I, Woman: Janet Asimov Tells Her Story

Both were writers, both were doctors - she in psychiatry, he in chemistry. But does the name Janet Opal ring a bell if it isn’t attached to the famous surname she received from her husband? Janet Opal Asimov was her husband Isaac’s right hand throughout their years of marriage. She shared credit with him for quite a few books, short stories, and essays she wrote, and edited many of his writings. But even though her work was often overshadowed, she was a fascinating woman who deserves to be remembered in her own right.

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Janet and Isaac Asimov, from the American edition of their "shared" book "Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot"

“One of the deepest desires of a human being is to be known and understood.”

With this sentence, Janet Asimov begins the very personal epilogue she attached to her husband Isaac Asimov’s biography, which she edited. In trying to describe Isaac’s fascinating life story, she may have been telling us a little something about herself as well.

Did she feel like the world knew her? Understood her?

If you search for “Janet Asimov” in the National Library of Israel’s online catalog, you will only find a handful of results. One is It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov’s biography which she edited. Another is a small Hebrew edition of the book Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot,with an old-fashioned-looking cover where their names appear side by side: “Janet and Isaac Asimov”.

We will come back to this book later.

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The Hebrew edition of Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot can be loaned at the National Library of Israel

This selection, of course, is far from an accurate reflection of the scope or quality of her literary work, most of which the publishers in Israel chose not to translate.

Janet Opal Asimov (née Jeppson) was a doctor of medicine, as well as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, long before she began writing. Her written work incorporated quite a bit from her professional training, which she used to raise issues of identity, self-determination, and consciousness.

In May 1966, she had her first story published. It was a short mystery story that was sold to a publication called The Saint. Eight years later, her first science fiction novel, The Second Experiment, was published. Since then, she never stopped writing and publishing – novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies, and essays.

While working on her budding writing career, Janet was also extremely busy with other matters. She had a full-time job at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology, published many medical articles, and also fell in love with and married a quite well-known man named Isaac Asimov.

She first met Isaac in 1956. She was still a psychiatry intern at Bellevue Hospital, and he was already a famous author. Janet attended a convention for science fiction fans and went to get an autograph from Asimov, who was cold toward her. At the time, Isaac was suffering from kidney stones, and Janet got the impression that he was not a pleasant person.

They met again three years later, at a festive dinner honoring mystery writers hosted by Veronica Parker Johnson. They were seated next to each other, and this time they immediately clicked.

Janet and Isaac kept in touch, even though he was still married to his first wife, Gertrude Blugerman – the mother of his two children. In 1970 he separated from his wife and moved in with Janet. The divorce proceedings took three years, and in 1973, when the process was officially completed, Asimov and Janet got married in a modest ceremony at their home.

Isaac Asimov was a proud Jew. He insisted, for example, that the Hebrew translations of his books use his Hebrew name, Yitzchak. For some reason, the Israeli publishers managed to get away with using the name י. אסימוב (“Y. Asimov”) on the covers until the seventies, when they all decided to completely ignore his request and he remained אייזק  (“Isaac”, not “Yitzchak”) to his Israeli readers. Janet, on the other hand, had Mormon roots. But this inter-religious connection was not an issue for them. They were both humanists, and their marriage ceremony was based not on religion but rather on ethical principles.

From the day they moved in together, Janet began playing an active role in her husband’s work. She was writing science fiction before she met him, with her stories mostly published under the name “Janet O. Jeppson”, but now she had begun to collaborate with one of the most prolific, original, and famous writers in the genre. While continuing her work as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, she edited many of his works (including his autobiographical books), co-authored many of his essays, and the two even wrote several non-fiction works together.

How to Enjoy Writing, not just science fiction – one of the non-fiction books that Janet and Isaac Asimov wrote together

Isaac loved Janet and valued her writing and her opinions. “My letters to you are first drafts,” he once wrote to her, “…and I leave it to you to get past the maunderings and potterings and see my meaning. In fact, it is very wonderful to be able to leave it to you to do that –in full confidence and trust.”

