Hidden Lives, Hidden Wives

Karen Christensen

Published in The Auth0r, Autumn 2019

It began with a Twitter hashtag: #thanksfortyping.

For most of the twentieth century, even authors who composed on the typewriter needed a typist to prepare a clean final manuscript. Wives often did this work. A US historian at the University of Virginia, Bruce Holsinger, noticed that these wives were often not even given names when they were mentioned in a book’s acknowledgements. He began posting examples on Twitter, and people responded with examples of their own, of wives who not only typed but translated from ancient languages and did archival research. They of course also provided a nurturing home environment.

The Twitter conversation caught the attention of three Oxford scholars, who then found funding for a conference called Thanks For Typing: Wives, Daughters, Mothers, and Other Women behind Famous Men, held at the University of Oxford in March 2019.

The unpaid or unacknowledged labour of women, and especially of women of colour, is getting a lot of attention in books and movies. But let’s not confuse two types of ‘hidden figures.’ There are the people who provide support of all kinds to the acknowledged writer or scientist – the focus of #thanksfortyping.

Then there is the person who actually does the creative or intellectual work. In this group, too, women’s names have often been missing. Both Colette and George Sand’s first books were published under a male partner’s name. Much more recently, a new biography from Benjamin Moser claims that Susan Sontag was the true author of her husband’s first landmark book of philosophy. This is not unique, and it still happens.

Thanks for Typing explored the more common phenomenon of the hidden helper – not hidden, really, just taken for granted. In many literary and academic marriages, the obvious and acknowledged role of a wife had been to type manuscripts just as she changed the diapers and packed the lunches. Perhaps we are now seeing a division between home and work, personal and professional, that did not exist for some of our foremothers.

And this started long before the typewriter. Milton’s daughters transcribed Paradise Lost for their blind father. Leo Tolstoy’s wife Sonya made eight fair copies of different versions of War and Peace, bore thirteen children, and even worked on the manuscript in bed while recovering from puerperal fever, the childbirth infection that killed many women.

Maybe these wives would have said, ‘His success is my success.’ In fact, I’m sure many saw it that way, and those who were more ambitious must have tried to console themselves with that thought. Women often sought out men who would give them the life they wanted because for most that was the only avenue available.

But in the course of my research about women who found bigger world through their relationships with powerful and influential men I found that the seemingly docile women of the past chafed at the limitations set for them. I read about a young mother in Oklahoma with four young children in 1918 who said she felt trapped and invisible: ‘He taught; they studied; I did housework… I decided it would be better to be a bird’ – because they cared for their young briefly d then were free. In the 1930s, Margaret Morse Nice became an acclaimed ornithologist. Every Faber & Faber typist I have interviewed for my book, which  includes the story of Valerie Eliot, T. S. Eliot’s second wife, who was a typist at Fabers for eight years,has told me about not wanting to be stuck in the typing pool forever. They escaped in various ways, often by marriage, as Valerie did, to which one might say they went from the frying pan into the fire.

At the Thanks for Typing Conference, Rebecca Lyons from the University of Bristol talked about women who worked in the early days of Penguin Books, and 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., co-editor of the Penguin edition of The Faerie Queene, who wrote to his editors 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, including his first wife Eliza Ball Hayley and Mary Cockerell, 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, even for those who were burdened with the labor of assisting with their husband’s work.

Silvia Storti from Kingston University talked about the retellings of fairy tales by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, the eldest daughter of novelist William Thackeray, whom she described as proto-feminist, and who 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 happy ends.

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 cultures 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.

While it’s tempting to imagine that many of these invisible women 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 the Thanks for Typing Conference was that the speakers did not try to shoehorn their characters into a 21st-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 working with Valerie Eliot on her husband’s unpublished early letters, had done everything he could to get Viven’s stories published, and I don’t think we can fault his treatment of his first wife on that score.

#Thanksfortyping is 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. Equally important is to consider the future and how we can accurately acknowledge those who contribute to our creative and intellectual work. Every writer, it’s now said, needs a “Véra,” a version of the ideal helpmeet Véra Nabokov (wife of Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita), who was a model of self-effacing 24/7 support, andeven took over his classes when he was ill, . More professional women, including academics and writers, are finding that the only way to make their professional lives manageable is through the use of assistants and domestic help. This adds yet another dimension to the problem of giving credit where credit is due (and of course creates new barriers for women who cannot afford such help).

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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