Reading Guide

If you’re in a book group and are looking for some questions to spark discussion–or if you’d simply like some ideas to ponder on your own–here are some suggestions:


  1. The title A More Obedient Wife comes from a letter written by Hannah Iredell to her husband: “Could you wish a more obedient Wife, my dear Mr. Iredell? I wrote you last night, and am now attempting another letter…” Although Hannah is being playful here, most people in the 18th century did believe that wives should obey their husbands’ wishes. In what ways does Hannah Iredell try to be an “obedient” wife? In what ways does Hannah Wilson? Do their own personalities and inclinations make it difficult for them to be obedient? Do you think 21st-century women would have made different choices in similar circumstances?
  2. Bearing in mind restrictions on the role of women in the 18th century, which of the two Hannahs do you find more modern in her outlook? Hannah Iredell is well read and is a proponent of education for girls, but sees her own role as entirely domestic and insists on calling her husband “Mr. Iredell.” Does this make her more or less “modern” than Hannah Wilson, who decides to call her husband by an affectionate nickname but–at least initially–is far more interested in fashion than in current events?
  3. Hannah Iredell suffers from what today we might call social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia, leading to what we might call depression. How are these problems viewed by the characters in the novel, particularly by James Iredell? Do you think that Hannah herself viewed her difficulties differently than we would today? In what ways?
  4. The issue of slavery is an important sub-theme in the novel. Does one of the two narrators have a more realistic picture of slavery and what should be done about it? Do the two women’s ideas about slavery change, and if so, why? Do you find it difficult to see Hannah Iredell as a sympathetic figure because of the fact that she owned slaves?
  5. In both marriages–that of the Iredells and that of the Wilsons–the partners are in some ways mismatched. Do you feel that there was nevertheless genuine affection between the spouses? Were the differences in their personalities a source of attraction, or of friction, or both? Do you think that James Iredell sincerely loved his wife? Why do you think Hannah Wilson decided to stay by her disgraced husband’s side? Were these relationships believable?
  6. Throughout the novel, excerpts from actual 18th-century letters and other documents are interspersed with fictional diary entries in the voices of the two Hannahs. Did you find this technique successful? Did the fact that the characters were real people–and that at least some of the events were historically documented–add anything to the story? Did you find that the fictional aspects of the characters’ personalities meshed with what you could glean about them from the letters?
  7. Death and disease were far more common occurrences in the 18th century than they are now. Judging from the events and characters in A More Obedient Wife, do you think people were more accustomed to losing loved ones–and in particular, losing a child in infancy–than they are now? Were they less affected by such deaths? Did the two Hannahs react differently to their experiences of death, and if so, how?
  8. Each of the two narrators has a close relative who suffers from an addiction: Hannah Iredell’s mother-in-law is an alcoholic, and Hannah Wilson’s husband becomes addicted to land speculation. How do the two women deal with these problems? If you have had to deal with similar problems in your own life, is there anything in the women’s reactions that seemed familiar to you? How might problems like these be handled differently today?
  9. How do friendships between women figure in the novel? Are they important to either, or both, of the two narrators? Do they have different attitudes towards their female friends and relatives?
  10. In the late 18th century, novels were generally looked down upon and even thought to have a pernicious influence on their readers–especially on young women. Is this attitude reflected in A More Obedient Wife? How do each of the two Hannahs view novels? While novels have gained more respectability today, what other forms of entertainment do we now look upon with scorn? Do you think that two hundred years from now these other forms of entertainment will also have gained respectability?
  11. Despite their obvious differences, did the two Hannahs have anything in common? If so, what?
  12. How did the two main characters grow and develop over the course of the novel? What events were the catalysts for those changes? Do you think that either woman was changed by her relationship with the other? If so, how?
  13. As a result of reading the novel, did you discover things about the 1790s and the early Supreme Court that you hadn’t known before? Did any of these things surprise you?