Between the Sheets, By Lesley McDowell

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The Independent Culture

Lesley McDowell selects nine women writers from the first half of the 20th century, reviews destructive behaviour in their sexual partnerships with male writers, and argues that humiliation and pain in such relationship was and is intrinsic to their achievement. I wondered at her choice of title. She is formidably well-read and must know of Ian McEwan's short-story collection In Between the Sheets. Perhaps, like him, she could not resist the droll literary pun.

Two events prompted her book: the first was her fraught liaison with an unspecified writer-shyster who drank, took anti-depressants, screwed around, had a wife and two small children. "What made me put up with being denied in public... What made me run round to his flat every time he called, with bags of wine and food"? It wasn't just to cook his dinner. "What I was getting from this relationship was something I had never had before: a constant dialogue about writing".

The second prompt was a review she read of Christopher Barker's memoir of his parents, the novelist Elizabeth Smart and the poet George Barker. Barker, like McDowell's man, was married, alcoholic, depressive and philandering. Smart stayed with him for decades and had four children with him. (He fathered 15 in all.) McDowell sets out to prove that all the women she chooses to write about were in the same emotional boat as herself and Smart.

She groups them into threes, in three sections. In "New London Women" are Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, the poet Hilda Doolittle and Ezra Pound, and Rebecca West and HG Wells. "He was a devil," West wrote when she heard of Wells's death in 1946. "He ruined my life, he starved me, he was an inexhaustible source of love and friendship to me for thirty-four years, we should never have met."

McDowell highlights such contradiction and links it to literary success. In "The Paris Set" she takes Jean Rhys and Ford Madox Ford, Anais Nin and Henry Miller and Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Rhys "would never have become a published writer without Ford", Miller "was sexually demanding", "Sartre liked foreplay; Beauvoir wanted much more".

McDowell labels the women in her third section "Transatlantic Chasers". Martha Gellhorn pursued Ernest Hemingway, Smart "went to extraordinary lengths" to meet Barker after reading his poems, Sylvia Plath was "so hungry for a big smashing creative burgeoning burdened love" when she met Ted Hughes. She married him within four months.

The author's style is exuberant. She covers a great deal of literary ground. Her reference to biographies, letters, diaries and memoirs is copious. She gives a skirting of selected biographical detail and tells us what's what in an emphatic voice.

But her book is perhaps too hypothetical to succeed. She has not chosen a structure in which her large cast can come alive. The voice that predominates is her own. "It is unpalatable," she tells us, "for many to accept that [these women] needed, sought out, and relied upon their male literary partners to write and publish. But unpalatability doesn't make it any less true." But perhaps these writers would have used whatever life had thrown at them. Their writing was inevitable, their relationships circumstantial.

Nor is it necessarily true that they needed the pain in order to get published. Jean Rhys owed her late success with Wide Sargasso Sea to the kind intervention of Francis Wyndham. HD arguably owed more to the loving patronage of Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) than to Pound. HD wrote that Bryher loved her "so madly it is terrible. No man has ever cared for me like that." Yet McDowell describes their long relationship as "more a close companionship without the trauma of passion".

McDowell is controversial and provocative. It is a paradox that sensible love can dull the heart and fail to inspire and a contradiction that men who are philanderers, drunkards and wife-beaters can still be attractive and necessary to their creative partners.

But it's not very sexy between these particular sheets or magical, or enticing. For such inspiration we turn to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (written before Smart met George Barker) or After Leaving Mr McKenzie, or Nin's diaries or Plath's poems.

Diana Souhami's biography of Edith Cavell will be published in September