February 18, 2015

Those Who Stay: the lives of writers’ companions



Virginia and Leonard Woolf

When the news of Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, made headlines earlier this month, and questions of potential conflict and controversy began to surface, it was Lee’s sister, Alice Lee, who emerged as Lee’s protector and guardian of works. Alice Lee, a trained lawyer who continued to practice past the age of 100 lived with Harper Lee until she moved into a nursing home for the last three years of her life, and died in 2014 at the age of 103.

Quite apart from being the sister of one of the world’s most famous living authors, Alice Lee was for a time known for being Alabama’s oldest practicing lawyer. In an obituary in the Guardian at the time of her death, Wayne Flynt, an Alabama historian was quoted as noting, “Alice Lee was a pioneer long before her sister, Nelle Harper, spread her wings in New York.” In her own profession, Alice Lee was well-regarded and even had an award named after her; had her profession not made her essential to Lee’s career, she probably would have not figured in our understanding of Lee’s life.

We often know very little about those who live closely and share the lives of the writers about whom we apparently know so much. Part of this is wilful mythologizing. We like to think of the writer as indestructible as the text, preferring not to imagine who might make them breakfast in the morning or help them put on their shoes when they are too old to manage it by themselves.

We are quite happy to view images of writers’ desks and read features on ‘Where I Write’. Very different would be to see ‘Where I Sleep’ or ‘Where I Park the Car’; ‘Where I store the extra loo roll’. Of course, it’s not as interesting or key to the craft of writing, not to mention intrusive, but it does mean we fail to comprehend the real stuff of the life of a writer and to see those people at the sides of writers’ lives, who are often also central to their existence.

A few weeks ago, the Economist ran an obituary of John Bayley. An English don at Oxford, Bayley held prestigious positions in the English department there and wrote popular books of literary criticism. He was also married to the Booker-prize winning author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Marrying an eventually famous author had never been Bayley’s intention. As the Economist puts it:

He had not meant to marry a formidable and feted writer, but that was how things turned out, after he saw her, one day in 1954, cycling laboriously past his college window. Their courtship consisted largely of rubbing noses and swimming in the Thames, and her mud-caked waist-slip from one such occasion was still at the back of a drawer.

Bayley played no part in Murdoch’s writing life, although he was ever-supportive. Her novel’s “were mysteries to him at that creative level” and when a novel was in progress they “seldom discussed it”:

She always gave him the finished, typed-up drafts, but he would buoyantly declare them marvellous without reading a page. It was one of several private fictions they kept running between them.

But once Murdoch began suffering with Alzheimer’s, the pair retreated into a mostly-private world until Murdoch’s death. Murdoch stopped being the public author, but the couple:

still met at the ever-more-squalid kitchen table, where he would feed her baked beans and ice cream and where they would communicate in faint pulsations and echoes, like the sonorities of whales. Clearly he could not cope, but he refused all help for four years, recording the Iris who had vanished in two unsparing memoirs and treasuring each rare, surviving smile.

Often, it’s those who stay behind who have the power to shape the legacy that comes after a writer’s death. We might not pay them much attention while the career of the writer is burning bright but we’re forced to after death: they frequently become the executors of the estate, who can make small but vital decisions about how a writer is remembered and how their works are subsequently published. While the Economist refers to Bayley’s memoirs as simply “unsparing”, the Guardian’s obituary went for:

the trilogy of sexually beans-spilling narratives he then produced, granting himself centre-stage in the Murdoch drama, shocked many of their friends as indecorous and ungracious.

Bayley defended his memoirs with the simple statement “Iris would have approved.” That’s the problem right there—perhaps she would have, but who can say what was exchanged in private, what understanding was reached. It’s the word of the one who remains against the one who is no longer there to agree or defend themselves.

Of course the most famous example, so famous I’m almost loath to bring it up, is that of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Hughes is rare in that he was left behind twice, with two histories to contend with—first by Sylvia Plath in 1963, and then by Assia Wevill in 1969. Hughes wasn’t a silent, supportive husband in the wings, he was a famous writer who became infamous, and who and what takes centre stage in his and Plath’s posthumous legacies—Hughes’ career, Plath’s career, partnership, suicide, gossip— have jostled against each other ever since.

Reviewing Hughes’ collection about his relationship with Plath, Birthday Letters, in the LRB a month after it was published in Feburary 1998, Ian Sansom compared it to “a press release”, writing:

Birthday Letters shows Hughes using his considerable brain-surplus in an attempt to possess, or re-possess, his own experience. The book has a clear and practical purpose – correcting distortions, setting the record straight, putting right the gossips and the speculators, the detractors and the critics – and it will have numerous consequences for readers of poetry. But it is by no means a final statement of ‘fact’.

There is of course, never a wholly reliable version of events. But there are other ways for those who stay to be useful. In the 1950s Leonard Woolf gathered together all of his deceased wife Virginia Woolf’s diaries and edited them into A Writer’s Diary. Leonard was concerned that Woolf’s critical reputation as a serious writer was fading. He only selected extracts that detailed Woolf’s intellectual life, thus securing a new appreciation for Woolf that was predicated on her own intellectual pursuits and intentions as a writer. It was a biography; in the writer’s own words.

Sometimes it’s the least expected actions, that seem so out of line with the writer, that prove the most valuable. Sometimes it takes the one who stays to see an opportunity that the writer might have overlooked, even rejected. Valerie Eliot, the wife of TS Eliot, planned to marry the poet from the age of 14 when she heard a recording of ‘The Journey of the Magi’, saying afterwards “I felt I just had to get to Tom, to work with him.” She began as Eliot’s secretary, and her dedication to organising and arranging his work continued on after his death and until her own.

But it was when Valerie gave permission to Andrew Lloyd Webber to adapt Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into the West-End musical ‘Cats’, that Eliot’s most surprising legacy was sealed. The huge royalties earned from the incredibly successful production (which has again been revived in London this year) paid for a new wing in the London Library, of which Eliot had been president, a substantial endowment to Newnham College Cambridge and a poetry prize named after the poet. The book’s publisher and rights holder, Faber & Faber, over which Eliot had presided, has also enjoyed the financial benefits for many years. Valerie was committed to leaving behind the world as Eliot would have wanted it, even after she, too, was gone.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.