In the early, almost mythical, 1960s, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, the wife of George Bernard Shaw, was the subject of a thoroughly informative biography that managed to justify its existence while making only modest claims for Mrs. G.B. S.[1] Although some of the questions that it raised had their expected Freudian ring (What did she learn from her parents’ unhappy marriage? Was there sex between the Shaws?), they were handled with care and delicacy, out of deference—one presumes—to the famous man as well as to the limits of then current knowledge. Since Charlotte Payne-Townshend had not herself done anything much more noteworthy than marry the skittish Shaw, there were no real surprises in Mrs. G B. S., except perhaps that Shaw’s wife for nearly half a century seemed less recoverable than one would have thought. Janet Dunbar’s vivid portrait of the early years of a restless, intelligent young woman faded after the marriage, as if to illustrate how unlikely it was that anyone could stand out in relation to G. B. S. himself.

That Shaw’s wife did stand up to him is quite evident, nonetheless, and to some extent at least she followed her own non-Shavian interests. Like a number of others in the Twenties and Thirties with longings for the infinite, she came under the brief spell of the Russian philosopher Ouspensky, whose best-known work claimed to have found the key to the enigmas of the world, a claim that might have struck Mrs. Shaw as a welcome challenge to the omniscience at home. In any case, she had money of her own as well as cosmic yearnings, and apparently went out of her way to satisfy them. It is not clear how much success she had.

What does come through most clearly in this treatment of the Shaws is Dunbar’s rueful recognition that, no matter how you twist and turn them, the proportions don’t change: “Mrs. G.B.S.” says it all. Once the marriage took place, Charlotte Payne-Townshend’s identity was more or less fixed for the rest of her life, and neither she nor her biographer seemed unduly troubled by it. In her old age, moreover, bedridden by a crippling form of lumbago from which she was virtually doubled up, an increasingly difficult Charlotte Shaw was patiently tended by her equally old but still upright husband. One comes away, finally, with the image of a woman who may have been bent by wifehood but who was certainly not broken.

Since the days of Mrs. G. B. S., women and biography have entered into a dramatic new relationship, significantly altering the presentation of great men’s wives and very often of the great men themselves. Janet Dunbar’s disposition toward accommodation and compromise has been gradually displaced by antagonism and assertiveness, as unsung wives, deprived wives, maligned wives become increasingly the subjects of current polemical biography. If most wives were traditionally ignored (or barely mentioned) in books about their husbands, then the obvious remedy was to give them more space and at the same time to fix the blame for the longstanding neglect where it belonged—not on the women, by any means. And while the iron was hot, a few deserving sisters of famous men could be taken care of as well. Lest this seem too harsh and premature an abstraction of what has happened during the last twenty years, a somewhat concrete sampling might be in order, beginning with Nancy Milford’s Zelda.[2]

The story of the Scott Fitzgeralds and their “Twenties” marriage has been told so many times, most recently in James Mellow’s Invented Lives,[3] that it needs no rehearsing here. All the “getting and spending,” the Atlantic crossings, the adolescent antics at home and abroad, have been endlessly catalogued as though their fascination were eternal. Scott was always the center of interest, but the Fitzgeralds lived their public lives as a pair, and from the first Zelda’s strangeness did not escape notice—and it would have been strange if it had, since her behavior and speech were at times positively bizarre. Among the witnesses to Zelda’s numerous oddities—such as leaping across a restaurant table or asking Scott for a cigarette just as he was negotiating a mountain curve in their car—was John Dos Passos, who spent an afternoon with her in an amusement park and who was driven to conclude then and there that the woman was mad. That Scott was rapidly becoming an alcoholic merely added to the fun and made them a couple you definitely had to watch.

