Why are there so many books about artists’ wives?
A spate of books centring the wives of artists has been released in recent years. A mix of fiction and non-fiction mostly authored by women, they revolve around the heterosexual relationships of the ‘great male artists’ of the Western cultural canon. Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, which foregrounded Shakespeare’s wife and family, won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020; The Flames (2022) by Sophie Haydock reimagined the women in Egon Schiele’s life; Elizabeth Lowry’s The Chosen (2022) used the bereaved Thomas Hardy’s discovery of his wife Emma’s journals (one ominously titled ‘What I Think of My Husband’) to examine their fraught marriage. In non-fiction, Sylvia Topp championed George Orwell’s first wife in Eileen (2020) and Suzanne Fagence Cooper wrote a joint biography of William and Jane Morris, How We Might Live (2022).
Literary interest in the women counterparts of famous men is not new. Ovid’s abandoned classical heroines addressed their lovers and husbands in the Heroides over two millennia ago. But the recent rise suggests the role of the artist’s partner as intimate witness involved in the creation of enduring art offers these writers unique opportunities. Exploring marriage bonds, they simultaneously reclaim women’s under-recognised contributions and reveal the historic conditions that constrained them, reappraising genius as a network of support. Made elusive by fragmented records (Hardy, for example, burnt those diaries), these women’s lives allow for speculation about the connection between life and art. Still, these lives continue to be defined by their relationships to the iconic figures of the past that guarantee a readership.
These books share certain strategies in drawing attention to the histories they write about, and the injustice of trivialising them in cultural memory. Stress is placed on creative collaboration and domestic labour, grounding artmaking in quotidian routines. Women cleaned, cooked, took employment, raised children, typed novels, edited manuscripts, suggested ideas, sat for paintings, wrote to dealers, arranged exhibitions. They exude a feminist fatigue with the myth of lone genius, an impatience with perfunctory acknowledgements of others’ love, sacrifice and physical work. In Wifedom: The Invisible Life of Eileen Orwell (2023), which combines biography with fictionalised scenes, Anna Funder argues that Orwell’s prolific output required the ‘work of two’, with Eileen neglecting her own creative potential to enlist in his literary production. It was Eileen who suggested the fable-like form of Animal Farm (1945) and her distinctive sense of humour shaped its characters.
Wifedom and Angela O’Keeffe’s novel The Sitter (2023) both use numbers to express the audacity of their subjects’ marginalisation. ‘He painted my portrait far more times than he ever painted apples. Twenty-nine times to be exact,’ says O’Keeffe’s narrator Hortense Fiquet Cézanne, finding herself a spectral companion to an unnamed (woman) writer, initially working on a novel about Hortense’s life. Meanwhile, Funder finds 37 mentions of ‘my wife’ in Orwell’s memoir of fighting in the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia (1938) but no ‘Eileen’: the ‘job description’ over the individual. Yet Eileen was arguably more centrally involved in the political element of the couple’s time in Spain, working as secretary for the Independent Labour Party in Barcelona.
Exposed to the misogyny of Cézanne’s friends and later commentators, O’Keeffe’s Hortense refers to Cézanne simply as ‘my husband’, ‘which makes him more mine’. O’Farrell’s Hamnet deploys a similar reversal, denying the reader Shakespeare’s name in favour of descriptors like ‘her husband’ or ‘their father’. The frisson this elicits, however, relies on the very iconicity of William Shakespeare and Paul Cézanne. They are still the brand. A commercial and cultural apparatus advocating for the same few men as artistic exemplars remains intact.
Many of these authors write with compelling warmth about their subjects, akin to Janet Malcolm’s disdain for academic disinterest in The Silent Woman (1993), her study of Sylvia Plath’s biographical afterlife. Malcolm believed that a biographer always chooses ‘a side’; honesty about this is the only integrity achievable in an unscrupulous genre. Wifedom is thus unabashedly personal, beginning with Funder’s realisation that she is burned out by the unequal caregiving duties of her own marriage, disappearing under the ‘motherload of wifedom’. Frustrated by the erasure of Eileen’s impact on Orwell’s work by both the man himself and later scholars, Funder identifies with her as a wife pressured by societal norms that laud women’s ‘self-sacrifice and self-effacement’.
While refreshing, such projection can be claustrophobic. Discussing Orwell’s infidelities, for instance, Funder slides from evaluating Eileen’s feelings to her own potential response to cheating. Meant to showcase Eileen’s ‘electrifying’ voice using her surviving letters, conversely Wifedom’s fictionalised chapters have a distancing effect, constantly interrupting the flow of Eileen’s own words with heavy-handed detail.
Novels enjoy the privilege of creative licence to imagine these women’s lives. Hamnet draws on social history and folklore to characterise Agnes Shakespeare as a wise herbalist and rumoured witch, although the choice to make her an unbeliever contemptuous of dried toad remedies keeps her comfortably modern for a secular age. O’Keeffe plays with the ambiguities of using a real person as her narrator in The Sitter. ‘My mind is mired in the mind of the writer’, Hortense recognises, ‘I am not purely myself’.
In Greek myth, the poet Orpheus attempts to lead his dead wife Eurydice out of the underworld. Just before they reach the earth, he cannot resist turning to check she is there, a forbidden action that banishes her back to Hades. In her poem ‘Eurydice’, modernist poet H.D. subverted this loss into a woman’s self-assertion against her partner’s arrogance. Even in death, Orpheus disregards Eurydice’s separate personhood. Of the fateful glance, she asks: ‘what was it you saw in my face? / the light of your own face, / the fire of your own presence?’ This question implicates not only the patriarchal selfishness of famous spouses but also their challengers, and any writer who seeks to resurrect past lives.
Eurydice’s words also evoke Virginia Woolf’s description of women as ‘looking-glasses’ made to reflect the ‘figure of man at twice its natural size’ in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Defiant, Eurydice claims her autonomy. ‘At least I have the flowers of myself’ she says, ‘I have the fervour of myself for a presence / and my own spirit for light’. Woolf, incidentally, was married to one of the most notable examples of the artist’s wife as a man: her husband, Leonard.
Iona Glen is a writer living in Edinburgh. Her writing has been published by Lucy Writers, Literary Hub, Corridor8, and the Wellcome Collection.