Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Between the Sheets by Lesley McDowell~★★★★

Author: Lesley McDowell
Title: Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers
Release Date: April 1st, 2010
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "Why did a gifted writer like Sylvia Plath stumble into a marriage that drove her to suicide? Why did Hilda Doolittle want to marry Ezra Pound when she was attracted to women? Why did Simone DeBeauvoir (throughout the book it is "de Beauvoir" and McDowell referred to her as "Beauvoir"- tsk, tsk proofreading!) pimp for Jean-Paul Sartre? The list of the damages done in each of these sexual relationships between female writers and their male literary partners is long, but each relationship provokes the same question: would these women have become the writers they became without the experience of their own particular literary relationship? 
Focusing on the diaries, letters, and journals of each woman, Between the Sheets explores nine famous literary liaisons of the twentieth century. Lesley McDowell examines the extent to which each woman was prepared to put artistic ambition before personal happiness, and how dependent on their male writing partners  these women felt themselves to be. She probes the consequences of the women's codependence and reveals how, in many instances, their partnership liberated unspoken desires, encouraged artistic innovations, and even shored up literary reputations. Fascinating and insightful, Between the Sheets is a marvelous read and an invaluable addition to the literature of feminism."

Taryn's Review: This book was not only interesting to me because of the subject, but also because it introduced me to many new writers and books. Not being versed in literature myself, I hadn't heard of many of these people (and maybe I'm embarrassing myself to admit that!), but now I have more books that I would like to add to my reading list!

McDowell posed some interesting questions while introducing us to the following relationships: Katherine Mansfield/John Middleton Murray, Hilda Doolittle/Ezra Pound, Rebecca West/HG Wells, Jean Rhys/Ford Madox Ford, Anais Nin/Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir/Jean-Paul Sartre, Martha Gellhorn/Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Smart/George Barker, and Sylvia Plath/Ted Hughes. She really tried to analyze how these relationship affected their creative outlets of writing as well as their personal lives.

I think the most fascinating relationship to read about was Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn's relationship. I had no idea how brutal and abusive Hemingway was toward Gellhorn. Gelhorn had an extraordinary story herself, being a war-correspondent as a woman, no less; she was present at D-Day in WWII. The two fed off one another creatively, as both had their biggest literary successes while together, but both paid a high personal price for literary success.

I think the least interesting relationship in the book was Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry's relationship, although the writing may have had something to do with it. It just didn't seem to flow as smoothly as the other stories. I felt confused by what McDowell was presenting about the relationship, but maybe this relationship was more difficult to piece together?

I really enjoyed questions this book raised as well as the introductions to so many new authors. I think the most tragic story for me to read about was not Sylvia Plath's, but Elizabeth Smart's story. Smart began a relationship with George Barker, only to end up bearing four of his children, none of which he financially or emotionally supported. Barker didn't support any of the fifteen children he had among four different lovers. I hope to read her work, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, very soon. The title alone seems haunted by hurt.

Tne one bit of information that shocked me while reading this was the amount of sex going on outside of the relationships presented. I don't know if this was limited to the literary world at the time, but wow, it was crazy to read how many of them slept with one another (hetero- and homosexual experiences). I'm not very knowledgeable on early twentieth century history, but this book really made me question what I thought I knew!

Overall, this was a interesting book. It seems a bit long when you pick it up, but keep in mind it holds nine different relationship stories in the book. I think a good question to keep in mind while reading is to ask if some of these women really had any choice other than making these men their lovers to get the attention they desired for their art. What female writers did up-and-coming women writers have available to guide them as teachers? Was the payment for literary help their bodies? Don't be intimidated; this book seemed moderately readable and wasn't difficult once I started it. Definitely recommended for anyone who enjoys literature or anyone who just likes to read about a scandal or two.

1 comment:

  1. Gellhorn's published writing pre-dates Hemingway and of course Hemingway was a well established writer when they liaised. He is much the better fiction writer, but her journalism is better. Thanks for the review.