So, like the puzzled husband in the background of the drawing above, where did the confident new woman leave men? Surprisingly, marriage was actually on the increase in the 1920s and 30s. However, during a period of dramatic social change for women the role of the married man was clearly a confusing one. Also, the depression at the beginning of the 1930s caused a fair amount of marital strife, what with men out of work and no money coming in, and led to the development of marriage counselling for the first time. Although How to be a Perfect Husband is obviously meant to be a humorous book it is interesting to see this confusion cropping up in both text and cartoons. As Heath Robinson and Browne point out, although a great deal had been written on advice for the newly married woman, little (apart from sex manuals disguised as marriage guidance books) had been written about relationships for men. So, it is also probable that our authors are gently mocking the contemporary attempts to navigate the tricky changes in the relationship between husband and wife.
One other change after the First World War also made married life a challenge. Interestingly, as highlighted in How to Live in a Flat, for the first time in the 1920s and 30s newly-weds were also much more likely to have to navigate married life without the support of servants. Therefore, many domestic tasks like cooking and childcare would have had to be done for the first time by the middle-class wife without help or training, and Heath Robinson shows her being taught to fritter a banana by her husband (though why he would know how to cook is not explained!). But,
as some lady in black bombazine and a bonnet with bugles will almost certainly demand – what about the husband, hey? Does he contribute nothing to the success or failure of the deal? Is his life to be roses, roses all the way, while his wife turns somersaults at his command and wears her pretty fingers to the bone to keep him neatly underclothed and socked?
Not by a long shot, lady. As I have already implied, give-and-take is the thing that matters, and the wise husband knows that he, too, must play his part if his home-life is not to degenerate into a species of running dog-fight. There are many little ways in which, without unduly exerting himself or missing his nightly mug of buttermilk at the “Archdeacon’s Arms”, he can make himself useful about the house and earn a reputation for thoughtfulness that will stand him in good stead whenever he wishes to touch his mother-in-law for a fiver.
In Heath Robinson’s drawings we do indeed see husbands who make valiant efforts to pull their weight with household chores and childcare:
Refraining, then, from proposing to the first wench who throws him a beckoning glance, the beginner should decide what type of wife he needs. Of girls, as of gin, gooseberries, and gas-meters, there are several varieties – among others, the Sporting, the Studious, the Athletic, the Beautiful, the Thick-Ankled, and the Completely Dumb. (From one point of view, the last-named make the most satisfactory wives, being solid ivory from the neck up and consequently ready to believe anything; but as companions for a lifetime they are not so hot.)
But I am inclined to forgive Heath Robinson and Browne their occasional lapse into a Jeeves and Wooster style of female appraisal because, for the most part, they preach tolerance, patience and consideration as the cornerstones of a happy marriage. For them the perfect husband navigates the ups and downs of marriage with a calm demeanour and an amused detachment – as long as he is allowed off the leash occasionally. They sensibly acknowledge, of course,
…that when strife breaks out in the home and the air becomes thick with harsh words, recriminations, and (in extreme cases) crockery, the little woman is hardly ever to blame. It would appear, in short, that What is Wrong with Marriage is almost invariably the husband.
How to be a Perfect Husband is written from the man’s perspective but it will bring much amusement to both husbands and wives (or those planning to become one or the other). This title, along with the other three ‘How to…’ titles by Heath Robinson and K.R.G. Browne includes a foreword by Geoffrey Beare, Trustee of the William Heath Robinson Trust. A percentage of the revenue from sales of these ebooks is being donated to the Trust as a contribution to their fund for building a Heath Robinson museum in North London. See our Facebook page for a link to the Trust’s website.