What Every Woman Knows

by J. M. Barrie

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2298

First produced: 1908

First published: 1918

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: Scotland and England

Principal Characters:

Maggie Wylie, plain and spinsterish

Alick Wylie, her father

James Wylie, and

David Wylie, her brothers

John Shand, a young student

Lady Sybil Tenterden, a young and beautiful aristocrat

The Comtesse De La Briere, her aunt

Mr. Charles Venables, a minister of the Cabinet


WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS is one of the most realistic of Barrie's plays, developing as it does the familiar theme that behind every man there is a woman who makes him either a success or a failure. There are, however, flashes of Barrie's sly humor and dramatic irony throughout. The play has been a popular success on both sides of the Atlantic, and a favorite role with many distinguished actresses.

The Story:

The Wylies, like most Scotsmen, were a clannish lot. They had built up their business, a granite quarry, on the spot where their father once worked as a stonemason. They called it Wylie and Sons. Alick Wylie wanted it called Wylie Brothers, but David, his brother James, and their sister Maggie all insisted that first credit for the business should go to Alick, their father.

Maggie, who kept house for her father and two brothers, was their only problem, for she had reached twenty-seven years, an age when a woman must marry or be regarded as an old maid, and they were considerably downcast because their latest prospect, the minister at Galashiels, had married another woman. There was no question but that Maggie was plain, a fact of which she herself was only too conscious, and the brothers realized that if their sister were to find a husband they would have to do everything in their power to help her.

The opportunity came while the Wylies were at the dambrod board, their favorite pastime on Saturday evenings. Maggie was seated in a chair in the corner knitting, and the brothers were trying to get her off to bed so that they could be on the lookout for a burglar they thought they had seen prowling about the house the night before. At last the burglar appeared, but to their astonishment they discovered the intruder was young John Shand, a neighbor, who confessed that his purpose in entering the house was to read. He was a student preparing for the ministry, but since he was too poor to buy books he had to choose that method of study. David was impressed at such earnestness. After a brief conference with his brother he made the boy an offer. He promised to pay up to three hundred pounds for John Shand's education if, at the end of five years, he would marry Maggie, providing she were at that time still unmarried and wanted him. After some quibbling to decide whether the full three hundred pounds would be deposited in his name at the bank immediately, John Shand agreed to the transaction. Maggie, wanting him to go into the deal with his eyes open, admitted that she had never had an offer of marriage, and that she was five years older than he. But those matters meant little to ambitious young John Shand, who left the house content that he was free to browse in the Wylie library without being mistaken for a burglar.

Six years later, having in the meantime abandoned his ambitions for the ministry, John Shand was standing for Parliament. His great hour had come, the hour for which he and Maggie had waited. She might have forced him to marry her one year before, but they both agreed to wait for his triumph. Maggie was almost frantic between hope and anxiety. At one time, certain that John had lost, she promised herself that she and John would begin another six years of waiting that very night.

Her fears were groundless, however, for John Shand won the election by an overwhelming majority. Her real problem lay in his victory. Immediately after his election John was taken up and lionized by women with whom plain little Maggie could not hope to compete. Among these was Lady Sybil Tenterden. Maggie, overwhelmed by a sense of her own inferiority, offered to release John from his contract and tore up the document which bound him to her. But John Shand was a man of his word, and in his speech to the Cowcaddens Club he announced his forthcoming marriage and introduced Maggie as the Mrs. John Shand soon to be.

Before long it was apparent that Lady Sybil's aunt, the Comtesse de la Briere, had been perfectly right when she warned Maggie against allowing John to see too much of her niece. For John, tiring of his plain wife, fell in love with Lady Sybil. They spent most of their time together, and as a consequence John's speeches in the House of Commons grew more dull. Essentially a humorless man, John had nevertheless built up a reputation for sudden flashes of humor which were called Shandisms, and which won him great popularity. There was a simple reason for his success. Maggie, who typed his speeches, supplied the humor without letting her husband know it. The Comtesse saw through the subterfuge, and thereby named Maggie The Pin, meaning that she was like the pin every successful man is supposed to pick up at the beginning of a successful career.

By that time John was so absorbed in Lady Sybil that he considered her his sole inspiration, and he even went so far as to forget completely his wedding anniversary. Maggie's brothers were shocked at his neglect, but Maggie covered the situation perfectly by reaching out her hand to Lady Sybil for her ruby pendant, displaying it as her anniversary present. She then forced John to admit that he had given the pendant to Lady Sybil. John was defiant, declaring to Maggie and her brothers that Lady Sybil was the great love of his life, and that he would sacrifice everything for her sake. The brothers reminded him that if he deserted Maggie he could count on no career. A short time before, Mr. Charles Venables, a cabinet minister and John's political mentor, had offered him the opportunity to be third speaker at Leeds on the same platform with two ministers, an occasion which would mean John's appointment to a ministerial post. Maggie suggested that John go away for a few weeks with Lady Sybil and write the speech under her inspiration. When Maggie promised to keep silent concerning the marital difficulties between them, John agreed to the arrangement.

When John read to Mr. Venables the speech he had written, the minister was greatly disappointed and said it lacked the spark of life his earlier speeches had contained. Maggie, realizing what was at stake, informed Venables that her husband had written another speech which she had typed for him; it was a speech Maggie herself had written from notes John had left at home.

