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.