As two unabashed literary voyeurs obsessed with seeking out the places famed writers once called home, it was only a matter of time before the subjects of Writers Between the Covers seduced us. At first we kidded ourselves, pretending we were interested in loftier topics like writers’ inspirations and influences. But soon after publishing our first book, Novel Destinations, which features the many literary landmarks we’ve visited over the years, we had to admit the truth: our interests were far more prurient.
Where was the secret door Victor Hugo used as an escape route for his mistress (and why did his wife put up with his philandering)? Did Charles Dickens have a thing for his sister-in-law? Who was Edith Wharton’s secret lover? Like the nosy tourists who rented telescopes to spy on Lord Byron and the Shelleys during their summer on Lake Geneva, we wanted to know what really went on behind writers’ bedroom doors.
Who could blame us? These writers were hardly shy and retiring types, and the stories we uncovered begged for more exploration. Agatha Christie disappeared and sparked England’s largest-ever manhunt when her marriage fell apart. Jack Kerouac tied the knot while handcuffed to a police detective. When Norman Mailer’s spouse found out about his eight-year affair, he claimed he started the subterfuge to research his novel about the double lives of CIA agents.
Call us crazy, but writers seemed prone to drama-filled romance. When they paired up, the results were often explosive. Peering into the turmoil of their private lives also made us question how their romantic and emotional entanglements played out on the page. For instance, War and Peace’s Levin and Kitty were doppelgangers for Leo and Sophia Tolstoy in their happy early years, while Arthur Miller wrote two thinly veiled plays about his tortured relationship with ex-wife Marilyn Monroe.
As we delved deeper into these affairs of the heart, we quickly realized that our biggest challenge in putting together a book on the subject was deciding which 25 writers to feature. In the end, we let the writers be our guides. Some relationships seemed to scream out to have their stories told (the warring Tolstoys and the fast-living Fitzgeralds), while others more subtly whispered in our ears. Readers might be surprised to learn that celebrated lovebirds Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning faced opposition on their way to the altar or that Robert Louis Stevenson dropped everything to travel half-way around the world after receiving a mysterious telegram from the woman he loved.
During the writing process, we anticipated being asked if we were going to include certain larger-than-life personalities such as Ernest Hemingway, but we were surprised at being lobbied to include a more unlikely candidate: Virginia Woolf, the high priestess of Bloomsbury. Despite vastly different circumstances—his brash bravado and romantic exploits made headlines, her life was quietly tragic—their stories share a common thread: their spouses feature as prominently as the writers themselves.
Ultimately, we wanted the most compelling mix of tales that mirrored the realities of love across the ages. We also wanted to strike a balance between headline-makers—Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron—and lesser-known gems. Uncovering those gems was part of the joy in writing the book—like finding out why memoirist Frederick Douglass garnered as much controversy for his love life as he did for his abolitionist politics.
The most agonizing aspect was leaving out some writers who merited their own chapters. Still, we managed to work in juicy tidbits about them and dozens of others in fun lists and quizzes interspersed with the main chapters. One of our favorites is How Do I Love Thee?, highlighting memorable gifts given by writers and their beloveds…or ex-beloveds. French novelist George Sand ended her stormy relationship with poet Alfred de Musset by sending him a parting present he wouldn’t soon forget: she cut off her dark, waist-length hair and sent it to him in a skull.
If George Sand and the other writers we feature hadn’t been as entertaining in and out of the sack as they were on the page, Writers Between the Covers wouldn’t exist. Our constant refrain while researching the book was, “You can’t make this stuff up.” And you can’t. Nor would you want to. When it comes to literary love lives, truth usually proves to be stranger (and more scandalous) than fiction.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt (pictured above on the left) and Joni Rendon (pictured above and to the right) are the authors of Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads.