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Their Better Halves

Tue, 04/04/2023 - 23:06
Carmela Ciuraru
Christian Haas

“Lives of the Wives”
Carmela Ciuraru
Harper, $32

There's a special anticipation in sitting down with a biographical work that promises readers tales of writers. What will we glimpse beyond the covers and contents — what does literary power do in the fabric of a life, other than what it yields on the page?

Here, in sections of 50-odd pages each, Carmela Ciuraru vividly chronicles five eventful literary marriages: the English sculptor and translator Una Troubridge and the English writer Radclyffe Hall (born Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe-Hall); the Italian novelists Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia; the American actress turned writer Elaine Dundy and the English theater critic Kenneth Tynan; the English authors Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, and the American film star and advocate for stroke survivors Patricia Neal (also the author of a memoir) and the children's book author Roald Dahl, born in Wales to Norwegian émigrés. 

As with her previous work, "Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms," Ms. Ciuraru compiles short biographical sketches on a theme with a headlong, declarative style and an eye for choice detail.

In each of the marriages discussed, the male partner was a person of significant literary fame and standing. The literary accomplishments of the female partners were not as well known (but time will tell: Elaine Dundy's debut novel, "The Dud Avocado," was most recently reissued in 2018, while Ms. Ciuraru notes that all of Kenneth Tynan's books are currently out of print). In an impassioned introduction, Ms. Ciuraru relays her conception of the raison d'etre of the book:

" 'Lives of the Wives' is a project of reclamation and reparation, paying tribute to the women who have served as agents, editors, managers, publicists, proofreaders, translators, amanuenses, confidantes, cheerleaders, gatekeepers, and housekeepers to famous writers, providing emotional, practical, and even financial support."

Thus the subjects are situated in the biographer's sympathies and cynicisms as she focuses on the woman's role in each marriage. In the case of the single same-sex relationship in the volume, that of Una Trowbridge and Radclyffe Hall, emphasis is placed on Trowbridge, who took on a "wifely" role while Radclyffe Hall took on a traditionally male role in the relationship, wore men's clothing, and was known as "John." As two biological women they were not able to be legally married in mid-20th-century England; however, they are the only pair in the book who made it as a couple all the way till death do us part. 

Ms. Ciuraru notes a telling detail on par with many others featured in all five sections: The inscription on Una Trowbridge's gravestone reads "Friend of Radclyffe Hall." Interestingly, Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia, who seem to have been on the most equal footing as a couple, maybe because of Morante's vigilance on that point, never divorced, but did live apart and pursue their own lives, relationships, and careers. 

Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl in 1954.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection


Although the slant of "Lives of the Wives" suggests that the wives were subjugated by their husbands and sidelined by the culture, the lasting impression lies in the unique complexity of each relationship. The single aspect all five of these partnerships may be said to have in common, other than at least one writer with a case of creative egoism, is that the partners are all now deceased. The era of the relationships chronicled here spans the early to later 20th century — with the last divorce taking place in 1983 (Patricia Neal finally called it quits on Roald Dahl after a lot of water under the bridge, including the death of a child, the serious illness of another, and Neal's recovery from a life-altering stroke). 

As I mull the accounts set down, each relationship seems to have danced to its own cacophonous tune with codependency, substance abuse, lovelessness, lack of sexual compatibility, grievous inequity, and disrespect cutting in variously on the dance floor.

By the end, the cumulative number of previous marriages, next marriages to much younger women, mistresses, sexual arrangements, and extramarital affairs is nothing short of dizzying. Reader, you will hardly be able to keep them all straight, especially if you read in an enraptured state, taken in by the amazing display of bad behavior, taking no break between the accounts of each marriage, hungry to gobble up the sordid details. In any case, we are drawn into the display, which also includes some share of intense new love and divine, passionate attraction. And there's some loyalty too, in spite of it all, mostly on the part of the women.

It is a star-studded book. Celebrity friends and associates, and tangential celebrity connections to the subjects, make frequent appearances. At times, this helps to locate these partnerships in the context of their specific milieus. Notably, Elaine Dundy and Kenneth Tynan are described as a party couple on a socially hysterical glamour romp, spurred by the attention of the celebrities of the day. In other sections, celebrity contact is germane to the biographical flow — e.g., the film star Patricia Neal's relationship with Gary Cooper prior to her marriage with Roald Dahl. At other times, less relevant details concerning celebrity connections read as distractions from a sense of the work as a serious study of marriage in a literary context. 

"Lives of the Wives" is a fascinating offering, providing a sort of testimony to the dazzling range of marriages one would not want to be stuck in, even if the other person is brilliant, and charming, and a writer. Peeking in on the glamour and cleverness of literary lives has its pleasures, and perhaps literary voyeurism is a little more refined than other kinds of voyeurism. Or perhaps not — but Ms. Ciuraru's picture of marriages driven into the nether regions of unsustainability is absorbing. 

Interest piqued by these lives, you may come away with a to-read list in the bargain. The publications of the women are engagingly highlighted throughout each section, with good information on how the works were received critically. How writing and publication figured in the flow of their lives, and vice versa, is also outlined. 

Without exception, while married, the wives published fewer books than the husbands. According to Ms. Ciuraru, during their 18-year marriage, Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote three books to Kingsley Amis's nearly 20. "The division of labor was clear: She took care of everything while his days were freed up for creative work." Ms. Ciuraru does not hazard comparative evaluations on the literary output of her wife/husband subjects, leaving readers to pursue that interesting line if they will. 

Well, I made my reading list and went to Canio's Books in Sag Harbor, and guess what? In a trick of alphabetic proximity, there were selections by Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia standing right next to each other on the used-fiction shelf. A good bookshop is a most wonderful thing. Serendipitously, Canio Pavone himself was there that day. He took the time to show me a section devoted to Italian literature, and he recommended other novels in each writer's body of work. Offhand, he mentioned that Morante and Moravia had been married. 

In "Lives of the Wives," we find a book that adroitly introduces a trove of material, lets us wonder at the mystery of marriage, and sends us reading beyond its pages. 

Evan Harris is the author of "The Quit." She lives in East Hampton.

Carmela Ciuraru has a house in Sag Harbor.

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