Late Night Thoughts – Part I – “Second Wife Syndrome”

(NB – For some reason, I get ideas at odd times of the night.  I sleep with a notepad on my dresser.  Sometimes, though, I can’t get to bed before writing things down… and this is one of those results.)

The First Mrs Rochester... about to jump

First wives always manage to burn down the house – sometimes, literally.  Bertha did it — and, while Mrs Danvers acted on Rebecca’s behalf, torching Manderley was still an act of utter vindictiveness.

I went to bed last night having just watched Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (the 1997 Charles Dance version, which is my personal favourite) and I started thinking about second wives, and the effect they have on how history not only looks at marriage, but also at men.

In the following rant post, I’m defining a “second wife” as the partner in a second marriage for a man (as opposed to the second time down the aisle for a woman, which is why Eleanor of Aquitaine, despite being one of my favourite people, is not part of this argument).  There are many famous second wives in both history and literature.  The ones that are sharpest in my mind form an intriguing list, given my status as a British/cultural/gender historian: Jane Eyre, Anne Boleyn, Rebekah (of the Book of Genesis), Vivien Leigh, Cleopatra, Mary Shelley, Ruby Lady Carson, Elizabeth Taylor*, Jackie O, Eva Peron, the Duchess of Cornwall, Queen Mary of Modena, Natasha Preston aka the-idiot-stick-figure-with-no-soul who married Mr Big, Agnes Copperfield, and the nameless second Mrs de Winter.

*Thinking of Richard Burton, here.  Then again, I’m always thinking of Richard Burton.

In both literature and history, second wives have burdens to bear.  I’ve always thought that any history of marriage ideally should be named The Madwoman in the Attic.*  The ghostly presence of the bride who came before is weighty and, on occasion, the ultimate defining factor of a second marriage.

Think of the Duchess of Cornwall** – so many gossip rags these days focus on Kate Middleton’s efforts to move beyond her mother-in-law’s shadow, but think of what the non-Princess of Wales has to deal with: your husband’s previous wife was the most famous woman of the past century and the world adored her.  And she hated you.  No wonder the poor duchess literally shook at her wedding.  (If you don’t believe me, watch the video – Camilla’s programme shakes like a leaf in a hurricane during the blessing service.)

*I’m sure all you fans of Wide Sargasso Sea will have a bone to pick with me about that phrase.  All I can say is, bring it.

**To be a stickler for a moment, if you are the wife of a royal prince you are, by the grace of God and your husband’s penis, a princess.  The nod to emotional semantics about Camilla’s title at the time of her marriage to Prince Charles was, in my mind, simultaneously hyper-vigilant and oddly Victorian (if her proposed title sticks, HRH The Princess Consort will be ridiculously reminiscent of Prince Albert – although I suppose that’s the point).  The fact remains, however, that the woman, as the wife of the current Prince of Wales, is The Princess of Wales.  Also, it should be noted that Camilla’s Scottish title, The Duchess of Rothesay, was the same one used by Princess Diana north of the border… but Scotland, apparently, has a more mature attitude about these things.  These are the type of issues debated at New Year’s Day dinner in a house where one’s godfather is the spitting image of Henry Higgins.

First wives seem to vacillate in the public imagination between barn-burners or virgin brides.  Queen Catherine of Aragon never got the orange-blossom out of her hair and always had the English masses on her side (both figuratively and literally), which made Anne Boleyn the people’s whore from day one, whatever might have been going on in that particularly excruciating love-triangle.  (As a brief aside, it should be noted that, when throwing “second wife” into Google and Wiki, Anne Boleyn and Camilla Parker-Bowles were the most popular hits.)

I once heard a theory – I believe it was a notion proposed in one of my history classes at the University of Toronto – that second wives and, correspondingly, the divorces that preceded them, were the direct result of modern healthcare.  In our era of healthy hygiene, pre-natal vitamins, and Dr Spock, first wives no longer die in childbirth at the rates they used to (at least, not in Western society, which is my focus).  The rise of divorces in the 1960s and 1970s was in concert with the ever-increasing survival of expectant mothers.  Up until the past half-century, the prospect of becoming a second wife was a completely respectable option on the understanding that Death lurked in the shadows of every childbirth.

The thought of having more than one wife in a lifetime was a very real possibility for most men, arguably until quite recently.  Where once second wives were saddled with a (possibly) grief-stricken husband and (probably) step-children, in today’s world they are the consequence of divorce – and, in the ink of tabloids and the chin-wagging at the water cooler, often the cause of it.  In a way, our post-post-modern-Kim-Kardashian-wedding-mockery-world has more in common – in terms of matrimonial rates – with the Middle Ages or the heyday of quickie divorces in ancient Rome than with anything from the 1950s.

So, what do second wives have to do with musings on masculinities?

Answer: A lot.

There are two key themes here:

1)      The men who choose their second brides;

2)      The constructions of men and husbands created by the Mrs Factor Take Two.

Historically speaking (in a very broad generalization, I know), men took second wives as child minders and future breeders – and, true enough, occasionally for love.  Anne Boleyn, perhaps history’s most famous second wife since the days of Cleopatra, was a mixture of all three.  Of course, she married an egotistical psychopath/Renaissance prince, so it’s hard to say if her marriage was a fitting template for future generations, despite being the poster girl for Wife #2.

What did men expect from second wives?  Were there pan-class judgements, or was marriage, in fact, the most classist of all social institutions?

More importantly, for me, are the various fashionings of husbands these women have created for posterity.  Again with Anne, her non-censure of Henry VIII, even at the moment of her execution, was extraordinary.  Her speech from the scaffold has come down through the ages nearly as much as the tales of her sixth finger and her moving lips post-decapitation:

Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak any thing of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never; and to me was he ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartily desire you all to pray for me. O Lord, have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.

(Edward Hall, Henry VIII, Vol II. [London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1904], 268-269.)

Genevieve Bujold as Queen Anne in "Anne of the Thousand Days"

Now, text – in most cases, sadly – is also mute.  Inflection and tone in the pre-recording aeons of history are lost to us forever.  Anne might have adopted a sardonic note when she spoke her final words, invoking the Tudor equivalent of biting sarcasm.  But I doubt it.  The negotiations of power were inescapable for royal queens, particularly as to the possible effect disfavour could have on their heirs and children.  Henry VIII, in the words of Queen Anne, remains a pillar of strength and decorum – a just monarch and benevolent tyrant, even as he sent his one-time beloved to the block.

If Anne is history’s chief wifely redux, then Jane Eyre holds the equivalent crown in literature.  And how does Jane portray her lover, ex-fiancé, tormentor, and eventual husband?


Well, even lacking vision and a hand, Mr Rochester remains the paragon of Byronic masculinity, flouting conventions and Christian morality just as easily as he bantered with his hired governess one moment and shrugged off any parental responsibility for little Adele the next.

Edward Rochester, through Jane’s recollections and construction, may not be a beautiful man, but he has all the other attributes of a passionate, profligate, and powerful lord and master.  All Jane has to do to banish all memories of attempted bigamy, frustration, fear, jealousy, and the ashes of Thornfield, is to invoke her most famous of phrases, lifting Rochester into the pantheon of desirable manliness with the simple words, “Reader, I married him.”

And then, there is Manderley… and Maxim de Winter.

Charles Dance and Emilia Fox in "Rebecca" (1997)

While the Second Mrs de Winter is even denied a name, Maxim holds centre stage, warped by the cruelty of his first wife, riven with fears of Manderley’s dishonour should the truth become known, and unable to communicate with his young bride because of Rebecca’s haunting of both manor and marriage.

“He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown. Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long distant past—a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.”

The way that women construct impressions of and expectations for masculinity are paramount to our understanding of how and why societies accept or reject supposedly universal standards of male conduct.  One of the most interesting of these, from a cultural historical perspective, is that of marriage – its former loss and eventual renewal in a relationship that can both belie and exaggerate the manly qualities, virility, and power of the men who marry more than once.

In truth, there can be no truly universal statements in this area, as a personal relationship – both in the historic past, the literary page, and present connotations – ultimately is a private thing, existing as a site for an entire world’s assumptions and fantastic voyeurism, and simultaneously a truth possibly not even known to the participants.

However, when examining masculinities as expressed in the public sphere – through writing, reminiscences, rhetoric, editorials, reports, and fictional creations – the opinions and actions of second wives can be one of the greatest assets in complicating our superficial definitions of marriage, manipulated identities, and masculine power.

Of course, this all could just be conjecture from my over-active imagination… but if I hear scratchings at my door tonight or odd laughter coming from behind the walls, I’ll make sure that I take a good, hard look at any men about the place – and try to have a fire-extinguisher at the ready.

Further Reading
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (1847)
G. W. Bernard, “The fall of Anne Boleyn”, English Historical Review, 106 (1991), 584–610.
Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)
Edward Hall, Henry VIII (1904)
Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (1995)
David Loades, The Politics of Marriage (1994)
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
Simon Schama, A History of Britain (2000)
Dr Benjamin Spock, Baby and Child Care (1946 and 2004)

Film Recommedations
I have seen a lot of versions of Jane Eyre and, for me, there are three that stand above the rest: the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine version in 1943; Timothy Dalton/Zelah Clarke for the BBC in 1983; and the Beeb’s Toby Stephens/Ruth Wilson recent attempt in 2006.  I also have a soft spot for Ciaran Hinds’ version of Rochester in 1996, because I think he – as less of a pin-up than the others (in 1943 Orson Welles did not yet resemble Jabba the Hutt) – best captures many of Bronte’s descriptions of the Master of Thornfield Hall.

There are two versions of Rebecca that I like — the famous Hitchcock Oscar-winner from 1940 with Laurence Olivier and (again) Joan Fontaine, and the 1997 TV movie for Masterpiece starring Emilia Fox and Charles Dance.  Olivier’s version is wishy-washy about Maxim’s culpability… Dance leaves nothing to the imagination (and I also buy the chemistry of that pairing much more).

As for Anne, there is only one for me: Genevieve Bujold in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), with Richard Burton as Henry VIII.  Her “My Elizabeth shall be queen” speech remains one of my favourite scenes on film.  But, if you insist on The Tudors, I can’t stop you… but I am reminded of an advertisement on the subway in Toronto for Season 2: “Queen Anne Boleyn — What Will Happen Next?”  Whoever came up with that caption deserves a medal… and a slap.

Creative Commons Licence
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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3 Responses to Late Night Thoughts – Part I – “Second Wife Syndrome”

  1. jason holmes says:

    could you tell me where rebecca 1997 charles dance was shot in cornwall,l was born in cornwall

  2. jason holmes says:

    rebecca with charles dance emilia fox was the best made yet the acting ws quality 100%

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