But even if Isaac felt that she was a partner in his creation, as far as the world was concerned, she often disappeared in his shadow. He was the star of this relationship. Her own stories, good as they were, got a bit lost in the oblivion of literary history.

Let’s go back for a moment to the little book we found in the collections of the National Library of Israel: this one slim book, 107 pages in all, might be able to demonstrate more than anything else how Janet was overlooked due to the fame of her husband.

Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot was the first book in a series of twelve that describe the adventures of an independent-minded robot named Norby and a young fellow by the name of Jeff who had the privilege of being his owner. This is a children’s science fiction series full of things that today have become commonplace in children’s literature and film. Back then, these were still relatively new, and truly awesome inventions and literary innovations: space shuttles and interstellar “jumps”, ancient dragons, aliens, computers that run the household, flying transportation, and most of all – robots that transcend their basic programming and develop independent personalities.

These are funny, light, and captivating stories and it is a shame that only the first book in the series was translated into Hebrew. But Isaac Asimov, whose name appears on the cover as one of the writers, hardly had anything to do with them.

According to his own testimony, these were Janet’s stories. At the request of the publisher, Isaac intervened a bit in the editing just so that his name could appear on the cover – purely for marketing reasons.

The cover of one of Janet Asimov’s books, The Package in Hyperspace, an accessible science fiction book for children – that did appear under her name

If Janet was hurt or felt disrespected by this request, she never let on. Her relationship with Isaac seems to have remained strong and loving. They had their share of arguments. Life at home was not always easy, but they didn’t hold grudges and stayed dedicated and loyal to each other.

In 1983, Isaac Asimov underwent a bypass surgery that was ostensibly a success, but from that day on, his health began to deteriorate. The doctors couldn’t understand the connection between the various symptoms he began to develop, but Janet, who was a doctor herself, had an idea. She asked them to test him for HIV.

The prejudiced doctors initially objected to testing for the virus, which in those years was considered a source of terrible shame and almost complete social isolation. But she insisted, and the test results proved her right, much to her great sorrow. Asimov contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his bypass surgery. At the time, this diagnosis was a death sentence and all that was left to do was to wait and see when it would be carried out.

Janet left her job at the William Alanson White Institute and devoted her time to caring for her husband. She fed him in his sick bed and also took care of other matters of interest, like their joint writing, completing essays he was unable to finish, and editing drafts and letters so that they would be fit to print.

About a year before his death, he wrote the book Asimov Laughs Again, and in the summary of the manuscript he added the following:

“I’m afraid that my life has just about run its course and I don’t really expect to live much longer […] In my life, I have had Janet and I have had my daughter, Robyn, and my son, David; I have had a large number of good friends; I have had my writing and the fame and fortune it has brought me; and no matter what happens to me now, it’s been a good life, and I am satisfied with it.”

He died with Janet and his daughter by his side. Janet used to say that the last sentence he said was “I love you too.”

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Janet and Isaac Asimov. Photo: Jay Kay Klein

After his death, she continued both their joint work and her independent writing. She went back to publishing science fiction novels under the name Janet O. Jeppson, but she didn’t abandon Isaac’s legacy: For a while, she took over writing the popular science column he used to write, she edited two biographical books of his writings – one of which she entitled It’s Been a Good Life – and she even edited his 400th essay in Fantasy and Science Fiction entitled “A Way of Thinking” from letters he wrote to her and fragments of drafts he left behind.

Despite the objections of his doctors, she insisted on publicizing the cause of his death, and she did so, albeit belatedly, in the epilogue to the book It’s Been a Good Life. She believed that this would help in the fight against prejudices, stigmas and the lack of awareness that surrounded HIV and claimed so many lives.

Janet passed away in 2019, at the age of 92. Most reports about her death referred to her as “Isaac Asimov’s widow”.

Here and there, some websites or science fiction magazines also mentioned her own writing. In one of them, Don Kaye wrote:

“Janet Asimov, one half of one of science fiction literature’s great power couples, has passed beyond the realm of human understanding.”

What would have happened if Janet Opal Jeppson hadn’t become half of this couple? What would have happened if she hadn’t met Isaac Asimov? Did we lose another Ursula K. Le Guin because Janet Asimov didn’t have the freedom or space to develop her own unique style and language? Or did Asimov act as a close mentor who improved her writing and opened up a whole world to her?

