In front of every successful man…
We all know the old saying that behind every successful man there is a great woman – and the fire behind this smoke must be the numerous men whose acclaim is in no small part due to the remarkable abilities and talents of their wives, who frequently subordinated their own skills in support of their male partners.
Take Stanley Livingstone for example: his wife Mary Moffat was born in South Africa. Her family moved to Britain for a while then returned to South Africa where she met Livingstone and married him. Her knowledge of several African languages helped the couple in their travels. She was more widely known in southern Africa than Livingstone, so he was often introduced as ‘the husband of Mary Moffat.’ It also appears that she was even more of a nomad than he, if only because giving birth to four children in a country where sanitation and water were not guaranteed meant that she had to take breaks and return to Britain to ensure their health and survival. ‘Dr Moffat, I presume?’ might have been Stanley’s query under different circumstances.
The good news is that a museum on the banks of the River Clyde, the David Livingstone Birthplace museum, reopens on July 28th. It will set Livingstone’s achievements in the context of the support of his remarkable wife.
How about Zelda Fitzgerald? She inspired her husband’s work, especially the portraits of the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s that frequently appeared in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. A talented dancer and a painter of vivid works, Fitzgerald was also a writer, though it is said that her husband ‘resented’ her only novel. His friends blamed her for Scott’s declining literary output as the years went by, though Zelda’s extensive diaries provided much material for his fiction, sometimes to the point of plagiarism. I am pleased to inform you that Save Me The Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald is available at: https://www.handheldpress.co.uk/shop/
William Wordsworth’s poems present him as a solitary figure in life, but despite feeling ‘lonely as a cloud’ the fact remains that there were several women in his life without whom it is doubtful that he would have achieved the acclaim that he did. The women of the Wordsworth household remained discreetly in the background of the poems he wrote, yet the elaboration of the texts – the endless copying and revision of manuscripts, followed by the production of a final version for publication – was almost invariably carried out by those same women. Dorothy, William’s sister, was always present and ready to help; and once William married, his wife Mary also participated. Sara, Mary’s unmarried sister, came to live with the Wordsworths, and joined the team; and once William’s daughter Dora was of an age to lend a hand, she was included in the group.
Finally, Bijoya, wife of film director Satyajit Ray and also his cousin, was an extremely gifted vocalist born into a highly musical family. She was also a talented actor. After she married Ray she turned her focus to partnering with her husband in many ways. She was the first one to read his scripts, accompany him to his shoots both in studios and on location, help him with costumes and discuss every scene with him. Though this was public knowledge, she chose to lead a low-profile life in the shadow of her husband.
The pandemic and lockdown have arguably affected women’s careers and work habits more than men’s. I can only hope that we are not heading back to the scenarios described above. We need women to be more and more visible; no more shadow play please.