Woman in black: Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan in Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman. Photo: Sony Pictures/Everett/Rex.
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The lady vanishes: what happens to the women forgotten by literary history?

Dickens’s mistress Nelly Ternan is a reminder of how much great male authors owe to their forgotten wives and muses.

We see them everywhere, the invisible women; everywhere in books, that is. They are in the dedications (“To Cynthia/Emma/ Sarah, who was there”), in the acknow­ledgements (“. . . and finally I would like to thank my wife, without whom . . .”) and increasingly in the titles – Nora: the Real Life of Molly Bloom; Véra: Mrs Vladimir Nabokov; Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise; and Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: the Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which has now been adapted into a subtle and moving film directed by Ralph Fiennes (who stars as Dickens, with Felicity Jones as Ternan). When Tomalin began her research into Dickens’s mistress, she found that Nelly Ternan had “vanished into thin air”. Nora, Véra, Zelda and Nelly are writers’ Wags, which in this case stands for “wives and ghosts” – and the best ghost stories have long been found in literary biographies.

“Marriage interferes,” warns the great writer Henry St George in The Lesson of the Master by Henry James. The misanthrope John Fowles disagreed. “A writer’s wife,” he said, “is vital. Always, without exception.” His first wife, Elizabeth, was his chauffeur, chief editor and the “ghost”, as he put it, for several female characters. When she died in 1990, Fowles’s fiction dried up. Ernest Hemingway, according to a friend of his, needed “a new woman for each big book”. Hemingway had four big books and four wives.

Behind most great male authors, there is a chief muse and bottle washer; a one-woman literary agency. Wags are as different as the writers they serve but the perfect Wag will provide the inspiration for the writing, then read it, praise it, edit it, copy or type it (Sophia Tolstoy copied War and Peace seven times) and deliver it to the publisher. She will negotiate royalties, field phone calls, respond to fan mail, keep the children quiet (Elizabeth Fowles sent her two-year-old daughter to a convent) and remain invisible. This last clause is vital: we prefer to imagine our writers toiling away in solitude rather than suckling on the teat of an all-singing, all-dancing, round-the-clock personal administrator.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke aspired to the life of the literary Wag. Filing her husband’s notes to The Key to All Mythologies would allow her a small part in the improvement of the world. “Many who knew her,” wrote Eliot, “thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another” – but what were the options for intelligent women who wanted to make their mark? The best that Dorothea could hope for was to live the life of another to the full.

Sophia Tolstoy, the world’s most unhappy writer’s wife, described her marriage to Tolstoy as a “sacrifice”. When Fowles visited Thomas Hardy’s former home, he found a crime scene. Above the study where Hardy produced Tess and Jude were the two “miserable attic rooms” in which Emma, Hardy’s first wife, lived and died. “What is the cost of a masterpiece?” Fowles wondered, and he wrote a poem about a mason who built a bridge that kept falling down. It would only stand, the mason was told, if he buried his wife below its foundations. So he buried his wife alive and the bridge survived. In an interview in 1984, Fowles said he wished that “someone would study novelists’ wives”. He added hastily: “And husbands”. He was right to concede that novelists can also be women but it is hard to think of a man who has been sacrificed on the altar of his wife’s book. Leonard Woolf did not slip out of history so Virginia Woolf could write.

When Fowles made his wish, he didn’t know that it had already come true a year earlier, with the publication of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose. A study of writers’ wives – and husbands – Parallel Lives changed the genre of literary biography.

It now seems such a simple idea but at the time the originality of Rose’s subject was astonishing. The Victorian assumption that a biography should be the extended CV of a public figure was proving hard to dislodge. What possible purpose could there be in exploring private life? Rose examined the cost for Jane Welsh of being married to Thomas Carlyle; for Catherine Hogarth of binding herself to Charles Dickens; for Effie Gray of accepting John Ruskin; for George Henry Lewes of setting up house with George Eliot; for Harriet Taylor of choosing John Stuart Mill. Her conclusions were grim. The two Georges, who weren’t married and who both wrote, were the only couple able to sustain a happy relationship.

Five years after Parallel Lives, Brenda Maddox’s Nora, her biography of Mrs James Joyce, appeared. Three years after that, in 1991, The Invisible Woman was published. “In the scale of things,” Tomalin wrote of the actress for whom Dickens abandoned his wife and ten children, “Nelly is not an important person.” The inspiration for Estella in Great Expectations, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend and Lucie Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, Nelly matters to us because she was embedded in Dickens’s psyche and Dickens is embedded in ours. And Tomalin’s book mattered because it allowed biography to become ghost-hunting.


The real Estella: Nelly Ternan, circa 1860. Photo: Getty.

