his mouth full.

“Cut out the pot-walloping Nance.” She turned off the water immediately. Sometimes the noise bothered him, other times not. A minute passed, the men chomping, Nancy trying to gauge the tension. Hunching her shoulders slightly, she approached the table to pour the tea. No reaction. She melted back to her place at the sink. Her hands crept into her apron pocket where she started to pick furiously at the skin around her nails.

Nancy felt the first dull tug of period pain and her heart skipped. This little monthly victory was always welcome. Twelve years ago she was told she would never bear children again. ‘Can I have that in writing?’ she asked the doctor.

“Good grub,” Bill said, pushing his plate away. Nancy risked eye contact. He was smiling. In fact he only lost his temper once a week at most, and one of the things that set him off was her being timid. A more intelligent woman would know how to handle him better.

“You do a shopping today?” Nancy’s cheeks flared red, her terrified blood started to run for cover. This was his way of saying he knew. Bill took another slug of tea.
“Did you get the shaving foam?” False alarm, he hadn’t noticed her panic.
“It’s in the bathroom,” Nancy said, standing back to let her sons leave the room. The television went on in the lounge but Bill stayed, watching as she cleared the table.

“Here, you should get some new clothes,” he said, holding out a fifty. Nancy looked at the money as if it were something unfamiliar before reaching for it. Bill grabbed her wrist gently.

“Am I going to get a thank you?” She let him pull her in and sat on his lap for a kiss. That fifty brought her to her target. It would pay for the taxi to the ferry in the morning. Our last kiss, she thought and wrapped her arms around him.