True Romance ; VALENTINES ++ PRIVATE LIVES OF THE LADY NOVELISTS ++ They Told Love Stories, but Their Own Relationships Were a Mess. with the Release of Two New Films and an Acclaimed Biography, Frances Wilson Discovers Reality Is More Gripping Than Fiction
Wilson, Frances, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in pursuit of a literary career will never find happiness with a husband, particularly if she writes about love.
Consider the list: Sylvia Plath, left by Ted Hughes for another woman, penning her last desperate poems before putting her head in the oven; Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and mother of Mary Shelley, throwing herself into the Thames after being let down by her lover; Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, drinking herself to death after three marriages.
Colette, creator of Gigi and Claudine, was locked in a room by her degenerate husband, forced to write stories in his name; Carson McCullers, writer of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, was married twice to the same man, who then asked her to join him in a suicide pact. She fled but died at 50.
Mrs Gaskell, contentedly married to a Unitarian parson with whom she had a brood of children, is the exception that proves the rule: that it is compulsory for women who write, and particularly those who write well about love and marriage, to have peculiarly unrewarding, and certainly unconventional, private lives of their own.
How can we account for the high level of emotional casualties among those who have given us our most enduring love stories? It is well documented that the pressure of the job makes writers, male and female, famously hard to live with, but the cost for the woman writer has always been greater than it is for her male equivalent; not only is success harder to come by, but she suffers many more blows to the heart along the way. Do women writers have higher expectations than the rest of us when it comes to their own relationships, or is it that a commitment to writing leaves no room for anyone else?
It is a subject that is increasingly fascinating us, the readers. Now that all Jane Austen's novels, most of those by the Bronte sisters, and almost all of Edith Wharton's have been filmed and televised, our interest has turned to the private lives of the writers themselves. Next month sees the release of the biopic of Jane Austen, Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway as the 20-year- old writer, falling in love for the one and only time in her life.
Later in the year, the film Bronte explores the emotionally tormented life of the young Charlotte, played by Michelle Williams. And no doubt a bidding war has already begun for the film rights to Hermione Lee's acclaimed new life of Edith Wharton, published last month. Their lives may make less romantic Valentine's Day reading than their novels.
Edith Wharton was born into the gilded New York world she describes with irony and brilliance in novels such as 'The Age of Innocence'. Aged 23, and with no evident enthusiasm, she married Edward Wharton, a Boston banker 12 years her senior. The union was sexless and childless and in 1913 they divorced, with bitter recrimination on both sides, after 28 years. Loveless marriages became a feature of her writing.
Following the success of her first novel, The House of Mirth, about the struggle of the beautiful but poor Lily Bart to survive in New York society, the Whartons moved to Paris. It was here, in the spring of 1907 when she was aged 45, that Edith began a passionate and secret three-year affair with the American journalist and Don Juan, Morton Fullerton. Bisexual, recently divorced and blackmailed by his ex-mistress (Wharton and the writer Henry James paid her off), Fullerton was to be Edith's great love. But he was also involved in a quasi-incestuous affair with his cousin and adopted sister, Katharine, to whom he had proposed. Wharton's first impression, that he was "very intelligent, but slightly mysterious", is confirmed by James, who described Fullerton - the model for the slippery Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove - as "the most inscrutable of men". …