Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This is the full text of my article, published in November 2019 in LOGOS, Journal of the World Publishing Community:

Abstract

In this paper, I review the Thanks for Typing Conference held at Oxford University in March of 2019, which explored the experiences of women who worked as literary helpmeets for famous men. I also give some details from the paper I presented there. In “‘Jumped-up Typists’: Two Secretaries Who Became Guardians of the Flame,” I discussed how two literary wives, Sophia Mumford (1899–1997), wife of the American historian and philosopher Lewis Mumford, and Valerie Eliot (1926–2012), second wife of T. S. Eliot, found their identities in supporting and later defending, their husbands’ work. I also looked at the consequences of their devotion as they grew older.

It was clear from the papers presented at Thanks for Typing that the women who surround powerful or influential men have often had their contributions – not only as typists but as assistants, muses, and even managers of their husbands’ affairs – hidden and suppressed. The full acknowledgment of those who contribute to creative and intellectual work is a subject that needs further attention by both men and women.

Thanks for Typing: The First Conference to Focus on the Invisible Wives, Daughters, Mothers, and Other Women Behind Famous Men

When I was a young writer in London, my “green” colleagues and I worshiped the American essayist, poet, and activist Wendell Berry. His prose was beautiful, his ideas pure. After I moved back to the United States in 1992, I found myself alone in the office of an environmental organization and was thrilled to see a signed letter from Berry posted on the wall. It was a neatly typed note of support sent along with a donation, on plain but elegant personal stationery. At the bottom of the page, the traditional secretarial initials appeared in capitals for the author of the letter, and lowercase for the typist: Berry’s initials followed by the lowercase initials of his wife.

I never felt the same about Wendell Berry. In fact, I couldn’t read him anymore. His high-minded writing seemed false: any man who could treat his wife as a mere typist was not someone who could imagine a “green” world I would want to live in.

What bothered me was not that his wife did the typing, but that the letter and the donation was only from him. She was subsidiary in every way, and invisible, and this was his fault.

Times have changed. Even senior business people correspond by e-mail and do much of their own typing; secretaries now work on spreadsheets, and authors can easily produce perfect manuscripts using programs like Scrivener. But wives are still in the majority when it comes to unpaid and unacknowledged labor, and the question of appropriate credit for such “hidden figures” has become more active, in part thanks to a Twitter hashtag #thanksfortyping.

In response, a group of scholars at Wolfson College organized a conference called Thanks for Typing, about the Invisible Wives, Daughters, Mothers, and Other Women Behind Famous Men, held at the History Faculty, University of Oxford, in March of 2019.

I presented a paper based on a book I am writing about two famous literary widows who began as teenage typists. This article is intended to explain the relevance of this topic to the history of writing and publishing, and to suggest some ways in which we may need to rethink the contributions that other people make to the works we produce.

Behind the Book: #thanksfortyping

For most of the twentieth century, even authors who composed on the typewriter generally needed a typist to retype their edited drafts. A trained typist would create a clean manuscript that would go to the publisher and, with edits, to the printer. Wives often did this work, a fact that was the initial inspiration for the Twitter meme #thanksfortyping begun by a US historian at the University of Virginia, Bruce Holsinger. He began by posting examples from academic books of author acknowledgements, and people responded with examples of their own from all over the world.

Acknowledgements to “my wife” without giving her a name have generated the most sarcasm on Twitter “I have to thank my wife for typing the whole of this difficult manuscript in spite of the heavy burden laid on housewives by a six years’ war and its oppressive aftermath” was one such dedication, by H. J. Paton of Corpus Christi College.

These wives were often researchers, editors, translators, and proofreaders, not just typists. I remember hearing about a famous anthropologist whose wife walked behind him carrying his files and coat, organized his vast collection of notes, and no doubt did the typing and much more.

“My wife transcribed the first draft of the manuscript, working from the Black Letter type, sixteenth-century spelling, and wondrous punctuation of the original publications. She has also carried the burden of checking the several drafts through which a large part of this volume has passed.”

I was myself qualified as a Royal Society of Arts “Personal Assistant,” learning to take shorthand as well as to type, and studying economics and communications, while studying for the Oxbridge exams in England in the late 1970s. Secretarial work was a common step after college even into the 1980s, and secretarial skills gave wives “something to fall back on.”

