Whenever I pick up a new book by a woman I check the author biography on the back flap to see whether she has children. I’m not entirely sure why I do this and what, exactly, I am trying to gauge, but I think it has something to do with an abiding interest in how other women writers have arranged their lives and enabled their ambitions: Do they view writing as a sacrosanct vocation and themselves as secular nuns of a sort, for whom few distractions—especially one as time-filling as motherhood—are to be allowed? Or do they accept their creative aspirations as part of a larger, often messy whole that includes a child or children?
I go on to wonder whether the writers who don’t have children seem more productive—or perhaps even, in an instinctive process of self-selection, more talented. I have done this sort of accounting since well before I became a mother myself and continue to do so, unsure whether I admire the single-mindedness of women who forgo the maternal role or suspect that they might come to regret their choice one day. The decision to become a mother while pursuing a career as a writer or artist certainly affects the division of one’s labor; tackling the chores of motherhood while also trying to find the time and concentration to write or sculpt or paint is a supreme juggling act.
Here, for instance, is Maxine Kumin, an accomplished poet and mother of three—who was, along with her close friend the poet Anne Sexton, among the first cohort of women to receive grants from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe—writing wearily to her mother in the late 1950s about her round of household chores:
Up sooner than betimes; dryer broken, youngest out of underpants. All underpants soaking wet on line. Pouring…. Find plastic bag to protect violin case. (Pouring harder.) Write check for violin teacher. Overdrawn? Live dangerously…. Find cough drops for middle child. Middle child coughs anyhow…. Husband’s sales director coming for dinner. Husband has clean shirt? Whiskey sours. No rye. Can’t find noodle pudding recipes. Find it. Make pudding.
Kumin, unlike Sexton, was an efficient homemaker and hands-on mother. She would go on to write eighteen volumes of poetry, win a Pulitzer Prize, and become the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress—a position now known as the US poet laureate—from 1981 to 1982.
Maggie Doherty, in her book The Equivalents, documents the evolution of the “messy experiment” that the founder of the Bunting Institute, the Radcliffe president and microbiologist Mary Ingraham Bunting, initially called the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. It was created in 1961 expressly to support and validate women scholars and creative artists with children by providing them with offices, stipends, bimonthly seminars in which the fellows would present their work, and access to Widener Library and other Harvard University amenities. Bunting, who helped Betty Friedan develop The Feminine Mystique (1963), wished to fight the “climate of unexpectation,” as she called it, that midcentury American women came up against just as second-wave feminism was beginning to make cultural inroads.
Doherty focuses on five women: three writers, Kumin, Sexton, and Tillie Olsen; the painter Barbara Swan, who specialized in expressionist portraits dense with texture and emotions; and the sculptor Marianna Pineda, a Brookline mother of three who longed for recognition from an artistic community. “It was a very lonely business just being a housewife,” Pineda recalled:
I remember feeling totally isolated in my kitchen…. There wasn’t a sense that you’d get together with other women to form a group and you’d take care of the kids together or take turns, you know, none of that. It was—you were really supposed to do it all yourself. And it was rough.
Notwithstanding the literary scholar Elaine Showalter’s acid comment that women are “supposed to destroy each other,” the women of the Bunting Institute shared their research, writing, and art in a mostly congenial and nonrivalrous atmosphere, although, as Doherty notes, there were predictable outbursts of discord and resentment: “Someone became jealous; someone else delivered an insult that she couldn’t retract.” Olsen’s friendship with Kumin, for instance, eventually fell apart because she declined to blurb Kumin’s novel The Passions of Uxport (1968). Meanwhile, Kumin and Sexton’s friendship, in which Kumin’s caretaking of her fellow poet can only be described as heroic—“I let you in, bag, baggage, gifts and impediments,” she wrote to Sexton—developed its own tensions, especially when Kumin moved away from the Boston suburbs. But for the most part, the institute gave its members a sense of community that allowed them to discuss and assess their work and validate one another’s intellectual ambitions. It helped, in Sexton’s words, “make not so alone the lonely art.”
