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Lessons in Wifery from The Scarlet Pimpernel

It is 1792 and the beginning of the French revolution. The beautiful actress, Marguerite St. Just has just become Lady Marguerite Blakeney. Although she was once attracted to her tall, handsome husband, she now has nothing but contempt for his dandyish ways and trivial conversation. If only he were more like the daring Scarlet Pimpernel, the dashing hero of Marguerite’s dreams who risks certain death to rescue aristocrats from the guillotine. As it is, Marguerite has nowhere to turn when the villainous Citizen Chauvelin attempts to blackmail her into spying out the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel and betraying him to the mercies of the bloody French Revolution.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic novel, part adventure story, part romance, and part spy drama. But ultimately, it is a novel about marriage.

Stop reading here and buy The Scarlet Pimpernel if you’re not familiar with the story. Otherwise, read on for what Baroness Orczy has to tell us about being better women and wives.

Romance Takes Two

“It has always seemed to me that it must be heavenly to be loved blindly, passionately, wholly—worshipped, in fact…And I was ready to respond; I would have allowed myself to be worshipped and given infinite tenderness in return.”

When Marguerite reports a family enemy to the Revolutionary government, she doesn’t mean to send him to the guillotine. But when Sir Percy demands an explanation for what looks like her cruel vengefulness, she refuses to give him one. She counts on what she thinks is his unwavering devotion.

Relationships only work when two people are committed to each others’ happiness. It’s tempting to let a man do everything for a woman out of adoration, but a one-sided devotion only lasts so long. Marguerite, for example, asks too much of Sir Percy when she refuses to justify what looks like murderous spite. Not only has she done something her husband considers abhorrent, but she doesn’t trust Sir Percy enough confide in him. It isn’t fair to take your spouse’s fondness for granted. A woman owes a man the same trust, attachment and selflessness that he gives her. (And vise versa!)

Give Your Spouse the Benefit of the Doubt

“And you believed them then and there, without a proof or question—you believe that I, whom you vowed you love more than life, who you professed you worshipped, that I could do such a think so based as these strangers chose to recount.”

While Marguerite shouldn’t try to test Sir Percy’s love by refusing an explanation, Sir Percy should never listen to someone else’s condemnation of his own wife. For her part, Marguerite falls for the vapid mask Sir Percy wears before the world because she is willing to believe he is a mindless fop.

Believe it or not, relationships work best when both partners are wearing rose-colored glasses. You don’t have to ignore your spouse’s major flaws, but you will both be happier if you trust that each others’ intentions are generally good.

Don’t Question Your Spouse’s Competence in Public

Marguerite took no pains to disguise that good-natured contempt which she evidently felt for Sir Percy, and even amused herself by sharpening he ready wits at his expense.

The Blakeney’s marriage goes from bad to worse when Marguerite starts publicly mocking his slow manners and dull wit. She even invites people to their home—Sir Percy’s family estate—and encourages them to think poorly of her husband.

It is never appropriate for a woman in a relationship to make fun of her husband in public, to his face or behind his back. There is no quicker way to undermine his masculinity and make him dissatisfied with your relationship. Most men don’t feel loved if they don’t also feel respected.

There Are No Secrets in a Happy Marriage

“She had done—unwittingly—an awful and terrible thing—the very worst crime, in her eyes, that woman ever committed—she she it in all its horror. Her very blindness in not having guessed her husband’s secret seemed now to her another deadly sin. She ought to have known! she ought to have known!”

Marguerite accidentally betrays her husband because she keeps her problems a secret. But the conflict in their marriage is at least as much Sir Percy’s fault as Marguerite’s. Sir Percy is the man of Marguerite’s dreams, but doesn’t let her see that part of his life.

Trust is an essential part of any relationship. The greatest form of intimacy is a willingness to open yourself up completely to your partner. The consequences of keeping secrets aren’t always as dire as they are for Marguerite and Percy, but a refusal to share yourself with your spouse will eventually drive you apart.

Are there any books that have taught you your own lessons in wifery?

8 responses »

  1. I love your point about giving the benefit of the doubt – really important I think! And I think the point about making fun definitely goes for men and women: everyone wants to feel respected and it’s so easy to cross the line from making jokes with your spouse, to cracking jokes at them or about them – without meaning to upset them, it can still have a really bad effect.

    I love the marriage in Adhaf Soueif’s ‘The Map of Love’. If you’re not familiar, it’s about an English woman, Anna, whose first husband dies after being traumatized by war, and who travels to Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. I won’t give the plot away, but the novel is all about different ideas about relationships and how love and culture interact. One of the good things to take away from it was the importance of taking the time to look back on the best moments of your relationship and to celebrate them. I think that’s really lovely and a good way of starting family traditions and stories – how mum and dad met, how lovely you looked when, etc. etc.

    The other book I would say is good (but in a totally different way because it is non-fiction) is Cordelia Fine’s ‘Delusions of Gender’. It’s not entirely or even mostly about marriages, but it looks at what people are told men ‘have’ to do or women ‘must’ like, and shows that some of the things the media wants us to believe are inevitable, are not. It was good for making me stop assuming that my husband really should be better at money than me (because men are good at maths, right?), and realize that actually he hates doing finances too!

    Whew, hope this isn’t too long a reply – I’ve lots to think about from this post, thanks!

  2. (Oh, and this is beside the point of marriage/being a wife, but the Fine book is also excellent for those patronizing ‘eww, girls/boys are horrid, they can’t do X’ comments that a lot of my mum friends say they hear too much of!)

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  5. Having some spare time on my hands, and seeing a beautifully printed edition of this book at my local bookstore, I just spent the past day voraciously reading the Scarlet Pimpernel. I enjoyed it so much, I have to wonder why I had never bothered reading it before. Fair warning, the first 3-4 chapters are a little slow, introducing the characters and providing the necessary back story… But as soon as this book hits it’s stride it is in full swing. Keeping in mind it is a romance – both stylistically and thematically – it’s a pretty exciting read. It’s also chock full of quotable tidbits, my favorite being “A woman’s heart is such a complex problem – the owner thereof is often most incompetent to find the solution of this puzzle.” from chapter 17.

    Fantastic comments in this article relating it to common marital issues – and damn good advice for any relationship, as all of these elements are fundamentally important to a strong, healthy relationship between a man and woman.

    Knocked one book off of the reading list… 99 to go lol.

  6. I’m so glad you enjoyed The Scarlet Pimpernel! I look forward to hearing what book you read next.

    • I definitely have a good source and plenty of books to choose from 🙂 do you have any personal suggestions? Or have you chosen which book to use for the May book reading?

      • I’m still working on the idea of a reading group.( I thinking maybe through the Facebook community. What do you think?) I just read Beloved–a great read, though definitely not the right one to start a book group with. I’m currently reading The Book of the City of Ladies. And you can check out today’s post on Erec and Enide.

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