But singling out Zelda as the subject of a biography required a good deal more than watching. Nancy Milford related in her preface how she had travelled thousands of miles in search of Zelda, and how she had been moved as she had never been moved before by her letters to Scott, most of them written in the Thirties from various mental institutions. Milford made it clear, too, that the principal aim of her book was to find out why, after only ten years of marriage, Scott Fitzgerald’s wife had broken down, why, that is, the Southern belle—with her “clean wild hair brushed back from her face"—had gone insane. Dazzled by her freshness and beauty, Milford saw the young Zelda as “the American girl living the American dream,” a dream that something or somebody had turned into a nightmare. It goes without saying that the finger would point eventually to Scott and to the marriage, and that Zelda would be seen not as having the fixed identity of a Mrs. G. B. S. but as having no identity at all. This, Milford seemed to be suggesting, was what Scott had engineered and what finally drove Zelda mad. She had longed for her own accomplishments to match his, but whatever she took up— dancing, story writing, painting—he somehow managed to spoil.

In other words, the real project underlying Milford’s biography was to construct the identity that Zelda might have had under other circumstances. It involved her, of course, in a detailed account of Zelda’s early prewar years in Montgomery, Alabama, before she met and married Scott. They were privileged years, during which, as Milford seemed disinclined to notice, Zelda’s unchecked willfulness and exhibitionism spelled trouble—foreshadowed not only the fabulous marriage to Scott and exhibitionism, en duo, on a grand scale, but also the private crash that came shortly after the big public one in '29 and that virtually put an end to their life together. In light of so graphic a picture—however unwittingly drawn—of Zelda’s disturbed and disturbing girlhood, with its wild impulses and “acting out,” one is frankly compelled to ask whether Zelda’s greatest potential might not have been the breakdown she suffered at thirty.

As a matter of fact, while it is generally agreed that the marriage precipitated the breakdown, for Milford the breakdown actually provided the strongest piece of evidence for what Zelda Fitzgerald might have been able to make of herself if the world— and Scott—had not stood in her way: a novel called Save Me the Waltz, written in something like six weeks while she was in a Baltimore psychiatric clinic. One of the many curiosities of the Fitzgerald relationship was the effect on Scott of this largely incoherent fiction. By all accounts (including his own), it made him frantic and hysterical because he saw Zelda encroaching on the matter of his own unfinished novel, the work long in the making that would finally appear as Tender is the Night. Without Zelda’s original manuscript, which has been lost, it is hard to know just how much duplication there really was, but Scott’s reaction seems excessive in any case, in light of both the surviving proofs and the text as published, which make all too plain Zelda’s cracked shell of a mind. Fitzgerald, one suspects, could not help himself, but Milford took Zelda’s book even more seriously than he, subjecting it to an extended critical analysis as though there were a readable narrative instead of raw data from a disordered psyche.

Scott’s own behavior might well be explained as part of the “craziness” he and Zelda had in common, which Leon Edel has described—in the language of psychopathol-ogy—as folie à deux, where two people (often a married couple) share a delusional system. Milford’s biography provides more than enough evidence to support Edel’s point, but it also illustrates another brand of folly, that of the biographer who ignores her own findings, who takes her subject’s wishes for deeds and her yearnings for accomplishments. Zelda certainly had a streak of talent (a “brilliant offbeat style” was how James Mellow put it in Invented Lives), and Scott mined it ruthlessly for his fiction. But to intimate that he, and not her own incapacities, prevented her from becoming a full-fledged artist is to misread all the psychological signs. Even Fitzgerald, in his last, worn-out years, when he tried to defend himself against her family’s accusation that it was he who had caused her breakdown, finally seemed to understand how profoundly damaged Zelda had already been when he first met her.

Unwilling to admit the deep roots of Zelda’s illness, Nancy Milford was not inclined to make very much of Scott’s hard-earned understanding: her project called for a different brand of damages. Even so, she did not present Zelda as exclusively the victim-wife in the way Diane Johnson would process the first Mrs. Meredith a couple of years later, in the book generally known as Lesser Lives.[4] In this case, the challenge lay not so much in being able to imagine an alternate identity for her subject as in being able to create—out of whole cloth—an entire life. For if relatively little was known (then and now) about George Meredith, even less information was available about his first wife. Despite the fact that she was the favorite daughter of Thomas Love Peacock—satirist, skeptic, and great friend of Shelley-Mary Ellen Meredith left few traces behind: a handful of letters, a commonplace book, some food recipes, and two prose pieces about housewifery, published early in her short-lived marriage to Meredith. Quite undaunted by so small a store, Johnson proceeded to imagine what must have happened between a young ambitious writer (he was twenty-two) and an older woman (by seven years) who had not only been married before and already borne a child but had “educated herself,” when a teenager, by reading French novels. With such bits and pieces—this particular one about novel-reading gleaned from a letter written by Mary Shelley that described Mary Ellen Peacock at fourteen—Johnson constructed an elaborate edifice of innuendo and surmise, held together by her firm belief that Peacock’s daughter, brought up in a freethinking environment where advanced views about women and sex prevailed, could only have been ground to dust in the repressive Victorian world of George Meredith, the Portsmouth tailor’s son.

Actually, neither George nor Mary Ellen had a chance in the courtroom set up by Johnson, though for him, of course, there were no tears shed: the fault, after all, lay deep in his character, while Mary Ellen’s gender alone had determined her fate by forcing her into marriage. This—one of the few options open to a nineteenth-century woman—usually meant, as everyone knows by now, frequent debilitating pregnancies, and when the woman happened to be married to a man like George Meredith, sensitive, “high-strung,” and “passionately ambitious” for a literary fame not to be jeopardized “by every day work” (which put them constantly in debt), her options had been reduced practically to zero. And, irony of ironies, Meredith’s weak digestive system could not tolerate the gourmet meals his wife loved to cook. For Johnson, then, Mary Ellen’s creativity was blocked on all sides, sacrificed to Meredith’s delicate stomach as well as to his craving for fame. That she was driven to leave him after only six or seven years seemed to Johnson axiomatic.

The details of the first Mrs. Meredith’s “elopement” from her husband are scanty, but the universal conclusion has been that she left with her lover, the painter Henry Wallis, who was also the father of the child born soon after. Taking issue with this received view as an all-too-conventional one that may have fit the circumstances but not her subject’s character, Johnson thought it far more likely that Mary Ellen had left George in order to save her soul. Longing for independence (especially from him) and hoping to earn a livelihood by her own pen, she separated from her husband at the same time she just happened to be involved with Wallis. Put another way, to Johnson, Wallis was quite incidental, but even if she had gone off with him, it would simply mean that in the world of the 1850s a woman of Mary Ellen’s class could not have acted alone. Alas, fate was dogging her steps. She died three years later when she was only forty, perhaps from an old kidney ailment aggravated by numerous pregnancies but certainly without having had the time or opportunity to prove herself. And, to Johnson’s disgust, George Meredith went on to become a famous novelist, who never forgave his first wife for insulting him by leaving him and whose “books are full of erring wives.” Johnson’s own book, full of scorn for erring (and timid) biographers as well as for erring (and hard-hearted) husbands, was meant to evoke by every conceivable fictional means the world that had coldly and silently witnessed the sufferings of Mary Ellen Meredith, a world of sin and guilt that no mere Biographer—tied not only to Fact but also to inhibiting Convention—could possibly have reproduced. But like a postmodern novel calling attention to its own apparatus, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives was an entirely self-conscious vehicle: fiction wrestling pretentiously with fact; footnotes vying with text; capital letters carrying the derogatory tone and meaning; the whole enterprise driven by an inflated sense of mission and directed mainly at those who shared the author’s point of view, readers who would miss none of her innuendos and already felt they knew what a nineteenth-century woman’s life had to be like.

Reconstructed along such preconceived lines, as though it lay there ready and waiting to emerge, the first Mrs. Meredith’s life was turned into a political exemplum, duly illustrating a variety of sins against women. In contrast, the life of the second Mrs. Hardy, scrupulously researched and presented by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton (themselves a husband-and-wife team), became a curious study in understatement.[5] Avoiding the slightest temptation to claim for their subject more than ordinary abilities or “small talent,” they produced a biography that seems a crossbreed, as though a life were being singled out for its lack of interest. Perhaps this was precisely Gittings and Manton’s point—that the ordinariness of Thomas Hardy’s wife had never been fully documented. But it has certainly been proven now, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Gittings himself, as Thomas Hardy’s most recent biographer, knew only too well the background of his second marriage: how Hardy, nearly seventy and unhappy in his first marriage, struggling with The Dynasts, that vast epic in blank verse and prose, met Florence Dugdale and wooed her for seven years behind his wife’s back. She was twenty-eight when they met, with just the kind of delicate beauty that appealed to him: a certified teacher who hated teaching and loved poetry, who had grown up in Enfield, a few miles north of London, where John Keats also went to school and where she was taught to revere “great authors.” In Enfield, too, from her biographers’ point of view, the great deception practiced on Florence Dugdale had its beginnings—in the “literary evenings and conversaziones” that fostered a taste for genteel verse and the expression of fine sentiments. Thus, already persuaded that she had some talent, when Hardy praised her writing she believed him; when he touched up one of her stories and sent it for her to the Cornhill, she thought it had been accepted on its merits; when he persuaded the editor of an illustrated paper to hire her, she assumed it was in recognition of her own skills. Grown used to Hardy’s tender ministrations, Florence was completely unprepared for the change that came over the great author when his wife suddenly died. He had paid little attention for years, it would seem, to the ailing Emma, and her death took him by surprise—as did the manuscript he found among her papers, in which she affectingly recalled their early years together. The result was that Hardy could barely attend to Florence, so obsessed was he with the memory of Emma. In the months following—even after he and Florence were married—Hardy devoted himself almost exclusively to a series of poems that revealed, in his biographer’s view, all the guilt and remorse activated by Emma’s death.

Whether Gittings has read these poems rightly or not, the second marriage would certainly appear to have had its problems. Chief among them, however, had to be Florence Hardy’s indisputable ordinariness. Led astray by false ideals as well as by Hardy’s oblique eroticism—or the wayward muse of a genius—how could she have understood her own unhappiness? Or, for that matter, the irony in the fact that being Hardy’s wife required an unexpected degree of selflessness and sacrifice, costing her—as Gittings and Manton show—the very beauty that had earned her Hardy’s attention in the first place? Yet the marriage lasted fourteen years, until Hardy’s death at the age of eighty-seven, and in the eyes of the world Florence Hardy was “the priestess of his cult.”

She herself may have felt that her worst problems began after her husband died, since most of her two-volume biography of Hardy, published within two years of his death, had actually been-written by him. To make matters worse, in the same year (1930) as her second volume, Somerset Maugham’s satiric novel, Cakes and Ale, appeared, with its nasty portrait of an aged writer and his much younger wife, identified by virtually all the reviewers as Mr. and Mrs. Hardy. It is at this low point in her life that Gittings and Manton began their biography of Florence, with a view—as they themselves put it—to discovering “the real character of the second Mrs. Hardy” as opposed to the fictional, something no one had seen fit to inquire about until then. By the end of the book, not only had they documented her “real character,” but they had also succeeded in showing why it had never aroused any interest. Yet they seem to have thought they were doing Florence Hardy double justice by ascribing her defects to the cultural environment in which she had grown up and by carefully distinguishing her own modest character from that of the calculating wife in Cakes and Ale. Surely this is a form of justice that comes perilously close to punishment. For all their stated intent to make Hardy’s second wife known for the first time, obliging them to point out in the process his failings as man and husband, Gittings and Manton reveal—more clearly than anything else—the drastic limitations of the woman they chose as their subject.

In their most recent collaboration—on a new life of Dorothy Wordsworth—the same misplaced zeal is apparent, even though here the famous brother does not seem to have been, as Hardy was, a target.[6] On the contrary, he was left out as much as possible, with a view to giving Dorothy the space and attention she deserves. But once again, though fostered and endorsed by prevailing attitudes toward women and biography, the good intentions backfired, producing a life with its center neatly cut away. As Bruce Bawer noted in his review of Dorothy Wordsworth in these pages, omitting William and his poetry from Dorothy’s life deprived it of the very meaning she intended it to have. So that instead of paying homage to an extraordinary woman, Gittings and Manton have actually set aside, devalued her own strongest feelings, just when even radical feminists, studying Dorothy’s rich prose texts in order to intensify their value, have taken to regarding them as subtle interactions with her brother’s poems. Professing to admire her, Gittings and Manton have succeeded in belittling her—by attempting what amounts to a reduction (for her) from dependent sisterhood to independent womanhood. Whether you deplore such submergence of self or not, whether you choose to call it absorption by the Other, or extreme passivity, or perhaps even arrested development, to rub out William the poet in an effort to highlight Dorothy the woman can only turn her into a far smaller person than the one she worked so hard to be.

Achieving results very different from those they intended would seem a hazard that biographers in particular are likely to run, especially when they tie themselves into cultural/political programs. For example, Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James, the chronically and mysteriously ailing younger sister of William and Henry, can be said to suffer from too close—and deterministic —a reading of the life.[7] The private struggles of Strouse’s subject, both physical and mental, have been carefully placed in their nineteenth-century context, with causative connections made between the cultural environment of women and Alice’s “invalid” existence. But these links have struck some readers as forced and questionable, and the portrait of Alice as overcharged with psychoanalytic doctrine, her life experience turned into a tale relentlessly plotted. Even more to the point, Alice comes through as painfully lacking in the creative energy that drove her older brothers to overcome their own personal disabilities. So that while explicitly denying that she was making Alice “a heroine (or victim-as-heroine),” Strouse could not help attributing her failure to the James family as well as to society at large. Paradoxically, Alice seemed to have been incapacitated by her sizable share of James talent. Perhaps with less, she might have managed to escape from herself, but along with the James gifts came the James will to power— exercised by Alice through illness, the only weapon she felt was available to her. Put differently, Alice was forced to devote virtually all her “fine intelligence” to resolving what Strouse presents as the “essential contradiction” of her life—the fact that she was both “a James and a girl.” Such were the large modern terms in which Strouse argued for the meaning and value of Alice James’s small, strangled life; and Strouse derived them, at least in part (as her introduction shows), from the celebrated essay by Virginia Woolf that has had more influence on biographies of women in the Seventies and Eighties—and has been more misused— than almost any other single work: “A Room of One’s Own.”

In this essay that has become a sacred text for large numbers of contemporary women, Woolf imagined the dire fate of a “wonderfully gifted” younger sister of Shakespeare, a woman consumed by the urge to express herself and driven wild by the poetic sensibility she was not supposed to have by virtue of her sex. She would have had no encouragement from her family except to marry; and she might have run off to London expressly to avoid marriage. Once there, she would surely have gravitated to the theaters, caught the eye of an actor-manager, and in due course “found herself with child.” From Virginia Woolf’s point of view, this could have had but one result-suicide—for in her opinion “any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.” Chances are that Woolf was more right than not in her feel for the limitations operating on an inspired woman in the sixteenth century and that in all likelihood a sister of Shakespeare would have been undone by her anachronistic sensibility. But many of the actual women—including the highly verbal Alice James—who are fitted into the Woolfian paradigm as sisters under the skin have had little of the intensity and creative drive of the gifted being whose lineaments Woolf conjured up in her essay. It is almost as though, since Woolf’s stirring vignette took hold, the impediments have counted far more than the gifts, as though frustration and suffering were now principal prerequisites for biographies of women, prerequisites all too often met by the wives of famous men precisely because so many of them have left little else to show for themselves.

