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Timeless marital advice from the 1930s

Are there any menfolk out there whose 2020 New Year resolution includes a pledge to be a good husband? They would surely benefit from a little book first published in 1936 entitled just that: How to be a Good Husband.

It is, predictably, in parts hilariously outdated. Don’t – it tells men – think you look wonderfully amusing in “loud” plus fours if your wife disapproves. Never wear a blazer except with white flannels. And if you rent a holiday home, don’t dismiss the maid for the duration – it means more work for your poor wife.

At a restaurant, treat yourselves to a bottle of wine sometimes. But “remember that ladies usually prefer a sweet wine to a dry, and that as regards liqueurs Crème de Menthe is always a favourite.”

And don’t forget that “courtesy is always in fashion”. Oh, no it’s not! Offer a seat to a lady in 2020, or rise when a female enters the room, and a man may soon find himself denounced for practising “patriarchy”, or even “toxic masculinity”.

Yet for all its archaic elements, this little book must have some relevance today: it’s been reprinted by the Bodleian Library 12 times since it was first rescued from 1930s archives in 2008. Some of the advice would surely resonate with any marriage counsellor today. “Don’t allow yourself to grow indifferent to your wife,” it counsels. “If a wife has faults, he [a husband] should try to shut his eyes to them.”

A husband should take an interest in his wife’s interests. And be open about money.  “Tell your wife all about your finances and don’t hide figures from her.” In a surprisingly progressive note, separate bank accounts are advised, rather than a shared account.

Don’t “tell your wife terminological inexactitudes, which are, in plain English, lies. A woman has a wonderful intuition for spotting even minor departures from the truth.”

Don’t judge your wife’s friends. Be as attentive to her rather dull pal Miss Prudence Dowdy as to her rather fetching chum Miss Dolly Dimple (we’d call that stereotyping, but it’s still a good point.)

Don’t say one thing and do another. “Don’t tell your wife you love her and then treat her like dirt.” A wife is not “a plaything” – but “a co-partner in life”.

“Don’t be a husband who treats his wife coarsely. Most women have a much greater regard for refinement than men have.” Respect and esteem are vital in marriage.

Don’t be over-critical and never criticise your wife in front of others. Have a hobby, and allow your wife to have hers. But don’t continue with a dangerous recreation once married.

The anonymous counsellor assumes that men are mad about cars. However, the good husband is told that – “If you are wondering which is the better, a car in the garage or a kiddie in the cot, don’t hesitate to choose the latter.”

Some good ideas will surely endure forevermore.

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The French journalist and writer Anne-Elisabeth Moutet – who is herself sunny-tempered – has pointed out the dangers of smiling at French people. Never smile at a French person at an initial encounter, she has written: they interpret it as weakness. “And the French hate weakness.” It was an American comparative anthropologist, Polly Platt, who established this. In America, smiling is simply a way of being normally cordial; as, I believe, it is in Britain and Ireland.

And now I come to think of it, I’ve often been met with a blank expression when I’ve smiled at French people in daily encounters. They clearly see me as a weak old party. I must remember to keep a straight face.

Smiling is seen variously in different cultures. Russians and East Europeans don’t smile as an automatic response.

They think the grinning face is “American”, although it’s also been suggested that the Slavic nations don’t usually have such good teeth as the Americans.

I remember asking my late sister in New York if she would be hospitable to a Balkan emigré to America that we knew. “Of course,” she replied, “but he can’t come to America before fixing his teeth. No taxi will pick him up!”

Yes, the American dentist has had a big impact on Western culture. Smile to show those pearlies!

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4