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
Published: 11 February 2007
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 Café, 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?