The Legend of Vera Nabokov: Why Writers Pine for a Do-It-All Spouse

The rarity of spouses like Vladimir Nabokov's, who dedicated her life to supporting his career, may be hindering gender parity in literature.

When Lorrie Moore, acclaimed author of A Gate at The Stairs and Birds of America, released Bark, her first short story collection in 16 years, on February 25th, critics were dismayed to find that such a long wait had produced such a slim body of work. “I’ll admit that when I first saw its modest size and table of contents—eight stories? One every two years?—I felt let down,” David Gates wrote in The New York Times Book Review. Philip Hensher at The Guardian also lamented Moore’s production rate in crafting a modest volume of stories, writing, “Eight stories since 2003 is not a great deal, especially when three of them weren't worth publishing.”

Moore herself, however, explained to The New York Times that it’s difficult to both publish and maintain her day job as a writing professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moore, a divorcée and single mother, noted, “There are some men I know who are teaching and writing who are single fathers. But not many. Most of them have these great, devoted wives, some version of Vera Nabokov. Writers all need Vera.”

Twenty-three years after her death, Vera Nabokov remains a revered figure in capital “L” Literature—not necessarily for her own work, but for devoting herself fully to that of her husband, the great 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 Stacy 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). Through 1976, the year before his death, he also published 10 short story collections and nine poetry collections along with criticism, plays, uncollected short stories, and translations.

Schiff writes that “Even her detractors held that Vera Nabokov participated in her husband’s work to an unprecedented degree … The original Nabokovian, she was a full creative partner in everything her husband did.” According to Schiff, “Lawyers, publishers, relatives, colleagues, friends, agreed on one point: ‘He would have been nowhere without her.’” (And yet: “‘She was just a wife,’ remembered a publisher with whom she corresponded on her husband’s behalf, for three decades.”)

To some writers, Vera Nabokov remains much more than “just a wife,” but rather a template for an enviable asset. It’s undeniably easier to prioritize one’s art with a 24/7 writing coach who also manages “the mini-country that is home,” to quote novelist Allison Pearson.

As Laura Miller recently pointed out in Salon, Virginia Woolf and Edna St. Vincent Millay each benefited greatly from truly anomalous marriages of their time, in which their respective husbands 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.

But not all gifted writers are blessed with Veras (or Leonards or Eugens for that matter). At a promotional reading of Bark at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Moore clarified to me—and a room’s worth of fans—that she absolutely does not have a Vera. “I do every little thing myself,” she said.

Moore isn’t alone—and she’s not the only female writer who gets arbitrarily chided for her “slowness” in producing heralded work. According to the annual VIDA count, women’s bylines (both in fiction and nonfiction) increased again in 2013, and the number of works published by women is vastly larger than it was in Nabokov’s day, but published works by women are still in the minority. The conversation over women in literature continues to circle around a chicken-or-egg debate, as a lack of submissions by women writers, as The London Review of Books asserts, are the real culprit. So it seems likely that having, or not having, a Vera could be the missing piece in creating gender parity within literature.

Dr. Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of American history at Stanford and author of the forthcoming A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, says her male colleagues in academia do appear to have Veras. It’s difficult to know what goes on behind each couple’s closed doors, she says, but while some of her colleagues appear to have equitable partnerships in which each member is the other's Vera, she believes the traditional dynamic of a male Vladimir and female Vera to be much more pervasive. Though traditional notions about the importance of male breadwinning in husband-wife households are on the decline (as of 2013, four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family, up from one in 10 in 1960), one study found that in academia, when a fraction of tenure-tracked male professors did take paternity leave, most used the opportunity to research projects and publish.

Presented by

Koa Beck

Koa Beck is a writer based in Brooklyn.

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