And Again, Love

Ah, love. It is, I think, the most complex of all human emotions, the least comprehensible. Anger, misery and fear seem so simplistic by comparison, readily provoked, easily understood; whereas love is always partly cloaked in shadows, nurtured silently in some dark realm off the edge of the map. Who, for instance, would choose to be married to a man – okay, a poet – whose manic depression took the form of repeatedly falling in love with other women, declaring he could not live without them, and then leaving you and your child for fugues that inevitably ended up in periods of hospitalization? For even the most devoted and loving of wives, this is a bruising scenario to endure, not once or twice, but repeatedly. And so what would you make of the woman who lived through such an experience and said afterwards, ‘I very much feel it was the best thing that ever happened to me?’

The poet in question is Robert Lowell, a man who undoubtedly exerted a strange fascination over women and who would have been described in an other time and place as a consummate seducer, a Don Juan. He was the kind of poet to win a lot of awards and gain influential backing, although Ian Hamilton, in a more recent study of his poetry described it as ‘straitjacketed hysteria’ touched with ‘agitated grandeur’. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see in his poems the trace of the man who overwhelmed potentially sensible women by sweeping them into his intense psychodrama. ‘Robert Lowell invested his life and work with an unflagging sense of the momentous,’ Hamilton writes, and it’s easy to imagine how an eloquent man could captivate a woman by weaving a web of momentous wordiness around her, around their attraction. But would you fall for it twice?

And so I was really astonished to find out that the longest-standing wife of Robert Lowell was the literary critic and novelist, Elizabeth Hardwick. This surprised me because I had the impression of Hardwick as a smart, insightful woman who suffered no fools and took no prisoners. Hardwick’s literary criticism is brilliant because it’s so sharp, so ferocious. There is no one like her for writing the kind of bejeweled rapier of a sentence that pins a novel by its throat. I have always felt that the way a person reads a book is remarkably revelatory about their character. Expressing your gut response to a story, picking out the elements that most appealed and most annoyed, saying what it all means, is a way of inevitably declaring who you are. So when I became intrigued by the Hardwick-Lowell relationship and started looking into their lives, it came as no surprise to find that streak of steel readily in evidence. “She was a terrifically eloquent champion of writers she admired,” said Joel Conarroe, a fellow member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. “But she could diminish people when she didn’t agree with them. She sometimes made fellow jurors feel as if they had no literary judgment whatsoever.” Hardwick was in no doubt as to her worth and the soundness of her judgment in literary matters, and took pleasure in being the queen bee. Jason Epstein, the financier behind the New York Review of Books, which was founded primarily by Hardwick and Lowell, described her as not exactly an editor: “She was more a presiding sensibility whom everyone wished to satisfy.” Nor was she sentimental about her relationships, or particularly loyal. Hardwick wrote a somewhat brutal satire of Mary McCarthy’s bestselling The Group, called The Gang, for the paper under the pseudonym Xavier Prynne. McCarthy was puzzled and hurt, not least because Lizzie Hardwick was supposed to be her good friend. Hardwick defended herself by saying ‘It was meant as simply a little trick’. In other words, it was a chance to be clever that she could not pass up.

So what on earth was such a woman, a masterful, strident, self-possessed and sharp-edged woman, doing to herself with a man who repeatedly betrayed and humiliated her? ‘I didn’t know what I was getting into,’ she later said, ‘but even if I had, I still would have married him. He was not crazy all the time — most of the time he was wonderful. The breakdowns were not the whole story. I feel lucky to have had the time — everything I know I learned from him.’

Maybe it’s too complicated ever to understand and maybe it’s too simple, a combination of idealizing the image of the ‘good wife’ along with the enduring lack of entitlement that comes from being the eighth child in a family of eleven. Maybe she just thought he was a fabulous poet and wanted to be connected to that. She described herself as a hungry child eating whichever books came her way and maybe Lowell’s poetry was a certain kind of verbal delicacy, a gourmet’s form of literature that was not to be resisted. But it was certainly no coincidence that Hardwick began to write the best of her literary criticism, once married to Lowell, on the theme of seduction and betrayal, turning again and again in her reading to the wounded, damaged woman as the source of her inspiration. When I read the title essay from the collected Seduction and Betrayal, it struck me as an analysis that was surprisingly concerned with heroism, given the subject matter.

Considering Don Juan, Hardwick’s sympathies evidently lie with Donna Elvira, whose continuing and profound fascination for the seducer not only makes him seem more worthy, but makes her a lot more interesting than the other female characters. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne becomes coolly exceptional in her idealistic determination to lie beyond the common ground of social expectations, unlike her betrayer, the Reverend Dimmesdale who wallows in self-recriminations, guilt and discomfort, as if he had taken the conventional female role in relation to illicit passion. By contrast, Hetty Sorrel in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a weak romantic woman, wronged by a carefree and negligent upper class lover, seems to Hardwick to renounce her claim to reader’s sympathy by mindlessly accepting her victimhood. Where does women’s strength come from, Hardwick wonders, in the novels where they manage to transcend the boring miseries caused by acts of seduction and betrayal? Answering her own question she says: ‘Women, wronged one way or another, are given the overwhelming beauty of endurance, the capacity for high or lowly suffering, for violent feeling absorbed, finally tranquilized, for the radiance of humility, for silence, secrecy, impressive acceptance.’ And elsewhere she emphasizes her message again, arguing that female protagonists on the wrong end of love get redeemed only by ‘fortitude, austerity, silence, endurance.’ Is it, therefore, too far-fetched to think that Elizabeth Hardwick’s strength of mind, her fierce intellect, was put to the service of her love for Lowell in ennobling both of them? Rather than seeing herself as a tough, capable woman, held back by a philandering madman, Hardwick rose above the common ugliness of infidelity and humiliation by that single phrase: ‘it was the best thing that ever happened to me.’ It certainly turns a kitchen sink drama into something worthy of literature, and I can only imagine she would have liked that.

