Curtain lecture may be simply defined as a censorious lecture by a wife to her husband, often while in bed. It has almost, but not quite totally, vanished from the language; anyone coming across it now might wrongly associate it with a talk preceding a performance in a theatre. The direct mental link between beds and curtains has disappeared because the four-poster, with its canopy and curtain creating an intimate enclosure, is no longer a standard item of domestic furniture.
The most famous giver of a curtain lecture was fictitious, by the name of Mrs Margaret Caudle. She was “interminably loquacious and militantly gloomy under fancied marital oppression”, as a writer later described her. Mrs Caudle was created by Douglas Jerrold, a nineteenth-century humorist, once famous but now almost forgotten, who was a contributor to Punch magazine from its second issue in 1841 until his death in 1857.
Mrs Caudle’s monologues were first published in Punch; they became a book in 1846, with the title Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, which went through dozens of editions in the decades that followed. They expatiated at length on her supposed sufferings and denounced the failings of her spouse. They were delivered when he found it least easy to escape, just after they had gone to bed:
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!
Lecture 10: On Mr Caudle’s Shirt-buttons, in Mrs Caudle’s Curtain Lectures, by Douglas Jerrold, 1846.
The first examples of curtain lecture are from the early part of the seventeenth century. When Dryden used it in his translation of Juvenal’s Satires in 1693 (“Besides what endless brawls by wives are bred, / The curtain lecture makes a mournful bed.”), he implied that its associations go back at least two millennia.