In the first few minutes of The Bishop’s Wife, Dudley (played by a forever charming Cary Grant) helps a blind man cross the street and saves a baby from certain death by automobile. He’s an angel, you see, a very literal guardian angel. But when he stumbles across Loretta Young’s radiant Julia Brougham staring longingly at a hat in a shop window, his pattern of behavior markedly changes towards helping her.
Julia Brougham isn’t at risk of certain death; she’s at risk of living the rest of her life in a distant marriage, unable to have even the little things that bring her joy, like buying a beautiful hat that she can afford but doesn’t think she deserves. Her husband Henry works all the time and is cold and distant, leaving her lonely and unfulfilled. Her loneliness is made even more clear when she runs into an old friend, the professor, while buying a Christmas tree (since Henry was made bishop, the Broughams are now living far away from their old neighborhood). She smiles and reminisces, “If only we could spend Christmas back here where we were so happy with all our old friends,” so convincingly that your heart can’t help but go out to her.
Julia is the heart of the film. She’s as perfect as a woman can be, and everyone seems to fall in love with her because of that. But beyond said perfection lies an actual human woman who is struggling, trapped in the life in which her perfection has landed her. Over the course of the film, she has a sort of strange emotional quasi-affair with Dudley, the guardian angel, that gives her a new sort of power that she did not have in her regular life. And just as quickly, the film takes it away, leaving her in a slightly better marital situation, but disappointingly unchanged by an experience that seemed to set her free.
As soon as he first sees her, Dudley, perhaps through special angelic skill or simply through the skill of observation, quickly notices that not all is right with Julia. But instead of appearing as a savior or angel to her, he appears to her husband instead, who is having a crisis of his own.
You see, Henry is in a bit of a pickle. He feels that, as a bishop, he must build this grand cathedral to honor God, but to get the money to do it, he has to bow and scrape to a rude patron who wants the cathedral to be a memorial for her late husband, which he knows isn’t right. Plus, the more time he spends on the cathedral, the farther he is from his wife. Henry knows things aren’t right with Julia and even makes an attempt to assuage things by planning a day out, but, as soon as he makes the promise, more bishop duties appear, and he must rescind it. At this point, their marital troubles don’t feel temporary. Julia responds to the cancellation of their plans with stoic resignation, holding back tears, “You needn’t try to explain. This is the way it is, and this is the way it will always be. We’ve just got to get used to it, that’s all.” Julia is not allowed to demand more from her husband. Her life has changed dramatically for the worse, but she’s expected to say nothing, to get used to it, to suffer silently.
Julia, and Henry, are both lost, and when Henry turns his eyes toward the portrait of his proposed dream cathedral and asks for help, Dudley miraculously appears out of nowhere to save the day by offering guidance (and a little secretarial help) to the lost Henry. But whose day is Dudley saving? We know that he came across Julia first, before he ever met the bishop. In fact, even as Dudley and Henry have their first conversation, there’s a photograph of Julia right in between them. Her presence exists in the room even when she isn’t there.
Over the course of the film, Dudley takes over Henry’s home life. He defends the daughter against mean kids at the park. He takes Julia out to a romantic lunch where she and her husband got engaged. He even wears Henry’s scarf. He plays the role of doting father, loving husband (they’re even mistaken for a couple), and Julia and Dudley share a familiarity and warmth that seems completely lacking from Julia and Henry’s relationship. He brings something out of her, a new sort of life. That hat that was in the window, he didn't buy it for her. He lets her realize that it’s okay for her to have a beautiful hat, a thought and belief that was sorely lacking from her life before Dudley. Her husband doesn’t even notice the hat, once she’s bought it. She has to ask him about it.
It’s a weird plot, to say the least. But what should we make of this strange cross-species (are angels a species?) romance between Dudley and Julia? At the peak of their electricity there is definitely some falling in love involved, and though Dudley at first gives a lot of space for Henry to step in, he later begins to purposefully keep Henry out, even miracling him to a chair to keep him from joining Julia at a choir performance. Henry, jealous and upset, is at a loss for what to do, so he goes to visit his old friend the professor.
