Mr. and Mrs. Quilp live on Tower Hill. Mr. Quilp has many occupations and pursuits. He is a landlord to many shabby properties. He is a money lender. He invests in the ventures of the East Indian Company. He is a smuggler. He makes appointments on The Royal Exchange. He owns many buildings that are facades for businesses that don’t exist.
Mr. Quilp’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Jiniwin, resides with them, and she often fights with her son-in-law. Daniel Quilp manages to intimidate most people, especially his wife, but not her.
One afternoon, a group of neighborhood ladies visit at tea time. They discuss how men tyrannize women, and how women need to assert their rights. They have several reasons for bringing up this topic. Mainly, they are holding an intervention to persuade young Betsy Quilp to rebel against her husband’s authority. They know that her mother stands up to Mr. Quilp, so they have her support. They all desire to show how superior they are to other women in taming their mates. Lastly, Mrs. Quilp’s marriage has been the main topic of gossip for the last year—and they can’t discuss Mrs. Quilp in her presence.
Mrs. George inquires after Mr. Quilp, and Mrs. Jiniwin states that a bad weed always flourishes. They look at Betsy Quilp as a martyr. Mrs. Jiniwin continues to say that if her husband had a cross word with her, she would have twisted his head off like a shrimp. Fortunately, he never gave her reason to. Mrs. George agrees, saying a woman will never have to resort to that if she is true to herself. Mrs. Jiniwin chides her daughter with this good advice.
Betsy, uncomfortable with the topic, smiles doubtfully. The group tells her she should not doubt the advice of more experienced women. She should take their advice, because they have her best interest at heart. She was being ungrateful for not doing so. If she didn’t respect herself, she should respect other women. If she didn’t, other women would not respect her—and she’d be sorry
Betsy says it is fine to talk, but Mr. Quilp could marry anyone he wished. The other women deny this. Betsy says that he does have a charming way about him when he chooses, and he could seduce one of his critics into marriage. Even her mother had been charmed and had promoted the marriage. Her mother reluctantly admits she did support it initially. She doesn’t want to lower their esteem by claiming that her daughter married someone nobody would have.
The women continue to lament on how Mrs. Quilp does not stand up for herself. They would not tolerate such treatment from their husbands. Mr. Quilp is ugly and old, and his wife is young and good-looking.
Mrs. Jiniwin claims her daughter is terrified of her husband, fearing his words and looks. This confirms the neighborhood gossip they had all discussed. The women all give examples of how other husbands have been tamed, often by tears and the help of other female relatives. Mrs. Jiniwin suddenly shushes everyone when she realizes Daniel Quilp is in the room listening to them.
He asks his wife to invite them to supper. His wife denies inviting them to tea. The ladies quickly take their leave.
Mrs. Jiniwin argues with Quilp that her daughter should be able to do as she pleases. When Mrs. Jiniwin brings up how good of a man her husband was, Quilp agrees he probably was—and is even better now that she killed him. The mother-in-law looks ill, and he tells her to go to bed. She leaves the room.
Betsy Quilp sobs as her husband compliments her, though he is being sarcastic. He asks her if she thinks he is handsome. She says yes. He glares at her silently, then suddenly leaps at her—causing her to scream. He laughs. He threatens to bite her if she ever listens to those women. He then orders her to bring him rum and other items. After she brings these, he tells her to sit with him in case he needs something else. They sit until dawn. Quilp’s grin widens as his wife shows signs of exhaustion.