Israel Zangwill: The Grey Wig

portrait of Zangwill from 'My First Book'

The Grey Wig: Stories and Novelettes (1903) is a collection of stories on non-Jewish subjects.

All, except The Big Bow Mystery, are about different kinds of love.

"The Grey Wig"

Depine and Valiere, two elderly women who live in the same rooming house in France, would like to purchase grey wigs because their brown ones are not appropriate for their ages. They have lived very different lives and have rarely spoken to each other, but their mutual desire for and inability to pay for new wigs brings them together.

They scrimp and save and buy one brown wig which they cannot share because their heads are shaped differently. They intend to buy a second in several months. They toss a coin and Depine wins but when she learns that Valiere has been invited to her nephew's wedding she has the wig made to fit Valiere. Despite the sacrifice their friendship cools a bit; they rarely go out together since Depine still wears a young woman's brown wig.

When Valiere doesn't return, Depine learns from the police that she never attended the wedding. She suspects that Valiere has run off with the gold brooch she loaned to her. After a few days Depine finds Valiere in the morgue, apparently murdered for the gold brooch and wig. "Forgive me, ma chérie, forgive me," she moaned. Compared to the friendship that united them, the wig which separated them "seemed a petty and futile aspiration" (43).1


Ambitious but poor Walter Bassett has stood for Parliament a couple of times unsuccessfully. He meets Amber Roan, a wealthy American heiress. They marry; she for love and he for money. He has a successful political career but after seven years he resigns his cabinet post; he has discovered that he loves his wife, not power. Ironically, his wife has come to love power, not him.

"The Woman Beater"

John Lefolle, a young poet and tutor at Oxford, meets beautiful, married Winifred Glamorys at a party where she tells him that her husband beats her -- sometimes with a stick or fist but "as a rule he just takes me by the arms and shakes me like a terrier a rat" (79). John is appalled; he falls in love with her.

They meet clandestinely for months but she won't leave her husband. When her husband dies, she says they should wait for a while before marrying. On the anniversary of her husband's death he encounters her in the cemetery and she tells him that she never loved him. He grabs her arms roughly and shakes her. He realizes he has become a woman beater. Peevish, mercurial, self-centered Winifred simply played him along because it pleased her to have a secret lover.

"The Eternal Feminine"

Because his girlfriend was ill, the narrator asked the first woman he met while walking to attend a mask ball -- Froken Jensen, 26, ugly, the keeper of the boarding house where he lives. She struggles to make ends meet, doing almost all of the work herself while taking care of her bed-ridden aunt. One of the boarders, Alex Larson, treats her contemptuously; he taunts and insults her and fails to pay his rent.

She impresses everyone at the ball; she dances and talks well, has a nice figure and is masked. The narrator asks her to marry; she is good-humored and hard-working; he doesn't love her but he respects and admires her. When she declines his offer, he realizes that she loves Alex Larson. She has a passion of her own and doesn't need his pity.

"The Silent Sisters"

Two elderly sisters, Honor and Mercy, quarreled when they were children and vowed never to speak to each other again. Although their husbands were friends, the wives keep their vow.

When Mercy becomes gravely ill, Honor goes to her house and takes over caring for her. Still, they always communicate through a third person. At the end Mercy is delirious and near death; Honor and Bobby, Mercy's grandson, are in the room. Mercy become lucid, sits up and asks, "Ah, is Honor still there? Kiss me — Bobby" (135). Honor kisses her sister and she dies.

"The Serio-Comic Governess"

Irish-Catholic Eileen O'Keefe is educated in a French convent school. She intends to become a nun, but the death of her father compels her to become a governess. In order to increase her income she begins singing at night in a music hall as Nelly O'Neil. Despite her popularity (eventually she performs at three different venues each night) she is discontented with her double life.

She is attractive and clever and receives several marriage proposals. Although tempted to accept each as an alternative to her serio-comic life, she declines them all. At the end she intends to return to the convent where her "complex corrupt soul shall be simplified and purified." She writes to the only man she might have married (if she had loved him) that "it is a convent that trains the young, so I shall still be a Governess" (563).

Zangwill's dramatic adaptation of this story was produced in 1904.

"Merely Mary Ann"

Lancelot, son of a baronet, is a self-absorbed, unpublished composer of serious musical works. He hates poor people and condemns marrying for money as a form of prostitution. Although his funds are running out, he refuses help from his friend Peter who says contempt is in the blood of the aristocracy.

The 19-year-old slavey at his lodging house is "merely Mary Ann" with no last name. A servant since her parents died when she was 14, she is pretty, hard-working, naive and guileless.

Lancelot is attracted to her even though he knows that Mary Ann, a "starveling drudge," isn't fit even to be his mistress. Not realizing how vulnerable she is, he kisses her several times. Starved for affection, she mistakes his curiosity for love.

Running out of money he decides to accept some drudge work from another composer, move to a different flat and take Mary Ann with him as his housekeeper. It will be the best thing that could happen to her; he will improve her. Mary Ann agrees to go with him.

Mary Ann inherits a huge fortune from her brother in America but the money means nothing to her. She still expects to be Lancelot's housekeeper. She is in love with him. But to Lancelot she is still "merely Mary Ann" even with her fortune.

In their final meeting she says she has figured out why he won't marry her: she is not good enough for him. He replies that, in fact, he is not worthy of her. When she offers him her fortune, he says there is only one thing he could ever ask her for -- "merely Mary Ann," herself. But he can't.

The story was published in 1893; Zangwill's dramatic adaptation was produced in 1904.

See also

Israel Zangwill and Zangwill's Zones


1All citations are from The Grey Wig: Stories and Novelettes (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1903).