Perhaps the least nurtured and least bourgeois member of the institute was Olsen, who years after her residency there wrote the groundbreaking Silences, which expanded the literary canon to include the work of women and other lost writers. At the time she applied, Olsen had four children and barely managed to make ends meet through a series of uninspiring jobs, like being a typist or secretary (her husband, Jack, was apprenticing as a printer). She had been viewed in the 1930s as a proletarian prodigy, with editors like Bennett Cerf and Malcolm Cowley panting after her work, but as the years passed found that she couldn’t keep all the balls in the air. “Not a moment to sit down and think,” she typed in a journal entry. “That death of the creative process…I am being destroyed.” She was the only one of the five women in The Equivalents who couldn’t afford domestic help.
Undeniably the most political of the group, Olsen was troubled by the whiteness of the institute and was ultimately the least convinced that the union of creativity and motherhood could work. In a talk she gave at an MLA conference in 1971, she argued, Doherty writes, “that women’s historical disadvantages, particularly the burden of child rearing, had either prevented them from producing literature or ensured that their literary reputations never took off.”
Sexton, meanwhile, described herself as a “caged tiger” to her psychiatrist. “She found herself reacting with anger and violence to her children’s needs,” Doherty writes. “She once threw her older child across a room in frustration.” Meanwhile, the poet Adrienne Rich, who appeared to have managed it all, having won the Yale Younger Poets prize in 1950, was living in what she described as “such despondency” because she couldn’t figure out how to write while being a mother of three. (She advised Sylvia Plath not to have children.)
Interestingly, Doherty, despite suggesting that bridging the two spheres is doable with some financial assistance and mutual goodwill, sidesteps the possibility of happy compromise right in her introduction, even before she starts laying out her argument. Describing herself as “a child of the ‘girl power’ 1990s,” she observes, “I couldn’t shake the sense that I was going to have to choose between my professional dreams and being a mother…. Whenever I thought about raising children, I was filled with dread.”
Still, there have always been women writers, including very driven ones, who have never harbored doubts about the feasibility of straddling the line between motherhood and creative accomplishment. Plath, who, at twenty-five, wrote in her journal that she felt qualified to be “Poetess of America” and who had published her first poem in Harper’s while she was still a student at Smith, dreamed of having a “batch of brilliant healthy children” together with her poet husband, Ted Hughes, alongside “a bookshelf of books before we perish!” And even Virginia Woolf, whose presiding genius hovers over The Equivalents (Olsen placed a portrait of Woolf on her childhood desk, and Sexton retrieved a dusty copy of A Room of One’s Own from the Newton Public Library, where she discovered, to her astonishment, that the book, given to the library in 1929, had never been checked out), longed intensely to bear a child.
Although we tend to think of Woolf as childless by choice, not least because of her antipathy to heterosexual sex (“Why do you think people make such a fuss about marriage and copulation?” she wrote in a letter to her friend Katherine Cox), the reality was otherwise. “As everyone close to her knew,” Gillian Gill observes in Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World,
Virginia loved children and had always seen herself as a mother. One of the most poignant things she received as a wedding gift was an antique cradle, presented to her by her beloved old friend Violet Dickinson.
In some ways this comes as no surprise, since Woolf wrote one of the most poignant novels ever set to paper about the power of maternal love, To the Lighthouse. But in another way it goes against our image of her as essentially chaste and committed to her writing above all. Although she later articulated positions that were fiercely opposed to the “patriarchal machine” and resisted creating a “traditional” female life, as a young woman she was focused on the conventional goals of marriage and having children. In June 1911, nearly a year before Woolf accepted Leonard’s marriage proposal, she wrote her sister, Vanessa Bell, whose fecundity and rich domestic life she envied: “To be 29 and unmarried—to be a failure—childless—insane too, no writer.”
