Books

4 forgotten couples from history whose badass stories will inspire you

In her new book, It Takes Two, award-winning journalist Cathy Newman brings to light the stories of couples who have been overlooked or written out of history. 

When you think of ‘power couples’, who comes to mind? Is it Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Barack and Michelle, Harry and Meghan, Kayne and Kim, Ellen and Portia or George and Amal Clooney

Those are just a handful of contemporary (and mostly celebrity) power couples, but dynamic duos have always been around, and some historical power couples have worked in tandem to great effect. 

Those duos are the focus of Cathy Newman’s new book, entitled It Takes Two. (Newman is an award-winning investigative journalist who first joined Channel 4 News as a political correspondent in January 2006 after seven years writing for the Financial Times).

In her new book, Newman rewrites the history books to expose the power of two throughout the ages. The book brings together a range of stories from around the world, highlighting how brilliant double acts have relied on each other – and highlights the collaborators who have been overlooked or written out of history.

Take William and Ellen Craft – the couple who worked together to pull off a perilous cross country escape from slavery in the US, or the queer artists Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun who become icons of the surrealist movement and the delightfully eccentric Ladies of Llangollen. 

Here, in an excerpt from the book, Newman gives us a taster of the vibrant and unexpected power couples of old…

Ellen and William Craft 

Ellen and William were married slaves from the city of Macon in Georgia who performed a daring escape from their plantation by pretending to be a white master traveling with his slave. The key to William’s ambitious plan was that American slaveholders could take their slaves to any state, including ‘free states’ where slavery didn’t exist. White women in the South didn’t usually travel with their servants. But because Ellen had light skin, she was able to pass as a white man. The disguise she adopted allowed Ellen – though not William, who played the role of her slave – to stay at the best hotels, travel First Class on trains, and dine at the captain’s table on ships.

As neither she nor William could read or write, Ellen put her right arm in a sling to deter port authorities or hotel receptionists from asking her to sign documents or registries. To flesh out her identity as an invalid, she asked William to wrap bandages around her face to hide her smooth, beardless skin. They were nearly caught several times. 

Once, on a train, Ellen turned and realised the man sitting beside her was an old friend of her master. She feigned deafness and eventually the man, who thankfully hadn’t recognised her, gave up trying to talk to her. Ellen and William finally arrived in Philadelphia in the free state of Pennsylvania on Christmas Day, 1848. But in 1850 they had to move again to evade slave hunters. They sailed for Liverpool via Canada. Ellen became ill on the voyage, nearly died and took several weeks to recover after they arrived in England. But once they were here, the abolitionist network – including Harriet Martineu and Ada Lovelace – ensured they were looked after and received an education.

Ellen and William would not have been able to pull off the plan if they hadn’t been so close as a couple. They were totally trusting, capable of intuiting down to the subtlest raised eyebrow what the other was thinking and feeling. Separation was unthinkable to them. At the same time, they knew that if one of them was caught then the other would have to struggle on alone, with all the danger that that implied.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Jessie Walmisley 

One of the best-known Black public figures at the end of the nineteenth century was the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Known as the ‘Black Mahler’, Coleridge (as people called him) was both critically celebrated and commercially successful. His cantata Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was performed throughout Britain. In 1899 he married his fellow Royal College of Music student Jessie Walmisley, an upper-middle-class white woman.

Surprisingly, Coleridge seems not to have been affected professionally by racism – his ascent to the top of the late-Victorian classical music world was swift and frictionless, helped by endorsements from Edward Elgar and Sir Arthur Sullivan – but he certainly was in other areas of his life. Jessie made it her mission to defend her shy, placid husband, who was (she wrote) “made sensitive by the careless, thoughtless, irreverent people amongst whom he was obliged to live; often those same people who received endless joy and satisfaction from listening to or performing his beautiful music”.

An encounter with two such people features prominently in the memoir she wrote after Coleridge’s premature death in 1912: “Well do I remember passing two silk-hatted ‘toffs’ going to the theatre, as we were returning home from an afternoon concert, deliberately insulting us, and how I with a palpitating heart and sick with rage, darted from my husband’s side in front of them, stopped them and said, ‘Take back what you said and apologise.’”  

Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore 

In terms of influence exerted and boundaries stretched, one of the most important couples featured in It Takes Two is the French surrealist artist Claude Cahun and their - I use the pronoun deliberately – lifelong partner and collaborator Marcel Moore. Little discussed (because little seen) until the 1980s, their work, which questioned conventional notions of gender identity and performance, is now regarded as ahead of its time and an influence on artists like Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Gillian Wearing.

The pair’s names were non-gender-specific pseudonyms: Claude was the flamboyant subject of the pair’s staged photographs and, on the face of it, Marcel seems like the junior partner in the relationship – a graphic artist who produced stylish illustrations for fashion magazines as well as avant-garde publishers and theatre companies. But Claude could not have been Claude without Marcel. The lovers collaborated on a variety of projects, including articles and novels, and held salons at their home. They used the phrase ‘singular plural’ to describe themselves.

Parisians for most of their lives, the pair moved to Jersey in 1937, little knowing that it would shortly be occupied by the Germans. In Paris, they had been involved with the writer George Bataille’s Contre-Attaque resistance group. In occupied Jersey, they put their artistic nous to political use as resistance fighters and propagandists, producing anti-German fliers and pamphlets made up of snippets of translated BBC reports on Nazi atrocities which they would scatter around German military events. For this, they were arrested and sentenced to death in 1944. Luckily, the island was liberated before the sentence could be carried out. Among their fans was David Bowie, who featured their work in an exhibition he curated in New York in 2007 and called Claude “really quite mad, in the nicest way”.

The Ladies of Llangollen

The so-called Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, were aristocratic Irish women who set up home together in the Welsh town in 1780. They became famous across Britain for their then-unconventional relationship (most probably lesbian, though at least one biographer argues it was a platonic ‘romantic friendship’). They were also known for the cottage called Plas Newydd they reconstructed to their own playfully Gothic specifications, complete with ornate wooden carvings and stained glass windows; and for the highly structured, stylised way they lived.

The Ladies’ goal was ‘retirement’ – not what we think of it, but a sort of retreat into a rural idyll. They loved nature, but were only too happy to give nature a helping hand when it wasn’t doing what they wanted. “Sat in the rustic seat,” Eleanor wrote in her journal one day, “disliked the appearance of the Stones over which the Water falls, thought it appeared too formal. Sent our workman to it with a spade and Mattock.” One of the most fascinating things about the Ladies from a modern viewpoint is their dandyish invention of themselves as living works of art. They powdered their hair and wore black riding habits and other male clothing.

Like Greta Garbo, they wanted to be alone. But their fame made this impractical and their visitors’ book reads like a roll-call of the late eighteenth-century great and good, from William Wordsworth to Josiah Wedgwood and the Duke of Wellington. And as one of their obsessions was food, guests could be assured of dining well. Eleanor wrote to one visitor: “Dinner Shall be boil’d chickens from our own Coop. Asparagus out of our garden. Ham of our own Saving and Mutton from our own Village… Supper Shall consist of Goosberry Fool, Cranberry Tarts roast Fowel and Sallad.” Yum.

It Takes Two by Cathy Newman is out now, published by William Collins, £20

Images: Rachel Adams