Thursday, May 13, 2021

How the Tragic Literary Woman Became a Figure of Fascination

 From Literary Hub:

Restoration of reputation is a typical aim of biographies of tragic literary wives, by now an established sub-genre. The formula is almost always the same: the wife of a writer was unfairly maligned or disenfranchised in life, then decades after her death, a champion unearths her flotsam and jetsam to prove that she was an unrecognized genius, perhaps even the true genius in the partnership. The Platonic tragic literary wife is of course Zelda Fitzgerald, the manic pixie dream girl of American letters whose life of champagne and straight-waist dresses was chronicled by Nancy Mitford in an eponymous biography (Mitford was Team F. Scott). Sometimes the posthumous reconsideration is done in hopes the wife will be seen as an artist in her own right; other times, as in the case of leonine Assia Wevill, who was an established ad copywriter when she met Ted Hughes, and Sofia Tolstoy, the workhorse amanuensis and housewife to Leo (she copied War and Peace by hand seven times), the biographer simply wants the wife’s contributions to her famous counterpart’s work recognized as integral.

Still further, the biographers sometimes say the women deserve some recognition because they inspired certain characters or themes. Usually, as in the case of free-spirited Frieda Lawrence, it’s some kind of combination of all these aims. Such scholarly re-examinations are not relegated to wives only: Alice James, the sister of Henry and William who also suffered from hysteria and lived a suffocated life in Brahmin Boston, and Lucia Joyce, daughter of James and frequent analysand, have both been subjected to it, while the journals of Lawrence Durrell’s daughter, aspiring playwright Sappho, were published in Granta after her suicide.

Not surprisingly, there is no equivalent phenomenon for men. There are, to be sure, fewer tragic males orbiting female writers, although there are exceptions, including Penelope Fitzgerald’s husband Desmond, an alcoholic lawyer who was disbarred for forging checks, and John Walter Cross, who tried to drown himself in the Grand Canal in Venice while on honeymoon with George Eliot. Surely this is because as a culture we have always been more tolerant of male eccentricity, not to mention that because men overwhelmingly occupied positions of power and acted as the cultural gatekeepers, their efforts—and ergo their lives—were more likely to be taken seriously. But perhaps we return to the lives of tragic literary ladies for less savory reasons, too: because ultimately, we still enjoy rubbernecking at female pain, and because we cannot abandon our collective cultural desire to equate misery with genius. (Read more.)


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