In 2005, McDowell, at the time a fledgling fiction writer, began a one-year relationship with a published writer, a man who was just emerging from a marriage with two young kids and with “little interest in committing himself to one person.” McDowell’s shoddy treatment in the relationship, which ended with her being dumped for another woman, didn’t dilute her attraction to him. It was the delight she took in their exchanges about literature, and his editing and encouragement of her literary efforts, that compelled her to him.
This is also, she says, what drew so many of her subjects, including Katherine Mansfield, Anaïs Nin and Simone de Beauvoir, to their literary partners. They chose their fates knowingly, in a kind of Faustian pact that would benefit their art. They weren’t victims, she says, though they were treated ghastly, partly explicable (if not excusable) by the fact that they lived in a pre-feminist age.
Henry Miller ‘looted’ Nin’s wealth. HG Wells refused to recognise Rebecca West publicly, despite the fact that she bore him a child. Elizabeth Smart, mother of his four children, put up with George Barker’s serial infidelity. Jean-Paul Sartre, having spent 50 years with Simone de Beauvoir, since their first date in the Luxembourg Gardens, in Paris, in 1929, left his papers to another woman. None of these men was as loutish in their treatment as Ernest Hemingway was of Martha Gellhorn, the famed war correspondent. “Ernest had a theory,” she wrote a few years after the end of their eight-year relationship, “that brutality was all women understood; if they seemed recalcitrant (like me) they only needed to be beaten more.”
Hemingway would call Gellhorn a “bitch” in public. Sex with him was “short and sharp”; he often used to greet her at the front door with “his drawers down, ready for sexual play.” Hemingway suffered from depression and took his own life, as did his brother, sister and father. Suicide stalked Ted Hughes also. Infamously, his wife, the American poet, Sylvia Plath, killed herself within a few months of breaking up with the poet laureate, as did the woman he left her for, Assia Wevill.
Plath was a tormented soul. What we forget, says McDowell, amid the pillorying of Hughes by feminists, is that she tried unsuccessfully to take her own life in 1953, three years before she first met Hughes at a party in Cambridge; she left him that night with a bloody cheek after biting him in a frenzy of sexual arousal.
McDowell’s treatment of these liaisons is cursory, but she delights in the prurient details.