Between the Sheets

Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20thCentury Women Writers, by Lesley McDowell, Duckworth Overlook, RRP£16.99, 312 pages

I am a writer first and a woman after,” said Katherine Mansfield in 1920. But one question seems to keep raising its Medusa head: do women write out of their sexuality more than men do? Or do all good writers, of whatever gender, simply use whatever life brings?

Between the Sheets considers nine women writers who worked in the 50 years preceding the feminist revolution of the mid-20th century. It examines their often obsessively destructive relationships with male writers, and argues that what these women gained from them outweighed all the pain and they wrote their best work “out of” it. McDowell is interested in the idea that these women actively chose a cocktail of literary closeness and emotional wounding for writing’s sake.

Her story begins in 1912, when Katherine Mansfield got to know Middleton Murry, Ezra Pound gave Hilda Doolittle her poet’s name HD, and Cicily Fairfield met bestselling author HG Wells, renaming herself Rebecca West. West was 20, Wells 46. Over the years she had his child and each wrote novels portraying the other. He admitted: “We did harm each other as writers.” “He was a devil,” she said. “He ruined my life, he was an inexhaustible source of love and friendship for 34 years, we should never have met.”

McDowell groups her writers in threes through these years. West, HD and Mansfield lived and loved around London in the 1910s and 1920s. In 1920s and 1930s Paris we get Jean Rhys with Ford Madox Ford, Anaïs Nin with Henry Miller, Simone de Beauvoir with Jean-Paul Sartre, and then three women in the 1930s-1950s whom McDowell calls “transatlantic chasers”: Martha Gellhorn pursuing Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Smart after George Barker, and Sylvia Plath, who married Ted Hughes.

Nine is the number of the muses but McDowell does not ask if these women wanted to be their partner’s muse, nor what it means to be one when you’re a writer yourself. Instead, she assigns each a role (“the novice”, “the ingénue”) and makes each woman fit both it and her overall argument: that they chose the relationship for their art. It made me start counting up literary-sexual partnerships which were not destructive, from the Brownings on, and wonder about women writers who had destructive relationships with non-writing men (did that help their art, too?), or women who had destructive relationships with male writers but were not writers themselves.

McDowell has read the biographies, diaries, letters and discussions deeply and questioningly. She raises important questions about how sexual choice relates to any writer’s work and how things have changed for women writers. The men in each period all knew each other but the women didn’t, for women writers “didn’t hold the same power”. Whatever the mysteries of relationships, then or now, here at least is one great change. Women writers no longer need a man to validate their work.

Ruth Padel is the author of ‘Where the Serpent Lives’ (Little, Brown)

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