Seduction and Betrayal

Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays Seduction and Betrayal is fascinating reading.  She has essays on the Brontës, three women from Ibsen’s plays, Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Jane Carlyle, and she finishes the book with the title essay, an examination of the figure of the betrayed woman in fiction.

Hardwick’s style is clear and direct; she writes forcefully, in sentences that seem to get straight to the point.  I’ve read Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights, and while the prose style may be similar (I don’t remember well what the sentences were like), the novel seems much more diffuse, more wandering and suggestive, than the essays.  I have to say I like the style of her essays much better.

Hardwick’s sentences are direct, but she still takes time to build up her argument about each author; she tends to make her case slowly, looking at instances from the life, some examples of the writing, and then slowly putting together a picture of how the life and writing fit together.  It’s as you reach the end of an essay that the picture comes into focus, and one of the most satisfying parts of the book is how this picture is both crystal clear and complex.

One of my favorite essays is about Dorothy Wordsworth.  In this essay, Hardwick describes Dorothy as extraordinarily dedicated to her brother, William; her life was focused on helping him write his poetry — taking long walks with him, reading and talking about poetry together, sharing descriptions of local landscapes and people:

Dorothy Wordsworth is awkward and almost foolishly grand in her love and respect for and utter concentration upon her brother; she lived his life to the full.  A dedication like that is an extraordinary circumstance for the one who feels it and for the one who is the object of it; it is especially touching and moving about the possibilities of human relationships when the two have large regions of equality.

As the essay goes on, Hardwick adds to this description of Dorothy a more troubling picture — she could be peculiar and intense and something like a Brontë heroine.  She was vulnerable and needed an outlet for her great amounts of energy.  We learn from De Quincey that she sometimes stammered and that her education had large gaps in it; he implies that she might have been happier had she not been quite so dependent on William to be the center of her life.  Hardwick ends the essay discussing the very impersonal tone of Dorothy’s journals, questioning why it was Dorothy revealed so little of her inner life:

One of the most striking things about the record she left of her life is her indifference to the character of her “dear companions.”  She could not, would not analyze.  There is more to think about the poets in a paragraph of De Quincey’s Reminiscences than in all of Dorothy Wordsworth …. We cannot imagine that she was incapable of thought about character, but very early, after her grief and the deaths, she must have become frightened.  Her dependency was so greatly loved and so desperately clung to that she could not risk anything except the description of the scenery in which it was lived.

And so we end up in a very different place than where we started, with a full and complicated understanding of what motivated Dorothy to write what she did.  Many of the other essays proceed in this manner, including essays about real people and about fictional characters.  Hardwick argues that Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is wrongly seen as foolish and flighty and suddenly turning serious at the play’s end, when really she is full of energy and a love of life and freedom all the way through.  Her carefree attitude at the play’s opening is an expression of this energy, as is her final dramatic decision at the play’s end.  Hardwick’s conclusions about Sylvia Plath are powerful and convincing:

In the end, what is overwhelming, new, original, in Sylvia Plath is the burning singularity of temperament, the exigent spirit clothed but not calmed by the purest understanding of the English poetic tradition.

Hardwick is also good at dealing with literary groups; she captures the spirit of the Brontë family and of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set very well.

All in all, if you like reading well-written literary criticism, this is an exellent book to pick up, and if you are unfamiliar with the genre and want to get a taste of it, this is a good place to start.

9 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Seduction and Betrayal

  1. Lovely review, Dorothy. I adore the way Hardwick writes her sentences. They are just so creative for literary criticism. She doesn’t just describe the work of her authors, she sort of embroiders around it with her words. I love what she does.

  2. verbivore

    I really think I would enjoy this – my only question is, I haven’t read all the writers she writes about, do you think I would be missing too much? I wonder if I might get more out of it if I wait until I have spent some time with Plath, Carlyle and Wordsworth for example.

  3. I’ve not read anything by Harwick, but Seduction and Betrayal sounds like a fascinating look at the lives and works of some great writers. Thanks for a great review!

  4. Yes, great review! Zelda Fitzgerald in particular has always fascinated me.

  5. I really struggled with her novels when we read it for the Slaves. As a matter of fact I never finished it. I think I would enjoy this so much more and I like the idea of it being a starting place for literary criticism. I’m always afraid I’ll be overwhelmed by reading straightforward criticism, but I do like the sound of this book and the authors she writes about.

  6. Great review of what sounds like a very interesting book. Updike’s passing this week has reminded me how much I enjoy reading essays on literature and the creative process and this book sounds quite interesting, though I also am hesitant to tackle it before having read more of Plath, in particular. I’ve also wondered what Dorothy Wordsworth was all about.

  7. This sounds like something I would like. I am finding myself becoming more and more interested in literary criticism. Great review.

  8. Did you and Litlove plan on reading this at about the same time? ;) And why am I not surprised that you liked the essay on Dorothy Wordsworth so much? I really like Hardwick’s style of criticism, it is so clear and easy to follow. This has the essay on Clarissa in it, doesn’t it? I liked that one quite a lot.

  9. Litlove — yes, creative sentences in a work of literary criticism is great — all too rare, I think. “Embroidering with her words” is a lovely image.

    Verbivore — tough question. I’ve read most of the authors she mentions, and I’m glad I was familiar with them. On the other hand, I’ve never read Carlyle, but now I’d like to, so a consequence of reading the book might be greater motivation to read more about her subjects. I’d say it’s good to have read a decent number of her authors, but not necessary to know all of them (probably true for many collections like this one).

    Jenclair — yes, it really is fascinating; I like the way it gives you information on the writers’ lives as well as their work. It’s wonderfully written, and it has a lot to teach.

    Debby — I know very little about Zelda, but I’m curious to find out more. Hardwick has some excellent things to say about her relationship with Fitzgerald.

    Danielle — there’s no way you’d be overwhelmed by this book; it’s very clear and straightforward, and the essays (and the entire book) are pretty short, so they aren’t a huge time commitment. I definitely recommend it as a starting place for criticism.

    JaneGS — I really love reading criticism (and have admired Updike’s critical work). There are lots of authors she discusses, so you could read part of it and come back to the Plath section if you want. At any rate, it’s something good to keep in mind.

    Lisa — I wish I knew of more books like this one that are entertaining as well as informative and well-written. I love that kind of book.

    Stefanie — it’s very nice when I end up reading the same authors as my blogging friends! :) There isn’t an entire essay on Clarissa, but she does discuss the novel in her title essay, and yeah, I liked that part too — she captures Clarissa’s spirit very well.

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