The question mark in the title of Margaret Forster's triple biography and memoir, Good Wives?
, betrays something of her ambivalence on the subject of matrimony. To deconstruct what a "good" wife might be, she explores the lives of a "wife-of" trio who were all married to prominent men (as is Forster, to writer and journalist Hunter Davies), making them good subjects, if hardly representative. Mary Livingstone proved a determinedly submissive wife to her missionary explorer husband, constantly uprooting and following him over Africa on an ox wagon. For Forster there are only cursory overlaps with her own experience; she dismisses Mary quite harshly, while pitying the grimness of her existence. Fanny, married to Robert Louis Stevenson, was a more determined soul. Together they sailed to the South Seas in the search for hospitable climates for his frail constitution, where she nursed him, kept house, and wrote a little herself. When he finally died in 1894, though, so did much of Fanny. Forster has more time and sympathy for a woman who had seen something of the world on her own terms, even if the vow "in sickness and in health" was to hold undue pertinence. Lastly, the purposeful, militant Jennie Lee, who eventually married politician Nye Bevan, provokes only admiring connection in Forster. Lee, an MP herself, saw marriage as a practical contract, though she loved and protected Bevan dearly. Children were out of the question: not only did she refuse to play mother, she disdained playing housekeeper or moll, and refused to sacrifice her own career.
The "Reflections" from Forster that follow each wifely portrait are easily the most interesting sections of this bracing, unindulgent book. In comparing her own marriage to those of her subjects, she reflects insightfully on universal themes of marital union, such as in-laws, (in)dependence, entertaining, careers, money, home and children, and concludes that if she were considering it today as a young woman, she would marry for children, but not for a husband. Perhaps Hunter Davies might consider writing Good Husbands?, as a companion partner to this relentlessly thoughtful, stimulating work of scholarship and experience. --David Vincent
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
...a fascinating and eminently readable account of these womens lives and their marriages...' -- Spectator
emerges as Forster herself -- Times Literary Supplement