12 thoughts on “And Again, Love

  1. An interesting analysis. I agree that her attitude toward those literary figures was informed by her own situation, ennobling them ennobled herself and her relationship with the poet…in her own mind. I don’t see it as really rising above the situation, but rather coping with it in a way that allowed her to continue to see herself as smart and successful rather than being screwed around which was the actuality. However the fact that she was so mean to other writers, using her wit to demolish them, suggests to me that she did experience suffering in her personal life which she then deflected toward others. Such wit is amusing. But at what cost?

  2. What a very interesting essay. The enduring archetype of the patient woman ennobled by suffering is one that continually baffles me, but clearly it has great power, though our names for it change — the patient Griselda would be diagnosed today as someone with a dependent personality disorder.

    And so I wonder what, if anything, society gains by pathologizing mythos. Is Hardwick more interesting as a psychological case study, or as the living embodiment of archetype? Can she be both? In an ideal world, she probably could be, and should be; in our world, how would we react to someone who saw her dysfunctional situation clearly, and declared that she planned to stand by it as an experiment in ennoblement? I wonder whether it is possible to see oneself clearly and continue to enact age-old human dramas for their own sake … because sometimes they actually are worth enacting.

    Every time I’ve read Robert Lowell’s poetry, I have been seized with an unreasonable urge to take the biggest pin I can find and deflate the gorgeously-bedizened gasbag I perceive him to be. But then, I am notably lacking in lyricism, myself.

  3. Stopped in a blog ago to leave a message but no URL so here it is…
    http://westcobich.wordpress.com however, I go by the name Oh, and I realize I should change my URL but am now in it so deep and am not technically prone. So anyway, hi again, it’s me Oh and now you can drop by anytime … which would be great!

  4. Lilian – I agree and think I was trying to suggest that (even if my speculation here has any real basis) it would only be a way of making the situation palatable – I should have said so more clearly. I’ve only ever read Hardwick’s criticism where she admires the author concerned, so I haven’t seen her write to diminish. I’m sure you’re right, that negativity could come out that way, but on the other hand, the world of literary critics is choc-a-bloc with sharp voices, and indeed to be respected as a critic of authority (alas) it is almost obligatory to be mean at times. I agree that wit should not be used at others’ expense, but it so often is.

    David – so true! Yesterday’s ideological icons are today’s pathological cases. The Hardwick-Lowell marriage lasted from 1949-70, over the era that contained the last gasp of glorified domesticity for women, and I do wonder to what extent Elizabeth Hardwick’s attitude was influenced by the cultural imagination of her day. But there is a contradiction, in that martyrdom in love tended to be the last resort of heroism for women who were not allowed to turn their ego outwards on the world in any other way. Hardwick certainly cannot fall into that category, which seems to indicate some sort of regressive attachment to a romantic ideology on her part. Your speculation as to the possibility of marrying self-knowledge to age-old human dramas is a very intriguing question, and something I’ll continue to ponder. Oh, and I think someone who can produce the glorious phrase ‘gorgeously-bedizened gasbag’ is not someone who missed out on a visit by the fairy godmother of lyricism in their crib.

    Oh – thank you for that! (I understand the technical difficulty!). Expect a visit from me shortly.

  5. I’ve not read Lowell but I have read Hardwick’s criticism and one of her novels. I find it curious that she put up with Lowell like she did. He must have filled some kind of need she had but who knows what that might have been? We can only speculate. I don’t suppose either of them has published letters or diaries that might help shed some light on their relationship?

  6. Stefanie – indeed, only speculation is possible, although it did make me curious to see the way Hardwick’s mind was working when it came to figures of betrayal in literature. As far as I know, there aren’t any surviving documents, but I’ve by no means read everything the two of them have written. There’s plenty of fun for the literary biographers to have still!

  7. Very interesting and that “best thing that ever happened to me” line sounds like a good example of a narcissistic defence. Suffering as something ennobling and transforming. And it also, as you point out, gave her insight into similarly wronged female characters. When I was reading about this powerful woman aligned to an equally illustrious man, I couldn’t help thinking about the Clintons. There’s something fascinating about enduring and rising above such betrayals.

  8. I’ve always liked Lowell and I enjoyed Seduction and Betrayal a lot — how interesting to consider the marriage between those two. I found Hardwick’s title essay curiously ambivalent — I couldn’t always tell what her attitude toward those betrayed women was, whether we were really supposed to admire women’s endurance and acceptance or not. Are the novels just more sorry examples of how women are portrayed in literature — they never get the really cool roles?

  9. Pete – I was very curious to know what you would think. That is such an interesting comparison to Hilary Clinton, I do agree. And your comment about narcissistic defences will have me looking through some psychobabble books today! Gentle Reader – I would, as ever, love to know what you think of Hardwick! Dorothy – Isn’t it intriguing how a whole fleet of nineteenth century novels put suffering women centre stage – particularly when the suffering had to do with adultery or betrayal in its various forms. I have often wondered what that was all about. I think the emotional complexity of the female heroine appealed to writers, but the only narrative adventure they could imagine them experiencing had to do with the triumphs and disasters of love. Well, that’s how far I’ve got with thinking about it anyway! Bluestocking – big virtual hugs! {{{{}}}} Thank you so very much!!!

  10. I’m not sure that I’m using the term “narcissistic defences” correctly. But what I was getting at is that her response to being betrayed and hurt was possibly twofold – she identified with hurt, damaged women in her literary criticism, and she defended against the hurt by elevating it to the level of noble suffering. It’s obviously more complicated than that😉

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