She had been haunted as well by the Victorian figure of her adored and beautiful mother, Julia Duckworth, who gave birth to seven children by two husbands within fifteen years (her second husband was Leslie Stephen, whose four children with her included Vanessa and Virginia). Julia died at the age of forty-nine, when Woolf was thirteen, “more hag than goddess,” as Gill puts it, worn out from “domestic altruism and public philanthropy.” Woolf once observed that “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” In light of her mother’s antifeminism and opposition to a university education for women, this can be understood as a mixed tribute, if not a left-handed compliment. In any case, at the time of Woolf’s marriage, as her nephew Quentin Bell explained in his biography of her, “Virginia was still cheerfully expecting to have children.”
In the end this was not to be, although not through any decision of Virginia’s. Leonard had consulted with four psychiatric experts as to the wisdom of his wife’s becoming a mother, given her fragile constitution. One of them, Sir George Henry Savage, opined that it would “do her a world of good”; a second, Jean Thomas, who ran the nursing home Virginia stayed at in times of crisis, was also in favor; while two other Harley Street doctors thought that her psychological state would not produce mentally sound offspring.
“Virginia,” notes Gill, “saw childlessness as a personal tragedy and…blamed herself.” Years later she wrote to her friend the artist Ethel Sands:
I’m always angry with myself for not having forced Leonard to take the risk…in spite of doctors; he was afraid for me and wouldn’t but if I’d had more self-control no doubt it would have been all right.
Gill goes on to ask the inevitable question at the heart of my inquiry:
If Virginia Woolf had had children, would she have been able to write To the Lighthouse or Orlando? As she herself remarked in a 1930 letter to her nephew Quentin…, “How any woman with a family ever put pen to paper I cannot fathom.”
Yet I have occasionally wondered whether becoming a mother might have actually helped to stabilize Woolf rather than overwhelm her. Given her ardent relationship with her niece and nephews, the durable bonds of motherhood might have given her a firm anchor—perhaps a firmer one than Leonard or her work provided, keeping her in safe harbor when she most wanted to leave it. As for the question of her productivity, I am not in the least persuaded that Woolf would have written any less, especially with the likely addition of a nanny to a household staff that already included a cook and housemaid. (“If you have a house,” she wrote to Ottoline Morrell when she first moved to Bloomsbury as a young woman with her siblings, “you must have servants.”)
What’s of continuing interest to me is that the matter of motherhood and artistic creativity remains an either/or question, a deeply conflicted issue even now, despite the fact that the advances of feminism have helped women pursue occupations and goals that were once out of grasp. It is as though we have not yet reconciled ourselves to the idea that the one generative desire need not necessarily preclude the other—that we can, within reasonable bounds, have it all, even if imperfectly, which creative men have pretty much taken for granted right along.
Celia Paul, the muse and lover of Lucian Freud, with whom she had a son, Frank, and who is a talented painter in her own right, explains in her memoir, Self-Portrait (2019),
how she sent Frank off to be parented by her mother to preserve the internal space necessary to being an artist:
One of the main challenges I have faced as a woman artist is the conflict I feel about caring for someone, loving someone, yet remaining dedicated to my art in an undivided way. I think that generally men find it much easier to be selfish. And you do need to be selfish.
Similarly, in Jenny Offill’s novel Department of Speculation (2014), the narrator fears that by becoming a mother (and wife) she has vitiated her chance to become a single-minded “art monster.”
I will never forget the time, years ago, when a younger friend of mine, the daughter of a leading book critic, told me that her writing teacher, known for her astutely observed short stories, advised the class that if the female students intended to become serious writers they should abjure having children (as she had). I wondered immediately whether such draconian pronouncements emanated from her inflated sense of her own talent, of a sort that brooked no diversion, or from a conviction that the one activity would inevitably wither in the face of the other.
Then there are women who don’t give much thought to their professional lives or to becoming a mother any which way. They strike out on another road altogether, indifferent to what it might all add up to. Among them are the bohemians, hedonists, fortune-seekers, free spirits, and freeloaders—beauties all—who inhabit D.J. Taylor’s fascinating collective biography The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London. In some ways they strike me as groupies avant la lettre, substituting writers for rock stars. This bunch came together during the 1940s around Horizon, the influential literary magazine edited from 1940 to 1950 by Cyril Connolly, a critic and novelist and general bon vivant. At one time the publication’s prestige and Connolly’s fame as its impresario—he wooed such diverse talents as George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Henry Miller, and Somerset Maugham—was such that the usually reticent and resolutely unawestruck Philip Larkin is supposed to have said to him, when they met at Auden’s funeral, “Sir, you formed me.”
There were also those, such as Virginia Woolf, who never warmed to Connolly or his charms; in her diary she dismissed Horizon as “small, trivial, dull. So I think from not reading it.” Evelyn Waugh satirized the magazine and its editor in two of his novels, while agreeing all the same to have an entire issue devoted to his novel The Loved One.
Connolly, who appears to have been blazingly charismatic and ferociously attractive to women despite his jowly looks, stocky physique, and monumental egotism, is perhaps best known for his assured dictum about the misalliance of creativity and parenthood: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” I feel safe in assuming that Connolly was referring not to any childcare duties he himself may have been asked to take on (he was married three times and had two children relatively late in life) but to the general demands made on writers by wailing babies.
Taylor sees these “lost girls”—the fizzing women in Connolly’s circle—as representative of a particular type: “strong-minded, intelligent women who for the most part lived their lives as they chose.” Yet much of their glamour derived from the men they were with. These casual femmes fatales included the American-born Lys Lubbock, who devoted herself to Connolly for ten years; Joyce Frances “Glur” Warwick-Evans, a manic-depressive and the third wife of the writer Peter Quennell; and Janetta Woolley, who at seventeen had a brief affair with the thirty-five-year-old Connolly. (On a trip with him to France, she was detained by a gendarme; when Connolly came in search of her he was arrested “on grounds of abducting a minor.”)
By far the most intriguing personalities of the bunch—and the ones who offer a model of the unencumbered childless woman in pursuit of, if not quite literary glory, something close to it—are Barbara Skelton and Sonia Orwell. Like most of the “lost girls” (Quennell came up with the moniker) they were both ill-educated and from fractured or chaotic backgrounds that left them adrift early on. Skelton was known for her startlingly exotic beauty and a capriciousness that beguiled Egypt’s King Farouk, among others. She would go on to acquire three husbands: Connolly (the two fought, he remarked, “like kangaroos”), the British publisher George Weidenfeld, and Derek Jackson, a physicist with a private fortune. Several abortions had left her sterile, about which she doesn’t seem to have expressed much regret.
One of Skelton’s many pursuers thought that much of her allure was “associative”—“She had lived with a succession of intelligent men and a dusting of their brilliance had rubbed off on her”—but this description strikes me as too dismissive. Skelton was a complicated woman with an inquiring mind and a writerly gift. Her Cairo diary is full of colorful observations—“The pavements were crowded, women with frizzy black hair hurried along on taloned cork sandals”—and her two memoirs, Tears Before Bedtime (1987) and Weep No More (1989), are gems of rancor shot through with an underlying vulnerability.
Sonia Orwell (née Brownell) was a different matter altogether. Pretty, if not possessed of the ravishing beauty Taylor describes in her peers, she was she was hungry to gain entrance into the intellectual firmament. Stephen Spender thought of her “as always struggling to go beyond herself…into some pagan aesthete world of artists and literary geniuses who could save her.” Sonia cultivated Connolly and in 1945 nabbed the job of editorial secretary of Horizon. Although she was mocked for her pretensions and her unleavened highbrow approach, before a year had passed Connolly began to rely on her judgment and to delegate more substantive editorial tasks to her: “How is the September number?… Do accept anything you think good…Will you write and ask Mary MacCarthy [sic] to review the Kinsey Report for us?”
Koestler and Freud were rumored to be among Sonia’s lovers. Another conquest was the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who came with a wife and Marxist pals Sonia disapproved of. Then a most unlikely and persistent suitor appeared in the form of “a Horizon mainstay,” George Orwell. At thirty-one and, as Taylor puts it, “in the pink of health,” Sonia agreed to marry the forty-six-year-old Orwell, who was practically on his deathbed with tuberculosis. The two wed in his hospital room, where he was propped against the pillows in a crimson corduroy jacket, with a handful of guests in attendance. One observer quoted by Taylor remarked, “Somehow she snuggled up to George…and got him to marry her. Why he did so is a mystery…. I hope the poor man did not die to a barrage of French phrases.”