We won’t get answers to these questions, but even without them we can say that it’s a shame that history doesn’t remember her enough, and it’s a shame that more of her work wasn’t translated into Hebrew. She was an excellent writer who combined humor and flowing plotlines with great psychological and human questions, and she deserves to be recognized as Janet Opal Jeppson, a writer in her own right.

The Mystery of Moses’ Horns

Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist, left an incredible cultural legacy behind, along with a fascinating mystery: Why did he choose to add horns to his famous sculpture of Moses?

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Michelangelo’s "Moses". Photo: Ulrich Mayring

By Daniel Lipson

In the eternal city of Rome, not far from the Colosseum, sits the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Behind the church’s relatively modest façade is one of the world’s most famous works of art, which has made this somewhat ordinary-looking house of worship into a famous location: the sculpture Moses, erected as part of the monument for Pope Julius II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the most prominent artists of the Renaissance, created the sculpture on the orders of the Pope himself. The work began in 1505, ending ten years later. The Pope, who had commissioned the work for his own tomb, died two years before and did not get to see the finished product.

The sculpture presents the figure of Moses, and in addition to the long beard and the divine tablets he holds, it’s a little surprising to discover that Moses also has a small pair of horns. Two strange bumps protrude from his head in a rather unflattering manner. Some claim that Michelangelo added these in order to mock the Pope, but the more common view is that this artistic decision was based on an error in interpretation.

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Michelangelo’s Moses. Photo: Ulrich Mayring

But how can it be that such an esteemed artist, who spent a decade working on his creation, could make such a mistake?

The story is as follows: Michelangelo and many preceding generations of European Christians were familiar with the Vulgate version of the biblical text – largely the work of a man by the name of Jerome.  Jerome, who would later be raised to sainthood, was a priest, theologian, and translator who translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century CE, relying on previous Greek translations and even studying Hebrew to understand the text of the Old Testament in the original.

Back to Moses’ horns. The solution to the mystery can be found in the last few verses of the weekly Torah portion or parshah of Ki Tissa, in the book of Exodus. Here is the text in question (Ex. 34:29-30, 35), as it appears in English in the Douay-Rheims Challoner Bible, which is still used by certain Catholic congregations today:

“And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned [karan in the original Hebrew] from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned [karan], were afraid to come near… And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned [karan], but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them.”

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Biblia sacra, Antwerp 1599, open to the verses describing Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai (second column from left)

The Hebrew root k-r-n can indeed mean “horn” – as in animal horns. But it has other meanings as well: k-r-n can also mean a ray of light, and the original Hebrew verses here were in fact referring to a verb or action, not a noun. The verb essentially means, “to shine” or “to glow”. The original Hebrew text indicates that Moses’ face was shining, not horned. Jerome was almost certainly familiar with both meanings, but chose to translate karan as “horned”, a mistake which earlier translators had successfully avoided.

The famous Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint explains that Moses’ face was “glorified” or “glorious”, which is a reasonably accurate translation. But Jerome also made use of the Greek translation done by Aquila of Sinope. Aquila grew up in what is now Turkey in the second century. He converted to Judaism, and some identify him with Onkelos, whom we know as the man who translated the Torah into Aramaic.

In any event, Aquila indeed translated the Hebrew root k-r-n as meaning “horn”. It may sound strange to us, but in ancient times horns symbolized power, which is why horns were sometimes attached to the helmets of warriors. To be fair, Aquila was careful to write that Moses had the “appearance” of horns rather than physical ones.

Jerome followed Aquila and used the word cornutam / cornuta in Latin, meaning animal horns, not rays of light.

From a copy of the Vulgate, France, 13th century

According to one explanation, the use of the word cornatum may have an antisemitic dimension. Both the New Testament and the Christian faith as a whole attribute the presence of horns to monstrous creatures and even Satan himself. Even though the Old Testament is also holy to Christians, it could be that Moses, as the representative of the Jewish People, was described implicitly as being the leader of an evil people or nation, and the horns thus served as a means to demonize the Jews.

