He Fell in Love with His WifeApril 26, 2010
For some reason I’ve always had a thing for stories where people get married for practical reasons and end up falling in love with each other. So when I came across Edward Payson Roe’s He Fell in Love with His Wife, I had to read it. It’s a pretty silly title, though, and I expected the book to be just like that: melodramatic and silly. But it wasn’t. Actually, I think it might be pretty good.
He Fell in Love with His Wife is the story of James Holcroft, a recently widowed farmer who needs a woman to keep house for him and help him in his dairy. The servants he hires are uniformly awful, and after he finds one of them throwing a party for her friends at his expense, he almost decides to sell his farm. But he’s lived there all his life, and he loves it, so he’s willing to do almost anything to keep it.
Holcroft’s neighbor, Lemuel Weeks, suggests that a respectable housekeeper might be the answer, and offers as a candidate his wife’s cousin Mrs. Mumpson. Holcroft hires her on a three-month trial basis, but he soon discovers that he’s been tricked: Mrs. Mumpson is neither willing to work or capable of working, and she quickly develops the notion that he’s going to fall in love with her and marry her. That’s so far from being the case that Holcroft actually daydreams about horse-whipping Weeks for tricking him into hiring her.
Mrs. Mumpson also brings with her a daughter named Jane. Jane, unlike her mother, is kind of a great character. Everyone has always ignored her and looked down on her, and she’s sly and a little bit creepy and not nice to look at, but she has sense. She keeps trying to tell her mother that the best way to get on Holcroft’s good side is to shut up and do some of the work he’s paying her for, but Mrs. Mumpson’s grip on reason is pretty tenuous, and she…pretty much does the exact opposite. Holcroft eventually manages to get rid of her by pretending the house is on fire.
Meanwhile, something tragic is happening to a woman named Alida Armstrong in the city or town where Holcroft sells his produce. Her mother dies, and, left completely alone in the world, she ends up marrying a man named Wilson Ostrom, who has been very kind to her. They settle down in a quiet part of town and get along very well until the day a woman shows up and reveals to Alida the reason Ostrom has been so happy to live quietly: he’s already married to someone else. Alida runs away and ends up in the poorhouse, where the paupers soon discover the basic outline of her story and shun her.
The poorhouse is run by Holcroft’s childhood friend Tom Watterly, with whom he has been talking over his troubles on a regular basis. Watterly suggests Alida as a possible housekeeper–she’ll work hard, she doesn’t really have to worry about being respectable anymore, and she’ll enjoy the seclusion of the farm. Holcroft likes the idea, especially after he meets her and forms an idea of her character, but Alida is uncomfortable with the idea, so instead of offering her a job, he offers her a “business marriage,” and eventually she accepts.
Alida is, of course, exactly what Holcroft needs. She’s quiet, hardworking, and a good cook, and she’s incredibly grateful to him for giving her a home. She’s also a lot better educated than he is, and she reads to him and, I don’t know, broadens his mind.
Around the time they’re beginning to fall in love with each other, Jane reappears. Mrs. Mumpson’s relatives have lost their patience and bundled her off to the poorhouse, and Jane has run away to Mr. Holcroft, the only person she’s ever known who didn’t make her feel like a stray cat. Which seems fair enough, you know? Holcroft and Alida are pretty happy and comfortable together at that point, and disinclined to take in anyone else at all, let alone someone as uncomfortable to be around as Jane. But really, they can’t turn her away, and they don’t.
Holcroft takes Jane back to the poorhouse to get Mrs. Mumpson to surrender custody to him, and here’s where I get uncomfortable: Tom Watterly explains that if anyone else is willing to take in a child from the poorhouse, the parents are not allowed to keep them. Now, that’s alright when it’s Mrs. Mumpson, who is pretty awful all around, and has never shown any signs of caring about Jane at all, but I imagine that this rule could and did cause a lot of truly miserable situations.
Anyway, Jane’s arrival at the farm begins that series of misunderstandings between the protagonists that is inevitable in any book of the he/she fell in love with his/her husband/wife variety. The misunderstandings between Holcroft and Alida go on for what seems like forever, but it’s hard to fault Roe for that, because both of their thought processes are so in character. Everything that’s happened to Alida has increased her fear that everyone she meets is secretly–or openly–disgusted by her, and Holcroft’s self-esteem issues are of long standing, and we’ve seen them from all angles over the course of the book.
Roe is really good with characters. In a book with this kind of storyline, they could all have been cardboard and it wouldn’t have seemed strange at all, but everyone is this book has a little more to them than you would expect. Holcroft and Jane are the best, but Alida is very good most of the time, and Tom Watterly is kind of perfectly written. The only people Roe really has trouble with are the ones who are meant to be entirely unsympathetic–Mrs. Mumpson and Alida’s fake husband, who reappears toward the end of the book. It feels like Roe isn’t really capable of understanding villains. He deals with the Mrs. Mumpson half of this problem by making her seem sort of unhinged, which works, but doesn’t feel completely necessary. The man Alida married, on the other hand, is just wildly inconsistent–kind and generous, then weak and cowardly, then cunning and threatening. And I can see how all those traits could make sense together, and Roe doesn’t do a bad job of explaing that, but it just…doesn’t quite work.
But honestly, focusing on that seems a little nitpicky, because this is a pretty good book. Edward Payson Roe was apparently hugely popular during his lifetime, and if He Fell in Love with His Wife is a fair sample of his work, it’s not hard to see why. Everything in it is just a little bit more intelligent and better written than I felt like I had a right to expect.