So who is the woman in the picture? I struggled to find it. I have photos of her that I could have scanned but I thought it interesting how, when I typed her name into Google – both her maiden and married names – that I got hundreds of photos of her husband, even photos of other women, but none of her. I finally found this tiny one on a French site. The woman is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil who was, for many years the common-law wife of one Samuel Beckett who finally married her in civil ceremony in Folkestone in 1961. On the face of it, this was to make sure that if he died before her she would inherit the rights to his work, since there was no common-law marriage under French law. He may also have wanted to affirm his loyalty to her.
The wives of writers – and, of course, the husbands of women authors – don’t often get much attention. They’re there in the background fetching drinks or acting as a firewall. Most, I have little doubt, are glad to stay out of the limelight but for the next few thousand words I would like to highlight a few of these unsung heroes beginning with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil:
Suzanne has been seen as taking over the role that Beckett’s mother had played in his life. Certainly she grumbled, as his mother used to grumble, about his excessive drinking, for she did not drink herself. But there were crucial differences: above all, she had enormous respect for Beckett’s talents and total belief in his genius. When things were going very badly, she never lost this faith and was ready to do all that she could to help him. At first, she was remarkably tolerant, putting up with his late nights, his bouts of irritability and his moods of black despair when his writing would not advance. She also understood and shared his need for silence.
Beckett summed up his debt to her a few months after her death:
I owe everything to Suzanne. She hawked everything around trying to get someone to take all three books at the same time. That was a very pretentious thing for an unknown to want. She was the one who went to see the publishers while I used to sit in a café ‘twiddling my fingers’ or whatever it is one twiddles.
When I read about Beckett’s need for silence I immediately thought of Mildred Eldridge who also shared long periods of silence with her husband, the poet R S Thomas. A radio play about the couple, broadcast in July 2010, was called Alone Together. The blurb on the BBC3 webpage includes this sentence:
A portrait of a curious marriage which captures that essence of all marriages – a sense of shared space but separate lives.
I do imagine that that is true when it comes to many marriages but I suspect it’s especially true where one or more of the parties is a writer or an artist or a composer. Diana, Princess of Wales, famously said: "There were three of us in this marriage," well, I guess that’s what the wife of every writer could say when so often the men in their lives turn to their art rather than turning to them.
If I talk to my wife what am I going to write about?
Why do we write? We write to get something off our chests, to try to understand something and for lots of other reasons but if we work things out with a third party (i.e. a wife or a husband) what is there left to write about?
Beckett may have said that he owed everything to Suzanne, and indeed if she had not been there at the start who knows how history would have panned out, but he didn’t owe everything to her. She was never his muse. That position went to another woman, the actress Billie Whitelaw. That wasn’t the case with Beckett’s mentor, James Joyce. His ‘Suzanne’ was Nora Barnacle who also co-habited with her partner for a long time (27 years in their case) before Joyce made an honest woman of her. In her biography of her, Nora, The Real Life of Molly Bloom, Brenda Maddox had this to say:
Nora was above all ''the source of Joyce's inspiration'' – and that was quite enough literary work for one passionate but no-nonsense woman. ''She did not hunt for books for Joyce. She did not take dictation,'' Ms. Maddox writes. ''Nora's responsibilities were to feed Joyce, hold his hand, choose all his clothes . . . to accompany him wherever he went socially, to cut him down to size, and to reassure him, every time she opened her mouth, that Ireland was not far away. Joyce never asked more of her, and nobody else dared.''
In her article in The New York Times from which the above passage is taken, Caryn James continues:
If Maud Gonne was Yeats's poetic beauty and political idealist, Nora was her prosaic country cousin. Her memory of a lover who died young is given to Gretta in 'The Dead'; her earthiness and uninhibited speech to Molly Bloom in Ulysses; her pull on Joyce, at once a lullaby and a siren's song, echoes in Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake.
So here we have two wives who although supportive in different ways never got involved in the day-to-day chore of writing. Which brings me to Vera Nabokov. The following is from an interview with Stacy Schiff, author of Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov:
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You quote an interesting exchange between Vladimir Nabokov and an interviewer where he asks, could you say how important your wife has been as a collaborator in your work?" And Nabokov answers, "I could not," so she was that important. Tell us how.
