Elizabeth Buchan

The Good Wife aka The Good Wife Strikes Back

© 2003

For Margot

Her price is far above rubies

Proverbs 31, 10


Many thanks are owed to Vanessa Hannam and Deborah Stewartby for their kindness, generosity and patience in answering my questions about life as an MP’s wife. Any mistakes are entirely mine. I am also extremely grateful to Emma Dally for sending me Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (Sterling Publishing, New York). I borrowed details for (my) Casa Rosa and the visit to the Etruscan tombs from Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun (Bantam Books), from Iris Origo’s War in the Val d’Orcia (Cape), and from Tim Parks’s An Italian Education (Vintage). Also information and anecdote on being a Member of Parliament from Gyles Brandreth’s Breaking the Code (Phoenix). With apologies also to Jane Austen. A huge thank-you is also owed to my brilliant editors Louise Moore and Christie Hickman, to Hazel Orme – as always – to Stephen Ryan, to Keith Taylor, Sarah Day and the rest of the Penguin team. Also to my agent Mark Lucas, Janet Buck and, of course, to Benjie, Adam and Eleanor.


It is a truth universally acknowledged that one person’s happiness is frequently bought at the expense of another’s.

My husband Will, a politician to his little toe, did not entirely get the point. He maintained that sacrifices in the cause of the common good were sufficient in themselves to make anyone happy. And since Will had sacrificed a significant slice of his family life to pursue his ambitions as, first, a promising MP, then a member of the Treasury Select Committee, then minister, and-latterly-as one who was tipped to be a possible Chancellor of the Exchequer, it followed that he should have been supremely happy.

I think he was.

But was I?

Not a question, perhaps, that a good wife should ask.

If you ask some people what it means to be ‘good’, they reply that it is to tell the truth. But if you are asked by the huntsman which way the fox went, and you tell him, does that mean you are good?

On our nineteenth wedding anniversary, Will and I promised each other to be normal. To this end, Will carried me off to the theatre, ordered champagne, kissed me lovingly and proposed the toast: ‘To married life.’

The play was Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and the production had excited attention. Although I could see that he was aching with tiredness, Will sat very still and upright in the seat, not even relaxing when the lights went dim. An upright back was part of the training he had imposed on himself never to let down his guard in public. Although I am better than I used to be, I am still laggardly in that department. It is so tempting to slump, hitch up my skirt and laugh when my sense of the ridiculous is tickled – and there was much in our life that was ridiculous. Politicians, ambassadors, constituents, coffee mornings, chicken suppers, state occasions… a wonderful, colourful caboodle replete with the ambitious and the innocent, the failures and the successes.

Of necessity, Will laughed with circumspection – so much so that, once, I accused him of having lost the ability through lack of use. There was only a tiny hint of a smile on his lips when he explained to me that one small error of attention could undo years of work.

I sneaked a look at him from under eyelids that still stung from the morning’s regular date with the beauty salon. Dyed eyelashes were a necessity because, when I do laugh, my eyes water. In the early days Mannochie, Will’s watchful and faithful political agent, had been forced to come up to me at some constituency do and whisper discreetly, ‘Train tracks, Mrs S’, which meant my mascara had smudged. There was no option but to laugh off that one, and whisk myself to the nearest mirror for a quick repair job. Increasingly, I burn inside at the daily reminder of one’s physical imperfections – the evidence of slide, which is recorded by the mirror. It is such a bore having to resort to such stratagems, but body maintenance is a must, particularly when a girl is… especially when a woman is forty, plus a tiny bit more.

Dressed in pale, shimmery blue, Nora made her entrance on to the stage and her husband asked anxiously, ‘What’s happened to my little songbird?’

Will reached over for my hand, the left one, which bore his wedding ring and the modest ruby we had chosen together. It was small because, newly engaged and glowing with love at the prospect of shared happiness and mutual harmony, I had not wished him to spend too much money on me. Hindsight is a great thing, and I have come to the conclusion that modesty is wasted when it comes to jewellery. The touch of his hand was unfamiliar, strange almost, but I had grown used to that too, and it was not significant. Beneath the unfamiliarity, Will and I were connected by our years of marriage. That was indisputable.

At the end of the play, still in her pale blue, Nora declared, ‘I don’t believe in miracles any longer.’ The sound of the front door opening and closing as she left the house was made to sound like a prison gate clanging shut.

‘Fanny darling, I’m begging a favour… I know, I know, I owe you more than I can count but just say yes – please.’

It was the following day and the ministerial car had picked us up from our mansion-block flat in Westminster to drive us to the church in Stanwinton for Pearl Veriker’s funeral. Stanwinton was Will’s Midland constituency, neither decadently cafe-society south, nor professionally only-real-people-live-here north but hovering, geographically and metaphorically, unthreateningly between, and Pearl Veriker, former chairman of the Stanwinton party association, had once been the bane of my life.

I reached for my notebook. ‘Do I need this?’

Will snapped his armrest to attention. ‘You sound very formal. Are you all right?’

I could have replied, ‘I feel as though I have been stretched as thin as possible and now I’m almost transparent. Stop and look through me: you will see my heart labouring under the strain.’ Instead, well trained in the art of preserving appearances, I replied, ‘I’m fine.’

The car stopped at traffic-lights. I glanced out of the window at a poster that depicted a bride in white with a long, misty veil through which a pair of diamond earring studs shone. The caption read: ‘Eternity’.

When I married Will, I had no idea of how the little evasions and dishonesties shore up the everyday. Our partnership was to have been a translucent stream into which we would both gaze and from which we would both draw nourishment. This had been fine, but I had no idea that casting my net into that sparkling water would also yield… not the plump, pink-fleshed truth but a shoal of tiny white lies and, occasionally, a sharp-fanged black

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