“She’s a different person when she’s with him,” Henry complains accusingly, as if Dudley were brainwashing her instead of simply giving her space to be herself and enjoy herself. Julia is treated as something stolen instead of someone who needed attention and affection from her husband. As for the battle over Julia’s love, according to the professor, Henry is at an advantage because Henry is human and Julia is a human woman. But that’s only an advantage of reality, not one of love and not one that actually addresses who Julia is as a person. There’s no talk about what Julia wants or how she feels or even how Henry could be a better husband to her since this situation only happened because he’s been neglecting her. Henry wants to keep Julia, because there’s no one better in the world, not because of what they can do together, what they can do for each other in their marriage.
And why? Well, why not? Julia Brougham is perfect. Perfect enough to even avoid any suspicion about her having done anything wrong. At one point when Henry is confronting Dudley over Julia, Henry maintains, “There’s one thing I know about this. Julia is absolutely blameless.” And it’s true, Julia does remain completely blameless. But what does that mean for Julia as a character?
In this film, we are presented with this sweeping swooning romantic story about a woman who has lost faith in her marriage and finds happiness elsewhere, but even within this context, she is never really allowed to make a misstep. She never actually fails in her marital duties in any way. She’s always kind to Henry and is an excellent wife, ready to shrink herself to fit her situation, even when she shouldn’t have to. And in that way, her relationship with Dudley, lacking any consummation or “actual” cheating, allows her to temporarily reach something outside of her failing marriage that gives her some sort of chaste joy.
The Bishop’s Wife is definitely a romance, and a surprisingly extra-marital one at that, considering the morality that the film is steeped in, which is heightened when Dudley finally makes it clear at the end of the film that he’s in love. He doesn’t quite declare his love, but Julia responds to it by turning him down and sending him away. She doesn’t tell him that she doesn’t love him nor does she speak about her own feelings or situation in any way. She simply, with tears in her eyes, says that he must go. But why must he go?
On Henry’s side, Dudley’s miracles have more or less fixed his problems. The cathedral plans are given up, and the wealthy patron has decided to donate her money to the local needy. This will free up Henry’s time for Julia and allow him to focus on more helpful work, but, while that solves some of the situational issues in Julia’s marriage, those changes still don’t quite undo the magic between Dudley and Julia or the lack of magic between Julia and Henry.
Julia and Dudley have all the romantic moments, all the chemistry, the soaring music. Even after Dudley leaves, the small happy scene between Julia and Henry is very deliberately not romantic but quiet and domestic. It doesn’t have the energy, nor does it seem like the movie wants it to have the energy that Julia and Dudley share even in their most mundane moments. Most importantly, Dudley brings joy into Julia’s life. Not joy out of the love between them, but the regular joys of good friendship and ice skating in the park. We never see Henry bring Julia the kind of happiness, fun, and sense of love that Dudley has brought her. The film never has us rooting for Julia and Henry, but because the movie maintains that Julia is Perfect, Julia can’t go with Dudley lest she become a Cheater, Divorcee, or even Less Than Perfect.
We never find out exactly why Julia turns Dudley down. She doesn’t provide a specific reason in her response, though the movie seems fairly certain that she loves him. Is she held back because of her marriage? Is she thinking about her child? Or maybe her love for him is too pure, something that shouldn’t be acted upon, a chaste devotion. Or maybe the movie wants Julia Brougham to be so inhumanly perfect that her very perfection locks her into a life that is less loving and understanding than the one she could have had if she was just a little less perfect. And even worse, Dudley erases any memory of himself from Henry and Julia’s life, meaning that, while Henry has now changed his life and is no longer obsessed with the cathedral and ignoring his wife, Julia doesn’t remember that she ever imagined something more than her marriage and her current life.
What is The Bishop’s Wife really saying about Julia Brougham in all her unwavering glory? What is it saying about how women are expected to behave and live, no matter how the men around them behave? In The Bishop’s Wife, Julia Brougham never stops being an excellent, perfect wife, but she also briefly becomes something more. It isn’t just that she falls in love with Dudley, she actually starts to have a life outside of her husband and child, a life that’s fun—so fun that it feels wicked.
Why should it be wicked for Julia Brougham to have fun? To go ice skating and buy a beautiful hat and have that hat be appreciated by someone? And why, at the end of it all, is she forced to give all of that fun and joy up to return, only with the circumstances of her marriage slightly changed— back to a life of only duty, small domestic peace, and pale perfection? Is it, perhaps because, to The Bishop's Wife, the ability for a woman to suffer and stay silent, to gain barely anything from a marriage and remain content, is the true marker of perfection?