Scenes from a Marriage

The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle edited by Saskia Hamilton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 560 pages. $50.

The cover of The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle

Elizabeth Hardwick was a worrier. “What I know I have learned from books and worry,” she wrote in Vogue in June 1971. She worried about her daughter Harriet’s grades in school. She worried about rising rents in New York City and about the price of property in Maine. And she worried about her husband, the poet Robert Lowell. Since age seventeen, Lowell, who was diagnosed with manic depression in the 1940s, had occasionally entered states of high mania, impulsive stretches during which he seduced young women, raged at loved ones, and, once, dangled a friend out a window. For years, Hardwick cleaned up the messes he made while manic and found him treatment when he needed it. During their twenty-one years together, he was hospitalized fifteen times.

Lowell started on the drug lithium in 1967, which evened out his moods even as it seemed to leach some of his natural sweetness. After a few years of treatment, he felt well enough to accept a position as a visiting fellow at All Souls College in Oxford that began in the spring of 1970. Transatlantic calls were expensive and the connection often bad. The couple resorted to their natural medium, exchanging near-daily letters about their work and their lives. The correspondence concealed as much as it revealed: Hardwick had no idea that her husband had fallen in love with Lady Caroline Blackwood, a British writer and heiress, until she received a cryptic telegram from Lowell informing her that he wouldn’t be returning to the United States as planned. She responded to the news in a string of letters—letters that Lowell would go on to quote, without Hardwick’s permission, in his 1973 poetic work The Dolphin. When Hardwick heard from friends about the content of the book, she filed for divorce. The following year, The Dolphin won the Pulitzer Prize.

These letters, and the many more the couple sent during and after the collapse of their marriage—to each other and to their mutual friends—have been collected and edited by the poet Saskia Hamilton. Together, they trace the story of Hardwick and Lowell’s separation, divorce, and tentative reunion just a few months before Lowell’s death in a taxicab on the streets of New York City. The majority of Hardwick’s letters, which were believed to be lost, appear in print for the first time. Hardwick suspected that Blackwood had destroyed the letters. In fact, Blackwood had mailed Hardwick’s letters to the poet Frank Bidart, who entrusted them to Harvard’s Houghton Library to be kept, uncatalogued, until Hardwick’s death. She never knew that her half of the correspondence had been preserved.

Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Harriet Lowell, mid-1960s. Courtesy Harriet Lowell
Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Harriet Lowell, mid-1960s. Courtesy Harriet Lowell

The volume begins, fittingly, with a letter about an archive. Hardwick, who managed the household, was trying to get Lowell’s papers together in order to sell them to a library. “What a lot of papers,” she wrote to Lowell in 1970, just after he had arrived in England. “I am not throwing [out] anything, ‘girls’ or otherwise,” referring to Lowell’s crushes. Harriet reports that her mother “believed in archives . . . and had great qualms about any meddling with them.”

An awareness of the archive surely shaped the correspondence here. Lowell is reticent with Hardwick, as if worried about who will read his letters and how he will look. Hardwick, too, seems to write for posterity. “Cal darling: If you need me I’ll always be there, and if you don’t need me I’ll always not be there,” she wrote to Lowell in August 1970. In a letter from April 1971, she described how she spoke “to Harriet about you, gaily, friendly, never denying that I miss you, but no longer bitter.” Letters, as she once wrote, communicate “the ideal self,” and one senses her efforts to put the best version of herself—stoical, resolute, generous—on the page.

She did not always succeed. “I have contempt for your situation,” she wrote to Lowell after learning the details of his affair. “The choice you have made is ludicrous and destructive and unreal. You will be destroyed by the unreality, the spoiled richness, the alien ground.” A few weeks later: “You are going, irrevocably, to an emotionally crippled life. . . . Sickness & shame will overcome you as your whole life sinks into that created by someone else.” Other letters were desperate, wheedling. “Please, please—tell us the answer right now. We cannot go on this way, and we will not,” she wrote in October 1970. “We long to have you open the door, to laugh, play music . . . to look after you forever, and to have you look after us. WE NEED YOU. We really need you.”

Such oscillations—from contempt to kindness, from derision to desperate love—are not surprising coming from a woman in Hardwick’s position. What is surprising is the respect and affection she maintained for Lowell—a “great American writer” whom she compared to Melville in a letter—and the way this allowed her to remain in close touch with him even after he committed to a life with Blackwood. It is as if Hardwick, a consummate critic, wouldn’t be swayed from her estimation of the poet’s talent simply because he had hurt her deeply. One could call her forgiving, as Lowell did. One could also call her uncompromising.

