Strangers in the study: Famous literary partnerships

Lust and literature is a heady mixture, and the women writers of the 20th century who married poets and novelists often came unstuck in both life and art. Lesley McDowell reassesses some famous literary partnerships
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'Such violence," wrote Sylvia Plath in February 1956 after meeting Ted Hughes for the first time, "and I can see how women lie down for artists."

Plath, like fellow writer Elizabeth Smart 20 years before her, wanted to catch a poet. She wanted a "blazing love" but she also wanted to be with someone who wrote and who would understand her writing. A year before Smart came across a volume of George Barker's poems in a Charing Cross Road bookshop and decided she would pursue him, she had written in her journal: "I must marry a poet. It's the only thing." In her great work about their subsequent relationship, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, she confirmed: "I want the one I want. He is the one I picked out from the world. I picked him out in cold deliberation."

"Cold deliberation" is not something we associate with the women writers of the 20th century who hooked up with fellow novelists or poets or thinkers: Rebecca West, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Simone de Beauvior, Martha Gellhorn, as well as Plath and Smart herself, all showed a degree of obsession in their liaisons with HG Wells, John Middleton Murry, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Hughes and Barker respectively. Ranging in time from before the First World War (Mansfield and Murry) to the brink of Second Wave Feminism (Hughes and Plath), these relationships were characterised by passion both sexual (which is commonplace) and literary (which is rare and hard to resist).

Our fascination with a particular kind of literary partnership never abates. This year alone has seen the publications of Tête à Tête: The life and loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley (Chatto); The Arms of the Infinite (Pomona), an account of the relationship between Elizabeth Smart and George Barker by their eldest son, Christopher Barker; The Letters of Martha Gellhorn (Chatto) which include those she wrote to Hemingway; and A Lover of Unreason by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev (Robson), another bolt shot in the Hughes-Plath romance, about the woman for whom Hughes left his wife, Assia Wevill.

There may be plenty of writers today who live and work alongside each other perfectly happily (glossy magazines can barely do without mentioning Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt, Nick Laird and Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson), and there are also plenty of examples of other kinds of literary pairings. Just out this month, the scholarly volume Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators and the Construction of Authorship features a variety of essays by academics on literary partnerships throughout history, like Boswell and Johnson, the Brontës, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

But it is those 20th-century heterosexual relationships, charged by sexual passion and either flittering out when that passion dies, or, in some cases, imploding with horrific consequences, that are the most complex, the most teasing, and ultimately the ones that intrigue us most. Above and beyond their work, West, Mansfield, Rhys, Beauvoir, Gellhorn, Plath and Smart are famous for being essentially "victims of love". At least four of them were deserted by their lovers or husbands (Mansfield escaped this fate by dying young and Beauvoir by participating in sexual games that she seems to have had little real interest in); West threatened suicide when Wells left her shortly after the beginning of their liaison, and even wrote a short story, "At Valladolid" about it; while Madox Ford's rejection of Jean Rhys after 18 months, according to one biographer, drove her further towards alcoholism. Plath, who might be called the poster girl for this group, and for abandoned women everywhere, did of course actually kill herself.

And yet. While the female half of the literary partnership tended to be less famous at the outset than her male counterpart - Barker was a flamboyant and hugely promising published poet when Smart began her pursuit, Hughes had a considerable reputation at Cambridge, and Wells was fast approaching the peak of his fame, as was Madox Ford - it is that female half who has posthumously either equalled or even exceeded her partner's reputation. Quite a remarkable feat for these poor, lonely, abandoned "victims".

The rise in women's studies after Second Wave Feminism in the 1970s is not sufficient to explain why the work of these women writers is still in print and still selling. Certainly the reclamation of women and their repositioning within literary canons has gone some way to explaining the presence of, say, Smart or West on our bookshelves, where possibly Barker or Wells do not occupy space at all. It is above all their own literary merit that justifies our continuing enjoyment. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is one of the greatest prose poems ever written; West and Gellhorn's journalism is outstanding; Wide Sargasso Sea was recently televised for the BBC.

But it is undeniable that their association with famous literary men has contributed to their stature. The interesting thing about all these women is that they knew it, even at the time. They identified themselves as writers before they met and fell in love, but they knew what a literary partnership could give them. Both Plath and Smart were sure about themselves as poets before they met Hughes and Barker; West was writing and reviewing and getting a reputation as a daring young critic before she even met Wells, and in 1909, in a Bavarian hotel, where she had gone to give birth to her illegitimate child by Garnet Carrington Trowell, at the age of 21, Katherine Mansfield signed herself "Kathe Beauchamp-Bowden, Schriftstellerin" (woman writer).

What is fascinating about the relationships that developed between men and women writers is how often, and to what extent, they would write together, commenting on each other's work, often in cramped surroundings, sitting practically close enough to touch. Sexual passion and artistic passion come together, as Smart recognises in By Grand Central Station, which conjures up this image of the lovers-and-writers, one that she and Barker used deliberately, to dodge the suspicions of Barker's wife, Jessica: "For excuse, for our being together, we sit at the typewriter, pretending a necessary collaboration... the typewriter is guilty with love and flowery with shame."

According to the biographer Diane Middlebrook, during Hughes and Plath's early writing life: "Hughes worked at the dining table and she wrote at a typing table by the window... they worked almost elbow to elbow, day after day." It was an interdependence that some of these women writers, like Smart and Plath, had actively sought and that others, like Jean Rhys, found they couldn't do without. When, for instance, Ford Madox Ford and his wife Stella Bowen invited the destitute young Rhys to live with them, Rhys began not only a financial dependence on Ford that she subsequently found hard to break away from, but also a literary dependence. In her novel, Quartet, based on her time at their home, Rhys paints a portrait of a dominating Ford reading out her prose in front of Bowen, while loudly exclaiming "Cliché! Cliché!". Max Saunders, Ford's most recent biographer, argues that "the two main things lacking from Quartet are the two essential facts of her relationship with Ford: the fact that they were both writers and that he helped her writing; and that fact that she found him loveable."

Rhys herself was to play down Ford's literary influence on her, saying in later life that "when it came to writing he was a very generous man and he encouraged me a great deal. I really don't think that he tried to impose his ideas on me or anyone else but his casual hints could be extremely helpful." From passion to "casual hints" - there can hardly be a greater strike back at the one who has rejected you, to claim that his influence on your writing was virtually negligible.

Perhaps inevitably, as passion settles and turns domestic, questions about literary claustrophobia begin to arise (the arrival of children, too, was to cause problems for West, Plath and Smart). In 1958, two years after she had met Hughes, Plath wrote in her journal: "I must be happy first in my own work and struggle to that end, so my life does not hang on Ted's... do we, vampire-like, feed on each other? A wall, sound-proof, must mount between us. Strangers in our study, lovers in bed." In 1916, three years into their 10-year-long affair, Rebecca West complained to Wells, "There is no life for us separately. Just a few nice hours over our books and articles and then when we can't write any longer an empty feeling."

This is, incidentally, one of the few letters to Wells written by West that exists, as Wells destroyed most of her correspondence after their spilt - and gives the lie to today's suspicion that lovers' correspondence will be lost to future biographers because of dependence on the Internet. If one half of the partnership destroys his/her letters, then one half of the correspondence is lost for ever. But if one half of the partnerships destroys all his/her emails, it will not matter, as the other half can still possess the correspondence in its entirety.

Leonard Woolf recorded his regret about the influence Middleton Murry had on Katherine Mansfield's writing: "She got enmeshed in the sticky sentimentality of Murry and wrote against the grain of her own nature", and for most of the 10 years she spent with Wells, West got very little writing completed. Yet in general, their literary partnerships seem to have served these women writers well. Middlebrook notes that the intrusion of Hughes's language in Plath's writing improved her poetry, and Gellhorn's letters to Hemingway show a more masculine, hardy tone, one that seems to have stood her in good stead for war reporting.

Sexual passion, we are told, rarely lasts for ever. Yet in The Arms of the Infinite, Christopher Barker maintains that his mother loved George Barker for the rest of her life, in spite of the appalling way he treated her. Beauvoir stayed, in some guise or another, with Sartre until he died. And Plath couldn't live without her faithless spouse - although Pamela Norris does write, in Words of Love: Passionate Women from Heloise to Sylvia Plath, that "while Plath was still devastated by the break-up with Hughes, this wasn't just a question of love anguish, she was deeply and publicly humiliated by his affair with Assia", hinting at the degree of investment made in the public role of being one half of a literary partnership.

There are hints that Mansfield, had she lived, would have left Murry; West attempted to end her relationship with Wells many times before the final break came; and Gellhorn went on to marry again after divorcing Hemingway. And yet - however bitter the break was when it came, however much it was regretted - would any of them have behaved differently? Would they have been lesser writers without the experience? The last word should go to Plath, who wrote in July 1958: "We are amazingly compatible. But I must be myself - make myself and not let myself be made by him." Perhaps it was within these sexual and literary relationships, however brief, however long-lasting, that Plath and the other women writers mentioned here found that they could, truly, "make themselves".

* Lesley McDowell is currently writing a book about literary partnerships. Her first novel, 'The Picnic', will be published by Chroma in July