I wish she’d been a dog

Elaine Showalter

  • Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart by Charlotte Margolis Goodman
    Texas, 394 pp, $24.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 292 74022 0
  • Jean Stafford: A Biography by David Roberts
    Chatto, 494 pp, £16.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 7011 3010 5

On 13 December 1938, the young writer Jean Stafford, visiting Boston from her hometown, Boulder, Colorado, agreed to go for a ride in his father’s Packard with her 21-year-old suitor Robert Lowell. They had met the year before at a Colorado Writers’ Conference, and Lowell had been courting her intensely through the mails. When she refused to marry him, however, Lowell went into a rage and crashed the car into an embankment. He was unhurt (the court later charged him with driving while intoxicated), but Stafford sustained massive injuries to her skull, nose and jaw that required five painful operations to repair. After the accident, she would always look battered, her eyes teary and ‘permanently welled-up’. As Lowell’s friend Blair Clark remarked, ‘there was about a 25 per cent reduction of the aesthetic value in her face.’

The cruel precision of this figure reflects not so much Clark’s brutality as widely-held attitudes about the market value of female beauty and the implicit contrast with the value of women’s intelligence and art. Stafford explored this paradox in the harrowing short story she wrote about the accident. Awaiting the surgeon whose scalpel will repair her ‘crushed and splintered nose’, the heroine is in a state of near-mystical terror about the invasion and pillaging of her brain, ‘her treasure whose price he, not more than the nurses, could estimate’. In some way Stafford felt herself not only damaged but violated.

Yet she fought against understanding her own anger, diverting it as much into meanness and booze as into art; indeed, she would have been furious at any feminist interpretation of the reckless way Lowell had smashed up her life and the masochist way in which she had accepted it. Although she had resisted his advances, describing him to a friend as ‘an uncouth, neurotic, psychopathic murderer-poet’, she married him not long after the accident, declaring: ‘he does what I have always needed to have done to me and that is that he dominates me.’ The marriage lasted eight years, during which Lowell became a fanatical convert to an ascetic and sexless Catholicism. ‘I fell in love with Caligula,’ she wrote, ‘and am living with Calvin.’ Two artists under one roof, she lamented, were likely to run into problems, even when one of them did all the housework. During their first several years together, she worked as a secretary to support them both (he had a small trust fund). When he was hired by Louisiana State University, Cleanth Brooks telegraphed on behalf of the Southern Review: ‘PLEASE ADVISE BY WESTERN UNION IF MRS LOWELL KNOWS SHORTHAND.’ At home, she had to retype his poems every time he changed a word. During the war he was in prison for several months for his own bizarre form of conscientious objection, and he possibly broke her nose at least one more time in a fight. Their last summer together, as she wrote in ‘An Influx of Poets’, a story published in the New Yorker after her death,

every poet in America came to stay with us ... bringing wives or mistresses with whom they quarrelled ... At night, after supper, they’d read from their own works until four o’clock in the morning, drinking Cuba Libres. They never listened to one another; they were preoccupied with waiting for their turn. And I’d have to stay up and clear out the living-room after they went soddenly to bed – soddenly, but not too far to lose their conceit. And then all day I’d cook and wash the dishes and chop the ice and weed the garden and type my husband’s poems and quarrel with him.

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