The Magazine

Women in Love

The high cost of mixing success and attachment.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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As the title indicates, ambition had its perils. The lesson we are to draw concerns the conflict suffered by two women in thrall to what Hertog calls “Victorian” gender expectations: Like Tess Harding in Woman of the Year, both wanted a career but also to be loved and cherished by a life partner. Here, too, the “parallel lives” work well. Both women were born in the 1890s and had a broken background in common. Thompson’s mother died when she was eight; and père Fairfield abandoned the family home when Cicely was eight. The central calamitous event for both was the misfortune of entering into a relationship with a famous man. Thompson married Sinclair Lewis, to whom she was introduced in Berlin, and West had a 10-year liaison with H. G. Wells, beginning in 1913. For West, this liaison led to a period of social isolation, just when she was taking her place as a major literary figure. She had a child out of wedlock, a circumstance she spent the rest of her life trying to keep from becoming public. Thompson’s son with Lewis was legitimate, but like Anthony West, Michael Lewis suffered from parental neglect.

Many of the gory details have been published elsewhere, especially concerning West’s son, and neither woman comes off well in the telling. For instance, West deemed Anthony “a total loss, he has spoiled my work and my friendships, he is the worst thing that ever happened to me. .  .  . He is like some horrible dwarf in a fairy tale.” Similarly, at 18 months, Michael Lewis was left in the care of a nurse while Thompson “embarked on a whirlwind tour of forty cities, hellbent on informing Americans about the changing landscape of German politics.” His childhood was spent in schools out of sight of either parent.

The great gap between appearance and reality seems to characterize the human type portrayed here, the world-improver who neglects those near and dear, especially those most dependent on her. But the travesty of professed ideals does not end there. Absolutely no one ends up looking good in this book. In their relations with friends, spouses, and lovers, West and Thompson show themselves alternately to be needy, irrational, irresponsible, vindictive, disloyal, backbiting, and petty. Their contempt for ordinary folks ran deep: Americans were spoiled, materialistic (this during the Depression!), vulgar, superficial, hedonistic, devoid of ideas and ethical underpinnings, and small-minded. Among other things, we are reminded that public intellectuals like to buy houses and entertain in lavish style, even while reporting on food shortages from a war-ravaged continent.

What is Susan Hertog’s attitude toward her flawed subjects? It is difficult to decide. While much is worthy of condemnation, she stands at a distance. 

Rebecca and Dorothy were delusory when it came to love. They projected idealized stereotypes onto their men, and demanded more of them than any man could fulfill. Given their emotional deprivation as children, and their impulse toward social legitimacy, there was no amount of piety for Dorothy, or psychoanalysis for Rebecca, that could compensate for the emotional damage they caused and incurred. And the men they chose .  .  . were equally crippled.

Ultimately readers will agree with Hertog’s conclusion: “While the conflict that existed within them lives in all those whose aspirations exceed the social expectations of their time and place, the distortions their ambitions engendered in their personal relations are uniquely
their own.”

Elizabeth Powers is the editor of Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea (Bucknell).