Posts Tagged ‘J.M. Barrie’

What Every Woman Knows by J.M. Barrie ~ 1908. This edition: University of London Press, 1954.  Hardcover. 128 pages.

A bit of a departure from the norm of my usual reading  this one is, in that it is an annotated stage play script versus a novel. But as it represents the cultural scene of its time, I am presenting it here as a suitable item for inclusion on the Century list.

Abandon all sense of plausibility, please. We are entering J.M. Barrie’s fantastical theatrical world.

Maggie Wylie, plain but highly intelligent daughter of a well off Scottish family – Wylie and Sons operate the local granite quarry – is facing her spinsterhood with sober equanimity. She knows her chances of marriage are lessening year by year, and as she has reached her twenty-seventh birthday without attracting a suitor, the writing is on the wall.

She occasionally privately mourns her state of singleness, and her adoring but undemonstrative father and brothers wish they could find some way to fulfill her secret wish for a husband of her own.

Enter John Shand, a poor but intelligent (though not as bright as Maggie) university student, who has taken to breaking into the Wylies’ house at nights to read the otherwise untouched books in their large purchased-for-show library. The Wylies have twigged to the fact that they have a nocturnal visitor, and they lie in wait one night, catching John in the act.

John is rather grumpy at being apprehended, but being of a serious and literal nature (and incidentally completely without a sense of humour) he sturdily defends himself by stating that they have the books, he needs them, so what’s the big deal?

Well, the Wylies are rather taken aback by this attitude, but as John continues to lay down the law (according to him) regarding the unfairness of a world where a studious young man is at the mercy of his desperate financial situation, a glimmer of an idea begins to appear.

Sending Maggie off to brew the tea, the Wylie menfolk propose the following to John Shand. If they will promise to finance his university education, will he promise, at the end of five years, to marry Maggie? (If she wants to, that is. She gets “first refusal”, as it were.) Well, Maggie comes in to the conversation part way through, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, the bargain is struck.

*****

Five years later, we find Maggie married to John, who has acquitted himself well in his studies, and is now setting his sights on a political career as an MP. Though he doesn’t love Maggie in the traditional sense – it was a business arrangement, after all – he behaves quite decently to his wife, and she in turn behaves more than decently to him, helping him with his speeches, and, unrealized by him, gingering them up somewhat in the process of her typing them out (John is smart but not overly bright, if you catch my meaning) with the result being that he comes across as someone perhaps a bit more intellectually lively than he actually is.

John is essentially humourless; he’s a bit of a plodder; his ideas of romance are just as soberly conventional as his speaking manner, and he falls into a predictable scenario in regards to his wife. As he ascends the ladder towards political prominence, he starts to look at his dowdy little Maggie with some dismay. Wouldn’t a younger, prettier, more vivacious wife suit his new stature better? Someone like the charming Lady Sybil, perhaps? – who is everything Maggie is not.

Except smart enough to write good speeches, upon which the denouement of this little story lies.

So what does every woman know, according to Mr. Barrie?

Well, she knows and quite happily accepts (this is where the fantasy element really kicks in) that behind every successful man, there is a clever but utterly self-effacing woman, who expends all her best efforts in making her masculine appendage look good while refusing to push herself forward. Her reward in this is the knowledge that she has helped him to his rightful place in society, even though her efforts are not recognized as they would be if her guy were a bit brighter and fairer in assessing her contributions to his social and career ambitions.

This is supposed to be a comedy, and it does have its funny moments – the author quite lets himself go with some occasionally rather sly and witty “Scotsman” jokes throughout – but my reaction was of restrained enjoyment, as the premise of the whole thing jarred rather with present day notions of gender equality and suchlike.

An interesting period piece, let us say. And as such, an appropriately restrained personal rating. I’m giving it a 5/10 – a bare pass – though if experienced as a stage play I might well rate it higher, depending upon the actors’ skill at fleshing out Barrie’s script.

 

 

 

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