The English Wife and Seven of her Literary Allusions Explained


Well, I don’t know about you, dear readers, but it appears that here in the South, we’ve come out of the deep freeze that kept us in doors, piled beneath the blankets, curled up with cups of tea and stacks of books. (Okay, fine. I’ll admit to a sleigh ride down a snowy hill once or twice. Or, maybe I’m just describing the driving conditions…) 

But, oddly enough, it was the perfect time to host The English Wife giveaway, as the novel took place in the winter of 1899, one of the coldest on record to date in the United States. There were ice flows in the Port of New Orleans, Washington D.C. was snowed in and at a standstill, and New York was in blizzard conditions nigh on 24/7 for months. It sort of sounds familiar, no?

Today, it gives me the greatest of pleasure to announce Whiskers on Kittens’ first winner of 2018. Ahem. Drum roll, please.

The winner is Jo Ann Samide. 

Congratulations! I am certain that you will enjoy this Gilded Age saga of mystery, murder, and a dash of romance. 

Now, last week Monday, we had a quiz of sorts (see post here). I gave a handful of lines from The English Wife that were allusions; it was your chance to test your literary acumen by telling me to what those allusions alluded. And here are your answers.


“But then in Illyria, nothing was as it was, was it?”

This is a reference to the land of Illyria in Shakespeare’s play, Twelfth Night. This particular play is rather pertinent and largely present throughout the whole of The English Wife. For the purpose of this quote, Illyria is the home on the banks of the Hudson that Bayard Van Duyvill built for his wife, Annabelle Lacey. In Twelfth Night’s Illyria, no one is precisely who they seem; they are all pretending to be people who they are not. And, wouldn’t you know it, that’s the case, too, in the Gilded Age Illyria of The English Wife


“'Best to nip any country matters in the bud.’ Georgie quickened her pace, forcing the American to lengthen his stride in response. ‘As long as you’re not offering to put your head in my lap.’” 

This reference of putting one’s head in another’s lap is directly out of Hamlet. It’s all country matters, as he would say. This allusion comes from Act III, scene ii, in which Hamlet is about to have the play he’s written put on by a troupe of traveling actors. He’s in the grand hall of Elsinore with his aunt-mother and uncle-father as well as a host of others, including the long-suffering Ophelia. Whether as affront to his mother or because he wants to augment his erratic behavior, Hamlet throws himself at the feet of Ophelia- who he has spurned and treated with the utmost contempt- and tortures her with these erotic turns of phrase (think roll in the hay). While I applaud and encourage the study of this play for posterity (every educated person should be familiar with it), I find that I still, quite simply, don’t like Hamlet. He’s too dramatic and melancholy in his procrastination. Truly, when he asks to be or not to be, my answer is always the same. Just end it already. 


“‘You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen Birnham Wood show its shimmy all the way to Dunsinane.’” 

Now this one is straight out of Macbeth, which happens to be one of my favorite plays. In fact, I just finished teaching it last week. I will not be afraid of death and bane, Till Birnam forest do come to Dunsinane. And, not to be a spoil sport or anything, but Birnam Wood does, indeed, come to Dunsinane. Macbeth, poor chap, never saw it coming. Those Weird Sisters got him good. But, in all fairness, they did warn him straight from the start. How else should he have interpreted fair is foul and foul is fair than things are not what they appear to be. There’s the lesson, dear readers: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 


“‘I’m not looking for a prince— or baronet.’
‘What about a mere mister?’
Georgie stabbed her fork into her pie. ‘Not until man is made of some other metal than earth.’”

Ah, fair Beatrice, as Benedick would say. She is caustic, and we love her for it. This line is spoken by Georgie, but, just like Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, her conviction turns out to be halfhearted. She speaks from her past hurts and not from the depth of her belief, which is what I believe is Beatrice’s impetus as well. A man hurt her, so to hell with them all. The mystery of that past hurt (by Benedick, no less) is why I’m looking forward to reading Beatrice and Benedict by Marina Fiorato (see post here).


“‘You’re my fixed mark, my compass, my lode star.’ Freeing one hand, Bay put a finger under her chin, tipping her face up to see him. ‘We don’t need to go back to New York straightaway. We’ll go to Paris and Venice; we’ll travel the outer corners of the earth. Marry me— under whatever name you choose, so long as you live with me and be my love.’”

Now this one is a double whammy. The first allusion comes from Shakespeare’s sonnets, the 116th to be precise. Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments/Love is not love which alters when its alteration finds/Or bends with the remover to remove/Oh, no! It is an ever fix’d mark… 

The second allusions is from one of Billy’s contemporaries, Kit Marlowe, of Faustian acclaim. He wrote a poem, actually, it’s really his most famous poem, called The Passionate Shepard to His Love. This poem is a particular favorite of mine. In fact, I allude to it in my first novel, too (quite sweetly, if I do say so myself). It’s just so passionate, if the title didn’t give that away. Come live with me and be my love and we shall all the pleasures prove…  


“There was no keen-eyed detective to put together a tiny shred of fabric here and particular blend of tobacco there and, like that, produce a villain from the air.”

If you are a Benedict Cumberbatch fan (and which of us out there isn’t, really?), then the origins of this allusion should have come rather easily. It’s referencing none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Regardless of which incarnation you’re most drawn to- Basil Rathbone's, Rupert Everett’s, Robert Downey Jr.’s, Benedict Cumberbatch’s, or the handful of other actors who have donned the deerstalker and smoked the calabash (which, incidentally, Doyle never mentions as the pipe Sherlock smokes though he is most often depicted as smoking that particular style)- Sherlock was, and continues to be, the MacGyver of the detective world, constructing the most complex conclusions with the scantest clues. 


“‘Does anyone truly escape from Hades?’ He made no attempt to hide his mockery at this time; it dripped from his tongue as sweet and deadly as jam made from poisonous berries. ‘The underworld tends to keep its own.’” 

For this one, it’s all Greek to me. There are two possible answers for this allusion, both out of mythology. The first possibility is Orpheus and Eurydice. The musician Orpheus fell in love with the nymph Eurydice and married her, but she tragically died. Overcome with grief, Orpheus played such heartbreaking music, it implored the gods to let him have a chance to get his wife back. He was allowed to travel into the underworld to retrieve her and lead her back to the land of the living. There was only one stipulation. He couldn’t look at her until they were safely out of the Underworld’s domain. But, if Lot’s wife taught us anything, we, all of us, will look back to what our heart desires. Orpheus does, at least, and Eurydice is lost to him. 


The second, and the one I’m surest that it is, is Persephone. Remember her? Daughter of Demeter (goddess of the harvest and the seasons), Persephone was a great beauty with whom Hades fell madly in love and tricked to come live with him and be his love… in hell (really, it’s the underworld, but that doesn’t sound much better, does it?). Regardless, she was tricked by sampling the fruit platter, as it were, and she had to stay with him, though, out of his great love, he let her live half the year away from him with her mother. For some reason, all the tricksterishness of Hades and the luring of his love into hell seems to fit more with the plot of The English Wife, but it could very well be Orpheus and Eurydice, too, as there are some really stunning parallels there, too. You’ll have to read The English Wife for yourself to find out how their myth could apply. 

Now, I’ll leave you with one last line from The English Wife. It’s not an allusion, but there is quite a bit of name dropping in it, not to mention a good deal of whimsy. 

She decided not to add that said cousin claimed to be the reincarnated soul of Lord Byron, John Donne, and, on alternate Tuesdays, Shakespeare. The Byron days were particularly trying for his poor nurse, who had to suffer being pinched on top of being recited at.

Doesn’t this cousin pique your interest? I would love to be a fly on his wall. The poetry might be terrible, true, but there would never be a lack of entertainment. Besides, I can always find kinship with someone who loves poets so much that in his insanity, he becomes them. Surely we could find something to talk about, and being that he’s clearly insane, he could very well talk with a fly on his wall.

And now, what are you reading this week, dear readers?