4x4th Estate: Husbands

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many novels are preoccupied with matching single man with wife, but not so many let you enter the marital home to get up close and personal with that no-longer so-single man. How better to celebrate the publication of Tim Dowling’s How To be a Husband than to dedicate a 4×4 to some of our favourite literary male spouses?

Tim Dowling (How To be a Husband by Tim Dowling)

How to Be a Husband

If I’m being totally honest, I think of Tim Dowling as my sort-of husband. I look forward to our lazy Saturday mornings together all week. Oh, the bliss – him telling hilarious stories about his week, me sipping coffee, nodding affectionately and laughing away. His weekly Guardian column has made Tim, for the last few years, a sort of fair-weather, absentee husband to us all – so who better then to write an entire book about being one? How To be a Husband isn’t so much a guide as it is a brilliant compendium of failures, trials, errors and lists. Lots of lists.

Mr. Casuabon (Middlemarch by George Eliot)


Bright amongst the many highlights of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is the painfully true depiction of a man who cannot be a husband. One moment of this hefty book shows with painful power the devastation such inability can cause. The young and lovely Dorothea feels ‘the impulse to go’ to her difficult, self-involved, elderly husband, Mr. Casuabon – despite ‘fearing to offend’, because of the way her ‘ardor [was] continually repulsed’. Tragic already, but worse is yet to come. As Dorothea attempts to link arms with her husband, he ‘kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm’. Oh the pain, and worst still, ‘Dorothea did not withdraw her arm’, left awkwardly bound to her overly ‘rigid’ husband in a horribly realistic image of the marriage ceremony – they are each others to have and to ‘cling’ to. The text comments ‘it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made’ and think, presumably, if only I / he had read How To Be A Husband… 

Georg (Wrecked by Charlotte Roche)


Charlotte Roche’s Wrecked is, in many ways, a world away from Middlemarch. It is however concerned with a marriage, struggling not to hit the rocks. Georg is not perfect, but, unlike Casuabon, he makes some valiant efforts to succeed as a husband. We are not just talking a bit of arm-linking here – Georg  allows his wife, Elizabeth, to dress him in old men’s clothes because of her self-diagnosed ‘father fixation’; he gives her ‘preternaturally hard [orgasms] every time’, and ‘the best anal sex … of all times’. In the book’s final pages, and in moments that could be ‘called trivialities’ – to quote Eliot – we see how ‘the seeds of joy’ can bloom when given proper husbandry, and wives given the right arthouse porn film.

Mr Ramsay (To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf)


‘Why is it then that one wants people to marry?’ thinks Mrs Ramsay, heroine of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Moments later however, Mr Ramsay answers her question, proving his calibre as a husband. His currency is very different from Georg Kiehl’s (‘the whole of life did not consist in going to bed with a woman,’ he thinks). As the two sit quietly together, he is absorbed in a reverie on her ‘astonishing’ beauty, which seemed to him,if that were possible, to increase’. Meanwhile she is  ‘wishing only to hear his voice’. Leaving aside her astonishing loveliness, Mr Ramsay opts to gratify this silent request with perhaps the least romantic phrase of all time: “You won’t finish that stocking tonight.” Yet, that ‘was what she wanted’, and finds herself thinking ‘Nothing on earth can equal this happiness’. Such is the stuff that marriages are made of – and deeply happy ones at that.

Words by Lettice Franklin

Subscribe to the 4th Estate podcast here.

To find out more about our books, events and competitions, click here to sign up to our newsletter.

If you enjoyed this, try:


To purchase How To be a Husband, click here


Comments are closed.