The Gift of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Attention


Arts & Culture

Elizabeth Hardwick.

Elizabeth Hardwick is one of the world’s most valuable essayists and literary critics. That is to say, her essays are of value to anyone interested in the ways in which women are made present in literature. In Seduction and Betrayal, readers are treated to the full reach of Hardwick’s deep intelligence: a hard, glinting, sophisticated, switched-on female intelligence. She understands what is at stake in literature, especially when talented women write it.

For a female writer, to risk stepping center stage in life and on the page, fully lit, a major player in a script she has written, will always mean she has transgressed from the societally sanctified role of being a minor player, lurking behind the velvet curtains (less exposing) in order to assist, flatter, dedicate her life to the male world and its undermining arrangements. Hardwick has no interest in flattery, nor in faux solidarity with minor writers. She cuts to the chase, offers her grateful readers new dimensions as to how literature is made and what it costs to make it. Hardwick is a shockingly astute reader, yet she never lets literary theory get in the way of the currents of life that blow into the writing itself. Her sentences are subversively beautiful for exactly this reason.

In her Art of Fiction interview, Hardwick is keen to point out that she does not write essays “to give a résumé of the plots.” Of the action of reading itself, she has this to say:

You begin to see all sorts of not quite expressed things, to make connections, sometimes to feel you have discovered or felt certain things the author may not have been entirely conscious of. It’s a sort of creative or “possessed” reading and that is why I think even the most technical of critics do the same thing, by their means making quite mysterious discoveries. But as I said, the text is always the first thing. It has the real claim on you, of course.

Hardwick’s essay on the Brontë sisters is invigorating, still contemporary in its analysis of what it takes for women to own their talent without hurting the feelings of the men in their lives. She is the kind of critic who thinks it important to tell us that their reverend father was a failed writer and that the Brontë sisters kept news of their literary success secret from their brother. Why?

They did not wish to rub Branwell’s nose in his own failure as an artist.

She quotes from Charlotte’s letters: “My unhappy brother never knew what his sisters had done in literature—he was not aware that they had ever published a line. We could not tell him of our efforts for fear of causing him too deep a pang of remorse for his own time misspent, and talents misapplied.” What would it take for Branwell to actually have congratulated the sisters who cared for him? Here is Hardwick on this matter: “It is only by accident that we know about people like Branwell who seemed destined for the arts, unable to work at anything else, and yet have not the talent, the tenacity, or the discipline to make any kind of sustained creative effort.”

Perhaps it takes an American writer to shake some of the dust off the Brontë heritage industry, to gaze without sentimentality, but with full admiration, at how women such as the Brontës prevailed, despite the patriarchal arrangements that beat them down, crushed their hopes for independence, held them back, shortened their lives. Hardwick, born in Kentucky, a long way from the wild Yorkshire moors as reimagined by Emily Brontë, writes, “Wuthering Heights has a sustained brilliance and originality we hardly know how to account for.”

Hardwick does account for it though: she gives us a new view of this strangely brilliant novel, and she is not interested in the bonnets or the length of the Brontë sisters’ skirts. “They are very serious, wounded, longing women, conscious of all the romance of literature and of their own fragility and suffering. They were serious about the threatening character of real life.”

Yet as she points out, if they were quiet and repressed in life, “their readers were immediately aware of a disturbing undercurrent of intense sexual fantasy. Loneliness and melancholy seemed to alternate in their feelings with an unusual energy and ambition.”

When it comes to Charlotte Brontë, Hardwick cuts to the heart of the matter, and she cuts deep. She shocks with the truth: it runs like blood through her every sentence.

How to live without love, without security? Hardly any other Victorian woman had thought as much about this as Charlotte Brontë. The large, gaping flaws in the construction of the stories—mad wives in the attic, strange apparitions in Belgium—are a representation of the life she could not face; these gothic subterfuges represent the mind at breaking point, frantic to find any way out. If the flaws are only to be attributed to the practice of popular fiction of the time, we cannot then explain the large amount of genuine feeling that goes into them. They stand for the hidden wishes of an intolerable life.

If Hardwick elevates Emily as the sister who is the literary genius, she ends with this thought on all their lives: “We are astonished by what they would not endure.”

