Author: James Barrie
First published: 1918
Locale: Scotland and England
Plot: Social satire
Time: Early twentieth century
Maggie Wylie, a wife who knows well what every woman should know—that a wife is the moving force behind any successful husband. At twenty-seven years of age, she is the plain, unmarried sister of David and James Wylie. Neither her curls nor her soft Scottish voice quite compensate for her too-resolute manner. She is married to John Shand after a six-year wait, as the result of a bargain made by David, James, and their father. Maggie proves herself the mistress of her husband's fate, even against the wiles and scheming of Lady Sybil Tenterden.
John Shand, a proud, defiant, and calculating young man of extraordinary promise. Caught by the Wylie men as he prowls their library looking for books, John agrees to marry Maggie in five years in exchange for three hundred pounds to finance his education. With Maggie unobtrusively behind him, he wins a seat in Parliament, boastful that he has not a soul to help him. He would leave Maggie, whom he respects, for Sybil, whom he thinks he loves, but no Scotsman will damage his career. He also has finally found out how he has come to be a success.
David Wylie, Maggie's older brother. He is the moving force of the family, the head of Wylie and Sons, stonemasons. The 600-volume library is actually David's; he has an unsatisfied hunger for education and a deep respect for the learned. He shrewdly sees in John Shand's need for money a means of getting a husband for Maggie. Businessman that he is, he is pleased to see John equally skilled in driving a good bargain. David has the brisk manner of the person who must get everywhere first.
James Wylie, Maggie's second brother. Dominated by David, he has become taciturn and tactless. He is used to having his opinions disregarded, but he offers them nevertheless. Although he has no use for books and education, he is impressed by John's scholarship and drive. He becomes, in spirit, John's humble servant. Observing that Maggie is “queer,” James wonders why great writers have failed to notice that all women are thus. His wife's ability would belie this notion.
Alick Wylie, the father of the family, now retired. He is no longer the head except in name. His is a disdainful view of learning, although he says “it's not to riches, it's to scholarship I make my bow.” His small, bright blue eyes seem always to be counting costs.
The Comtesse de la Brière (bree-EHR), a rude, calculating person of the world who laughs at the crudeness of the young politician. She sportingly challenges Sybil to conquer John. Over the years, the comtesse sees that Maggie is “the pin Shand picked up to make his fortune,” and she becomes Maggie's ally in defending her rights against the younger woman.
Lady Sybil Tenterden, the niece of the comtesse. Beautiful and unscrupulous, she schemes to ensnare John and teach him what he has not found in books, but her charm without intelligence is not enough to hold the ambitious young man.
Mr. Charles Venables, a member of the cabinet. Venables' thirty-year acquaintance with the comtesse serves to develop both these characters in the play. As protégé to Venables, John bumbles some political coups. About to sever relations with John, Venables reconsiders when reminded that it is he who once said, “A man whose second thoughts are good is worth watching.” John's second thoughts result from Maggie's influence and a speech she wrote for him.