[8 January 2014]
In the year of our Lord 2014, the tender subject of romance has advanced in equal bounds with both our technology and societal norms. In this digital age, a high percentage of couples initially meet online, most marriages only have half a chance at success, and in many places the love that dare not speak it’s name can now legally register under the same passionless bureaucracy as the traditional couple.
It is both a wonderful and frightening time. The liberation of women and an ever creeping approximation towards equality between sexes has provided a wealth of options in place of the sad gender role trap of previous generations. However, this new territory is largely unexplored and growing pains should be expected.
In life there are rarely happy endings, and no relationship creates a perfect union of souls. People are conflicted, messy creatures and any enterprise undertaken by mere humans, beautiful in all their faults, is bound to be just as conflicted and messy. And this is only in consideration of a relationship between average people.
To the potent cocktail of human emotion called love add the passionate nature of the artist, the ego of genius, the revolving door of wealth and fame. Any of these ingredients would be willingly accepted by most, but unfortunately the recipe that should best make for a stable, endearing romance is often the intoxicant that brings it utter ruin.
Writers Between the Covers, an excellent recent release by authors Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, presents a collection of brief biographies concerning the romantic lives of some of the literary world’s most revered legends. The title’s pun and clever byline, ‘The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads’ lends the book an irreverent, playfully flirtatious undertone which belies the outrageous scenarios and nearly unbelievable liaisons contained within its passages.
Sex and love are not the same thing, of course, but neither are they mutually exclusive. Thankfully, Writers Between the Covers is replete with both. The team of McKenna Schmidt and Rendon find success with their realistic treatment of personality. As writers (and therefore avid readers), one would expect this to be a book of hero worship exploits, an attempt to place authors in the realm of modern day sports or rock stars. From the introductory chapter pitting Death of a Salesman playwrite Arthur Miller against film legend, blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, the audience quickly discerns the overarching theme isn’t necessarily the literary personality, their sex life or even romance.
Instead, over the course of 24 quick bio-bursts, something deeper is unearthed. It could be described as humanity. It is important, yes, how the various legends detailed in this book defined and helped shape both their craft and the societies around them, but if the true worth of a person can be found in the relationships they cultivate throughout their lives, then sadly this book is full of bastards. Straight bastards! It is the unflinching attention the authors pay to this facet in place of just paying homage that makes Writers Between the Covers such a great read.
While Miller and Monroe may have shattered the illusions of postwar American romance, Schmidt and Rendon will shatter the illusions you hold for many of your favorite authors. Mailer was an obvious choice for inclusion. Long abhorred by women in general, the chapter devoted to his romantic endeavors is tragic in its hilarity. (For example, he once challenged then lost a fight to a sailor for calling his dog “queer”.) The chapter leaves little room for sympathy, and why should it for a man who literally stabbed one of his five wives in the back?
Another easy choice was the inclusion of the alpha dog himself, the great Papa. Mirroring the 2012 film Hemingway and Gellhorn, this chapter includes all of Papa’s wives but focuses primarily on Martha Gellhorn. If Hemingway’s legacy has become that of the prototypical man’s man, then men everywhere should be wary of their own cowardice and insecurity. Not simply content with torturing Gellhorn’s personal life, Papa also took a very big, very intentional step towards ruining her professional career.
Along with Lord Byron’s wicked sexual deviance, Writers Between the Covers makes a great supplemental for other famously carnal literary personalities. Tennessee Williams, the full cast of the Beats, Wilde and Voltaire all had well celebrated sexual appetites. Schmidt and Rendon cut a bit deeper by including authors like Isak Dinesen, Simone de Beauvoir, and the repressed Dame Daphne Du Maurier. As well, the authors deflate the perceived righteousness of giants like Frederick Douglas, Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, all of whom practiced scandal while preaching morality.
Very well written from an arguably feminist viewpoint, the duo doesn’t shy away from calling out some of their own movement’s heroes. Case in point, Anais Nin. The delicate diarist is well known for her sensitive nature and erotic awakening. What isn’t so well known is that she was a bigamist who enlisted the help of friends to deceive two men she kept well separated on opposite coasts.
While quite humorous at points, this book also contains a healthy dose of despair. Every writer wants to be an F. Scott Fitzgerald until that thought is carried through to Zelda’s lonely death in the madhouse. Suicides, abuse of the mental, physical, drug, and alcohol varieties, infidelity, lawsuits, tyranny, neglect, incest, hysteria, jealousy, rage, and bitter splits wherein both parties take the mind numbingly illogical strategies of trench warfare means this work isn’t advisable for anyone sensitive about a recent heartbreak.
If there were justice in this world, sex would be the celebration of love, and love would make everyone feel good. But we all know this just isn’t always the case. If anything, Writers Between the Covers is therapeutic in that many of the entries are so dark, so heartbreaking in the way real people treated each other, that it will prompt one to put the book down and look over to whomever you’re sharing a bed with for the moment and say, “Honey, we ain’t got it that bad.”
Of course, this was the authors’ intention. The stories wouldn’t be included if they weren’t scandalous or shocking, sometimes even frightening. Still, it remains a thing of glory how some extraordinary people with so much talent and esthetic control could be so hopeless, not to mention helpless, concerning matters of the heart. This is perhaps why the book ends on a high note.
Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Stein and Alice B. Toklas shared relatively tranquil, harmonious lifelong relationships. And finally, there’s the story of Robert Louis Stevenson. Struck by love at first sight, it took years for the consumptive struggling author to finally convince his love, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, that he was the right man for her. When she finally consented, there was little on earth to keep Stevenson from his heart’s desire. Spiting the advise of his family and friends to be with her, he crossed an ocean and then a continent at a time when both were potentially lethal. After they were finally united, Stevenson’s writing career blossomed, and the two spent the rest of their lives traveling the world together on adventures.
Maybe true love really does exist. Perhaps people can find a mutually fulfilling counterpart as opposed to the typically sick, all too common relationship of command that fills the pages of Writers Between the Sheets and some of our own sordid brushes with romance. But then again, readers and especially writers are dreamers. Passion need not specifically be sacrificed for the security of love, and this book illustrates in glaring detail about a thousand things not to do if you consider yourself under the spell of love.
If anything, Schmidt and Rendon should be thanked because the lit lot isn’t normally associated with the devious pursuit of fornication. The old porn cliché of the sexy librarian aside, most avid readers are seen as, well… bookish. That is to say, academically engaged in asexual pursuits. This isn’t necessarily accurate though. Historically, literature was the first means for the mass distribution of pornography, and for every published attempt at the Great American Novel or lengthy introspection on the state of the modern world, there are literally thousands of trashy titles devoted to titillation. Any precursory walk through a used book store will reveal as much.
It only makes sense. The mind is the body’s largest erogenous zone. The orgasm begins with the mind’s stimulation and as the internet has proven, seduction is possible without presence. It is the common perception of readers that is misaligned. The next time you see the unflattering fashion choices of the book worm, look beneath to the passion burning up his body. Read between the lines of the English major’s pithy remarks, and you may find her true purpose isn’t addressing your grammar, but undressing you later.