Another possibility is that Jerome, like Aquila before him, got the idea from an entirely different source:

There is a certain early piyut (a Jewish liturgical hymn) that appears in some of the older Ashkenazi prayer books for Jewish holidays. This piyut tells of Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, and it was customarily recited during the festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, when the Torah is read in the synagogue.

The piyut was written in ancient Aramaic in the dialect of the Land of Israel, and it incorporated Greek words as well. The language and structure of the piyut dates it to the era of the Byzantine Empire before the Muslim conquest, but according to scholar Joseph Heinemann, it is based on a folk song, handed down orally from much earlier.

The piyut is comprised of 22 lines, built as an acrostic following the Hebrew alphabet. It was translated into Hebrew in 1966 by Avraham Rosenthal. The piyut opens with the words Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai (“God bent Heaven to Sinai”), later describing God placing rays of glory on Moses’ head. So far, so good in aligning with the biblical text. But then, towards the end of the piyut, the angels appear before God and are afraid of Moses, as they claim he might gore or headbutt them.

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Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai piyut, Rome Machzor, 1441

It may be that this combination of Moses’ physical description (the Hebrew wording being open to interpretation) with his supposed ability to headbutt or gore someone (possibly based on a common, popular understanding which arose during this period), is responsible for creating the image of Moses as actually having horns on his head.

It might be that this was the source Aquila relied upon, which Jerome then copied when preparing the text of the Vulgate.

But is Michelangelo’s work based on this mistranslation?

Art historian Ruth Mellinkoff proved that the association of animal horns with Moses was a common theme in many Christian artistic works in the Middle Ages, and not always negatively so. Sometimes Moses appeared with one horn, a hat from which horns emerged, and even hair in the form of two horns. It would appear that Michelangelo was following a well-established artistic tradition when he decided to add his horns.

Art scholar Malka Rosenthal showed that Moses appeared with horns in Jewish literary illustrations as well. A number of books published in the German city of Fürth between 1741 and 1750 show the figures of Moses and Aharon on the cover, with Moses holding a staff and tablets while a pair of horns appear on his head.

Passover Haggadah, Fürth, 1741
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Medieval Jewish commentators like Rashi, Rashbam, and others reject this view, of course. The words of Ibn Ezra concerning a particular heretic named Hivi sum it up fairly dramatically:

“May the bones of the criminal Hivi be crushed, who said that since [Moses] ate no bread, Moses’ face became as dry as a horn. And that the reason [the People of Israel] feared [approaching Moses] was because his face was ugly. And how did this accursed [Hivi] not open his eyes…”

The Woman Who Taught England Chemistry

Back in the 19th century, it wasn’t considered appropriate to teach women chemistry. Jane Marcet thought it might be worthwhile anyway, so she wrote a chemistry book for women that became the one of the world's most popular textbooks for half a century.

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A woman born in 18th-century Britain was expected to look pretty and keep quiet. At least that’s how we imagine things as we look back at the past from the comfort of our 21st century. But as the European Enlightenment took hold, more and more families provided their daughters with an exceptional education that went beyond what women were expected to know at the time. This was the case in the family of Jane Haldimand, the daughter of a Swiss merchant and banker from Geneva, who had no objection to exposing his only daughter to the same subjects his sons were taught, by the best tutors money could buy.

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Portrait of Jane Marcet, from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, the University of Pennsylvania

It so happened that Jane studied Latin and the basic principles of chemistry, biology, history, and philosophy. She also developed an interest in art and learned to draw and sketch. At the age of 15, she was forced to take on the duties of managing the household after her mother died in childbirth. Jane became responsible for raising her younger siblings and hosting her father’s clients, and through conversations with the latter, she managed to further expand her knowledge.

