Would women make better husbands than men?
The great English actor Ellen Terry's harshest thoughts were directed at husbands
Almost any woman you would meet by chance, she asserts, would make a better husband than almost any man ever born, according to English actor Ellen Terry. Photograph: iStock
“Know a man for 15 minutes and you know him for life, he will never surprise you again, he wouldn’t know how to; asking would only frighten him.”
This delicious sentence is put into the mind of the great English actor Ellen Terry by Joseph O’Connor in his novel Shadowplay. Ms Terry was a superstar of the English stage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It forms part of a meditation on the part of Ms Terry on men in general and on husbands in particular. I don’t know whether she ever wrote those words or whether Mr O’Connor made them up but they certainly read like something she would have said.
Her harshest thoughts (and I’m not giving anything away here) are directed at husbands.
Almost any woman you would meet by chance, she asserts, would make a better husband than almost any man ever born.
Ms Terry had been married three times and had her two children by a man to whom she was not married. So we have to say that she had, at least, done her research.
I thought it might be interesting for my male readers to see the list of charges that she brings against us. Perhaps they will recognise at least something in them. Women, of course, have nothing to fear from this list as they are perfect.
Did you know that tigers live in India, not Africa? This strikes me as moderately interesting but Ms Terry complains that it is the sort of fact men explain to women who either already know or don’t really care about it, but who must appear interested anyway. Men will explain what is going on in elections, what continents are, what are the differences between one political party and another, why certain people are ungovernable, what a microscope is, how to spell parallel and so on, “because, being a woman, you wouldn’t know”.
Also, according to the fictional Ms Terry, we suck our soup (is another way to “eat” it?), we cut our toenails in the presence of our wives, and sniff our shirts (but how else are you supposed to know if you can get another day out of it – or if a blast of Febreze will get you by? And don’t tell me women never do this either).
Then there’s, “their nostril-hair. Their odours. Their wet feet on floorboards.”
“And that is before we approach what happens in the marital bed,” she intones mentally, asking: why are they so much nicer at it when they are not married to you?
Also, we have an exhausting need to be admired by our wives and “to be built back up”.
It’s not all negative. Men, she reflects, make wonderful friends, lovers, lion-tamers, popes, explorers, coal miners, shooters and drinking pals. Also, our simplicity is admirable and our predictability soothing. The main thing, it seems, is not to marry us.
Even if you knew that she believed all of these things about men, assuming Mr O’Connor didn’t think it up (which he has every right to do as one of our leading novelists) you might still, if you were around at that time, have fallen half or wholly in love with her. The fact that she was not married to the father of her children would have destroyed another woman but her fans loved her too much for that.
Not only did her stage career span both centuries, she also acted in films and lectured on Shakespeare.
Shadowplay is about the dynamics between Bram Stoker who managed the great actor Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London, Irving himself and Ellen Terry.
The book is a great read and you can multiply your pleasure by listening to Barry McGovern and Anna Chancellor narrating it in the audiobook version.
Meanwhile, you can pass the summer days by considering how many of the items on Ms Terry’s list apply to your good self. If unsure, feel free to pass this article to your wife (if you have one), and she will tell you.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).