Review: ‘Lives of the Wives,’ by Carmela Ciuraru


Marriage. What to do about it? We marry, then instantly yearn for freedom. Scholars concur that marriage is a tricky business. Too often our unions are a “betrayal of our inner richness and complexity,” Phyllis Rose declared in her iconic book, “Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages” (1983). But wait, don’t file for divorce! Rose suggests that learning about other people’s relationships can help us save our own, offering us new possibilities about how to remain married and fulfilled.

Enter Carmela Ciuraru. Her new book, “Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages,” is a tour de force that extends and deepens Rose’s pioneering work. Ciuraru studies five literary couples, focusing on “how women have defined themselves through or in opposition to men.” She delves into these colorful relationships as a way to show how not to be married, highlighting the dangers of unbalanced relationships. “The problem with being a wife,” Ciuraru writes, “is being a wife.” Her book explores the negotiations and compromises that occurred inside these marriages, demonstrating how subservience and disparity undermine relationships, even love.

Even if you don’t recognize the 20th-century power couples here — Marguerite Antonia Radclyffe and Lady Una Troubridge, Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia, Elaine Dundy and Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl — Ciuraru gets you up to speed fast, flinging open their bedroom doors, describing their lives in astonishing detail. She provides menus, favorite drinks (champagne floating in a bathtub full of ice cubes), guest lists (Cary Grant, Philip Larkin, Marianne Moore) and wardrobes (Dundy’s Schiaparelli dress, Hall’s “black-and-white pinstripe coat”). She explores their motivations and psychology, capturing their tumultuous experiences from the inside out, as though she knew them personally (she did meet one of them, Patricia Neal).

Suspense builds as we learn how each couple met and why they were attracted to each other (or not, in the case of Morante and Moravia). Friends and relatives weigh in. Leonard Bernstein whispers to Neal that marrying Dahl will be “the biggest mistake of your life.” Tracy Tynan said watching her parents fight was like “watching a horror movie, scary but riveting.” We hear about addictions, money and sexual proclivities, including Ken Tynan’s obsession with spanking women. Ciuraru diligently records the sources of even the most eye-popping details — journals, diaries, letters, biographies and memoirs — and assesses them for accuracy, at the same time that she keeps the story moving briskly along.

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With the exception of Morante, the wives in these stories sacrificed themselves on the altar of their partners. When Neal started making more money than Dahl, he threatened to leave her. Instead of saying good riddance (which this reader was begging her to do), she appeased him, giving him complete control of her money and doing all the cooking and cleaning. Troubridge also acquiesced to her partner’s demands, emptying herself of aspiration and turning herself into “the ideal wife of a famous writer.” Though the couple, who was gay, could not marry, Troubridge took on the role of wife to Hall, who went by the name “John.” Troubridge fashioned herself as a woman who “has no desires worth mentioning.” Perhaps it is no accident that this is the only relationship that lasted. But at what cost?

The stories Ciuraru tells are gripping, horrific and sometimes even funny, but most of all they are important. In her introduction, she writes that this book is a “project of reclamation and reparation,” and indeed it is. These women, so long overshadowed, are at last center stage — a miracle when we consider how desperately their partners tried to silence them. Dundy’s best-selling novel drove her husband mad with jealousy. Amis regarded Howard, one of the most respected writers of her generation, as a housekeeper. Neal, an actress, had won a Tony, a Golden Globe and an Oscar, but Dahl despised her “ambition.” When she had a stroke, he was such a cruel taskmaster that one friend thought he sounded like he was training a dog. He expected Neal to accept that he had a mistress, declaring, “I see no reason in the world why a man of fifty-nine should not love his wife and also be allowed to feel strongly about another woman.” Even the writer Morante, who had tried to escape being “a wife,” refusing to be called Mrs. Moravia, still faced condescension in public. In one of her last interviews, asked whether her husband, one of the most famous Italian writers of the era, had influenced her work, she was annoyed. “‘No,” she said. “He has an identity. I have an identity. Basta.”

By the end of the book, it’s clear that for many of these wives, “happily ever after” meant “happily after the divorce.” Freed from Dahl, Neal found peace in her work and her children. Liberated from Amis, Howard produced the beloved book series “The Cazalet Chronicles.”

Ultimately, one wonders why these women chose these partners and why they stayed. Also, one wonders why their partners felt entitled to behave so badly. Wisely, Ciuraru, whose previous book, “Nom de Plume,” explored the history of pseudonyms, does not place blame. Instead, she points to the era’s misogyny (which, by the way, was not so long ago), particularly the ideal of the subservient wife, observing: “With an ego the size of a small nation, the literary lion is powerful on the page, but a helpless kitten in daily life, depending on his wife to fold an umbrella, answer the phone or lick a stamp.” In other words, as the resident genius, why should a male writer learn to boil an egg?

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“Marriage,” Ciuraru reflects, “is a kind of combat, and wives must be well equipped for battle.” It need not be so. By way of contrast, Ciuraru explores what a marriage of equals might look like, where each partner supports the other, where there is room for both spouses to achieve their dreams. It’s difficult, she acknowledges, for women “to achieve self-worth” when they have been so often “diminished, traduced, silenced by history.” But her book — despite its war stories — offers at least a glimmer of hope.

Charlotte Gordon is the author of “Romantic Outlaws: The Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley.” She is a professor at Endicott College.

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