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Blythe Brown joins a tradition of literary wives

Vera Nabokov, Olivia Twain among those who helped husbands to succeed
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thanks to the current 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., alleging that Dan Brown “appropriated the architecture” of their 1982 nonfiction book, “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” Arguments in London’s High Court ended earlier this 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 since Blythe Brown did not attend the trial, but she is actually one of many spouses who have served well beyond the traditional roles of muse or moral support. They have been researchers, editors, agents and virtual co-authors. They are not one half of a famous literary couple, like Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, but private collaborators usually little known beyond friends and family.

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

Car tips for NabokovVera Nabokov, for example, was Vladimir Nabokov’s translator, first reader, occasional researcher and in one famous case, his literary savior. Vladimir Nabokov was so frustrated with one novel in progress that he attempted to burn it in a backyard incinerator. Vera intervened, and her husband went on 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 Washington, D.C.

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,” 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.”

Husbands not quite so vitalThe list of indispensable male spouses appears far shorter. Writers interviewed by The Associated Press struggled to name famous women 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.”

Dick Francis was not 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.