Mrs Craddock, a study in the art of whinging

24 August 2009 at 9:45 pm (Thoughts)

Book cover: Mrs Craddock

I was first introduced to W. Somerset Maugham by an English teacher. I can’t remember the first one I read, but I remember being caught up in the old-fashioned Englishness of it all. In the following years, I’d come across his books without really looking. I’d mentioned to a friend that I enjoyed reading Maugham, and she said she had a couple of his books sitting at home. Interesting story about how she got them, too: Many years ago, she had an elderly neighbour who’d dumped a boxful of books outside for the garbagemen. My friend asked why she was throwing her books away. The elderly lady said that she was going to be moving to her son’s house, and they didn’t have place for her books, so much as she hated getting rid of them, she had to. (Of course, here, I’m thinking, couldn’t you have donated them to a library or something? But maybe she was old and didn’t drive a car, and her son was  not likely to be kind enough to help her since he wouldn’t even make place for her books in his dear house!) Well, my friend said it would be too much of a waste to throw the books away; could she have them? The old lady said yes, and, years later, I have the pleasure to reading them.

Well, Ashenden was a pleasure, but Mrs Craddock — oh, that was a different story altogether. It was almost painful to get through the whole of Mrs Craddock, and perhaps that was the whole point of it. It certainly doesn’t take a very complimentary view of women, and as much as I loathe to admit it, the members of my sex do act like Whingeheads most of the time. All us women, we must have been taught Whingeology in the womb. Some do it less annoyingly compared to others, some more often, some more loudly, but I guess there is whinginess in some form or other in most of the female species. Even the smart, cynical, bitchy-but-level-headed Aunt Polly in Mrs Craddock has a lapse towards the end.

It was painful also mostly because the protagonist, Bertha (Mrs Craddock), has no redeeming qualities other than a streak of independence. She’s stubborn, wilful, whingey, helpless, idiotic, selfish, self-conscious, proud (in a bad way). Perhaps I can’t fully understand the character without really knowing what it was like to be a woman, a wife, in late-nineteenth-century England. I’m not sure if Maugham really knew himself, either. I mean, I could write a book about a male chauvinist by observing one. But would I really know what it is to be a male chauvinist? I am only an observer, the way Maugham was.

Bertha’s husband, that is, Mr Craddock, is a simpleton. Hardworking, virtuous and all the rest of it, and his most memorable line (which he repeats several times): “Women ought to be dealt with like chickens.” Use good fencing and let them get on with their cackling and scratching — they’ll get it out of their system soon enough. Something to that effect. And Bertha, of course, stupid Bertha, proves him right. Enough to make even the most patient reader go, “Gargh, woman, you … garghhh!”

A little past halfway in the book, I was ready to pull my hair out in irritation. Get a hold of yourself, woman! I wanted to give her a good slap. Not that it’d make her any more sensible, but it’d have given me some satisfaction.

Can’t say I really enjoyed this book — I prefer something like Ashenden over this anyday.

Come to think of it, I didn’t think much of the lady protagonist in The Painted Veil, either. Perhaps Maugham was being biased in his views; his male protagonists are clever and articulate, and his female ones, irritating bits of good-looking fluff.

Oh, dear.

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