Joan Archer, the young wife in the movie The Wife, which starred Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and for which Close won a slew of awards, works after college as a secretary in a literary agency, while her husband, Joe Castleman, stays at home trying to write a novel. Their story is one of collusion between two people who might today be called a power couple: Joan as the perfect literary wife and mother, Joe as the genius author and public figure.

Only much later in their lives, at a Nobel awards dinner when Joe is giving his acceptance speech, does Joan finally realize that she has had enough of being thanked, as usual, for her contributions to his work. She can no longer accept his acknowledgements and is so upset that she storms out of the hall.

But she still wants to protect his image. It is only when a reporter has the real story does she say that she is going to tell her children the truth: that she is the actual author of the books for which her husband had accepted a Nobel Prize.

Most real-life cases, including those explored at the Thanks for Typing Conference, are less simple than that, less black and white. But let’s not confuse two different types of “hidden figures.” There are the people who provide support of all kinds, and then the person or people who actually do the creative or intellectual work. And here, too, women’s names have often been missing. Both Colette and George Sand’s first books were published under male partner’s name. Much more recently, Susan Sontag was the true author of her ex-husband’s first landmark book of philosophy, according to a new biography.

A film that came out at about the same time was Colette, about the French writer who in fact wrote several  novels published under her then-husband’s name, but then went on to a distinguished career of her own. That pattern is not at all uncommon. The novelist George Sand is a nineteenth-century example, while a recent biography of Susan Sontag provides evidence that Sontag, as a young wife, wrote a book published under her husband’s name.

In the same way, men have taken credit for scientific research done by women. Well into the twentieth century, assisting in a husband’s work was sometimes considered a wifely duty, even as a privilege granted to a wife or daughter as an intellectual outlet. (And let’s be fair: professors take credit for graduate students’ work, too.) Women in science and mathematics are finally getting their due: the biographical account by Margot Lee Shetterly of three African American NASA “computers,” Hidden Figures, became a movie, and the term “hidden figures” is now being widely used in biographical circles.

Two Famous Widows Who Began as Typists

Books about and by the wives, ex-wives, and lovers of famous writers, artists, and politicians have become almost a genre over the past two decades. Readers are curious about the women who attracted those famous men, and want to know what they experienced, and how it worked, and where it went wrong (if it did). These books are also a means to uncover the hidden contributions of women.

In fact, stories about women subsumed by more famous men have drawn attention at every new stage of the feminist movement. These stories were clearly a topic of conversation in the early part of the twentieth century. Lewis Mumford, as an unknown but ambitious writer, wrote this in 1920, when he was twenty-five years old:

How long are women going to stand for that sort of thing, I wonder? How long will they be content to remain the butt of a biological joke? And how far is that sort of sacrifice biologically justified? I wonder….I left Mrs. Kendall and went home in the bus along Riverside Drive, where the green corpse-like gleam of the departed day hovered over the leaden blue embankment of the opposite short, pricked here and there with golden beads of light, and I thought of all the patient, talented women who had hidden their fame under a bushel in order that their husband’s light might shine the more brilliantly – there were Jane Carlyle and Lucy Wordsworth [in fact, he means Dorothy, Wordsworth’s sister] for example – and the thought of all these thorny sacrifices made me sad, and I prayed that my masculine conceit might never stay with me long enough to permit me to let such a wrong occur to any woman that I loved.

The role of wives as helpmeets can even continue after death. Literary widows, or the guardians of the flame, as I call them, are my particular interest.

The paper I presented at the conference was called, “‘Jumped-up Typists’: Two Secretaries Who Became Guardians of the Flame.” The literary wives I am writing a book about—Sophia Mumford and Valerie Eliot—both worked as teenage typists and met their husbands when they were working as secretaries. They found their identities in supporting, and later defending, their husbands’ work.

The second, Valerie Fletcher Eliot (1926–2012), wife then widow of the poet and publisher T. S. Eliot, is a particularly famous typist wife, because she spent eight years as T. S. Eliot’s secretary before marrying him.

Valerie nursed him for another eight years, and to the horror of many in his circle, become his sole literary executor, a guardian of flame renowned in academic circles for her fierce protectiveness.

She made the transition from typist to secretary to devoted wife and protector who then hired secretaries for her husband and herself. I have interviewed several women who worked for the Eliots and also draw on my own experience as Valerie’s secretary and editorial assistant.

