- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

NEW YORK

Thanks to the lawsuit against the publisher of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” Blythe Brown has entered a pantheon whose occupants include Vera Nabokov, Olivia Twain and Tabitha King.

The indispensable literary spouse.

Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh are suing Random House Inc., claiming that Mr. Brown “appropriated the architecture” of their 1982 nonfiction book, “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” Arguments in London’s High Court ended last week, and a judgment is expected by mid-April.

Few had heard of Blythe Brown before the trial, but as the author’s witness statement and court testimony revealed, she was an essential contributor to his million-selling historical thriller. She led the massive research effort, supplied countless notes and suggestions and offered an invaluable “female perspective” for a book immersed in “the sacred feminine, goddess worship and the feminine aspect of spiritually.”

Her unexpected prominence made for fine courtroom drama, especially because Mrs. Brown did not attend the trial. Nevertheless, she is one of many spouses who have served well beyond the traditional roles of muse or provider of moral support. They have been researchers, editors, agents and virtual co-authors. They are not one-half of a famous literary couple, as were Joan Didion and the late John Gregory Dunne, but are private collaborators usually little known beyond friends and family.

“She dislikes the public attention, and I [see] no reason why she should be put through the stress that the glare of publicity would cause,” Mr. Brown said in his witness statement, explaining his wife’s absence.

Vera Nabokov was Vladimir Nabokov’s translator, first reader, occasional researcher and, in one famous case, his literary savior. Mr. Nabokov was so frustrated with one novel in progress that he attempted to burn it in a backyard incinerator. His wife intervened, and he went on to complete “Lolita.”

“She was also very important for the research of ‘Lolita’ because a lot of that book takes place on the road, and he didn’t drive,” says Stacy Schiff, author of “Vera,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. “In ‘Lolita,’ a car needs to be serviced, and Vera would make a list for him of the things that needed to be done so he could write with authority on the subject.”

Several leading historians have openly acknowledged the role of their wives, including David McCullough, who has called Rosalee McCullough his “editor in chief,” and the late Daniel Boorstin, who relied upon Ruth Boorstin to review all of his manuscripts. Robert Caro’s wife, Ina, has served as co-researcher during his series of Lyndon Johnson biographies, moving with him from their home base of New York to Texas and the District.

Olivia Twain was never quite her husband’s editor or researcher, but Mark Twain did read his manuscripts aloud to her, and she did help him proofread his breakthrough book, “The Innocents Abroad.” Stephen King has often cited his wife, Tabitha, noting that she rescued the manuscript of “Carrie” from the trash and contributed essential firsthand research on a world about which he knew very little: the girls locker room.

Novelist Richard Ford reads all of his work first to his wife, Kristina, and credits her with getting him started on his highly praised “Frank Bascombe” novels — “The Sportswriter,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land,” scheduled to come out this fall.

“It was 1982, and I had basically quit writing,” Mr. Ford says. “And then, for a series of reasons, I decided to write a novel. And when I told Kristina, she said to me, ‘Well, look, why don’t you write a novel about somebody who’s happy,’ because I had written novels about people who were angst-ridden. More than anything, what she said set me on my course.”

The list of indispensable male spouses appears far shorter. Writers interviewed by Associated Press struggled to name famous female writers with husbands who quietly and substantially assisted in their work. Reasons cited include a lack of spare time, with the husband usually having a full-time job, and the reluctance of men to sacrifice their own ambitions.

“If you had a husband who gave up his career to help with his wife’s books, everyone would want to know why he was doing this,” says Meg Wolitzer, author of “The Wife,” a novel about a famous male writer whose spouse actually does the work. “The man would have to give up his own identity in society. What would people think of him? Would he be the poor, pathetic husband?”

Perhaps no spouse — male or female — has been as important as Mary Francis, wife of Dick Francis, the ex-steeplechase jockey whose best-sellers include “To the Hilt” and “Odds Against.” As the author often said, Mary Francis was his editor, researcher and occasional co-author. “I couldn’t do it without Mary,” he once insisted. “She helps me with the plotting of the story and working out how to get a character from A to B.”

Mr. Francis wasn’t kidding. Mary Francis died in 2000, and her husband, who for decades had turned out a book a year, hasn’t published a novel since.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide