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Better Halves – Who’d be a Literary Partner? – Scottish Review of Books
by Jean Rafferty

Better Halves – Who’d be a Literary Partner?

August 13, 2010 | by Jean Rafferty

It has always surprised me that it was a man – Cyril Connolly, the literary critic and belle lettrist – who said the enemy of good art was the pram in the hall. Traditional gender divisions have meant that man was the provider, so the existence of children to support would surely spur him on to be even more productive in his profession. More importantly, the pram in the hall suggests the presence of a woman in the house, and there can be little more valuable to a writer than someone to tell him his writing is wonderful, cook his meals and even type up his manuscript. Between the Sheets, an exciting and provocative new book by Lesley McDowell, examines just what happens when women writers seek similar benefits for themselves.

For the most part it does not end well. McDowell ranges over the lives of such diverse female authors as Katherine Mans-field (died of tuberculosis), Elizabeth Smart (struggled alone with four children, some of whom didn’t even know she wrote), Simone de Beauvoir (pimped her girlfriends to Sartre) and Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide. Most of the liaisons she examines have been regarded as dysfunctional and damaging to the women. Literary life is in any case notoriously bitchy and competitive – as Norman Mailer says in The Spooky Art, “Don’t get involved at too deep a level or it will kill you and…it will kill you for the silliest reasons: for vanity, or because feuds are beginning to etch your liver with the acids of frustration.” So why would such women willingly enter into partnerships with male writers, why drip the acids of frustration onto their personal lives?

McDowell questions the accepted version of these relationships and shows that far from the literary element being negative, it was, she believes, positive and nourishing, allowing the women’s talents to flourish. What is attractive about her thesis is that it moves away from the idea of women as victims and acknowledges that the reasons people enter into relationships are complex. These were adult women who may not have chosen perfect partners, but still gained something profound from the experience. Many chose their men precisely because of the ambitions they shared: Martha Gellhorn, for example, told Ernest Hemingway, “As I love you I love your work and as you are me your work is mine.” Gellhorn admired Hemingway’s writing before she met him and even had his photograph pinned to her college wall. Although she denied it, it may be that she deliberately tracked him down, to Sloppy Joe’s, the bar in Key West where he was known to hang out.

What this demonstrates, of course, is the power differential between them. He was perhaps the most famous writer of his generation, while she, although a much respected journalist, was a lesser star. One (so-called) friend said, “She was more excited by Hem-ingway the writer than Hemingway the man, that ambition rather than passion had inspired her marriage.” In other words, that she was a kind of literary prostitute, a theme that recurs throughout McDowell’s book. It is no coincidence that many of the women she studies became involved with men far more powerful than they were – there was a twenty-six-year age gap between Rebecca West and the literary titan HG Wells, while Jean Rhys might never have gone into print at all were it not for Ford Madox Ford, who published her work, put a roof over her head and actually gave her her pen name. (Her real name was Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, not the snappiest for a book cover.)

“There is a great deal about many of the relationships in this volume that is due to patriarchal oppression of women,” says McDowell. “(Rebecca) West, (Katherine) Mansfield, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) were all involved with writers at a time when not only was the possibility of female creative genius denied, but women’s entitlement to vote wasn’t even a fact of life.”

Several of the woman McDowell looks at played the ingénue, not a popular role for young women today. H.D., the imagist poet who was involved with Ezra Pound, retained the idea of herself as a child for the whole of her life, even when she became drawn into a threesome with Pound and his lover Frances Gregg, while Jean Rhys presented herself as a child-woman who needed to be looked after. She was ‘Ford’s girl’, an innocent who charmed men into taking care of her. If that meant taking care of her financially, then so be it: “It seems to me now that the whole business of money and sex is bound up with something very primitive and deep,” she said. “When you take money directly from someone you love, it becomes not money but a symbol. The bond is now there. The bond has been established. I am sure the woman’s deep down feeling is, ‘I belong to this man, I want to belong to him quickly’. It is at once humiliating and exciting.”

Rhys’s presentation of herself as victim was a survival strategy, McDowell argues. In 1920s Paris there were few opportunities for a young woman who felt “fated to write… which is horrible. But I can only do one thing.” It was Ford Madox Ford who had made her think of herself as a professional writer, who taught her how to edit her own work and hone her individual voice. When he eventually cast her aside, she was emotionally destroyed. She already struggled with alcohol and depression and these things came to define her personal life as much as her writing did her public life.

For women later in the century there were more grown-up options than depending on men. In fact Simone de Beauvoir, despite her long relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre, promoted Katherine Mansfield’s idea of the ‘solitary woman’, and found romance in sitting in restaurants or taverns on her own: “I would gaze out at the sky, at the passers-by; then I would lower my eyes to the exercise books I was correcting or the volume I was reading. I felt wonderful.”

Beauvoir resisted the whole idea of marriage and instead she and Sartre set themselves up as what McDowell calls “a living alternative to the bourgeois, married, monogamous couple long considered the social norm.” Throughout their fifty-year partnership they had affairs with other people, Beauvoir even forming a relationship with another literary man, the American writer Nelson Algren. He in the end wanted more than she was prepared to give – Beauvoir was the embodiment of Martha Gellhorn’s famous dictum, “A man is no use to me, unless he can live without me.”

Later writers were caught in the crosswinds blowing through the West in the post-war years. After years of independence and autonomy during the war, women were under immense pressure to be wives and mothers, pressure that came not just from the society around them but often from their own mothers. Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, was from a wealthy background, attended a posh school, and was expected by her socially conscious mother to behave like a nice girl. Instead she pursued the poet George Barker, eventually having four children by him without ever marrying. Although he constantly abandoned her and went off with other women, she did not regret their liaison. She said he “gave me the courage to break the surface bonds, to dare the murderous act of stepping resolutely into my own life.”

It is this stepping into their own lives that links the writers in McDowell’s book, though inevitably some were more resolute than others. The act of writing by definition requires sensitivity and Sylvia Plath, even as a young woman, was delicately poised between the highs of achievement and the lows of depression. After being turned down for a summer creative writing course at Harvard while still a college student, she overdosed on sleeping pills and ended up being given electric shock treatment.

In Ted Hughes she thought she had found the perfect husband and embraced the idea of being the perfect wife; she wanted to be “anchored to life by laundry and lilacs, daily bread and fried eggs, and a man, the dark-eyed stranger who eats my food and my body and my love.” Their six and a half year marriage was productive for both of them, he calling her “one of the best critics I ever met”, and she writing 224 poems and The Bell Jar during that time.

It is generally considered that Hughes’s infidelity with the beautiful and highly-strung Assia Wevill led to her suicide, but McDow-ell proposes the opposite: the two had been talking of reconciliation and she believes that the thought of Hughes returning to her precipitated Plath’s death. It is a viewpoint that depends on believing Hughes’s version of events and one which many of Plath’s biographers have refused even to countenance, but McDowell makes a convincing case that Plath had suffered once from Hughes’s abandonment and perhaps did not have the strength to risk that happening again. She laid out milk and biscuits for her sleeping children and put her head in the gas oven.

She also achieved literary immortality and it is that which McDowell identifies as the driving force behind her women writers and their pursuit of literary men. Instinctively they seem to have known that the men they chose would help them become the writers they wanted to be. In modern Britain we publish 120,000 books a year and there are vast markets for books written by and for women – chick lit, lesbian biography, romance, historical fiction and misery lit are all primarily female forms. Women writers no longer need the patronage and support of men in quite the same way. But if McDowell is right, they will continue to seek the unique romance and excitement of relationships with literary lovers. One can only hope that, like Elizabeth Smart, they are able eventually to move on from the almost inevitable heartbreak of making your rival your partner. After years of disappointment, infidelity and abandonment, she said of George Barker, “I never cry out in my sleep for him.” It may not have been the most literary thing she ever said but it was surely one of the most sensible.


Lesley McDowell


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