Mileva Marić and her husband, Albert Einstein CREDIT: Reuters
“Behind every great man is a great woman,” as the saying goes. But this idea is roundly dispatched by Helen Lewis in Great Wives (Radio 4, Wednesday). It's “a dumb phrase,” she says, designed to make women feel better for not receiving the credit they deserve.
“Would Einstein have had the time to think about photons if he had to knit his own socks?” asks Lewis. It's a response, of sorts, to the long-running Radio 4 series Great Lives, which for two decades has been profiling eminent people who have achieved remarkable things in their fields.
Lewis wants to look instead at the essential, invisible, endlessly supportive people behind the famous names; the people who did all of the sock knitting, meal preparing, house tidying, financial planning, and shirt washing so that an intellectual genius could be allowed to flourish unhindered by worldly distraction.
This series could easily have been a worthy rant about women's housework being systematically undervalued, but that wouldn't really have told us anything new. What this series actually is, however, is much more fun. Lewis presents alongside the actor Joshua Higgott, who provides voices for quotations by the famous people under discussion, as well as performing the role of Lewis’s own “debonair alter-ego” who invites her to question her prejudices and think more deeply about things.
And so in the first episode, we heard about Albert Einstein’s wife, Mileva Marić. Albert and Mileva met as students, where they enjoyed discussing physics. When Einstein began to publish his research, Mileva proofread his early work, and it’s likely that she also helped with the calculations. They seemed to be an intellectual partnership as well as a romantic and domestic one.
Journalist and presenter Helen Lewis
But after Mileva and Albert married, they grew apart. Einstein drew up a contract which obliged Mileva to do all of his laundries, but to “cease all personal relations” with him. He began an affair with his cousin, Elsa, whom he later married. Lewis’s account of the marriage was nuanced and kept away from glib moralizing. And, despite the series’s title of Great Wives, she did consider the male partners of famous women, too. There were mentions for the supportive role that Leonard Woolf played for his wife, Virginia; Hilary Mantel's husband, Gerald McEwen; and Serena Williams’s husband, Alexis Ohanian, who once flew his wife to Venice because she was craving good pasta.
And then we had Marie and Pierre Curie, a union of equals, though others didn't always see it that way. Pierre had to write to the Nobel committee to make sure that Marie was properly cited for her first Nobel Prize.
I admit, I thought this series might be rather pious, but it’s not like that at all. It’s a thoughtful take not just on success, but on what makes a good marriage, what support it takes to dedicate a life to important work, and how eager we are to characterize successful people as lone geniuses, when actually the truth is that, more often than not, genius is down to the hard work of more than one person.
Kindred spirits: Prince Charles and Simon Armitage CREDIT: Chris Jackson
It made me think of Prince Charles’s conversation with Simon Armitage, the poet laureate, in The Poet Laureate Has Gone to His Shed (Radio 4, Saturday). In a mild and genial interaction, during which the two men mostly discussed nature, gardening, and sustainability, there was a strong unseen presence. The Prince professed his love of his gardens, but the sheer scale of the work he does on the landscape must require a small army of equally committed nature lovers working on the estates who share his vision.
And it was a sense of hard work that underpinned Glenda Jackson’s clear and passionate exploration of her view that women are being let down by a lack of good female roles in theatre, film, and TV. In Write Her Story (Radio 4, Thursday), Jackson asked, “Why are women not used as the dramatic engines in drama more?”
As well as female peers Phyllida Lloyd, Harriet Walter, and Adjoa Andoh, Jackson spoke to the director Richard Eyre, who strongly disagreed that women were disproportionately disgraced in drama.
“Name me a play in which a man ends up triumphant,” Eyre countered. Jackson rejoindered that she’d find it hard to name a play where he didn’t; that a leading man in drama may not always come out on top, but it generally turns out that he was right all along, and the rest of the world was too stupid to see it.
“The definition of what is interesting in a woman,” Jackson said, “seems to be based on age, sexuality, and physical appearance. There’s nothing about the brain or the soul or the heart – or the sheer hard work that women do.”