She never forgot how she had been looked down upon for being a mere secretary, without a claim to status or beauty. Much later in life, when I worked, with her on the first volume of the T. S. Eliot Letters, published in 1988, Valerie was still struggling to be seen as something more than “a jumped-up typist.”

I came to know Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899-1997), just a few years later, after I returned to the United States.  Sophia had been shunted into a “commercial” course in high school in Brooklyn, New York, because no one considered her clever enough for college, and started work as a stenographer at fifteen to contribute to her family’s income. But she had wanted more. She dreamed that one day she would wake up as someone whose brilliance would be recognized. That didn’t happen, but she was drawn into the literary and artistic world of Greenwich Village when she got a job as a secretary at The Dial, a famous literary journal of the 1920s.

Sophia was a generation older than Valerie and in her nineties when we met, but she was always a freer spirit than Valerie. She’d been a teenage socialist, passed out Votes for Women leaflets at Brooklyn Town Hall, and had wanted to try living together before her marriage to the American historian and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford.

She and Lewis Mumford were married for almost seventy years and were contemporaries, in fact, of T. S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivien, whose tragic story has been told in many biographies of Eliot and in Carole Seymour-Jones’s Painted Shadow. At The Dial, Sophia’s administrative talents were recognized and she was given the title of assistant editor, though it was a job we would today call managing editor. She became very friendly with the owner Scofield Thayer,  a former classmate of Eliot’s and briefly the fiancé of Vivien.
It was because of Scofield Thayer that I met Sophia in 1993. Working with Valerie Eliot in London, I’d heard a great deal about Thayer, whose papers had disappeared, so when I learned that someone who had actually known him well in the 1920s was living not far from me in upstate New York, I wrote to Sophia and asked if we could talk.

That led to several years of growing friendship, in spite of our sixty years’ difference in age. In her last year, we were working on a book about her life, and I recorded many hours of conversation. I knew of her lifelong struggle to maintain a sense of independence and autonomy while being the supportive homemaker to a man whose writing life took absolute priority. The fact that he needed other women to provide the emotional release and creative energy for his work was also part of Sophia’s story (just as “other women” were part of other stories told at the conference).

Valerie Eliot had devoted her life to T. S. Eliot. I worked with her in the Kensington flat he had bought when they married, and she lived there until her death in 2012—nearly fifty years alone, guarding the flame. I found this sad. After I left her to start a career as writer and publisher, the Eliot story seemed to follow me, and I watched for further publications. During the years of silence that followed the 1988 book of Letters as I met people who had known Eliot, Valerie, and others in their circle going all the way back to the 1920s, and got to know many of the people involved in new Eliot publishing after I published a memoir, “Dear Mrs. Eliot,” in the Guardian Review in 2005.

To my mind Valerie had given up far too much, and became the victim of her great successes, first in getting Eliot to propose to her and second in making a fortune for herself and Faber & Faber by licensing Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to Andrew Lloyd Webber. He had had eight happy years at the end of a rather unhappy life, and his admirers seemed to feel that that was all that mattered, but Eliot’s great trust in her had given her no chance of finding another life, or another love.

And in spite of Lewis Mumford’s early convictions and good intentions (“I prayed that my masculine conceit might never stay with me long enough to permit me to let such a wrong occur to any woman that I loved”), Sophia was essentially subsumed and silenced by her prominent and demanding husband until near the end of her life.

Hers is just one of many similar stories, but unique in that during her final years (she died in 1997, at 97) Sophia was working with me to tell her own story, to discover who she had been and what her life had meant. These are the questions that that I began to explore again after Valerie’s death in 2012 brought both of these famous widows back to mind. Their interconnected stories, and the questions Sophia had been asking, led to my work on Too Near the Flame and animated the conversations I had at Thanks for Typing.

The Thanks for Typing Conference

Three Oxford scholars Juliana Dresvina, Olivia Smith, and Grace Stafford, inspired by the online #thankfortyping exchanges on Twitter, organized the conference at Wolfson College, known for its focus on life-writing, over two days in March 2019. The subjects of the papers varied wildly, and were not only women who typed because, of course, women’s role as helpmeets did not begin with the typewriter. The poet Milton, who was blind, needed his daughters as transcriptionists, and apparently Tolstoy’s wife copied his novels many times.

