Wives and Daughters and Sisters and Mothers

Anne Brontë:

I was too late for tea; but my mother had kindly kept the teapot and muffin warm upon the hobs, and, though she scolded me a little, readily admitted my excuses; and when I complained of the flavour of the overdrawn tea, she poured the remainder into the slop-basin, and bade Rose1 put some fresh into the pot, and reboil the kettle, which offices were performed with great commotion, and certain remarkable comments.

‘Well!—if it had been me now, I should have had no tea at all—if it had been Fergus,2 even, he would have to put up with such as there was, and been told to be thankful, for it was far too good for him; but you—we can’t do too much for you. It’s always so—if there’s anything particularly nice at table, mamma winks and nods at me to abstain from it, and if I don’t attend to that, she whispers, “Don’t eat so much of that, Rose; Gilbert3 will like it for his supper.”—I’m nothing at all. In the parlour, it’s “Come, Rose, put away your things, and let’s have the room nice and tidy against they come in; and keep up a good fire; Gilbert likes a cheerful fire.” In the kitchen—“Make that pie a large one, Rose; I daresay the boys’ll be hungry; and don’t put so much pepper in, they’ll not like it, I’m sure”—or, “Rose, don’t put so many spices in the pudding, Gilbert likes it plain,”—or, “Mind you put plenty of currants in the cake, Fergus liked plenty.” If I say, “Well, mamma, I don’t,” I’m told I ought not to think of myself. “You know, Rose, in all household matters, we have only two things to consider, first, what’s proper to be done; and, secondly, what’s most agreeable to the gentlemen of the house—anything will do for the ladies.”’

‘And very good doctrine too,’ said my mother. ‘Gilbert thinks so, I’m sure.’

‘Very convenient doctrine, for us, at all events,’ said I; ‘but if you would really study my pleasure, mother, you must consider your own comfort and convenience a little more than you do—as for Rose, I have no doubt she’ll take care of herself; and whenever she does make a sacrifice or perform a remarkable act of devotedness, she’ll take good care to let me know the extent of it. But for you I might sink into the grossest condition of self-indulgence and carelessness about the wants of others, from the mere habit of being constantly cared for myself, and having all my wants anticipated or immediately supplied, while left in total ignorance of what is done for me,—if Rose did not enlighten me now and then; and I should receive all your kindness as a matter of course, and never know how much I owe you.’

‘Ah! and you never will know, Gilbert, till you’re married. Then, when you’ve got some trifling, self-conceited girl like Eliza Millward,4 careless of everything but her own immediate pleasure and advantage, or some misguided, obstinate woman, like Mrs. Graham,5 ignorant of her principal duties, and clever only in what concerns her least to know—then you’ll find the difference.’

‘Well, then, we must bear one another’s burdens.’

‘Then you must fall each into your proper place. You’ll do your business, and she, if she’s worthy of you, will do hers; but it’s your business to please yourself, and hers to please you. I’m sure your poor, dear father was as good a husband as ever lived, and after the first six months or so were over, I should as soon have expected him to fly, as to put himself out of his way to pleasure me. He always said I was a good wife, and did my duty; and he always did his—bless him!—he was steady and punctual, seldom found fault without a reason, always did justice to my good dinners, and hardly ever spoiled my cookery by delay—and that’s as much as any woman can expect of any man.’6

Rambam:

וכן צוו חכמים שיהא אדם מכבד את אשתו יותר מגופו ואוהבה כגופו. ואם יש לו ממון מרבה בטובתה כפי ממונו. ולא יטיל עליה אימה יתירה ויהיה דבורו עמה בנחת ולא יהיה עצב ולא רגזן:

וכן צוו על האשה שתהיה מכבדת את בעלה ביותר מדאי ויהיה עליה מורא ממנו ותעשה כל מעשיה על פיו. ויהיה בעיניה כמו שר או מלך מהלכת בתאות לבו ומרחקת כל מה שישנא. וזה דרך בנות ישראל ובני ישראל הקדושים והטהורים בזיווגן. ובדרכים אלו יהיה ישובן נאה ומשובח:7

  1. Rose Markham, the narrator’s sister. []
  2. Fergus Markham, the narrator’s younger brother. []
  3. Gilbert Markham, the narrator. []
  4. The narrator’s original love: kittenish and charming, but shallow. []
  5. The novel’s heroine: intelligent, artistic, passionate, high-minded, stubborn, and far above the pettiness and narrowness of country life, to whom the narrator is gradually transferring his affections. []
  6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Chapter VI – link. []
  7. יד החזקה, אישות, טו:יט – קשר []
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2 Responses to Wives and Daughters and Sisters and Mothers

  1. NAB says:

    The juxtaposition suggests that a wife who follows Rambam’s guidance in the second paragraph will turn her husband into one who “sink[s] into the grossest condition of self-indulgence and carelessness about the wants of others…” But a man who follows the advice in Rambam’s first paragraph is unlikely to encourage an attitude of, “…we have only two things to consider, first, what’s proper to be done; and, secondly, what’s most agreeable to the gentlemen of the house—anything will do for the ladies…”

    Are you contrasting the approaches or (xor) conflating?

  2. Yitzhak says:

    I agree that the first cited paragraph of Rambam provides crucial context and balance, which is why I included it. The point of the juxtaposition was merely to suggest that Rambam endorses the wifely mentality that Brontë is caricaturing, albeit not the husband’s callousness and selfishness.

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