A literary critic takes an intimate look at famous literary partnerships of the 20th century.
Writers such as Anaïs Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, Katherine Mansfield, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), Sylvia Plath, Rebecca West and Jean Rhys have long been considered essential to the development of modernist literature and the rise of feminism. In her nonfiction debut, McDowell (The Picnic, 2007) draws another connection—each was paired romantically, with varying degrees of success, to other significant writers of the time. Examples include H.D. and Ezra Pound, West and H.G. Wells, Nin and Ford Madox Ford, and Nin and Henry Miller. Certainly, this is a tradition not limited to the modernist movement. Writers and artists have long been drawn to one another, complicating the concept of the muse versus the creator. McDowell successfully pins down particular parallels in her chosen relationships that are especially significant to their artistic goals. It is notable, for example, that these women are largely known as the victims of their relationships. They were, for the most part, all deserted or rejected by their husbands and lovers, often in a particularly public manner, or forced to participate in humiliating or degrading relationships. Each reacted dramatically to their failed relationships—Plath taking the most drastic road by committing suicide after Ted Hughes’ affair. McDowell questions the degree to which these women pined for their respective men, while also espousing the virtues of feminism and independence in their writing, hinting at what was often blatant hypocrisy. But she also speculates on the ways in which the men—ironically mostly less famous in death than their partners—were able to provide the women with professional inroads, and also served as inspiration for some of their most influential works.
The information is hardly new, but McDowell contextualizes it well, giving solid insight into a dynamic and influential group.