8 Literary Love Affairs and Marriages
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Relationships between brilliant writers were nearly always a tangle of complication and passion. Some couples preferred non-monogamous arrangements; others agreed that marriage was never to be part of the bargain. An intellectual bond was part of the attraction, and the glue that held many of these couples together.
Of the couples listed below, only the union of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning seemed like pure bliss. But even in their case, it was complicated. Her father was so dead-set against the marriage that he disinherited her. Read on for a capsule of 8 famed literary love affairs and marriages — truly, for better or worse.
Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett
Lillian Hellman, the legendary American playwright, was romantically involved with Dashiell Hammett for thirty years, starting in the 1920s. Though Hammett had been married before they met, and had two daughters, neither he nor Hellman were interested in marriage or monogamy for themselves. A hard-drinking former detective, Hammett was best known for the detective novels, notably The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. One of Hellman’s impressions of Hammett from their early days:
“The white hair, the white pants, the white shirt made a straight, flat surface in the late sun. I thought: Maybe that’s the handsomest sight I ever saw, that line of a man, the knife for a nose, and the sheet went out of my hand and the wind went out of the sail …”
The couple’s relationship was on-again, off-again, mainly due to Hammett’s drinking habits. Hammett’s lung cancer started to get the best of him in 1956. Hellman installed a bed on the library floor of her Manhattan brownstone and took care of him until his death in 1961. For more about their relationship, see When Lilly Met Dash.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre
Simone de Beauvoir, best known for her classic feminist text The Second Sex, was desperate to be accepted into Jean-Paul Sartre’s intellectual circle, which also included Albert Camus and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Impressed by her intellect, Sartre asked to be introduced to her. They quickly became a couple and embarked on an open relationship. While they never married, they remained together for over fifty years, connected by their intense intellectual bond. “We have pioneered our own relationship — its freedom, intimacy, and frankness,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote.
A New Yorker article described their relationship: “They were famous as a couple with independent lives, who met in cafés, where they wrote their books and saw their friends at separate tables, and were free to enjoy other relationships, but who maintained a kind of soul marriage.”
Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway
Martha Gellhorn wrote in a variety of genres, including novels and works of nonfiction. She became best known as a trailblazing war correspondent who covered global conflicts for some sixty years. Her relationship with Ernest Hemingway began in the mid-1930s, when they traveled together to cover the Spanish Civil War.
She married Hemingway in 1940 after his contentious split with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. He soon became resentful of her long journeys to cover World War II. “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” We now know which she chose, especially after Hemingway tried to prevent her from going to Normandy. Notoriously restless, critical, and controlling, Hemingway had met his match in Gellhorn, and he didn’t like it. They divorced in 1945.
Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf
Vita Sackville-West had a loving marriage to diplomat Harold Nicolson. In Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel Nicolson, one of their two sons, combined his mother’s memoir with his own commentary. Vita’s love affairs with a number of women (which resulted in much drama) and Harold’s discreet relationships with men didn’t hinder the longevity of their marriage, nor and the happiness of their family. Granted, Vita’s affairs injected a good deal of drama into the relationship, but it endured.
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf is a testament to her brief but intense love affair with Virginia Woolf, which began in the mid-1920s. “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,” wrote Vita to Virginia in a 1926 letter.“You have broken down my defenses. And I really don’t resent it …”
Though there’s some debate over whether the two were actually lovers, their romantic liaison ended on good terms in 1929. They remained close friends, loving and respecting one another, until Virginia’s death by suicide in 1941.
Anaïs Nin and Henry & June Miller
From late 1931 through the end of the following year, Anaïs Nin was swept into a passionate love triangle with the writer Henry Miller and his wife June. Drawn from her Paris journals, she describes their momentous entanglement, falling in love with June’s beauty and Henry’s writing.
Soon after June’s departure for New York, Anaïs began a passionate affair with Miller. “What a superb game the three of us are playing,” she wrote. “Who is the demon? Who is the liar? Who is the human being? Who is the cleverest? Who the strongest? Who loves the most?” Learn more in Nin’s book about this episode in her life, Henry and June.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was seventeen when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley, the writer and poet. Shelley was a follower of her father, the political philosopher William Godwin. Mary eloped to France with Shelley, though he was already married. Her father heartily disapproved. The couple married in 1816, after Shelley’s wife committed suicide. From then on, she used the name Mary Shelley.
In the midst of her tumultuous and romantic youth, Mary wrote Frankenstein, one of literature’s most memorable stories of psychological terror.
Her own story took tragic turns. She and Shelley had five children, three of whom died before age three. In 1822, on an ocean voyage, Percy Shelley’s craft was lost at sea; his body was recovered days later. The loss was devastating. In an 1824 journal entry she wrote: “At the age of twenty-six I am in the condition of an aged person — all my old friends are gone … & my heart fails when I think by how few ties I hold to the world…”
Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning
Elizabeth Barrett met the love of her life, fellow poet Robert Browning, after he wrote her a fan letter of sorts. Her first collection, Poems (1844) was an immediate success in Europe and the U.S. and made her famous. A Drama of Exile: and Other Poems (1845) cemented her reputation.
It was that same year that the poet Robert Browning wrote to tell her how much he admired her work. A mutual acquaintance arranged for the two to meet, and so began one of the most romantic and enduring love stories in literary history.
Though their bond was proper, Elizabeth’s father disinherited her after the couple wed secretly. They fled to Pisa, Italy, and she never reconciled with her family. Her love for Browning was forever immortalized by the famous sonnet:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace …
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
In 1962, the couple invited Canadian poets David and Assia Wevill to spend a weekend with them in their home in Devon, England. It was then, as Hughes later wrote in a poem, that “The dreamer in me fell in love with her,” referring to Assia. Not long after, he and Assia began an affair.
Hughes refused to end the affair and the marriage unraveled. Plath and Hughes, who by this time had two young children, separated in July of 1962. Read more about the tragic relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
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