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7 Literary Affairs that Really Happened


1st Jan 2015 Book Reviews

7 Literary Affairs that Really Happened

With the truth so often being stranger than fiction, real life relationships are inevitably fertile sources of plot. With this in mind, the following seven magnificently talented female writers have been chosen, each one being inspired by their real-life relationships with fellow authors.

1. Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

This year sees the release of the 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, first published posthumously in 1965. Ariel poetically wrestles with Plath’s crippling depression and failed marriage to the poet Ted Hughes. They married in 1956 before her second year at university. By 1961 Plath had discovered Hughes was unfaithful, and left him, taking their two children. This resurrected Plath’s intense depression and she ended her life at home, in 1963, aged 30. Hughes re-worked Ariel after Plath’s suicide, omitting poems and changing her order. As the pair did not divorce Hughes inherited her estate, and published her diaries and letters. He sold the penultimate two diaries on the proviso they remained sealed until the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death - and destroyed the final journal she wrote, keeping her last years a mystery. Hughes published Birthday Letters shortly before his death of cancer in an attempt to provide his own poetic version of the relationship.

'Lady Lazarus' from Ariel, Sylvia Plath

‘The God’ from Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes


2. Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald
Zelda Fitzgerald was the epitome of 1920 glamour, and was, as her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald noted, the ‘first American flapper’. She was creative, witty, good fun, and intelligent, and this was reflected in her journal writing. These diaries caught F. Scott’s literary attention soon after they were married. He would, much to Zelda’s annoyance, plagiarise paragraphs from her diaries, to give to his literary leading ladies. The Fitzgeralds’ tempestuous relationship, and Zelda’s passions for partying and ballet dancing till she dropped, forced her into a sanatorium by the age of thirty. During this period of recuperation Zelda wrote the autobiographical novel Save the Last Waltz. Fitzgerald was reportedly furious with Zelda’s portrayal of their failing marriage and wrote Tender is the Night in 1934 as a response.

Save the Last Waltz Zelda Fitzgerald

Tender is the Night F. Scott Fitzgerald


3. Antonia Fraser

Antionia Fraser

Lady Antonia Fraser is the widow of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. Fraser is a writer of majestic historic biographies, fiction, and memoirs. Fraser’s Love and Louis XVI is a fascinating example of her pleasure in the historic. Fraser and Pinter met in 1977, and began an affair. They lived together, and only married after the deaths of their previous spouses. When an interviewer asked Fraser why Pinter’s work had become so bleak after their recent marriage she replied that his melancholic output was due to a happy and uncomplicated life at home. They remained absolutely smitten and supportive to one another until Pinter’s death in 2008.

Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter Antonia Fraser

The Betrayal Harold Pinter


4. Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West The Edwardians

Alongside being the aristocratic owner and landscaper of Sissinghurst castle and its grounds, Vita was also recognised for her literary works, and her infamous love affair with Virginia Woolf. Although the couple never formalised their relationship – both being married, Vita to Sir Harold Nicolson and Virginia to Leonard Woolf - their relationship is documented by Vita’s poetry, prose and letters. To Vita is dedicated ‘the longest and most charming love letter in English literature’; Woolf’s Orlando. Despite being short lived, Vita and Woolf’s intense love affair has been the focus of plenty of voyeuristic interest. Woolf’s beautifully written novel echoes the fluidity of their extra-marital affair: the narrative ebb and flow, and slipping gender of Orlando echoes their shifting relationship and sexualities.

The Edwardians Vita Sackville-West

Orlando Virginia Woolf


5. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Mary Shelley Frankenstein

As the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, Mary gleaned a unique perspective on relationships and the family unit. Wollstonecraft died when Mary was just eleven days old. When Mary was seventeen she began an affair with the married Percy Bysshe Shelley, a political associate of Godwin’s. To avoid her private and public perturbation, she left England to travel Europe with the poet, returning pregnant and an outcast. The baby, born premature, perished. The couple married after Shelley’s first-wife committed suicide. They travelled in Italy, staying with Byron. On a dismal night at the villa, the group held a story-telling contest. The outcome was Mary’s gothic novel Frankenstein. The book is concerned with the motherless creation: echoing her own circumstances. Frankenstein is a tender expression of the creature’s difficulty in finding its own way in an unforgiving and judgemental society. 

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

‘Prometheus Unbound’ Percy Bysshe Shelley


6. Simone de Beauvoir

Simone De Beauvoir She Came to Stay

As a younger daughter of a financially strained member of the bourgeoisie, Simone de Beauvoir would not receive a dowry, a virtual pre-requisite for marriage. But this did not phase the young de Beauvoir, who was yearning for intellectual, rather than matrimonial, fulfilment. She studied at the Sorbonne, and took employment to support herself, rather than rely on her father’s ailing finances. After meeting Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir’s family were hopeful of a wedding, but the couple refused. De Beauvoir and Sartre did not cohabit, or have children, but remained committed to one another throughout their lives, often engaging in affairs, often sharing partners. De Beauvoir’s first novel, She Came to Stay, is a semi-autobiographical observation of their open relationship, and the blossoming of her feminist and existential philosophies.

She Came to Stay Simone de Beauvoir

Nausea Jean-Paul Sartre


7. Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning began her precocious literary life at the tender age of six. But by the age of fifteen she was struck by a debilitating illness. Whilst this did not dissuade Elizabeth from her chosen career, she was frail and dependant on Laudanum for the remainder of her life. It is often suggested that the opiates were part of her success as a writer: the vivid style and imaginative use of the form suggested a transcendence, an escape from the limiting physicality of reality. Elizabeth’s career was incredibly successful, she was well respected and considered for the role of poet Laureate. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, the first woman Laureate was not appointed until 2009; Carol Ann Duffy.

During the 1840s, she was contacted by a literary admirer, Robert Browning. After much correspondence, they met, marrying in 1846, Elizabeth six years older than Browning. After the wedding they moved to Italy for Elizabeth’s health. Sonnets to the Portuguese is a collection of love sonnets written by Elizabeth. Browning called Elizabeth ‘my little Portuguese’ and her collection of poetry - which includes the beautifully tender ‘How do I Love Thee?’ - as well as her admiration for Camões helped her name the collection. Edgar Allen Poe was also moved to dedicate The Raven to Elizabeth: ‘the noblest of her sex’. Elizabeth’s other literary output was crowned in 1857 with her long poem ‘Aurora Leigh’, which explores the intellectual development of Aurora, through nine books of masterly poetry.

Aurora Leigh and other poems Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sonnets to the Portuguese Elizabeth Barrett Browning


Top image source: Daily Mail

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