Skip to content

The Dutiful Wife

Stand by your literary man

There is, easily found on the internet, a photograph of the writer Kingsley Amis relaxing on a beach with his back to the camera. Written in lipstick on his back are the words “1 fat Englishman. I fuck anything.” The words are the handiwork of his then wife Hilly, who had learned that her husband was having an affair with fashion model Elizabeth Jane Howard. Howard would eventually become the writer’s wife, the two of them having fallen in love during the inaugural Cheltenham literary festival that Amis had attended (and Howard had directed).

Having won the spot beside this literary genius was a dubious blessing. Howard, who had written three novels of her own before ever meeting the author who made his reputation with the publication of Lucky Jim in 1954 (and who in 1963 published One Fat Englishman), found herself running a large household revolving around the lone star of Amis. She stopped writing, took to cooking elaborate meals, juggling the schedule of Amis’s two sons to whom she was stepmother and a thousand other necessary tasks. As recounted in Carmela Ciuraru’s recent book Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages, Howard was often so very tired that she would fall asleep sitting upright in a chair in the evening. With this capable woman at his side, Amis continued his writing career having changed out the wife he had procured at Oxford for a prettier new model.

The sordid details of literary marriages have always found a fascinated audience; one would indeed be hard pressed to find better examples of the tension between the larger-than-life aspirations of genius and the quotidian banalities of everyday existence. Kingsley Amis certainly expected his first and second wives to make his life easier and make companionable domesticity available when literary success was proving elusive or otherwise unsatisfying. Lives of the Wives provides examples of literary unions that test this precept. Take for instance the de facto “marriage” between the writer Radclyffe Hall (born Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe Hall) and her lesbian partner Lady Una Troubridge. Hall was biologically female but dressed and lived as a man (having described herself as suffering from “inversion,” where she was a man trapped in a woman’s body). It was not only the manners, clothing, and affect that Hall took on. At twenty-seven, Hall fell in love with Mabel Batten, who was fifty-one. This relationship endured until she met Una Troubridge, wife of a high-ranking naval officer and proceeded to fall in love with her. It was Troubridge who was the “wife” in the relationship, abandoning whatever interests she may have had to decipher Hall’s poor handwriting, lack of punctuation, stylistic excesses, and then type it all up (with new titles) to submit to a publisher. The devotion endured even when Hall proceeded to become completely infatuated with her Russian nurse. Even after Hall died, Troubridge surrounded herself with editions of Hall’s books and laid fresh flowers before her picture every single day.

Hall’s behavior—the entitlement with which she expected her “wife” to take on the role of secretary-housekeeper-host—suggests that it was perhaps a mix of projecting male identity along with the writerly “persona” that collided into one obnoxious mix. There was something similar in the relationship between Alberto Moravia and his novelist wife Elsa Morante. At first, there is little time for sexist demands when the two are forced to abscond to a hillside village where they hide from the Nazis behind a pigsty that floods when it rains and where they must share a dirty mattress stuffed with corn husks. But stereotypical roles await them after the war. Both find literary success, but it is Morante who gets the reputation of being difficult because she rejects dinner invitations and bristles at letters in which she is referred to as Mrs. Moravia—or even just ones that that dare to mention Alberto at all. One cannot blame her for the hypervigilance: with the man in the marriage usually inhabiting the writer “persona” any woman expecting to do the same would have to exert unusual effort. It is perhaps the dramatic energy of Morante’s personality that keeps the marriage going; despite acknowledging their sexual incompatibility, Moravia never quite pursues another woman. Morante, on the other hand, has her infatuations, usually with effeminate or homosexual men, which end up not going far for obvious reasons.

One would be hard pressed to find better natural experiments of the tension between the larger-than-life aspirations of genius and the quotidian banalities of everyday existence.

Prowling through the intimacies of literary marriages satisfies a prurient interest, particularly in our era of reality television, where celebrities of different sorts allow us into their homes. If the genre had been around when Moravia and Morante were having one of their public rows in a Roman cafe we would have, at the very least, cell phone videos of the affair. Enough of the dirty gossip of who cheated on whom and what the wife knew or did not know seems to have survived for Ciuraru to give us salacious glimpses. Like the “shitty media men” whose names appeared on an anonymously compiled list at the height of the #MeToo era (many of whom have kept their jobs and reputations), the cheaters of old believed that power and literary genius meant the rules did not apply to them. One woman could be changed out for another, those who wrote like Jane Howard made to run kitchens and provide meals and those who were actual movie stars like Patricia Neal could be brutally pushed by her husband Roald Dahl to recover from a stroke, only to be rejected for a younger mistress, nevertheless.

Radclyffe Hall, one (biological) woman who did get a “wife,” ended up writing The Well of Loneliness that served an important sociopolitical purpose in highlighting what it was like to be a man trapped in a woman’s body. One cannot help but wonder if it was the relative ease with which men were permitted to the writerly persona that could also have played into Marguerite Hall becoming just Radclyffe Hall and Elsa Morante throwing away friends, mail, invitations, etc. that suggested that she was an appendage attached to the “real” writer of the couple. Other than Morante-Moravia, once a pair are together the “writer” is preoccupied with competition from other writers while the “wife,” now domesticated, worries about other women deposing her as the most important woman in the life of the genius.

As one might expect, some white male writers of today long for the lovely days of yesteryear when literary stardom meant a carte blanche to do as they please while fawning wives take care of the ordinary stuff of life. A year ago, the writer James Patterson, who at seventy-six runs his own cottage industry of novel production and is worth $800 million, complained that white male authors are having trouble finding work. This despite the fact that a recent self-audit from Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishers worldwide, confirmed that white men continue to dominate publishing. Patterson later backtracked, but one wonders if his discontent was unrelated to statistics about who gets published, but rather a vague sense that the world is changing. It may be harder to recreate the days of the literary men who make up Lives of the Wives. Perhaps more people are sensing the difficulty Ciuraru describes: “The problem with being a wife is being a wife.”