The Dolphin Letters, 1970-79: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell and Their Circle 
edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Faber, 560 pp., £35, January, 978 0 571 35741 3
Show More
The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1972-73 
by Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton.
Farrar, Straus, 224 pp., £11.99, December 2019, 978 0 374 53827 9
Show More
Show More

In April​ 1970, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick – both aged 53, married for 21 years – had just been on holiday together in Italy with their 13-year-old daughter, Harriet. Hardwick and Harriet had come home to New York, where Hardwick taught at Barnard College; Lowell had gone to Oxford to take up a fellowship at All Souls. He was considering an offer from the University of Essex that would have involved the family leaving New York for two years. Six days after he arrived in England he went to a party given by Faber, his publishers. Among the other guests was Caroline Blackwood, 38 at the time and the mother of three daughters. Blackwood told Lowell’s biographer, Ian Hamilton, that after the party Lowell moved into her London house – ‘I mean instantly, that night.’

On 27 April, three days before the party, Lowell had written to Hardwick: ‘I miss you both every minute. I may telephone for you to come and get me.’ The day before it, he let her know that he was ‘off to London’. ‘I’m sure your Faber party was exciting and how I wish I could have been there with you,’ Hardwick replied. ‘Look around for a living place … We’d have to go in September for Harriet’s school.’ On 8 May, Hardwick was still planning to move to London and wrote to Lowell to say that Carlos Fuentes was going to take their apartment on West 67th Street. A week later, after an unsatisfactory phone call, she realised that there was a problem: ‘I guess we’ll never hear from you. I’m not even sure that you are still planning for us to come to England.’ The next letter began: ‘I’m sorry I was so upset in my latest letters and notes, but it just seemed that you didn’t care anything for us, and each day that would go by was so distressing.’ In June, Lowell was meant to return to New York for a brief visit but he called it off by telegram: ‘personal difficulties’, he said, made the ‘trip impossible right away’. ‘Don’t forget us!’ Hardwick replied. ‘There was a life here and there still is, and love and we need you and need some relief from our troubling uncertainties.’

When she discovered that Lowell was with Blackwood, she wrote to her friend Mary McCarthy: ‘I knew Cal [Lowell] had a girl and had been distressed for some time, but it was just this afternoon that I knew it was Caroline. I felt such relief and burst out laughing! … I cannot take her seriously for Cal. There is a comic element to me in it.’ Blackwood, whose mother was the heiress Maureen Guinness, had been married to Lucian Freud and to the composer Israel Citkowitz; in 1970 she was seeing Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review of Books. Silvers had encouraged Lowell to be in touch with Blackwood during his time in England – ‘Would you like to see Caroline in London. I know she’d be very glad to see you’ – and had been responsible for first introducing them, in New York four years earlier. ‘When I was with Bob,’ Blackwood told Ian Hamilton,

he used to take me to dinner at West 67th Street. And I couldn’t speak. I’d been told – which was nonsense – that Cal couldn’t speak about anything except poetry. That would be the legend about him: everything else bored him … So there were these ghastly silences. I thought it was better, if he only wanted to talk about poetry, not to talk at all – better than to say: ‘Do you like Housman?’ or that kind of thing. So I just used to sit absolutely silent. I was always put next to him. And it used to be my dread. To break the silence once, I said I admired the soup. And he said: ‘I think it’s perfectly disgusting.’ And then we had a silence.

Since Lowell’s previous attachments to other women had always been brief, she was now sure he could be persuaded to return to New York. ‘You must give up Essex and come back in September,’ she wrote to Lowell on 26 June. ‘Harriet is destroyed, deeply depressed.’ On Blackwood her views were firm:

Caroline is deeply destructive and neurotic. You are leading a parasitic life, just like her other lovers … All the rich squalor, covering up for inability to feel and function … I do not like parasites … She will destroy you … This kind of anarchy and nihilism will certainly ruin you … You are a great American writer … You are a loss to our culture, hanging about after squalid spoiled, selfish life … I have contempt for your situation. I am not jealous of it, but horrified. How could I be jealous of Caroline? She is charming and pathetic and unreal.