One of the most interesting examples was that told by Elise Garritzen from Helsinki about of the evolution of Alice Stopford Green, wife and then widow of the historian Johnny Green. Alice took up her husband’s work at first in a self-effacing way, but book by book she carved out her own place as an author, in spite of being regarded as opportunistic – as if she should have stayed in the shadows no matter what her own capacity as a historian was, in tribute to her late husband.

Not surprisingly, there was a paper about perhaps the most famous of literary helpmeets, Vera Nabokov, whose name is now used to describe the perfect spouse of a writer. (A recent Atlantic article was titled, “The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse.”) Joseph Steinberg from Cambridge University told the story of “Vladimir’s wife Véra. For it was she who rescued from her husband’s hands the manuscript of his most notorious novel as he was on his way to their backyard incinerator, preventing the latter from turning it into what is euphemistically described in Pale Fire (1962) as an ashen cloud of ‘wind-borne black butterflies.’”

Rebecca Lyons from the University of Bristol talked about women who worked in the early days of Penguin Books, her aim to “reposition women as a central, dynamic force in the establishment of Penguin as one of the world’s leading publishing houses.”

One of her stories was about Thomas Roche Jr., editor of The Faerie Queene, who wrote to his editors at Penguin to say that, “When Lyn [his wife] learned that she was not even to be mentioned, there was a minor household crisis. It was not that she wanted the usual wifely credit (which she despises) but that she wanted her professional talents in print since she has in fact done more work than Patrick O’Donnell [his co-editor].”

Lisa Gee from King’s College London told the story of the women surrounding the popular 18th-century author William Hayley (1745–1820), including his first wife Eliza Ball Hayley (1749–1797) and Mary Cockerell (1752–1810), the “‘handmaiden’ who bore his only child.” I was fascinated by details about sexual expectations in marriage, the diagnosis of female unhappiness, and the pressure that childlessness placed on women.

Silvia Storti from Kingston University talked about the retellings of fairy tales by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, the eldest daughter of novelist William Thackeray, which she described as proto-feminist, and which would inspire later retellers of fairy tales. It was especially interesting to think of a woman who lived with the shadow of a famous father writing quietly subversive stories.

Lisa Mullen of the University of Oxford discussed Eileen Blair’s involvement in the planning and writing of Animal Farm, “arguing that her input was crucial in shaping the satirical expression of Orwell’s political position,” but concluding that she was not the co-author.

Rather than just identifying the women or presenting them as passive victims, the speakers at the Thanks for Typing Conference had obviously tried to understand who they were, what they wanted, and what the work they did had meant to them. In many ways, these women were active, participatory, and influential – even when they were not acknowledged or when their stories did not come to a happy end.

We were introduced to vibrant, talented women of the past who worked alongside their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons, largely invisible but not necessarily dissatisfied. They may have been happy with the degree of autonomy they had compared to other women of their time, and they may not have cared as much about individual recognition as we do.

Nonetheless, it is important to bring them out of the shadows because understanding them and acknowledging their accomplishments affects how we see women in history generally. Women of the past were not so very different from us; they too navigated within the constraints of their societies and religions, while bearing children or suffering because they were unable to conceive. That sense of biological destiny is something modern women in industrialized culture find hard to imagine, but it’s central to women’s history, and still a huge factor in the lives of most women on the planet.

But it’s also important to understand that motherhood was not just a burden: Julia Desvina talked about the devastating long-term effect of children’s deaths even in a time when infant mortality rates were far higher than today.

While it’s tempting to imagine that many of these invisible women like Sophia Mumford were hidden geniuses, we know from our own experience that intimate partnerships vary enormously. Being married to a famous writer doesn’t make you a great writer yourself. One of the delights of Thanks for Typing was that the speakers did not try to shoehorn their characters into a twenty-first-century paradigm, but looked at them as complex human beings with personal agency.

Another paper at Thanks for Typing, presented by Arwa Al-Mubaddel, a visiting scholar from Saudi Arabia at the University of Cardiff, discussed the literary aspirations of Vivien Eliot, the first wife of T. S. Eliot, and her contributions to the writing of The Waste Land. She and Ezra Pound both marked up the manuscripts of the famous poem, and she clearly contributed some of the dialogue. But I wasn’t convinced that she had been unappreciated, or unsupported in her literary ambitions. Eliot, as I knew from my own work on the Eliot letters, had done everything he could to get her stories published, and I don’t think we can fault his treatment of Vivien on that score.

A more recent example of historical revisionism that goes too far is told in Einstein’s Wife: The Real Story of Mileva Einstein-Maric (The MIT Press). There have been claims that Einstein’s first wife, another mathematician, was the co-author of the famous paper on special relativity, for example. This book includes extensive historical documents and was written to provide a more balanced story.

I saw the same tendency in the New York Times obituary for my subject Sophia Mumford, describing her as having been an editor at The Dial and suggesting that she played that role in her husband’s work. There is no doubt that was essential to Lewis Mumford; one dedication reads, “The best of my ‘Findings,’ the most enduring of my ‘Keepings.’” But Sophia was not an editor at The Dial, nor was she her husband’s editor.

Sophia made his work possible not only by creating the right home environment and organizing their lives in every possible way to give him exactly what he needed to be creative, by listening to him, arguing with him, and simply by being there every day. She once tried volunteering at a school, but he so missed her presence in the house that she gave it up. This may sound horrible from our vantage point, but she truly believed in him and at the end of her life that was not one of her regrets.

While I hope a conference like Thanks for Typing will attract more men in the future (there were only two or three), I was thrilled by the sense of warm engagement not just with the other speakers but with the women we are writing and talking about. Thanks for Typing was an attempt to connect with history, to celebrate women who faced far greater obstacles to self-expression, intellectual achievement, and artistic creation than we do.

What now for authors, publishers, and scholars?

At the Thanks for Typing Conference, we raised many questions that will require further research, writing, and conversation, and plans are underway for another conference in 2020, in Finland.

Amongst the questions are the following: What should we do about the past? Does history need to be rewritten, and if so, what role should male historians play? How can we better acknowledge unpaid labor?

And we will be asking: Should credits actually be changed? Should we add women’s names to title pages and the author credits on academic papers, and what would be our criteria?

Actual credit changes are rare, but the credit line on John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine” was changed in 2017 by the National Music Publishers’ Association to include Yoko Ono.

More important, I think, is to consider the future and how we can accurately acknowledge those who contribute to our creative and intellectual work. I wonder, for example, how to acknowledge fully the women who have helped me – including Joli Jensen, a professor in Oklahoma I’ve never met who saw what my book should be before I did.

References

Beck, K., 2014. “The legend of Vera Nabokov: Why writers pine for a do-it-all spouse”. Theatlantic.com. Available online at: http://bit.ly/2SmysUw (accessed on February 1, 2019).

Mazanec, C., 2017. “#ThanksForTyping spotlights unnamed women in literary acknowledgments”. Npr.org. Available at https://www.npr.org/2017/03/30/521931310/-thanksfortyping-spotlights-unnamed-women-in-literary-acknowledgements?t=1552290124690 (accessed on February 1, 2019).

Prose, F., 2003. The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. New York: Perennial.

Flood, A., 2019. “Susan Sontag was true author of ex-husband’s book, biography claims”. Theguardian.com. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/13/susan-sontag-her-life-benjamin-moser-freud-the-mind-of-the-moralist-philip-rieff “(accessed on May 31, 2019).
Rogers, J., 2018. “Not the only one: How Yoko Ono helped create John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’”. Theguardian.com. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/oct/06/how-yoko-ono-helped-create-john-lennon-imagine (accessed on February 1, 2019).

Biography

Karen Christensen is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Berkshire Publishing Group, and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. She worked for Blackwell Science, Faber and Faber, and the T. S. Eliot estate before writing a bestselling environmental handbook.

In 2005, Karen became a publisher herself, with titles such as the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability and the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography.

She is currently working on Too Near the Flame, a book about Valerie Eliot, Sophia Mumford, and her relationship with these two literary widows and keepers of the flame. “Dear Mrs. Eliot,” her memoir about working with Valerie Eliot, was a cover story in the Guardian Review (January 29, 2005). In “Paths to Power,” a chapter in Women & Leadership: History, Theories, and Case Studies, edited by George R. Goethals and Crystal A. Hoyt (Berkshire 2017), Karen explored the nontraditional ways that women in history have gained and wielded power.