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Jane Marcet in the company of her books

When Jane Haldimand married her husband, he didn’t recoil from her extensive education, quite the opposite. Her husband Alexander Marcet was a client of her father’s. He was a doctor who had studied in Edinburgh after having fled there to escape conflicts that broke out in Geneva in the mid-18th century.  Jane accepted her new name – Jane Marcet – by which she’d become well-known in the future. She shared her husband’s hobby, which he preferred over tending to his patients: The couple were simply quite interested in chemistry. The more successful Dr. Alexander Marcet’s clinic became, the more time the two could devote to scientific research. Indeed, Dr. Marcet lectured on chemistry and conducted public demonstrations and experiments, and the couple’s research contributed to medical knowledge and the diagnosis of kidney stones. The two were among the founders of the Royal Society of Medicine, and Alexander played a central role in it.

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Portrait of Marcet’s husband Alexander, by H. Meyer

In the late 18th century, science was in vogue. Dr. Marcet was only one of many popular chemistry lecturers who appeared before the general public and demonstrated the latest scientific innovations. However, this knowledge was generally the domain of men alone and wasn’t considered suitable for women. Jane Marcet didn’t necessarily set out to change this, but she wanted to spread the knowledge she had accumulated over the years in a quick and easy manner, and to make it accessible to women as well. That is how her book Conversations on Chemistry, published in 1805, came about.

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Conversations on Chemistry in Which the Elements of That Science are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments. The first edition of this book didn’t include the name of the author. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

It took Marcet about three years to write it, apparently with the help of her husband who edited the chapters. In order to avoid a conflict of interest with her husband’s work, Marcet first published the book anonymously, even though the preface clearly stated that the author was a woman. Marcet also wrote outright that the book was adapted for women and she emphasized that she believed it offered a level of knowledge suitable for ladies. At the same time, she admitted that she was not a scientist and hadn’t delved into the complexities and intricacies of science in a way that others might think wasn’t appropriate for a woman.

As hinted at in the title, the book is structured as a conversation between a teacher and her students, who are referred to by their first names. The teacher explains and demonstrates chemical principles mainly based on the work of the 18th century French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who laid the foundations for much of modern chemistry. Interspersed throughout are sketches that Marcet herself drew, including some depicting various chemical experiments and devices.

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An illustration from the book, drawn by hand by the author, from the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Practically overnight, the book became a smashing success. Sixteen editions were published in Britain alone from 1805 until 1853. Numerous versions and revised or annotated editions of the book were also published in the United States, and imitations were also printed. Marcet herself was involved in updating and revising the additional editions that were published in Britain, and in 1837, her name finally appeared on the cover. The book became the leading chemistry textbook during the first half of the 19th century. A copy of the first edition is kept in the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel, and pictures of it have been included in this article.

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The book is written as a conversation between a teacher and her students. The readers are invited to act out what is written. From the Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Marcet herself continued publishing similar Conversations on… books on subjects like the natural sciences, economy, and theology. But her first published book, Conversations on Chemistry, was the most successful and what she became best-known for. The book’s level of influence can be summed up by the following anecdote: While working as an apprentice in a bookbinding workshop, a young boy came across Marcet’s book. He wasn’t deterred by the fact that its target audience was women; he kept leafing through it and fell in love with the world of chemistry. This boy was from a lower-class family, he wasn’t fortunate enough to receive a formal education, and had to study on his own. Michael Faraday would go on to became one history’s most important chemists and physicists.

From Fantasy to Reality: The Forbidden Love of Edith and J.R.R. Tolkien

"For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien." This was how Tolkien explained the unorthodox choice of words which he placed on the tombstone of the woman he loved. What was the connection between Lúthien – the mythological image of female perfection which Tolkien himself created – and his wife Edith? And what caused their three-year separation, which almost ended in her marrying someone else?

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Left: Edith Tolkien with her eldest son, John, 1918. Right: A young Ronald Tolkien, 1911.

On the bright green grass in the Catholic section of Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford, among the lavishly adorned tombstones mostly bearing the names of Polish immigrants, stands one simple gray granite stone, modestly engraved with the names of two characters from one of the most widely-read fantasy books ever written.

Beren and Luthien.

“But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar. Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. As the light upon the leaves of trees, as the voice of clear waters, as the stars above the mists of the world, such was her glory and her loveliness; and in her face was a shining light.”

(From J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion)
קברם המשותף של בני הזוג טולקין עם הכתובות "לותיין" ו"ברן", בית העלמין וולוורקוט שליד אוקספורד.
The Tolkiens’ shared tombstone, with the inscriptions “Luthien” and “Beren”, Wolvercote Cemetery near Oxford

But the couple buried there were real people, even if their story could have been taken out of a fairy tale. He was an author, poet, linguist, and one of the most important fantasy writers of the modern era, who was (and is still) admired throughout the world to an unprecedented extent, and she was his beloved wife, who settled (or was forced to settle?) for the adoration of her own family.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, but grew up as an orphan in late 19th century England. He lost his father when he was only four years old, and his mother when he was twelve. When Arthur Tolkien died, the widowed mother Mabel did everything in her power to provide a good life for her two sons – Ronald (of his three names, this was the name he was called by his family and close acquaintances) and young Hilary who was only a year old.

Mabel, who was an educated woman beyond what was common at the time, raised her sons in the green suburbs of Birmingham and gave them an excellent home education. Despite their poverty, it was a happy childhood. Ronald learned to love the things that filled his early life with wonder: the green trees and the countryside, his mother Mabel, and starting at the age of four – words and languages.

From the moment he learned to read, and as he progressed in his studies, Tolkien was captivated by linguistics. While his friends struggled with the correct spelling of modern English, he studied its origins and was fascinated by textbooks on ancient languages like Greek, Welsh, and Gothic.

His mother Mabel died of diabetes when she was only 34. Insulin, which could have saved her life, would only be discovered some two decades after her death. The children, who suddenly lost the wonderful environment they had grown up in along with their beloved mother, grieved bitterly. In her will, Mabel appointed Father Francis Xavier Morgan as their guardian, and the boys moved to live in the city of Birmingham itself.

Father Morgan was the priest of the small Catholic congregation that Mabel and the children had joined only four years earlier. This happened despite the protests of her family and the family of her late husband, who subsequently stopped supporting her financially. Father Francis’ visits to the Tolkien family home started out as part of his role as a dedicated parish priest, but very quickly he became a close friend to the lonely Mabel and a sort of “uncle” who provided much-needed kindness and amusement to her two sons. As Tolkien himself wrote to his own sons later in life, Father Francis was more present and significant to them than many “real” fathers.

After a rather unhappy period during which the children lived with a childless relative for a few years, Father Francis decided to move them into Mrs. Faulkner’s home on Duchess Road, near where many members of his congregation lived.

Aside from Mrs. Faulkner, the two-story house was also home to her husband Louis (who enjoyed a drink or two), their daughter Helen, the maid Annie, and another tenant who rented the room that was just below the boys’ room – a young girl named Edith Bratt. Edith was also an orphan, but that was where any similarity between her and the Tolkien brothers, with whom she’d be sharing this domestic space in the years to come, ended. While the boys came from a distinguished British lineage and benefited from a fine childhood education, she was the illegitimate daughter of Frances Bratt of Gloucester. Edith was over three years older than Ronald, her interests included music and sewing, and – she was a Protestant! This would soon become a major obstacle.

אידית בראט, בשנים הראשונות להיכרותה עם טולקין.
Edith Bratt, during the early years of her acquaintance with Tolkien

Edith was also incredibly kind, a gray-eyed beauty, and quite bored. When her guardian decided that she should live in the room in Mrs. Faulkner’s house, he thought that since she was studying music at the girls’ school, she’d be able to practice on the piano in the main room of the house. He hoped that in time she’d be able to work as a professional musician. But although she enjoyed Edith’s musical accompaniment during the evening singing sessions she occasionally hosted, Mrs. Faulkner wasn’t so generous when Edith sat down in front of the piano to practice. “My dear Edith” she’d say sourly, “I think that’s enough for now.”

When the boys arrived at the gloomy house with its climbing vines and forlorn lace curtains, it was like a breath of fresh air for Edith. She was especially fond of Ronald, the serious and talented young man. She discovered that he could be incredibly polite when necessary, but also goof around cheerfully at other times.

Despite their age gap, Ronald and Edith quickly became friends. He was mature for his age and she acted younger than hers. Together with Hilary, his mischievous brother, they conspired against the “old lady” who ran the house with an iron fist: they held secret parties in Edith’s room and went on long hikes together. As time went on, Edith and Ronald grew closer and closer, and the relationship that began as a friendship blossomed into young love.

Edith showed no interest in Ronald’s first great love (studying ancient languages ​​and inventing new ones) and had received a much simpler education than he had. And yet they found enough topics of conversation to occupy long hours spent wandering the streets and teahouses of Birmingham.

They even came up with a private whistle-call that was meant just for them. “When Ronald heard it in the early morning or at bedtime,” Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter explained, “he would go to his window and lean out to see Edith waiting at her own window below.”

In a letter to Edith years later, Tolkien recalled with longing, “My first kiss to you and your first kiss to me (which was almost accidental)—Our goodnights when sometimes you were in your little white nightgown, and our absurd long window talks; and how we watched the sun come up over town through the mist and Big Ben toll hour after hour, and the moths almost used to frighten you away—and our whistle-call—and our cycle-rides—and the fire talks—and to three great kisses.”

But no great romantic love story is complete without something to keep the couple apart from each other – at least for a time.

Ronald was supposed to study for a scholarship exam that would allow him entry into the institution that would become the most important in his life – Oxford. But between his captivation with Edith and his efforts to invent a new language, he found it a bit difficult to concentrate and failed to pass the test.

Father Francis, the benevolent guardian, was not too pleased with this relationship developing between his promising protégé and the young Protestant woman who was three years his elder. Before he even voiced his opposition, the two began to hide their meetings. “We thought we had managed things very cleverly,” Tolkien later wrote, but community gossip was stronger than their naive schemes.

Father Francis insistently demanded that Ronald end his “inappropriate” relationship with Edith immediately. He also arranged for Ronald and Hilary to move elsewhere. At the same time, Edith received an invitation to live in Cheltenham with an elderly lawyer and his wife, and she accepted.

In the period before Edith’s trip, they continued meeting secretly here and there, whenever they “happened” to bump into each other. She bought him a pen for his 18th birthday and he bought her a wristwatch for her 21st.

But when Father Francis heard that they had met again, he was furious. He even threatened to stop supporting Ronald’s academic career if he met, spoke, or wrote to Edith again until he reached the age of 21, at which point Ronald was no longer his ​​responsibility.

What this meant was that the two endured three long years of forced separation. In the eyes of the young Tolkien, this was a truly horrible sentence.

Despite her longing for her Ronald, Edith liked her new life in Cheltenham, which was better than anything she had known before. Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, Ronald made his studies the focus of his life. He had close friends (who founded a secret society together), immersed himself in books, studied hard, began working on his own writing, played rugby, and continued working on languages, both historic and invented. 

In 1911, after he finally passed his entrance exams, Ronald went off to study at Oxford and decided that despite everything, he was going to be happy there.

It wasn’t hard. Oxford quickly became the first real home he had known since his mother’s death. 

אקסטר קולג', אוקספורד. מקום הלימודים שהיה לבית לטולקין הצעיר.
Exeter College, Oxford, was like home for the young Tolkien

But he never forgot Edith. He thought about her every day. Three years after they parted, at midnight between January 2nd and 3rd in 1913 when Ronald Tolkien became a man in his own right, he sat on the bed in his room at Oxford and wrote Edith a promise of renewed love, ending the letter with the question: “How long will it be before we can be joined together before God and the world?”

But when he received his lover’s reply, everything turned black. She, not sure he still remembered her or wanted her, was engaged to marry George Field, the brother of her classmate.

But Edith was too important to Tolkien to give her up without a fight. 

He went to Cheltenham to speak to her heart. When he got off the train, Edith was waiting for him on the platform. What did they say to each other that day after three years of silence? Did they repeat those “great kisses” from their happy times on Duchess Road? Tolkien didn’t bother leaving us a detailed record of that day, but that evening, Edith gave back the ring that George Field had given her.

Finally, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and Edith Bratt were an official couple. At first, they kept it a secret, trying to recapture the feeling from when they’d longingly sneak around in the past. They were worried (and rightfully so) about how their families would react. Eventually, they publicly announced their engagement, and in the middle of World War I, they were married in a very modest ceremony in a small Catholic church. 

From that satisfying “happily ever after” moment, they shared a life that was a wonderful combination of love and devotion, alongside occasional disappointments and arguments. In other words, marriage.

Tolkien was drafted into the British Army during the war and returned from the battlefield in France, sick with a disease that was then known as “trench fever.” For two years he was in and out of the hospital. During the very long hours he spent in bed, he began to write what would later become his legendarium – sometimes called the “Tolkien Mythology” – the foundation of the world upon which the books he later wrote were based.  The world he created would transform him into one of history’s bestselling authors.

Edith, who in the meantime had given birth to their eldest son while she was alone and far from her beloved, described this period as a “miserable wandering homeless sort of life”. She wrote to Tolkien, teasing him somewhat begrudgingly and bitterly: “I should think you ought never to feel tired again, for the amount of Bed you have had since you came back from France nearly two years ago is enormous.”

But once the war ended, Tolkien was given his first academic position at Oxford, and life could truly begin for the young Tolkien family.

They saw ups and downs. Edith was unhappy in the elitist academic environment. She hated Oxford, hated the Catholic Church she was forced to join, and she envied her husband’s male friends who were a significant part of his inner world to which she was not granted entry.

Despite the notable differences in their education and their documented arguments and mutual complaints, none of their relatives or acquaintances ever doubted that they shared a great love.

Edith was proud of her husband, whose academic and literary success became meteoric over the years. For his part, Tolkien was a loving and devoted husband and father who took part in household chores, spent a lot of time with his children, and invented one-of-a-kind stories for them.

Modern critics tend to criticize Tolkien for his attitude toward women. They quote a letter he wrote to his son before his marriage (in which he warned him that a husband should know how to stand up for himself), point out the very small number of female characters in his literary work, and blame him for the fact that Edith followed in the path of his professional career and lived for many years in places she wasn’t fond of and where she felt no personal connection.

The truth, as always, is more complex. Tolkien adored Edith, and valued women in general to a degree that was quite unusual for those times. In fact, as an undergraduate he spoke in support of the tactics and objectives of the suffragettes while taking part in a school debate.

During Edith’s final years, once Tolkien retired and no longer had any academic obligations, he was the one who followed her. He agreed to leave Oxford for her and live in a small seaside town where she was happy. Her happiness in turn made him happy, even though the move forced him to give up large parts of his former life. As for the female characters in his works, even if they were few in number, they are all strong and magnificent, and most of them are much more impressive and talented than the men appearing beside them.

The immortal Luthien, heroine of The Silmarillion, saves Beren her beloved, just as he saves her.

“There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Luthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Luthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.

Then the spell of silence fell from Beren, and he called to her, crying Tinuviel; and the woods echoed the name. Then she halted in wonder, and fled no more, and Beren came to her. But as she looked on him, doom fell upon her, and she loved him.”

The Hebrew edition of Beren and Lúthien, by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Keter Books

Edith was Tolkien’s Luthien. She was also the inspiration for the character. When she passed away, two years before him, he illustrated this with an incomparably beautiful gesture of love.

“For she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien,” he painfully wrote to his son Christopher when the latter asked why he wanted to have “Luthien” engraved on her tombstone. 

“I am afflicted from time to time (increasingly) with an overwhelming sense of bereavement […] Yet I hope none of my children will feel that the use of this name is a sentimental fancy. It is at any rate not comparable to the quoting of pet names in obituaries. I never called Edith Lúthien – but she was the source of the story that in time became the chief pan of the Silmarillion. It was first conceived in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks at Roos in Yorkshire (where I was for a brief time in command of an outpost of the Humber Garrison in 1917, and she was able to live with me for a while). In those days her hair was raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them, and she could sing – and dance. But the story has gone crooked, & I am left, and I cannot plead before the inexorable Mandos. […] Forever (especially when alone) we still met in the woodland glade, and went hand in hand many times to escape the shadow of imminent death before our last parting.”

From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, July 11, 1972