Bob and Betty

Jenny Diski

  • A Mind of My Own: My Life with Robert Maxwell by Elizabeth Maxwell
    Sidgwick, 536 pp, £16.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 283 06251 7

Those given to hasty judgments might find the title of Betty Maxwell’s autobiography something of a logical contradiction. Even leaving aside the strangeness, to feminist eyes, of the title’s construction, just a passing knowledge of the dynamics of Robert Maxwell’s ego would seem to preclude the possibility of having the one while being with the other for 47 years. Yet, when one has read the book, it becomes clear that the colon is, after all, perfectly placed between the two propositions, and that the initial judgment turned on a very narrow and possibly rather transitory definition of having a mind of one’s own. If living with Robert Maxwell provides satisfaction, however specialised, then to do so is perfectly in keeping with having a mind of one’s own.

Betty Maxwell got her heart’s desire from the start of her relationship with Robert Maxwell, and, what is more, she kept on getting it, in her fashion, for the duration of the marriage. Some desires over-ride the independence modern women assume to be the sine qua non of a free spirit. Indeed, some are inimical to a strict definition of independence, and who is to say that such desires are not to be satisfied?

There was a curious novel published a few years ago by Robert Coover called Spanking the Maid. It was a slim volume, because essentially it dealt with only a single scene in the life of a master/narrator and his maid. He calls her in to clean his room and make the bed. She does so, but some careless or clumsy detail – a wrinkle in the sheets, a drop of water spilled on the floor – spoils her efforts. The master is obliged to punish her before ordering her to begin again. Each plays their part with consummate awareness of the requirements of their role. The effort to make immaculate, the inexorable failure, the ritualised punishment are repeated, word for word, sentence for sentence, unvarying except for the nature of the maid’s error. The tone of the narrator and the demeanour of the maid are dull and despairing since they understand the necessity for error and punishment and the terrible circle of banality and repetition in which they are both caught up. Not that I’m suggesting for a moment that spanking had any place in the relationship between the adults in the Maxwell family, but there is something about their married life, as it is described by Mrs Maxwell, that brings to mind Coover’s book on the structure of domesticity and desire.

Robert Maxwell had very firm ideas on how a wife ought to behave.

He would constantly revert to the same old theme – that I did not look after his material needs to a standard he considered acceptable and was therefore incapable of ensuring his happiness. Sometimes there would be a button missing on a shirt, or I would forget his evening shirt studs or black tie when I packed his bag. He would complain that his cupboards were not impeccably tidy or that I hadn’t got his summer clothes out early enough ... What he wanted me to do was ‘assist, bolster and serve him and the children’.

This was not just a man demanding that all his physical needs be attended to. Right from the beginning of their marriage, domestic detail is inextricably linked to love and loyalty. Letters stating their intent and reiterating the themes of their passion fly back and forth between them throughout their long marriage.

Betuska my love.

You most certainly have made big strides towards becoming the perfect partner through the things you have done like washing my clothes, or darning my socks ... Although by themselves they may seem trivial and matter-of-fact, do not be deceived by that because they constitute the demonstration of the love which we have for each other, and to me they are of the highest value, for without them our love could not live.

Betty, like Coover’s maid, clearly understands that his wishes are not trivial, that her domestic attentions are central to their mutual desire.

I want to live for you, I want to drown my soul in your desires. This requires all my attention and all my strength, there is no time to do anything else. You will only need to say what you want and it will be done, or to express a desire and I will satisfy it. Perhaps you will discover that the half-flayed creature you have stripped naked still deserves to be loved.

For all the berating on his part and the grovelling on hers, Betty Maxwell comes across, not as a domestic doormat, but as a fully collusive partner in a very complicated relationship, which, right from the start, is powerfully sexual. But the power is not, as it appears or as it is portrayed, entirely one-sided.

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[*] Maxwell: The Outsider is available from Mandarin at £6.99. A new book, Maxwell: The Final year, will be coming out from HarperCollins on 23 May (320 pp., price not yet determined, 0 00 255564 6).