The power couple is a long-running social concept. However, only in the literary sphere do they do it properly. In fact, their love enabled the production of true classics.
It would be hard to find a more powerful literary couple than Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre – towering figures in literature and philosophy. They never married, never lived together, never had children. They not only accepted the other’s infidelities, they often shared lovers. And they shared ideas. Their profound intellectual bond gave them an enviable emotional and cerebral intimacy, and perhaps they set the benchmark for what makes a literary power couple, but let’s look at two other couples, because everyone is different – each literary pairing has its own dynamic.
George Eliot and George Henry Lewes
George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch has been widely acclaimed as the greatest novel in the English language. This deeply intellectual book was a breakthrough work on a number of levels, in particular, her psychological explorations that until then had not really been much a part of novel-writing. Middlemarch is peopled with a large cross-section of a provincial community and addresses issues such as political change, the role of religion, the position of women in society, and marriage. Eliot’s other important works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861) and Daniel Deronda (1876). All her novels have an understated psychological element; they’re also humorous and expressive and her characterisations are analytical and insightful.
Eliot – born Mary Ann Evans in 1819 – had an acutely sharp mind and became a freelance writer, translator and editor, quite something for a woman in the nineteenth century. In 1854 she met journalist and philosopher George Henry Lewes (born 1817) and so began a relationship that lasted until Lewes died in 1878. They lived together openly and Eliot referred to Lewes as her husband even though he was still married to Agnes Jervis. That’s a fascinating story in itself. Agnes and George had three children, but Agnes went on to have four more children by a different man. Rather than create a scandal, George agreed that on the birth certificates he would be named father, thus when he finally sought a divorce, he was ruled ineligible because he’d known about and implicitly condoned his wife’s adultery. The liaison between Eliot and Lewes caused a further scandal, but they toughed it out and were even darlings of the intellectual set.
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Lewes was a man of many talents: he wrote novels, plays, biographies (his Life of Goethe (1855) is considered an especially fine work), literary criticism, even some scientific papers on such subjects as physiology and animal life. He was a respected philosopher too, publishing The Biographical History of Philosophy (1846) and later The Problems of Life and Mind (1873-1879), a multi-volume work, the final volume of which was completed by Eliot after his death.
And although Eliot was already a published writer, it was Lewes who encouraged her to write fiction, which she did under her male pseudonym. When Adam Bede was published in 1859, it was such a success that it needed eight reprints in just one year. Her books were very popular with readers, each new work bringing her more acclaim and wide respect. In fact, her fame soon well and truly eclipsed his, but Lewes’s support for Eliot never wavered. He was a very special man. Their relationship flourished for almost 25 years – one of mutual respect and pride in the other’s achievements.
About 18 months after Lewes died, Eliot created another scandal when she married a man 20 years her junior, but only a few months later, in December 1880, she succumbed to an infection and died, aged 61.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas
When 21-year-old Alice B Toklas (1887-1967) was introduced to writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) in the autumn of 1908, it was the beginning of one of the most enduring of literary love stories. Alice wrote that Gertrude “was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair”. Alice was Gertrude’s “baby precious”, her “wifey”, and for almost 40 years they lived together in harmony. Toklas was not only Stein’s lover and confidante but also her muse, roles she combined with being Stein’s assistant, housekeeper and cook.
American-born Stein had moved to France in 1903. She and her brother Leo became art collectors and held cultural salons in their Paris apartment to which they invited painters, poets and novelists. After Leo moved to Italy, Alice became Gertrude’s co-host, and their salons became something of an institution. Anyone who wanted to be someone was desperate to be invited and more importantly, approved of. Stein’s opinions on art and literature became hugely influential and could actually mean the difference between success and failure for artists. Stein is credited with launching the careers of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others. She encouraged and perhaps influenced writers like Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce.
Stein’s approach to art was avant-garde; she experimented with radical writing styles which found few fans at the time. Interestingly, her best-known work, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (1933), is a fairly straight-ahead narrative. Although “Alice” is the narrator, the book is actually Stein’s autobiography. It’s been said that Alice nourished Gertrude’s art and it’s hard to argue with that.
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Alice was a quiet practical woman who revealed her literary voice only after Stein’s death. The Alice B Toklas Cookbook (1954) is a combination of recipes and memories; What is Remembered (1963) is Toklas’s own autobiography, detailing her life both before and after meeting Gertrude, and including her personal judgments on some of the famous writers and artists she’d known. It ends with Gertrude’s death. Alice lived another two decades after that, dependent on financial support from friends because although Gertrude had provided for Alice in her will, their form of marriage was not legally recognised and the will was disputed.
The relationship between Gertrude and Alice was one of strength of convictions. Having returned to Paris from a tour to the United States, they chose to stay in Paris during the German occupation, a risky decision for two women of Jewish background. They weren’t looking to be admired for this, it was where they wanted to be and they wanted to be there together. Their union inspired others – they loved each other quietly but openly. It was a true marriage.
There are other famed literary power couples, among them Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia and Leonard Woolf – not to mention Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West – and Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. Love and literature – a powerful combination.