In Natalie Fenollera Sanmartin’s bestseller The Awakening of Miss Prim, Miss Prudencia Prim has accepted a position as a gentleman’s personal librarian in the small village of San Ireneo. In the course of the several months she lives among these countercultural, politically- incorrect inhabitants who homeschool their families, practice old-world gracious hospitality, live balanced lives not consumed by work, and find time for study, conversation, and friendship, Prudencia encounters many traditional ideas of marriage that challenge her modern feminist view.
When the florist Madame Hortensia Oeillet jokingly asks her where she left her wedding ring, Prudencia defensively asserts, “I’m not married, if that’s what you mean,” and she contends that she has no desire for marriage, even though the florist compliments her as an attractive, refined, intelligent woman who would be an ideal wife: “You’re very kind, but I have no intention of ever getting married…. I’m not in favor of marriage; for me, it makes no sense.” The florist, always shocked at declarations against matrimony because of the great happiness she and the women of San Ireneo enjoy as wives and mothers, nevertheless seeks some area of common ground for agreement. They both reject the idea of marriage as a mere legal agreement with bureaucratic procedures, registries, and public officials, and Madame Oeillet affirms this consensus: “Marriage can be many things, both good and bad, but you must agree that none of them has much to do with bureaucracy.” Although the women in San Ireneo defend traditional marriages, they welcome the opinionated Miss Prim into their company with the utmost courtesy and graciousness. They sense that she is the product of modern education and ideological indoctrination that defy common sense and traditional wisdom.
When she meets with her employer (“The Man in the Wing Chair”), she finds him, although a bachelor, also a staunch advocate of marriage and soon learns that everyone in San Ireneo is of like mind. He compares modern feminism to Carrie Nation’s crusade to ban alcohol by going into bars with hatchets to smash all the bottles—so-called liberators who are only committed to violence and destruction. When Prudencia accepts an invitation to the local Feminist League, she is expecting an introduction to a liberal political organization, only to discover that this “feminist” league consists of women who embrace motherhood, femininity, and all the domestic arts that civilize human life. The elegance, hospitality, kindness, and charm of these married professional women who sacrificed career for family surprise Prudencia.
They feel absolutely liberated and organize their time more freely than their husbands. No one feels enslaved or oppressed. Prudencia argues, “Surely, you don’t believe that a woman should still depend on a man?” She is not prepared for the sharp retort she receives. Herminia Treaumont, however, reminds Prudencia that she lives in a man’s house, works for a man by following his orders, and receives her salary from the same man: “Did you really imagine that you’d freed yourself from dependence on a man?” Prudencia quickly learns that married women have more freedom than she imagines: “None of us has to keep their opinions our opinions to ourselves, as I’m sure you have to in your conversations with your employer.”
When Prudencia learns that one item on the agenda of The Feminist League is to find her a husband, she finds herself perturbed: “Believe me, ladies, if I really wanted a husband I would look for a husband myself.” Yet Prudencia does not feel too offended. She senses the good hearts and kind ways of these maternal women thinking of her best interests. She begins to reconsider her position on marriage because “if someone as beautiful and intelligent as Herminia considered marriage essential to a woman’s well-being, who was she to cast doubt on it so emphatically?” Miss Prim admits to herself that she scorned what she presumed she would never attain. While she ponders the question of marriage, Prudencia learns of the unfortunate situation of Eugenia Lott whose husband mysteriously left her for many years, only to return unexpectedly. Eugenia explains that she had stopped waiting for him after many years and resumed her life, but she had never considered divorce and remarriage. When Mr. Mott does return and apologizes, Eugenia—to the astonishment of Prudencia—accepts him, despite the stern condemnation of Eugenia’s weakness and forgiveness voiced by the Man in the Wing Chair’s mother, a divorcee: “She mustn’t take him back. She mustn’t let that man into her house again.” Eugenia’s story offers Prudencia a truth about the indissolubility of marriage which her modern education and feminist ideology never teach.
