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  April 2, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Wives' Tales

A History of The Wife
by Marilyn Yalom
441 pages, $30.00 (hardcover)
published by HarperCollins

Jane Austen may have famously written that any man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife, but things have changed since then. Nowadays, there are plenty of women in possession of a fortune who aren't in want of a husband. Still, the culture is sending mixed signals. Gloria Steinem, icon of the liberated woman, ties the knot, seemingly making marriage safe for a post-feminist world. Yet divorce rates remain high, and far fewer people marry than they did a generation ago. A clutch of new books have recently appeared examining the fate of marriage, including Marilyn Yalom's unique woman's eye view, A History of the Wife (HarperCollins). Yalom's book is a wide-ranging survey of the wifely role, tracing her evolution from possession to partner.

Etelka Lehoczky in The Washington Post Book World had mixed feelings about the results: "..She confidently summarizes available evidence about wives in ancient Rome, medieval Europe, young America, Victorian England, and assorted other times and places, never hesitating to savor a favorite anecdote or simply editorialize. This is less a factual study than an impressionistic evocation of woman's timeless lot....The overall effect is entertaining and irksome."

In a typically witty review, Alexandra Jacobs of The New York Observer had much fun at Yalom's expense, putting the book down "as an extended Encyclopedia Britannica entry. A long and virtuous Ken Burns documentary of a book: Wife. It will doubtless fail to snare the same titillated attention as A History of the Breast, the author's previous book. The new tome is for long stretches pretty boring. But guess what? Being a wife is a pretty boring gig."

And Laura Shapiro of The New York Times Book Review grew impatient with Yalom's catalogue. "A History of the Wife is packed with rich material, but often it comes across as history lite. The insights tend be conventioanl. And there's a lot of awkward dumbing down," she complained.

But The Financial Times' Harriet Griffey noted the valuable insights to be gained from Yalom's survey: "One of the first truths to emerge from [her] new book is that the traditional wife is by and large a figment of some sort of collective, possibly male imagination, or at least an historical anomaly." Griffey applauded Yalom's nuanced view: "Yalom doesn't proselytize, and she is too rigorous a cultural historian to polarize the debate. As a past professor at the prestigious Institute for Women and Gender Studies at Stanford University, she is uniquely well qualified to write this book, which is well crafted and accessible." For her part, the Los Angeles Times' Merle Rubin simply reveled in the variety of examples Yalom deploys in her narrative. "[her] sweeping history not only offers a clear overview of the role of the wife over the centuries, but also recounts the experiences of specific individuals. Some are famous, like Abelard and Heloise, Martin and Kathrarina Luther, poet Anne Bradstreet and her husband Simon, and John and Abigail Adams. Other wives, known to us only through letters, journals, and court records, provide equally fascinating material: medieval women who were doctors, brewers, textile makers; American frontier wives; Mormon wives; wives of Southern plantation owners; slave women forced to mate with men they disliked; wives who took jobs in factories during World War II."

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
Laura Shapiro, The New York Times,
Harriet Griffey, The Financial Times
Alexandra Jacobs, The New York Oberver
Etelka Lehoczky, The Washington Post
Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

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