The Lives of the Wives: Carmela Ciuraru on Marriage, Writing, and Equity
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Literary critic Carmela Ciuraru joins V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss her new book The Lives of the Wives, which looks at five literary marriages, including pairings like Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis. She examines the dynamics of such relationships, particularly when one partner declares their time more valuable. She explains why the stories of historic couples like Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall remain relevant today, and highlights the experiences of lesser-known partners, some of whom were artists and writers themselves. She also reads an excerpt about the early days of Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl’s courtship.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The book is organized around five couples and their marriages. You wrote in the introduction that you were purposely avoiding writing about the living, for obvious reasons.
Whitney Terrell: What reasons are those, Sugi? What are the obvious reasons for why you would avoid the living?
VVG: Well, those are still evolving stories.
WT: Oh, okay.
Carmela Ciuraru: I mean, honestly, when I was considering living writers… there’s one couple who was on my list, and they have since divorced. So that’s one reason right there. And also, I suppose, litigation.
VVG: Maybe we’ll come back to some of these process questions. So you avoided the living, the most famous literary wives—we’ve already invoked Véra Nabokov—and women who were married to famous misogynists, like Hemingway. The couples you chose are extremely interesting and varied. I wonder if you could give us a brief overview of the five pairs that you did pick.
CC: Yeah, thank you. There was a little bit of chance and luck in terms of how I landed on these five. I had more—I even wrote additional chapters. But it was hard, frankly, to find material on the wives a lot of the time. I thought I had these great couples, I was really excited, and I just couldn’t find enough. And that’s part of my point in writing this book—the dearth of material around women and the way they’ve been miscategorized in history. But the five I landed on proved to be interesting taken together.
I wrote about Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall—they’re the only same-sex couple in the book. They were interesting to me. They were such characters; they were radical for their time. They lived very openly and boldly in the early 20th century as a couple, and they were so transgressive in their style of dress. And this just shows how complicated people are. I would say their views around women were very offensive—they were not in favor of women’s rights. Radclyffe Hall did not like to deal with women in business dealings. They were anti-Semitic… These were complicated people. They were politically very conservative, and yet they’re the only same-sex couple in the book.
So they challenged my notions of what I would have expected about them. And like the other wives in the book, Una was a very accomplished person and had a lot of promise as an artist and gave all of that up to be the wife in the stereotypical sense. Una was really the caregiver and nurturer and served the genius of the partner.
And the other couples I chose… Elsa Morante—the Italian writer—and Alberto Moravia. They were different from the other couples in the sense that there was not a lot of love or passion between them, at least romantically. But intellectually, there certainly was. They fed each other creatively in atypical ways, and it was a very difficult marriage—in this case, the wife was the more abusive spouse. She was a real character with a temper. But that marriage functioned for two decades.
And then I wrote about Elaine Dundy, the American writer of The Dud Avocado. Her novel was reissued by the New York Review of Books, so she’s gotten more attention in recent years. She was married to the British theater critic, Kenneth Tynan, who I’d say was one of the worst spouses in my book. It’s hard to choose a winner, but he’s right up there. He’s really cruel and, like Roald Dahl, who I also write about, I think psychopathic in his narcissism. And I don’t use that term lightly.
I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was married to Martin Amis’s father, Kingsley Amis. She was someone who had a weakness for married men, and he was no exception. And they ended up together. I think she had a lot of hope for someone who would support her writing as a fellow writer, but it really proved to not be the case. She did everything for him and he gave her nothing back in terms of her creative career.
And then, finally, Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal. We talked about this a little bit before our conversation, Sugi, but he was someone who was not known before their marriage. He was kind of a nobody. When they got married, The New York Times headline that I found in the archives was: “Patricia Neal marries writer.” And he didn’t like that at all. So it was interesting as I got deeper into the research, and then I stepped back to see how these stories came together in surprising ways. I found a lot of throughlines among the stories as well.
WT: So as you note in your introduction, marriage is a historically unequal institution. As you write there, it was set up so that the personhood of the wife was subsumed by the husband, and she became his property. The legacy of this structure plays out in essentially every professional sphere. What’s different or particular about writing? How did you decide on this as a category of literary history that you wanted to cover?
CC: Yeah, that’s a great question. I did think about writing about artists. We know there are many famous couples throughout history that could have been written about: Picasso and his partners, or Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, the list goes on and on. But, ultimately, I thought the book needed to focus on some kind of organizing principle. To answer your question, Whitney, you’re both writers, so you know what is required to write a book. It’s extremely difficult, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, to write a book. And I do think it requires a certain kind of ruthlessness. So while these issues are sadly relatable across many different professions, there’s something about the act of writing which is by definition solitary and requires such intense focus.
I think it amplifies the issues that may be present in any long-term relationship. What do you do when one partner declares themself the more valuable half of the marriage? And sometimes that’s what writers do. They claim space and then leave everything else for the other person to clean up or deal with. That’s what the wives in my book certainly dealt with. There was also—among these writers, anyway—a lot of alcoholism and infidelity and really traumatic childhoods that kind of fed into the work and played out in the marriage. I thought all of that made for very rich and interesting stories.
WT: One thing you noted is that gender roles still persist, and so a lot of the female writers that you quote in the book… You also have mentioned that people will never say the phrase “male writer,” they only say “female writer,” so there I am doing that. However, I’m talking about how… “I’m trying to write, but I still have to cook, I’m still supposed to make the food and take care of the kids. That is my assigned role.” And that ends up taking up a lot of time, so that seems to complicate the issue here as well.
CC: Yeah, it really does. Even in the instances in which the women were also writing, it was so sad that some of these women like Elaine Dundy… Kenneth Tynan claimed the study with a door that he could shut, and he could smoke dozens of cigarettes a day. And she was crouched on the floor with her typewriter on her knees and her back hurt. She was trying to carve out her writing career, but didn’t even have “a room of one’s own,” as Woolf put it. It’s just very, very difficult and, sadly, I don’t think it’s changed a lot.
WT: What was that phrase that Virginia Woolf uses that you quote? “The angel in the house.” That mythic idea of what you’re supposed to be as a woman in a household that she had to banish in some way.
CC: Yeah. She said she had to kill her, she had to murder her. She uses very violent language to describe it.
VVG: I thought it was so powerful—
WT: So you like the idea of murdering “the angel in the house.” Bloodthirsty.
VVG: Well, I think that there’s this way that the writer and the wife, in history, are both figures that can set themselves up as martyrs. You can only have one martyr in a house.
CC: Right. I mean, it’s emotionally exhausting to have to do that. I love that essay. I really recommend it, by the way. She describes having to get rid of that part of herself—someone who wants to apologize and please others—she talks about killing it. I thought that was incredibly powerful and also just heartbreaking. And the fact that in my introduction I quote Ann Patchett, who’s a massively bestselling author—she doesn’t even have children, but she’s like, “When do I get to stop doing the laundry, making the dinner, making the beds?” and she’s doing that.
So I’m not trying to answer any questions in my book, but I’m trying to ask them. Why is this still relevant? How do we change it? I don’t know the answer. I mean, maybe that has to play out in individual ways. But certainly, as a society and a culture, something is allowing this to go on. I also quote Zadie Smith, who was like, “This is the norm, this is our default.” This is where men and marriages get to claim that space and it’s considered theirs to take. Whereas women who want creative careers have to apologize for it. Especially around childcare.
• The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy • As I Am by Patricia Neal • Women and Writing by Virginia Woolf • Killing the Angel in the House by Virginia Woolf • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee • Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett • On Beauty by Zadie Smith • Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo: An Inventory of their papers at the Harry Ransom Center • The Wife by Meg Wolitzer • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion • A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates