Issue 2: Making Conversation

Feme Covert

This essay explores the stories of wives eclipsed from history. Documenting how using feminist historiography and storytelling within my practice can make these absent lives visible and provide us with alternative histories.

‘The task of the spectre is to remind us that the past is an unfinished business. The logic of haunting thus disrupts the idea of chronological time; it de-synchronises time and unsettles space’.

Orlow, U, 2016
Eyes – Gesso Panel 24.5 x 24.5 ( 3.8 cm deep) Oils
Listen to ‘Feme Covert’ – read by Jane Hughes


I want, no, I need to start with a bit of family history, or perhaps it is safer to say a family story.  My mother grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne during the ’30s and ’40s.  It was a childhood defined by excoriating poverty and inferences of domestic violence.  She left school at 13, and in 1946, at 16, she and her best friend hitched down to a bombed-out London in search of a ‘good’ husband – they never went back home. Following my parent’s marriage in 1955, my mother wrote to my father begging him not to visit her mother in Newcastle. She wrote, ‘’I hate to think of my childhood; I would rather forget it and pretend it never existed…..I resolved when I was very young to marry someone healthy and never have to worry about all the problems that I seem to have been facing from the day I was born; you just cannot imagine what it is like to feel insecure as a child and always be afraid’.  He never met her mother, and my mother only went home one further time to organise the funeral when her mother died.  My mother’s life was subsumed by my father’s.

I have no pictures of my grandmother Marjorie or any of those women who went before her.  She was illegitimate and fostered out as a baby, and then she, too went on to have an illegitimate baby, in turn, my mother’s sister.  When Marjorie married John, my grandfather, she was already 34.  He rarely found work, so she looked after her four children and took paid work as a cleaner.  She was and is an invisible wife.  Her class and gender defined her a lot in life, and because of this, she has no place in the records.  Her work as a housewife was undertaken in the privacy of the home, and as a cleaner, her work was un-unionised. She was powerless, trapped economically and socially, with her four children dependent on her meagre wages.   He was ‘head of the house’, and she could not escape.

My mother, on the other hand, married in the aftermath of the Second World War, a period in which the notion of the universal woman as white, heterosexual, middle-class and married pervaded society. ‘Woman’ was referred to without the divisions of class or race. Any aspirations for work always had in mind that as a ‘woman,’ you would have responsibilities as a homemaker.  My mother duly gave up work on marriage, my father became the breadwinner, and they had five children in quick succession.

Labour Dispute, 190 x120, Acrylic on Canvas

I tell this brief, perhaps not brief enough, story because I know it has shaped my perspective on my life and it formed an early part of my research in my MA, which in turn has been translated into my painting and film; these are raw and personal topics for me, partly drawn from my own experience of being mothered, but also my own experience of being a mother.  I had a longing to find these women, these ‘wives’ on my mother’s side who have hardly left a trace and bring them and their lived experience into the present, visible through the embodiment of painting.   But in trying to do so, I had not appreciated how this would feel – it was too close to home and left me with an empty awareness of so many absences, absence of images, absence of records and an absence of archive – an absence of history.

How, then, to create a boundary which would allow me to explore the ‘history’ of the wife, to tell stories and protect myself simultaneously? The work I produced in Unit 3 could be described as a significant Volte-face from the work I made during the previous Units, but I don’t think so. Strong ties and traces bind us – the archive and who is missing, absence, powerlessness, and loss. What has changed, and is a crucial development for me, is a shift towards a kinship beyond my family to that of the role of the ‘wife’ and her impotence and obscurity in a far broader social context.    I have contextualised this research through the paradigm of feminist historiography.  The melding of feminism and historical studies addresses methods and means of challenging the ‘grand historical narratives’ and releases me from the restrictions and tyranny of the ‘official’ archives, which were clearly absent. It was liberating and made way for the voices of the missing and eclipsed ‘wives’ I have chosen to paint, allowing them to be seen and heard.   This is not about the recovery of ‘facts’ but is about searching out ways of telling their stories. It acknowledges that as subjects, history places women in the context of differences and that there is a need to understand the restrictions and rules imposed upon them, which contributes to their absence.

So First of all – what is being a wife?

The Bride of Frankenstein 1931

When a small Brooke or little river incorporath with the Thames, the poor rivulet loseth her name…as it were clouded and overshadowed, she hath lost her stream.’ 

The Lawes Resolutions of Women’s Rights, or the Lawes Provision for Women – 1632 Thomas Edgar

Historically, being a ‘wife’ can be summed up as not to exist. In Europe, since the 13th century, it was deemed that a married couple was one person, and that person was the husband. – the woman by marriage became a ‘Feme Covert’ or covered woman.’ she was literally considered to be hidden behind the man.  Her very being suspended.  Marriage was gendered and was seen as a transactional relationship between a man and a woman. Although marriage is not ‘natural’, it is entirely constructed; it is very seductive.  For women, though, it is still ‘primarily a political experience and an institution that defines’ her work and identity (Oakley, 2021, p3).. As an institution, marriage has enshrined inequality of the sexes into the statute book, and it has frequently been weaponised against women. The wife’s role in marriage was to provide what Ann Oakley describes as the ‘subterranean industry of wifely labour’ (Oakley, 2021), to be a housewife, and a formal license to bear children.   The characteristic feature is one of exclusion in which her ‘work’ was unpaid and therefore deemed unremarkable, menial, and so simply not present.  

Why does it matter now? It matters because it reveals how ‘wives’ have been marginalised from history, made invisible and neglected.   As Hilary Clinton said, and I paraphrase here, ‘Women do not get written out of history – they just never got written into it’. History has predominantly been a story about what men have been doing, particularly when it comes to those with a public reputation. If a woman is there at all, she will be tucked away, an adjunct to his story within the folders of his archive.  It still reverberates and contaminates us now and has relevance to current debates about ongoing inequalities where patriarchal ways refuse to see or choose to forget.  There is a need to reclaim these stories and to reframe our histories, to tell the stories we have been told differently.

Caroline Steedman says that within the ‘official archives’, ‘mad fragments sit, waiting in the ‘indices of assigned categories to engage the imagination of the lonely researcher’ (Scott, 2011, p145).  We just need to listen for ‘the silences and omissions’ to find what Adrian Rich calls ‘a whole new psychic geography to be explored.’ (Rich 1971 p269)

My First Wife

Mouth – Gesso Panel 12 x 4. ( 2 cm deep) Oils

I didn’t go out to find Sabrina Sidney; I initially went to the Foundling Museum in London to see an exhibition on motherhood.  The written entry about Sabrina was small, so insignificant and of course, she was just one of the 100’s of children whose early lives were lived in that environment, but she shouted out to me.  The foundling children were usually only identifiable by the tokens their mothers had left. They were then rebranded and retrained to accommodate the merchant classes, but by the nature of Thomas Day, Sabrina Stanley was different; she had an enticing story to tell.  She was largely invisible, just this tiny wisp of a ghostlike presence, just out of my reach, hidden behind the despicable story of Thomas Day. Thomas was a notable figure, and she was abducted by him when she was only 12 as part of his experiment to create for himself a ‘perfect wife.’ In reading those few lines about how he had attempted to create a ‘perfect wife’, I passionately wanted to know more about her and not him.  I felt outraged for her, for her lack of agency, for the sense that she was a supporting actor in his grand narrative, and I wanted to find her – to paint her, to show there was an alternative history than his, to destabilise that narrative which implied there was only one face, and that was the face of a man.

Another Brief Story

“He also resolved that she should be simple as a mountain girl, in her dress, diet and manners, fearless and intrepid as the Spartan wives and Roman heroines”. 

Anna Seward, a friend to Thomas

Sabrina Sidney was abandoned at the Foundling Hospital in 1757, shortly after she was born.  She was named by her mother, Manima Butler, but this was changed to Anne Kingston on arrival at the hospital.  She would have been educated to understand that she was a product of disgrace and that she would need to be humble, subservient, and deferential to survive.  Thomas Day thought she was ideal for his social experiment to create the ‘perfect wife’ for himself, so he abducted her, deceiving the hospital of his actual intentions.  The idea of a woman as a ‘signifier’ for men to live out his fantasies was not new; Ovid wrote of the myth of Pygmalion, who was so appalled at the wickedness of real women that he decided to carve himself the perfect woman out of ivory marble and name her Galatea.  For Thomas, this ideal meant an unsullied girl who would be demure and subservient to his every whim and idea.  He renamed her Sabrina Sidney, displaced her from all she had known, and began grooming her for marriage.  By bestowing a new name on her, he signified his power, sense of ownership, and wish to obliterate her former identity. 

As part of her ‘training’ she was to dress plainly, eat frugally and be his sole domestic servant, but beyond this, Sabrina was also systematically maltreated.  Thomas loosely based her ‘education’ on Rousseau’s theories that children needed to be taught to withstand adversity. However, Day took this to a different level – he insisted she stay still when he poured hot molten wax on her shoulders or put pins into her arms. She was not to cry out when he fired pistol shots into her skirts or close to her ear.  She was regularly submerged in cold baths or made to walk into the lake in front of the house, going up to her chin and then told to lie in the marsh until the sun had dried her clothes.  

After a year, he concluded that she had ‘failed’ and so she would not do as a ‘perfect wife’. He sent her to boarding school, and apart from another brief attempt at training her when she was 17, he never saw her again.  However, he continued to oversee her life as he feared she would become indolent.  When she was only 32, he died, but still, his life would continue to impact hers as his friends and associates wrote various biographies, which included their interpretations of what had happened to her.

So, I was inaccurate when I said Sabrina was the first wife because she never quite made the grade. Her story continues to be repeated and re-told in biographies, histories, romcoms and literature – from My Fair Lady to Pretty Woman.  These stories continue to be the same ones – where men who, by the measure of their social ranking or wealth, maintain patriarchal control over women who have none.  They are about women being helpless before being re-constructed and transformed into the ‘wives’ men desire.

I wanted to express through paintings what Sabrina had been put through in these horrifying ordeals, but not as an explicit spectacle of suffering – to attempt to put together pieces of the forgotten.  To create an indexical mode of representation that demanded that we recognise her,  The paintings needed to reveal themselves subtly. What she had been through was kept private, a secret, and she could not protest. Protest meant banishment. I needed the paintings to reflect this experience. 

There are eight smaller paintings (24.5 squared) on Gesso Boards and a scaled-up painting (120 cm squared) on canvas of Sabrina’s eye portrayed as a Georgian ‘lover’s eye’.  I wanted the surface to be smooth and untextured, and the colour palette deliberately restrained, aesthetically pleasing and subdued.  This juxtaposed with the subject matter and highlighted how Sabrina was only ever almost there. I needed the audience to be drawn to the paintings, to be curious about why there were these cropped images of a young person, to ask themselves whether this was the same person and what the narrative was – to encourage them to become a voyeur.   

Where the smaller paintings focussed on body parts, none were as small as Sabrina’s eye, and this was the focus of my large painting. There is an ambiguity – is Sabrina looking out at us, or we at her? The composition is very simple for each painting. There is only one focus in these cropped images: her eyes, mouth, or other body parts, which allows the viewer to make their own assumptions. They are a series; I cannot imagine one being shown without the others. 

Lovers Eye, 120 x 120 cm, Acrylic on Canvas

Somehow, the painting was not enough.

Painting did not feel enough; I wanted to find out how to incorporate the written word to interplay with the images, 

I was interested in Bourgeois’ use of the diary and writings in her work, so I revisited my own diary from when I was 12 years old.  Could I use this to have a conversation with Sabrina in the way Celia Paul had with Gwen John in her Letters to Gwen John?  I had felt an emotional connection between the child Jane and Sabrina, but my diaries told me nothing.  They were written with an awareness of being one of five children who were always willing to snoop and spy on each other– they were bland.  They speak of a history where girls of my generation did sewing classes, had roast beef on Sundays and found innovative games to play during power strikes, but I couldn’t do as Celia did and find that meeting place between me and Sabrina without the dangers of it becoming a horror story. And on the here and now, on my own experience of marriage and my mother’s life as a married woman – I do have my diaries but feel the boundaries slipping in the wrong direction.  I was unsure about bringing in a more personal voice again.  

Moyra Davey is an artist who uses diary-like writing combined with photos of her domestic environment to ‘go into the world of other people’s writing and take snapshots’.  Margaret Iverson suggests that Davey’s work can be seen as both ‘autofiction’ and ‘Autotheory’. (Iverson 2014, p8) Autotheory is a transformative literary genre that provides an ethical and open way for the narrator to reflect on their vulnerable self while incorporating critical theory’s terminologies and methodologies. So, it is potentially an avenue for me, but I am writing about people I don’t know and cannot know as they are missing from history. 

Like me, Bourgeois was white, privileged, and middle class. Like her, I have explored emotional neglect – the neglect of children but also women.  But in ‘Immaculate Conception’ and the series of paintings that came after it, ‘No-Man’s Land, ‘ I am focusing on the other, she on her own experience, and my sources are text-based.  So, am I working from a place of empathy? Is it possible for artists to make those who are eclipsed or just missing from history visible from this position?  Each of the ‘characters’ in my two separate bodies of recent work came to my attention as a consequence of the actions of notorious men, and I was and am furious.  I had what Joan Scott calls a ‘fervent desire’, that gift of the muses, to transform the subject (Scott, JW 2011, p21).

Claire Hemmings, in her book “why stories Matter’ takes a deep dive into empathy in Western Feminist theory and how it has represented a way of developing ‘ethical relations to other people’ (Hemmings 2011 p162) and a means of confronting the authority of, in this case, me, to paint and write about Sabrina, Virginia or Patricia.  How could I establish a genuine relationship with someone no longer here? Was I, in fact, in danger of sublimating myself in the place of these women?  ‘Good empathy’ would allow them to be independent of me, yet I needed to acknowledge the limits of my knowledge.   Feminist historians have always sought to tell the stories of those who have been left out, but I, in attempting to fill the gaps, will be bringing my own position in history to their stories– I cannot avoid this.  It is what I do with it that matters.  As Hemmings says, we need ‘instead to tell stories differently, rather than telling different stories. (Hemmings 2011 p5) 

Creating a new language

So, to reclaim and tell the stories of those who have been ‘left out’ and those who have suffered at the hands of others differently, we need access to a new language and a willingness to sit with uncertainty.  Adrianne Rich warned this would be like walking on ice ‘as we try to find language and images for consciousness we are just coming into, and with little in the past to support us’. (Rich 1971, p17) Tiya Miles and Saidiya Hartman use critical fabulation to this effect.  Where the archives are bare, they find a new language to ‘illuminate ‘the intimacy of our experience with the lives of the dead’ (Dintino 2023) .  They use artefacts as archives to build stories and imagine lives within parameters which rely on different historical data sources.  This is a way of calling out ‘history’, who has recorded it, and who has tried to determine what stories got told.  Exploring this idea within my own practice, I ask how I could have done this.  I could have perhaps requested to see the token that Sabrina’s mother had left and to have built a story from that – perhaps I have, in a way, managed this.  The tokens I did see moved me, and I could relate deeply to the love invested in the rag-tag collections of buttons, bows and bottle tops left by the parents of the foundlings. Still, my reactions to Sabrina and all the other women I have painted came from a deeper well, and it was more personal.

Carmen Maria Machado’s extraordinary, intoxicating ‘memoir’ ‘In the Dream House is, at one level, a straightforward tale of her experience of domestic violence at the hands of her female lover. What fractures this as a memoir is she is forced to build that architecture of language if she is going to speak of these unspeakable things. She met an ‘archival silence’ where the tales of other victims were missing. ‘Sometimes stories are destroyed, sometimes they are never uttered in the first place… what is left in or left out is a political act” (Machado 2020).  She conjures up a dream house where her story can live.  It is a structure ‘surrounded by literary trappings—epigraphs, prologue—that lend it legitimacy’ (Waldman 2023).   She repositions and unravels the narrative, taking us with her in this experience that did not and could not be made sense of. 

