True romance: Private lives of the lady novelists

They told love stories, but their own relationships were a mess. With the release of two new films and an acclaimed biography, Frances Wilson discovers reality is more gripping than fiction
Click to follow

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in pursuit of a literary career will never find happiness with a husband, particularly if she writes about love.

Consider the list: Sylvia Plath, left by Ted Hughes for another woman, penning her last desperate poems before putting her head in the oven; Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and mother of Mary Shelley, throwing herself into the Thames after being let down by her lover; Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, drinking herself to death after three marriages.

Colette, creator of Gigi and Claudine, was locked in a room by her degenerate husband, forced to write stories in his name; Carson McCullers, writer of The Ballad of the Sad Café, was married twice to the same man, who then asked her to join him in a suicide pact. She fled but died at 50.

Mrs Gaskell, contentedly married to a Unitarian parson with whom she had a brood of children, is the exception that proves the rule: that it is compulsory for women who write, and particularly those who write well about love and marriage, to have peculiarly unrewarding, and certainly unconventional, private lives of their own.

How can we account for the high level of emotional casualties among those who have given us our most enduring love stories? It is well documented that the pressure of the job makes writers, male and female, famously hard to live with, but the cost for the woman writer has always been greater than it is for her male equivalent; not only is success harder to come by, but she suffers many more blows to the heart along the way. Do women writers have higher expectations than the rest of us when it comes to their own relationships, or is it that a commitment to writing leaves no room for anyone else?

It is a subject that is increasingly fascinating us, the readers. Now that all Jane Austen's novels, most of those by the Brontë sisters, and almost all of Edith Wharton's have been filmed and televised, our interest has turned to the private lives of the writers themselves. Next month sees the release of the biopic of Jane Austen, Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway as the 20-year- old writer, falling in love for the one and only time in her life.

Later in the year, the film Brontë explores the emotionally tormented life of the young Charlotte, played by Michelle Williams. And no doubt a bidding war has already begun for the film rights to Hermione Lee's acclaimed new life of Edith Wharton, published last month. Their lives may make less romantic Valentine's Day reading than their novels.

The Brontë sisters

Aged 25, Charlotte Brontë, together with her sister Emily, left the insular world of Haworth Parsonage to spend nine months at a girls' school in Brussels. Here Charlotte met Constantine Heger, a brilliant and high-powered teacher of literature, seven years her senior. Heger, who was married to the pensionnat's headmistress, encouraged his new pupil's talent for writing. Charlotte, gifted, foreign and older than his usual teenaged students, must have had quite an effect on him too, but her growing emotional dependence on Heger was one-sided.

Back in England, she longed for him. He tore up and threw away the desperate letters she sent him, but in a remarkably generous act, they were retrieved by his wife and sewn back together. Twenty years later, Heger discarded them again, only this time they were retrieved by his daughter who, recognising their importance, donated them to the British Library.

They make powerful reading: Brontë writes as someone who wants recognition from her mentor as much as admiration from a loved one. "Ah Monsieur! I once wrote you a letter which was hardly rational, because sadness was wringing my heart ..."

"Day and night I find neither rest nor peace - if I sleep I have tormenting dreams."

Heger's refusal to answer her letters seemed to strengthen Charlotte's resolve to become a writer, and it was two months after sending her last missive to Brussels that she went to a publishing house with some of the three sisters' poems.

It is in The Professor, and to a greater extent, Villette, that Brontë's love for Heger is explored. In Villette, the most emotionally powerful of all her novels, he appears as Paul Emmanuel, the professor with whom Lucy Snowe falls in love. Mrs Gaskell, Brontë's friend and first biographer, remarked, "It reveals depths in her mind, aye, and in her heart too which I doubt if ever anyone has fathomed."

Over a dozen years later, following the death of all her siblings, Brontë was proposed to by Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father's curate. Initially rejected, Nicholls responded with a weeping fit worthy of a Rochester or a Heathcliff. She eventually accepted, and found, to her surprise, that she liked being married. Her joy was short-lived: she died in pregnancy.

Emily's biographers, baffled that the creator of Wuthering Heights, the template for romantic love in the Western world, was apparently never in love herself, have looked for the Heathcliff in her life. Some speculate that Emily was in love with Heger or Nicholls.

Scholars debate whether Anne was in love with William Weightman, the curate who came to Howarth in 1839. He shares qualities with her fictitious character Edward Weston, for whom Agnes Grey falls in her novel of the same name. Weightman died of cholera in 1842, Anne seven years later.

'Brontë' is released later this year

Jane Austen

At a local ball, at the age of 20, Austen met an Irish lawyer, Tom LeFroy, with whom she quickly fell in love. Her older sister, Cassandra, was engaged, and Jane's letters detailing her flirtation with LeFroy have about them the thrill of a shared experience. Cassandra, Jane writes, should imagine herself and LeFroy doing "everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together". She is full of what a "gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man" her "Irish friend" is, only finding fault with his clothes.

In Claire Tomalin's life of the novelist, she notes that Jane describes her meeting with LeFroy as though she were "the heroine of her own youthful story, living for herself the short period of power, excitement and adventure that might come to a young woman when she was thinking of choosing a husband; just for a brief time she is enacting instead of imagining".

The relationship between the two blazed up and then burned out. "The Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over - My tears will flow," Jane wrote to Cassandra. Lefroy admitted later that he had been in love with Jane, but she was too poor to make a good match. He married a rich Wexford heiress instead.

Jane moved on, with a sense of disappointment. "From now on she carried in her own flesh and blood, and not just gleaned from books and plays, the knowledge of sexual vulnerability," writes Tomalin.

Seven years later, in 1802, when the prospect of marriage was receding, Jane received a proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, heir to a considerable Hampshire estate. Her suitor was shy and stammering, and saw Jane as a friend rather than a lover, but she accepted him. He was a good man and their families were close: the marriage would solve the Austens' financial problems. By the next day she had changed her mind. Harris married two years later, siring 10 children; Jane Austen stayed single, producing Mansfield Park.

The passion her heroines used to enjoy was now seen as dangerous by Austen. Rejecting the dashing Henry Crawford, who might have been the hero of one of the earlier novels, Fanny Price marries instead Edmund, the humourless first cousin whom she regards as a brother.

'Becoming Jane' is released next month

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born into the gilded New York world she describes with irony and brilliance in novels such as 'The Age of Innocence'. Aged 23, and with no evident enthusiasm, she married Edward Wharton, a Boston banker 12 years her senior. The union was sexless and childless and in 1913 they divorced, with bitter recrimination on both sides, after 28 years. Loveless marriages became a feature of her writing.

Following the success of her first novel, The House of Mirth, about the struggle of the beautiful but poor Lily Bart to survive in New York society, the Whartons moved to Paris. It was here, in the spring of 1907 when she was aged 45, that Edith began a passionate and secret three-year affair with the American journalist and Don Juan, Morton Fullerton. Bisexual, recently divorced and blackmailed by his ex-mistress (Wharton and the writer Henry James paid her off), Fullerton was to be Edith's great love. But he was also involved in a quasi-incestuous affair with his cousin and adopted sister, Katharine, to whom he had proposed. Wharton's first impression, that he was "very intelligent, but slightly mysterious", is confirmed by James, who described Fullerton - the model for the slippery Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove - as "the most inscrutable of men".

Wharton admitted in her journals that before the arrival of Fullerton she had known nothing of love: "I have been too sad, for too long... starving for what other women seem at least once in their life to know." She told him, "'You woke me from a long lethargy."

When the affair ended, she wrote to him, ''What you wish, apparently, is to take the inmost and uttermost that a woman can give, for an hour, now and then, when it suits you; and when the hour is over, to leave me out of your mind and out of your life."

Fullerton appears as George Darrow in The Reef (1912), Wharton's novel about sexual betrayal. The "situation between the two principals", said James, was "more gone into and with more undeviating truth than anything you have done".

Hermione Lee's 'Edith Wharton' is published by Chatto and Windus