March 29, 2022

Books

Shadowboxing with history: ‘The Secret Wife’

By Amy Walters
Cover image of Mark Lamprell’s ‘The Secret Wife’
Mark Lamprell’s novel about 1960s housewives takes a whimsical look at social expectations about working women

“I need a wife!” remains a common refrain among today’s working mothers. As Annabel Crabb assiduously noted in her 2014 book The Wife Drought, “[m]en get wives, and women don’t”. While “asymmetric rates of wife-having” are a major contributor to women’s stress and lack of career advancement, they generate a major economic privilege for men.

The asymmetry of wife-having is the subject of Mark Lamprell’s latest novel, The Secret Wife (Text Publishing), set throughout the 1960s and early ’70s as housewifery became politicised. After moving into a new housing development in outer suburbia, neighbours Edith and Frankie find in each other the perfect foil for their unexpressed desires. Edith is married to her childhood sweetheart, Charlie, who, while leaving the housework entirely up to her, is understanding of her social anxiety and doesn’t limit her household budget. Frankie is married to the pugnacious and pedantic Ralph, who tracks his white-gloved hands across household surfaces to check if she has missed any dust on her daily rounds. Despite being sexually mismatched, Charlie and Edith show genuine concern for each other, whereas in Frankie and Ralph’s relationship the threat of physical violence is never far away. Ralph is opposed to the glamorous Frankie working outside the home, so when she is offered a job as a model, Edith covers for her by becoming her “secret wife”.

Lamprell is also a screenwriter, and it is easy to imagine The Secret Wife as a film. Indeed, at times it reads as a fleshed-out screenplay. Edith’s flashbacks are somewhat clumsily integrated into the narrative, and dialogue takes precedence over descriptions that are heavily reliant on visual cues, as if a camera was panning across each scene. When Frankie arrives, Edith notes her “vivid red lipstick” and “figure-hugging dress”, and the way her “[d]ark brown hair tumbled and curled in waves to her shoulders”. Frankie’s rule-breaking persona is foreshadowed by her decision to paint the weatherboard façade of her new house bright yellow, in stark contrast to the dull pastels favoured by the suburb’s other residents. Similarly, the dutiful deployment of period details, such as Edith and Charlie’s green-and-cream swirl Formica benchtop and Frankie’s blue Dodge, can read like set directions. Combined with the whimsical narratorial tone, at first these tropes threaten to bathe the supposedly swinging decade in the warm glow of nostalgia. 

But beneath this simple surface, deeper themes are at play. Most notably, the historical setting permits an ironic treatment of the divisions in contemporary feminism around work and motherhood. When the novel opens in 1961, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is still two years away, but her theory – that the malaise suffered by mid-century (upper-middle class, white) housewives was the consequence of a mythology that required women to sublimate all their desires into the running of a home – is a ghostly presence throughout the novel.

Despite embodying the housewife, Edith is a sympathetically drawn character who is becoming increasingly aware of her limited horizons. Her lack of “adventurousness” is not just because of internalised misogyny, but also due to her unprocessed childhood trauma. She is deeply invested in world events, eagerly listening to news reports about the assassination of President Kennedy and, later, his brother Bobby; the developments in the space race; and the Supremes becoming the first female band to have a number-one album. Edith regards such events as portents for her private life, a mental tic developed in childhood after the deaths of her father and sister uncannily coincided with the explosion of the Hindenburg and Amelia Earhart’s record-breaking solo flight, respectively. She and Charlie even “moved into their new house on the same day that Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth”.

On one level, Edith’s “shadowboxing with history” has a comic function. On another level, it establishes a dichotomy between the domestic world and the professional one, and thus cements the book’s major theme. As humanity’s frontiers expand, Frankie and Edith realise theirs could too, but their escape mechanisms are problematic. Frankie is able to dodge housewifery by trading on her looks, and because of the free labour provided by Edith. When she becomes uneasy with their arrangement and suggests paying Edith a wage, Edith rejects the offer out of love for Frankie. Not only does this reference the wages for housework activism spearheaded by Silvia Federici in the 1960s, but it also draws attention to the continued dismissal of care and domestic work as feminised labours of love in the contemporary era. As Jessica Friedmann writes in a perceptive article, now that it is common for both parents to work, mothers “must bring in a wage while simultaneously performing the role vacated by the housewife”, which means that “one-half of the workforce must be coerced into performing domestic labor in addition to waged labor and assimilating that labor as love”. This conundrum is cleverly forecast in The Secret Wife, with the narrative drama centring on the shenanigans Edith and Frankie resort to in order to maintain their deception. Although their subversion of social expectations enables them to grow as individuals, their solidarity leaves patriarchy mostly undisturbed.

Growing up in the northern suburbs of Perth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was my mother’s not-so-secret wife. When I first started helping out by preparing dinner or bringing the washing in after school, I was in the final years of primary school, and it was dismissed by onlookers as precocity or cuteness. “You’re such a good girl, helping your mum!” acquaintances would chirp. By the time my senior high-school years rolled around, I felt I had gained some insight into the harried nature of motherhood. Cooking started off as a hobby, but, as any female subjugated by the unequal dynamics of a heterosexual relationship will tell you, when you’re coerced into doing it every day out of “love” for people who take it for granted, it quickly becomes something else. The ongoing subjugation of women through our performance of emotional and domestic labour is a serious matter, and The Secret Wife is a welcome addition to a slew of recent novels drawing attention to the thankless maintenance work with which women continue to be saddled.

Amy Walters

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog The Armchair Critic, and her reviews have appeared in Right Now, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin.

@CouchCritic18

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