Several years ago, I edited a story by historian Alexis Coe about the various ways in which literary husbands and wives publicly recognize themselves in their books. To summarize and perhaps oversimplify: Husbands tend to thank their wives for their real work, such as helping with editing and research, while wives tend to thank their husbands for their emotional support, perhaps suggesting that men were less likely to offer practical assistance.
Books are obviously a noble space, Coe rightly notes, so she asked a sociologist friend to explain how differential recognition plays out in the everyday lives of heterosexual couples who aren’t published authors. The sociologist responds with an anecdote:
At home, she struggles to find the right words to recognize her husband’s efforts. “I don’t want to say I’m not grateful to you,” she told him, “but I really hate that society expects me to be super grateful that you’re not totally worthless. .”
It reminded me of when I read Carmela Ciuraru’s utterly delectable new book, ‘The Lives of Women: Five Literary Marriages’, which is equal parts nerd literary analysis, deep understanding of relationships and gossip juicy. Ciuraru writes that his plan is to “reposition the wife” in the lives of five famous authors: Roald Dahl, Kingsley Amis, Kenneth Tynan, Alberto Moravia and Radclyffe Hall.
The wives in question are Patricia Neal, who was a bonafide movie star before she met Dahl; Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had to divorce Friends to resume work on her novels; Elaine Dundy, a best-selling novelist who was a “faithful assistant” to her husband, Tynan, as he worked on a variety of literary projects; Elsa Morante, an Italian novelist who had what looked closest to a real partnership of the five couples; and Una Troubridge, who has devoted her entire life to the care and nurturing of Hall, “a life of watching, serving and subordinating all that exists” to “literary inspiration” as she put it. (Hall and Troubridge were a lesbian couple who never officially married. Although Hall used female pronouns, she went by the name “John” with her intimates, dressed in a masculine style and, according to Ciuraru, “considered herself really like a husband.”)
Ciuraru writes: “The ideal wife of a famous writer has no desire worth mentioning. She lives every day in second place. Rather than attempting to take control of her own destiny, she accepts what she has been given without complaint. Her ambitions are not thwarted because she has none. But the women she features all have ambition, and they’ve all been made unhappy to varying degrees by having had to subsume their talent and energy.