There were also practical worries. In planning their move to England ‘we had utterly uprooted ourselves,’ Hardwick wrote, and now she had to find a new school for her daughter at short notice and teaching work for herself. ‘I miss Barnard, which would have meant a lot to me, but they have filled my post for the year. Crummy, cruel thing for you two selfish little people there to do.’ Another letter followed the same day: ‘My utter contempt for both of you for the misery you have brought to two people who had never hurt you knows no bounds.’

And there were questions about Lowell’s state of mind. During the years of his marriage to Hardwick, Saskia Hamilton writes in her introduction to The Dolphin Letters, Lowell had ‘suffered at least ten major manic episodes and at least 15 hospitalisations’ and had recently been prescribed lithium. Now, in July 1970, he had another breakdown and was admitted to Greenwoods Nursing Home in St John’s Wood. This was too much for Blackwood. ‘I am going away,’ she wrote to say. ‘If I see you when you are so sick I know everything between us will become distorted and destroyed. Your sickness is so distressing to me and I am so bound up with you that I can’t help you and will break down again myself – and that does not help.’ And then a few days later she wrote: ‘I think about you every minute of the day, and I love you every minute of the day.’ Hardwick’s response was to come to London. From a hotel near Lowell’s hospital she wrote to McCarthy: ‘He is in awful shape physically, can only go about for an hour at the most & then just collapses … There is a nightmare quality here I hate.’ Blackwood, ‘with her own deep unbalance’, would be a disaster for Lowell, she felt. ‘Cal seemed so helpless, so needing love & openness & wifely care (indeed).’ In writing to Lowell, she represented the choice he faced as though it were between not only two partners, or two countries, but two moral systems:

You are going, irrevocably, to an emotionally crippled life, chaos, withdrawal … What are your values? Do they include loyalty, responsibility to those you love … Sickness & shame will overcome you as your whole life sinks into that created by someone else, ruled by a new country & the English aristocracy & its helpless ways, by surrender of something beautifully old-fashioned & New England & pure in you.

When Lowell was discharged from hospital Blackwood wouldn’t have him back in her house. So he rented a studio nearby, travelling to Essex to teach. Hardwick went back to New York, her epistolary tone becoming more exasperated and pressing:

Please telegraph Harriet and me about when you are coming home for good … We are utterly miserable, unbelievably wounded. I do feel as I say again that this is like a death … You’ll be exhausted from these letters. But there will not be more unless you are planning to return to us. I cannot bear it otherwise, it is degrading, unnecessary and quite destructive for me to keep writing to someone who doesn’t care for me or for his daughter … WE NEED YOU. We really need you.

By October, Lowell was weighing up the possibility of going back to visit Hardwick and Harriet for Christmas. But there were also his feelings for Blackwood. ‘She is very beautiful and saw me through the chafes and embarrassments of my sickness with wonderful kindness,’ he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop. ‘I suppose I shouldn’t forget Harriet and Lizzie, anyway I can’t. Guilt clouds the morning, and though things are not embattled, nothing is settled.’ To Hardwick herself he wrote:

I cannot weigh the dear, troubled past, so many illnesses, which weren’t due to you, in which you saved everything, our wondering, changing, growing years with Harriet, so many places, such rivers, of talk and staring – I can’t compare this memory with the future, unseen and beyond recollection with Caroline. I love her very much, but I can’t see that. I am sure many people have looked back on a less marvellous marriage than ours on the point of breaking, and felt this pain and indecision – at first insoluble, then when the decision has been made, incurable.

I don’t think I can come back to you, but allow me this short space before I arrive in New York to wobble in my mind. I will be turning from the longest realest and most loved fragment of my life.

And then Hardwick learned that Lowell was planning to bring Blackwood with him to New York. ‘I should have anticipated the reaction, which was very strong,’ their mutual friend Blair Clark warned Lowell. ‘She said that … if Caroline came when you were here, she would leave town, taking Harriet with her, perhaps to the Caribbean.’ In the event Blackwood stayed behind, but it was a brief trip and in January 1971 he was back in England. The following month, Blackwood discovered she was pregnant. When the news reached Hardwick she wrote to Blackwood: ‘I have told Harriet that you are having a baby by her father … She knows that she will have very little of him from now on and that he belongs to you and all of your children, since his physical presence there and absence here is the most real thing.’ To Lowell she was more direct, the sentences infused with rage:

You and Caroline have treated Harriet and me with unremitting meanness. But then, what else has she to do with herself? She drifts about, has babies, destroys lives of both men and women … You have been a person of the deepest moral yearnings and it was that person I loved … You will not be allowed to survive but will be sacrificed to the emptiness of Caroline, her shallow, narrow existence.

