Married to a Genius

JOHN CAREY The Times (London)

Jeffrey Meyers
by Jeffrey Meyers
Southbank Publishing £9.99 pp256
Geniuses are traditionally difficult to live with. It is part of their mystique. Disregard for other people is vital for their art, or so they claim. According to D. H. Lawrence, you must have “something vicious in you” to be a writer. Graham Greene said you needed a splinter of ice in your heart. Jeffrey Meyers’s sharp-witted book tests these beliefs by examining the marital relationships of nine writers — Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Each study is brilliant and arresting, and they reflect fascinatingly on one another. Meyers has an intricate grasp of modern literature, and has already written full-scale biographies of five of his subjects. Above all, he reveals how subtly writers’ lives infiltrate their fiction — the hardest trick in literary biography.
Most judges would choose Tolstoy as the greatest genius of the bunch, and he was by a fair margin the most repellent human being. After a youth of drinking, whoring and gambling, he fell madly in love, at 34, with 18-year-old Sofya Behrs. She seemed “a mere child, a lovely thing”, but turned out to be just as pig-headed as he was, and foolish with it. She thought his devotion to the peasantry absurd, while he concluded, from daily observation of her, that there was something wrong with her whole sex — “Woman is generally stupid.” There were furious rows, hysterical fits and suicide attempts. She almost died giving birth to her fifth child, but Tolstoy was offended when she expressed fears about further pregnancies, so breeding continued. Ashamed of his brutal appetites, he maligned the female body (“ugliness, slovenliness, odours”) and advocated chastity in his misogynistic Kreutzer Sonata, just as Sofya was giving birth to their 13th.
By comparison, George Bernard Shaw’s marital arrangements seem almost ideal. A passionless philanderer, frightened of women, he took as his bride the equally frigid Charlotte Payne-Townshend. She was, he said, physically and emotionally like a muffin, but her great attractions were £4,000 a year, a mighty sum at the time, and a determination never to consummate the marriage — the last thing Shaw wanted. They managed pretty well for 45 years, and her militant chastity went into the making of St Joan, a subject she suggested and researched.
Admittedly, the Shaws’ solution would not suit all married couples. Joseph Conrad’s was more usual, since he married a substitute mother. Jessie, a former typist, was intellectually undeveloped but excellent at domestic chores. She treated Conrad as a son, calling him “Boy”, and nursing him through his shattering depressions. When a real son arrived, Conrad naturally felt displaced, and this led to a strange incident when, on a train with Jessie and their child, he suddenly threw the their bundle of baby clothes out of the window. Tight-lipped, Jessie remarked that when the clothes were found there would be a search for the baby’s corpse. Meyers ingeniously deciphers this moment of murderous jealousy as the germ of Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, in which the shady and incompetent Verloc kills his “stepson” Stevie who is the sole object of his wife’s love.
The happiest marriage in the book, and also the unlikeliest, is James Joyce’s to Nora Barnacle. She was a raw, uneducated girl from the west of Ireland, with so little understanding of literature that she thought her husband’s writing idiotic, calling him affectionately “simple-minded Jim”. Seemingly there was some writerly instinct in Joyce that picked her out as his salvation. An icy, inhibited intellectual, who once described adult sex as “brief, brutal, irresistible and devilish”, he needed a woman who could arouse his passion and unlock his guilty store of obscene fantasies. Nora was surprised by the literary outcome. Reading Molly Bloom’s reveries at the end of Ulysses she commented, “I guess the man’s a genius, but what a dirty mind he has, hasn’t he?” Joyce seems to have been an extreme case of what Freud identified as the commonest sexual malady among modern males — the inability to feel intellectual respect and sexual passion for the same woman. With D. H. Lawrence, though, it was just the opposite. Frieda von Richthofen attracted him because, in addition to her aristocratic lineage, she was aflame with intellectual vivacity and emancipated modern theories that excited his shrinking, puritanical nature. As Meyers shows, her ideas and character appear everywhere in his work.
Because they were such opposites, violent hatred complicated their love. They would go at each other hammer-and-tongs in public, pulling hair, punching, screaming abuse, to the embarrassment of their friends. Meyers thinks there was an element of slapstick and self-parody in these set-tos, and for Lawrence they were also a kind of therapy. He would have been bored with a submissive mate. “I must have opposition, something to fight on, or I shall go under,” he admitted. Seemingly cruel and outrageous behaviour on Frieda’s part, of which there was plenty, may have stemmed from a subliminal realisation of this need. Of course, with Frieda there is also the chance that it was just cruel and outrageous.
Woolf and Mansfield were both invalids, as well as geniuses, and needed faithful nursing. Only Woolf got it. Her husband, Leonard, had been a colonial administrator in Ceylon (“ruled India, hung black men, shot tigers”, as Virginia airily put it) and Meyers thinks the imperial ethic of duty and self-sacrifice helped him cope with his wife’s descents into madness. Their attempts at sexual relations had been “a terrible failure”, and were soon abandoned. But he supported her gallantly to the end. Not so Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, who was of a lower class than Leonard Woolf, and appears weak and insecure by comparison. His wife’s tuberculosis frightened him, and he stayed in London while she went south, vainly seeking a cure. Meyers judges him harshly, but Mansfield’s poor-little-rich-girl bohemianism must have been hard for a well-brought-up, penny-pinching boy to handle, and Murry was probably jealous of her talent, as Leonard was not of Woolf’s.
The two Americans also make a contrasting pair, Hemingway brutal and exploitative, Fitzgerald feeble, but faithful to his maniacally egotistic wife Zelda. Hemingway’s was the simpler case. He tried to force women into the role of passive, devoted creatures, as men had done since the stone age. The Fitzgeralds, by comparison, were disastrously modern — drunk on fame and money, flaunting their style and beauty as if conforming to some tabloid image of how celebrities should behave, and spiralling into alcoholism and madness. From a literary angle, though, they triumphed. Zelda’s tragedy gave Fitzgerald the inspiration for his last great novel, Tender Is the Night, whereas Hemingway’s aggressive maleness wrecked his four marriages and his art. Meyers’s analyses are always, as here, beautifully clear-cut, but they never lose sight of a truth that H G Wells voiced about the Lawrences’ marriage: “The mysteries of human relationships are impenetrably obscure.”
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