The wives of successful novelists once played a subordinate role to their often restless and self-ab

Imagine the scene. Joseph Conrad is at home in his drawing room in Kent with his friends and fellow writers Henry James, Ford Madox Ford and Stephen Crane, author of the great American civil war novel The Red Badge of Courage. There is a hesitant knock at the door and in walks Conrad's loyal wife, Jessie, carrying a tray of tea and cakes. In the company of these grand men, Jessie, who is overweight and a little breathless, is shy and deferential. Her husband nods in her direction and, obediently, she leaves the room.

Jessie Conrad is one of the near-forgotten wives of literature. Like the wives of Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, she represents the subordinate role so many women once played in the lives of their often restless and self-absorbed writer-husbands. There can have been few writers more demanding than Conrad, who was prone to seizures and irrational breakdowns, and for whom writing fiction was often a kind of agony of endeavour.

Conrad, who was 16 years older than his wife, met her in 1894, when she was living in Peckham with her widowed mother and working as a typist. They married in 1896. It is often said that Jessie, whose education was constrained by her class, was less an intellectual companion to Conrad than his cook, his maid, his housekeeper and his lover. Virginia Woolf and Lady Ottoline Morrell, whose snobberies D H Lawrence caricatured in Women in Love, delighted in mocking poor Jessie and her clumsy strivings.

In later life, following an accident in which she injured both knees, Jessie became obese and increasingly immobile. Yet she published a cookbook, A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House (1923), with an eccentric preface by Conrad, and two memoirs of life with her tormented husband. So she was not a fool, as many would have liked to believe. "Jessie was not an intellectual," the academic Susan Jones of St Hilda's College, Oxford, told me. "She was lower middle class and had none of the class advantages of Virginia Woolf or others in Conrad's circle . . . But it is wrong to think that she was unhappy. She rather indulged herself in her role of the writer's wife."

Today, the traditionally supportive role of so many writers' wives is occupied by men married to successful female novelists. There are also those marriages that are true literary unions. One thinks of Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, whose fine debut novel, The Blindfold, was full of allusions and intertextual winks to her husband; of Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble; and of Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin, who found themselves in direct competition when they were both shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year award. One thinks, too, of a new generation of smart metropolitan authors - Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer - who have married fellow writers. This year, Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and his wife, Nicole Krauss (The History of Love), are both publishing novels, as are Zadie Smith (On Beauty) and her husband, Nick Laird (Utterly Monkey).

How difficult is it to share your life, and your house, with someone who, like you, is a writer, but who just happens to be that much more successful? What does this do to your morale and motivation, to your sense of hope? Jonathan Franzen's former partner, Kathryn Chetkovich, who is a novelist, has written candidly about how it feels to observe the man you love achieving all that you had once hoped to achieve yourself. "[There was a time] when he may have been struggling, but he knew what his work was," she wrote. "That was the first thing I envied." Then he completed and sold The Corrections. "When the man was merely gifted but not particularly rewarded, I was comfortable; we were in it together, comrades in a world that didn't care what we had to tell it. But now, what did his success prove if not that when the gift is prodigious enough, the world does need us, it will pay?"

Literary envy, as Chetkovich testifies, can be corrosive, both to the self and to your partner. Laird - who this year, besides his first novel, will publish a book of poetry, To a Fault - offers a more balanced perspective. "I do feel more at home in poetry, I think," he says. "I know more about it. Partly, as well, because my wife is a novelist, obviously, and we sort of carved it up that that was her area and this was my area. And now it's less clear - but I do give way. I think she knows more about it than me and is better than me." When Laird and Smith were students at Cambridge, she came second to him in a writing competition. His prize was £60 of book tokens. Two weeks later, Smith signed a deal with Hamish Hamilton for £250,000. Laird has admitted that, although he and his wife are mutually supportive and help to edit each other's work, he has often felt "two feet high" as she is feted at literary events.

Laird's experiences are reminiscent of those endured by the spouses of famous men through the ages. His role, in short, has been subordinate; he has been made to walk behind his wife, been sprinkled with her stardust. But no matter: Laird has opted to give up his day job as a lawyer and, like his wife before him, try his hand as a dedicated writer of fiction. One wishes him luck.

Jason Cowley writes a column at

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.