The essay titled “Amateurs” flips the Branwell problem and looks at the life of Dorothy Wordsworth, a life devoted and dedicated to her much more talented brother. Perhaps Branwell fared better than virtuous Dorothy by getting blind drunk, rollicking through town and being helpless enough to solicit the care of his sisters. Hardwick sees this somewhat abject, controlling sister as resembling a heroine in a Brontë novel. “There was always something peculiar about Dorothy Wordsworth; she is spoken of as having ‘wild lights in her eyes.’ ”

Dorothy Wordsworth is not a character in a novel though. In a witty aside, Hardwick tells us that Dorothy lives Wordsworth’s “life to the full.” It costs her. When she is almost sixty she goes mad. Yet in Hardwick’s view, she is always a little bit mad, and in nothing more so than in her fanatic devotion to her brother.

The British have never liked their avant-gardists much, alas, and perhaps Hardwick feels the same. She is dismissive of the lifestyle of Bloomsbury and its associates. “The arrangements of Bloomsbury, shored up by stout logs of self-regard, are insular in the extreme.”

She is amused and bemused by the way they eschewed monogamy and swapped sexual partners. I’m sure that Dora Russell would have enjoyed Hardwick’s quip on her randy philosopher husband: “Even Bertrand Russell astonishes with his passionless copulations, his mastery of forgetfulness, his sliding in and out of relationships and marriages as if they were a pair of trousers.”

All the same, I can’t see how Vanessa Bell could have had children and managed to paint every day if she had lived within the patriarchal constraints of her time. And never would I agree with Hardwick on the worth of Virginia Woolf’s literature: “The aestheticism of Bloomsbury, ‘the androgyny’ if you will, lies at the root of Virginia Woolf’s narrowness. It imprisons her in femininity, as a writer at least, instead of acting as a way of bringing the masculine and feminine into a whole.” I am not obliged to agree, and I certainly don’t agree, but I appreciate the provocation.

The essay on Sylvia Plath is devastating, as it should be, because the Ariel poems are devastating. I can’t see why a serious critic, someone whose thoughts I would value, might offer a lofty, mocking, disengaged tone to write about these poems. No, Hardwick rises to the devastating task, as she knew she must. She tells us that Plath has the “rarity of being, in her work at least, never a ‘nice person.’ ” Plath’s luminous mastery as a poet, at the time of writing Ariel, is described by Hardwick like this: “In the last freezing months of her life she was visited, like some waiting stigmatist, by an almost hallucinating creativity—the astonishing poems in Ariel and in a later volume called Winter Trees.” When Plath died, “she was alone, exhausted from writing, miserable—but triumphant too, achieved, defined and defiant.”

The same cannot be said of Zelda Fitzgerald’s attempt to write and to live meaningfully. She took up ballet lessons seriously later in her marriage. When she became mentally fragile, she was forbidden to dance and write, the two activities that made her feel well. Hardwick sees Zelda’s life as “buried beneath the ground, covered over by the desperate violets of Scott Fitzgerald’s memories.” These sweet, cloying, metaphorical flowers were a cover-up for all that could not be said—perhaps all that Zelda was forbidden to say herself. It is not so unlikely that despite her delicate, legendary Southern belle beauty, Zelda internally resembled not so much a violet as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, whom Hardwick sees as “coarse, brilliant, greedy, and lecherous as any man.”

Seduction and Betrayal interrogates how language is put together in the full force of life’s vicissitudes—poverty, loss, madness, defiance. Hardwick makes new plots from old plots and always has something exciting to bring to the table. The gift of her attention is enough to make anyone want to write magnificently.


Deborah Levy writes fiction, plays, and poetry. Her work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she is the author of numerous highly praised books, including The Unloved, Swallowing Geography, and Beautiful Mutants. Her novel Swimming Home was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, the 2012 Specsavers National Book Awards, and the 2013 Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize. Her most recent novel, Hot Milk, was short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize. The second volume of her “living biography,” The Cost of Living, was named one of the best books of 2018 by The New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, and the New Statesman. Her next novel, The Man Who Saw Everything, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing in October 2019.

From Deborah Levy’s introduction to Seduction and Betrayal, by Elizabeth Hardwick, published by Faber Books in the UK.