The Victorian writer’s equivalent of a Reader’s Wife photo might resemble Coventry Patmore’s homage to his first wife, Emily, that “Angel in the House”, which is also the title of a work for which he should surely be remembered. Men like Millais, Ruskin (who was shocked on this wedding night by his wife’s pubic hair), and Tennyson all shared Patmore’s enthusiasm for a particular kind of wife. According to Katherine Moore, author of Victorian Wives, she had to be “without self-pity or rebellion or reproach or any hint of ugliness or failure. She did not have much sense of humour perhaps, but this was not required of her.” However, adds Moore, Milton’s “He for God only, she for God in him” didn’t really work in Eden either.
Patmore had two more wives (the first one died decorously young and beautiful). Then, at the age of 70, he fell in love with a poetess — an intellectual who was totally unsuited to domesticity and wife-hood, as he and a whole lot of Victorian stuffed shirts understood those terms. Shame.
Coleridge married Sarah, but Asra was his muse. H.G. Wells stayed good and married even while falling in love with and carrying on his affair with the more literary and, no doubt, altogether more challenging Rebecca West. Boswell, in search of a wife, discounted some who yet did splendidly as mistresses.
To fall for the “other”, the unattainable or distant one, is equally a woman’s prerogative (take it from me), but the satisfaction may be less if there is no one minding the hearth and little ones at home. Anais Nin sensibly kept her banker husband (or should I say he sensibly kept her), but there seem to be fewer successful arrangements this way around, partly maybe because most men do not so easily forgive a woman’s infidelity. That sort of tolerance takes generations of practise and training, a few carrots, and more than a few sticks.
According to Virginia Woolf, the American Gilbert Imlay loved Mary Wollstonecraft, but was also “exasperated by her intelligence…her quickness, her penetration.… [It] harassed him. She saw through his excuses; she met all his reasons; she was even capable of managing his business.” If women are going to say the unsayable, they are first supposed to learn how to make it sayable. Or they can just let somebody else say it for them.
The history pages are strewn with the names of intellectual helpmeets who were often not these writers’ wives — but there were usually wives to boot (if you’ll pardon the expression). Perhaps to be the “other” was preferable to some women, since then the hard work of basking in a husband’s glory — not to mention facilitating his career by erecting (pardon, again) and maintaining a secure and protective domestic structure around the preoccupied and fragile creative mind — could be safely entrusted to the wife. George Meredith’s first wife, Mary Ellen Peacock, a widow when he met her, was attached enough to her independence to say no to his marriage proposal six times.
She was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock and a writer before she ever met Meredith. Regardless of the merits of her contributions to the canon of Victorian literature, Meredith rated them enough to eventually publish versions under his own name. Naughty boy.
Ah, I hear you say, versions. Working as an editor at The Printer’s Devil magazine, I recall excising much purple prose from the work of one established writer. The end product always stayed in the writer’s ownership, nonetheless. It’s called editing, though it’s curious how an editor’s powers vary, depending on the sex of the writer being edited.
I was accordingly edited by the Devil, but never allowed to deliver the Sermon, which was the Editorial heart and soul of the magazine. I was permitted to develop ideas, edit material from the slush pile, stuff envelopes, and perform administrative tasks. I was always allowed to tidy up. Once, when I picked out a story from the slush pile, my male colleague tried to pass it off as his discovery, thinking — mistakenly, as it turned out, hilariously — that the writer was someone famous writing under a pseudonym. The greatest privilege I was granted was working on the Introduction, but that had no byline.
Who was it that said one can’t be a writer if one has to do the laundry? By this what was meant, presumably, was not that such humble tasks were beneath the artist, but rather that one’s time is limited, and a writer — that most inventive of procrastinators — is only too willing to be lured by the interminable list of tasks which make up our ordinary lives and that manage to keep him away from his desk. Sorry, I meant to say her desk.
Anyway, Walden Pond didn’t seem to contain adequate wetness for Thoreau’s laundry because he sent a pile to his mother each week; but hell, that shouldn’t stop us from admiring his experiment in self-sufficiency (who would argue that his mother’s contribution counted in such matters weighty and profound?)