I listened to Lubaina Himid talk about her work and how she, by making larger-than-life cut-out people who have, up until now, been written out of our cultural history, can be made alive and present to us.  They fill whole rooms; we can hear their stories, and we can say their names.  Himid infuses their stories with humour and draws our attention to race, power, and colonialism issues.  She has created a new language, too

Imperfect wives

 ‘The unusual thing about misogyny is the elaborate, intellectual superstructure that has for so long supported and celebrated, not as a blind spot as a pernicious ideology, but, on the contrary, as a perfect vision

(Smith, Z 2019

Could I learn from artists such as Lubaina and paint a series of ‘wives’ in my attempt to reclaim and reframe the tradition of historical painting and grand narratives by putting the eclipsed, obscured, or erased wives of the ‘great and the good’ into the picture frame, posing political questions about ‘history’, representation and what stories get told.  ‘No Man’s Land’ is a body of work conceived and born from my research for the ‘Immaculate Conception’ series.  Sabrina’s story was, I hope, a unique one, but the institute of marriage, one she was so vociferously being trained for, still enshrines inequalities in the legislature. 

I began by reading about Virginia Poe, who was only 13 when she married Edgar Alan Poe. Still, this reading then led to further reading, and I became aware there was no shortage of other male literary giants who had exploited, abused or ignored their wives – but then why stop here? I began to look at scientists, actors, artists, politicians, …. As Carmela Cuiraru spells out in her book ‘Lives of the Wives: ‘The history of wives is one of resilience and forbearance, with countless women demonised, marginalised, misrepresented and silenced’ and ‘history is to fame as wife is to footnote, their archival information stored under their husband’s collection’. (Cuiraru, C 2023, p6).

I wanted to take all the women I read about and revisit and reposition their place in history so their stories would become visible and would no longer be silent. To pay tribute to their achievements, honour their stoicism and sacrifices and celebrate who they were.  It was and continues to be a work in progress. I wanted walls of women, a shrine almost.

The Wall of Wives So Far
‘No Man’ Land’, showing in exhibition ‘Convergence’, A-B Gallery, Camberwell, October 2023

Each woman I have chosen to paint to date has had different experiences of being wives.  Some, like Sylvia, are anything but invisible, but her story is still inexorably intertwined with her husband, Ted Hughes. Patricia Neal likewise was the ‘breadwinner’ whilst married to Roald Dahl, but she had to downplay this to protect his masculine pride.  Like Sylvia, she would be abandoned for another wife. 

This series is titled ‘No Man’s Land’ Although I continued to paint on Gesso Boards – they are smaller, at only 15 cm squared. I chose to paint in acrylics rather than oils, which I had used for the ‘Immaculate Conception’ paintings. The colours are more potent and visually more there. They are unmistakably faces of women who have been squeezed into tiny spaces and are looking towards us with their questioning gaze. In the portrait of Patricia, I have used Chiaroscuro’s technique to capture the distress on her face. 

Virginia – Gesso Panel 15 x 15 cm. ( 3.8 cm deep) Acrylic

Married to Edgar Allan Poe at the age of 13. I began this series with a small painting of Virginia. Only one small historical painting of her exists, and it was painted just hours after her death. I thought about her youth and the descriptions I read about her. She was said to have dark, almost black hair and eyes – and she was only 24 when she died of consumption. It was this wasting away, both metaphorically and physically, that I wished to capture. She wears the ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ as an earring. In my room at home, she is the one who disappears and gets lost on my shelf, surrounded by the other wives.

I then painted Una and Catherine. They both went through numerous guises before I settled on what felt like the correct version.


Una– Gesso Panel 24.5 x 24.5 cm. ( 3.8 cm deep) Acrylic

When Una met Radycliffe Hall, she adopted a conservatively gendered wifely role within their relationship, wearing what was considered feminine attire. However, after Radycliffe died, Una took to wearing her lovers’ clothes, tweeds, male jackets and hats. It is from this period that I chose to paint her.   

Una had been a 13-year-old protégé at the Royal College of Art, but once she met Radycliffe, she dedicated her life to her:  

‘a life of watching, serving and subordinating everything in existence to the requirements of an overwhelming literary inspiration and industry’ (Ciuraru, 2023, p94)

They lived as a conventional and politically conservative married couple. Radycliffe (John) believed he was a ‘congenital invert’, a ‘masculine soul heaving in the female bosom’ and that Una should be a ‘good submissive wife’ and abstain from any ambitions of her own.


Catherine– Gesso Panel 30 x 15 cm. ( 3.8 cm deep) Acrylic

Charles Dickens – his thoughts on Catherine:

“A page in my life which once had writing on it, has become absolutely blank …it is not in my power to pretend that it has a solitary word upon it.” (Forster, 2011 (p 136)

My interpretation of Catherine is from a time before she began producing endless babies, and her life was stolen from her. The attire, the colours I selected, and her hair reflect the period in which she lived. She is reading and having some time for herself. 

She was an accomplished author, cook and actor despite producing ten children and experiencing a number of miscarriages during her marriage to Charles Dickens.  When he left after 22 years of marriage, his prime interest was to preserve his reputation. He first tried to incarcerate Catherine in an asylum, but when this failed, he encouraged ugly rumours to circulate that she was an alcoholic and an ‘incompetent mother’.  He then moved from her home and forbade the children from seeing her.  She has become misremembered by history as the ‘epitome of a frumpy and dreary wife.’


Patricia – Gesso Panel 15 x 15 cm. ( 3.8 cm deep) Acrylic

Patricia Neal was a successful actress married to Roald Dahl, considered by many to be an emotionally detached bully and a serial womaniser who nevertheless had the highest expectations on how his wife should meet his needs.

The advice of a friend of Roald’s to Patricia on how to save her marriage:

You can make the money, but Roald must handle it… you must do all the cooking. Wash the dishes and do everything in the house. ( Ciuraru, 2023 p514)

While still in her 30s, she suffered a catastrophic series of strokes, which came soon after losing her eldest child to measles. Her career was shattered, and her independence lost; Roald now had complete control of her – her friends variously described him as her dog trainer, drill sergeant or traffic policeman, but she did recover under his humiliating regime. By this stage, he was a highly successful and respected author and had also begun an affair with Felicity Crosland. This affair went on for 11 years before he finally left Patricia. Later, Felicity was asked whether she had had any regrets in breaking up their marriage (he was, of course, blameless): 

‘It was a particularly difficult situation because Pat had a stroke and was not well. I don’t know how he managed to bring up these children, run a house, do the school runs and write this major volume of work. He was so worn out, so needing to be looked after, which of course Pat could not do’…… (Ciuraru, 2023, p568)

I painted Patricia caught in the camera lights, part tearful, part terrified.


Mileva 15.24 cm square , Acrylic on Gesso Board

Einstein’s’ first wife.  His letter to Mileva after their divorce. She was seeking some recognition:

You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Have you ever considered, even just for a second, that nobody would ever pay attention to your words if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important? When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do. (Gagnon, P 2016)

Mileva was a highly educatedpioneering physicist whose ambitions were thwarted by a social and economic system that could not and would not recognise her. There is much debate as to whether she contributed to some of his greatest theories – although there are far too many papers working hard to prove she didn’t – she was nevertheless the bedrock which allowed him the time to work.  She did what so many women do when faced with such limited choices: she became the domestic and the mother. Her strength and her intelligence gaze out at us. 

Mileva had abandoned her aspirations. Despite being a physicist in a period when it was almost unheard of for women to be one, and whose individual contributions are impossible to disentangle from Einstein’s, she has been denied recognition.   In 2004, her unmarked grave, number 9,357, was finally identified – another woman who had been excluded from history.


As Einstein’s second wife, Elsa was for him a marriage of convenience; she was his administrator and organiser while he continued to have numerous relationships with other women, safe in the knowledge that she would remain dutiful and loyal. As she lay dying and in great pain, he was not available to her. 



Make him happy: cook, play, read… Never accuse, or nag – let him run, reap, rip – and glory in the temporary sun of his ruthless force’ (Plath 1956)

Sylvia wanted equality in her marriage to Ted Hughes but was left feeling suffocated by domesticity and a sense that she had failed. She is here because she was put in the position of contemplating whether to choose between her writing and marriage, because of the evidence Ted Hughes was emotionally and potentially physically abusive in their marriage and because he abandoned her with two small children.

In Conclusion

In exploring the question ‘How do we tell the stories’ of those deliberately obscured from history, I recognise I have taken a circuitous route.  I started my paintings about Sabrina’s life to reframe her story to make her visible, not just a part of Thomas’s story.  Similarly, I have followed this idea in my paintings of wives, placing them centre stage.  The issues I encountered in painting them is, of course, the nub of the problem: they are often missing from the records or are only add-ons in men’s lives.  I was trying to address this through the embodiment of paint, but I wanted/needed narrative too, and this is where all the interesting research comes in – the critical fabulation, auto theory, using diaries and artefacts, all these ways to tell stories.  However, in touching on a subject which, as in Machado’s memoir on domestic abuse, is unpalatable and unspoken of, I found myself being drawn away into different conversations too.  Conversations about domestic violence and, in the case of Sabrina, child abuse. These subjects cannot just be tagged onto this essay; they require far more attention than this essay can give them.  I know too that this essay is full of my own unanswered questions, but fundamentally, I tried to preserve Sabrina, Patricia, Sylvia, Mileva, Una, Catherine, Elsa and Virginia’s integrity and tried to make them not just people to whom things were done to. 

History is just stories we construct; it is open to interpretation, and feminist historians will keep exploring how we tell the stories despite there being people who, in positions of privilege, have a vested interest in preserving these inequalities.   Women artists, writers and feminist historiographers have found extraordinary ways of addressing what has been done to them or telling the stories of others for whom great injustices have been meted out – stories and histories we can hear, bear, and internalise.  


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Ciuraru, C. (2023) Lives of the wives. HARPERCOLLINS PUBLISHERS INC. 

Coviello, P. (2003) ‘Poe in love: Pedophilia, morbidity, and the logic of slavery’, ELH, 70(3), pp. 875–901. doi:10.1353/elh.2003.0026. 

Dintino, T.C. (2023) Tiya Miles and Saidiya Hartman: Critical fabulation – claiming the narrative and overriding the supremacist archiveNasty Women Writers. Available at: (Accessed: 06 November 2023). 

Does Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric deserve credit for some of his work? (2018) The Independent. Available at: (Accessed: 02 November 2023). 

Drama on 4, the Imperfect Education of Sabrina Sidney – what happened when one man set out to create the perfect wife… (no date) BBC Radio 4. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2023). 

Filbee, M. (1980) A woman’s place: an illustrated history of women at home from the Roman Villa to the Victorian Town House. London: Ebury Press. 

Forster, J. (2011) The life of Charles Dickens [Preprint]. doi:10.1017/cbo9781139107877. 

Fournier, L. (2021) Autotheory as feminist practice in art, writing, and criticism. MIT Press. 

Gagnon, P. (2016a) The Forgotten Life of Einstein’s first wifeScientific American Blog Network. Available at: (Accessed: 02 November 2023). 

Heathcote, E. (2012) The meaning of home. London: Frances Lincoln. 

Hemmings, C. (2011) Why stories matter: The political grammar of feminist theory. Durham, Car du N.: Duke University Press. 

Iles, K. (2012) Constructing the eighteenth-century woman: The adventurous history of Sabrina Sidney. Dissertation. 

Iversen, M. (2021) ‘The diaristic mode in contemporary art after Barthes’, Art History, 44(4), pp. 798–822. doi:10.1111/1467-8365.12587. 

Lennon, R. (2023) Wedded wife: A feminist history of marriage. London: Aurum Press.

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Jane Hughes is a London-based mixed-media artist whose primary focus is on painting. She reclaims and reframes the traditions of historical painting and grand narratives by putting the eclipsed, obscured, or erased wives of the ‘great and the good’ into the picture frame, posing political questions about ‘history’, representation and what stories get told. She graduated from MA Fine Art: Painting in 2023.