In the abstract, everyone would like to fall in love with a famous writer. It holds out the promise of fabulous love letters and, if one is very lucky, immortalization as the subject of a super-romantic poem. I mean, Keats’ beloved Fanny Brawne really lucked out, I think, with “Bright star, bright star / would I were as steadfast as thou art.” I would be thrilled if someone would write that about me.
But it’s not always like that. In fact, it usually isn’t. A few years back, the wonderful music critic Nitsuh Abebe took to his Tumblr to point out that, in fact, writers are actually sort of terrible to date. Selfish, too focused on writing, did I mention selfish? And though Abebe doesn’t cite specific examples, I will. Literary history is littered with them.
Of course, viewed in a certain light, nearly every famous writer has a checkered romantic past. But some are worse than others, on the relative scale of romantic tomfoolery. Here are some truly egregious examples from the annals of literary history, mostly men, which was not a conscious choice of mine but just sort of happened. Make of that what you will.
He might be the patron saint of the Romantics, but that’s just a generic description. It’s hard to pick just one caddish incident from Byron’s biography. He carried on a long, incestuous affair with his half-sister while married to one of his wives. She alleged, when they separated, that he’d raped her during the marriage. A later affair with Mary Shelley’s sister, Claire Clairmont, resulted in a child he refused to acknowledge or pay for. The columnist and poet Katha Pollitt insisted, however, in a 2009 article in Slate that this didn’t make Byron an irredeemable jerk: “Byron’s great insight, in an era where women were expected to be placid and insipid (not that they were!), was to see that women were much like men: They wanted sex and went after it eagerly, if secretly.”
Dickens was allegedly a virgin when he married Catherine Hogarth, at 24. He almost immediately became obsessed with her younger sister, Mary, on whom he probably modeled his tragic, beatific Little Nell character in The Old Curiosity Shoppe. Mary died early in the marriage, Dickens was devastated, and Catherine had to compete for much of their relationship with a ghost. Then, over 20 years and ten children into the marriage, Dickens met a young actress named Nelly Ternan, decided he was tired of his wife, and threw her over in favor of the new mistress. Except that because Victorian London was not the kind of place where you wanted to parade your mistress in public, Ternan had to live in hiding for most of the affair.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs was using drugs pretty intensely when he met a young single mother named Joan Vollmer. Vollmer, too, was a drug addict, so she and Burroughs struck up a love affair which allowed them both to continue to indulge. Their love survived his house arrest and her institutionalization. But then, while on the lam in Mexico, Burroughs played a game called “William Tell” with Vollmer. She balanced a drinking glass on her head, and he shot her in the forehead. He lied to authorities and told them the gun had discharged accidentally but later owned up. He was haunted by this later, too:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Edmund Wilson (and Mary McCarthy)
Wilson stole Mary McCarthy from her then-lover, Philip Rahv, in the 1940s. Her friends were bewildered that she’d left the relatively dashing Rahv for Wilson, who was often violent with McCarthy. In one famous incident, while McCarthy was pregnant, Wilson stormed into her room and beat her. When she became quite upset afterwards, he took her to the New York Psychiatric Hospital and had her committed. Both told several versions of this story — one appears in McCarthy’s celebrated novel The Group, in which the heroine Kay is committed in a similar fashion — some of which put Wilson less at fault for the entire ordeal, but it was clearly a dark period. Their son’s memoirs don’t suggest things got better, either.
Though he was already engaged to another woman — Emily Hale, whose letters from the poet are under lock and key at Princeton until 2020 — Eliot was instantly besotted by Vivienne Haigh-Wood when he met her in 1915. Unfortunately, the infatuation did not last very long, evaporating in the way enchantments often seem to. He’d stay with her for 18 years, through institutionalizations and various other forms of insanity. And then, somewhat abruptly, in 1933, he had had enough, so he cut Vivienne off totally, filed for a legal separation, and instructed all his friends to shun her. Other than a brief encounter in 1935, Vivienne never saw Eliot again.
You may know him primarily as the writer of the War of the Worlds, but in his own time, Wells was actually a prominent public intellectual who liked to challenge conventional ideas of sexual morality. He also liked to mine his own romantic life for his novels. He married one of his students and then, with her consent, carried on a series of affairs. His romance with the writer Rebecca West was especially tempestuous; he got the 19-year-old West pregnant out of wedlock. Then he refused to leave his wife for her. On the upside, their stormy relationship led to one of history’s most incandescent angry breakup letters, from West:
When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.