‘Significant others’ are filling the bookstore shelves. With subjects ranging from Dickens to the American presidents, a burgeoning literary subgenre investigates the influence women have had on famous men. Especially now, with Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, topping the New York Times bestseller list, it’s high time the women had their say.
Hail to the First Lady
Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife (2008) is one of my very favorite novels. Laura Bush’s life might not sound like promising material, but this fictional autobiography is a pure delight. When shy librarian Alice falls for Charlie, heir to the Blackwell political dynasty, private tragedies from her past—and her disagreement with her husband’s policies—threaten to emerge. The well-drawn characters defy caricature, but it’s also great fun to spot Bush family and administration members in this roman à clef.
Sufjan Stevens’s superlative 2005 album, Illinois, includes “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons.” Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln, the 2007 novel from Janis Cooke Newman, enumerates a few of those reasons. She presents the book as Mary’s written confessions, beginning the day she entered Bellevue lunatic asylum. All the tragic losses she experienced, culminating, of course, with Abe’s assassination, make for a sad but evocative tale.
Louis and Frank
Nancy Horan’s latest novel is Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osbourne. Fanny left her cheating husband in San Francisco and set off for Belgium, where she planned to study art. At an artists’ colony in France, she met Stevenson, 10 years her junior. Horan traces their tumultuous two-decade relationship, as work and illness took them between London, New York, and Samoa.
Horan’s previous book, Loving Frank (2007), recreates the affair between Mamah Borthwick Cheney and architect Frank Lloyd Wright, both married with children. Life with a genius could be exciting: “With Mr. Wright, you just grab hold of the tail of the kite. If you can hang on, you’re going to go places never thought possible.” But for Mamah, loving Frank meant abandoning her family and her goals as an intellectual feminist. T.C. Boyle’s novel The Women (2009) enlarges Wright’s life story through information on all four of the women he loved.
Dickens in love
Those who envision Dickens as a typically uxorious Victorian may be surprised to learn he fell spectacularly out of love with his wife of 22 years. Young Catherine was pretty and spirited, but as time passed she failed to match her husband’s intellectual vigor. And, after bearing ten children, she also grew rather plump. Meanwhile, rumors began spreading about Dickens’s relationship with a young actress named Nelly Ternan. In 1858 Dickens separated from Catherine in a humiliatingly public way – via a newspaper editorial. The woman scorned is a difficult cliché to infuse with new life, but Gaynor Arnold’s 2008 novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, does just that for Catherine.
Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman (1990), on the other hand, seeks to set the record straight about Nelly. Seen as “a blot on the good name of Dickens,” poor Nelly was, quite literally, written out of the historical record. And yet she brought fresh purpose and vitality to his last 13 years – and may have had his child. The biography was re-released in December to coincide with a film adaptation, starring Ralph Fiennes (who also directed) as Dickens.
An expanding shelf
Books about the wives and paramours of famous men just keep coming. Melanie Benjamin’s latest, The Aviator’s Wife (2013), a portrait of the Lindbergh marriage, posits why the famous wives subgenre is so appealing: “No one knows the truth behind a marriage except husband and wife.” Benjamin explains that she wrote this novel “to make Anne the heroine of her own story, finally…she is far too often overshadowed by the dominant personality that is Charles Lindbergh.”
The same could be said of any of the women above; it is time for each to step out of the orbit of a charismatic man and be her own irresistible literary subject. If Mrs. Clinton is anything to go by, the road out from obscurity could lead all the way to the Oval Office.