Book review: Between the Sheets by Lesley McDowell

Scotland’s New Statesman has published a review of one of those intriguing and (slightly) exploitative books that look with glee into the titillating sexual lives of the rich and famous, aptly called Between the Sheets (Duckworth, England).  Since one of those women is Jean Rhys, it is worth reproducing here.

ABUSE, betrayal, alcoholism, suicide and scandal: in Between the Sheets we find nine immortalised women writers and their troubled love lives. In her non-fiction debut, Lesley McDowell aims to challenge the paradigm that these women were victims, by showing how important these relationships were to them, and why and how each writer’s work was directly benefitted by writhing, however briefly, in the sexual glow of a powerful male literary figure.
Inspired by her own experience of dating a charming but heavy-drinking author, who treated her shabbily but built her writerly self-confidence, McDowell identified with a depiction of Elizabeth Smart and George Barker in a memoir by their son.
“I could understand, after my own experience, why she’d found him attractive in the first place (although without my own experience I doubt I would have understood that at all).” In not seeing herself as a victim, McDowell was inspired to debunk the stories of victimhood that we have all consumed voraciously. Borne out of an emotional epiphany, her angle owes more to empathy than intellectual rigour, bolting her exploration of her own motives on to existing narratives.
What the book gains in being written from a stance of sisterly fascination, it lacks in conviction and definition. “It seems impossible to imagine what more could be said about this pairing, but hardly ever has it been argued that Hughes actually might have been good for Plath …” One might extend this sentiment to all the protagonists, so it’s initially exciting to imagine the new argument McDowell could inspire. She herds them into more manageable groups: “New London Women”; “The Paris Set” and the “Transatlantic Chasers”, and further into “ironic designations”: Rebecca West, for instance, is “mother”, Jean Rhys the “ingénue”, a device which intends to “play with the kinds of labels that are attached to women, labels that are only ever one-dimensional”. It’s doubly ironic, in a book that wants to free these women from the shackles of victimhood, that they’re further labelled, corroborating the notion that they’ve been defined by the men they relied on, destined to be shoehorned into a new label, not shaken free of an old one.
Each chapter takes roughly the same shape, charting the vicissitudes of the relationship and key dates before moving to a brief conclusion. The excitable narrative weaves a merry dance between events and lovers, circling back on itself – “but that was all to come”, noting parallel lines along which contemporaries were then moving.
This can be baffling and convoluted. There is repetition: book titles are rehashed in case we missed them the first time round, and anecdotes are wheeled out to diminished effect: Plath bites Hughes on the cheek on three different occasions and we learn of Hilda Doolittle meeting Pound in the British Museum tea rooms more than once. Long sentences are riddled with clauses, parentheses and quotes, which often makes for prose that is indigestible and graceless.
There is no doubt McDowell deploys raw source material brilliantly, cleaving to glistening extracts siphoned from diaries, letters, journals and published work. It’s the tone of her authorial voice which confuses: “These women artists may have made a Faustian pact … but it was a pact freely chosen and only occasionally regretted in the dark watches of the night many years later, when they were alone and momentarily doubting themselves.”
Why so horribly glib? It was hardly, for any of them, a case of momentary doubt, and it did more than trouble in the “dark watches of the night”! Plath committed suicide, Rhys became a bitter alcoholic and Smart was almost broken by Barker. Such a sentence reads as a flight of melodrama, a fancy for a phrase being valued above its sense.

For the original review go to

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