Husbands and wives

Three veins of spousal humor, starting in the early 19th century and ending in an edgily close-to-life comic stereotype realized in cartoons, tv shows, and movies.

The first two came to me in investigating a classic joke (postings here and here), the third in some old Doonesbury cartoons that recently popped up in my comics feed.

In all three, wives are belittled or disparaged:

Lord Chesterfield’s Reproof (LCR): an anecdote that has LC (Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, a celebrated source of quotations and consequently a major quote magnet) saying of a woman (standing next to the Queen at the Court of St. James — which queen is not identified) who is pointed out to him by a gentleman as being particularly ugly, “That lady, sir, is my wife.”

The Not Lady: Wife (NL:E) punchline to a formulaic joke; in its eventual canonical form, the joke is boiled down to a two-line exchange: A: Who was that lady I saw you last night? / B: That was no lady; that was my wife.

The First Wife (W1) and Trophy Wife (TW) figures in a scenario of American popular culture, where the two wives are opposed to the Husband (H); in the scenario, after some years H abandons W1 for the younger, prettier TW.

Lord Chesterfield’s Reproof. At the moment, I know of LCR as far back as a Little Rock AR newspaper story in 1830 (unearthed by Garson O’Toole and scanned in by Peter Reitan). That’s an American provincial source for a putative British court anecdote; it’s light on crucial details; and the attribution is to a major quote magnet, Lord Chesterfield (If you say or write lots of eminently quotable things, as LC did, then you’ll attract lots of others; consider Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill.) So its origin story looks dubious.

But as to its content. A gentleman points out a woman as being particularly ugly and LC, offended, says that the woman is his wife. An embarrassing faux pas, worth a small chuckle.

And one gender-focused comment. We don’t find it remarkable that one gentleman would remark to another about the attractiveness of a woman — in fact, a lady, given the context — in a public setting; such a remark about a third gentleman in this setting wouldn’t be impossible, but (I think) much less likely than a remark about a woman.

Peter Reitan tells me that the story was repeated in various forms for decades and was still in circulation when the NL:W punchline appeared. LCR isn’t much of a precursor of NL:W, however: it does convey ‘She is my wife’ but involves no denial. So the two are at best only loosely connected.

On LC, from Wikipedia:

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, KG, PC (22 September 1694 – 24 March 1773) was a British statesman, man of letters, and wit. He was born in London to Philip Stanhope, 3rd Earl of Chesterfield, and Lady Elizabeth Savile, and known as Lord Stanhope until the death of his father, in 1726. Educated at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, he subsequently embarked on the Grand Tour of the Continent, to complete his education as a nobleman, by exposure to the cultural legacies of Classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to become acquainted with his aristocratic counterparts and the polite society of Continental Europe.

In the course of his post-graduate tour of Europe, the death of Queen Anne (r. 1702–14) and the accession of King George I (r. 1714–27) opened a political career for Stanhope, and he returned to England. In the British political spectrum he was a Whig and entered government service, as a courtier to the King, through the mentorship of his relative, James Stanhope, 1st Earl Stanhope, the King’s favourite minister, who procured his appointment as Lord of the Bedchamber to the Prince of Wales.

… The social customs of the British nobility had left the Earl of Chesterfield without a legitimate heir to his lands and property. Hence, childless by his wife, Melusina von der Schulenburg, Countess of Walsingham (illegitimate daughter of King George I), Chesterfield acted to protect his hereditary interests by adopting his godson, Philip Stanhope (1755–1815), who also was his third-cousin, once removed, and the next heir to the title Earl of Chesterfield which he duly assumed as Philip Stanhope, 5th Earl of Chesterfield (1773–1815).

… The impoverished widow of Chesterfield’s illegitimate son, Eugenia Stanhope, was the first to publish the book Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774), which comprises a thirty-year correspondence in more than four hundred letters; begun in the 1737–38 period and continued until the death of his correspondent, Philip Stanhope, in 1768.

… As a handbook for worldly success in the 18th century, the Letters to His Son give perceptive and nuanced advice for how a gentleman should interpret the social codes that are manners

I have tried without success to find a portrait of LC’s wife, Melusina von der Schulenburg, the Countess of Walsingham. Her mother — Melusine von der Schulenburg, Duchess of Kendal, mistress of King George I — yes, but his wife, no.

No Lady: Wife. In my second posting on the punchline, I noted two interpretations of it:

a more innocent one, pointed out by Larry Horn, in which it’s a variant of the (attested, but not common) punchline That was no woman; that was my wife ‘That was not just any woman; that was my wife’

a clearly belittling or disparaging interpretation (as made famous in a snappy exchange by vaudevillians Weber & Fields in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but attested in a long-winded  joke in a stage German accent, published in a Cincinnati newspaper in 1859, purportedly about an event in New York City): ‘That was not a woman worthy of respect (not a lady); that was merely my wife’. (This is the misuxoristic interpretation; cf. misogynistic jokes and stories.)

The First Wife and the Trophy Wife. A three-person scenario in which none of the three participants — H, W1, and TW — comes out well, though it’s usually seen as a misuxoristic double-whammy, a put-down of both wives. Two strips in a longer W1-TW story in Doonesbury (from some years ago):

(#1) The Phil and Jim Show: Jim is the center of the action; Phil is primarily important as the audience for Jim to display his hot-babe TW Tina as a symbol of his masculinity, in a competition that Jim wins over Phil (whose only wife is characterized as old and unattractive)

(#2) On the other hand, Jim is self-centered and manipulative, viewing both Kathy and Tina entirely through the lens of his wants and needs, without regard for theirs

From Wikipedia:

Trophy wife is an informal term for a wife, usually young and attractive, who is regarded as a status symbol for the husband, who is often older or unattractive, but usually wealthy. … The term is normally used in a derogatory or disparaging way. … A trophy wife is usually a second or later marriage.

