For better or worse

Before Mars, before Venus, there were Blanche Ebbutt's "Don'ts for Wives" and "Don'ts for Husbands" (A & C Black: 74 pp., $4.95 each), palm-sized volumes first published in 1913 for newly (and not-so-newly) wed upper-middle-class British spouses.

"Wives" is the gentler of the two, owing perhaps to Ebbutt's experience on that planet. Women are encouraged to go out and "wake up" their brains. Of course, they should be home, sporting a smile, when their husbands return from the office.

Her advice does ring of modernism, or maybe it's simply amor vincit omnia: "Don't think there is any satisfactory substitute for love between husband and wife." There are several instances of nascent feminism: "Don't interpret too literally the 'obey' of the Marriage Service. Your husband has no right to control your individuality." Women are also encouraged to splurge with some of the money "earned" as a wife and mother but advised not to think it beneath them to ready their husband's slippers.

These often sage words contrast with the platitudes that populate "Husbands": "Don't always refuse to go shopping with your wife." "Don't condescend; you are not the only person in the house with brains . . . she also may have some views worth mentioning." "[E]ven a wife is an individual." Maybe Ebbutt is just playing to each audience. Not always a bad call.


Orli Low

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