Opinion | Imagine What These Women Could’ve Done if They’d Had Wives

Several years ago, I edited a story by the historian Alexis Coe about the different ways literary husbands and wives publicly acknowledge each other in their books. To summarize and perhaps oversimplify: Husbands tend to thank their wives for their actual labor, like editing and research help, while wives tended to thank their husbands for their emotional support, possibly suggesting that men were less likely to offer practical assistance.

Books are obviously a lofty space, Coe rightfully notes, so she asked a sociologist friend to explain how the difference in acknowledgment plays out in day-to-day life for heterosexual couples who aren’t published authors. The sociologist responds with an anecdote:

In her home, she struggles to find the right words to recognize her husband’s efforts. “I don’t mean to say that I’m not grateful for you,” she tells him, “but I really hate that I’m expected by society to be super-grateful for the fact that you’re not totally worthless around the house.”

I was reminded of this when I read Carmela Ciuraru’s utterly delectable new book, “Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages,” which is equal parts highbrow literary analysis, deep relationship insight and juicy gossip. Ciuraru writes that her project 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 genuine movie star before she met Dahl; Elizabeth Jane Howard, who had to divorce Amis to get any time back to 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 the closest thing resembling a true partnership of the five couples; and Una Troubridge, who devoted her entire life to the care and feeding of Hall, “a life of watching, serving and subordinating everything in existence” to a “literary inspiration” as she put it. (Hall and Troubridge were a lesbian couple that never officially married. Though Hall used female pronouns, she called herself “John” with her intimates, dressed in a masculine style, and, according to Ciuraru, “very much saw herself as a husband.”)

Ciuraru writes: “The ideal wife of a famous writer has no desires worth mentioning. She lives each day in second place. Rather than attempt to seize control of her own fate, she accepts what she has been given without complaint. Her ambitions are not thwarted because she doesn’t have any.” But the women she features all do have ambition, and they were all made unhappy to varying degrees by having to subsume their talent and energy.

Some of their husbands were violently abusive — Tynan gave Dundy black eyes and a broken nose — and Ciuraru notes that the beginning of the end of their marriage may have been when Dundy published her best-selling and critically acclaimed novel “The Dud Avocado.” “Ken felt emasculated and betrayed,” Ciuraru explains. “‘You weren’t a writer when I married you!’ he yelled one night as he threw a copy of her book out the bedroom window.”

Because they had to eke out their own creativity while subordinating themselves to their partners in ways big and small, Ciuraru notes, “We must give writers’ wives their due, marvel at what they achieved and made possible, and reflect on what might have been.”

These marriages all happened in the 20th century, and many modern marriages bear little resemblance to the uneven, volatile and sometimes abusive unions cataloged by Ciuraru. (My marriage is an egalitarian utopia compared to the couples she features.) And most people aren’t wedded to someone who’d be called a creative genius.

Yet I couldn’t help but think of the day-to-day of these couples when I saw a new data essay from Pew Research about the persistence of the gender pay gap in our country, despite the fact that women are now a majority of the college-educated work force.

Pew found that the gender pay gap increases with age. Women are near parity with men when they enter the work force, but:

A good share of the increase in the gender pay gap takes place when women are between the ages of 35 and 44. In 2022, women ages 25 to 34 earned about 92 percent as much as men of the same ages, but women ages 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 earned 83 percent as much. The ratio dropped to 79 percent among those ages 55 to 64. This general pattern has not changed in at least four decades.

This increase is linked to when women are likely to have children under 18 at home, but interestingly, it’s not just because of the “motherhood penalty,” a term sociologists use to describe the disadvantages mothers face in the workplace. Pew found that “the widening of the pay gap with parenthood appears to be driven more by an increase in the earnings of fathers. Fathers ages 25 to 54 not only earn more than mothers the same age, they also earn more than men with no children at home. Nonetheless, men without children at home still earn more than women with or without children at home.”

Though the division of household tasks has become more equitable over time, women are still doing the majority of the work. When kids enter the picture, the division of household labor becomes more uneven. Mothers across many countries are still hampered by what economists call the “sticky floor” of gender norms, including “the expectation that women shoulder a greater share of child care and household tasks than men,” according to a 2021 working paper from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

While there are undoubtedly more female talents than ever who are able to be the creative and economic force in their unions, and more couples that are defying the old norms, I’m still struck by the residue of the perfect wife ideal that Ciuraru depicts. She quotes a 2014 New York Times interview with Lorrie Moore, who was an inspiration to me in my 20s — I’ve probably read her short story collection “Like Life” 10 times. In the interview, Moore, who at the time was a single mom with a day job as a professor, said it was difficult to find space for her own creative work:

“It’s hard,” she explained. “I once said that I could get very self-pitying. There are some men I know who are teaching and writing who are single fathers. But not many. Most of them have these great devoted wives, some version of Vera Nabokov. Writers all need Vera. She famously taught some of his classes. He would say, ‘My assistant will be teaching the next class,’ and, apparently, when Nabokov gave the lectures, he needed notes. When Vera gave the lectures, no notes.”

For women, Veras are in short supply, and I don’t see that changing in the near term — though Ciuraru hopes that through her book she will encourage some people to take stock of their relationships: “I hope that if they are someone who harbors creative ambition, they will learn from these women not to wait and to try to make that work within their marriage and claim the space to do so,” she told The Guardian. I hope so, too.

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I do wish we would reconsider the idea of the “creative genius” and what that looks like. It doesn’t have to be a self-centered (usually male) tyrant. I’m reminded here of my friend Kaitlyn Greenidge’s writing on Toni Morrison. Kaitlyn watched a documentary about Morrison and wrote about how the Pulitzer Prize-winning author recounted that:

when she was an editor for basically every Black public figure of the ’70s and publishing her first few novels and raising her sons as a single mother and also carpooling with Angela Davis (!), she made a list of everything she was being asked to do. And then she made another list of everything she had to do. On that list was “mother my children” and “write.” Everything else was incidental.

Don’t miss Hermione Hoby’s review of “Lives of the Wives” in The Times, which inspired me to read the book in the first place.

Roald Dahl, a terrible husband with some deplorable views, is back in the news because of a decision by The Roald Dahl Story Company to change the wordings in some of his books. In Opinion, Matthew Walther argues that the changes are minor, but we should be paying attention to who is making them, and why. “I, for one, do not believe that philistines should be allowed to buy up authors’ estates and convert their works into ‘Star Wars’-style franchises, as Netflix now seems to be doing, having purchased the Roald Dahl Story Company,” Walther writes. “In a saner world there would be a sense of curatorial responsibility for these things.”

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

At the family dinner table each day, inevitably someone would spill something — a beverage, the contents of a large serving spoon, etc. Instead of gritting our teeth in dismay and crying “not again,” we instituted a new rule that a spill required a celebratory shout of “Spill of the day!” that focused our attention and usually avoided a second spill.

— Joel Quam, Lombard, Ill.

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