The phrase “curtain lecture” has sadly gone out of fashion, with the disappearance of four poster beds and, with them, the thick curtains offering a degree of privacy to those in bed.
Dryden apparently used the phrase when translating Juvenal’s Satires in 1693:
“Besides what endless brawls by wives are bred,
The curtain lecture makes a mournful bed.”
It used to be a common expression – Johnson’s Dictionary defined it as a ‘reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed’ and caricaturists tended to make fun of the idea of a neglected wife berating her husband for whatever he had been getting up to. Here are a few, starting with an early wood-cut (1637) by Thomas Heywood. The lady seizes the opportunity to lecture her husband, in the privacy of the curtained bed, while the caption reads: ‘When wives preach, ’tis not in the Husbands power to have their lectures end within an hower. If Hee with patience stay till shee have donn. Shee’l not conclude till twyce the glass Hee runn.’ (Note the bed-side table with the hour glass filled with sand – hence a two-hour lecture).
I prefer the somewhat lighter take offered by the brilliant Richard Newton, who produced this one in 1794:
Another, courtesy of the Lewis Walpole site, is this one drawn by George M. Woodward but etched by Thomas Rowlandson, and which was the eighth sketch in a series entitled Matrimonial Comforts, published in 1800:
The termagant informs her husband, feigning sleep in all the innocence of a new-born babe “Yes you base Man. You… eat sleep and drink comfortably at home, and still you must be jaunting abroad every night. I’ll find out all your intrigues, you may depend on it.” The dogs take about as much notice of the lecture as does the husband…
A slightly later version (courtesy of the British Museum site) has a wife, married for a mere three weeks, demanding to know where her husband has been, when he staggers home a ten to two in the morning. She is met by the response “I’ve been roaming”. It dates from 1824.
The scene was obviously favoured by artists over many years – here is one from a half century earlier, by John Nixon.
It shows a woman standing by the bedside in her night-clothes berating a man lying in bed. He draws the bed-covers up to his chin. We are not told the nature or content of the lecture, but I like the detail of the tricorn hat on the wall-hook, the buckled shoes abandoned under the bed by the candle holder and chamber pot and, of course, the suitably unprepossessing harridan of a wife. It was published in 1785 and appears courtesy of the British Museum.
The expression ‘curtain lecture’ is often associated with Mrs Margaret Caudle, a fictitious person created by the humorist Douglas Jerrold, writing for Punch magazine in the 1840’s. Described by one reader as “interminably loquacious and militantly gloomy under fancied marital oppression” Mrs Caudle wasted no time in lecturing her husband on every imagined misdemeanour. An example was this extract from the 1846 ‘On Mr Caudle’s Shirt Buttons’
“Well, Mr. Caudle, I hope you’re in a little better temper than you were this morning. There, you needn’t begin to whistle: people don’t come to bed to whistle. But it’s like you; I can’t speak that you don’t try to insult me. Once, I used to say you were the best creature living: now, you get quite a fiend. Do let you rest? No, I won’t let you rest. It’s the only time I have to talk to you, and you shall hear me. I’m put upon all day long: it’s very hard if I can’t speak a word at night; besides, it isn’t often I open my mouth, goodness knows!”
And what would a curtain lecture be about? Well, as the politician Robert L Taylor said “The tintinnabulations of the wife’s curtain lecture are too precious to the enraptured husband to be shared with other ears”.
He was a sarcastic blighter, Mr Taylor…