Hardwick,​ who was beginning to prepare Lowell’s papers for sale at the time of their separation, kept the letters he wrote to her. But she didn’t know what had happened to her side of the correspondence, and presumed it had been destroyed. ‘They’re all gone,’ she told Ian Hamilton, whose biography of Lowell was published in 1983, adding that when she had asked Lowell if she could see them, he had told her he couldn’t find them. In fact, in 1978, the year after Lowell’s death, Blackwood posted them to Lowell’s friend Frank Bidart in Boston. Bidart, Saskia Hamilton writes, ‘put the envelope under his bed, and later transferred it to the Houghton Library in Harvard, with a cover note stating that “This packet of letters belongs to the Estate of Robert Lowell, not to me,” and that “they are to be kept here at the Houghton Library until the death of Elizabeth Hardwick.”’ Hardwick died in 2007.

The letters are worth reading not merely for what they tell us about Hardwick and Lowell but also because they are the direct source of many of the poems in Lowell’s book The Dolphin, published in 1973, in which he shaped or remade Hardwick’s letters into sonnets without her knowledge or agreement. In April 1971, Lowell mentioned to Stanley Kunitz that he was writing poems about the break-up of his marriage. He was considering publishing them in a limited edition first:

That might be the most tactful thing I could do for Elizabeth short of burning the ms. Then in a year or two I’d bring out commercial editions. I’d hate to leave the book in type if I were run over or something. Lawsuits between Lizzie and Caroline etc. Lizzie is the heroine … but she will feel bruised by the intimacy. She should win all hearts but what is that when you are left, and left again in print?

By September 1971, Hardwick had come to learn of the project:

I have never tried to deny my grief and pain and my love for you. For me at least the amputation will probably always hurt, but I am resigned to that. The recent shocks have added something new. I don’t know what to call it – the intolerable, I guess. All the more sad in that there is in what you plan to do no element of necessity.

Lowell replied to say that she needn’t be shocked: his putative book did not, as yet, have a publication date; indeed, ‘it need not come out ever. It’s not defamatory.’ Within a few days, she replied: ‘I can’t speak about the book. I know only the shocked reaction of our mutual friends.’

In December, Lowell wrote to Bidart asking him to come to England and advise on his various new poems. ‘This all began by trying to get around the mounting pressure on me not to publish The Dolphin (For moral reasons). And indeed, it must wait.’ To Bishop he wrote: ‘Read Dolphin when you have leisure … I am going to publish and I don’t want advice except for yours. Lizzie won’t like the last. What else can I offer her? There’s something creepy about deliberately writing something posthumous.’ But he did want advice from others and didn’t want to wait until after his death to publish. ‘My book problems are complicated and I would like to ask your advice,’ he told Christopher Ricks. ‘My new book is a small one, some eighty poems … the story of changing marriages, not a malice or sensation, far from it, but necessarily, according to my peculiar talent, very personal. Lizzie is naturally very much against it. I am considering publication in about a year; it needn’t be published, but I feel fully clogged by the possibility of not.’

He was also getting advice from elsewhere, solicited and not – about the poems, about his divorce from Hardwick, about Blackwood, about the baby. ‘I know from Elizabeth that you are going to be a father again, and I wonder why,’ Adrienne Rich told him. ‘Men & women are having such a hard time with the intense fragility of their own relationship that adding a complication seems foolhardy, except perhaps for the very young, who don’t know what it is like.’ Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote from Russia: ‘As to you, I think that the second marriage is always better than the first. I am greatly for divorces.’ Auden, when he heard about The Dolphin, expressed his disapproval, causing Lowell to cable him late at night to remonstrate. (‘I probably should have done nothing, but sending the cable made my life sweeter,’ he told William Alfred. A week or so earlier Alfred had written to him saying ‘Frank has given me The Dolphin to read. It is beautifully made, every line won hard, and it is sad and comforting at one and the same time. But 1 and 2 on page 47’ – ‘Fox-Fur’ and ‘The Messiah’ – ‘will tear Elizabeth apart.’)

