‘curtain lecture’: meaning and origin

The phrase curtain lecture denotes a scolding or rebuke given in private by a wife to her husband.

This phrase occurs, for example, in an entry dated 11th January 1944 in Old Men Forget: The Autobiography of Duff Cooper (Viscount Norwich) (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1954), by the British politician and diplomat Duff Cooper (1890-1954), 1st Viscount Norwich:

Clemmie 1 said she had given Winston 2 a Caudle 3 curtain lecture this morning on the importance of not quarrelling with de Gaulle 4. He had grumbled at the time, but she thought it would bear fruit.

1 Clementine Churchill (née Hozier – 1885-1977) was the wife of Winston Churchill.
2 The British statesman Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
3 Mrs. Caudle is a character personifying the archetypal nagging wife.
4 The French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was the organiser of the Free French movement during the Second World War.

The phrase curtain lecture is based on the idea that, in order to conduct herself properly, a wife was to scold or rebuke her husband in secret only, i.e., in the privacy of their curtained bed, where she could not be heard by the other family members or by the servants.

This idea, which predates the phrase curtain lecture, is expressed by “the Ladye Iulia” in the following passage from A briefe and pleasant discourse of duties in Mariage, called the Flower of Friendshippe (London: Printed by Henry Denham, 1571), by Edmund Tilney (c.1535-1610):

I saye that very circumspect and warie must the woman be in reprehendyng of hir husbande in such great matters. For in thinges of small importance, the best wil be for hir to dissemble, noting diligently the tyme, the place, and the maner in doyng. The best tyme is, when anger, and malincholye raigneth not, and in any case, let no person be in place to heare hir. For it is a wyse mans griefe, to beare the open reproofe of his wyfe. The best place is, as I sayde, when they are both in bed, a place appointed for reconcilements, and renuing of loue and friendship, let your words not be spitefull, but louing, kinde, gentle, mery and pleasaunt. For though the woman euery where, ought to be mery with hir mate: yet muste she chieflye in bed, thereby to shewe what loue she beareth hym, where she may lawfullye poure out into his bosome all the thoughtes, and secrets of hir louing hart.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase curtain lecture that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Spirituall Spring. A Sermon preached at Pauls, wherein is declared the necessity of growing in Grace, and the goodly gaine that comes thereby, &c. (London: Printed by T. S. for Samuel Man, 1625), by Richard Lee (died 1650)—the phrase curtain lecture is used figuratively:

We neede helpe to this businesse, considering that grace in man is like a tender outlandish hearbe brought into our countries; we shall haue much adoe to make it prosper. Therefore,
1 Shun sinne, as Ignorance, Pride, Hypocrisie, ill-company, &c. Euill is a step-mother to good: as an Easterne winde nips our blossomes: as sicknesse that keepes downe a childe; so doth our transgressions stint and sterue our graces, and make vs vncapable of being bigger.
2 Get a good conscience that will cast vp thy accounts euery night, and reade thee a curtaine lecture for thy negligence.
3 Thou must haue good store of humility; by descending, thou shalt ascend; the low vallies are euer fruitfullest.
4 Labour for spirituall wisedome to be led by the best presidents, to take thy worke out of the best Samplers, to write after the best coppies, to draw a line after the best Painter.

2-: From A commentary or, exposition vpon the diuine second epistle generall, written by the blessed apostle St. Peter (London: Printed by Richard Badger for Jacob Bloom, 1633), by the English clergyman Thomas Adams (1583-1652):

As the blessings that come by good marriage, are innumerable: so be the curses by ill matches, many and mischievous. […] Are not the good perverted by the bad, sooner than the bad converted by the good? Often have you heard how much a superstitious wife, by her certaine [sic] lectures, hath wrought upon her Christian husband.

3-: From A Curtaine Lecture: As it is read By a Countrey Farmers wife to her Good man. By a Countrey Gentlewoman or Lady to her Esquire or Knight. By a Souldiers wife to her Captain or Lievtenant. By a Citizens or Tradesmans wife to her husband. By a Court Lady to her Lord. Concluding with an imitable Lecture read by a Queene to her Soveraigne Lord and King (London: Printed by Robert Young for John Aston, 1637), by the English playwright and poet Thomas Heywood (circa 1573-1641)—for example:

TO encourage all maides how to behave themselves, that they may be the better married (for as yet they are not come to the rudiments of reading a Curtaine Lecture, for that only belongs to wives; the very name whereof will instruct them soone enough (if not too soone) in the practice:) I hold it not impertinent to the present tractate in hand, to shew you an history or two (and those not common) how some Virgins, but of meane condition and quality, have, by their vertues meerely, and generous behaviour, attained to great preferment and honour.

This is the frontispiece to A Curtaine Lecture (London: Printed by Robert Young for John Aston, 1637), by Thomas Heywood—the husband says Mulieri ne credas (i.e., Do not believe women), and the wife says Vera prædico (i.e., I assert the truth):

A Curtaine Lecture.

When Wiues preach, tis not in the Husbands power
To haue their Lectures end within an hower:
If Hee with patience stay till shee haue donn,
Shee’l not conclude till twyce the Glasse bee runn.

4-: From De Bello Belgico. The History of the Low-Countrey Warres (London: Printed for Humphrey Moseley, 1650), the translation by Robert Stapleton (died 1669) of De bello Belgico, by the Italian Jesuit and historian Famiano Strada (1572-1649)—in the following passage, which deals with the third conflict (1568-69) of the French Wars of Religion, Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572), Queen of Navarre and leader of the Huguenots, tries to stir her reluctant husband into action:

Alibret exasperates her husband against the Catholicks.
The Lady Alibret earnestly solicited the Cause: who remembring her old quarrel, and impatiently longing for a Crown, rung in her husbands ears, That he must not suffer this onely opportunity of recovering the Kingdome of Navarre, to slip out of his hands: That he may now make himself head of a mighty faction, almost half the strength of France: That upon these terms, he may expect assistance from the Germane Princes, of the same Religion, from the English, the Low-countrey men; besides such Catholicks as were enemies to the Guises, and by a strong conjuncture of all these, they may expell the Guises out of France, advance the Hereticall party, and no doubt, but at length they may carry that army to the conquest of Navarre. But this furious Tullia, was married to a milder Tarquin; so as the Duke of Bourbon being cold, for all this fiery curtain-Lecture: his brother the Prince of Condè, a Tarquin that well-matched the Lady Alibret, is said to have undertaken the Advance of the Conspiracie.

5-: From Panthalia: Or The Royal Romance. A Discourse Stored with infinite variety in relation to State-Government and Passages of matchless affection gracefully interveined, and presented on a Theatre of Tragical and Comical State, in a successive continuation to these Times (London: Printed by J. G. and are to be sold by Anthony Williamson, 1659), by Richard Brathwaite (c.1588-1673):

Verona excited her weak Consort both by Letters, with other assiduate perswasions, apt enough to work upon such an Headpiece; to these undertakings: and especially in this private Curtain-Lecture which she with much vehemency read unto him, a little before he stood ingaged upon this Service. […]
This perswasive Lecture delivered by a tongue that had a commanding influence over him, became so prevalent with Bellonius, as it quickly raised and roused him from a secure sleep: enlivening his thoughts with actions of an higher temper. Ambition now begun strongly to work upon him.

6-: From Mores Hominum. The Manners of Men, Described in sixteen Satyrs, By Juvenal (London: Printed by R. Hodgkinsonne, 1660), by Robert Stapleton (died 1669)—the following is a translation of Satire VI, by the Roman poet Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis – ?60–?140 A.D.):

Wilt thou wive [= take a wife] POSTHUME? sure thou hadst thy wits?
What snake-hair’d Fury haunts thee? canst obey
A Wife, so many halters in thy way?
So many windows open, those so high;
The opportune Aemilian Bridge so nigh?
If in this choice of deaths none pleasing be,
Think, is’t not better thy Boy sleep with thee,
Thy Boy that reads no curtain-Lecture, fains
No coyness, till presented; nor complains
Because thou spar’st thy back, or that so oft
As he commands thou dost not come aloft?

7-: From Jamaica viewed: With All the Ports, Harbours, and their several Soundings, Towns, and Settlements thereunto belonging together, with the nature of it’s [sic] Climate, fruitfulnesse of the Soile, and it’s [sic] suitablenesse to English Complexions. With several other collateral Observations and Reflexions upon the Island (London: Printed for John Williams, 1661), by the English clergyman and soldier Edmund Hickeringill (1631-1708):

THat Souldiers wives are more properly seated in their husband’s Kitchin, then his Tent. General Vennable’s Lady being not unjustly blamed, both for his sluggish and listlesse Proceedings, as also, for his unlicens’d and immature Return, further’d, if not procur’d by her too opportune Inculcations. A Dalliance of so sad a consequence to the English Nation, that zeal to my native Countrey whets my passions to so Satyrical an edge, that I can scarce forbear, here to lash out, against her whole Sex, did not the Virtues of some others interceed. However I must have a touch at the Martyred State, that warrants such unseasonable Companions for the Warres; wisely prevented by the Turks in their Eunuch-Generals.
The best on’t is I am not awed (thanks to my fates) with the dreadfull Catechisme of a Curtain Lecture.

8-: From An Alphabet of Joculatory, Nugatory and Rustick Proverbs, in A Collection of English Proverbs Digested into a convenient Method for the speedy finding any one upon occasion; with Short Annotations. Whereunto are added Local Proverbs with their Explications, Old Proverbial Rhythmes, Less known or Exotick Proverbial Sentences, and Scottish Proverbs (Cambridge: Printed by John Hayes, Printer to the University, for W. Morden, 1678), by the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705):

A Curtain-lecture.
Such an one as a wife reads her husband when she chides him in bed.

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