Lives of wives rolled into the bookshops. In 2007, even Mrs Shakespeare was given a life of her own by Germaine Greer. Ann Hathaway, Greer explained in Shakespeare’s Wife, had “left a wife-shaped void in the biography of William Shakespeare, which later bardolaters filled up with their own speculations”.

William and Ann Shakespeare spent much of their marriage apart but most committed writers are unable to function without the Wag. Despite playing the alienated author card, Vladimir Nabokov was never without Véra, his wife of 50 years. According to her biographer, Stacy Schiff, Mrs Nabokov more than fulfilled the job requirements of the invisible woman. Nabokov’s first and sharpest critic, she cut up her husband’s food, carried a gun for his protection and saved Lolita from the flames when he despaired of it (“We’ll not be throwing this away,” she said, picking out the charred pages). Like Nelly Ternan, Véra sought invisibility. Schiff has described how the more Mrs Nabokov tried to disappear, the larger and larger she became for her.

Wordsworth, who embodied the myth of the artist as a solitary genius, had the support of three Wags: his wife, Mary, his sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, and his sister Dorothy. His “devotees”, as Coleridge noted bitterly, did “almost his very eating and drinking . . . for him”.

Wordsworth never came close to wandering lonely as a cloud. The poem in which this line appears was inspired by Dorothy’s journal account of seeing daffodils dancing by the lake. Its most celebrated image – “They flash upon that inward eye,/Which is the bliss of solitude” – was suggested by Wordsworth’s wife.

“Wordsworth” is the name given to a cottage industry and the poet’s devotees were, inevitably, content to remain in the shadows. Dorothy, who was as shy as a badger, has now emerged – I wrote a book about her called The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth – but few women in literary history have left a wife-shaped void as large as that of Mary Wordsworth.

Strange to say but many writers, Wordsworth and Tennyson included, are averse to the act of writing. Once they have heard the words in their heads, an amanuensis is needed to put them down on paper. Wielding a pen gave Wordsworth a disabling knot in the side of his stomach and so, strictly speaking, Dorothy wrote most of her brother’s poetry.

Similarly, Emily Tennyson was responsible for the preservation of many of her husband’s lines that would otherwise, as Tennyson blithely put it, have “gone away on the north wind”. According to Ann Thwaite in Emily Tennyson: the Poet’s Wife, Emily burned Tennyson’s bad reviews before he saw them, protected him from guests he might consider a bore (a role ascribed also to Jane Carlyle) and dealt with his sacks of correspondence. Tennyson, so he said, would “as soon kill a pig as write a letter”.

Not all Wags have such proficient secretarial skills. Nora Barnacle, whose husband, James Joyce, used her unpunctuated prose for the voice of Molly Bloom, never read, let alone proof-read, Ulysses. “Sure, why would I bother?” she asked. “It’s enough that he talks about that book and he’s at it all the time.” Joyce set Ulysses on 16 June, the momentous day when Nora first made a “man” out of him. Without Nora, there would have been no Ulysses; nor would Joyce have written “The Dead”, the finest short story in the language. It was Nora’s memory of a lover who died young that Joyce gave to his character Gretta Conroy, whose revelation that she had once loved Michael Furey momentarily derails her husband.

Nora’s job was to look after reality while Joyce was off in his elsewhere; she fed him, held his hand, chose his clothes and, as Brenda Maddox puts it, “cut him down to size” and reassured him, “every time she opened her mouth, that Ireland was not far away”. Schiff writes something similar about the role of Véra for Nabokov: she gave her exiled husband “an atmosphere of Old World taste” and the pleasure of her “exquisite, uncorrupted Russian”.

It is the fate of the Wag to have her personality plundered. D H Lawrence described the role of Frieda, his aristocratic German wife, as to keep him “in direct communication with the unknown” and he used her as the model for Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow and Women in Love and Connie Chatterley in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Similarly, many of Zelda Fitzgerald’s remarks found their way into the mouths of her husband’s heroines. When she had said nothing of note, Scott Fitzgerald would raid Zelda’s letters and diaries for material. “The most enormous influence on me,” he told Edmund Wilson, “in the four and a half years since I met her has been the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda.”

My guess is that biography has changed more over the past 30 years than writers’ egos. While Xerox machines and computers have reduced the workload of many a Wag, for every writer there is still a ghost. In The Lesson of the Master, the young writer Paul Overt asks Henry St George if there are “no women who really understand – who can take part in the sacrifice”. “How can they take part?” replies St George. “They themselves are the sacrifice.”

Ralph Fiennes’s film “The Invisible Woman” is released on 7 February. The book, by Claire Tomalin, is published in a new edition by Penguin (£9.99)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. Could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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