History and myth have often focused on men: Sisyphus, Lazarus, Herod, Pilate, Midas, Faust, Freud… But what of their wives? Who were they and what did they think of their men?
These women are brought to life in Carol Ann Duffy’s collection of poems. The wives of the men mentioned above, female figures like Salomé, Circe, Eurydice, Delilah and Medusa, finally have a voice. She also reimagines King Kong and the Kray Twins as women. The result is delightful.
The collection starts with Little Red-Cap, a take on Little Red Riding Hood, where the girl is at “childhood’s edge” when she sees the wolf, “a paperback in his hairy paw,/red wine staining his bearded jaw. … I made quite sure he spotted me, / sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink”. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well for the wolf.
I love reworkings of well-known tales, and this collection delivers. The women are, on the whole, unimpressed with their men. Mrs. Midas watches with a mixture of fascination and horror at the way everything her husband touches turns into gold.
“He tried to light a cigarette. I gazed, entranced,
as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,
I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.”
Mrs. Aesop is bored to distraction with Aesop’s fables. Mrs. Sisyphus is a woman married to a workaholic husband who spends all his time and energy in rolling a boulder up the hill, just to have it roll back down. She would rather he spent more time with her, but he can’t give up his “work”.
Orpheus and Eurydice aren’t quite the happy couple they’re made out to be in myth. Eurydice is happy to be dead and in the Underworld, away from Orpheus:
“It was a place where language stopped,
a black full stop, a black hole
where words had to come to an end.
… the one place you’d think a girl would be safe
from the kind of man
who follows her around
But to her dismay, Orpheus turns up in the Underworld and persuades the gods to let him take her back. They agree, provided he doesn’t turn around to look at her even once on his way out. But Eurydice flatters him into turning around. His promise to the gods broken, she is free to disappear back into the shadows.
The Kray Twins, reimagined as women, are gangsters like the real Kray Twins (who ran organized crime in London in the 50s and 60s), but the female Twins avenge women who have been ill-treated by their men.
And finally, Mrs Darwin: “Went to the Zoo. / I said to Him – / Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.”
This is a thoroughly enjoyable collection, turning the legends about men on their heads. The title is a reference to the phrase “the world and his wife”, which denies women the right to be part of the world. Duffy has put them back on the centre of the stage, where they should be.