It’s good to see that an actual anthropologist is studying the behaviour of some of America’s weirdest women. Wednesday Martin’s book The Primates of Park Avenue describes the exhausting lives of Manhattan’s most full-on wives: sci-fi beauty regimes, frenetic fund-raising, intensive mothering and military household management.
In 1832 when a farmer in Lancaster offered up his young wife for sale, he advertised a similarly energetic range of skills.
‘She can read novels and milk cows; she can laugh and weep with the same ease that you could take a glass of ale when thirsty; she can make butter and scold the maid; she can sing Moore’s melodies, and plait her frills and caps; she cannot make rum, gin, or whisky; but she is a good judge of the quality, from long experience in tasting them. I therefore offer her, with all her perfections and imperfections, for the sum of fifty shillings.’
The Spectator quoted this speech, which had been reported in a local paper. The encomium had come after he’d given any potential purchaser fair warning:
‘She has been to me only a bosom serpent. I took her for my comfort, and the good of my house; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil. Gentlemen. I speak truth from my heart… may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome widows. Avoid them the same as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential phenomena in nature.’
She was eventually sold to a pensioner for twenty shillings and a Newfoundland dog. The poignant thing about the New York women Wednesday Martin describes is that they’re only trying to make themselves and everyone around them happy, but it doesn’t sound like any of them has much time to enjoy the fruits of their labours. An 1876 article had another idea about how best to achieve a happy marriage.
Let the woman’s first requisite be a man whose home will be to him a rest, and the man’s first object be a woman who can make home restful…
Every good quality is a good, no doubt, even beauty, for though “beauty is only skin-deep,” nobody in our day is likely to be skinned; but the master-quality of all is, after all, capacity. As we should say to women who wish for domestic happiness, never marry a lounger, a pleasure-seeker, or a fribble; so we should say to men with the same yearning, never marry a fool of any sort or kind. There is no burden on earth like a foolish woman tied to a competent man; unable to be his sweetheart, because she cannot help dreading him; unable to be his confidant, because she cannot understand him; unable to be his friend, because she cannot sympathise even with his ordinary thoughts. No beauty, no sweetness, no amount of that household capacity which many men so absurdly overrate… can compensate for the absence of clear thought, quick comprehension, ability to follow and credit or discredit a statement of fact, competence to understand what the husband is.
The French ambassador to London in 1906 would perhaps have broadly endorsed the Park Avenue approach, though he might have rather disapproved of some of their gala and fundraising activities.
French women, he said, stayed at home, and he certainly implied that they did well. To a Frenchman it seemed strange to see women taking part in all sorts of active work outside their homes, and through all his French politeness M. Cambon let it be seen that he deprecated such activities, and regarded them as an indication of something lacking in English domestic life. French women, he declared, played in their homes a part quite different from that played by English women in theirs. A French woman did not attend simply to her ménage, or to the education of her children, but she took an active interest in all her husband’s business; indeed, he added, her husband consulted her in everything, and on most occasions followed her advice. The result was that she found at home all the satisfaction and all the responsibility inseparable from power, and consequently “had no pleasure in meddling with things outside.” Legally, English wives occupied a better position than their French sisters, but actually the latter were better off and better satisfied. No feminist movement, he pointed out, had ever succeeded in France.
Now that working is a choice for women you can see why some who choose not to work feel obliged to prove that they’re the absolute best stay-at-homers in the game. The problem is that tying up your self-esteem with the pursuit of happiness is a bit of a psychological minefield.