In March 1972, Bishop wrote to Lowell carefully setting out the argument against publishing the poems. She began by praising them: ‘It’s hell to write this, for please first do believe I think DOLPHIN is magnificent poetry. It is also honest poetry – almost. You probably know already what my reactions are. I have one tremendous and awful BUT.’ Her objection was that in quoting from Hardwick’s letters Lowell had interfered with the text:

Lizzie is not dead, etc – but there is a ‘mixture of fact & fiction’, and you have changed her letters. That is ‘infinite mischief’, I think. The first one [‘Voices’] is so shocking – well, I don’t know what to say … One can use one’s life as material – one does, anyway – but these letters – aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission – IF you hadn’t changed them … etc. But art just isn’t worth that much … It makes me feel perfectly awful, to tell the truth – I feel sick for you.

‘I could say the letters are cut, doctored part fiction,’ Lowell replied. ‘I attribute things to Lizzie I made up, or that were said by someone else. I combed out abuse, hysteria, repetition. The trouble is that the letters make the book, at least they make Lizzie real beyond my invention.’ Others agreed with Bishop. ‘There are details that seem to be monstrously heartless. I will grant that parts of it are marvellous – wild, erotic, shattering,’ Kunitz wrote. ‘But some passages I can scarcely bear to read: they are too ugly, for being too cruel, too intimately cruel.’

‘The matter of your work is yours entirely and I don’t think you have it in your power to “hurt” me,’ Hardwick herself told Lowell. ‘I mean that I cannot see what harm can come to me from a poem by you. Why should I care?’ It seemed, however, that she did care. Bidart – who had answered Lowell’s call for help and spent time with him in London working on The Dolphin as well as the poems that would make up two other new books, History and For Lizzie and Harriet – reported on a phone call he had had with her: ‘It was one of the most unpleasant and painful conversations I’ve ever had … She seemed to feel I had betrayed her by going there, or staying so long, or helping you. My hand still shakes when I think about it.’ A few weeks later Hardwick bumped into Bidart at a party in New York and wrote to Lowell telling him exactly how he made her feel: ‘Then, the flagrant Frank Bidart, atremble, but ever obsequious … He kept praising that old Vogue piece of mine with the photograph and I felt like saying … “Fuck you!”’

When Hardwick finally saw The Dolphin, she was, she later told Ian Hamilton, ‘genuinely shocked and appalled … the use he made, the distortion of the letters, the writing of some for me, putting lines unwritten by me, in my voice.’ She wrote a letter of complaint to Robert Giroux, Lowell’s New York publisher, copying in Charles Monteith at Faber:

I am deeply distressed that both of you would have seen this book through to publication without asking my permission for the prodigal use of my letters, for the use in the most intimate way of my name and that of my daughter … I know of no other instance in literature where a person is exploited in a supposedly creative act, under his own name, in his own lifetime.

While others had been shown the poems before publication, she had not. ‘Had I seen the poems, the letters of mine, those using my name, I do not know what I would have done. I do hold you and Mr Monteith, as distinguished publishers, in dismay for your heartlessness in concealing this from me.’ As an example of how the letters had been tampered with she cited the poem ‘In the Mail’, which appeared to quote from one of her letters:

I love you, Darling, there’s a black black void,
as black as night without you. I long to see
your face and hear your voice, and take your hand

In fact, she explained, these lines were taken from two or three different letters, ‘letters from the very early period of my distress, attached to a sestet written long after’.

In a letter to Lowell of April 1971 she had written:

Dearest, do take care. Nothing is worth destroying yourself. You have worked hard, led a good life and you have the right to nothing I’m afraid. But it is always nice when there is not justice but good luck and you have happiness and what you want. I don’t entirely wish you well, far from it, of course. But I still feel less angry with you than with those who have used you for their own childish, destructive purposes.

In quoting from this letter in ‘Green Sore’, Lowell made a small but significant alteration. Instead of ‘I don’t entirely wish you well, far from it, of course,’ the line reads: ‘not that I wish you entirely well, far from it’. In its original context, which is almost affectionate, the line has menace, but not much. In the poem, it loses all its ambiguity. And – most important – it wasn’t the line Hardwick wrote.

