On being the wife of an author

There was a time, not so long ago, when to live and care for an author was thought to provide its own small rewards in terms of posterity. So Mrs Tolstoy transcribed five full drafts of War and Peace, Mrs Chesterton tied her husband’s shoelaces for him, and Mrs Nabokov organised and attended every one of Vladimir’s lectures. But to judge from recent evidence, this basic loyalty to husband and muse has become yet another casualty in the great new gender war.

How should the wife of an author behave? The question itself seems old-fashioned, even sexist. Yet, week after week this column – regarded by many as the caring, human face of The Author – receives letters from women who are confused and discontented by their role in the literary process.

This is not an agony column – there is, after all, a limit to how much comfort one man can bring to the frustrated, neglected wives of other authors – but, for the sake of a quiet life, I am happy to share a few basic tips in response to the more urgent enquiries I have received.

My husband was last published in 1983 but still ‘attends the muse’, as he put it, every day. More often than not, this involves lying in bed all day watching the television. Many is the time when I have returned home from work to find him still under the duvet, enjoying the evening’s first whisky and soda. Is this normal authorial behaviour or is he just a lazy sod?

Artistic creation is a delicate and mysterious process. ‘So much of a novelist’s writing … takes place in the unconscious: in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper,’ as Graham Greene once put it. Quite often behaviour that, to the non-writing civilian, may appear torpid or even self-indulgent are an essential part of the literary life. Why not leave a pad and pen beside the bed? Many great writers, from Edith Wharton to AN Wilson, have been at their most creative between the sheets.

My husband has recently become very clingy and dependent. It distresses me, when I leave in the morning, to look back and see him staring after me with those reproachful, abandoned-spaniel eyes, and I have found myself wondering whether I am doing a terrible thing going to work at all. Am I?

Yes. It’s all very well coming out with the age-old wifely excuses – ‘Someone’s got to put food on the table’ and so on – but you seem to have forgotten that to be a writer is a harsh and lonely existence. Is there any way that you could work on a night-shift so that you can be there for your husband during the day? Mrs Galsworthy, you will remember, would sit outside her husband’s study, knitting – he found the click needles oddly conducive to the creation of fiction. Your mere presence – caring, respectful, yet never obtrusive – will yield rich dividends both on the page and in your marital life.

Over the past six months, my husband has taken to buying new clothes and fussing in an uncharacteristic manner over his underwear. He visits the library every afternoon, frequently returning late in the evening with his shirt hanging out and his socks inside-out. He also insists on going away on weekends to conduct research. Is this normal behaviour or should I be worried?

Oh, here we go. As if the creative life were not difficult enough, this luckless man has to put up with your snippy little insinuations. Without having the courage to come and say what you mean, you’re asking whether ‘visiting the library’ and ‘conducting research’ are some sort writerly code for acts of misbehaviour. Of course, he wants to look good when he is writing – Disraeli insisted on writing in evening clothes out of respect for his readers. In order to complete any work, an author needs to get out of the house and, shocking as you may find it, shirts and socks may get slightly ruffled out there. It’s called living in the real world. Give the poor guy a break.

And last night he woke up, shouting, ‘Do it to me, Marianne, my little butter-muffin, do it now!’

An excellent sign. The characters in his novel are taking over. Do not distract him by asking, in that irritating, we’ve-got-to-talk tone of voice, about Marianne or the butter-muffin. Fiction is a house of cards; one breath of wind from the domestic landscape can bring it all tumbling down.

I am too embarrassed to see our friends with my husband. The problem is that, when ever the conversation strays from him and his work, he gazes out of the window, taps his fingers on the table and whistles in a tuneless, I’m-getting-very-bored manner which some people find insulting. Is there any solution to this social problem?

Find new friends. If those in your circle of acquaintances are too dreary and unimaginative to find interest in the life of an author – his blocks, his crises, his calls to his agent, the moments when his characters just take over – there is clearly something profoundloy wrong with them.

Before I go to work, I leave my husband a list of minor domestic chores which (optimistically!) I hope he might consider doing while taking a break between chapters. Last week, I asked him to feed the cat at tea-time and put a joint in the microwave for a dinner-party that evening. When I came home, there was a shoulder of lamb on the cat’s plate and cooking in the microwave was – I’m sorry, I’m too upset to continue.

Ah, the ways of writers! There’s something endearing about our otherworldliness, isn’t there? No doubt your darling husband’s lapse of concentration provided an amusing topic of conversation that night. How dreary your dinner would have been were it not for the fact that you live with a writer.

Spring 2000