From troubled relationships sprung some of the best women’s writing

Between the Sheets: Nine 20th century Women Writers and their Famous Literary Partnerships

Lesley McDowell

Duckworth, €12.75

Kindle €6.78

Review: Mary Leland

“She knew when it was time to go … ” writes Lesley McDowell of Martha Gellhorn. McDowell is describing a death, but in a way this simple statement could apply to several of the female subjects of this study of the literary and emotional entanglements of a group of writers, partners in famous affairs of the heart and of the pen.

In several cases they knew when it was time to go, and they went. These are all, obviously, pre-internet connections; we must assume that there’s something about computers which forbids the intimacies of pen (or even typewriter) and paper, those sheets which might suggest that this book’s title is a pun.

The question to be examined here is whether or not what went on between the sheets was inspiration or perspiration; unfortunately McDowell is not someone who can answer it, although she does her best to decode the books and poems resulting from or referring to these relationships.

A writer less devoted to her thesis might also have tarried for a diversion or two, such as whether there were, in fact, any sheets at all. Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway, who believed that it was “manly” to be dirty.

The relationships depicted here are never anything one might welcome at one’s own door although in the case of some writers, such as Jean Rhys, many doors were hammered on in search of refuge and relief.

Also these were all heterosexual relationships, suggesting that the women were the weaker elements in each partnership. Individually independent and adventurous, or at least adventurously committed to making their own way in life, these were women who allowed themselves to be first over-awed and then over-whelmed by their initially more eminent male partners.

It was probably inevitable that in many cases the men found themselves threatened by the success or self-confidence they themselves had encouraged in their lovers, lovers who eventually became rivals. While some of the women were at least bisexual if not openly lesbian, no lesbian partnerships are explored unless, as with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, those affairs had a direct influence on the chief protagonists.

Beginning with Katherine Mansfield, and sparking the eventually justified doubts of McDowell’s literary judgement (she claims that “Mansfield’s reputation as possibly the greatest short story writer in the English language rivals masters of the art like Chekhov”), McDowell’s list of coupled careers includes Hilda Doolittle, Anais Nin, Elizabeth Smart, Rebecca West and Sylvia Plath; their mentors range from HG Wells to Ernest Hemingway, from Ezra Pound to Ted Hughes. They were in many ways an unsavoury lot; to revisit these men in the context of their lives rather than their work is to wonder why such intelligent and ambitious women could have fallen under their wheels in the first place.

Well, it has been noted before that sex begins in the head. The initial impetus was that of the aspiring writer towards a mate for the creative soul.

The strange thing is the way in which most of these women lost, even if only temporarily, their sense of themselves as they obeyed the demands or the dictation of their usually older patrons. When the pairing ended the result could be cataclysmic.

Already mentally and physically frail, Jean Rhys accelerated her downward plunge when she was dismissed by Ford Madox Ford. She retaliated in the only way she could, by incorporating a version of their affair in her novel Quartet (1928); Ford then published When the Wicked Man (1930) as his account of their entanglement. Even McDowell’s valiant efforts to unravel a thread of truth from these novels fails in the flurry of disguise and exposure from both writers. Yet from these two, the eminent man and the despairing, clinging woman came two marvellous, lasting works: Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and, from Rhys (who was first published by Ford) Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). They were individually brilliant, but it was only after her liaison with Ford that Jean Rhys began to show, if never to trust, her brightness.

Perhaps the most formidable woman here is Simone de Beauvoir, who composed a variety of truths about her life with Sartre. As one of the few partnerships to be sustained until the very end this depended on the construction of a shared existence, or a shared personality, a recognised fusion of equals even when separately or together they behaved badly, as they often did.

McDowell reminds us of their indifference to the plight of a young Jewish student who had been “shared” between them but who faced deportation as the Nazis arrived in Paris. She was sent to a concentration camp and although she survived de Beauvoir acknowledged harm had been done.

There’s a lot of harm, some of it deliberate, some of it casual but no less devastating, in this literary gathering.

Despite McDowell’s scouring of biographies and archives sometimes it’s difficult to decide which is the victim, which the aggressor. Few writers can have had so terrible a burden to bear than the poet Ted Hughes, whose six-year marriage to the poet Sylvia Plath ended shortly before her suicide in 1962; he had taken up with Assia Wevill, who was also to kill herself, and the daughter she had borne Hughes, seven years later.

The over-riding impression is one of retrospective concern for the children involved — Elizabeth Smart’s lover George Barker seemed unable to stop impregnating his partners. All the muddle and sadness, although not necessarily the deaths, seem to have been repeated in various ways through the creative liaisons depicted by Lesley McDowell. And yet, and yet, the legacies of these resonant tragedies are some of the best books and poems in English literature.


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