Lesley McDowell’s Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, an insightful exploration of several entwined literary and personal relationships, some well known (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre), and not as well known (Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, Elizabeth Smart and George Barker), is viewed from a neo-feminist perspective. The author posits that a cursory overview could make it seem like these poets/writers compromised creative accomplishments as a result of life with their male counterparts, but in actuality emerged empowered despite their often ambivalent, mercurial, critical… and unfaithful partners. (Ernest Hemingway among them.)

Early Sartre and de Beauvoir

The book is set up in three sections and by decades ranging from the 1910s to 1950s, and McDowell assigns monikers (“Companion,” “Ingénue,” “Survivor”) to each of the women, as snapshot summaries of their primary identities within the context of the alliances.

The descriptions are well chosen; for H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) a lifelong dependence on Ezra Pound as mentor left her a psychological “Novice” despite her own vast body of work as a poet. The union of the intellectual powerhouses of Sartre and de Beauvoir (the “Long-Termer”), that lasted in one form or another for 51 years until Sartre’s death in 1980, was, not unsurprisingly, complex. (Sexual issues included, with de Beauvoir sharing her female companions with Sartre, as a means, many said, to maintain her control over him. They had what they called a “morganatic” marriage.)

There’s little fresh to impart regarding the well-chronicled coupling of Plath and Hughes, but I found an unexpected discovery in reading about the pairing of English poet George Barker and the “Chaser” — Elizabeth Smart. (A name, quite honestly, I had until now only associated with the Utah kidnap victim of a few years ago.) A sort-of fatal attraction (on Smart’s part) of the poetic persuasion, the Barker-Smart connection lasted over four decades, produced four children, and never a marriage.

But it did result in a quite magnificent prose-poem by Smart titled (and what a beautiful title!), “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.” First published in 1945, acclaim came after its reissue long afterwards, in 1966. An operatic and extraordinary rendering of her roller-coaster emotional ride with Barker, the work ends with a sad, solitary, and ultimately futile expectation of a reunion at the landmark train depot.

Newfound knowledge of Smart and this classic made Between the Sheets, absorbing in and of itself, even more of a treat.