Since The Dolphin mentioned Hardwick and her daughter by name they became literary figures on whom critics could pass judgment. ‘We have now gone down in history as a horridly angry and hateful couple,’ Hardwick wrote to Lowell a month after publication. ‘A review is coming out in which Harriet is called “the fictional Terrible Child” … She knows nothing of all this. I am near breakdown and also paranoid and frightened about what you may next have in store, such as madly using this letter. I do not wish to write to you again.’ The review was by Marjorie Perloff and appeared in the New Republic:

It is Lizzie who becomes the dominant figure in the sonnets, and she is depicted, perhaps unwittingly on Lowell’s part, as Dark Lady or Super-Bitch par excellence. In her letters and phone calls she is forever patting herself on the back for running to Dalton to pick up Harriet’s grades or driving her to camp, and she dwells irritatingly on Harriet’s goodness … Poor Harriet emerges from these passages as one of the most unpleasant child figures in poetry … And since these are, after all, real people, recently having lived through the crisis described, one begins to question Lowell’s taste.

Adrienne Rich didn’t like the book either. ‘The inclusion of the letter-poems stands,’ she wrote in the American Poetry Review, ‘as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent; and the same unproportioned ego that was capable of this act is damagingly at work in all three of Lowell’s books.’

After receiving Hardwick’s letter of complaint, Robert Giroux wrote to Lowell: ‘She has not taken a “legal position” precisely, but she may be building up to it. We don’t propose to do anything precipitous; I will simply acknowledge my surprise at her letter.’ ‘I don’t know where this business of Lizzie will go to,’ Lowell replied. ‘On the same day as your letter, I had one in her old delirious style.’ He offered Giroux his view that ‘the real trouble for Lizzie’ was not that her letters had been quoted and tampered with, but that The Dolphin also included intimate and loving poems about his relationship with Blackwood.

‘My sin (mistake?) was publishing. I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait inside me like a dead child,’ Lowell wrote to Bishop. To Hardwick, he wrote: ‘I can’t defend myself … or anyway shouldn’t at this moment if I could. Nothing in the books was dishonestly intended. I feel something febrile about my American publication. Here’ – in England – ‘it is just another book of poetry. I think I am living through many of your feelings. I suffer.’

During​ his early years in England, Lowell’s relationship to sonnets was like King Midas’s to gold. If he had a thought, it became a sonnet. If he had a dream or a feeling or a memory, it could be encapsulated in 14 lines. It was octet/sextet all the way, even if some of the poems didn’t obey any rules for the making of sonnets. When he wasn’t writing sonnets, he was revising them, moving lines from one to another, giving them new titles, putting them in a new order. He turned old poems into sonnets, in the process ruining some of them, such as ‘Water’, first published in For the Union Dead in 1964. He used bits of his mother’s diary in a sonnet called ‘Clytemnestra 1’. Anyone’s words could be appropriated. A sonnet sequence dedicated to Bishop includes very personal lines in a letter from her (‘That’s what I feel I’m waiting for now:/a faintest glimmer I am going to get out/somehow alive from this’); a sequence called ‘To Allen Tate’ quotes from a letter by Tate; ‘Publication Day’ is a letter from Marcia Nardi rewritten as a sonnet.

Hardwick felt a certain schadenfreude that the poems were, in her opinion, so bad. ‘It seemed so sad that the work was, certainly in that part that relies upon me and Harriet, so inane, empty, unnecessary,’ she wrote to Bishop. ‘I cannot understand how three years of work could have left so many fatuities, indiscretions, bad lines still there on the page. That breaks my heart for all of us.’ But in fact The Dolphin, which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, is less untidy, less scattergun, less hit and miss, than History and For Lizzie and Harriet, which appeared at the same time. Those books contain a few poems that are perfect (‘Spain Lost’, or ‘Watchmaker God’, or ‘Obit’) and others that have a crazy, careless energy (‘Mary Stuart’), but many display extreme banality and an uncontrolled garrulousness. ‘Mohammed’ begins: ‘Like Henry VIII, Mohammed got religion/in the dangerous years, and smashed the celibates.’ ‘Bosworth Field’ includes the line: ‘Robespierre and Stalin mostly killed people they knew.’ In ‘Anne Boleyn’: ‘There was a whiteness to Anne Boleyn’s throat.’