Prudencia then learns that this lady, castigating Eugenia Mott’s forbearance and leniency, divorced her own husband, a decision that continues to anger the Man in the Wing Chair because of the cruelty inflicted upon him and his sister when his mother sacrificed the children rather than herself. As he explains to Prudencia, “There’s a sacrifice to be made, and you have to choose the victim, yourself or the children,” adding “The children come first.” He laments his mother’s single state because “[his] mother doesn’t have the blessing of someone to tell her what she absolutely doesn’t want to hear.” Prudencia hears yet another story of marriage that challenges her feminist bias. Emma Giovanacci, a widow, formed a friendship with her husband’s colleague who consoled her with occasions for coffee, conversation, and pleasant outings to provide companionship to alleviate her grief. After eight years of simple friendship, he moved from San Ireneo and made Emma realize how much she missed him, a harbinger of her falling in love:
Then one day I woke up and realized that something was missing from my life, something seemingly tiny but actually hugely important. The coffees, the chats, the walks, the pleasant afternoon outings were missing. It sounds silly but, as you grow older, it’s the little things that matter.
Thus Prudencia’s education in marriage that looks at both the blessings and sufferings deepens her understanding of a subject she dismissed as settled and closed. She begins to discern the ultimate importance and profound value of marriage in people’s lives.
Hortensia provides more instruction on the subject, explaining that Prudencia’s future husband already exists but simply needs to be discovered like a detective who follows all the clues. The one clue is harmony and complementarity—“to fit together.”
Hortensia and Herminia ask her to consider all the eligible men in her circle of acquaintances according to simple criteria: Attractive? Intelligent? Honest? Amusing? Did he have money? Prudencia recalls one man, but their romance never matured into true love: “Because I thought more of my own well-being than of his. And I think he, in his own way, did the same.” When the women review all the possible candidates for marriage for Prudencia to consider, she admits, reluctantly, that she is attracted to the Man in the Wing Chair for reasons that do not make perfect sense and despite her many objections: “She couldn’t understand why, as he was an odd man with extreme religious beliefs, utterly insensitive, and intolerably domineering.” The idea of equality in marriage is absolute and sacrosanct to Prudencia.
The clues she has followed have led to the best candidate, except for this one objection about “domination.” However, the most authoritative expert on the topic of marriage, Lulu, a woman in her nineties who buried all three of her husbands, challenges Miss Prim’s theory of marriage as perfect equality. First, Lulu explains, “equality has nothing to do with marriage.” The secret to a harmonious marriage is inequality. Lulu insists that both men and women aspire to finding a spouse “who’s absolutely and completely better” than they are. A husband and wife who are equal do not admire each other because “you admire what you don’t have and which you see shining in another in all its splendor.” She concludes her good advice—based on a lifetime of experience, not some abstract theory—that “[i]t’s difference, not similarity that fosters admiration between two people.” All of Miss Prim’s ideas of liberation and equality are refuted, not by men, but by intelligent, experienced, attractive women.
Thus in the course of these few months in San Ireneeo in the company of elegant women and in many honest conversations and in the true-to-life stories of marriage and divorce, Prudencia discovers all her prejudices about marriage gleaned from politically correct modern education and propaganda. Open to the idea of marriage and attracted to the Man in the Wing Chair, she holds one last reservation—the possibility of divorce if she made a poor choice. Even if the Man in the Wing Chair believed in “radical marriage” (till death do us part), she would still want this option until a friend confronts her with another hard truth:
Would you think it right to enter into such a marriage knowing that you weren’t as fully and utterly committed to it as he was? Wouldn’t you feel bad knowing that there was this difference between you…? Could you live with the knowledge that, despite your divorce, there was someone who would, all his life, until his last breath, consider himself married to you?
Indeed Miss Prim’s awakening and education at San Ireneo in the most natural ways of friendship have illuminated for her the great wisdom and tradition of marriage that modern education and ideology in their blatant ignorance have relegated to the past as a useless, unnecessary institution. As Madame Oeillet remarks, “It’s strange that the people who spit the most caustic words over marriage are precisely the ones who know least about it.”
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