My week as a 1913 wife

My husband and I have been married for three years. Pretty happily married, too. We live in a (very tiny) pink cottage in rural Essex, with a tortoise named Bob (who resides in a converted kitchen cupboard) and we rub along in a fairly contented fashion.

Of course, there’s no rule book for being a good wife – at least these days. But there was, as I discovered recently, in 1913. And Blanche Ebbutt, a lady described as ‘an old hand’ in such matters, wrote it.

So what lessons, I wondered, could Mrs Ebbutt’s book, Don’ts For Wives, have for a modern lady, 100 years on? Has it become an anachronism, or is it packed full of timeless, invaluable tips for achieving wedded bliss? Armed with a copy, I decided to put her advice to the test…

Katy Pearson good wife

Just how does one become a good wife?

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t ever seem to join forces with those who criticise your husband, even in the length of his moustache or the cut of his hair. He is more sensitive to his little vanities than in his big exploits.

Sorry, Mrs Ebbutt. Whenever Mr Pearson grows a moustache, I absolutely reserve the right to mock it in front of anyone we meet. He grew one last year and he looked utterly ridiculous.

LESSON LEARNT Laughing at your husband’s moustache is to be expected in 2013. But he still won’t like it.

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t open the door for yourself when your husband is present. He would open it for a lady guest, let him open it for you.

Mr Pearson is, by nature, a chivalrous chap – and never fails to carry any heavy bag I might be tottering about with. The only downside to him always opening doors for me is that I now find myself expecting such courtesies from all men – not ideal when you commute to London on rush-hour trains.

LESSON LEARNT What are husbands for, if not to open doors for us?

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t forget to ‘feed the brute’ well. Much depends on the state of his digestion. Nothing upsets a hungry man’s temper more than being kept waiting for his dinner.

Men really have not changed in this respect. There are few things more likely to make Mr Pearson tetchy than having his dinner late. However, I must confess that he is now a dab hand in the kitchen, too. And, on many occasions he has arrived home from work before me and whipped up our supper – by himself.

LESSON LEARNT A well-fed husband remains a happy husband. But a better husband is one that can feed himself (and you).

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t think it beneath you to put your husband’s slippers out ready for him. On a cold evening, especially, it makes all the difference to his comfort if the soles are warmed through.

This winter, every morning before leaving the house I have put Mr Pearson’s pyjamas on the radiator. He is a huge fan of this. So much so that in the last cold snap he started to return the favour. Now we are both happier than ever to be home on a cold night.

LESSON LEARNT Little things make a big difference to a marriage. And it’s quite nice to feel smug about taking care of your loved one.

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t bother your husband with a stream of senseless chatter if you can see that he is very fatigued. Help him to the titbits at dinner; modulate your voice; don’t remark on his silence.

Ah. Employing this advice, I confess, was something of a struggle. I talk. A lot. To pretty much anyone with ears (and sometimes to things without). But for one week only, I really tried to rein it in over dinner. All this resulted in, though, was Mr Pearson constantly asking me if I was OK.

LESSON LEARNT If your husband married a chatterbox, then he knew what he was letting himself in for.

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t forget to wish your husband good morning when he sets off to the office. He will feel the lack of your goodbye kiss all day.

Never mind him feeling the lack of a goodbye kiss – if Mr Pearson ever left the house without kissing me goodbye, I think I’d cry. Surely this is as important today as in 1913?

LESSON LEARNT Kisses are always important.

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t object to your husband spending Saturday afternoons playing cricket because you can’t play, too.

I’m already following this piece of advice. Mr Pearson has played cricket for six summers now and last year he was captain (of Navestock and Ardleigh Green CC for any cricket buffs). And, I think, I carried out the role of captain’s wife with admirable panache. Admittedly, I did not make sandwiches for their tea, but I did wash Mr Pearson’s whites and didn’t moan when he got a new bat and had to ‘bang it in’. (This involves bashing a ball on a stick into the bat for hours on end. I even let him do this when Downton Abbey was on.) I also got to drink lots of wine.

LESSON LEARNT Anything that combines wine, sunshine and beautiful views is not to be sniffed at.

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t be out if you can help it when your husband gets home after his day’s work. Don’t let him have to search the house for you. Listen for his latchkey and meet him on the threshold.

Seriously? Unlike the ladies of 1913, I have a job. That said, Mr Pearson does enjoy being greeted at the door by a smiling wife. In fact, it appears that many chaps still hanker for a wife at home. Who knew?

LESSON LEARNT It might not be practical but being home when your husband gets in will cheer him up. And if you manage to switch off the nagging feeling that you’re being a traitor to your sex, then do let me know how…

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t say that golf is a selfish game, and a married man ought to give it up. You learn to play, and then join a mixed club; your husband will be only too delighted to have you with him.

Oh, for goodness’ sake, golf is a selfish game. One I fail to see the fascination in. Mr Pearson, however, is rather fond of this pastime (I refuse to call it a sport) and there are advantages. On many Sunday mornings, I have been left snoozing happily in bed while he wanders round, hitting balls for hours on end. This is something I had no desire whatsoever to change. And I still don’t – despite joining Mr Pearson on a trip to a driving range.

LESSON LEARNT Sometimes time apart is a good thing. And if you ever see me with a golf club in hand – run.

MRS EBBUTT SAYS Don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of dressing carelessly when there is ‘only’ your husband to see you. He abhors the sight of curling pins as much as other men do.

My cosy pyjamas and I are not easily parted in the winter months. But in my quest for a happy marriage, for a few nights, I was prepared to not pull them on the second I got home. Again, this resulted in some rather peculiar looks being thrown at me across the dinner table – and Mr Pearson asking whether I didn’t like the new pyjamas he had got me.

LESSON LEARNT When my husband sits down to dinner in a suit and tie, I’ll put a frock on. Until then, we’re both far happier in our pyjamas…

SO TO CONCLUDE…

Mrs Ebbutt penned this advice 100 years ago – but much of the wisdom offered up still has a place within a modern relationship. While ladies can now vote, work, and even divorce at will, we are all essentially still trying to find a way to live happily with the man we love. And I’m beginning to think that Mrs Ebbutt might be on to something. Perhaps a happily ever after can be as simple as a kiss at the door and a warm pair of slippers…

Don’ts For Wives, by Blanche Ebbutt (A&C Black, £3.50).
Hair and make-up by Bella Noell Production, Bella’s Vintage Shoots: http://www.bellanoell.com
Photography and retouching: JuKaNo Photography: http://www.jukano.com
Production assistant: Helen Bovey.

More marriage tips from Mrs Ebbutt…

Don’t say ‘I told you so’ to your husband, however much you feel tempted to. It does no good and he will be grateful to you for not saying it.

Don’t sulk with your husband. If he has annoyed you about something, then ‘get it off your chest’. A sulky wife is as bad as a termagant.

Don’t ‘manage’ your husband too visibly. Of course he may require the most careful management, but you don’t want your friends to think of him as a henpecked husband. Above all, never let him think that you manage him.

Don’t be everlastingly trying to change your husband’s habits, unless they are very bad ones.

Don’t refuse to see your husband’s jokes. They may be pretty poor ones, but it won’t hurt you to smile at them.

Don’t try to excite your husband’s jealousy by flirting with other men. You may succeed better than you want to. It is like playing with tigers and edged tools and volcanoes all in one.

Don’t object to your husband getting a motor-bicycle; merely insist that he shall buy a sidecar for you at the same time.

This feature first appeared in The Lady magazine on March 21 2013

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