Bloomsbury, £25

A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, By Alice Kessler-Harris

Sex, lies and Communism: a career that cut against the American grain

Last year's West End production of The Children's Hour, starring Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss, didn't just bring the name Lillian Hellman out of the shadows into which literary history has cast her. It also highlighted the lack of female playwrights from the first half of the 20th century. What other women stood alongside Hellman during the 1930s and 1940s? Who else was writing sell-out Broadway productions?

Alice Kessler-Harris places Hellman within a historical context, yet doesn't really answer those questions, or examine the divided role that the 20th century forced Hellman to play. A fiery Southern Jewish girl who preferred the company of men, "a tough broad... the kind of girl who can take the tops off bottles with her teeth", Hellman was extremely feminine, fond of fashion and dyed her brown hair a glamorous blonde. But Kessler-Harris prefers to view these contradictions through political movements: 1960s feminism, for example, or 1930s Communism.

This historical approach eschews a linear narrative for a more thematic one. While often illuminating about Hellman's times, it can cause some structural problems. Information is often repeated, and strange inconsistencies arise. It also keeps Hellman the woman somewhat at a distance. The influence of her lover, the writer Dashiel Hammett, is minimised and her family background is dotted throughout. The effect of her childhood nurse, Sophronia, is crucial to her social and political views, and is given her due, but her husband Arthur Kober, who remained a constant friend even after they divorced, is sidelined. But few women have needed reclamation more than Hellman, and Kessler-Harris's desire to reclaim her reputation is rather well served by her more unusual approach.

Hellman's posthumous reputation has certainly been through the shredder. It didn't help that when she died in 1984, she was in the middle of a libel suit against her nearest rival, the writer Mary McCarthy, who had said about her on a TV show, "every word she says is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman never got her day in court. McCarthy had amassed an impressive amount of evidence against her to show how much Hellman had lied about her past, her career, her political allegiances.

But perhaps much more damaging – and Kessler-Harris's real interest here – was Hellman's Communist party membership, dating from the late 1930s. Many writers and artists became Communists, spurred by the civil war in Spain and the fascists' rise in Germany. Hellman had been largely apolitical, although as a Jewish girl born in New Orleans, she was always aware of racial and religious prejudice. But, inspired perhaps by Hammett, she took up the cause and her new-found politics infused plays after The Children's Hour, like Days To Come and Dead End.

Her party membership came back to bite her in the 1950s with McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which forced writers to declare their politics and, in many cases, give the names of other Communist sympathisers. Hellman was called but refused to name names, saying she would tell all about herself but only herself. At the time, she was hailed a heroine for her stance, but it cost her: she was shunned by Hollywood, which had previously employed her to write scripts.

The problem with Communist party membership wasn't just the trials; it was also the division among Communists themselves. Mary McCarthy was a Trotskyite who loathed Hellman's politics. Others took a similar line and Hellman's fondness for a moral tone in her work made her an easy target for those looking for flaws in her own behaviour. Kessler-Harris defends her well, but the structure of her biography, while it works hard to exonerate her subject, makes it difficult for us to get close to, and thus sympathise with, Lillian Hellman herself.

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