The sonnets in The Dolphin are more melancholy, more hushed and personal. The iambic beat becomes less strident and mechanical; its structure is in subtle dialogue with the loose and shapeless content. Lowell’s tones are filled with regret, piercing memory and frantic efforts to make sense of his new circumstances. He is free to dream, the dreams surreal and disturbing. In Modern Love (1862), George Meredith captured the end of a marriage from the perspective of a number of characters in a sequence of 16-line poems. Poem XXV begins:

You like not that French novel? Tell me why.
You think it quite unnatural. Let us see.
The actors are, it seems, the usual three:
Husband, and wife, and lover.

Lowell reimagines Meredith in ‘Exorcism’:

My words are English, but the plot is hexed:
one man, two women, the common novel plot …

Some of Lowell’s poems, like Meredith’s, use an English country house as setting; both chart the natural world around them, and both deal with the loss of love as it appears in dreams. In Meredith:

The small bird stiffens in the low starlight.
I know not how, but shuddering as I slept,
I dreamed a banished angel to me crept:
My feet were nourished on her breasts all night.

In Lowell’s ‘The Couple’, written in Blackwood’s voice:

Twice in the past two weeks I think I met
Lizzie in the recurrent dream …

Our conversation had a simple plot,
a story of a woman and a man
versifying her tragedy –
we were talking like sisters … you did not exist.

Many of the poems in The Dolphin, like Meredith’s, are set early in the morning and have a low, tentative sound. Some of the imagery is private, mysterious; the mind wanders, seeking definition, finding loose ends. The first time Hardwick’s voice appears, in the poem ‘Voices’, it has no energy when it speaks of Blackwood: ‘That new creature,/when I hear her name I have to laugh.’ But at the end of the poem, as though a light has been turned on, Hardwick’s particular tone emerges, like something distilled:

You left two houses and two thousand books,
a workbarn by the ocean, and two slaves
to kneel and wait upon you hand and foot –
tell us why in the name of Jesus.

In some of her letters Hardwick writes almost as though she were offering Lowell material for a poem. In the summer of 1972 she reported: ‘Am watching a scruffy seal- coloured woodchuck graze on weeds, then lift a greedy snout, listening, then back to the speedy feeding. He weighs a ton and alas has the human aspect in certain munching profiles.’ Lowell used these lines for the closing of ‘In the Mail’:

I’m watching a scruffy, seal-coloured woodchuck graze
on weeds, then lift his greedy snout and listen;
then back to speedy feeding. He weighs a ton,
and has your familiar human aspect munching.

At other times, the voice in the poems is slacker, the tone that of an ordinary letter:

You insist on treating Harriet as if she
were thirty or a wrestler – she is only


Will you go with us to The Messiah,
on December 17, a Thursday,
and eat at the Russian Tearooms afterwards?

But slowly, oddly, the sequence takes on a strange power. Leaving Hardwick and finding Blackwood is not presented as a triumph or another hurdle in the pursuit of happiness. Lowell’s wilfulness has made him, as he puts it, ‘conscience-dark’. Nothing is solved in England. Lowell is aware of how much pain he has caused. Much of what he sees and notices seems suffused with guilt. No image in the sonnets that deals with his interior life is simple. The slow-burning anguish culminates in ‘New York Again’ and ‘No Messiah’, two poems about losing New York in which the city becomes a sad dream, with the poet wandering in his own afterlife. Here he is not concerned to justify himself or explain himself but rather to let us know what his own wrongness, his own badness, his own weakness, are like, as he wakes uneasily in the morning, as a new baby is born, as he marries Blackwood. These haunted poems are aspects of what he calls ‘my conscious smile of self-incrimination’.

Lowell​ emerges from his poems and letters as both thoughtless and tortured, entitled and damaged. Hardwick’s letters are more direct, her rage – and her interest in protecting her daughter – coming to the fore. But she is also formidable and smart, and there are moments when her daunting presence makes itself impressively felt. ‘What an extraordinary collection of dull people are assembled here,’ she wrote in August 1973 from Bellagio, a writers’ retreat in Italy, to McCarthy.

