Reading Elizabeth Hardwick

I’ve been really enjoying reading Elizabeth Hardwick’s criticism recently. I have owned Seduction and Betrayal for many years but I hadn’t really looked at it since I turned professional. More recently I picked up A View of My Own: Essays on Literature and Society, along with her novel Sleepless Nights, which I haven’t read yet but look forward to. I’ve been trying to put my finger on just what is so engaging about her essays on books and writers. It’s not their rigor or persuasive power, because they strike me (perhaps because I turned professional) as a bit rambling and digressive, and I don’t always agree with her insights (which are rarely offered as conclusions). I don’t think it’s her prose particularly: at least in the pieces I’ve just been looking at I don’t notice that she is an especially graceful stylist. It’s something more like the impression the essays give of her strong, distinctive, curious personality reacting vigorously–both intellectually and emotionally–to what she’s reading. She seems very interested in what she finds, and she doesn’t feel the need to surround or support her own response with explicit allusions to any theory or scholarship–which is partly a matter of form, of course, as she’s writing essays and not theory or scholarship, but it strikes me as also, somehow, a matter of confidence, in herself as a reader, a thinker, and a writer. Where does someone find that kind of confidence? After a while, of course, you earn it.

Here are a couple of samples. First, from the essay on the Brontes included in Seduction and Betrayal:

Sympathy, pity, intelligence, goodness, genuineness–these are the charms Charlotte Bronte wishes to impose. There is something a little overblown in the heroine’s hope to press virtues upon men who are conventional, and even somewhat corrupt, in their taste in women. The heroine’s moral superiority is accompanied by a superiority of passion, a devotion that is highly sexual, more so we feel than that of the self-centered and worldly girls the men prefer. (This same sense of a passionate nature is found in George Eliot’s writing.) Charlotte Bronte’s heroines have the idea of loving and protecting the best sides of the men they are infatuated with: they feel a sort of demanding reverence for brains, honor, uniqueness. Mr. Rochester, M. Paul, and Dr. John in Villette are superior men and also intensely attractive and masculine. Girls with more fortunate prospects need not value these qualities but instead may look for others, money in particular. That is the way things are set up in the novels.

Here she is on Sylvia Plath, also from Seduction and Betrayal, in an essay I found piercing in its own kind of ruthlessness, its total (and necessary) absence of sentiment about its subject:

Beyond the mesmerizing rhythms and sounds, the flow of brilliant, unforgettable images, the intensity–what does she say to her readers? Is it simple admiration for the daring, for going the whole way? To her fascination with death and pain she brings a sense of combat and brute force new in women writers. She is vulnerable, yes, to father and husband, but that is not the end of it all. I myself do not think her work comes out of the cold war, the extermination camps, or the anxious doldrums of the Eisenhower years. If anything, she seems to have jumped ahead of her dates and to have more in common with the years we have just gone through. Her lack of conventional sentiment, her destructive contempt for her family, the failings in her marriage, the drifting, rootless rage, the peculiar homelessness, the fascination with sensation and the drug of death, the determination to try everything, knowing it would not really stop the suffering–no one went as far as she did in this.

From A View of My Own, here’s a bit of “George Eliot’s Husband,” an essay that embraces the peculiarities of what she calls the “fantastic partnership” of Marian Evans and George Henry Lewes:

She and her husband, Lewes not Cross, are inconceivable as anything except what they were, two writers, brilliant and utterly literary. They led the literary life from morning to midnight, working, reading, correcting proofs, traveling, entertaining, receiving and writing letters, planning literary projects, worrying, doubting their powers, experiencing a delicious hypochondria. . . .

From later in the same essay,

Leslie Stephen thinks George Eliot’s powers were diminished by Lewes’s efforts to shield her from criticism, to keep her in a cozy nest of approval and encouragement. But Stephen’s opinion is based upon his belief that her later novels are inferior to the earlier ones. Stephen didn’t much like Middlemarch, nor did Edmund Gosse–both preferred the early work. It is hard to feel either of these men had anything more than respect for George Eliot.

‘Their mistake,’ she is clearly thinking, though she doesn’t quite say it. What she feels for “the Warwickshire novelist” is something warmer than respect, as we can tell from her remark that “As one grows older this industrious, slowly developing soul becomes dear for a secret reason–for having published her first story at the age of thirty-eight.”

One final excerpt, from her wonderful piece on Jane Carlyle in Seduction and Betrayal:

Jane Carlyle’s letters have something subversive in them; the tone is very far from the reverent modes that came naturally to Dorothy Wordsworth. Both the journals of the poet’s sister and the letters of the wife of the great prophet are ways of preserving and discovering self-identity. It is easy to imagine that the steady literary labors going on around the two women made a kind of demand upon them; a supreme value attached to sitting at the desk with a pen rushing over the pages. Both had gifts of an uncommon nature, but the casual, spontaneous form of their writings is itself the ultimate risk. We are not expected a hundred and fifty years later to have them in our hands, to read them. It is only by the luckiest chance that they survive, and no doubt many letters were lost. Jane’s letters might not have been collected, but The French Revolution would certainly have stepped forth; Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland might have perished, while The Excursion was not written for obscurity.

Here again her judgment is left implicit, but I think we can tell perfectly well that she sees no reason to value The French Revolution or The Excursion any more highly than the “casual, spontaneous” writings, despite their greater pretensions.

Here are links to a couple of nice pieces I found online once I started poking around to get a better sense of Hardwick’s life and career: there’s Jim Lewis in Slate; Lisa Levy in The Believer; Chrisopher Lehmann-Haupt at the New York Times; and her NYRB page, with links to a lot more reviews and essays I want to read, including “Melville in Love” (June 15, 2000) and “The Genius of Margaret Fuller” (April 10, 1986–which I’ll be able to read as soon as my new NYRB subscription is official!), and to the NYRB editions of Seduction and Betrayal, her New York Stories, and Sleepless Nights.