William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan

Last year I enjoyed reading Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. It had been published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. The story in that novel followed two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. William’s Wife also covers a long period. William’s wife is Jane, and we join her on her wedding day towards the end of the 19th Century, and the novel ends with her eventual decline between the wars. Jane is no-one special. She is 28 years old when she marries and has been a lady’s maid.

William’s Wife

William’s Wife considers what it means to be William Chirp’s wife, living close to London, in a small town. Jane Atkins marries William Chirp who is a widower and owner of a substantial greengrocer’s shop. There is considerable consciousness of social status in the town, and Jane is anxious to be recognised for the new status she acquires on her marriage. But from the start William shows himself as mean and miserly, and Jane must resort to subterfuge to find the few pence for repairs to her clothes, nice things in the house and so forth. He controls her money to the point of abuse, and when he retires it gets worse, for he controls her time as well. The First World War arrives and she joins a group to knit items (helmets) for the soldiers, which include his son-in-law. William begrudges her the money for the yarn and the time she spends with the knitting group but he will not be publicly shamed. When he dies as the war ends, Jane comes into his money, and the house, which will on Jane’s death be inherited by his daughter Emily. 

William’s meanness is not confined to money: he is ungenerous to his second wife, to his daughter and son-in-law, even when Jim goes into the army during the war. He denies Jane new clothes, even when she suggests that she could pay for them from money she brought to the marriage. But the Married Women’s Property Act was not passed until 1882 and William controls everything in their house and marriage.

“What d’you want now. What’s wrong with what you’ve got.”
“I only meant, I thought, if you could let me have some of my own money, William, that I saved from Mrs Minever’s, that you put in the bank.”
[…] “But I’ve worn it for so long, William. Best part of two years, ever since we was married, I feel so shabby in it for best, it would go on for everyday for years if I had something different for Sundays. And it isn’t as if I was asking you, I only thought, I wondered if you’d let me have a bit of my own money.” (40).

We can see that even this early in the marriage Jane has been beaten down. William does not ask questions. He makes statements. She answers in broken, tentative sentences, sure that she is in the right but frightened of her husband’s coldness. She is asking for her own money to get a better dress for Sunday best, and she is refused, in the same way that he delays making repairs to their home, refuses to invite his daughter around for Christmas, to have an officer billeted on them during the war – everything is controlled by him, including the information he gives her. He does not tell her when he has decided to retire, for example.

What will it mean to be William Chirp’s widow? When William was still alive Jane learned how to hide every penny, to make only the most important purchases, and to reveal nothing to anyone else. On becoming a widow she continues her penny-pinching ways, afraid that her money will be taken away from her, especially by her step-daughter Emily. She leaves the house she shared with William for a smaller house, and then becomes more and more paranoid and secretive and suspicious. She moves to smaller and smaller places. Eventually, with no evidence she fears that her belongings will be stolen when she goes out and so she takes everything she can around with her, picks up abandoned vegetables, cat meat, coal and wood from the street and lives a life of horror and fear. She has no friends, resents any person who interacts with her (the bank, the street sellers, Emily and the police officer who asks if she is ok). She makes elaborate preparations for every trip out of her rooms.

Well, with her hat on, and her jacket and her mantle, there was only to get her things together. Undo her black bag, that was stood up against the wall so she could take it again easy, and feel down to see all was there. For she didn’t need to go looking, she could tell well enough by the feel. Her boots and her best bead slippers and her boa and her muff and her best black and her serge … Ah, you couldn’t deceive her. She knew which was which well enough by the feel, she would have known if there was so much as a pin missing, without even setting an eye inside. Tie up the string again, good stout cord, a lucky day when she came across that. And prop it back against the wall, all ready with her umbrella on top.
And spoons in her handbag […] (237-8)

In a third person narrative, but clearly from Jane’s point of view and in her idiom, we see her decline. The details she has paid attention to all her life now come to dominate her life as she prepares for her daily walk, gathering everything around her, her money sewn into the hem of her dress, and her suspicions of everyone on high alert. The transformation of Jane is a horror story. That is what Jane learned from becoming William’s wife. 

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. William’s Wife was her 6th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

You can also read the review of William’s Wife on Heaven Ali’s blog in September 2023, by clicking on this link. She describes it as ‘not a happy novel’ and she describes how it stays with you af6er you have finished it.

William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan, first published in 1938. It has been reissued by Recovered Books Boiler House Press in 2023. 264pp 

2 Comments

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2 Responses to William’s Wife by Gertrude Trevelyan

  1. This sounds exactly my kind of novel – the sort that is so often published by Persephone Books. Thank you for introducing it to me – I am going to seek it out today!

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