And the wives, of all sizes, yet somehow one size in their heads! They mutter about typing his manuscripts, and they have not made one single demand upon themselves, whether of mind or body, and go forth without any effort or artifice as if they were dogs adopted by their professore. They are mostly kindly, but there is this thorough acceptance of their nature and they seem to have lived in a world without mirrors.

Adrienne Rich offered Lowell her own picture of Hardwick:

I see a lot of Elizabeth, and love and admire her very much. Women are more interesting now than they’ve ever been, and even women like E. who were always interesting have become more subtle, more searching. So many of us through one thing and another – choice, divorce, suicide or death, chance of some kind – are living more autonomous lives, and it’s like a second youth.

In the years these letters cover, Hardwick wrote her two best books, works in which her style became more tense and chiselled, her judgments more penetrating and precise. Any complexity absent in the letters is fully present in the books, as though she had been saving herself for something more worthy of her attention than Lowell and his new entourage. Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, a collection of essays, came out in 1974, and Sleepless Nights, a novel, five years later. This was the book that, as she wrote to Lowell in 1970, ‘will save my life’.

In 1976, a year before he died, Lowell read the section about Billie Holiday that would be included in Sleepless Nights. ‘It fascinated me that your Billie Holiday was written as part of your novel,’ he wrote to Hardwick.

I wouldn’t have guessed, but now I think I see the cause of the more delicate, more poetic(?) prose. Don’t tell me anything, but let me surmise that you are writing something close to autobiography, closer than plot will usually allow, that the style and selections will be artfully angled and chosen … Don’t tell me either if, where and how I turn up.

In the finished book, however, which was indeed close to autobiography, Lowell hardly turned up at all: there are glancing references to him but he is never mentioned by name. When the book appeared, McCarthy wrote to Hardwick: ‘It’s a classic, Lizzie. That was my reaction when I closed it and it grows stronger.’ And she mused on how Lowell, two years dead now, might have viewed the book:

I wonder what Cal would think. He’d be put out somewhat in his vanity to find himself figuring mainly as an absence and an absence that the reader doesn’t miss … I couldn’t see how you were going to cope with the huge fact of Cal; it didn’t occur to me that you could do it simply by leaving him out.

Sleepless Nights is strategic and self-aware enough to mine material more engaging than the antics of a troublesome husband.

In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick has lured the form of novel as memoir into an exquisitely private, vulnerable space, moving it away from the public territory of Norman Mailer’s 1968 The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History. The voice is distant but not disembodied. It is strung-out, staccato, impatient. There is no time here for soft memory, easy noticing or obvious emotion. Feeling is buried in the rhythms of the sentences. The voice is of a woman speaking; she is in New York. From the first paragraph, objects anchor the narrative: ‘the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street’. The backstory Hardwick gives us is fragmented. We learn that she is from Kentucky and has lived in New York, Boston, Maine and in Europe. She doesn’t build her narrative with slow evocations of the past or the present, but with darting observations, with the word that will end a sentence most pointedly. Having mentioned Lexington, Kentucky, she writes: ‘The cemetery of home, education, nerves, heritage and tics. Fading, it is sad; remaining, it is a needle.’

Hardwick isn’t easily pleased or readily comforted. She remembers ‘the contaminated skies like a suffocating cloak of mangy fur’ and ‘our resistant garden, planted with the recalcitrant, stupidly demanding gladiolus which, after terrible spoiling, yield their pinkish-orange goblets; and the retarded dahlia, forever procrastinating, finally blooming in its liverish purples’. When she feels revulsion at the very fact of the world she is a dark poet on a spree: ‘The windows resent their curtains, the light its woven shade, the door its lock, the coffin its loathsome, suffocating pile of dirt.’

She reserves her finest sentences for her description of Billie Holiday, whom she had known in the 1940s:

Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone, love life. Her own people, those around her, feared her. And perhaps even she was often ashamed of the heavy weight of her own spirit, one never tempted to the relief of sentimentality.

The tone becomes smoky, weary, knowing; she is ready to dismiss any easy version of Holiday’s story:

Her whole life had taken place in the dark. The spotlight shone down on the black, hushed circle in a café; the moon slowly slid through the clouds. Night – working, smiling, in make-up, in long, silky dresses, singing over and over, again and again. The aim of it all is just to be drifting off to sleep when the first rays of the sun’s brightness begin to threaten the theatrical eyelids.

Hardwick created a narrative system that allows her to pause for breath, to restate her case. After a clearing of the throat, she can begin a section: ‘I am alone here in New York, no longer a we.’ No experience comes lightly and nothing is remembered fondly, least of all sex: ‘In those years I did not care to enjoy sex, only to have it.’ Social life is an ordeal: ‘By asking a thousand questions of many heavy souls, I did not learn much.’ Foreignness intrigues her, including how the Dutch deal with divorce: ‘First husbands and first wives are always at the same dinner parties and birthday celebrations with their second husbands and wives … New alliances among this restless people were like the rearrangement of familiar furniture.’

When​ you reread Sleepless Nights straight after The Dolphin Letters you see how artful Hardwick’s novel is. In the correspondence there is much acrimony over her decision to sell a house in Maine that she had inherited from Lowell’s cousin; thanks to an arcane local law she needs Lowell’s signature before she can proceed. He stonewalls her; Blackwood consults lawyers in case her son is being done out of something through the sale. It’s an ugly dispute, but Hardwick doesn’t mention it in Sleepless Nights. Instead, she regrets losing the house and lets her mind linger over the life she knew there: ‘The barn, or so I imagine of all barns, once existed for cows and hay. Then later it came to us, especially to him who has left, as a refuge with a menacing swallow’s nest near the door.’ Soon the barn is transformed and ‘shudders in the sudden coastal winds … The ancient white flowering bush, splendid with its murderous curved thorns, stands guard on the bank. A handsome boat is edging towards a red plastic mooring. Goldfinches in the alders. Scenery, changing with the light in the sky.’

The mention of swallows and the goldfinches brings poems to mind. ‘Will Not Come Back’, in History, Lowell’s version of a 19th-century Spanish poem, opens menacingly –

Dark swallows will doubtless come back killing
the injudicious nightflies with a clack of the beak

– and then invokes other swallows that will ‘not come back’. That phrase echoes the opening line of ‘Obit’, the last poem in For Lizzie and Harriet: ‘Our love will not come back on fortune’s wheel.’ The mention of goldfinches reminds us of a line in another poem written in Maine, Bishop’s ‘North Haven’, an elegy for Lowell: ‘The goldfinches are back, or others like them.’ Here the implication that the goldfinches are not back at all: they are gone, replaced.

On the last page of Sleepless Nights, Hardwick refers to ‘the torment of personal relations’ and writes that she resents ‘the concordance of truth … many have about my real life’. Real life, for her, has involved the ‘sedentary sleeplessness’ of reading. At the time of her correspondence with Lowell she was publishing a series of essays about women writers, and they contain passages that emphatically read as though they were written for Lowell and Blackwood to study, moments when Hardwick comes piercingly close to offering a dark version of her own predicament. ‘Her misery caused her to examine her whole life, to face what lay ahead,’ she writes of Charlotte Brontë, ‘and if she found little to be optimistic about, at least she knew how to think deeply, and in a new way, on the condition of loneliness and deprivation. This was important because the condition was then and is always shared by so many.’ In considering Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Hardwick writes: ‘When Helmer says that she cannot leave her children, she might have said, “Millions of men have done so,” and in that been perfectly consistent with current behaviour.’

And then, in an essay on Rosmersholm, she writes about a man and two women: ‘Without the heightened sense of importance a man naturally acquires when he is the object of the possessive determinations of two women, nothing interesting could happen … The triangle demands the co-operation of two in the humiliation of one, along with some period of pretence, suffering, insincerity or self-delusion.’ Later in the same essay she gives further thought to the love triangle:

The victors are degraded by slyness, corruption and greediness; the loser by weakness and humiliation. Heartlessness, ignobility and ambition are the essence. It is a struggle for the experienced, not for the very young. Only those who have lived and endured have the understanding of the narrowness of opportunity within one lifetime. This experience provides the energy and the brutal decisiveness to persist.

And she has a final thought about the triangle, as though taking one last swipe at the two people who had caused her such grief: ‘The terms of a triangle are always exaggerated and distorted and its excitement is temporary. We know it will one day be settled; someone will give way, give up, step aside, die. When it does, letdown and questioning poison the victory.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences