callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

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God, she is like a milk-white lamb that bleats for man's protection. Not.

Margaret Forster compares the lives of three women as wives with her own. Her choice of subjects may seem odd: Mary Livingstone, Fanny Stevenson and Jennie Lee. Mary Livingstone she takes as an example of the archetypal submissive Victorian wife, completely dependent on her husband and helpless without him. As reported here, when left to cope alone she took to drink and her need to be with her husband led eventually to her death. The conditions she experienced in Africa were ghastly. When I was a child David Livingstone fascinated me. It was the idea of the boy working in the mills by day and then studying half the night so that he could become a doctor that I found so interesting. It never occurred to me that he had a wife, let alone that she accompanied him on some of his arduous expeditions. The Ladybird book on David Livingstone, by L du Garde Peach, says ‘it was a happy marriage’ and ‘they lived busy, happy lives’. They seem to have loved each other greatly so were happy in that sense but Mary would have preferred a settled home and certainly would not have chosen to give birth in the bush. Livingstone was distraught when she died but seems never to have blamed himself.

Fanny Stevenson, wife of Robert Louis, had a far gayer time of it but with her fair share of hardships. She had to act almost permanently as nurse as well as wife and watched her husband’s health constantly. Her regret was her dependence: she would have liked some money of her own. But she knew she was married to a genius and thought it right to put him first.

I took a huge dislike to Jennie Lee, who never intended to become a wife at all. What some would call her single mindedness seems to me monumental selfishness. For instance, she refused, even as a young girl, to give her hard working mother any help at all in the house. Then after she was married she enlisted poor old Mum to come and keep house for her. In her political life she behaved in a way that would create a storm today. Needing to have her tonsils out she looked at an NHS hospital, disliked it and booked herself into a private clinic. She thought that because she and Nye Bevan worked so hard for the cause of socialism they were entitled to all the luxury they could get. When they were given financial gifts by supporters she squirreled the money away into a secret fund which she did not reveal for tax. Exactly the sort of behaviour which they surely would have despised in Tories. Even she eventually compromised on marriage, realising that Nye was the greater talent, that she would have to let him be first and fight for him rather than for herself.

The strange part of this book, which is all very readable, by the way, is the ‘Reflections’ at the end of each section in which Forster writes about her own marriage to Hunter Davies. I suppose he has lived to a certain extent in the public eye, otherwise he would surely have objected to his little foibles being exposed as they are here. After forty happily married years Forster declares that if she were young now she would not have married at all but been a ‘partner’, at least until there were children, because marriage, she thinks, is still the best safeguard of children’s interests. She obviously sees herself as representing the modern woman in a marriage of equals. It’s all right to be a wife now, she says, because being a wife does not mean the same thing as it did in Mary Livingstone’s day. Yet I think many younger women cannot imagine themselves making the kinds of compromises that she, or indeed any married person, has made and so would find her views old fashioned.
Tags: margaret forster, marriage

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