I’m developing a weird love-hate relationship with historical fiction. I’m bugged by authors presuming to know the minds of famous historical women. Because three of the four novels we have read for the Literary Wives series fall into this type of novel, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this genre and my complicated feelings toward it.
The book we are talking about today is The Aviator’s Wife (2013) by Melanie Benjamin. We are asking the following questions.
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
Before I get to the questions we are asking about wives, I want to explore my love-hate relationship with fictional novels about historical women. I do not like it because the voices of these women tend to fall into the same first-person narrative and assume to portray that person’s innermost thoughts, which of course, we cannot know. And, of course, the authors write disclaimers for this sort of work, making sure that we know it is a work of fiction, but it bothers me that somebody would presume to know the mind of somebody famous without conducing an interview.
I would prefer a third-person account, but I guess then this type of fiction wouldn’t appeal to the inner emotional lives of the women reading it. I also get confused by which incidents are real and which are imagined, and I wonder how accurate the timeline is. I guess what I’m trying to say is that these novels require more of a suspension of my disbelief than usual, and they seem to be somewhat formulaic.
However, I have learned to appreciate them through The Aviator’s Wife (and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, as I wrote about on Monday). As I read The Aviator’s Wife, I kept thinking about how little I had known of the protagonists, Charles and Anne Lindbergh. I knew that he had flown the first solo flight to Paris and I knew that their baby had been kidnapped. That was about it. As I read, I learned more about them, but again, the problem of what was real and what was imagined plagued me.
And then, I got to the end, where Benjamin had written a beautiful author’s note, addressing all of my concerns. She specifically laid out what was real and what wasn’t. She acknowledged her fudging of certain timelines, and she talked about how her novel helps us to know more about the Lindberghs besides that “we love them.” She also wrote, “As a historical novelist, the most gratifying thing I hear is that the reader was inspired, after reading my work of fiction, to research these remarkable people’s lives further. That is what historical fiction does best, I think; it leaves the reader with a desire to know more” (p. 401).
That is exactly what her work of fiction did for me. As annoyed as I was at having to suspend my disbelief so heavily, I wanted to know more. I kept stopping as I read to do Internet searches of certain incidents and for photos of the Lindberghs and their homes. I kept reading websites and Wikipedia pages about them. One of them called Charles “a strange bird,” and I realized how accurate the novel was trying to be. I also searched my local library catalog for Anne’s books, and one of them is sitting on my living room end table right now, waiting for me to read it. So I learned to appreciate the historical novel experience through Benjamin’s work, for it did inspire me to want to know more and to conduct outside “research” on her characters’ lives.
So the prompting to know more ended up being a good thing and the thing I have come to appreciate about historical fiction. However, another thing really bugged me about this book, and that is the cover. There is a beautiful image of a tall woman under the propellers of an airplane. She’s tall and slim and a knockout. Yet, in the book, Anne is described (many times) as short (and has having an unflattering nose). As a short person myself, I wish that the cover art had stayed true to the narrative and the character’s height and looks. By portraying her as tall, it is reinforcing the idea that only tall women are attractive and glamorous, and we all know that’s not true, right?
Now, as to the characters’ lives, I learned much about marriage. I learned that marriage may be a contest of endurance, especially if one is married to Charles Lindbergh. The novel begins with their meeting and “courtship.” I hesitate to call it a courtship because it was more like a few awkward meetings due to political circumstances. I kept expecting it to get more romantic or exciting. I wanted Anne to at least anticipate being with Charles, but none of that came. The two were formal and had stunted conversations, and then they were suddenly engaged in an uncomfortable way. The marriage didn’t get much better, except for a few moments.
The marriage was really about control. Charles was strange and eccentric, as I discovered on the Internet, and he imposed much of that on Anne. Some of that was good. She learned to fly and was the first woman to get her pilot’s license. I think some of this came from his affection for her, as the greatest compliment he gives her throughout the book is that she’s his “crew.” This is huge, especially for a man who was known for the first solo flight across the Atlantic. It was an acknowledgment that he needed her and that she was necessary, not just to his home, but to his career and profession and ultimately his life. For flying was what he lived for.
But some of this was bad. It seemed that Charles expected Anne to be him. Her identity had to be wrapped up in his and she had to accomplish the same things and be interested in those things in order for him to be happy. I see some narcissism in this, but also control. Charles was said to have had a fraught childhood, and I see this affecting his character later in life. He had to be in control in order to feel okay and stable. I completely understand that. But this came at the cost of Anne’s own desires and at the cost of their son, Charles Junior.
The novel explores the idea that Charles was perhaps responsible for their oldest son’s kidnapping. I really don’t know what to think, but it certainly seems to have been a possibility. He did seem awfully jealous and bent on making the baby “strong” without his mother and on keeping Anne in the air with him instead of on the ground with the baby. Whatever the truth is surrounding the incident, it was a tragedy. And although they were famous, their grief wasn’t any different than parents without that fame who have lost a child. It really is a heartbreaking episode in the book and in the history of their lives.
The incident highlights the worst of being famous. The whole book keeps their fame and its unwanted consequences as a theme, but the kidnapping shows the worst in people who wanted a piece of their fame. I can’t imagine being followed and photographed the way they were and having to keep guard dogs in the nursery. What an awful way to live. What’s interesting to me is that Charles didn’t necessarily invite such fame. Many times we hear talk of how celebrities put themselves on a stage or in the movies and pursue a public life, so consequently they must expect some level of the public wanting a part of their private lives. Yet Lindbergh wasn’t in that same category. He accomplished something great, and innovated air travel for certain, but from the novel he is a shy man with great aspirations, but not one who necessarily fits the mold of a celebrity who wants attention and notoriety.
I’m not sure what to think of Anne as a wife. She’s certainly loyal, but at the expense of herself. She just goes along with so much for so long, so the real growth and redemption in the book happens when she publishes Gift from the Sea and then acts on the sentiments in that book. She gets her own life, as we realize later that Charles had been doing that himself (having several affairs and other families, with some seven children besides those he had with Anne). So I felt her strength came in the time she spent alone raising the children and her abilities as a mother, but the first strength she shows for herself is when she moves on. She gets her own apartment and even takes a lover. Although I don’t approve of that (I think she should’ve divorced first), I understand it and I felt happy for her finally living for herself rather than for Charles.
I think she had to come to this realization because of her idolization of Charles from the beginning. He is constantly referred to as a hero, especially her hero at first, and yet he doesn’t do a lot of saving or protecting. It takes her nearly a lifetime to overcome this first impression she has had of him and kept of him over the years. Instead, she must push that aside and “save” herself. His heroism doesn’t mean much, especially in their marriage.
Despite this prominent hero metaphor, the ocean also prevails throughout. I see it as a play on Anne’s book Gift from the Sea and also a metaphor for marriage, that the tides ebb and flow. It is a much more realistic image, rather than the hero trope, for any marriage, and especially for theirs.
Silence is also a major theme in the book and the marriage. Anne sees herself as the loyal wife when she is at his side, smiling and silent. She often finds herself in his world, a man’s world, and must play the role. She says, “Silence, I was learning—another thing to add to my syllabus!—was the response with which my husband felt most comfortable” (p. 95).
This certainly plays out in their marriage, and contributes to many of the problems they face as a couple. They cannot grieve together because Charles won’t talk about the kidnapping and death of their son. He often does not want to hear Anne’s opinion or struggles, unless he asks. In the end, she breaks this code of silence and confronts him with the letters he has written to his other lovers and children. It is a conversation they needed to have, but it did make him uncomfortable, and it made Anne uncomfortable to break her silence and step out of the role of quiet and submissive and accepting wife, even thought they had long been living separate lives. Yet she ultimately goes back to silence by keeping his secrets, despite her willingness to talk to him about them. “I’ll keep his secrets for him” (p. 395).
The one theme I noticed that connected to my earlier review of American Wife (based loosely on Laura Bush) is that of a life defined by men. Anne says, “I wondered who they saw when they looked at me. The ambassador’s daughter? The aviator’s wife? Or the lost boy’s mother” (p. 239). Her life is defined by her relationship with and to men, not other women and not herself. This was also a part of the narrative with American Wife.
Eventually, Anne discovers that Charles had carried a picture of her and Charles Junior in his flying case, the battered one that made every single journey with him over the years. It is a touching moment of the book and part of the resolution, but I wonder if it really resolves anything. Does it make up for all of his silence? Does it make up for his demands on her? Does it make up for their distance from each other? Does it make up for his cruelty? Does it erase a lifetime of hurt and betrayal?
I’m not convinced that it does. Actions speak louder than pictures hidden in suitcases.
Here are some of my favorite quotes and ideas from the book:
“I lived in a world of remarkable thinkers and dreamers; people whose greatest achievements usually involved the writing of books, the handshake of diplomacy, the paper chase of academia. Heroes were figures from history or from literature: knights errant, brave explorers crossing oceans fully aware that there might be dragons at the end of the rainbow. There were no heroes in these modern times, I had sincerely believed” (p. 17).
“Flying is perfectly safe. Up there on the currents, like the birds—it’s a holy thing. . . . It’s down here where the danger is, you know—not up there” (p. 29).
“No married woman had a separate identity, not even my own mother, with all her education and energy. She was the senator’s wife, first and foremost” (p. 134).
“Ready for motherhood; the one journey I must take where my husband could not accompany me” (p. 136).
“Father always said you were the brave one . . . He said that the colonel [Charles] never knew fear, he never understood consequences. You did, but you went along with him anyway. That was bravery” (p. 392).
“Charles was of the air, but I am of the earth. Most of us are” (p. 395).
The following bloggers are also posting about The Aviator’s Wife today. Please visit their blogs as well.
Ariel of One Little Library
Audra of Unabridged Chick
Angela of Persephone Writes