When Bertha Ley falls in love with a farmer on her family’s land, Edward Craddock, she flies against convention to marry beneath her. Her love is passionate, violent, and irrational, while Edward’s love for her is calm, sensible, and steady. Due to this inequality, Bertha is often more miserable than happy as the years pass.
This is a book about an unequal marriage, about the contrast between expectations and reality, and about disillusionment. It’s an adult coming-of-age story of sorts. Bertha’s violent romantic sentiment doesn’t go well with Edward’s equanimity. His only passion is for his Country and his Duty, and everything else he takes with complete calm. Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, makes a very telling statement on the inequality of their marriage:
…for Bertha…the book of life is written throughout in italics; for Edward it is all in the big round hand of the copy-book heading. Don’t you think it will make the reading of the book somewhat difficult?
Bertha is slowly brought to misery by her unequal marriage, slowly brought to see the truth – that her husband isn’t who she imagined him to be. She, like so many people, put her own expectations onto him, blinded herself to the truth because she was in love. What did she care for his faults? Faults made him all the more beautiful…until they inconvenience her. She accuses Edward of selfishness all throughout the book, but in truth, she is just as selfish. All the characters are.
You see the same sort of relationship echoed in multiple ways in this book. One half of the relationship wants to be loved, the other half is fairly indifferent and takes advantage of that love. For example, Bertha unconsciously plays the same role with her friend Fanny Glover as Edward plays to her. Her friendship with Fanny is not romantic, but Fanny is a lonely woman who wants nothing more than to have a real friend, and Bertha wouldn’t even notice if she disappeared, and treats her that way. Sometimes she goes right from chastising Edward for neglecting her to neglecting Fanny in the same afternoon. It really shows just how blind Bertha is.
I first read this book ten years ago, the first week of 2001. I really connected with Bertha, all the parts of her. I knew what it felt like to be overly sentimental, to be in love with love, to feel aggrieved when my emotions were treated like they were nothing more than silliness or due to fatigue. I knew what it felt like to go from one extreme of love to the other extreme of hatred in a moment of severe disillusionment, a circle of intense emotions skipping from one end to the other so much more easily than growing indifferent. I felt everything that she felt, even as I knew she was acting like a fool. Now, a decade later, I still feel for her. I still love Bertha despite her blindness and foolishness. I know what it feels like to be that young in mind, and then to grow up too fast and feel far above your age. Maugham captured that personality and those emotions perfectly.
This is still one of my favorite books by Maugham. There is so much in here that I’m having trouble parsing out what I want to talk about. I could probably go on for quite a lot longer than this, but I shouldn’t. I could talk about Maugham’s ripping apart the sort of politician Edward Craddock becomes, or about Miss Ley’s standoffish cynicism, or how the false idol Bertha holds in Edward’s place in her mind gets stripped away, or Bertha’s almost-affair with a boy nearly ten years younger than her, or more. There is so much in this little book! But I’ll stop now. I’ve said enough. I hope more people will read this book, because it’s really wonderful!
Note: Originally read in January 2001.