Around 25 years ago it became clear that there existed only two groups that could still be bullied by journalists without fear of public backlash. These were the upper classes and husbands. Female ramblings about how annoying men are began, and continue, to go down well and strike a chord of recognition among wearied women. (Men, by the way, have never been allowed to write columns about how annoying women are.)
From my perspective, it can be both helpful and unhelpful to have a regular ‘gig’ attacking my own husband. I wrote a weekly ‘Family Life’ column in the Sunday Telegraph (from 1994 to 2000). The main positive is that the annoyance of domestic life can be monetised; but, on the other hand, the wife is looking out for, and almost requiring, the husband to commit irritating acts for ammunition.
I’ve never gone so far as to entrap Giles into bad behaviour for a husband-bashing article, but the dimples in his cheeks as I rise to his everyday provocations remind me that he himself has pointed out that ‘at least these little spats partially pay our bills’. We’ve both admitted that being on Gogglebox saved our marriage, but it disturbs me that our on-screen appearances sometimes seem to celebrate my scolding him on a weekly basis.
A friend who was at the forefront of the anti-husband writers found that her marriage fell victim to the tension between her public and private lives. Her books about her hopeless husband were so popular that she was given a series deal; but she was so good at eking out annoyances that by the fifth book she had divorced him.
Now the well-informed literary reviewer Melissa Katsoulis has decided to join in the debate about men as social stereotypes in her addition to the husband-lit canon. Her compilation of personal observations and anecdotes from literary and social history aims to help wives to understand their husbands rather than to denigrate them. Henry Kissinger once quipped that no one will ever win the battle of the sexes because there is too much fraternising with the enemy. This book suggests that, in the modern era, it may be time for a ceasefire.
There are some nuggets of sympathy that may be eye-opening to the uninitiated wife. Katsoulis observes that the Englishman’s home is meant to be his castle, but too often these days it is a place where he can feel ‘much worse than in the outside world. It’s a place where he can fail at strange jobs that he didn’t know he was supposed to be good at, like folding towels properly.’
If you needed more proof that the old failsafe cliché of the useless husband and clever wife is outmoded in 2019, look no further than the news last month that the Advertising Standards Authority has banned this double act from TV adverts because of harmful gender stereotyping. A hard-won victory for harried men?
There are practical tips mixed in with the more philosophical points: for example, that the best way to convince a husband to do anything is to suggest he might be too old to do it. One of her conclusions is that we should listen more to our spouses: and curiously this is the very realisation that I reached myself when I managed for various reasons to listen to Giles for 90 minutes per week. It dawned on me that men’s brains really do work differently from women’s, and if you can be patient enough to wait and hear them out it can shed some productive light on their otherwise annoying behaviour.
I had long suspected that Giles insisted on keeping our old and unsightly kitchen sink out of sadism; but after listening to him speak about it recently I discovered that it was for the far nobler cause of eco-consciousness. It still worked, after all. I also thought that his wild and overgrown garden was a protest against the strictures of our friends’ better-manicured lawns, but now that jungle gardens are fashionable, he is smug to have been years ahead of the trend.
Maybe you can no longer bully husbands in 2019. But the market will always be open for books like this one: women will always want to insult their friends’ husbands by implication, through gifting them presents on the subject at engagements, weddings and Christmas.