“The problem with being a wife is being a wife,” writes Carmela Ciuraru in the introduction of her painstakingly researched and very readable book, Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages, explaining, “In the marriages of celebrated literati throughout history, husband is to fame as wife is to footnote.” The literary wife’s role, she says, is to manage “the outsize needs of the so-called Great Writer.”
She reveals that many of the literary lions were helpless kittens in daily life, “reliant on the wife to fold an umbrella, answer the phone, or lick a stamp.” Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Nabokov, where would they be without their wives? she asks.
Vera Nabokov is the poster girl of the doormat literary wife, who over 52 years of marriage, “guided her husband’s career, negotiated his contracts, typed his manuscripts, and yes, licked his stamps. She famously stopped her husband from incinerating an early draft of Lolita…. She also served as his bodyguard, carrying a pistol in her handbag to protect him.” She even cut up her husband’s food for him!
To an outsider, it might seem like a fairytale—marrying a famous writer, and being in the front row of the glamorous, celeb-studded life of an author. But someone has to cook, clean, bear and raise children, make the beds, do the laundry, and that is the burden of the wife—even if the husband has made enough money to afford household help. If the wife also happens to be a writer, then it is an unspoken condition of the marriage that her career would take a back seat. If the wifely duties were carried out satisfactorily and she still had the time and energy to write, then she might attempt it, amidst the relentless demands of domesticity. If, in spite of all the obstacles placed in her path, the wife wrote a bestselling book, there was the jealousy to deal with.
Virginia Woolf called this inexhaustible creature Angel in the House, “a certain phantom that excels at family life and self-sacrifice, dissuading women from putting pen to paper.” For the dubious honour of being the wife of the great writer, she had to also ignore his infidelities, violence, alcoholism and self-centered attitude.
“Modern marriage,” writes Ciuraru, “is a series of compromises, a relentless juggling act of work obligations, childcare demands, household chores, money squabbles, hoarded grievances, simmering hostilities, and intimacy issues….Toss in male privilege, ruthless ambition, narcissism, misogyny, infidelity, alcoholism, and a mood disorder or two, and it’s easy to understand why the marriages of so many famous writers have been stormy, short-lived, and mutually destructive.”
For the book, Ciuraru has not picked the obvious names—Zelda Fitzgerald, Véra Nabokov, Sofia Tolstoy, the multiple wives of Hemingway, Bellow and Mailer. Instead, she has concentrated on five unconventional couples—Roald Dahl - Patricia Neal, Alberto Moravia - Elsa Morante, Kingsley Amis - Elizabeth Jane Howard, Kenneth Tynan - Elaine Dundy and one same-sex pair, Radclyffe Hall - Una Troubridge.
Their lives are well documented in newspaper reports and magazine interviews, television appearances, biographies and startlingly candid autobiographies. All five marriages were stormy and troubled, yet long-lasting, for which the husband could certainly not claim credit. Except for Elsa Morante, who hated being called Mrs Moravia, and was not the easiest person to live with, the others had to make compromises to save their marriages.
It was not too different if the ‘husband’ happened to be a woman. Radclyffe Hall, who was nicknamed John, was rigid about gender roles. She dressed like a man, had a nasty temper, and believed that wives should not have any ambitions of their own, and that they must take on the subservient role of looking after the husband and home.
Elizabeth Jane Howard summed it up when she said, “I really couldn’t write very much when I was married to him because I had a very large household to keep up and Kingsley wasn’t one to boil an egg, if you know what I mean.” Ironically, once she had stifled her own creativity to be a good wife, she felt her husband lost interest in her. She said, “I was encouraged, even expected to be responsible, but conversely nobody finds responsible people entertaining or desirable.”
Ciuraru has quoted novelist Ann Patchett who said in an interview to The Guardian, “How exhausting it is, as a woman, to always be the one who has to make the food and change the beds. No matter how enlightened, how much of a feminist I am, I am still doing all of it. [With] every book I think: well, if this one’s really successful, maybe I won’t have to make dinner any more.”
Kenneth Tynan, well-known drama critic, hated that his wife Elaine Dundy’s book, The Dud Avocado, became a bestseller. He threatened to divorce her if she wrote another, and once, in a fit of rage, left her “unconscious on the bathroom floor with two black eyes and a broken nose”—the worst instance of his routine physical abuse of his wife.
Roald Dahl, the popular writer of children’s books, was a loving father, but a domineering bully towards his actress wife Patricia Neal. When she had a stroke, he helped her recover, not with tender care but a regimen that bordered on the sadistic. When she was at the peak of her stage and screen stardom, Dahl felt emasculated by the fact that she was earning more than him. She was advised to let him control the finances if she wanted a happy marriage.
The writers never had to answer for their monstrous behavior; it was as if their fame made them immune to any criticism of their personal lives. Their selfishness and cruelty did not matter because they wrote masterpieces. Nobody can go back and ban the books of Dickens or Tolstoy because they treated their wives badly.
Zadie Smith has written, “The unusual thing about misogyny is the elaborate intellectual superstructure that has for so long supported and celebrated it, not as a blind spot or as pernicious ideology but, on the contrary, as perfect vision.”
Things have changed for the better over the years, and there have been examples of egalitarian literary marriages, but few and far between. More often than not, the woman has to exchange her individuality for the Mrs Famous Author tag, and be happy with the perks this secondhand fame brings.
Groucho Marx quipped, and Ciuraro quotes him,"Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife." The book, Ciuraro states, "is meant to give the writers' wives their due, marvel at what they achieved and made possible, and reflect on what might have been."
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author
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