The Partners Behind Great Writers in Literature

From Electric Lit:

Many writers’ spouses have influenced or made possible the great books we still read today. Some, it’s true, have not been quite so helpful. Below are glimpses of a few relationships, ranging from the indispensable to the disastrous.

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Count Leo Tolstoy and Countess Sofia Tolstoy (née Behrs), 1862-1910

Determined to be entirely honest, 34-year-old Count Leo Tolstoy gave the 18-year-old Sofia Behrs all his diaries to read in the week between his proposal and their marriage. Sofia was extremely upset by the revelations in these diaries, particularly on reading of Leo’s early exploits with peasant girls. Still, the couple read each other’s diaries for their entire marriage, only stopping in the final year of Leo’s life where he controversially vowed to keep a diary for himself only. Over the course of the marriage, Sofia raised their 13 children, copied out his voluminous works many times over, and despite being married to one of the most famous men in the world, was left nothing when her husband died because he did not believe in property or copyright. In Leo’s diary from 1897, he wrote: “So[fia] has read this diary in my absence and is very distressed that people might afterwards conclude from it that she was a very bad wife.” The year after, one of Sofia’s diary entries reads:

“I was wondering today why there were no women writers, artists or composers of genius. It’s because all the passion and abilities of an energetic woman are consumed by her family, love, her husband – and especially her children. Her other abilities are not developed, they remain embryonic and atrophy. When she has finished bearing and educating her children her artistic needs awaken, but by then it’s too late.”

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Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) and Leonard Woolf, 1912-1941

Reporting the news of her marriage, the 30-year old Virginia Stephen announced: “I’ve got a confession to make. I’m going to marry Leonard Woolf. He’s a penniless Jew. I’m more happy than anyone ever said was possible.” Of the marriage itself, she wrote that they both wanted “a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we?” The marriage was not without obstacles; there were sexual problems from the beginning. The Woolfs wanted to have children but were advised against it because of what was referred to as Virginia’s “mental instability.” Over the course of their marriage, Leonard would help Virginia through multiple bouts of depression and numerous suicide attempts. For some years, Virginia had an affair with Vita Sackville-West with Leonard’s blessing. 

In 1917, the couple set up the Hogarth Press—publishing Virginia’s novels as well as works by T.S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and Sigmund Freud—and Leonard wrote in a letter: “I should never do anything else, you cannot think how exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying it is.” A writer, publisher, and former colonial administrator, Leonard appeared content at the end of his life that he would be remembered as Virginia’s husband. Virginia famously wrote in her suicide note in 1941: “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good . . . I don’t think two people could have been happier.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit