The Often-Overlooked Women Behind Famous Male Writers

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Many legendary male writers have women to thank for their success. If it weren’t for these ladies’ tireless attention to detail, encouragement, and backbreaking work, these men wouldn’t have penned such iconic works such as War and Peace and Lolita.  There are also some famous male writers who “borrowed” from the women in their lives to produce their works.

Women in the 19th and early 20th centuries had fewer freedoms, but those behind the scenes were passionate about the writing process and were partially responsible for some incredible novels, poems, and children’s books that are beloved by people even today.

Zelda Fitzgerald

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The characters on The Beautiful and Damned were illustrated to look like Zelda and Francis.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of novels such as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, had a penchant for incorporating actual life events into his work. Some of his characters were inspired by his wife, Zelda, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. Scott also stole some of Zelda’s writing and published it directly into his work. While reviewing one of her husband’s books, Zelda wrote:

“I recognize a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

Scott, in turn, accused Zelda of stealing his ideas when she wrote her only published work, 1932’s Save Me The Walz, claiming she used autobiographical details from their lives together that he intended on including in his novel Tender Is The Night.

Olivia Langdon Clemens

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When Olivia Langdon married American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a, Mark Twain, in 1870, the pair treated each other as equals. At one point, Twain’s copyrights were transferred to Olivia to prevent creditors from gaining access to the family’s income. Olivia was very involved in her husband’s writing, according to the Mark Twain House & Museum. He would give her his manuscripts to review and would often—but not always—take her suggestions. Their children would sit by their mother as she read Twain’s pieces and mark the pages she thought needed more work. In his autobiography, Twain noted how he would purposely write items he knew Olivia would disapprove of just to see how she would react. Olivia also edited her husband’s books, articles, and lectures and was dubbed a “faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor,” by her husband.

Helen Palmer

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Helen Palmer’s name may not sound familiar, but you probably heard of her husband—Theodore Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. Ted spent a large chunk of time following World War II writing children’s books, something he may not have followed through with had it not been for Helen’s intense editorial and emotional support. He went to Oxford University, but Helen, a fellow student, encouraged him to give up education and focus on art instead. Throughout his career, Helen was instrumental in guiding her husband as he produced playful animal illustrations alongside entertaining stories. She took her own life in 1967 after she discovered Ted was having an extramarital affair with a family friend.

Valerie Eliot

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Typist Esme Valerie Fletcher became Nobel-prize winning poet T.S. Eliot’s assistant in the 1950s. Despite a near 40-year age difference, the pair hit it off and wed in 1957. After his death in 1965, Valerie became the late author’s editor and annotator. She was responsible for publishing several of her late husband’s works, including The Waste Land: Facsimile and Manuscripts of the Original Drafts and The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1, 1898–1922. One of Valerie’s most significant contributions was allowing her husband’s work, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, to be adapted into a musical. You may have heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats? Valerie died in 2012 at the age of 86 in London.

Colette

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Colette married writer Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) in 1893. Before long, Willy realized that his wife had a talent for writing. He forced her to write by locking her in a room. Colette used her own life experiences to flush out the character of a young ingénue named Claudine. Willy wound up publishing four novels Colette wrote under his own name: Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, The Indulgent Husband and The Innocent Wife. Colette left her husband in 1906 (divorcing him in 1910) and went on to publish Retreat From Love the following year. She continued to write and produced several more novels over the years, such as Chéri, The Last of Chéri, The Pure and the Impure, and Gigi.

Sophia Tolstaya

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Sophia Tolstaya married Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy in 1862. The couple had 13 children, five of whom died in childhood. Sophia copied and edited his massive tome, War and Peace, seven times by hand. She did so by candlelight with a magnifying glass so she could read her husband’s notes after their children went to bed at night. Sophia also kept a diary and wrote the memoir, My Life. At the age of 82, Leo suddenly left the family and sold most of their property so he could wander the countryside. He died 10 days later. Sophia passed away at the age of 75 in 1919.

Anna Grigoryevna

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky was in a bit of a pickle when he first met stenographer Anna Grigoryevna in 1865. A gambling addiction put him greatly in debt, and he signed a contract that would mean losing all the rights to his work if he didn’t produce a novel by November the following year. He spent most of the year working on Crime and Punishment instead of the promised novel The Gambler. Before long, it was October and Dostoyevsky realized he needed some serious help. He hired Anna and for the next 25 days he dictated the novel to her as she wrote it in shorthand and then copied it down. During the process, the pair fell in love, and they wed a few months later. Anna was responsible for making Dostoyevsky Russia’s first self-published author. She also curbed his gambling problem and helped him avoid risky contracts.

Vera Nabokov

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Russian author Vladimir Nabokov and his wife wed in 1925. Vera gave up her own writing career to act as her husband’s critic, reviewer, typist, and literary agent. At the same time, she supported the family by working as a secretary and translator. When they moved to America in 1940, she even learned to drive so she could take her husband on trips around the country. Vera reportedly saved the Lolita manuscript from being destroyed after a frustrated Vladimir threatened to throw it in a fire. In the biography Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, Vera is described as Vladimir’s: “wife, muse, and ideal reader; his secretary, typist, editor, proof-reader, translator, and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel, and chauffer; his research assistant, teaching assistant, and professorial understudy.” The author dedicated all of his works to Vera.

Dorothy, Dora, & Mary Wordsworth

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William Wordsworth’s sister, daughter, and wife assisted him throughout his life. Dorothy transcribed her brother’s work, edited his unpublished works, and was his literary executor following his death. William reportedly used some of Dorothy’s descriptions, without attribution, in his successful guide book Lake District. He also borrowed from his sister’s journals and wrote his famous poem Daffodils using a description Dorothy originally penned. William’s daughter Dora also aided in copying drafts of her father’s works and acted as his literary assistant as did his wife Mary.


By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com