The desire to serve the loved one is strong, but often the one being served ends up loathing their servant. I remember watching a journalist friend contemptuously shrug off his partner’s solicitousness when he came home from work (though she works too) — you know, slippers and so forth. Maybe he was just embarrassed because I was there.
Henry James writes of an incident described by the writer Prosper Mérimée, living with George Sand at the time: “…he once opened his eyes, in the raw winter dawn, to see his companion in a dressing-gown, on her knees before the domestic hearth, a candle-stick beside her and a red madras round her head, making bravely, with her own hands the fire that was to enable her to sit down betimes to urgent pen and paper. The story represents him as having felt that the spectacle chilled his ardour and tried his taste; her appearance was unfortunate, her occupations an inconsequence, and her industry a reproof — the results of all which was a lively irritation and an early rupture.” Rarely have I read such an exact articulation of the paradox of women’s lives, and how men view the domestic roles which are supposed to be a woman’s prime allure.
I think that my mother is right; I need a wife. But what do I do if I only fall in love with men? Besides which, a traditional wife might not suit my style — my writing style, that is. I wouldn’t dream of having a wife who didn’t make an important contribution to my work, either as intellectual companion or active muse. My requirements wouldn’t be as stringent as U.A. Fanthorpe’s: “Must be in mint condition, not disposed/ To hayfever, headaches, hangovers, hysteria, these being/ The Poet’s prerogative./…Must be visible/invisible…/…In public will lead/ The laughter, applause, the unbearably moving silence…/…” (“The Poet’s Companion”).
Is there enough compensation in playing amanuensis in the literary myth? It’s not easy being a muse. We have our own ideas about our beauty and splendour, after all. And to be passive and grateful is the hardest work I know.
Sometimes, the woman’s very existence is essential to the man’s writing. George MacDonald and William Godwin are two men whose dicks didn’t go limp — to quote an Australian male friend of mine — under the weight (sorry) of strong and wilful women. The marriages of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Robert Browning worked for all concerned. Louisa May Alcott’s mother suggested that not all played a conventional hand. Says Boswell: “A great part of the happiness of lovers and friends consists in the high opinion which they entertain of each other.”
Lawrence and Frieda argued on an epic scale, yet he told her to go ahead and have whomever she wanted (not that she would have waited for his permission). She never stopped insisting on her importance to Lawrence’s work — nor did Lawrence, in his own way. It is not suggested that she was his co-author, but Lawrence asked her opinion and she helped him re-write, sometimes insisting he was missing the point; due to her, Paul Morel was re-named Sons and Lovers.
Replying to the editor Edward Garnett’s negative response to The Sisters (later to split and become The Rainbow and Women in Love), she took the blame for the women’s “wooden characterisations,” according to Brenda Maddox, author of The Married Man: A Life of D.H. Lawrence: “They are me, these beastly, superior, arrogant females!” She also asked for Garnett to trust her, that “the new book would be all right after revision… Garnett was unpersuaded. But, after nine months together, Lawrence and Frieda were mutually convinced that their imperfect union had catalysed his gift and was turning a good writer into a great one.”
Joyce also fell for the earthy sex goddess type of muse who was not to be consigned to a mistress’s flat the other side of town, nor an island the other side of the earth. Unlike the baddies of this story, these men gave themselves permission to both love and marry their erotic obsessions — even if you could argue that this course of action contributed to their later impotence. Lawrence’s terror of being consumed by such a woman was in itself essential to his oeuvre, and puts me in mind of the writer’s tendency to order his private life to facilitate his art.
Joyce compared himself with Heine, who also sported an uneducated mistress. However convenient it might have been for Joyce to view Nora Barnacle as illiterate and as his own creation — his own “portable Ireland” as Brenda Maddox puts it in her biography of Nora — the truth was quite otherwise. Aside from one often-quoted letter of stilted style, she appears to have written as she spoke, spontaneously and passionately, and her often unpunctuated letters led the Joyce scholar Phillip Herring to conclude that Nora must have been an important influence on the Molly Bloom monologue at the end of Ulysess. (As an aside, this may explain why I spent so many years in an unsuitable relationship with an impossibly sexy dolt of an Irishman, with a voice to die for, and whose ordinary speech I wanted to capture and keep — that’s my excuse, anyway.)
Nora knew Joyce’s poems by heart. When it came to their spectacularly obscene letters, Nora boasted that she could outdo Joyce in filthiness, and he seems to have agreed. She may have found Ulysses hard going, but her aversion may have been due as much to recognition. “Too many of the lines were her own. She may even have written some of them.”
How much of Wordsworth is Dorothy (the joke goes that his original line was “I wandered lonely as a cow…”)? Did Vivienne Eliot contribute to The Wasteland? (We might even wonder whether her subsequent history was at all in consequence of having never received any credit — for that’s enough to drive you crazy.) We may also wonder about the daughter of Milton, who played his scribe, and about Jane Carlyle’s missed chance; she was certainly equal to her husband when it came to hypochondria, that mark of the true writer.
Al Alvarez told me that Sylvia Plath wanted to be a good wife and mother — which seems to me rather beside the point. Certainly, she was determined to excel in everything she did, including being that perfectionist wife, which must have contributed to her end. The efficiency with which she wrote, played secretary and administrator of not only her own work, but that of her husband, was quite staggering. And yes, it was of her own choice. Perhaps a small part of that initial genuine pride she took in her husband’s work came partly from the fact that she had a hand in its delivery to the outside world. Unquestionably, both writers mutually affected each other’s work in an inextricable way, since part of the relationship was based on that shared vocation.
Someone once pointed out to me how women always scrupulously acknowledge their sources in their conversations, while men naturally just adopt such things as their own. The proof comes on the delivery of some choice epithet you’ve only just heard from someone else — in fact, from the author who was yourself. Nothing wrong with that sort of plagiarism except when the plagiarist swallows whole another author whose fame lay in children or domestic skills.
The successful tenets of midwifery, originally considered a lowly profession, were eventually confiscated by “learned” scientists to be published as their treatises. This is a classic example, especially since these same learned men had originally dismissed the profession and its “heathen charms.”
All writers borrow and steal from each other. It can be part of the initial creative fever, and perhaps it is churlish to unravel who wrote what. I guess if you’ve played second fiddle for too long, it makes you churlish. If we have two writers, then two visions of equal significance and import will end up battling it out. Who gets to be muse and writer? Who gets to put their name in the annals and who gets to be passive participant of a literary myth — as appealing as this may seem?
The formula goes wrong. The writers’ wives, who are themselves writers, share their body and soul as well as ideas and phrases, and chances are they will be the unacknowledged ones, the forgotten ones. Only afterwards, when the possessions get divvied up, does one wonder whether the rightful owner is getting her due, by which time any such claims begin to sound like sour grapes. In the first flush and excitement of love, certainly no one was going to be bothered by thinking about who said what first.
A writer’s most passionate affairs are maybe just metaphors for his/her relationship to literature — though some may claim it’s the other way around. A man’s lust for his muse grows out of his being convinced that this muse, and that lust, will lead him to great literature.
So, when I say I long for a lover, I mean that I am longing for the literature I will make because of him — arising first from passion, then from marriage, childbirth and then divorce. I love you means I love you for making me feel like such a brilliant writer, for exciting me into seeing the world anew, for coming up with phrases I can nick and call my own, for mediating the world through the lay person’s view, so that no one can accuse me of being detached from real life.
Re-reading Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Adrienne Rich is struck by the “sense of effort, of pains taken, of dogged tentativeness, in the tone….I recognised that tone. I had heard it often enough, in myself and in other women. It is the tone of a woman…determined not to appear angry, who is willing herself to be calm, detached and even charming in a roomful of men where things have been said which are attacks on her very integrity. Virginia Woolf is addressing an audience of women, but she is acutely conscious…of being overheard by men…she was trying to sound as cool as Jane Austen, as Olympian as Shakespeare, because that is the way the men of the culture thought a writer should sound. No male writer has written primarily or even largely for women, or with the sense of women’s criticism as a consideration when he chooses his materials, his theme, his language. But to a lesser or greater extent, every woman writer has written for men even when, like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women.”
“Must be well-read,/Well-earthed, well able//To forget her childhood’s grand trajectory,/And sustian with undiminished poise/That saddest dedication: lastly my wife,//Who did the typing.”
*Previously published in Mslexia Magazine, Issue Number 2, Summer 1999
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