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My Month in Books: December 2021

This month I've chosen two novels which both look at ideas about family, marriage and masculinity, though in very different settings. The pairing is accidental: when I started reading them I had no idea they would complement and contrast with each other in such interesting ways. A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves examines the lives of a wealthy middle-class family, while Gwyn Jones's Times Like These tells the story of a mining family during the 1926 General Strike. 

A Lady and Her Husband, Amber Reeves (Persephone Books, 2016, first published 1914)

Mrs Heyham lives a comfortable life focussed on her home and children, provided for by her husband James, a successful businessman. Her eldest daughter is married, and her son, a partner in the business, is absorbed in his own concerns. When her youngest daughter, Rosemary, announces that she is engaged, her mother realises her life has lost “its purpose and meaning”.

Her family decide that some new interest must be found to occupy her. Rosemary is an armchair socialist whose socialism doesn’t mean that she should work for her own living, go without new clothes and trips to the hairdressers, or do more than read a few books. She suggests that her mother does the sort of social work she herself never undertakes: Mrs Heyham should busy herself investigating the working conditions of her father’s female employees. After all, Rosemary argues, her mother lives off the profits of their labour and so should care for their welfare. The fact that she too lives off their labour never seems to enter her thoughts. I particularly disliked Rosemary!

Mrs Heyham agrees, more out of a sense of duty than anything else. She owns half of the business, although it is entirely managed by her husband, James, in whose abilities, honesty and fairness to his employees she has perfect confidence. Her discovery that the waitresses who work in his chain of restaurants are badly paid for long hours in terrible conditions comes as a shock. However, trusting her husband to do the right thing she suggests various reforms.

Mrs Heyham learns about more than the impact of capitalism on workers. She is also forced to confront the realities of capitalism’s brothers: patriarchy and misogyny. She discovers that there are women for whom men are far from the (apparently) loving, indulgent husband of her own experience. There is no protection for them from exploitation by their employers, sexual harassment, poverty and ill health.

She also discovers that her kind, patient, attentive husband is implicated in the undermining and dispossession of women. Not only does he dismiss her suggestions as impractical, he continues to infantilise and patronise her as he has done all through their marriage. To him she is a “dear little person”, the “little mother”, one of the “good women” of a generation who never made “a fuss about their brains”, “a dignified little thing”, the “old lady”, “my dear little girl”, who he soothes with a pat of the head – she has to be careful to dress her hair so that it doesn’t tumble down when he does this.

Underneath this revolting, angel-in-the-house sentimentality that passes for love are control and selfishness. This is chillingly conveyed in the scenes between husband and wife, for example when Mrs Heyham tries to tell her husband she does not want to act on Rosemary’s suggestion. His bullying is perhaps subtle, but it is there all the same, and it is based on a fear of the consequences of contradicting him. There is a veiled threat beneath the persuasion of a man whose “mind was made up” so that, Mrs Heyham realises, “There was no real use in disputing and making matters more hard”. He is a talker, not a listener, who overwhelms her with a “flood of…persuasions” to which she can only listen in “helpless silence”, knowing that he “did not like being checked in the middle of his explanations”.

So far, so genteel. After all, Mrs Heyham’s husband doesn’t beat her, he provides her with a high standard of living, and he genuinely believes he is a good husband and a good employer. Her struggle to renegotiate their relationship is one in which she is hampered by her feelings of love and gratitude for him, her own collusion in imprisoning herself in her luxurious cage. For her, men had been “creatures to be pleased and to be cared for; and men had loved her and been good to her precisely because of this attitude of hers”. The age old bargain women make: behave properly, strive to please, know your place, don’t speak your rage, and you’ll be safe.

Mrs Heyham doesn’t speak her rage, and in fact does her best to avoid it. She dislikes feeling angry with James, spends hours debating with herself about how far she is to blame, and ultimately reaffirms her love for him, albeit it on new terms.

Miss Percival’s passion bursts in on all this reasonableness with raw power and energy. “I hate all men,” she cries, “when they’re powerful and using their power to be cruel to women. And that’s most of them – nearly always, whether they mean to or not.” She too has tried not to feel hatred, but her rage is her truth, her “defiance and revolt”. She hates them for “their cruelty, for their insolence…They’ve taken the whole world and made it theirs; everything we have in it is only ours, now, because they choose to give it to us.” And where Mrs Heyham struggles to reconcile her love and her new-found desire for independence, Miss Percival despises the fact that “We love them and their children, so we are at their mercy”.  


Tea and Suffrage: waitresses at the WSPU 1909 Exhibition

I think it’s an astonishing speech, and for me it’s one of the most interesting scenes in the novel. Although A Lady and Her Husband was first published in 1914, it contains no mention of the campaign for women’s suffrage – yet it lies across it like a shadow. The vote represented everything Mrs Heyham, Miss Percival, and women of every class were struggling against: lack of education and the denial of economic, legal, and social rights. Miss Percival’s speech mirrors the rage that fuelled the militant suffrage movement, a rage that it’s all too easy to dismiss as hysterical, unreasonable and unpleasant.

The novel is far from suggesting that anger and violence are the right or best responses – and that too was an issue that occupied the suffrage movement. Miss Percival herself is made to admit that her feelings are wrong and unfair. The fact is, though, that she feels them, and the simple act of speaking them, of boldly facing the ugly reality, is in itself a declaration of freedom.

Critics of the suffrage and wider women’s rights movements decried what they called the “sex antagonism” they caused. In the character of Miss Percival, Reeves confronts head on this “war between the sexes”. Whether you take sides or reject the notion of a sex war altogether, A Lady and Her Husband is an absorbing study of relations between men and women.

Times Like These, Gwyn Jones (Victor Gollancz, 1979, first published 1936)

Like A Lady and Her Husband, Times Like These is in large part a study of family, marriage and masculinity, but in a very different setting. Jones’s novel tells the story of the 1926 General Strike through the perspective of the Biestys, a mining family in fictitious Jenkinstown, south Wales. Here husbands do not, cannot, cosset their wives from the harsh realities of life.

Oliver Biesty’s wife, Polly, is prematurely aged by years of toil and childbirth. The author calls it “breaking”, when “her body, like a hard-working machine, was at every point giving way to strain”. This needs no more explanation than the descriptions of the unrelenting labour involved in washing coal dust out of her husband’s clothes, keeping the house clean of the dirt he brings in, and struggling to run a home in spite of poverty and hardship. 

The people of Jenkinstown depend on the mines. Strikes, unemployment, the imposition of wage reductions and longer hours, mean everything to these families. Both a closed economic system and a closed community, the roles thrust upon men and women are inescapable. Men become miners, women become miners’ wives – and they all end up like Polly Biesty. So when Oliver’s daughter, Mary, starts to question her destiny I was cheering her every step of the way. But it’s not easy to uproot yourself in the face of your own family’s incomprehension and anger.

Mary’s office job is only a bus ride away, in Newport, but it’s a break from the world she knows where all people talk about is “coal, coal, coal”, and their horizons are pitifully reduced to the confines of Jenkinstown. “She was free, earning her own living, making her way in the world, dressing differently, speaking differently, mannered differently, from the rest of them.” Yet no one in her family, particularly her father, Oliver, sees this as anything but a temporary arrangement: “It was so ridiculous to wish a child to get on, make a good living, and all that it should be given up in a year or two’s time” – and for nothing more than to be “a miner’s wife and drudge”.

For the men, though, their work offers status and self-respect. They are proud of their skills. An unemployed miner is hardly a man; unable to support his family, and forced to take the humiliating and dwindling hand-outs paid by the state. Even then he does not lose his dignity and Mary recognises in the miners “the indomitable spirit of man, here in these valleys”. She can “do them justice” and see that “there was some deeper dignity about men like her father…Oliver was strong and reliable and honest…for a cause he thought right he would give his all”. But she cannot “love the type”. Her father is “narrow, unlettered, crude, ungraceful, not easy. His work had given him much, and almost as much it had taken away”.

Gwyn Jones (1907-1999) was himself the son of a miner, but his mother was a teacher (and later a midwife), and he managed to escape a life down the mines. He studied English at Cardiff University, and then took an MA in Nordic studies. He went on to become a professor of English at the University of Aberystwyth and then at Cardiff. He wrote literary criticism; novels; translated Icelandic sagas; with medievalist Thomas Jones translated The Mabinogion; wrote a history of the Vikings; edited Welsh poetry and short stories; and founded the Welsh Review literary magazine. 

Times Like These is an impressive, sympathetic and sensitive novel, particularly in the creation of the women characters. I’m drawn, too, to the subjects Jones was so passionate about: Welsh literature, Welsh legend, and the Icelandic sagas. It feels as if he has laid out a path of discovery that I’d like to follow, and I will be looking out for more of his books from now on.

Picture Credits:-

Tea and Suffrage - Waitresses at the WSPU Exhibition 1909, Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions


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