The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham (1927)

CONSTANCE: I’m tired of being the modern wife.
MARTHA: What do you mean by the modern wife?
CONSTANCE: A prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.

Another spiffing comedy of manners in three acts. As usual it is a cynical-amoral-witty take on modern marriage making comic capital from the way the professional upper-middle classes talk lightly about fidelity and infidelity and make sweeping comic generalisations about husbands and wives; but The Constant Wife is distinguished from the other two Maugham plays I’ve read by the surprisingly blunt and unillusioned viewpoint of the central character.

Act One

Constance is married to the successful surgeon John Middleton. After 15 years of marriage he is as attentive and loving as ever but often absent at work. Constance’s mother (Mrs Culver) and sister (Martha), come to visit her, both of them bursting with the news that Constance’s husband is having an affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise.

Also visiting is Constance’s friend Barbara, a successful businesswoman, head of an interior design consultancy, who is offering to take Constance into partnership.

Both Mrs Culver and Martha ask Constance probing questions about her relationship with John, with Barbara chipping in. This adds up to a quartet of women all making sweeping and witty generalisations about men, women and marriage designed to prompt knowing chuckles from the audience. Maugham is never as sparkling as Wilde but his ‘sophisticated’ drawing room banter, and the jaded air with which the women discuss men, men’s nature, men’s simplicity, men’s guilelessness and so on, is often quite funny.

‘Do you really think that men are mysterious? They’re like children.’

‘They’re like little boys, men. Sometimes of course they’re rather naughty and you have to pretend to be angry with them. They attach importance to such entirely unimportant things that it’s really touching… I think they’re sweet but it’s absurd to take them seriously.’

‘Men go off so dreadfully, don’t they? He may be bald and fat by now.’

And much more in the same vein.

More striking to me was the moment when Constance dismisses one of her mother’s generalisations about women with, ‘You are not what they call a feminist, mother, are you?’

I knew we had the New Woman in the 1880s and 90s, that the Edwardian era was the Age of the Suffragettes, the 20s the decade of the Flapper – in other words women have been in process of rising up and speaking out in more or less every decade since the 1880s – but I was surprised to learn that our contemporary word ‘feminist’ was in sufficiently widespread use that Maugham could deploy it in what is designed to be an accessible, middle-brow comedy to raise a laugh.

Similarly, I was very struck by the way Barbara is portrayed quite simply as a no-nonsense businesswoman who approaches her friend to join the firm (seeing as Constance has a good sense of interior decoration and design). Struck that here on the popular stage in 1927 – 91 years ago – women are presented as perfectly capable businesswomen with no irony or humour:

CONSTANCE: I don’t think John would like it. After all, it would look as though he couldn’t afford to support me.
BARBARA: Oh, not nowadays, surely. There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t have a career as much as a man.

Modern feminism gives the impression that pioneering women only broke into the world of business in the last few decades and are still struggling for equal pay and senior positions. (On the same theme, it’s notable that the wife of Charles Strickland, the painter who runs off to Paris then the South Seas in Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence, in order to support herself sets up her own typing agency which becomes a great financial success – all this sometime in the Edwardian decade.)

Anyway, the four women discussing how awful men are, and husbands in particular, with lots of hints about the state of John and Constance’s marriage, are interrupted by the arrival of the very same John and – by a coincidence – of pretty little Marie-Louise. There’s polite chat for a bit, then Marie-Louise complains of a knee injury and John invites her into his consulting room to ‘examine’ it. The other women all look at each other. I think we are pretty much meant to realise that John is having a fling with Constance’s best friend. The other women depart.

Having established the framework of Constance’s friends, and the main issue – John’s adultery – the second part of Act One introduces an old flame of Constance’s, Bernard Kersal, who has just arrived back from Japan, where he runs a business.

There is some preliminary comedy – Constance had kept her mother with her in case Bernard turned out to be fat and awful, so she could quickly dispense with him; but since he turns out to be tall with a good figure, Constance bustles her mother out of the room so she can recline graciously on the divan and listen to his charming compliments.

Bernard says he has always loved her and that is why he never married. ‘Really, darling, how frightfully sweet of you,’ Constance drawls. After she’s enjoyed Bernard’s adulation for a while, John re-enters the room to say he’s just off to his club. Constance introduces him to Bernard and John suggests Bernard come round that evening to keep his wife company for dinner, while he’s out, unintentionally setting them up for further romantic dalliance…

Act Two

Two weeks later in the same setting, in the same room at Constance’s house.

Martha is alone with Bernard and takes the opportunity to tell him that Constance’s husband, John, is having an affair with Marie-Louise. Bernard can’t believe it, they seem like the perfect couple, John is such a gentleman etc.

Martha leaves as Constance comes in and Bernard tells her he loves her with all his heart while Constance puts him off with amused witticisms.

Bernard and Constance exit as Marie-Louise arrives in a tizzy to see John. She is in a panic because she thinks her husband, Mortimer, suspects their affair, John tells her to calm down.

Martha and Bernard return, then Constance and Mrs Culver (Martha and Constance’s mother) so that the cast is pretty much all there when Marie-Louise’s husband – and John’s best friend – Mortimer Durham bursts into the room red in the face with anger. In front of everyone he accuses Marie-Louise of having an affair with John, on the basis of finding his cigarette case under her pillow.

At which point Constance, gripping Marie-Louise’s hand and looking meaningfully at John to stop him saying anything, performs an absolute tour de force of creative lying, swearing to Mortimer that it is her cigarette case, that it is there because Marie-Louise came round for dinner with her and John last night, then she (Constance) accompanied her on the walk back to her (Marie-Louise’s) house, went up to her rooms to chat while Marie-Louise got ready for bed, then sat chatting to her for a while: she’d been wondering where the dratted cigarette case had got to. Her explanation is a lot longer than this, but this is the gist, along with offering to call in her servants to confirm the whole story.

Very slowly Mortimer is talked out of his fury until he ends up puffing and gasping and eventually meekly apologises to Constance and to Marie-Louise for making this baseless assertion. Marie-Louise now speaks for the first time and finds herself having to act the Aggrieved Wife, dissolving in floods of tears and saying what a beast Mortimer has been, humiliating her in front of all her friends etc. Eventually Mortimer begs to make it all up to her, and goes off with Constance’s strong recommendation that he buys his wronged wife the fine pearl necklace at Cartier’s which she’s been pining for.

So Mortimer leaves and the assembled cast breathe a great sigh of relief. Then all the follow-ups take place, most notably both John and Marie-Louise are forced to confess that they have in fact been having an affair. Constance calmly and adroitly deals with John and Marie-Louise in turn, then with her sister and her mother.

Constance puzzles all of them by being so matter of fact about it. In fact she shocks husband and mother by bluntly stating her rather cynical position: being a modern wife in the upper classes means being a kept woman, supported in a life of luxury in return for sex and running a disciplined and respectable household.

She stuns John by telling him what a great relief it was to her when, ten years ago, at the same time that she realised she had stopped loving him, she realised that he had stopped loving her too. Since then she has kept up all appearances but has no illusions about men; if John wants to have his little dalliances, well, why not?

‘But he’s having an affair with your best friend!!’ squeals her mother. All the better replies Constance. She knows Marie-Louise is a woman of good character who won’t corrupt her husband; comes from a good home, so won’t want to steal him; and has lots of money, so won’t bankrupt him – she is the Perfect Mistress.

Many of the ways Constance phrases her rather breath-taking cynicism are very funny and have something like the real Wildean bite.

CONSTANCE: I think most married couples tell each other far too much.

I particularly liked the way Constance complains about how she’s had to spend six months fighting off the hints her mother, sister and other friends have been dropping like crazy about John’s affair in order to give the appearance that she didn’t know. ‘It really is so tiring trying to keep oneself in the dark, you know!’

One by one the others leave, until she is alone with her old boyfriend, Bernard. He too is stunned by the stark cynicism of her beliefs:

CONSTANCE: When the average woman who has been married for fifteen years discovers her husband’s infidelity it is not her heart that is wounded but her vanity. If she had any sense, she would regard it merely as one of the necessary inconveniences of an otherwise pleasant profession.

And:

CONSTANCE: Even if I did [love you], so long as John provides me with all the necessities of existence I wouldn’t be unfaithful. it all comes down to the economic situation. He has bought my fidelity and I should be worse than a harlot if I took the price he paid and did not deliver the goods.

The Act ends with everyone having left the stage except Constance, who phones her friend Barbara to say that, Yes, she would like to go into business with her.

Act Three

Exactly the same setting, one year later. Martha and Barbara bring us up to date, explaining that immediately after the scene we just saw in Act Two, Marie-Louise persuaded Mortimer to take her on a year-long holiday round the world. Now Constance announces to them that she is taking a six-week holiday in Italy. She’s been working hard for her friend Barbara’s company, and is now taking a well-earned break.

There is then a sequence of broad comedy: John learns that Marie-Louise is on her way round to see her oldest bestest friend (Constance) and so hesitantly asks Constance if she could tell Marie-Louise that their affair is absolutely positively over. Alright says Constance. He exits. Then Marie-Louise arrives, all smiles and gifts from round the world and stories about how she quite made it all up with Mortimer (‘For a man, he’s really quite clever’) before hesitantly asking Constance if she thinks she could possibly tell John that their affair is positively definitely over. Constance promises to break it to him gently, while the audience chortles at the way both lovers are saying the same thing to Constance.

But knowing her best friend pretty well, Constance knows this can only mean one thing: sure enough, Marie-Louise confesses that she and her husband met a simply charming colonial officer on the ship back and she’s now madly in love with him. Which is where Constance gives another demonstration of her point-blank unsentimental honesty, which upsets Marie-Louise and still has the power to unnerve a modern audience. She calls Marie-Louis a tramp to her face.

