“Irony is a gift of the gods, the most subtle of all the modes of speech. It is an armour and a weapon; it is a philosophy and a perpetual entertainment; it is food for the hungry of wit and drink to those thirsting for laughter. How much more elegant is it to slay your foe with the roses of irony than to massacre him with the axes of sarcasm or to belabour him with the bludgeons of invective.”
Mrs. Craddock begins with a love story between Bertha Ley, a fairly affluent young heiress, owner of Ley Court and Craddock, and a burly, handsome young farmer. Bertha, who’s orphaned and lives with her aunt Polly, falls in love with twenty-seven-year old Edward Craddock, a local tenant farmer who works part of the Ley land. Against all advice from her aunt and acquaintances, Bertha insists on marrying Craddock. Craddock is seen by Bertha’s acquaintances as a fortune hunter, and everyone predicts disaster. But Bertha, headstrong and obstinate, marries Craddock, and the Craddocks settle down to married life.
The opening line of the novel states “this book could be called the Triumph of Love,” and Maugham’s ironic meaning becomes apparent only when the novel has concluded. In some ways the novel is a tragedy–not on the grand scale of things–but on the everyday level through the gradual wearing down of hopes and dreams. This is the story of a marriage–a relationship that begins with hope and devoted, passionate love that fizzles with time, disillusionment and familiarity.
Because of the vast differences in class between Craddock and Bertha, everyone disapproves of the match, but it’s total incompatibility that spells trouble for the pair, and this glaring fact escapes Bertha during the tumultuous, brief courtship phase. This vast incompatibility and its predictable consequences do not escape the attention of sagacious Aunt Polly, one of Maugham’s great characters. As an observer of human nature, Aunt Polly is fascinated by Bertha’s relationship, but she is also well aware that the marriage that will end in great unhappiness. Miss Ley, a consummate spinster who believes that “marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough of her own to live on” chooses to see everything in life as a “source of amusement.”
Divided by class and education, one of the biggest divides between the Craddocks is Edward’s insensitivity and complete lack of imagination. And this is best seen in Edward’s philosophy on the treatment of women:
“Women are like chickens,” he told a friend. “Give ’em a good run, properly closed in with stout wire setting so that they can’t get into mischief, and when they cluck and cackle just sit tight and take no notice.”
A handful of significant incidents hammer home the depth of Craddock’s insensitivity, and while Bertha becomes increasingly unhappy with her marriage, her neighbours come to respect and admire Edward as a manager and as a husband. Craddock is not a bad person by any means, and the Craddocks’ marital woes are more an issue of incompatibility than anything else. Craddock thoroughly enjoys the role of country squire, but as he becomes a respected member of the country community, he simultaneously sinks in Bertha’s eyes. Love turns to hate, then boredom and then indifference….
Maugham tackles the subject of class differences in other novels (Of Human Bondage, The Merry Go Round), but Mrs. Craddock–a deceptively simple tale, is one of my all-time favourites. This is not a grand tale with exotic locations, but this is a tale that most of us can relate to–the death of love. The novel charts Bertha’s relationship in its first throes of excited passion, her idealization of the love object, and her denial of their very basic incompatibility. Once Bertha and Edward are married the novel explores the metamorphosis of Bertha’s delight in aspects of Edward’s personality. Then as disillusionment sets in, these same characteristics that attracted and delighted her pall, and her mundane relationship drives her to depression. And, ironically, as Bertha grows more and more unhappy and withdrawn, Edward flourishes and decides that marriage is quite a perfect state–and so it is, for him at least. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Bertha has few options, and these options only grant a temporary respite from the endless days that stretch before her. Tempted by the distractive qualities of a younger lover, Bertha finally comes to terms with her marriage in the most unexpected manner.