The Lives of the Wives: Divorcist Reads

image of woman reading with text over it reading, lives of the wives

“How does a woman achieve self-worth when her husband proclaims himself the more valuable partner?”

Can it be done?

When I was married and my son was a baby, I used to beg my husband for “Just 4 hours. Give me just four hours a week.” I was miserable, and thought that I might have a chance at finding myself and my happiness again if I could have four hours a week to do something that I loved, was good at, and gave me a sense of self-worth. At the time, being a mom and being a wife were none of those things to me. I wanted to write. In my son’s first year of life, I’d managed to eek out one of those twist ending, clickbait blogs Scary Mommy used to do. I got paid for it, praised for it, and it made me feel like a person. I wanted to do more.

My husband hated this request. His refrain was always: “Why don’t you just focus on being a mother?”

I was profoundly sad.

My husband had his creative advertising career. He thought of things and people were delighted by him. He could do whatever he wanted. I was stuck with the diapers and despair.

Unspoken non-compete clause

Which is why, when I read Carmela Ciuraru’s LIVES OF THE WIVES, onsale February 7th, I felt such a kinship with the titular wives. Ciuraru tells the stories of five literary couples, where both partners have literary potential. Unfortunately and not surprisingly, while husbands’ careers take off, the women have to defer their dreams.

In the foreword, Ciuraru asks, “Why does there exist, in many literary couples, an unspoken non-compete clause for the wives?” Literary couples, yes, but also, so many other couples. The stories of the wives were the stories of so many of my friends — and my story too.

Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis could have been a literary power couple. Instead, Elizabeth Jane (who went by “Jane”), a novelist and woman of letters herself, was relegated to the kitchen and the nursery. “Both were ambitious writers,” says Ciuraru. “But only one could achieve success. The other was expected to lend unconditional support and forsake all personal desires.”

SAME, I’d scrawled in the margin.

The work of supporting a mercurial dick took its toll on Jane. When it’s revealed that her doctor prescribed benzos for Jane’s uncontrollable sobbing, I had to note in the margin: IT’S ME!

Again, when Ciuraru writes of Jane knowing “nothing of the overwhelming happiness that everyone insisted she was experiencing as a new mother,” I felt a jaw-dropping familiarity with her.

No divorce in the world is happy

When the beautiful and beguiling actress Patricia Neal wed Roald Dahl, the New York Times noted the nuptials in a way that wasn’t going to sit well with the groom: PATRICIA NEAL AND WRITER WED.

Like Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, Neal and Dahl were destined for drama. Dahl carried a huge chip on his shoulder from not getting as much literary acclaim he felt he deserved. Naturally this rolled downhill to Patricia Neal. Determined to make it work, Neal became a working mother and homemaker. She both baked the bread and won it, out-earning her husband multiple times over, while raising the children.

Eventually, her husband fell for a production assistant that worked on a commercial Neal was doing. To her credit, the new woman was able to appreciate in some capacity how difficult the situation was for Neal. She said in an interview years after the Neal-Dahl divorce and her wedding to Dahl, “No divorce in the world is happy happy and I think a husband falling for a younger woman must be the worst of all.”

So there was that, at least.

cover of Lives of the Wives
It’s a pretty glamorous trip!

Shakespeare’s sister

The LIVES OF THE WIVES is brilliant and bleak, but with plenty of glamour to keep the pages turning. I loved it. But it is at times breathtakingly sad. How many women were denied their potential by being married to a problematic partner? I had to stay focused when reading. I couldn’t extrapolate. It was too awful to think of how bad it could be for women forevermore. It’s not the greatest now, it wasn’t good then, and what hope is there of it getting better?

I thought of Virginia Wolf: “When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.”

In that light, the lives of the wives isn’t so bad after all. Not as bad as they could be, at any rate. Maybe they didn’t achieve all they could, but they had in their remarkable, if nasty, partners some kind of consolation prize.

A way out

Ciuraru sums it up in Jane’s portion of the LIVES OF THE WIVES. “As has been true historically for many women artists and writers, only a divorce or the death of a spouse liberated them to create and publish their best work–or any work at all.”

After Jane and Amis were divorced, Jane managed to achieve the self-self she never could while married. She produced her best work and found contentment. Hers was a peaceful ending.

Getting the hang of things

Near the end of our marriage, my husband was irked by my behavior at our work Christmas party. He brought the status, but I brought the heart. I was a glittering hostess, asking people about themselves, showing genuine interest in our co-workers and their partners. Charm itself. A credit to that man. I thought he’d be pleased. We were such a good couple! Instead, he was upset that I’d upstaged him. “Liz,” he said, “you have to tone it down.”

“I can’t help it,” I joked. “It’s like telling a rainbow not to be so damn colorful.”

“The conditions aren’t always appropriate for rainbows,” came his dark reply.

In an interview near the end of her life, Elizabeth Jane Howard noted, “The most important things in life cannot be taught. But life is organized so that you get the hang of things just when you’re on the way out. It seems frightfully unfair.”

Thankfully, I and so many women like me, are getting the hang of things earlier. The LIVES OF THE WIVES contain some cautionary examples. But we’re freer now than we ever have been, not as doomed as the wives. For me anyway, I found that I could “have it all”–the kid, the husband, the satisfying career–just not all at once.