A few days ago I have stumbled upon a tiny book at my friend’s place. This book was entitled Don’ts for Wives. Judging from the title, it focused exclusively on what not to do, so I knew straight away it was going to be a cheerful and inspirational read. I flipped through the pages and pretty soon it became clear that most of the tips were just variations of “give him food and shut the fuck up”.
“What kind of a male chauvinist wrote this degrading, yet strangely curious book?!” I wondered. I turned back to the title page to discover that this sexist jerk’s name was…Blanche Ebutt. The jerk was a she. The plot thickened. Just so you know, Blanche Ebutt is a world renowned author of such diverse books as Don’ts for Wives, Don’ts for Husbands and…those are the two. I haven’t read Don’ts for Husbands, but after skimming its “for Wives” counterpart I can safely conclude that the tips for husbands are along the lines of “don’t strangle your wife…too much”.
To be fair, Don’ts for Wives was written in 1913. If the content of the book is any indication, 1913 was a time when every household had at least one butler and every single woman was a housewife married to an excessively rich man. Seen in this light, the book must have been quite useful at the time, if only to regulate the amount of clothes women bought and the amount of words they spoke.
And now, without further ado, I’d like to bring you some of the very best Blanche Ebutt has to offer, with my running commentary. I even helpfully arrange the tips into identifiable themes, something Blanche didn’t bother with.
Theme One: Shut up
1. Don’t advise your husband on subjects of which you are, if anything, rather more ignorant than he.
2. Don’t argue with a stubborn husband. Drop the matter before argument leads to temper. You can generally gain your point in some other way.
3. Don’t attempt to dictate to your husband on any subject. He won’t stand it, and there will be trouble.
Blanche’s motto is “if you’re going to give terrible advice, make sure you make the same point in at least three different ways”. They are all slight tweaks of “don’t talk (back)” and two of them hint ominously at what happens if you do, namely “temper” and “trouble”.
I don’t know how things worked in 1913, because I was negative 68 years old at that time. If I’m to read between the lines I can only assume that all wives got regularly attacked for interrupting their husbands’ monologues.
Unless, of course, Blanche wasn’t giving tips to other women as much as she was writing down reminders to herself after every “trouble” with her husband:
“Dear Diary, today I’m going to give John some tips about trimming the garden…hi again, Diary, turns out I’m rather more ignorant about gardening than John, which my black eye so clearly illustrates. Note to self: ‘Don’t advise your husband on subjects of which you are, if anything, rather more ignorant than he…’”
Theme Two: Never rest
4. Don’t vegetate as you grow older if you live in the country. Some women are like cows, but there is really no need to stagnate. Keep both brain and body on the move.
Sounds like your brain has been on the move for a while, Blanche, and you were left behind. Seriously, WTF?! How did you come up with such specific advice? Does this apply only to women who live in the country? Or the ones who are “like cows”? You could have just said “exercise is important”, but I guess you’re trying to see how many of your readers you can alienate by calling them names.
5. Don’t spend half the morning in bed because there is ‘nothing to get up for’. The day is not long enough for all the things you might do if you liked.
Yeah, you lazy “some woman like cow”! Get up and get to work!
Theme Three: Be a pet
6. Don’t think it beneath you to put your husband’s slippers ready for him. On a cold evening, especially, it makes all the difference to his comfort if the soles are warmed through.
Pro tip: warming the soles by curling into a ball and lying on them will surely put a smile on your husband’s face when he comes home.
7. Don’t take any notice of people who tell you constantly that a wife’s place is in her husband’s home, darning socks and stockings as women did in the good old days. You can darn all the socks and stockings there are to be darned, and you can be at home whenever your husband is, and very often when he is not, and yet leave plenty of time for going out.
8. Don’t get the idea that all your husband wants is a housekeeper, or a decorative head of the table. He wants a companion and when he is at home he doesn’t want you to be always somewhere else.
9. Don’t be out if you can help it when your husband gets home after his day’s work.
I love how Blanche starts out tips 7 and 8 by boldly declaring that women should feel empowered, yet quickly transitions into “do your fucking housewife duties and be home whenever your husband is” by the end of each one.
Also, this is the second time she uses three separate tips to make pretty much the same point. Blanche, if you don’t have enough advice to fill a whole book, just own up to it and release a small pamphlet instead. You’re destroying trees and wasting your readers’ time when they could be darning socks and warming up slippers instead.
