I recently read Carmela Cirurus’s splendid LIVES OF THE WIVES. As someone who was married to a man who prized his career way more than his wife–to say nothing of his wife’s ambitions–this book really resonated with me, especially the line in the foreword: How does a woman achieve self-worth when her husband proclaims himself the more valuable partner? OMG. So we had to do an interview with Carmela, to thank her for asking and for giving the women in the marriages she describes a bit more love and consideration than they’ve gotten.
PS: Don’t forget the book is onsale Tuesday, February 7th, and you can enter to win a copy of it here!
Q: What inspired this book? These aren’t the more popular literary relationships we’ve read about. What made you want to dig deeper into these particular stories?
The inspiration for my book came from several sources over the years, including a quote from one of my favorite authors, a single mother who once mentioned in an interview that she wished she had a wife—i.e. in the stereotypical sense, someone to do all the cooking, cleaning, caregiving, and more, so she could focus on her writing without interruption.
I decided against writing about contemporary couples—their stories are still unfolding—and I skipped the stories that are more well-known, such as Hemingway and his wives. The couples in my book are hardly obscure, but some of their names will be less familiar. I liked the idea of bringing or renewing attention to these smart, brave, funny, strong, talented women.
Q: It seems like each unhappy couple was unhappy in their own way, of course, but did you find any throughlines that they all share?
Most of the wives in my book made themselves small for the sake of their spouse (and the spouse’s ego)—suppressing and burying their own desires, needs, and ambitions to keep the peace. I found that heartbreaking. Their partners often ignored and belittled them, and it wasn’t until most of these women divorced that they found fulfillment and freedom.
It’s interesting that most of the men who divorced these women went on to remarry, but the wives remained independent for the rest of their lives and never married again.
Q: It really does seem, especially in the case of Elizabeth Jane Howard, that creativity, productivity, and being in love are not compatible. Do you think women need a person acting in the “wife” capacity to allow them to proceed with their own creative endeavors?
I do think for Elizabeth Jane Howard, being unable to write more was extremely painful. She had so much creative drive, and she was such a gifted and insightful writer, but until she finally divorced Kingsley Amis, she had almost no time for herself. He demanded constant attention and care, and he was even afraid to be alone in the house at night. It was like living with a big baby.
But she did love him and until she stood up for herself, she was wholly committed to serving his needs and giving him the time and space he needed to write. (He was incredibly prolific, thanks to her wifely devotion and generosity.)
She did not choose the healthiest romantic relationships, and often fell in love with married men. Kingsley Amis was also married when she met him, and he left his wife and children for her. After they got married, it soon became clear that there would be no reciprocity in terms of supporting her work.
So to answer your question, yes, Elizabeth Jane Howard and so many other women could certainly use a “wife” to allow them to claim the space—physical, psychological, and emotional—that’s essential to writing or any other artistic endeavors. It’s tough to get creative work done when you’re distracted by heaps of laundry, housecleaning, grocery lists, children’s needs, and on and on. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course. But it’s awfully hard. The women in my book took care of domestic chores so their husbands didn’t have to deal with any of that.
Q: What was the research process like on this project?
The research process was intense, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I read biographies, memoirs, letters, interviews, archival material, scholarly articles, anything I could find. As you might have guessed, the historical records of famous men were far more extensive than those of the women in my book.
Q: Is there any good news? Are there successful examples of literary marriages that did work?
There are examples of loving, mutually supportive literary marriages—they’re just not in my book! However, I do think that even within these (mostly) unhappy relationships, there were moments of real joy, passion, friendship, and more. But let’s face it: for anyone who yearns to become a great artist, a certain ruthlessness is required. You need time to devote to your craft, to cultivate your talent, to produce the work, to succeed and fail and get up and begin again. It’s all-consuming at a certain level. What happens when you have two people with huge career ambitions? There’s a good chance that neither spouse is easy to live with. It’s a difficult life, and even more stressful when the couple is facing financial struggles as well.
In my introduction, I do mention some prominent literary marriages that have endured. There’s this great quote from Stephen King, who has attributed his success in part to his wife, Tabitha: “The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible.”
There are plenty of other writers who regard their wives as creative partners, not personal assistants, and who adore them for their talent and intellect, rather than seeing those qualities as threatening or emasculating.
Q: Are you in a relationship? Have you ever experienced any of what happens in LIVES OF THE WIVES? Have you figured out how to be a great literary mind and a happy partner?
I just wanted to tell the stories of these five women without any autobiographical connections; I haven’t experienced the stuff that’s in my book at all.
Again, I think being a writer or artist is almost always a difficult path to choose—one that requires long periods of solitude—so it’s no wonder that many writers and artists have chosen their work over being in a long-term, committed relationship. But for those who do marry, I certainly think it’s possible to be happy and productive. I have a friend who supported her husband for many years (financially, as well as emotionally) as he pursued his career. At a certain point, she let him know that it was her turn to chase professional dreams, and that meant leaving the United States for a country where he had never lived. Yet he was willing to do that for her, with no resentment, and their marriage is still thriving after twenty years.
Q: Anything else that you think Divorcist.com readers might find interesting?
Most of the women in my book who wanted to divorce their spouses were afraid to imagine life beyond their marriages. They felt guilty about wanting to leave, partly because some had such manipulative partners. Elaine Dundy’s husband, Kenneth Tynan, kept threatening to kill himself, for instance. But she finally got out and was able to sustain her literary career in ways that surprised her and renewed her self-confidence. Although it’s bittersweet that some of the women in my book were late-bloomers (because their marriages had stifled them creatively), I also found it inspiring. For the most part, they refused to let marital trauma stop them from living rich and adventurous lives. I love that they continued to pursue their ambitions and enjoyed success on their own.