Referring to a spouse as a trophy wife usually reflects negatively on the character or personality of both parties. For the husband, it has a connotation of pure narcissism and the need to impress other men, and that the husband would not be able to attract the sexual interest of the attractive woman for any reason apart from his wealth or position. It can also be used to imply that the trophy wife in question has little personal merit besides her physical attractiveness, does very little of substance beyond remaining attractive, [and] requires substantial expense for maintaining her appearance

A sketch of the scenario:

The canonical first wife, W1, is a few years younger than her husband, H, attractive and accomplished but less accomplished than H (she must not be a threat to him, though ideally, she will come from a family of both symbolic and material substance). W1 is expected to further H’s career — by serving as hostess, working as an unpaid staff member for him, providing household income in the early stages of H’s career, and/or offering sage advice to H, but in any case giving emotional support to H in his career, and backing H up in all of his actions (up until the point where H abandons her in favor of a trophy wife), and of course managing all the affairs of domestic life. She is also expected to produce children (ideally, at least two, at least one of them, preferably the first, male), as soon as decently possible after the marriage; these children are crucial evidence of H’s virility.

A canonical trophy wife (TW: W2 or later) has exactly one child with H; this child is evidence of H’s continued virility and of W’s (desirably feminine) fertility, without overburdening TW with childcare.

On this blog, in a 4/9/17 posting “The trophy boys park the beef bus in tuches town” (on trophy boys in the gay male world):

Trophy. A trophy is an award in a contest, displayed (for admiration) as a symbol of victory. Specialized in the idiom trophy wife. From NOAD2:

noun trophy wifeinformal, derogatory a young, attractive wife regarded as a status symbol for an older man.

And then extended to other compounds of the form trophy X. OED3 (March 2014) on the noun trophy in a class of compounds:

C1b. Designating people or things regarded as a status symbol; esp. in  trophy wife: a wife regarded as a status symbol for a (usu. older) man. [1973 trophy-wives, 1978 trophy-husband, 1989 trophy wife, 1997 ‘trophy’ books, 2008 ‘trophy tourism’ , 2009 trophy dining]

An example of trophy wife in popular culture:

Trophy Wife is an American television sitcom that aired during the 2013–14 television season on ABC. [with discussion about the show]

Then there’s the movie:


The First Wives Club is a 1996 American comedy film, based on the best-selling 1992 novel of the same name by Olivia Goldsmith. Narrated by Diane Keaton, it stars Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler as three divorced women who seek revenge on their ex-husbands who left them for younger women. Stephen Collins, Victor Garber and Dan Hedaya co-star as the husbands, and Sarah Jessica Parker, Marcia Gay Harden and Elizabeth Berkley as their lovers, with Maggie Smith, Bronson Pinchot and Stockard Channing also starring.

… The film became a surprise box-office hit following its North American release, eventually grossing $181,490,000 worldwide, mostly from its domestic run, despite receiving mixed reviews. It developed a cult following particularly among middle-aged women, and the actresses’ highest-grossing project of the decade helped revitalize their careers in film and television.

A case study. An almost perfectly canonical real-life example involves as H a tv personality I will refer to as 45. The bare facts, adapted from 45’s Wikipedia page:

45, born June 14, 1946, has five children by three marriages, and nine grandchildren. His first two marriages ended in widely publicized divorces.

In 1977, 45 married W1, born February 20, 1949. They had three children: a son born in 1977 (note: the same year as the marriage), a daughter born in 1981, and a son born in 1984. The couple divorced in 1992 following 45’s affair with an actress.

In October 1993, this actress, born October 27, 1963, gave birth to a daughter. She and 45 were married two months later. 45 and W2 were divorced in 1999.

On January 22, 2005, 45 married another model, born April 26, 1970. In 2006, W3 gave birth to a son.

Fitting these facts to the canonical patterns:

The age offset of W over H is the difference between W’s and H’s birth years. 45 was born in 1946, W1 in 1949 (age offset of 3, entirely canonical), W2 in 1963 (age offset of 17), W3 in 1970 (age offset of 24). Canonically, TW is significantly younger than H – an age offset of roughly 10 or more. Both of 45’s TWs are canonical. In addition, age offsets in TWs should increase over time; in this, 45 is again canonical, with an age offset of 17 for W2, 24 for W3.

The offspring index for W with H is the number of children has with H. Canonically, the offspring index for W1 is at least 2, while for a TW it’s 1; 45 – with offspring indices 3, 1, 1 — is again canonical.

Yes, a stereotype, but one exemplified occasionally in real life. In fact, I have several male acquaintances who fit the stereotype pretty well.

Bonus. From the American tv sitcom Cheers, S2 E19 “Coach Buries a Grudge”, a dialogue between two men, A and B, about the deceased C, who sexually pursued the wives of B and another man, D:

A: He [C] borrowed $500 from me and never paid it back.

B: How is that worse than going after our [B’s and D’s] wives?

A: Hey, I’ve seen your wives.

It’s the Ugly Wife theme again.


One Response to “Husbands and wives”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    Gershon Legman relates a joke that echoes your last few lines. A man who has a partner in his law firm returns home unexpectedly one night and finds his partner in bed with his wife. He sighs and says, “Jim, I must, but you?”

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