10. Don’t let him search the house for you. Listen for his latch-key and meet him on the threshold.
And if you find that your leash is so short that you can’t get all the way from the kitchen to the threshold, this would be the perfect opportunity to ask him for a longer one!
Theme Four: “I ain’t saying she a gold digger…”
11. Don’t be satisfied to let your husband work overtime to earn money for frocks for you. Manage with fewer frocks.
Was this seriously a widespread problem back then? Excess of money and only frocks to spend it on? I guess it must have been if it deserved a separate tip.
Notice the use of the term “manage”. It’s as if stopping yourself from indiscriminately buying up frocks every moment you got enough cash was an almost insurmountable task for a woman in 1913. It’s like Blanche is saying: “Look, I know it’s difficult, but you can at least try to live without an extra frock. Marriage isn’t fair and we all have to make sacrifices”.
12. Don’t spend every penny you get, unless it is so little that you absolutely must. Try to put by for the proverbial “rainy day”.
13. Don’t spend all the best years of your life pinching and saving unnecessarily, until you are too old to get any pleasure out of your money.
I tried reading and reconciling tips 12 and 13, but after the fifth attempt my brain started slowly leaking out of my left ear and I had this insistent urge to shoot myself, so I had to stop. Blanche! How many women did you send into an early grave, you monster?!
14. Don’t forget that you have a right to some money to spend as you like; you earn it as wife, and mother, and housekeeper. Very likely you will spend it on the house or the children when you get it; but that doesn’t matter – it is yours to spend as you like.
Two of Blanche’s multiple personalities battle it out in the space of a few short lines: “It’s your money! You deserve it! But of course you won’t be spending it on yourself, now will you? Although remember, it’s yours!”
Theme Five: Feeding time
15. Don’t persist in having mushrooms on the table when you know they always make your husband ill. They may be your favourite dish, but is it worth it?
16. Don’t let your cook persist in frying steak when your husband likes it grilled, or in serving his eggs hard-boiled when he likes them milky.
17. Don’t give your husband stale bread if he prefers it new, nor new bread if it produces indigestion. Exercise a little thought in the matter.
Goddamnit, Blanche, this is the third fucking time you use three tips to say the same thing! I hate you!
Also, is your husband a total idiot? Does he automatically and indiscriminately consume anything in front of him, without evaluating what it is he’s eating? If that’s the case then feeding him stale bread is the least of your worries. You should be more concerned about all the surgeries to extract knives and warm slippers from his stomach. I hate you both!
Theme Six: Random hints of insanity
18. Don’t let your servants use paraffin for fire-lighting purposes, nor leave a newspaper fastened up in front of the fireplace to ‘ draw up’ the fire. If you do, they will probably have your house set on fire some time or other.
19. Don’t forget if he is ‘nervy’ to watch if the tea habit is getting too strong in him. Nerves are often due to too much tea as to too much worry.
That’s why tea is currently banned in 175 countries. People have had enough of celebrities overdosing on packets of Earl Grey and those bergamot-junkies robbing local tea houses.
20. 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.
Now there’s an episode of Jackass I totally would watch!
Theme Seven: Blanche loses her mind (in way too many words)
21. Don’t bother your husband with a stream of senseless chatter if you can see that he is very fatigued. Help him to the tit-bits at dinner; modulate your voice; don’t remark on his silence. If you have any cheery little anecdote to relate, tell it with quiet humour, and by-and-by he will respond. But if you tackle him in the wrong way, the two of you will spend a miserable evening.
22. Don’t “fuss” your husband. Mistaken attentions often annoy a man dreadfully. If he comes home late after a busy day, and has a quiet little supper alone he doesn’t want you to jump up like a Jack-in-the-box with ‘would you like more pepper, darling?’ and present him with the cruet from the opposite end of the table, when he already has one in front of him. See that everything is conveniently placed for him and then leave the man alone until he has fed. Let him feel your sympathetic presence near him, but occupy yourself in reading or doing needlework; anyhow, don’t “fuss” him.
Unregulated stream of consciousness pours out of Blanche’s unravelled mind as she quietly pretends to read in the corner while her husband sits by the table chewing the tablecloth and pepper holders.
23. Don’t choose the very time your husband is at home to ‘see about’ all sorts of things in other parts of the house. Sit with him by the fire; smoke with him if it pleases you and him; read or be read to; sing or play cards with him, or chat with him about anything that interests him. It is your business to keep him amused in the evening.
…but don’t “fuss” him.