Book Review: In Print
Despite the often cruel behavior of their male counterparts, these famous women writers yearned above all for a creative mirror, an intellectual equal
Reviewed by Audra Schroeder, Fri., May 7, 2010
Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writersby Lesley McDowell
Overlook Press, 368 pp., $30
Writers, those mercurial types, always wanting what they can't have. The pursuit of women after men, the seeking out of intellectual property and beyond, is one of the oldest professions. Scottish writer McDowell has both a personal and professional stake in this book – she tells us in the foreword she'd taken up with a emotionally unstable writer some years ago and stayed with him because she was getting "constant dialogue about writing, both his and mine." That, it seems, is the crux of this collection of nine early 20th century writers – that these women, despite the often cruel behavior of their male counterparts, yearned above all for a creative mirror, an intellectual equal, although in many of the chapters that equality comes with a price.
McDowell sets out to prove "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." Referencing letters and diaries, McDowell does a decent enough job sorting out the sordid details. Many relationships have been written about at length – Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller – but it still smarts when you read that Miller implored Nin to destroy her diary, the tactile proof of her art, as a sort of psycho-sexual repression. Same goes for Martha Gellhorn, who, reporting on the war for Collier's in 1944, catches husband Ernest Hemingway in a particularly vicious mood when he tells her he's also started writing for Collier's and that the seaplane taking him to London is for men only. She ends up having to take a Norwegian freighter that's carrying, ironically, dynamite. Lesser-known partnerships, like that of poets H.D. and Ezra Pound, have less mythology around them, but put theirs next to the perverse decades-long tempest of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and common themes emerge. Throughout, it's easy to see how the encouragement of men in their lives may have been essential to their success, and how codependency can be toxic, but the thread is ambition. These women had drive and vision, and whether it led them into pleasure or pain, it also led them to some of their best work.