Hardwick continued to support her ex-husband and his legacy: She organized his papers, rented out his old studio, helped him file his taxes, even traveled to England when he was hospitalized in July of 1970. Although she criticized The Dolphin, she continued to read Lowell’s work with interest and encouraged him to dismiss several bad reviews. She did all this while taking care of their daughter and writing furiously; her earnings from magazine pieces kept her and Harriet afloat. “I want to earn money as a writer, as a woman,” she wrote, in the same letter in which she condemned Lowell for preferring “alien ground.” In this she succeeded: Between 1970 and 1979, she published the essays that would become Seduction and Betrayal, her study of female literary figures, and the autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights. It was, by financial necessity, the most productive period of her creative life.

Unlike Lowell, who wrote confessionally and often used others’ words nearly verbatim, Hardwick used fiction to mediate between her life and her art. Sleepless Nights, begun soon after The Dolphin was published, is less a novel than a reflection on the relationship between autobiography and fiction—on how one should use one’s life in art. “Shall I turn his devastated brown hair to red?” the narrator muses at one point, thinking of how she might fashion a character after a lifetime companion. She is in full control of the material, alerting the reader to the possibility that she might misrepresent a person or an event. It is her story, after all, and she is telling it for herself. “I wonder what Cal would think,” Mary McCarthy wrote to Hardwick after the novel’s publication. “I like your idea of wondering whether you might not change his hair color to red—very funny.”

The novel reflected Hardwick’s awareness of how unstable the self is and how hard it is to capture one’s thoughts and feelings in language. “I despair of letters,” she wrote to Lowell in April 1971. “Apparently mine do not say what I mean or feel and I’m sure I read yours wrongly also.” She couldn’t even remember writing some of what she wrote in anger, and she recanted her harsher sentiments: “It is a fantastic untruth, misprint, something,” she wrote in apology.

Because Hardwick saw her letters as imperfect expressions of impermanent feelings, she was horrified that Lowell chose to quote her own in The Dolphin. She was even more horrified that he’d altered her language, often making her appear more straightforwardly angry or critical: “I don’t entirely wish you well, far from it, of course” becomes, in the poem “Green Sore,” “not that I wish you entirely well, far from it.” It was emendations such as these to which Elizabeth Bishop objected when she read the manuscript of The Dolphin: “IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them . . . but art just isn’t worth that much.” And yet it seems that Lowell perceived in these letters the anger and suffering that Hardwick often took care to mask, both to him and to their friends. He made the alterations in order to bring out the truths that were already there. To Bishop, Lowell claimed that the poeticized letters were “true enough.”

The most notable gap in The Dolphin Letters is the life of Caroline Blackwood: a writer, a beauty, the muse and former wife of the painter Lucian Freud. Lowell doesn’t say much about her to Hardwick and sketches her lightly in letters to friends. Hardwick herself had little respect for her rival. “I cannot take her seriously for Cal,” she wrote to McCarthy, describing how she “burst out laughing” with relief upon realizing that Blackwood was the object of her husband’s affections. “She drifts about, has babies, destroys lives of both men and women who are really serious and deep by her carelessness and spoiled indifference to consequence and the feelings of others,” she wrote to Lowell in 1971. In another letter to Lowell, she sums up Blackwood in just two words: “Caroline, unreal.”

But Hardwick took Blackwood more seriously than she let on. In her essays on Ibsen, she wrote astutely about the dynamics of love triangles and the motivations of each person caught in one. The interloping woman is ruthless, engaged in a genuine “dilemma of survival,” desperate to vanquish an existing wife at all costs in order to achieve security. Once the wife has been defeated, the new woman’s ruthlessness terrifies the man who was once flattered by it. “There is always something vulgar about a triangle,” Hardwick concluded. “The victors are degraded by slyness, corruption, and greediness; the loser by weakness and humiliation.” “In the end,” she wrote, “nothing will turn out to have been worth the destruction of others and oneself.”

Yet it is hard to see the Hardwick of The Dolphin Letters as someone characterized by “weakness and humiliation.” One admires her not simply for carrying on, but for doing so while remaining immersed in the world that she and Lowell shared. Her steadfast care for Lowell, her eventual respect for Blackwood, and her insistence that Harriet know and love her father—these are all evidence of a stubborn loyalty, not to Lowell exactly, but to her own values and beliefs. “When love goes wrong the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief,” Hardwick wrote at the end of Seduction and Betrayal. “These are tremendously moving qualities, and when they are called upon it is usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment.”

Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s will be published by Knopf in May 2020.