In the meantime, Lady Sybil admitted that she had tired of John and had no intention of going on with the affair. Her decision was a jolt to John's vanity, but the final blow came when Venables congratulated him on the speech which, he realized, only Maggie could have written for him. When they were alone, Maggie told him that every man who is high up likes to think he has climbed there by himself, but every wife knows better. It was, she said, every woman's private joke. Whereupon Maggie laughed, and for perhaps the first time in his life John Shand laughed at himself. His marriage and career were both saved.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Early in James Barrie's play WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS, just after the "agreement" has been signed whereby John Shand will get _GCP_300 from the Wylie family for his education providing he is willing to marry their spinster sister Maggie in five years, the Scotsmen discuss their potential brother-and-son-in-law. They agree that he is canny, though no match for Maggie—a fact best kept from him at this time.

This idea forms the basis of the play and can be phrased as a dramatic question: can an intelligent, but plain woman manipulate her husband into both a successful political career and a satisfying marriage—without letting him know he is being so manipulated? Maggie Shand is convinced that her husband is by nature incapable of succeeding at anything on his own. She is also convinced that his over-serious pride and exaggerated sense of manhood cannot tolerate the idea that he needs help—least of all from his wife.

For most of the play Maggie's machinations succeed beautifully and the primary irony of the play comes from the continuing contrast between John Shand's vision of himself and the audience's awareness of the real basis for his success. But Maggie knows that their marriage is, to John, essentially a business arrangement between two people who admire and respect each other, but who are not in love. Because she thinks herself "plain" and lacking "charm," she fears that John, in spite of his passionless nature, will become infatuated with another woman and leave her, ruining both of them. When Lady Sybil Tenterden, a lovely, charming aristocrat, enters the picture, Maggie's talents are put to their supreme test.

Although John Shand's blindness and insensitivity toward Maggie show him unworthy of such devotion, he is, nevertheless, probably worth saving. John is a decent man with energy, drive, and intelligence; all he lacks is imagination and a sense of humor. The intensity of his ambition is proven by the lengths to which he will go for an education, but his methods are honest and he is never ruthless; he keeps his bargain with Maggie, even after she offers him freedom, although he does not love her and considers her a political liability. His career is at least partly motivated by a desire to serve the public, although the particulars of his political beliefs are unclear (except for his "liberal" views on the "Women Problem"). In his dealings with Maggie, John is always honest, never feigns unfelt affection, and feels extremely guilty about the affair with Sybil. And, finally, he is sincerely willing to forego his political ambitions in the name of love, although he would rather not do so.

But, however intelligent John may be, he is no match for Maggie. She is one of the most vital and fascinating females of the modern stage and is, perhaps, Barrie's finest characterization. Each act of the play ends with a victory for her, even the third when she seems to be magnanimously giving John up to Sybil. Her intelligence and energy are obvious from the beginning of the play; her complexity and subtle deviousness take a bit longer to appreciate. She is disarming in her honesty, but hedges when strategy requires—such as shaving a year from her age when talking to John.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of her personality is the contrast between her "real" self and the role she assumes in public. In part this role is based on her notions about the proper—no, necessary—role of the wife in Edwardian society as well as her reading of John's emotional needs. But, for all of her confidence regarding her own abilities, she feels deeply insecure about herself; her plain face and figure, her absence of formal education, and her lack of experience in mannered society have made her feel socially inadequate; it is her only misperception. Consequently, she demeans herself at every available opportunity. Thus, the play is not only about the education of a single, unimaginative male, but also about that of a sensitive, dedicated but self-depreciating female.

On the level of simple strategy, even the threat of Sybil Tenterden is fairly easily disposed of. Maggie simply leaves John and Sybil alone together long enough for them to grow tired of each other. That tactic succeeds, but her second design, to keep John ignorant of her intrigues, fails because of the intervention of the play's other "knowing" female, the Comtesse de la Briere. The Comtesse, seeing Maggie's role in John's career, is determined to make it known to the insensitive husband. She sneaks Maggie's rewritten version of John's oration to Charles Venables, thus making public Mrs. Shand's contribution to the speech making and then, to complete the revelation, the Comtesse reads Maggie's confessional letter aloud to the group.

It is fortunate that she does so, because otherwise John would have gone on heedlessly until he met the next Sybil. But, when Shand finds out the truth, Maggie is surprised to learn he can bear it—with a little help from his wife.

Maggie: Every man who is high up loves to think that he has done it all himself; and the wife smiles, and lets it go at that. It's our only joke. Every woman knows that. . . . Oh John, if only you could laugh at me.

John: I can't laugh, Maggie.

But, after a few moments, he manages to and, in Barrie's words, "he is saved." And so is their marriage, his career, and Maggie's self-respect.

Abandoning his usual whimsy and fantasy, Barrie has written a social comedy that deftly and provocatively explores the relationships between men and women in the modern world with a depth and seriousness that goes much beyond the bulk of his always entertaining, usually successful, but not infrequently trivial plays. In a later time a Maggie Shand might turn her energies directly into politics and so realize her own potential for herself, but in Edwardian England the only possibility was to be the woman behind the man. That was the role that she understood, accepted, and played to perfection.

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