Monday, 11 August 2014

Guardian Books Blog: Literary Spouses

Anne Boleyn: a spouse in need of  a ghostwriter? 



Today’s entry appears on the Guardian Books Blog, and arose because I was intrigued by the idea of marriages where one party has done all the talking – whether this is because one real-life spouse is considerably more famous than the other, or because a literary work is usually written from just one point of view. Jean Rhys pointed out that there are other stories to tell, when she burgled Jane Eyre to write The Wide Sargasso Sea

This is part of the piece, with links to relevant blog entries:


You can see how these authors get inspired: sometimes when you're reading, you're just longing to hear from the other half of a dysfunctional marriage. Hence the sub-genre of royal wives, as instanced in Monica Ali's strange and haunting Untold Story, which imagined a different life for that most famous of 20th century spouses, Princess Diana. Philippa Gregory, meanwhile, has been busy giving voices to the wives of many English kings in her inventive and innovative historical fiction: the Other Boleyn Girl and the Cousins' War sequence.  
Literary husbands are plainly fertile ground. But though Gaynor Arnold created a fictionalised version of Charles Dickens's marriage in Girl in a Blue Dress, very much presenting poor sad Catherine Dickens's point of view, there aren't many husband versions or re-imaginings. Is this because men dominate stories in the first place? 


Mrs Stoner looking stern? 

Last year's cult classic Stoner by John Williams (rediscovered from 1965) showed Stoner's wife in such a bad light as to be unconvincing, but don't relationship counsellors say it's never just one person's fault … ? The maligned Edith might have a quite other view of the relationship, and her husband's infidelity…. 


Brenda Last contemplating her husband 


Plenty of bad wives in literature are also shown as bad mothers – linking back to another Guardian piece on that topic earlier this year. Brenda Last from Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is a prime example, along with the much-maligned Mrs Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. 

That’s quite a list of spouses we’d really like to hear from – no wonder the marriage thriller is the literary genre of the moment. And the film of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is due out soon and allegedly will have us all looking askance at our own partners….


20 comments:

  1. Moira, I read your full piece at the Guardian Books Blog and I can see why literary giants, male or female, can be a fascinating subject for authors, especially biographers. I'd be interested in learning about the better halves of quite a few authors, though, in the form of fiction rather than as a real-life story.

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    1. Thanks Prashant - I find it a fascinating subject, and like you prefer it in the form of honest fiction....

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  2. Great idea for a post, Moira. I find marriages that are unequal to be fascinating reading material but I suspect in real life it must be stressful for the parties involved. I wonder how many actually thrive on an unequal dynamic.

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    1. Thanks Sarah - l like the fact that it is a mystery, that we never know what is really going on in other people's relationships, but that that doesn't stop us guessing.

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  3. Moira - What a great topic for a post! The dynamics of marriage - especially a dysfunctional marriage - are so fascinating. And what's interesting about the topic as far as fiction goes, is that there's so much character exploration that's possible. Brilliant piece!

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    1. Thank you Margot, for those kind words. I think we all love fiction that's really based on character, and the best way to show that is often in a marriage or similar partnership.

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  4. This has been a trend for a while (and of course shoudl travel on both siides of the gender 'divide' yet rarely seems to) I thought that was a cheap shot in the case of STONER though, a novel I thought was heartbreaking in its emotional equanimity - part of its value is precisely because it doesn't say one is good and one is bad but pluasibly said that this is what it's like in this case, which I think is the only argument unless you want to reduce art to plots on a grid.

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    1. I loved Stoner, I thought it was a phenomenal book, but after reading it for a second time I was left uncomfortable with the treatment of the character of Edith. But then, it must be the sign of great writing that you can involve the reader sufficiently to make that reader argue with the author....

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    2. If there is real villainy I think it resides with Lomax, not Edith, who I think is a brilliant creation and doesn't truly realise what she is doing and more importantly, why. If it were a superficial and malicious portrait then the Guardian piece's offhand remark about Stoner's affair might be a bit more fair, but that is deny what the book is about - he is hardly a disloyalal philanderer - and it's not like the way Lomax is presented make you feel Williams has it in for people with spinal problems either, right?

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    3. On reflection, I am worried that my response makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the Guardian piece, which I really did - congrats Moira. No more STONER remarks from me!

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    4. The reference is perhaps flippant, there wasn't room to go into it in detail, but I do think the authorial scales were unfairly tipped in the case of Edith: other characters were given more of a believable mindset, for better or worse. But we can agree to disagree!

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    5. No no I really like to hear a reasoned argument: and as I imply above, there wasn't space for me to back up my views, which probably came over as too off-hand. Such a worthwhile book, I enjoy a discussion of it.

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  5. There's a few people I'd like to hear about from the perspective of their other halves.......Chris on Gwyneth, Ashley on Cheryl, haha. Probably not enough time in my schedule though.

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    1. Yes, it would have to be the guaranteed truth though, no covering up.... and that's unlikely.

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  6. Well, marriages and intimate partnerships are often the stuff of mysteries. After all, the current or former spouse, partner, companion are always the first suspect in a murder. And often, in real life, it's the truth, judging by the local news that insists on flashing before my eyes on TV.

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    1. Exactly - it's a cliché of murder stories, isn't it, but one that actually is reflected in real life...

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  7. I often wonder, when reading mysteries, which is most of what I read, why the spouses who are unhappy (or were unhappy married to the now deceased husband or wife)... stayed married. I know in earlier years there were less options ... for women... and it is easy for me to say I would not stay... but still in most cases I cannot fathom the reasoning in staying in a dysfunctional marriage. But I still don't mind reading about all the various marriages out there, if the author keeps it interesting.

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    1. There was a theory that murders - both real-life and in books - would become less interesting as the divorce laws became easier: I think George Orwell (whom I was just thinking about in relation to comics) thought that would happen. I suppose divorce settlements have become very important, and Poirot and Marple always said 'follow the money.'
      But I agree with you, and I can often get quite cross with characters who don't just walk away....

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  8. So many women stay in awful marriages even today. So many are abused and stay because of children and a lot of other complicated reasons. I could mention economic issues, too. Federal funding cuts have resulted in the closing of shelters here for abused women and their children. This translates into more women staying in abusive relationships.

    I wish that my local news didn't show the brutality that exists, and has actually gotten worse since the Great Recession began. It affects all classes and communities. The statistics are harrowing.

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    1. I agree with you - the stories and the statistics are very depressing. I don't know what can be done about it.

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