fb-pixelThe women behind the men - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
seven books about . . .

The women behind the men


Like all fields, publishing has its own lexicon and shorthand. A magazine going to press is “put to bed”; “manuscript” may be abbreviated “ms.” That last bit leapt out at me as I read these books about the wives of famous men. It didn’t matter how capable they were or how artfully they worked within the limitations of their times. I’d still feel roundly indignant on these women’s behalf, especially the writers’ wives — the endless stenography, all that retyping of their husband’s manuscripts. In those pre-feminist days, it was a long way from ms. to Ms.

Last year, The Atlantic ran a piece headlined “The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse.” It kicks off with the fine but not prolific writer Lorrie Moore, a single mom and full-time teacher, who believes she’d turn out more fiction if she only “had a Vera.” In Jenny Offill’s recent novel, “Dept. of Speculation,” the narrator craves that level of dedication, too: “Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”


What’s it like to define yourself as the handmaiden to genius? Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer-winning biographer, masterfully pursues this question in “Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)” (Random House, 1999). Long before Vladimir was famous, Véra (pronounced “vair-ah”) thought he’d be the greatest writer of his era and was crystal clear about her role: “She did all in her power to see to it that he existed not in time, only in art, thus sparing him the fate of so many of his characters, imprisoned by their various passions.” Vladimir Nabokov’s tally, by my count: 20 novels, 8 short story collections, 8 volumes of poetry, 9 plays, 5 translations, 14 works of non-fiction. That’s what happens when you don’t do your own laundry.

Here are other things Vladimir couldn’t/wouldn’t do that dear Verochka did for him: “type, drive, speak German [they lived in Weimar Berlin for 15 years], retrieve a lost object, fold an umbrella, answer the phone, cut a book’s pages, give the time of day to a philistine.” Véra also famously rescued the manuscript of “Lolita” from the fire several times.


Schiff gives life to this formidable force (a crack markswoman, no less), tracing her opulent St. Petersburg childhood, the Berlin years, and on to Vladimir’s posts at Wellesley College and then Cornell. She was his first reader, his “adviser and judge,” as he said. They were fantastically entwined; as Vladimir once wrote, “in love you must be Siamese twins, where one sneezes when the other sniffs tobacco.” Writer William Maxwell said it was “the closest marriage as I was ever present at.”

Schiff, bless her, has a bit of fun with this, noting that close as the Nabokovs were, Vladimir continually kills off the wives in his fiction. She adds that Véra’s nth-power devotion was unprecedented, “and that was in the Russian league, in which the competition is fierce.” Evidence of this can be found in Alexandra Popoff’s “The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants” (Pegasus, 2012). Indeed, consider Anna Dostoyevsky, née Snitkina, who Fyodor hired to take dictation for his 1866 novella, “The Gambler.” At first he treated her “as a kind of Remington typewriter,” but one night, he had a dream in which he found a sparkling diamond among his papers. (Hang onto that metaphor.) Anna famously helped him meet his publisher’s 26 day-deadline, which kept the creditors at bay. With her Ur-wifely support, he’d go on to write “The Idiot” and “The Brothers Karamazov” — and pawn her wedding ring over subsequent gambling losses.


A century later, there’s Natalya Solzhenitsyn, who amassed a clandestine network of diplomats and foreign correspondents to smuggle her husband’s writings to the West. Meanwhile, Nadezhda Mandelstam sewed Osip’s work inside cushions, so the secret police couldn’t find it, and memorized great blocks of his prose, too. Popoff puts this wifely devotion in deep context: “Some of the best Russian literature of the twentieth century survives today only because these women had the courage to preserve it.”

Leaving Russia, we turn to Marlene Wagman-Geller’s “Behind Every Great Man: The Forgotten Women Behind the World’s Famous and Infamous” (Sourcebooks, 2015). In 40 pithy chapters, Wagman-Geller veers wildly among the wives of Larry Flynt and Billy Graham, Gandhi and Jim Henson. And so we learn that Karl Marx’s “first revolutionary act” was to court Johanna, a Prussian heiress. And we meet Mileva Einstein, the fifth woman to attend Zurich Polytechnic, the MIT of Europe, where Albert was studying. It wasn’t love at first sight, but rather a meeting of minds, “akin to E meeting mc2,” as Wagman-Geller waggishly puts it.

This next book is impressionistic, but scholarly, in its vindication of the “forgotten and erased” wives of famous writers. “Heroines” (Semiotext(e) Press, 2012) by the novelist Kate Zambreno, springs from her blog, “Frances Farmer Is My Sister.” Zambreno is bent on redeeming the usually pathologized biographies of writer-wives labeled mentally ill, but who may have actually been oppressed and “gaslighted,” she writes, by their men and society.

Her list includes Jane (Mrs. Paul) Bowles, Vivienne (Mrs. T.S.) Eliot, and Zelda (Mrs. F. Scott) Fitzgerald. Get ready to come to a boil reading how T.S. stops publishing Vivienne’s (anonymous, then outed) work in their literary magazine, The Criterion. Likewise, Scott Fitzgerald blocked all his publishing contacts from looking at Zelda’s unpublished novel, “Save Me the Waltz.” He also forbade her from covering “his” topics, such as psychiatry or the Riviera. “That is all my material,” Scott insisted. “None of it is your material.”


Cokie Roberts adopts a sunnier tone in her “Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation” (HarperCollins, 2004). And so we remember the ladies, meaning Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Martha Washington, and Deborah Read Franklin. Mrs. Ben, in fact, ran the postal service and the family printing shops, while Ben struck lightning in the courts of Europe. Meanwhile, Abigail insisted that women were better patriots. They suffered just as much for the Revolution — while, as she told John: “if we win, you men will be held in high acclaim and hold office, and we won’t even be able to vote.”

I know this is a recent book club cliché, but my club, too, read the novels-with-buzz, “The Paris Wife” (as in Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s first wife) and “The Aviator’s Wife” (about Anne Morrow Lindbergh). Clearly, we’re in an age of reclamation, in which fiction takes on the role of showing how the other (and suppressed) half felt. The trend holds for television (“The Good Wife,” the “Real Housewives” franchise) as well as for nonfiction, as in Gioia Diliberto’s smart biography “Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife,” (HarperPerennial) which came out in 1992, but was reissued in 2011 to play off the popularity of “The Paris Wife.”

Hadley, a talented pianist, comes off wonderfully real in Diliberto’s book, unpretentious and affectionate. She also had a trust fund without which Papa couldn’t have devoted himself to writing. Ernest may have been a chauvinist, but he was also a deep romantic, and Hadley is the model for many of his characters. In “A Moveable Feast,” he writes: “I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”


That may be a bit much, but to really go to extremes, read “Heart of the Hero: The Remarkable Women Who Inspired the Great Polar Explorers” (Saraband, 2013). Written by Kari Herbert, daughter of the great polar explorer Wally Herbert, it gives us portraits of Emily Shackleton, Eva (Mrs. Fridtjof) Nansen, and Jo Peary, who joined husband Robert on several harrowing trips, nursing him back to health on the ice. These women all had men who were gone for months, and Emily was once asked whether this bothered her. Her answer: “How could you keep an eagle tied in the backyard?” Herbert’s main point here is that, with men willing to take such risks, “the wife must be equal to her husband in character, if not ambition.”

Today, presumably women can claim both character and ambition themselves. Indeed, did you notice how each of these books comes from a female author? You might say that behind every great manuscript, there’s a woman.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.