The Do-it-all Spouse

Koa Beck at The Atlantic writes about spouses who support their partner’s career, or the “do-it-all spouse,” who was embodied by Vera Nabokov, the wife of Russian author Vladimir Nabokov:

Vera not only performed all the duties expected of a wife of her era—that is, being a free live-in cook, babysitter, laundress, and maid (albeit, she considered herself a “terrible housewife”)—but also acted as her husband’s round-the-clock editor, assistant, and secretary. In addition to teaching his classes on occasion (in which Nabokov openly referred to her as “my assistant”), Vera also famously saved Lolita, the work that would define her husband’s career, several times from incineration, according to Stacey Schiff ‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 biography, Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). With Vera by his side, Nabokov published 18 novels between 1926 and 1974 (both in Russian and English).

And it hasn’t been just wives supporting their husbands careers (which I suspect to be the case in a heteronormative society)—Virginia Woolf and Edna St. Vincent Millay had husbands who “assumed a Vera-esque role”:

Millay’s husband, Eugen Boissevain, reportedly described himself as a feminist and “married the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay with the express purpose of providing her with a stable home life and relieving her of domestic tasks so she could write.” By the time Millay died, she had written six plays and more than a dozen books of poetry. While Leonard Woolf cared for Virginia during her bouts of mental illness, he also managed the household, tended to the garden, and co-founded the couple’s literary press. Throughout his dedication to his wife’s craft—and her general well-being—he also managed to have a literary career of his own, producing both novels and stories while maintaining editorships at several journals. Claire Messud wrote in The New York Times that the Woolf partnership was one of “extraordinary productivity.” In her lifetime, Woolf published nine novels, two biographies, and several collections of essays and short stories—among other works.

Jennifer Weiner points out that in our modern time, “Everyone wants to be Vladimir, and no one wants to lick Vladimir’s stamps,” and that sounds about right.

“Marrying a Vera might not be possible,” Weiner concludes. “Hiring one, though—maybe that’s the new, politically correct dream.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons



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