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.