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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Bernie Sanders and the future of the American left

How an old, white guy is bringing class-based politics to the Democratic primary.

One thing is immediately striking: as he addresses primary rallies across America, arms flailing like a giant bird coming in to land, snow-white hair fizzing skywards like Doc Brown’s in Back to the Future, eyes startled behind the robust spectacles he has worn since childhood, Bernie Sanders looks quite unlike any other presidential candidate.

Perhaps the surprise in those eyes is sparked by the size of the crowds Sanders has been attracting. They are enormous, rivalling the numbers who turned out for Barack Obama back in 2008, and unprecedented for a candidate who is not shy of describing himself as a socialist: 28,000 in Portland and LA, 25,000 in Boston and 15,000 in Seattle. Even in Dallas, not a renowned centre of radicalism, 8,000 turned out to “feel the Bern”.

In these days when slick suits and expensive haircuts are increasingly a turn-off for a public weary of smooth politicians they see as delivering only for the wealthy, Sanders’s persona, like that of Jeremy Corbyn, his equally unkempt British counterpart, has proved popular. But it is his message – an angry chronicling of the depredations facing so many Americans and a solid social-democratic programme for putting things right – that is really pulling in the crowds. Sanders, who is 74, and the main challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, doesn’t just look different. With his confident calls for a “revolution” to break up the banks and impose higher taxes on the rich, he doesn’t sound like any other recent presidential contender, either.


I first met Bernie Sanders in 1996. I was the publisher of his book Outsider in the House, a political autobiography that appeared the following year (and which has just been reissued by Verso with a new foreword, and more than a hint of optimism, as Outsider in the White House). The occasion was a benefit concert during his successful bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives from the small, rural state of Vermont.

Sanders’s early years are not well documented, least of all by him. He devotes less than three of the 300 pages in Outsider to the first three decades of his life. He doesn’t much care for the “humble roots” narrative beloved of so many politicians, generally millionaires whose ancestors lived in broken-down cabins. But the raw material is certainly there. The son of Polish immigrants, Sanders grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Flatbush, Brooklyn. At home, money was tight: “Every major household purchase . . . would be accompanied by a fight between my parents as to whether we could afford it,” he wrote.

It was an achievement to gain admission to the University of Chicago, and though he described himself as “not a good student”, that was a result of sacrificing coursework to the cause of social activism. He settled permanently in Vermont at the age of 27, having bought an 85-acre farm in the north of the state for $2,500. Four years later he moved to Burlington, the state capital, where he became involved in city politics, at first in the tiny Liberty Union Party and then as an independent. In 1981 he was inaugurated as mayor and commenced a series of tilts at the state’s congressional seat. He finally entered the House of Representatives in 1991 – the first independent candidate to enter Congress in 40 years.

By the time I encountered him, Sanders was seeking to defend his seat for the third time. The concert where we met was taking place in an old art-deco theatre in Brattleboro, perhaps the most hippiefied community in a state where tie-dye remains as ubiquitous as dairy herds. It was headlined by Pete Seeger, who ran through a panoply from his folk songbook to a packed crowd that knew all the words.

Ten years earlier, Mayor Sanders, a long-time admirer of Seeger, had recorded one of his songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, on a surreal folk/rap album. Now, he waited until Seeger had finished his set before taking the stage and, speaking in the only manner he seems to know – a gruff, shouted staccato – exhorted Vermonters to join him in the fight against Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole to stop the Republicans from taking over the presidency and the Senate. The response was rapturous. Sanders left the stage like a president concluding a State of the Union speech, gladhanding lines of admirers as he made his way out of the hall.

A few weeks later I met him again, this time at his congressional office in Washington, DC. On the wall of his office I spotted a plaque of Eugene Debs, who ran for Congress and the presidency on a socialist ticket, travelling to every part of the country on a train he called the Red Special and picking up 6 per cent of the popular vote in 1912, when he finished fourth, behind Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Sanders had invited me to lunch and so we headed off through the underground passageway that leads from the office building to the congressional dining room. We were accompanied along the way by one of his assistants who, in true West Wing style, peppered him with questions and made notes on a clipboard as we walked. We had just started our food when John Kasich, then congressman for Ohio and now governor of the state and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, wandered over for a chat. Despite Kasich’s reputation as a fiscal conservative, it was evident that he and Sanders had a cordial relationship, and indeed, Sanders invited him to join us for lunch.

It was difficult to reconcile these two contrasting snapshots of Sanders: the rousing air punch in Vermont and the bridge-building handshake in DC. But the more one looks into his career, the clearer it becomes that this dual approach is integral to his remarkable political ascent. Sanders plays it quite differently inside and out, but he plays both sides very hard.

“Bernie doesn’t see a contradiction between working within the system and campaigning to change it,” the journalist Matt Taibbi told me, recalling the time when he shadowed Sanders for several weeks in 2005 while researching a piece for Rolling Stone. “I remember one Thursday afternoon I made a snarky comment about members of the House already sneaking off home for a long weekend and how it seemed to me that many of them were pretty lazy. Bernie scolded me, insisting that most of the people in Congress work very conscientiously. He doesn’t believe the system functions for ordinary people, but he’s not cynical about it either.”

This point was reiterated by Heather Gautney, an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York who previously worked as a researcher in Sanders’s Senate office. “Working with Bernie in DC, I realised what a difficult place it was for someone more interested in movement-building than passing legislation,” Gautney said. “But Bernie was known for getting substantial chunks of the Republican vote in Vermont and he used that same skill to connect with some pretty unlikely allies in Congress.”

Sanders’s legislative record is strikingly good. In the decade after the Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 1995 no other lawmaker attached more amendments to bills that were voted on. He achieved this by using his position as an independent to put together coalitions that spanned both of the main parties, and also by sheer hard work. In his Rolling Stone article, Taibbi describes Sanders waiting patiently for hours to table an amendment in the office of the House rules committee, “a tiny, airless closet deep in the labyrinth of the Capitol where some of the very meanest people on Earth spend their days cleaning democracy like a fish”.

Sanders’s method of working across party lines is not without its critics. Especially on the left, there are voices that wonder if the compromises that inevitably accompany playing the system in DC are too large. Many of Sanders’s positions on foreign policy have skewed towards the militarism and careless disregard for human rights that prevail among the Washington establishment. Although notably, and unlike Hillary Clinton, he opposed the initial vote on the Iraq War, Sanders voted for every bill that came before Congress to fund the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He has supported basing the new F-35 fighter plane at Burlington Airport in Vermont, despite widespread concern from residents about the environmental impact. And he did not oppose the Senate resolution that supported Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2014, which left as many as 2,200 Palestinians dead.

Sanders is clearly happier talking about problems inside the US than foreign policy. In his opening statement to last Saturday’s televised debate between the Democratic candidates, he segued awkwardly from condemning the attacks in Paris to excoriating America’s “rigged economy”. Yet on domestic issues, too, some of his stands have given progressives pause for thought: his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement championed by Barack Obama, has always been grounded in an argument in favour of saving jobs for American workers, rather than any notion of international solidarity. His slowness in expressing support for the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, something which his campaign has latterly striven hard to correct, was less of a surprise to those aware of his consistent support for the police union while mayor of Burlington. And his position on guns (he voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks on buyers of firearms) is the only area in which Clinton outflanks him to the left.

But perhaps the biggest issue for many progressives is Sanders’s decision to run for president through, rather than outside, the Democratic primary. Though he began his political career in the Liberty Union Party and has stood in every election since as an independent, he is, as Howard Dean, the progressives’ challenger in the Democratic primary of 2003/2004, put it, “basically . . . a Democrat . . . [who] votes with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time”.

As Sanders relates in Outsider in the House, faced in 1996 with the choice of backing Ralph Nader, “a personal friend and an exemplary progressive” running as an independent, or Bill Clinton, whose policies on health care, welfare reform, trade, gay marriage and military spending he sharply disagreed with, Sanders decided to “support” Clinton. “Perhaps ‘support’ is too strong a word,” he frets in the book. “I’m planning no press conferences to push his candidacy, and will do no campaigning for him. I will vote for him, and make that public.”

Sanders has called for a vote for the Democratic nominee in every presidential election since Jimmy Carter left office in 1981, and early this month, on ABC’s This Week, he appeared to have completed a long transition, asserting: “I am a Democrat now.”

This failure to build an electoral force outside the Democrats always leads to a dead end, according to Anthony Arnove, a prominent member of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who is also a publisher and literary agent representing a range of leftish writers, including Arundhati Roy. “We’ve seen it over and over,” Arnove said: “a left challenge fires up the base and is then defeated in the primaries by a centrist, or, more accurately, right-wing candidate, who goes on to betray everything those people were mobilised around.”

Sanders’s fundraising almost matched Clinton’s over the summer – in the third quarter they raised $26m and $28m, respectively – and in September he became the first candidate to attract more than a million individual donations. (The average donation to his campaign has been $30.) But his dip in the polls after Hillary’s strong performances in the first nationally televised primary debate, and then again at her House select committee hearing on the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, suggests he will struggle to win the nomination. As of early November he trailed Clinton nationally by 25 points.

In Arnove’s view, Sanders “won’t get further than Super Tuesday [at the beginning of March], when he’ll direct his base to vote for Clinton. This is exactly how the Democrats become a graveyard for progressive politics, when what we desperately need are social movements that can remain independent of both establishment parties and push for their own agenda.”


The revolution to which Sanders often refers is a long way from the sort envisaged by Arnove’s ISO. He is pursuing a fairer capitalism, not its overthrow. “He’s not Trotsky,” as Taibbi put it to me. But there are those inside his campaign who think its primary focus should be building a grass-roots organisation capable of transcending the four-yearly coming together of presidential elections, to create a more permanent basis for a broad, progressive movement.

One such advocate is Adolph Reed, a writer and academic who is campaigning for Sanders in South Carolina. Working with local unions and Labor for Bernie Sanders 2016, which has 70,000 signed-up members, Reed sees the potential in using Sanders’s programme, with its emphasis on basic economic demands such as the minimum wage, universal health care and free college tuition, as a way of drawing together various groups campaigning around single issues such as housing and police racism.

For Reed, who is black, class trumps race as the key to building a movement. “In New Orleans everyone talked about Katrina as having a devastating effect on black people in the city, which of course it did. But when you analyse it, class was a much better predictor of who suffered most there,” he told me. The centre of a class-based movement, Reed argues, will have to be provided by the trade unions. “Despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions.”

Recruiting the unions to work alongside Sanders’s campaign in the way Reed envisages isn’t easy. The American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union have already thrown in their lot with Hillary Clinton. And Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO (America’s national federation of trade unions), has warned individual unions against coming out for Sanders. But Reed can point to significant declarations of support, from postal workers and the National Nurses Union. The AFL-CIO chapters in Vermont and, more surprisingly, South Carolina have also backed his run.

“It’s important to keep Bernie in the race for as long as possible, but the ultimate objective is to develop structures that can continue beyond the election,” Reed said. “It’s premature to say what this network will look like, but Bernie’s campaign provides an important boost to putting it in place.”


From Jesse Jackson to Dennis Kuci­nich to Howard Dean, an array of people’s champions has made a splash in the recent history of Democratic presidential primaries. None, however, has been as explicitly critical of capitalism (or so gruff about it) as Bernie Sanders. His no-nonsense, class-based politics are a measure of how the disenchantment with the ideology of a free market that arrived like a train in the 1980s and ran off the rails in 2008 is now finding its way into the mainstream.

Up until now, the critical moments of left advance in America – the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war movement, Occupy Wall Street, the campaign for gay rights and, today, Black Lives Matter – have occurred outside electoral politics. There are a couple of good reasons for this. The US electoral system, like Britain’s, makes third-party challenges extraordinarily difficult. And inside the Democratic Party these movements would have been crushed by a conservative leadership around the Democratic National Committee, put in place by Bill Clinton.

One result is a paucity of new progressive voices inside the party. At a moment when, as Gramsci once put it, the old order no longer works but the new order has not yet been born, Sanders, with his New Deal politics and firebrand demeanour, seems not so much a successor to the old order as a throwback to a time that pre-dates it, when politicians spoke with conviction and the society they represented was less unfair. As such, he provides a staging post for a new progressive consciousness (according to a poll by Pew at the end of 2011, more Americans aged 18 to 29 would prefer to live under socialism than under capitalism) that is not yet sufficiently coherent to enter mainstream politics in its own right, either through a serious third-party challenge or the transformation of the Democratic Party.

As a middle-class white man, Sanders has been able to get a pass to promote bold positions that someone with a less privileged identity might have found hard to sell. And his age, paradoxically, has proved not to be a disadvantage with a youthful constituency dismayed by the surrender to expedience that disfigures so much of contemporary American politics. His record has been constant over such a long period that, again like Jeremy Corbyn, he can be relied on not to sell out. Though his politics are less radical, his venerability provides a messianic cloak from the same closet as the one worn by Noam Chomsky, another hero for many young progressives.

So it’s not just today’s professionally polished politicians to whom Sanders presents a stark contrast. Recent progressive movements have embraced an identity politics that was much less prevalent when Sanders started out back in 1970s Vermont. In order to forge the sorts of alliances that are necessary to mount a credible challenge on the national political stage, they will likely have to borrow extensively from his unifying class politics. But their leadership will be younger, blacker, less straight and less masculine than Sanders. In that sense, he represents the last hurrah for the old white guy.

Colin Robinson is co-publisher at OR Books (, based in New York

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror