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“…. brutal, like the smash of a fist….” #elizabethhardwick #sylviaplath @NYRBClassics

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Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I narrowly missed picking up a duplicate copy of Elizabeth Hardwick’s seminal collection of essays when I was in the wonderful Foyles, Charing Cross Road. It’s been re-released in a very pretty Faber edition, but I had a feeling in the back of my head that I might already own it. Turned out that I did, in a lovely old NYRB Classics edition. Spotting in the wild did, however, bring it back onto my radar; and as I’d heard such great things about it, I made a point of picking it up fairly soon after my London trip.

The book was originally published in 1974, and collects together a number of essays from the early 1970s. The subject matter is, in effect, women *in* literature and women *writing* literature; and the book focuses on a number of names we’re probably all familiar with, as well as taking on the knotty subjects of the book’s title in the final piece. Indeed, that title refers as much to the effect of literature on women as the subject matter of some of the essays. Hardwick is an author I’d read before; I have some of her works in lovely green Virago editions, and I reviewed “Sleepless Nights” on the Ramblings way back in 2012. Her writing style is distinctive and very individual, and she brings a rigorous intellect to these essays. I didn’t always necessarily agree with her, but I did find the book very stimulating.

To get to specifics. The book opens with a substantial piece on the Brontes and their work, their lives and their impact. Hardwick goes on to consider the women in the plays of Henrik Ibsen; he certainly was a man who focused strongly on female characters. The next section of the book looks at women Hardwick designates as ‘Victims and Victors’; this contains essays on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Bloomsbury and Virginia Woof. Following this are the ‘Amateurs’, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle. And the book closes with “Seduction and Betrayal”, a very thought-provoking essay which explores seduction in the arts from Don Giovanni to much more modern works.

As you can see, it’s an eclectic mix, combining authors, characters and women who did not consider themselves as writers but whose letters and journals are still read today. And Hardwick is a provocative and insightful commentator. Her take on the Brontes is fascinating, and a counter to the bucolic image which has grown up around them. Hardwick refuses to soften, whitewash or sanitise these women, allowing them their anger and strength. When you look at the circumstances and places from which the women sprang, they are simply extraordinary.

… neighbours and families and gossip, boredom, marriage, money, and work are still what the drama of life is about.

Ibsen is an author with whom I’ve had a limited acquaintance; as far as I can recall, I’ve only read his play “Brand” which doesn’t really feature here, having as it does a strong male central character. However, the discussion of his women, who are often powerful memorable characters dominating his plays, is fascinating and actually made me keen to read more of him. I certainly can’t help but agree with this exchange which Hardwick quotes from one of his works:

In one of the most striking bits of dialogue between husband and wife, Helmner says, “… no man sacrifices his honour, not even for the one he loves.“ “Millions of women have done so,“ Nora replies.

“Victims and Victors” is an interesting grouping of subjects, though I’m not sure I entirely approve of the titling here. To regard any of these women as victims somehow seems to detract from their work and all are significant artists. However, the piece on Zelda Fitzgerald is particularly insightful, highlighting the difference in attitudes towards creative men and women. The kind of behaviour tolerated in men, as creative and artistic, is dismissed as hysterical or mad in women, and it’s time we moved on from that. The essay on Bloomsbury and Woolf perhaps slightly missed the mark for me; the focus is on elements of class and sexuality; bearing in mind the time which has elapsed since the essay was written, and how much our attitudes have changed and our knowledge of Woolf and her compatriots increased, it has perhaps dated less well. However, some of her commentary of Woolf’s writing is spot on and I did enjoy the essay.

The two pieces on the women Hardwick classes as ‘amateurs’ making thought-provoking reading. Both in effect lived in the shadow of ‘great men’ – poet William Wordsworth and author Thomas Carlyle. Much of their efforts went into supporting these ‘geniuses’; and yet they still found time for their own writing, in the form of journals and letters, and these in many ways are more readable and approachable than the men’s writing. Dorothy found fulfilment from her close relationship with her brother, and most likely would never have written works for publication on her own; likewise, Jane Carlyle was a social animal, organising her husband, holding court at their Cheyne Walk house, and writing witty letters in a time when that was the only mode of communication. They left us not only snapshots of life with the great men, but also a record of their own lives which is quite fascinating.

…flirtation, surrender, pregnancy, misery. This is the plot of existence.

As for the final (title) essay, it’s a tricky one. It does indeed deal with seduction and betrayal in literature; and of course the ultimate end stage of seduction is rape, which exists as a topic and a plot device in a worrying number of early works of art. It’s actually a bit shocking to consider how many novels, operas and the like rely on whether a woman will put out as the main thrust (ahem) of their plot. Hardwick is of the opinion that in the modern world, this kind of plot has probably had its day; certainly, the consequence of enjoying sex, in the form of unwanted pregnancy, doesn’t always have the destructive effect on a woman’s life that it used to – well, at least in some cultures. However, women are still judged on their sexuality so I’m not entirely convinced everything has changed.

Giovanni Giovannetti/Grazia Neri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve left what for me is the highlight of the collection until the end of my post. I confess I was probably most excited about reading the Plath essay, and it didn’t disappoint. Hardwick digs deep into Plath’s art, identifying the anger in the poet’s work and investigating the roots of this. She refuses to paint Plath as a martyr, linking her with other strong female poets of the 20th century like Bishop, Moore and Sexton; and I found the piece very moving. Hardwick astutely links Woolf and Plath; but I think she perhaps underplays the focus of the latter’s famous poem “Daddy” in considering it mainly relation to the poet’s father and ignoring the reading of it as also being in relation to her husband. Nevertheless, Hardwick’s discussion of the portrayal of death in Plath’s verse was particularly pithy; her highlighting of the relationship in “The Ball Jar” between the Rosenberg’s execution by electric chair and Plath’s own ECT was chilling; and the essay really made me want to re-engage with Plath’s poetry.

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

So overall this was a really engrossing and, yes, seductive collection of of essays exploring the intersection of women’s art and their behaviour, the forces that impelled them to create, the cultural influences restricting them and the great achievements they made. Certainly, all of these women who were creators have left a lasting legacy; all of the women who were characters have entered into the canon; and the book is proof, if it were needed, that women are just as capable of creating great art as men are, particularly when the domestic side of life can be got out of their way. I’m glad a random sighting of this book prompted me to search out my copy of “Seduction and Betrayal” as it was a wonderful read; and I think I may have to bump my other unread Hardwicks a bit further up the TBR! D

(Hey! The second title of the month which qualifies as a non-fiction work for the challenge!)

On My Book Table… 1

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Now that I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated reading chair with its little table alongside, I’ve taken to popping books onto the table for consideration as forthcoming reads – even, possibly, a bit of polyreading! The pile next to the chair changes according to my mood, but I thought it might be nice to share a little snapshot of what’s in my line of sight at the moment.

On the Book Table

That’s a chunky pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we look at some specifics?

“The German House” is a very pretty ARC from HarperVia, which I had hoped to get onto for WIT Month. Alas, that didn’t happen but I do want to read it soon – it sounds right up my street!

Next up is a book that’s been sitting on my TBR since I bought it in a frenzy of enthusiasm a while back. I loved Binet’s “HHhH” – such a clever work which plays with the whole structure of books and writing – and this sounds just as thought-provoking. I keep picking it up and getting distracted – the story of my life with books, really!

Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Seduction and Betrayal”, in the form of a quite old NYRB Classic, has been languishing unread for a number of years since I had a bit of a binge on buying Hardwick books after reading her “Sleepless Nights“. There is a shiny new Faber edition which I *nearly* bought in London recently, but held back because I thought I might already have it. Obviously, I do – it comes highly recommended and has essays on women authors from the Brontes to Plath. Glad I refrained in London, really, because I don’t need two copies!

Melancholy…

Finally on the Book Table is this behemoth of a book. As I related in an earlier post, I looked for this all around London and eventually rooted out a copy in the lovely LRB Shop. You can see how fat it is from the first picture above – it’s a book that will sit on the Book Table for some time for dipping into, as the advice is that that’s the best way to read it. Certainly, I don’t think I’ll be powering through it in one go! 😀

So what will I pick up first? Good question – as I write this I’m between books and trying to decide. Having just read several fiction titles (reviews are pending!) I may be drawn to the Hardwick as I’m really enjoying essays at the moment. Watch this space!

 

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