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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood