Students of literature need little introduction to the dramatis personae: Victoria Glendinning, prolific biographer, most notably of Swift, Trollope and Vita Sackville-West, and Shirley Conran, author of sex and shopping novel Lace, but more pertinently a name associated everywhere but the Glendinning household with the word Superwoman, the title of her bestselling lifestyle guide for women juggling housework, careers, children and tricky husbands.
Which brings us to the third party: Kevin O'Sullivan, currently married to Ms Glendinning and former husband of Ms Conran. But, alas, being married to Superwoman does not necessarily turn you into Superman. In a recent interview Conran explained why she had failed to mention their marriage in her Who's Who entry. It was, she said, because he was a "layabout," and their marriage "a big mistake".
Reading this slur upon her man put Glendinning in a fury. She narrowed her eyes and reached for her pen. Students of 18th century literature could justifiably become excited. Here was the woman who knows more about Britain's greatest satirist Jonathan Swift than anyone alive. What withering metaphor would she use to humiliate her erstwhile rival?
Glendinning could have summoned all the political barbs, the satirical sweep of Swift, flavoured with the poise and style of Sackville-West. Instead, she told Conran that she was guilty of libel and blurted: "If you do it again there will be hell to pay from me, so look out."
Fans of Glendinning's biographies will find this riposte decidedly disappointing. If there is satire it is brilliantly disguised. Perhaps its subtext is a lesson to all biographers that intense study of your subject does not necessarily endow you with genius. But Glendinning defends her style: "It was like being a schoolgirl writing a mischievous letter."
Glendinning went on: "This is the second time to my knowledge - there may have been more - that you have libelled him. Just how flaky can you get?"
Superwoman was not impressed. She too was spurred to take up her pen, but deemed Glendinning unworthy of a letter. "I wrote back on a postcard and told her that I was not going to be intimidated by her threats," she told a newspaper. "She is obviously more interested in my ex-husband than I am and I wish her good luck with him. She'll need it."
A belated shift towards irony in those last few words, but slightly spoilt by Conran referring to Glendinning with some relish in her interview as "the Hon Victoria G". This fails as a quip because it is precisely what, Glendinning, the daughter of Lord Seebohm, is.
As for Kevin O'Sullivan, the mysterious character on whom the exchange of letters revolves, there is - as in all well drawn characters in literature - room for disagreement on his motivation and growth. Conran claims the marriage left her in a "financial mess". She justifies her use of language with some linguistic precision: "As soon as we got back from honeymoon he chucked in his job. During the next year he only applied for one other job, hence the use of the word `layabout'."
The couple married in 1972 and were divorced a couple of years later. Conran recalls: "I came back from a visit to my mother in Canada to find a note on the mantelpiece from Kevin. It said: `By the time you read this I will be in Moscow. My wedding ring is in the waste-paper basket where it belongs.' Kevin didn't divorce me, he deserted me. We divorced by mutual consent."
By Superwoman standards this is small beer. Conran says of her first husband, Habitat founder Sir Terence Conran: "He was a **** about money, and I cannot forgive him for hurting our sons. Divorce is painful and children don't like it, and sometimes the painful things should just be forgotten, but the pain stays and some of it can just burst out." She adds in the interests of literary complexity that her eight years with him were among the happiest and most satisfying of her life.
In the case of Mr O'Sullivan, Conran is far more precise in her use of language and the contemporary resonances of the words she uses. Take, for example, Mr O'Sullivan's job title. He is said to be a "consultant engineer". Conran, a woman immersed in both the arts and business, is suspicious of the word "consultant". Eager to show that language must break through such opaque and confusing terminology, she describes him as a "salesman".
Of course Shirley Conran is indulging in a popular literary pastime: revenge is increasingly the refuge of a writer scorned. Of course, the most effective way to avenge oneself on a husband, be he a layabout or just a sub-superman, is to denigrate him under cover of fiction.
It is no accident that two characters in the David Lodge novel Small World, both writers, hold back from consummating their relationship until they have both sworn never to use each other in a future book. When you marry a writer your reputation serves as dowry.
Fay Weldon split up with Ron, her husband of 30 years, when a New Age therapist persuaded him that the pair were incompatible on astrological grounds. He dropped dead the day after the divorce but lived again none too flatteringly in Weldon's novel Affliction.
Philip Roth, after a stormy marriage to actress Claire Bloom, wrote a much acclaimed novel, I Married A Communist, which features a neurotic actress. It could have been worse. Bloom revealed in her own unsparing memoirs that while they were married Roth showed her a typescript of a novel in which a writer called Philip cheated continually on a boring, whinging wife called Claire. She insisted he change the names, which however did not alter the underlying unpleasantness.
Amanda Craig's novel about literary London, A Vicious Circle, provided such a hostile portrait of her former boyfriend David Sexton (now literary editor of the Evening Standard) that the original publisher backed out of the deal after Sexton threatened legal action.
Few pieces of revenge literature have been so devastating, nor had such an A-list cast, as Heartburn by Nora Ephron, in which she wrote a thinly- disguised account of the affair between her ex-husband, Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, and Margaret (now Baroness) Jay, while Peter Jay was British ambassador in Washington. She depicts the Jay figure as "an hysteric" with "a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb."
Other exes finding themselves in print have protested through interviews and articles, rather than labour over a fully fledged novel. Among them are the former partners of Ian McEwan (accused of "stealing" Penny Allen's experiences in his fiction), Paul Theroux (who agreed to rewrite the sections of My Other Life to disguise his marriage) and Hanif Kureishi (said by Tracey Scoffield to have "maliciously" caricatured her as the boring and unattractive spurned wife in his novel Intimacy).
Julie Burchill, who has kept almost no detail of her own life from her audience, said yesterday: "I always read revenge literature. It's a scream. And I think the Conran/ Glendinning row is a scream. It's great to see two middle-aged ladies going at it. It shows the life force is still there."
Her latest novel Married Alive is, she says, not autobiographical. "I was never cheated on in my marriage. I was always the guilty party." She is awaiting without undue trepidation the new book by her first husband, Tony Parsons, which is said to contain references to her. "He can do what he likes. He has written about me before. This book will sink without trace like the others."
Mr O'Sullivan, meanwhile, is leaving it to the women in his life to fight it out between themselves, confining himself to saying: "One of the reasons I divorced Shirley was to stop having to deal with her."
Neither protagonist in this newest outbreak of swingeing literary letters was willing to add to their words yesterday. But perhaps the answerphones at both their homes say enough.
Ms Glendinning's had a message from her husband saying that neither Kevin nor Victoria was available. Very much the couple, very together as all their friends attest.
Ms Conran delivers her own assertive message: "I answer the phone between 6 and 8 in the evenings. I work during the day." Still every inch a Superwoman.Reuse content