Carol Ann Duffy’s classic poetry collection The World’s Wife – is a deft, funny and often moving exploration of the women behind the scenes, playing the supporting role and hidden from history.
The saying goes that ‘behind every great man there is a great woman’, and while that may or may not be true, Carol Ann Duffy’s take is a lot more complex.
This witty and subversive collection of poems doesn’t just present the woman standing behind, instead, Duffy reverses myths, punctures reputations and rewrites history to give women the last laugh.
The characters in the poems emerge from fairy-tales, the Bible, ancient myths and modern horrors and all are given the opportunity to step in front of their more famous male counterpart and tell their own story. By turning history on its head, Duffy asks the reader to look at history from a different perspective and to imagine all the other silenced voices through time.
The collection opens with Little Red Cap – a retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, with Little Red cast as the female poet and the Wolf as poetry in the male tradition.
It’s an audacious opening and lays out Duffy’s stall for the rest of the collection. Here Little Red is not scared. Far from it. She sleeps with the Wolf, brings him breakfast in bed, consumes him before he can consume her and finally, finds her own voice.
… a greying wolf
howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out,
season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe…
In Duffy’s world, women are creating their own voices and their own narratives. Mrs Freud recasts penis envy as penis pity while Eurydice reveals that Orpheus’s downfall came ultimately from his own vanity.
Many of the poems are very funny, mocking the male establishment figures with a deft put-down and a complacent sneer. Mrs Aesop wishes her husband would just, for once, shut up – ‘By Christ, he could bore for Purgatory’ – while Mrs Icarus punctures his particular myth in five short, sharp, hilarious lines.
The World’s Wife has been hailed as a feminist classic and it is a feminist work, but it is also much more than that. This is just not just a case of amusing ‘male-bashing’, the collection has a wider aim – a need to expand these stories we all know rather than narrow them. They are written with such knowing humour and poignancy and explore, more than anything, human relationships.
Imagine poor Mrs Midas, with the cat locked away and her bedroom door barred shut lest she be turned to gold. This is not the female archetype of the gold-digger, Mrs Midas is lost, because although she can now have anything in the world, the one thing she does want, her husband’s touch, has gone forever.
What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed
but the lack of thought for me. Pure selfishness. I sold
the contents of the house and came down here.
I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,
and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most
even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.
Anne Hathaway is, appropriately, a moving sonnet about needing to keep something private when the world wants a part of the famous man you have loved, not just as a writer, but as a husband. The Krays are now women, using their muscle and menace to stamp out misogyny while Elvis’ twin is now a nun, living the opposite life from her superstar brother in transcendent grace.
Mrs Beast extols the virtues of putting your money on a Beast rather than a Prince with the benefits of better sex, a great wine collection and weekly women’s poker games. Mrs Beast is sharp enough to know that in real life, winning the hand of the Prince does not guarantee a happy-ever-after.
But behind each player stood a line of ghosts
unable to win. Eve. Ashputtel. Marilyn Monroe.
Rapunzel slashing wildly at her hair.
Bessie Smith unloved and down and out.
Bluebeard’s wives. Henry VIII’s, Snow White
cursing the day she left the seven dwarfs, Diana,
Princess of Wales.
What makes the collection work most for me is how Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t let women off the hook. She holds them to account as much as she does their male counterparts. Mrs Faust might think her husband is an idiot for selling his soul to the devil, but she’s quite happy to live the lifestyle his decision affords them. In Queen Herod, it is the Queen who orders the slaughter of the first-born males in order to save her daughter.
We do our best
we Queens, we mothers
mothers of Queens
we wade through blood
for our sleeping girls
At the heart of the collection is possibly the most complex and difficult poem The Devil’s Wife, which uses the story of Myra Hindley to explore the crimes that women commit because of their relationship with a particular man – in this case the devil himself. Would Hindley have committed these crimes if she hadn’t met Brady? And why, as a society, do we find the crimes carried out by women so much harder to rationalise than those carried out by men?
But life, they said, means life. Dying inside.
The Devil was evil, mad, but I was the Devil’s wife
which made me worse.
Despite the reclaiming of stories, the taking back of myths, tales and stories, this is not a collection where all the women are necessarily better than the men. The unpleasant aspects of being female are also explored, as is the role of women as mother figure.
The final poem Demeter is both a part of and apart from the rest of the collection, as it focuses on a mother and her daughter, a paean to maternal love.
Ostensibly a collection about women, The World’s Wife is a collection about humanity, an exploration of the needs and passions that drive us all and a timely reminder to listen to all voices. Not just the ones that shout loudest.
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