Keepers of the flame: The literary widow's lot

Natasha Spender, who died last week, was married to a great poet. After Sir Stephen's death, she became gatekeeper to his memory and his work – a burden many literary widows have shared
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Natasha Spender liked to recall that when she first met her husband, the poet Sir Stephen Spender, in 1940 she had little interest in writers.

She was busy making a name for herself as a concert pianist when an invitation turned up to a party given by Horizon, the literary magazine. "I was so not into literature," she remembered with a throaty chuckle, "that when they asked me to Horizon, I thought it was a pub."

The remark is typical of her self-effacement, especially during the last 15 years of her life – from Spender's death in 1995 until her own peaceful end, at the age of 91, last Thursday. During those years, she became, like many literary widows, the keeper of the flickering flame of his enduring reputation, first forged as one of the celebrated "poets of the Thirties". But it is also ironic – as she knew when she told the story – because during that decade-and-a-half she became, in her own words, "a walking memory-bank" for all those interested in the literary figures of the second half of the 20th century.

The procession of academics and biographers and historians who sat and listened in the draughty basement kitchen of her marital home in London's St John's Wood was never-ending. Each was treated – if their subject had known Natasha and her husband at some stage during their 50-plus very social years of marriage – to her humour, her crystal-clear power of recall, and her candour. Plus tea and cake. If there were papers in the archive that she was carefully assembling in her study, she would share them.

Her good grace and open-door policy to enquirers was all the more remarkable because, as she herself often acknowledged, there are few more thankless roles than that of literary widow. Their private grief, and that of their children (the Spenders had two), at the loss of their writer husbands was usually rudely intruded upon by those who wished to rake over the coals of episodes in their marriage (infidelities, political posturings, straightforward misjudgements) that most widows would prefer to forget. In Natasha Spender's case, there were always questions about her husband's sexual orientation, and about his being a CIA dupe when the US intelligence agency covertly funded the literary magazine Encounter, with which he was closely associated in the Sixties.

The first challenge for a literary widow was to develop a way of coping with such questioning. Natasha had it off to a T. She once replied good-humouredly, to an interviewer who pressed her on the exact nature of her husband's late-flowering passion for American zoologist Bryan Obst: "It's less clear, isn't it?" But the main thing that a literary widow has to master is management of her husband's literary estate. Since she has right of veto over any use of his writing, her powers range from saying yea or nay to all requests to quote from them to the appointment (or not) of an official biographer.

This is all notoriously tricky territory. TS Eliot's widow, Valerie, for instance, has had to put up with carping from biographers and critics over the years for her decisions since her Nobel Prize-winning husband's death in 1965. For instance, she is reported to have tried to block Peter Ackroyd's 1984 life of Eliot by refusing him permission to quote from the poems, but then allowed Andrew Lloyd Webber to use them in his West End musical Cats. Illogical, cried her detractors, who usually then go on to question her qualifications for making such choices because she had been Eliot's secretary for eight years before their marriage in 1957.

Some even queried whether their marriage had genuinely been a love match – in spite of much evidence to support that view – and theorised that Eliot had simply been in search of a young woman who would live on and fight his corner in the battle of literary reputations for decades afterwards.

Similar motives, it is claimed, lay behind George Orwell's marriage, in October 1949, three months before his death, to Sonia Brownell, better known as another formidable literary widow, Sonia Orwell. Yet to her many defenders, Mrs Eliot is a much-maligned figure. Her knowledge of "the work" is profound, they say. She had admired his writing as a schoolgirl, and remains his greatest fan. And as she herself has pointed out, her husband had insisted that there should be no biography of him – or at least no authorised biography. "Ackroyd knew that when he set out," she once explained, "So to start bleating at the end about not being able to quote from the poetry, when everyone else has to obey the same rules, is pretty feeble."

So maligned have literary widows been, though, that they tend to stick together. Valerie Eliot and Natasha Spender, for instance, were last seen in public together earlier this year at the memorial service for another of their number, the actress Jill Balcon, widow of Poet LaureateCecil Day-Lewis. The three had other things that united them; all were second, younger wives.

Balcon used to reflect that she was unusual in that her husband had left her clear instructions on how to play the literary widow, in a poem entitled "The Widow Interviewed", published in 1965. Or, to be more precise, how not to. It had been inspired by two literary widows of an earlier generation, Willa Muir, wife of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, and Helen Thomas, whose poet-husband Edward died at the age of 39 in the trenches of the First World War.

"The Poet" (well, that's the way her

generation

Talked) "the Poet wrote these for me when

first –"

(she said, touching the yellowed manuscripts

Like a blind girl gentling a young man's hair)

– "When first we were betrothed. I have kept them:

The rest I had to sell."

It was not, Balcon agreed, an attractive portrait, but it gave few clues as to what in fact she should do. In her case, that dilemma was further complicated because some of Day-Lewis's best-known verse had been written for, and about, the novelist Rosamond Lehmann – the woman Balcon displaced in his life and who ever after maintained a none-too-private campaign against her. Should Balcon put his literary reputation above her own feelings and champion those poems about her rival as key to Day-Lewis lasting literary legacy, or should she seek to deflect attention onto the work he produced later, when she was his muse, even though it had prompted less enthusiasm among the critics? It was a circle she never quite squared.

And like other literary widows, she had also to contend with bio-graphers (myself included) who sought to identify other love affairs referred to in her husband's poetry. The struggle to reconcile her completely understandable wish to draw a veil over their private disputes with the need for any biography of Day-Lewis to be candidabout his failings was often written on her face as I questioned her.

Did his memory belong first and foremost to her and their children, the writer Tamasin Day-Lewis and the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, or was it something which, in pursuit of literary immortality, she was going to have to share openly with a public audience? Bravely, she chose the latter course, but at great personal cost.

There were 21 years between Balcon and Day-Lewis, 37 years between Tom and Valerie Eliot, but Janis Bellow tops them both. She was 44 years younger than the American novelist Saul Bellow when she became his fifth wife.

Still only 50, she is perhaps a role model for a new generation of literary widows. She said in a recent interview about the publication next month of Bellow's collected letters that she had left the editor to it and avoided being proprietorial. (Other widows, Valerie Eliot included, have chosen to edit the letters themselves.) Janis Bellow claimed, moreover, to feel "overwhelmingly joyful" about the new book – even though she did not make her appearance until page 411 of its 550 pages.

Talk of literary widows suggests that this is an exclusively female club. And though the latter part of the 20th century boasted many more women in the role than men – to the list should be added Kathleen Tynan, widow of Kenneth, Caitlin Thomas (Dylan Thomas), and Beatrice Behan (Brendan Behan) – there is one notable (and for some notorious) interloper: Ted Hughes. He was repeatedly attacked by admirers of his wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, for the way he handled his role as literary executor. They felt he was too anxious to control the material left in his charge, both to protect the couple's secrets and to present as positive a picture as possible about his own role in Plath's life, and death. The couple had separated five months before her final depression and suicide in 1963.

Though Jill Balcon and Natasha Spender both had considerable careers of their own, Hughes is exceptional in this context, having been a literary figure to rival Plath, and Poet Laureate until his death in 1998. To be open with biographers and academics about Plath's life would therefore have been to lift the lid on his own, and, like many living writers, he did not want to do that. He would not let his own biography become an offshoot of his wife's. That was a sacrifice that Natasha Spender, by contrast, always seemed more than happy to make.

Peter Stanford's biography of C Day-Lewis is published by Continuum

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