CONSTANCE: You take everything from your husband and give him nothing that he pays for. You are no better than a vulgar cheat… I think you a liar, a humbug and a parasite… but I like you.

Marie-Louise departs understandably miffed. John re-enters and asks whether Constance told her what he asked her to. Oh yes, she told her alright.

Feminism

Now commences the most surprising part of the play, for it turns into a bit of a feminist tract. Constance explains to John why she has been working really very hard in her friend’s business. It’s not because she was bored, it was to earn money. Why? Because only money can make women really free.

CONSTANCE: There is only one freedom that is really important and that is economic freedom.

And now she drops the bombshell: she is going away on holiday, yes, but she is going with Bernard. Why? Because she wants to feel loved again, one last time before she becomes middle-aged. She forces John to concede that she and he don’t really love each other any more, they just live in companionable partnership. Why shouldn’t she enjoy her prime while it lasts?

John is understandably miffed but Constance keeps wryly pointing out how understanding, indulgent and forgiving she was of his affair with Marie-Louise, so why can’t he be as tolerant of her little peccadillo. And this is where her financial independence comes in:

JOHN: What makes you think that I am going to allow you to go?
CONSTANCE [good-humouredly]: Chiefly the fact that you can’t prevent me.

At this point Mrs Culver (Constance’s mother) enters, is apprised of the situation, and delivers the social wisdom of the older generation, namely that men are biologically made to be unfaithful and women just have to put up with it:

MRS CULVER: Men are naturally polygamous and sensible women have always made allowances for their occasional lapse from a condition which modern civilisation has forced on them. Women are monogamous. They do not naturally desire more than one man and that is why the common sense of the world has heaped obloquy upon them when they have overstepped the natural limitations of their sex.

And much more in the same vein. Constance is equally cynical but in a new, improved, liberated way. She replies that modern wifedom is a form of parasitism and prostitution. A wife exchanges her freedom for room and board. Well, she has just paid John for her estimated room and board for the previous year and so is morally in the clear.

CONSTANCE: [Women in the past] were dishonest [if unfaithful] because they were giving away something that wasn’t theirs to give. They had sold themselves for board, lodging and protection. They were chattel. They were dependent on their husbands and when they were unfaithful to them they were liars and thieves. I’m not dependent on John. I am economically independent and therefore I claim my sexual independence.

I dare say the West End audience was meant to exit the theatre and discuss and argue about these ideas all the way home. I don’t really understand the Daily Telegraph critic when he called Maugham a misogynist: for the third play in a row it is a woman who comes out on top as the cleverest, shrewdest, free-est agent in the play, while the men appear – and are explicitly described as – vain, narcissistic, emotionally shallow and easy to manipulate.

Constance [to John]: A man thinks it is quite natural that he should fall out of love with a woman, but it never strikes him for a moment that a woman could do anything so unnatural as to fall out of love with him. Don’t be upset at that, darling, it is one of the charming limitations of your sex.

Comic climax

The final scene reverts from this rather serious debate to a more obvious comedy of manners: John becomes more outraged the more Constance calmly describes her intention to spend six weeks with her old flame touring Italy, but Constance has a clever riposte to each of his protestations and underlying all of them the threat that she will reveal to ‘society’ everything about his fling with Marie-Louise. This would ruin his reputation and jeopardise his career (demonstrating that it wasn’t only women who were oppressed by the social mores of the times).

Instead, Constance forces John to grit his teeth and greet Bernard who now arrives to collect her. At this point Maugham squeezes more comic potential out of the scene, because Constance hasn’t told Bernard that she’s told John everything. Bernard thinks that he and Constance going away together is a great big secret and so he makes a big thing of saying an elaborate and fake Goodbye to Constance, purely for John’s consumption, even though we – the audience – know that John knows everything.

Why? Constance had explained to John that it would hurt Bernard’s sense of ‘honour’ if he felt John knew he was spending six adulterous weeks with his wife: therefore, to salve his ‘manly’ sense of ‘honour’ both Constance and John must pretend to Bernard that she hasn’t told John anything.

Thus Constance plays a final game on her lover, making him appear foolish, and on her husband, making him appear and feel even more foolish. Men are so silly, aren’t they?

And so it is that when he is shown into the room by the butler, Bernard makes a big show of asking whether Constance is definitely travelling alone (she says yes) and then casually remarks that he, too, has planned a little trip abroad – maybe they’ll bump into each other in Naples, which is where he’ll have to catch his ship back to Japan? ‘Yes, perhaps,’ Constance says, pretending to be surprised.

Throughout which John, her husband, is forced to nod and smile and say ‘Yes dear’ to this gruesome charade, all the time knowing she has him wrapped round her little finger!

The Constant Wife has the last laugh.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: