DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN was born one evening in 1998, in Oxford, England. My husband had invited me to join him at High Table, a glorious ritual in which British professors (called Fellows) are wined and dined at an elevated platform in a palatial dining hall. Seated to my left was an older woman who was married to a world-renowned scholar of Greek. The couple was visiting from another Oxford college. When she noticed my name tag, she said "Oh, it's a good thing you have a different last name than your husband."
"It is?" I asked, still reeling from the splendor of my surroundings.
"Yes. Most of the colleges don't approve of bringing one's wife to High Table. He can bring his mistress, or his homosexual lover, but not his wife."
"Truly? How - how does that make you feel?" I couldn't help asking.
"Well, it bothered me at first, but then I thought about it a bit, and I realized that the purpose of High Table is the exchange of ideas. Women who are at home with children all day, what could they add to the conversation?"
I went home and thought about this clearly intelligent woman having participated in her own demotion.
The unsung heroism of women who stayed at home all day with their children was a subject with which I felt all too familiar. I already had concluded that I was temperamentally unsuited for it, and therefore was in awe of those paragons of patience who seemed to get it right.
During my year in England, I met many such mothers at my daughter's preschool. They were kind to me, showing none of the anti-Americanism I'd been warned about, and in the course of knowing these faculty spouses, I came to hear many more horrible-husband stories. There was the Fellow who lived in his college rooms and returned to see the children only at tea-time, dining most nights of the week with his colleagues. After years of this, he'd finally confessed to having an affair with a student, with whom he'd fathered a child, though fathering might be a stretch of the term since he spent no more time with that toddler than his other four children at home. His wife blamed University tradition: High Table most nights of the week, bedrooms adjoined to offices, and butlers on hand to take care of all domestic needs. This system had been invented during the years in which professors weren't allowed to marry, devoting themselves to the generation of ideas, not offspring.
I became fascinated with Oxford's faculty wives, who, despite their intelligence, wit and strong-willed personalities, appeared to be trapped in roles they'd not signed on for. And trapped they were, by a social order in which mothers were expected to handle all the menial labor, in which parenting accomplishments were dismissed, and in which any professional goals of their own seemed held hostage to their husbands' round-the-clock vigils at the altars of knowledge.
It wasn't as simple as it seemed. After all, they'd fallen in love, gotten married, and willingly entered the world of the stay-at-home mum. They wanted to be their children's primary caretakers, and didn't have the financial wherewithal to make ultimatums, especially when doing so might endanger their husband's success in a competitive, exhausting academic enterprise.
Thus my new friends carried on with what they'd begun, venting now and then about what useless sods they'd married, who at least weren't "quite as useless as so-and-so's husband down the lane."
I heard stories of unfaithful cads, sadists, pompous boors and pretentious blow-hards, a taxonomy not limited to Britain, or to academia, by any means. I'd met this same species at too many American cocktail parties, watched their eyes glaze over whenever the conversation shifted from their favorite topic, themselves,and began to veer dangerously into uncharted waters, others. Somehow, though, being an outsider in this culture made these British mothers' venting seem funnier. Before long, their tales coalesced in the character of Ted Lively, just as their narrators began to take the form of Diana.
To read the first chapter of DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN, click here.
To read other work by Sheila, click here.