BOOK REVIEW / Unequal partners who shared and shared alike: 'Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership' - eds Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron: Thames & Hudson, 14.95 pounds

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IT IS bad luck on this book that it shares its title with a novel by Armistead Maupin. Its fetid subtitle, however, cannot be ascribed to chance: it is an act of folly, instantly triggering the cringe, recoil, drop-it syndrome. One must also ignore the breathless and hortatory introduction which claims that 'a generation of theoretical writings has taught us to view gender and creativity through new frames'; as a result of this unprecedented good fortune, 'it is up to us to reach toward multiple definitions of creativity and in so doing to rethink worn-out concepts of autonomy, compromise and success.' Won't, can't, shan't. But it is worth persevering.

The central concern of the 13 essays is the effect that their relationship has had on the work of couples who are variously writers, painters, sculptors, heterosexual or homosexual. Beginning with Rodin and Camille Claudel, we are offered a hundred years of turbulence and triumph. The authors of these essays are all American academics, and mostly declared feminists.

The best essays are the most objective, when the artists are allowed to speak for themselves. There are outstanding pieces on Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Work brought most of the pairs together and there is a recurring pattern of an ambitious, talented girl gaining access to artistic circles by her association with a man who is older and already established; in return she contributes cash and admiration. The man encourages her work while valuing his own more highly; she concurs with this view, although she has become confident and productive. Yet, despite this apparent imbalance, these relationships are rich and fruitful, with each partner producing his or her best work during the years together. There are no children. The cash runs out. After the man's death the woman becomes reclusive and concentrates on promoting his work, abandoning her own.

This is, of course, a generalised outline, but one that is common enough to be worth remarking. It did strike me as curious that of the 13 couples only the Delaunays, Schwartz-Barts and Vanessa Bell had children. Frida Kahlo said that she painted as compensation for the loss of her babies. Virginia Woolf called her sister an 'old hen wife' but also suggested, 'as you have the children, the same by rights belongs to me'. Cash, the other traditional wrecker of conjugal life, seems to impinge surprisingly little here; the bond between these couples is strong enough to survive its presence or absence. Those relationships that did not last brought despondency and madness; Camille Claudel and Clara Malraux lived long and wretched lives destroyed by bitterness. Malraux never again spoke to Clara after their separation, never read her books; yet he is the centre of all her writing.

There are occasional unfairnesses in this book, a bias towards the women and a more intent focus on their lives. In her Malraux piece, Isabelle de Courtivron makes much of Clara's rescue of Andre from prison, her fearless criticism of his fantasies, her passion and unforgiving anger, while playing down the courage that sustained him not only through his extraordinary life of adventures, both intellectual and physical, but through the deaths of two brothers in the Resistance, his wife in an accident, his two sons in a car crash. Robert Delaunay and Yves Tanguy hover like ghosts in the background of their essays, and the only point I could grasp in Anne Wagner's deeply incomprehensible 'Krasner's Presence, Pollock's Absence' was that she wasn't going to talk about Pollock.

Virginia Woolf said that the future of women's fiction depended on 'to what extent men can be educated to stand free speech in women'. She provides a marvellous description of an emancipatory afternoon in Gordon Square: 'Clive had hidden all the matchboxes because their blue and yellow swore with the prevailing colour scheme . . . Sex permeated our conversation. The word bugger was never far from our lips . . .' It was a bit of a surprise for Leonard Woolf when he came home. Of course, the conditions of Bloomsbury were favourable to women because there was no cult of the conquering male. Duncan Grant gave Vanessa Bell such confidence in herself as an artist on equal terms with him that Virginia Woolf could call her 'the most complete human being'.

The only other relationship here with a real sense of equality about it is very different. Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett sustained 30 years of financial difficulty, McCarthyism, drinking, infidelity and illness with unfaltering integrity, mutual respect and mutual support. He made her write eight versions of The Little Foxes before he approved it. She said that he had 'the most carefully guarded honesty I have ever known, as if one lie would muck up his whole world'. It is incongruous to find Anas Nin and Henry Miller sharing space with people like Hellman and Hammett. Far too much has already been written about the arch-wankerette and her succubus. Nin summarises Miller's attractions for her: 'I met Henry Miller, he is like me.' Enough said.

There are some fine photographs of people and some small blurry ones of paintings. It is a pity there is no colour. Overall, this is an interesting, even exciting book, but despite its feminist vaunts it offers no conclusions. There are heroes and heroines here, fiercely dedicated, fiercely individual. They make their own choices and there's no repining. Enter these enchanted woods ye who dare.