Sunday, June 03, 2012

How Women Usurp Control of Men’s Castles


Still reading the American 1885 classic The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, Penguin Classics, 1986.  Chapter VIII begins with this most insightful description of what transpires between well-experienced husband and wife when the very high society Mrs. Corey returns home from her summer stay.  Her husband had not gone with her, but preferred the quietness of his year-round residence instead.  Howells writes:

A week after she had parted with her son at Bar Harbor, Mrs. Corey suddenly walked in upon her husband in their house in Boston.  He was at breakfast, and he gave her the patronizing welcome with which the husband who has been staying in town all summer receives his wife when she drops down upon him from the mountains or the sea-side.  For a little moment she feels herself strange in the house, and suffers herself to be treated like a guest, before envy of his comfort vexes her back into possession and authority.  Mrs. Corey was a lady, and she did not let her envy take the form of open reproach.

The fact that the return home was a surprise in no way exempts Howells’ description of the coming home from being an accurate one.  Had she pre-warned Mr. Corey of her arrival, the author’s observation would have been identical.  Note the execution of the “patronizing welcome” by the husband.  Of course in reality that could range (as it likely does with couples today) from the very cold and reserved, “Oh, you’re home” to the very amorous, the details of which I will spare you and leave to the imagination.

But it is the next sentence that I found most excellently constructed.  He writes, “For a little moment she feels herself strange in the house….”  It is a common experience and any husband who cares to observe, will see it.   It is during that very moment that a wife is really taking notice of what state the house is in before she decides to take command back from the husband who served only as a temporary stand-in in what she believes to be her rightful place.

His next phrase is priceless as he adds, “…and suffers herself to be treated like a guest”.  There you have it.  Even that one short moment of time when a wife is not in charge of the castle, we now find out that it is as an intentional and calculated sacrifice that she allows it to take place.  Just when we thought we had control for a slight moment when she actually was in the same building as us, we find out that this too is a moment under her jurisdiction.

But alas, the moment is indeed short lived because as Howells implies most women do not have the ability to fight back the envy that arises within, desperately wanting to regain the control they had given up in their absence and for a moment in their presence as well.  Howells explains that it is the “envy of his comfort” that “vexes her back into possession and authority.”  Rare is the woman that wants to see her husband comfortable.  This is not to be confused with the desire of many a ‘mother’ to see her ‘son’ comfortable.  In fact, it is often the mother of the husband that makes a big deal of the wife not allowing her husband to have his sufficient peace and rest on a regular basis.

And this takeover, Howells wisely points out, is all done without any form of visible “open reproach”.  There is no need to verbally announce the takeover or to push anyone aside.  It just happens without implicitly saying that the household castle is about to undergo a changing of the guard and without any real opposition.

I do not think there is a husband alive who has been married at least a decade that has not experienced the very thing that Howells describes in this short paragraph above.  And from my own personal observation of many a household as well as that of 41 years of matrimonial co-habitation, I can vouch that it is probably a good thing.

It is just that some of us are fortunate enough the woman in charge in our case is indeed a benevolent dictator.  And for those of us that have been doubly blessed by having a woman who fears God as our spouse, we know we’ll never really be taken advantage of, or thrust into matrimonial hardship, or see our children and our homes at a disadvantage because of the selfishness or stubbornness or immorality or maliciousness of our wives.  For that I am eternally indebted to God and my spouse.


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