Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Wednesday, November 10, 2021


 "Three Heavy Husbands" by James Stephens  (from his collection Here Are Ladies, 1913; no previous publication known)

Not a traditional story but a triptych of three character sketches of the Irish war of the sexes.  Each of the three husbands come off poorly and their wives little better.  It is difficult to decide where the author's sympathies lie.  At least half the stories in Here Are Ladies appear to use this triptych device, including  "Three Lovers Who Lost," "Three Angry People," "Three Happy Places," Three Young Wives," and "Three Women Who Wept."

None of the characters in 'Three Heavy Husbands" are named -- a tact Stephens often used in his short stories, leaving each to represent certain types.

In the first sketch the husband is a stockbroker. rich enough to "regard the future with calmness and his fellow-creatures with condescension -- perhaps the happiest state to which a certain humanity can attain."  He is a grubbing, demanding, possessive fellow:  a narcissist who must own and control everything he sees.  If he has only partial control of something, he does not want.  One of his prize possession is his wife on whom he showered expensive gifts but no consideration.  To him, she was a piece of property, something that he had won but not wooed.  As time went by this was something she could feel in her body if not her mind.  Delighted when other men approved of his taste in a wife, he could not stand if she gave any sign of admiration to outsiders.  His wife was his and his alone.  The stockbroker had a young clerk, an angry young man with an equal amount of hates and ambitions.  He could "talk like a cascade for ten minutes and be silent for a month."  When his employer was laid ill with influenza, the clerk moved into the house to attend to business needs.  The clerk and the wife were attracted to each other.  After he had recovered, the stock broker went back to his office and found that one of his clerks had not arrived.  When he went home at the end of the day, his wife was not there.  "So it goes."

The next section may or may not involve the clerk and the stockbroker's wife.  Stephens does not make that point clear, nor does he need to.  The husband is the silent type, adverse to conversation.  The wife is a talker.  Never having had much to do the opposite sex, the husband just does not know how to handle this aspect of his marriage.  Where men may have long bouts of silence when they are together, this apparently not the case with women.  In all other things his wife was a delight.  But she talked.  And talked.  Not only that, she expected him to also talk and not just listen.  The cacophony of noise was driving him mad.  He often thought to ask her for the marriage be dissolved, but every time he wanted to broach the subject she would loose "a torrent of irrelevancies which would swirl him from all anchorage, and left him at the last stranded so distantly from his thought that he did not know how to find his way back to it."  His male acquaintances were no help; their various advices were essentially ignore it or just live with it.  When he tried to attempt a conversation, he resorted to talking about things around him at the time.  "The window is square, it is made of glass" or "The roof of this carriage is flat, it is made of wood,"  And she laughed.

Married only six months, the third husband is easily irritated by his wife.  To him she was insufferably changeable:  flighty one day and deep the next.  If it was as if she deliberately was trying to make a fool of him.  He had confronted her several times about this attitude, speaking loudly while wagging his finger; each time he had expected then to walk away calmly, his point being made, and each he couldn't because she had burst into tears.  She had been reluctant to get married because marriage was forever.  She was the type whose vagaries included "side-streets, short cuts, and chance acquaintances."  It was hard to keep up with her.  And now she was late.  She should have been home long before and he was fuming at her inconsideration.  She had wanted to visit a friend; he wanted her to stay home.  She went anyway, despite his warning that if she went out now she need not come back.  The longer he waited, the angrier at he inconsideration he got.  It was now midnight and no sign of her.  Midnight outside to the house was "an immoral hour."  She had been gone for five hours.  Finally saying, "Let her go to Jericho," he went to bed, undressing in the dark.  Climbing into bed, her found his wife there, sleeping.  Had he wronged her?  Or had she gone out the front door and immediately snuck in the back to toy with him?  He may never know.

Each of the three husbands was "heavy" -- laden with their own personal faults.  Were the wives any better?  Greed, callousness, trickery...all were part of their characters.  I literally have no idea what to make of this story.

James Stephens (1882?-1950) was an Irish poet, novelist, and Nationalist, perhaps best known for his classic fantasy novel The Crock of Gold and for his retelling of Irish myths in Irish Fairy Tales.  He had a singular talent for combining humor and lyricism in his work.  He stood only 4' 10" and was sometimes called "Tiny Tim."  He was very athletic as a boy and would have joined the military except for his height.  Instead he graduated as a solicitor's clerk.  As a poet he was mentored by AE (George William Russell), the well-known poet and painter.  He published his first book of poems in 1909.  A few year later, his support for the Irish cause netted him a job as registrar in the National Gallery of Ireland, where he stayed for eleven years, after which he travelled between Dublin, London, and Paris, meeting an befriending James Joyce.  Stephens claimed that he shared a birthday with Joyce, February 2, 1882, and this helped form a bond between the two.  In reality he was most likely born on February 9, 1880.  Because little of his early life was known, the question of his birthdate remains open.  Joyce was concerned that e would never be about to finish Finnegan's Wake, and proposed that Stephens do it for him.  It would be published as by "JJ&S," for "James Joyce and Stephens" but also being a reference to Jamieson Irish whiskey, which was produced by John Jamieson & Sons.  The collaboration never came about and Joyce finished the work on his own.

Here Are Ladies, as with most of Stephens's work, is available to read on the internet.

1 comment:

  1. As a heavy husband myself, I can relate to this story! Let me know if you'd like me to send you some Stanislaw Lem books!