People who live in the limelight often get a lot of scrutiny. The same thing happens when someone is in a high-stakes career (e.g. trying to become a law partner). Every move that person makes may be noticed, and that includes choice of partner. Whether it’s fair or not, people do judge others by the way their partners act, sometimes even by what they wear. So the right partner can do an awful lot to advance one’s career or social status.
Traditionally (‘though certainly not always!) women have been expected to join the ‘right’ clubs, wear the ‘right’ clothes, visit the ‘right’ people (and avoid certain others) to advance their husbands’ fortunes. It’s not the hard-and-fast rule now that it was, but it’s still there, and in some social circles, it’s still very much culturally expected. It can work the other way too.
We see some interesting cases of this sort of couple in crime fiction, which makes sense when you consider all of the possibilities there are for conflict and other layers of tension. Sometimes such a union turns out very well. Sometimes, it doesn’t…
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s so concerned that his problem be kept quiet that he comes in disguise. He is soon to marry a rich and powerful princess, and the expectation is that the marriage will advance both of their fortunes. In order for this to happen though, the king is expected to have led a more or less blameless life, with no scandal to embarrass his fiancée or her family. And therein lies his problem. The king had a past relationship with an actress, Irene Adler, and there’s a compromising ‘photo to prove it. He wants Holmes to retrieve that ‘photo so that his indiscretion will stay hidden. Holmes agrees and ends up pitted against a much more worthy opponent than he imagined…
Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile is the story of beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She has no real plans to marry until she meets Simon Doyle, fiancé to her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. Not long after she hires Simon as her land agent, the papers and pubs are full of gossip about their sudden marriage. The newlyweds take a honeymoon cruise of the Nile, which is what Linnet had wanted. For his part, Simon plays the role of properly adoring husband. He wears the ‘right’ clothes, takes Linnet where she wants to go, and in other ways advances her high social status as a very wealthy young bride. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Jackie, who has an obvious motive and who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t have committed the murder. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere for the killer.
Until the last few forty years or so, men traditionally got the high-status jobs in academia, and their wives played important roles in getting them there. In that community, it was very important to attend the ‘right’ teas, luncheons and charity events; be pleasant to the ‘right’ highly placed people; and in every way support one’s husband’s chances at tenure, an endowed chair, or deanship. That’s what’s at stake in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. Sir Clixby Bream is planning to retire from his position as Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, and is getting ready to choose his successor. The two top candidates are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. They’re equally qualified and their wives have done their jobs at behaving ‘properly’ and making their husbands look as good as possible. Then, journalist Geoffrey Owens does some digging around and discovers that someone is hiding a dubious past. When he’s shot, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis have to dig into several people’s histories to find out what the truth is about these outwardly respectable lives.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s got what seems to be the perfect upwardly-mobile life. Her husband Angus is a successful attorney, and a lot of people think he’ll be the next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. Jodie is no ‘clinging vine,’ but she does try to advance his career. She wears the ‘right clothes,’ sends their children to the ‘right’ schools, and so on. In every way, Angus looks poised for a fine future, and Jodie’s played her part in that. Then, everything changes. After an accident, their daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where years ago, Jodie gave birth to another child. Not even Angus knows about this. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says she gave the child up for adoption, but when the nurse does some research, she finds that there are no formal records of adoption. Now questions begin to be asked. Where is the child? If she’s alive, can she be found? If she’s dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Jodie’s social capital plummets, and the notoriety of the whole thing also threatens Angus’ career. Along with the truth about the baby, we also learn what happens when a person loses the social capital that comes with a spouse who does all the ‘right’ things.
In Donna Leon’s About Face, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola Falier are invited to dinner with her parents. Her father, Conte Orazio Falier, has an ulterior motive. He’s invited another couple, Maurizio Cataldo and his wife, Franca Marinello, to the dinner as well. He’s considering doing business with Cataldo, and he wants Brunetti to meet the couple and do a little discreet searching into Cataldo’s background. Brunetti agrees and in one plot thread, he starts learning about the Cataldo/Marinello family. Franca is a loyal wife who does everything she can to advance her husband’s career and make him look as good as possible. She dresses well, is an interesting conversationalist, and even pays a visit to Brunetti at his office try to help her husband. It’s a fascinating look at the way even today, what one spouse says and does can reflect on the other.
There are a lot of other novels, too, in which one spouse behaves or dresses in certain ways, or is nice to certain people, to advance the other’s career. You might even call it part of the bargain the couple strike when they marry.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice.