“Secretary-Wives”, Gender and Libraries.

With a hat-tip to Jem for drawing my attention to the original article.

Kathryn Hughes, in yesterday’s Guardian, writes a curiously retrograde and unthinking piece on the role of widows as literary curators and activist. Firstly her argument is a spin on the old adage that “behind every great man, is a great woman” or as she puts it the wife-secretary is the “executive ballast to his creative brain.” Frankly I can’t think of many things more depressing than existing solely as some one’s ballast and I do hope her ‘secretary-wives’ – Valerie Eliot, Sonia Orwell and Theodora Bonsanquet – were better treated by their older literary men than Florence Dugdale, secretary and second wife to Thomas Hardy. Florence got to spend the early part of her marital life typing up Hardy’s odes to his dead neglected first wife.

Hughes is also rather cavalier in her discussion of these women, assuming that they were happy to be viewed as gatekeepers to their deceased husbands’ shrines. Bosanquet’s writing is dismissed as ‘minor stuff’ with no questioning of the somewhat sexist assumptions and barriers that may have held her back. Her focus on wives also ignores the fact that, in the last century at least men have been curators to their wives’ archives. In the case of Ted Hughes, his possession of Plath’s letters and diaries proved extremely controversial. Similarly, Charlotte Bronte has faced accusations of burning ‘shocking’ letters and diary entries written by her sisters. Indeed, it is hard to think of a female author, whose literary executors have not decided to destroy some of her papers in the name of preserving her reputation.

The issue of censorship and gatekeeping leads me to my key objections to this piece. As a librarian I can very easily answer Hughes’ final question  – “what hope is there that the great archives of the future won’t be lost, torn to pieces or simply frittered away before biographers, historians and critics are finally allowed to get to work?” The short answer is libraries and archives will, and we will probably do a better job than members of the family! To suggest that Valerie Eliot was needed to preserve her husband’s papers is inaccurate. At the the time of Eliot’s death, any library or archive would have been delighted to receive his papers and any institution would have two key advantages over Valerie Eliot. Firstly, the papers would be in the hands of trained professionals who could catalogue and preserve the documents to widen access and ensure that potential fragile papers are not lost or damaged. Secondly, a library or an archive would not have restricted access in the way that Valerie Eliot did. Hughes approvingly describes both Eliot and Sonia Orwell as “putting out authorised versions of the men they both had worked for”. She also uncritically comments on these literary widows as seeking to “eliminate dissenting views” and states that Valerie Eliot

had spent the previous half-century forbidding impertinent journalists and scholars from accessing her late husband TS Eliot’s private papers. Even his published work was out of bounds, leaving biographers like Peter Ackroyd obliged to get creative with paraphrase rather than being able to quote directly. It was, said Mrs Eliot firmly, what Tom would have wanted.

This may be what Eliot had wanted but it does not serve the best interests of scholarship or freedom of information. How is it so wonderful that these documents are preserved if only a chosen few can look at them and even when they do seem them, it is through the prism of what the writer’s family deems appropriate? In contrast, while libraries and archives would abide by restriction imposed in a bequest of papers, our first concern to to preserve and make available. The standards of our profession insist that we offer the material to those who wish to view it rather than forcing a privileged few to jump through hoops and then echo back an established view.

The great challenges facing the archives of writers is not the demise of young secretary-wives but the funding cuts that threaten all libraries and archives from the British Library to the smallest public library. If libraries are not adequately funded, we cannot preserve and make available to the public the vast literary heritage of this country. We should not mourn the demise of secretary-wives but instead encourage more writer to develop connections with libraries to ensure their papers are preserved. It’s not such an unusual idea. George RR Martin already has an archive at Texas A&M University and more writers should follow his example.

The other great threat to literary archives is, ironically, the computer. Will we be able to recover early drafts of novels written on computers or the extensive email archives of authors in quite the way we have preserved the letters, diaries and drafts of the writers of the last few centuries?





  1. […] with our ideas about the production, curation and dissemination of literary materials.  In “Secretary-wives”, Gender and Libraries she takes a critical look at a recent piece about the wives of Great Writers and how they acted as […]

  2. Nicely put. It’s terrible how often people forget about libraries even when, for example, they covered the donation of the Cecil Day-Lewis archive to the Bodleian not two weeks previously.

    As to your final point, I personally don’t get too worried about the ‘threat’ of the Digital Dark Ages. The sort of mind that saves an entire lifetime of correspondence and miscellaneous writings is going to do so regardless of the format and while there are challenges to saving digital material, the same can be said of physical material – they just require a different skill set. Librarians and archivists the world over are already dealing with the issues raised by ‘born digital’ donations, such as obsolete formats and the unknown longevity of new physical media. It’s important to remember that this isn’t an issue for 50 years in the future when the next generation of great writers dies and suddenly there’s nothing left – it’s all going on now, and I feel confident that as a profession we are on it. I’m sure there are problems, just not the great Exsistential Failure kind.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. I don’t get too worried about the Digital Dark Ages. To be honest, I suspect a lot of writers are likely to preserve their notes and so on as we all tend to operate with one eye on posterity and immortality. I cannot imagine it would have occurred to Austen that 200 years later we’d be poking through her post and juvenalia. I suspect a writer like Rushdie has maintained lots of documents for critics to obsess over posthumously. Indeed, I have basically long windedly made your points! Talking about it is the key I suspect. It’s not going to be like the acidic paper debacle. We are readying ourselves for this

  4. Liked the piece v much – I was just wondering how widespread it is for authors to make these arrangements with universities? I’m sure I’ve heard of a few, but can’t name them – is it something you hear a lot about?

    1. To be honest, I am not sure how widespread it is to arrange for your archive to be preserved. But if someone like Martin can do it, I think a lot of other writers should be able to. Most university libraries, for example, will generally gratefully accept archives connected to noted scholars or alumni.

  5. There is a problem (for me) with the “living legacy” of relying on notable writers to come to their own arrangements with universities. There’s a rather depressing underlying assumption that it is those authors who are popular and respected now that we will want to know all about in 300 years time.

    Or, rather, there is a problem with *solely* relying on such arrangements. And that, to me, is the issue with the digital dark ages. It’s not that we’ll lose any great material of the currently perceived ‘greats’ – their work will be conserved one way or another. It’s that we’ll lose work from the unrecognised – nowadays their scrapbooks are netbooks and iPads and their material won’t last.

    1. You do make a good point, Matt, and I am really not sure what the solution is. The LIbrary of Congress is archiving important tweets, for example, but as you point out that relies on the assumption we can correctly discern right now what will be important. As a medievalist, I suppose I would also argue that while having letters and notebooks and stages of construction for literary works is fascinating and useful, it’s not the be all and end all of literary analysis or criticism.

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