BIOGRAPHY APRIL 14, 2010
by Lesley McDowell
Overlook Press, 364 pp., $30
The intimate lives of writers have always had a special attraction for readers, perhaps because we imagine that people who can shape ideas and arrange scenes on the page should be able to offer us some special insight into how to order our messy off-the-page lives. This has rarely been proven the case—writers often seem less, rather than more, gifted at the mechanics of everyday existence; all the same it has not stemmed our interest in finding out what Sylvia said to Ted or why Simone pimped for Jean-Paul. This interest speaks, I think, to a dream of coherence—a matching-up of intellect and emotion, of romance and reason—that continues to inspire us even as it eludes our grasp.
Lesley McDowell’s new book is an account of literary partnerships that may look like stories of misogynistic victimhood, but are, in reality, far more complex. The women writers in question are Katherine Mansfield, the poet H.D., Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Martha Gellhorn, Elizabeth Smart, and Sylvia Plath. “In bringing their relationships with male writers to the fore,” McDowell writes in her introduction, “I mean to situate these liaisons at the center of these women’s emotional and literary lives, not to detract from their achievements, but to emphasize them, to show how important these relationships were to them, and why.”
McDowell attributes the genesis of her book to her wish to understand her own experience, which included a relationship with an “emotionally shaky” male writer who relied on anti-depressants and drank heavily. This, along with a review she read of a memoir about the writers George Barker and Elizabeth Smart written by their son, left her wondering about the relationship between sexual desire and the desire to write, not to mention the ways and whys of power claimed and power relinquished between men and women. What emerges are nine largely unhappy tales about women who “lie down for artists,” as Plath once put it, in the service of their own writing, and about the men who embolden and protect them (when they are not betraying or abandoning them).
Since most of the relationships examined in this book have been written about before, some quite exhaustively, McDowell is under pressure right off the bat to provide something new in the way of interpretation or perspective. To this end she has provided a typology of feminine roles: Rebecca West is the “mother,” while one or another of the group is the “mistress,” the “companion,” the “chaser,” and so on. These distinctions do not really hold up, of course. West is a “novice” as well as a “mother,” while Jean Rhys might be said to be a “survivor” as well as an “ingénue.” All the same, the device gives the author a means of entry into relationships that are encrusted in anecdote and myth, not to mention pre-existing narratives.
Katherine Mansfield’s relationship with John Middleton Murry was the stuff of gossip and insinuation almost from the moment it began, with some seeing Mansfield as the dominant partner and others, like Leonard Woolf, seeing Murray as inimical to Mansfield in every way imaginable: “…in some abstruse way Murry corrupted and perverted and destroyed Katherine both as a person and as a writer…She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentalism of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature.” McDowell takes something of a middle road here, as she does in her analysis of most of these relationships, refusing to exalt or to vilify one partner at the cost or to the benefit of the other. What interests her more are the ways in which these relationships yielded to the neurotic impulses of both principals at different times, with conscious dependency and unconscious manipulations keeping the couples together. “So perhaps the innocent nature of her sexual life with Murry,” McDowell argues, “actually suited her. Although Murry blamed his own sexual innocence, and subsequent biographers cite Mansfield’s illness, especially later on in the relationship, for their lack of sexual satisfaction, it would seem that she was only prepared to get so close and no closer.”
What seems clear is that without Murry prodding her on, without his fantasies of literary greatness for both of them, Mansfield might have produced less sterling work. At the same time their union was founded on a delusion of intimacy that was belied by how much time they spent apart and how erotically arrested they were when together. McDowell believes that Murry truly loved Mansfield and that Mansfield “loved him as much as she was capable of loving anyone.” What they had in common was a devotion to Mansfield’s art, which, in her case, suited her more than not. “It was the needs of the writer that came first,” McDowell notes, “and to those needs, she was ever faithful and true.” Perhaps she would have been happier with a different man—or, if she had followed her bisexual leanings, with a woman—but it is impossible after reading this account to see Mansfield as anyone’s victim.
In similar fashion, making use of primary texts as well as journals, biographies, and letters, McDowell dissects the emotional mechanics that underlie the other eight couples—mechanics that are traditionally viewed as having been detrimental to the woman. Since McDowell’s interest is less in assigning blame than in bringing to light the symbiotic connection—a fusion of vocation and passion—that linked Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, or Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, she focuses on the vicissitudes of creative ambition and sexual attraction rather than on a simpler psychological pattern (the one dear to critics of a doctrinaire feminist persuasion) of exploiter and exploited. The extraordinary women in these accounts—even the fragile Jean Rhys and the suicidal Sylvia Plath—hold their own, taking as well as giving, writing despite the damage they inflict or have inflicted on them. “The aim of this book,” McDowell observes, “is...to demonstrate that none of the women artists mentioned here were victims at all, but that they chose their own fates knowingly and without the taint of victimization; that they chose such relationships in order to benefit their art and poetic consciousness.”
It is laudatory that McDowell has set herself against the tenor of much of the critical discourse on the price of female talent: even so idiosyncratic a thinker as Elizabeth Hardwick was inclined to look at victimhood as the natural habitat of creative women, especially when they teamed up with creative men. One might wish for a more mellifluous prose style and more bold speculation on the role of the eroticization of intellect, but overall this is a welcome addition to the lives of writers in love and lust—writers who sometimes manage to write peacefully together in the same room, and who are equally dominated by the same demanding master: literature.
Daphne Merkin, a novelist and critic, is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine. She is at work on her third book, a memoir about chronic depression.