STACY SCHIFF: Well, she basically began simply as his typist. I guess you would say his typist-slash-editor. Every word that Nabokov wrote after the two of them meet is put on paper by Mrs. Nabokov, by Vera Nabokov, even before she becomes his wife, and as she sat at the typewriter. I suppose this is what we would say was the most crucial aspect of the relationship, she would essentially say from time to time, "no, no, you can't say it this way," and Nabokov would come up with a better solution, or she would say "isn't this a better solution?" -- and suggest something and he would take it. So there was that sort of elementary editing aspect which isn't so elementary. In many other ways she contributed observations that she had made to what we know as the final pages of Lolita, it was she who suggested certain works, which we know in their published forms. Nabokov's lectures on literature, which are the brilliant imaginative flights of unscholarly and scholarly fancy, include lines and research done by Mrs. Nabokov. So there is really a contribution at many, many levels.
She is also due thanks for saving Lolita from the ashes when Nabokov set fire to it and tossed it in a trashcan. “When she met her husband, she felt that he was the greatest writer of his generation; to that single truth she held strong for 66 years.”
With the aid of a special tray that enabled her to write propped up in bed, Sonya even managed to continue working on the manuscripts while she was recovering from an attack of puerperal fever that nearly killed her.
The children’s author, Michael Morpurgo, when asked to list his personal 10 Rules for Writing includes his wife in two of them:
5 – Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.
7 – Once a chapter is scribbled down rough – I write very small so I don't have to turn the page and face the next empty one – Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.
There are some jobs that a man can take on that barely affect a wife; her husband leaves for work in the morning, returns in the evening and money appears in their bank account at the end of every month. With certain other jobs there is . . . what shall we call it? . . . spill over, e.g. President of the United States. Now I’m not suggesting for a second that Michelle sits in the corner of the Oval Office with her knitting while her husband powwows with the world’s heads of states but neither am I suggesting that she yells from upstairs, “The dinner’s in the dog,” when he gets home from a hard day’s presidenting. When you marry a man like that you know you’re marrying the job too.
I have no idea if theatre director Peggy Ramsay was married to a writer – I know she was married at one time – but she had very clear views on the role of ‘the writer’s wife:’
Peggy did not always get on well with writers’ wives. As Colin Chambers remarks in his biography, Peggy believed that it was the duty of writers’ wives to put their husbands’ talent before their own needs. She corresponded with quite a few of the wives and girlfriends (and gay lovers – in Kenneth Halliwell’s case). Sometimes this correspondence was strictly focused on her clients’ writing, but with others she provided emotional support and professional advice.
Not all wives are suited to being married to a writer. Eileen Simpson was married to the poet John Berryman for 11 years. She was born into the generation of American women who were expected to be writers' wives rather than writers themselves:
From the beginning their marriage was unevenly balanced, for the man she had married proved demanding, self-engrossed, and deeply self-destructive, with suicide already a distressingly common topic of his conversation.
She left him and, despite suffering from acute dyslexia, became a practising psychotherapist and penned several books herself. Much the same was the case with Martha Gellhorn, who was married to Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was married to Kingsley Amis. Let’s face it, it must be hard being married to someone who’s always looking for approval. In an article in Texas Monthly one writer’s wife had this to say:
I spend a lot of time … thinking up different ways to say I think his writing is good. If I say the least thing critical, it throws him into this profound depression. Writers’ egos are so delicate.
Too true. And not all writers take constructive criticism from the partners well. Case in point? John Steinbeck:
He sometimes tested his characters' dialogues on his wife but, as she discovered, did not welcome her commentary.
"You're my wife. You're not my agent," he told her after she remarked that a line spoken by Cal in East of Eden was out of character. She burst into tears, then both began to laugh, but she never played critic again.
If there was a Nobel Prize for a Writer’s Partner who would get the prize? According to Michael Herr one woman who would certainly be short-listed would be Janice Stone, the wife of Robert Stone, who he describes as “the patron saint of writer's wives:”
"I'm Bob's secretary, proof-reader, cook, chauffeur. I answer the phone and do the filing. Believe me, it takes up my time," she says, with reasonable good cheer. Asked if she feels she has given up too much, she says: "One always has regrets about the lives one doesn't live. But how many lives can you live?"
But what about when two writers marry? Would that not be something of an ideal situation? Surely no one could have more empathy for one writer than another writer? Well it depends how the one writer treats the other writer. Here’s how Jane Howard remembers her time with Kingsley Amis:
I wrote very little in those years. I had a block, which came from being over-tired. Kingsley was one of the most disciplined writers I've ever known. Sometimes I envied him because he didn't have to organise the food, or other household matters, but that was part of the deal. He didn't stop me writing, and was encouraging about what I wrote. It's simply that I didn't have the time."
At weekends she would cook Sunday lunch for 12 or more, while Kingsley, his sons Martin and Philip, and guests adjourned to the pub. Her doctor discovered her crying over the sink one Sunday and prescribed quantities of tranquillisers, which didn't help the tiredness but stopped her crying.
She left Amis because of his drinking. "I don't think it's easy to live with someone who drinks too much, but in the end I couldn't live with someone who disliked me so much, as well. You can go on living with someone who doesn't love you, but what is really killing is someone who dislikes you. My sense of survival got me through that, and I was also helped by psychotherapy. If you want to be a better person, you take any opportunity that comes your way and I was lucky in having good psychotherapists, who introduced me to a women's group.
After she left Kingsley, for which he never forgave her, she got back to writing and had a very successful career. But times have changed, are changing at least, and the power struggle that once was marriage isn’t quite the same. There are cases of marriages where both parties have successful writing careers:
One thinks of Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, whose fine debut novel, The Blindfold, was full of allusions and intertextual winks to her husband; of Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble; and of Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin, who found themselves in direct competition when they were both shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year award.
One writer, Muzi Kuzwayo, in the acknowledgements to one of his books admitted this:
In my next life I hope not to become the wife of a writer. It must be the most horrible experience. You are asked to read and comment on every half-baked thought that goes through your husband’s mind. So I am grateful to my wife, Ntombi, who read the book while it was in bits and pieces…
Which brings me to . . . well, me. I’m a writer and I have a wife. She’s called Carrie Berry. It’s not her maiden name. It was her married name before we met and just sounded to cool to give up. I met her online about fifteen years ago which is when I first discovered the wonders of the World Wide Web. I’d been wandering round not really knowing what I was doing. I quickly developed a couple of friendships with poets but, although both of these ladies kept me occupied, they weren’t what I was looking for online, not that I was really looking for anything concrete. My previous marriage had come to an end fairly recently and I really wasn’t aiming to get involved with another woman so I made sure that I avoided UK sites. Another nice lady, Rachel (not any of the many Rachels that pass comments on this site) suggested I submit my poems to Metamorphosis, a poetry workshop on a site called Fandango Virtual, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The owner of the site was one Carrie Berry who responded favourably to my first submission, the single poem ‘Reader Please Supply Meaning’, which was accepted and published in Iguanaland and we began to correspond. A year later she was getting off a plane in Glasgow Airport and to this day I have no idea how that happened but if anyone was ever to ask me what I thought about online dating I’d say, “Go for it.” In the past all my relationships were clouded by the physical. The initial attractions were always physical and then once we became physical all reason went out the window. With Carrie and me we didn’t even know what the other looked like for quite a while. We got to know the person on the inside. That (when we finally swapped photographs) neither of us was repelled by the other was a bonus, that’s all I can say. Six months after getting off that plane, purely as a formality to keep her in the country, we were married in a civil ceremony and this December it’ll be our Lace Anniversary; that’s thirteen years during which time I’ve written two novels, some forty short stories, two plays and about three-hundred poems.
Carrie also continued to write after she came to the UK completing a novel, a novella and I have no idea how many poems because, unlike me, she doesn’t number then fastidiously to make counting easy. But a good few. As her health declined so her writing also began to dry up. For a while she continued to be involved in the writing business through her various webzines, finally turning two, Bonfire and Gator Springs Gazette, into actual print journals. She was planning to start publishing novels, our own of course but also others (the first book was actually supposed to be someone else’s) but ill health put paid to that and so, with considerable effort, she’s only been able to do one book a year for me. The plan still is to publish more but time will tell. She attends to everything to do with the book production: editing, layout, contracting the printers, organising the FV Books site, sorting out Amazon and the like and processing sales. Her next project will be eBooks.
Having a wife who understands one’s need to get out of bed in the middle of the night or who doesn’t mind being shushed while I finish writing something down is simply wonderful. All the other women in my life have viewed my writing as a hobby and simply weren’t equipped to support me. I’m not like Kuzwayo. I rarely share half-baked ideas. My wife gets finished novels handed to her and never presses me to know what I’m writing. She knows full well that she’ll be the first person to read whatever it is if it ever gets finished. If I drop dead before her she’s welcome to go through my folders and if she finds some gem then great. I’ll be dead and she can do what she likes with my stuff.
Now all the above makes it sound as if everything is always rosy in the garden and on the whole it is. One of the main reasons for that is that because of the failures in my previous relationships I’m super-conscious of not being a self-absorbed pig. The writing gets done only not as quickly as I’d like but what I like more is not being alone. As it is she’s well aware that even though I’m sitting not ten feet from her for most of the day that my head is somewhere else. For a writer I’m surprisingly non-observant. I remember when she first came over here and was talking about the curtains in the living room which had giant butterflies on them – not as horrible as it sounds – and I said, “I have butterflies on my curtains?” It has become a bit of a running joke, the things I fail to notice because I’m so wrapped up in my own wee world.
I rely on Carrie constantly. She bought the flat we live in now. I didn’t see it until we had the keys. My only conditions were: 1) we each need to have our own office and 2) there should be no garden. As both of these were satisfied I was as happy as Larry. Carrie deals with all the bills. I have no idea who supplies our electricity or how much our groceries are each week or how much interest we get on our bank accounts. I have no idea how much we even have in our current account. She orders the groceries online and so I’m never involved with the shopping other than in carrying it from the door to the kitchen and helping her put some of it by. Fiercely independent, she would do more if she was physically able.
She reads everything I write, edits and proofreads it. If she doesn’t approve it then no one else gets to see it. It wasn’t easy at first. I fought her on every tiny edit on Living with the Truth but I’m a lot better these days. She’ll just tell me that she’s sorted out a few of my sentences in a blog and I’ll say, “Fine, fine.” It bothers me that her own spark has faded but, as I’ve experienced myself, I’m well aware that even after a gap of several years all you need are the right conditions to bring you back to life. She has another two novels in draft that I know of and I would love nothing more than to see that’s she’s pottering around with them again.
I said that I didn’t know why she got on a plane and crossed the Atlantic to be with me. The answer isn’t that complicated. She believed in me as a writer. Since being here she’s found some more things to believe in but that was the important one. I think it’s the only one that matters. I’m sure those of you who are married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership know what I mean because if I had to choose to be only one thing in this world I would choose to be a writer and I need someone by my side who thinks picking up Silver is just fine. In my mind, that alone earns her the Gold.
Here are links to Carrie’s poetry and prose. She has a blog but it’s been yonks since she actually posted anything. The entry for 6th April 2009 is worth a read though. Inspiration is a two-way street.
 James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p.296
 Ibid, p.376
 Caryn James, ‘BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Joyce's Wife: The Source of His Inspiration’, The New York Times, 6th August 1988
 In ‘The mystery of the muse: Anna Livia Plurabelle uncovered’ in The Independent (27th March 2007) the author believes that Joyce’s true inspiration is actually his daughter, Lucia
 Caryn James, ‘BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Joyce's Wife: The Source of His Inspiration’, The New York Times, 6th August 1988
 Elaine Woo, ‘Obituary: Elaine Steinbeck, 88; Stage Manager and Writer's Wife’, Los Angeles Times, 29th April 2003
 Clare Colvin, ‘Elizabeth Jane Howard: “All your life you are changing”’, The Independent, 9th November 2002
 Muzi Kuzwayo, There's a Tsotsi in The Boardroom: Winning in a Hostile World, p.9