Misery is certainly the abiding theme of the recently published lives of Jenny Marx and Sara Coleridge, with most of their suffering attributed to the great men themselves —to the extraordinary demands they made on their wives and the sacrifices that marriage to them entailed. As H. F. Peters baldly put it in the introduction to Red Jenny, his biography of Jenny Marx, “the woman behind every great man is the victim of his passions . . . ”[8] But Peters was also driven to confess that “during the seven years of [his] efforts to understand the life of Jenny Marx there were times when [he] felt that it could not be done, because so many personal documents, letters and diaries, had been destroyed or were being withheld.” His solution, since he claimed not to want to “present an ideological thesis,” was “to lay out the facts about her life with her husband and her children, as she herself gave them.” In other words, he would provide what amounts to a doubly partial story. Yet, in spite of his disclaimer, the raison d’être of his biography is surely ideological, for it has come into being—with all its admitted handicaps—in a cultural climate that does not mind them, that does not object to incompleteness or partiality so long as it is on the right side— the wife’s side. But when there is virtually no interpretation, no attempt at a translation of Jenny Marx’s self-expressed feelings or their tones, her life can easily become one huge cliché. “[She] lived and died in the vortex of her husband’s fateful gospel”: so Peters was content to sum it up. And so at least one reviewer rightly complained that he had told Karl’s life story and not Jenny’s.

She has fared no better at the hands of an equally sympathetic, equally uninquiring woman, Edna Healey, who recites the events of Jenny Marx’s life along with those of Mary Livingstone’s and Emma Darwin’s in a book called Wives of Fame.[9] Like Peters, Healey concentrates on the hardship and woe in a life with the absolutist Karl Marx: political exile, poverty, illness, births and deaths. The chronicle is grim indeed, and the moral all too obvious: such is “the fate of those who [choose to] live with demon-heroes.” Mary Livingstone’s sufferings turn out to have been even greater than Jenny’s, married as she was to a religious fanatic who (unlike the thoroughly bourgeois Marx) cared nothing for this world, so that she had to endure one pregnancy after another under the most primitive conditions, dying at an early age in the wilds of Africa. By contrast, Emma Darwin’s secure, placid, and long-lived marriage to the dedicated scientist, which produced its own small army of children yet managed to provide a nurturing environment for them, is presented as an instance of great good luck for both husband and wife. But the book offers no comprehensive view of either nineteenth-century life or marriage, much less of sexuality. It seems to have come into being in order to point out that the world has completely forgotten the self-sacrificing wives of Livingstone, Marx, and Darwin—but without explaining why the world ought to remember them now.

When there is little to tell of a life beyond its pain and suffering (and these are shared by untold millions of men as well as women), when, in spite of voluminous archives, the biographical materials are thin and the individual consciousness remains closed and impenetrable, what drives the study of such a life? Molly Lefebure would claim, no doubt, that for her obscure subject, Sara Coleridge, “the most maligned of great men’s wives,” biography is the only corrective possible. It is certainly true that, since her own day, Coleridge’s wife has borne the character of an ill-tempered, unloving ninny, a characterization Coleridge himself not only subscribed to but also apparently originated, hence the nearly universal readiness with which it has been handed down. No matter how many questions about the poet have come up over the years, no matter how many subtle shifts in the judgment on him have taken place, the verdict on Sara has remained substantially the same. Molly Lefebure set out to change that verdict, in effect, to clear Sara Coleridge’s name at long last by examining all the surviving documents—every scrap—for information that might cast doubt on the received view of Sara and the marriage: biography, in other words, as a rescue mission.

Lefebure’s book about Sara, The Bondage of Love,[10] grew out of her earlier study of Sara’s husband, The Bondage of Opium, in which she argued at great length—and persuasively—for the disastrous effects on Coleridge of his drug addiction. In this new book she maintains, as one might expect, that Sara’s own behavior could not have been unaffected by her husband’s habit; and she tries to show how the strains in the marriage did in fact stem from opium—indeed, how living with Coleridge became more and more difficult, if not impossible, as even his loyal friends, the Wordsworths, finally had to admit. In Lefebure’s view, then, opium (and not Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, whom Coleridge claimed to love) came between the Coleridges, bringing out his worst tendencies, if not altering his personality; and yet despite its uncertain beginnings, with Coleridge attempting to retreat from his hasty proposal of marriage, their relationship was firmly based in strong, positive feeling on both sides.

Admittedly, the Coleridge marriage makes more sense seen this way instead of monochromatically, especially since after years of estrangement there was something of a rapprochement at the end, when his drug habit had been brought under control and he was being looked after in Highgate. So that even though Lefebure’s demonstration involves some tenuous and inconclusive evidence-guessing at the contents of missing letters, for example, or presuming to know how S. T. and Sara actually felt at certain crucial moments, it has rendered the old picture of the marriage somewhat suspect. But does this mean that Sara was not as unsuitable a wife for a poet and a genius as everyone has always assumed? For whatever the poet’s reasons for believing her unsuitable, believe it he did, and no biographer can alter those feelings, opium-induced or not. In the same way, even if Sara’s intelligence could actually be measured and shown to be considerably greater than people have thought, this would not change the perception of general incompetence—however unjust or inaccurate —that seemed to prevail throughout her life. Moreover, the life has already been lived—in circumstances whose complex causes and effects are scarcely recoverable. To argue for a new reading of a body of work is one thing; it is quite another to put Sara Coleridge’s scant remains under the hermeneutic microscope, as though her painful experience with Coleridge could be treated like an accomplishment worth preserving. In truth, neither his part in the marriage nor hers can bear very close scrutiny. Sara Coleridge herself seemed to realize this, for after Coleridge’s death she burned the accumulated correspondence of forty years—in order, she claimed, to protect her husband’s reputation, but at the same time destroying the evidence that might have left no doubt about her own role in the relationship. And the question of motive remains, despite Lefebure’s partisan certainty that the mistreated Sara Coleridge had only her husband’s interests at heart after all.

The method of Lefebure’s book, involving as it does the attempt to reconstruct a domestic life, is carried even further in Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh, a biographical/historical study of the models who sat for the Pre-Raphaelite painters and became their mistresses and wives.[11] Since then, they have been mythologized as the faces and forms in the famous paintings, but with little or no attention paid to their real lives and background, which were always obscure in any case. What Marsh set out to do was to give these women—six of them— human dimensions, so that they could be moved out of the realm of male-dominated myth, where they have long been “viewed merely as satellites of the men,” into a world that would recognize their own creative urges and ambitions as well as their separate personalities. She combed the Pre-Raphaelite source materials for information that would fill in her account of their daily lives as well as for evidence of undeveloped gifts and frustrated longings. There was Lizzie Siddall, for example, trying her hand at drawing, and Georgie Macdonald taking up wood-engraving. But neither one of them got very far, mainly because—as Marsh presents it—even the support of an untrained woman’s artistic efforts in the mid-nineteenth century could become an impediment. Thus, Lizzie may have been too lavishly praised by Gabriel Rossetti and persuaded to paint before she had learned to draw; or perhaps, without the benefit of “life studies,” she could not have mastered figures. Whatever the reason, the result was that “most of the people in her pictures have no legs…” As for Georgie Macdonald, her marriage to Burne-Jones—in Marsh’s view—prevented her from realizing her own ambitions. To support this view, Marsh describes how, “on the eve of her wedding, [Georgie] assessed their material goods: £30 in cash from Ned’s earnings and her own ‘small deal table with a drawer in it that held my wood-engraving tools.’ This table, which appears to have been her only significant possession, was clearly valued as a solid symbol of her own aspirations. It tells us that, like her husband, Georgie had serious artistic ambitions, although as it turned out, Ned’s brushes and pens were to eclipse her engraving-tools.” Surely that table of Georgie’s “tells us” nothing of the kind. Nor does the equally simplistic argument that is dominated by feminist ideals and that runs through Marsh’s entire book make her case for the undeveloped powers she wants to claim: “women were denied opportunities and then defined as inferior"; this “makes it hard to assess their abilities.” How do you know, in other words, what these women might have been capable of achieving if they had begun with the educational advantages of a Rossetti, a Burne-Jones, a William Morris, instead of growing up—as some of them did—in the slums of London? What if they had not had “defeats and deficiencies imposed on their sex"? Still, whether “imposed” or not, the “defeats and deficiencies” are all too apparent, as Marsh’s account cannot help but show, and in the last analysis they do make a difference, though it means that her subjects can scarcely be distinguished from the rest of humanity—unless, of course, all that matters is what might have been rather than what was.

Once again, an elaborate rescue operation has turned into demolition. Removed from the world of myth and transcendent value, the Pre-Raphaelite women are reduced to ordinary, insignificant human beings. And in her extraordinary postscript, Jan Marsh argues for the significance of the insignificant—for all the “details of [women’s] emotional lives, domestic responsibilities, family relations and . . . social activities” that have never been deemed worthy of “serious attention” and are always dismissed at once as “trivialization.” But it is Jan Marsh herself who has trivialized her subjects by crying their limitations and rationalizing their weaknesses, by studying meager endowments as though they were great gifts, by failing—in the very act of investigating the reality of these women’s lives—to acknowledge and accept that reality for what it was. So, too, when women who were mainly wives, with no special gifts or achievements, are made biographical subjects in their own right, the effort required to give their lives equal significance as well as space makes a mockery of the delicate and humane art of biography. When praise demeans because it is undeserved; when to magnify is to diminish and to single out is to expose (but no one will admit this), we are truly in the land of political make-believe, where categories are more important than what is in them and where moral currencies have been so inverted that the wrongs of the past have become the “rights” of today.

 

 

  1. Mrs. G. B. S.: A Portrait, by Janet Dunbar, was published by Harper & Row in 1963. Go back to the text.
  2. Zelda: A Biography was published by Harper & Row in 1970. Go back to the text.
  3. James Mellow’s Invented Lives, originally published by Houghton Mifflin in 1984, was reprinted in paperback by Ballantine in 1986. Go back to the text.
  4. Diane Johnson’s The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives was published in 1972 by Knopf. Go back to the text.
  5. The Second Mrs. Hardy, by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, was published by the University of Washington Press in 1979. Go back to the text.
  6. Dorothy Wordsworth, by Robert Gittings and Jo Manton, was published by Oxford University Press/Clarendon in 1985. Go back to the text.
  7. Alice James: A Biography, by Jean Strouse, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1980. Go back to the text.
  8. Red Jenny: A Life with Karl Marx, by H. F. Peters; St. Martin’s Press, 208 pages, $14.95. Go back to the text.
  9. Wives of Fame: Mary Livingstone, Jenny Marx, Emma Darwin, by Edna Healey, was published in London in 1986 by Sidgwick and Jackson. Go back to the text.
  10. The Bondage of Love: A Life of Mrs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Molly Lefebure, was published in London in 1986 by Victor Gollancz. Norton will publish the book here this month (287 pages, $17.95). Go back to the text.
  11. Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, by Jan Marsh, was published in 1985 in London by Quartet Books. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 8, on page 6
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https://newcriterion.com/issues/1987/4/new-tales-for-old-wives

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