Another recent group biography, Square Haunting by Francesca Wade, concentrates on five extraordinary women, some with children and some without, who were unconflictedly committed to their work. The putative bond that links them is that during the years between 1916 and 1940 they all lived for varying periods—from one year to two decades—in a little-known enclave of Bloomsbury called Mecklenburgh Square. From this slender thread Wade has spun a remarkable, even stirring story of women who, whether because of their brainpower or domestic inclinations or, again, temperaments, lived uncommon lives that stand as models for the ways in which women can thrive outside stifling conventions. Although Wade is not focused on the mother/artist divide as such, its significance in all five of these women’s lives comes up repeatedly, suggesting that each thought about how she would accommodate both impulses.
The Mecklenburgh gang includes the gender-fluid Imagist poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), who was psychoanalyzed by Sigmund Freud (he told her she was the “perfect bisexual”) and who had a daughter, Perdita, with Cecil Gray, a composer and friend of D.H. Lawrence, while married to the journalist Richard Aldington. Shortly thereafter and still married, she began an open relationship with Bryher, née Annie Winifred Ellerman, an aspiring writer who came from great wealth. Bryher understood her friend’s “ambivalence about motherhood…and was insistent that H.D.’s writing should not be interrupted,” Wade writes. “I hope you will be sensible over Perdita,” she wrote to H.D. in April 1919, “and remember you were not given poetry to sit and worry over an infant in a solitary cottage. I am very jealous for your poetry and I will even fight Perdita about it.” Their relationship lasted forty years, during which time Bryher devotedly looked after H.D.
Dorothy L. Sayers, a resident of Mecklenburgh Square in 1920–1921, attended Oxford on a scholarship before moving to London to make her literary mark. (Allowing women to continue their academic studies on an equal footing with men was still a subject of fierce debate when she was at school in the early 1900s, Wade writes, stirring “virulent opposition among commentators: some medical detractors argued that education would disrupt menstruation and cause dysfunction of the reproductive system.”) Sayers lived in “a lovely Georgian room, with three great windows” at 44 Mecklenburgh Square—the very room that H.D. had occupied in 1918. Driven by her reading of “both medieval poetry and lurid crime paperbacks,” she wrote celebrated and wildly successful detective novels, beginning, in 1923, with Whose Body? The most famous of her books is Gaudy Night, starring the monocle-wearing Lord Peter Wimsey, “a new sort of moral detective,” and the formidable Harriet Vane, a mystery writer.
Vane initially meets Wimsey in Strong Poison, the fifth book in the Wimsey series, when she is on trial for murder. They eventually marry, although it is part of the fun that Sayers keeps her readers guessing for as long as possible whether they will actually tie the knot. In many ways, Vane stands in for the newly independent woman Sayers was creating for her female readers: educated, with a career, and decidedly not lovesick, the sort of woman who would only agree to a marriage that was undertaken on equal terms—“a relationship which would not force a choice between private happiness and intellectual independence,” as Wade observes, “but would instead provide the conditions for both.”
In 1924 Sayers gave birth to a son, John Anthony, with a married former bank clerk named Bill White. She kept the fact a secret from her friends, deciding to leave John Anthony with a cousin who earned her living as a foster parent. “She still wanted nothing more than to write,” Wade reports, “and couldn’t imagine a way of combining the focus of her work with the self-sacrifice expected of a mother.” Sayers was willing to forgo romance (as well as motherhood) because, as she observed, “it interferes with one’s work,” although in 1925 she met a News of the World journalist, Mac Fleming, whom she married. In time, the couple came to live largely in separate residences: it was through her fiction, rather than her life, that Sayers conceived of a partnership that would work.
The three other women portrayed in Square Haunting were similarly determined in their unorthodoxy and disdain for the female status quo. Jane Harrison was a multilingual classicist (she learned eleven living and five dead languages) who greatly influenced Woolf. In the 1870s she attended Newnham College, Cambridge, where she garnered a reputation as “the cleverest woman in England,” and came to live at 11 Mecklenburgh Street at the age of seventy-five. She was interested in rereading history “through the lens of gender and power,” Wade observes, and would go on to write two books, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) and Themis (1912), that drew on evidence gleaned from archaeological digs she’d taken part in that questioned the rise of a “patrilinear social structure” in Greek society.
In 1898 she was invited to return to Newnham and eventually became part of the Cambridge classics faculty, where her views were often attacked. Although derided for heretical thinking, Harrison was not in the least concerned: “To be a heretic today,” she wrote, “is almost a human obligation.” She had intimate relationships with both men and women of a scholarly bent, and lived on Mecklenburgh Street with Hope Mirrlees, a Newnham pupil thirty-seven years her junior, from approximately 1915 until Harrison’s death in 1928. Woolf, with her characteristic spite, demoted Mirrlees in her diary to being a “spoiled prodigy”: “overdressed, over-elaborate, scented, extravagant,” and possessed of a “greed, like a greed for almond paste, for fame.”
Then there was Eileen Power, an internationally known economic historian who taught medieval history at Girton, another of Cambridge’s women’s colleges (her area of expertise was the wool trade in medieval England, and later she wrote a seven-hundred-page study of medieval nunneries). She lived on the square for eighteen years. Power once told a student that “any woman can have a career if she has A, a good husband, and B, a good housekeeper.” She wore dresses from the Paris salons, was a friend of H.G. Wells, had a “cheery disregard for traditions and received truths,” and supported the anti-appeasement movement that arose following Neville Chamberlain’s concessions to Hitler. Despite never having been convinced that male company was “an essential for a fulfilling emotional life,” she quietly married her long-term male research assistant, Munia Postan, in 1937, when she was forty-eight and he thirty-nine.
Finally, we return to Virginia Woolf, who lived at 37 Mecklenburgh Square for only a short while, from August 1939 to October 1940, when she was fifty-seven. On September 3, 1939, Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. The Gestapo had compiled a 350-page blacklist, which included the names of both Leonard and Virginia, who had agreed that, as Wade writes, “in the event of defeat they would gas themselves at home rather than await capture.” During this tense period the couple divided their time between Monk’s House, a sixteenth-century cottage in the village of Rodmell, and their flat in London—“this doomed and devastated but at the same time morbidly fascinating town,” as Woolf described it. In September 1940 the Blitz began. “I said to L.: ‘I dont want to die yet,’” Woolf recorded in her diary. That same month, Mecklenburgh Square was bombed; during a second attack in November 1940 a bomb collapsed the back of the Woolfs’ house, which led them to move out of London. On the afternoon of March 28, 1941, Virginia, who had lived through many debilitating depressions, committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse.
In his poem “The Choice,” W.B. Yeats presented a male artist’s options in drastic terms: “Perfection of the life, or of the work,” putting in succinct words the dilemma women have mulled before and ever since. What, then, is one to make of the various choices—some intently focused, some more slapdash—of all these undeniably gifted and independent-minded women? Are the ones who abstain from having children the ones most fully empowered to pursue their ambition? Or is this not the real question to be posed, mainly because there are no conditions whereby a particular writer or artist will be in full possession of her talent, whichever way she decides to live? Nonartistic issues will always impinge, no matter how much one tries to avoid them, and will end up shaping the course of one’s life.
Could it be, I find myself asking, that there is no real dilemma, other than an imaginary one? Some women may see motherhood as an imposed and idealized bondage, refusing to sacrifice the primacy of their work to its claims. Olsen, for one, came to insist, as Doherty writes, that “mothering and all its rewards took away from artistic inspiration and execution: you could not live in the world of your novel in progress and live with your children simultaneously.” And then there are women, like Sylvia Plath, who can’t imagine even the richest intellectual life without the generative impulse: “It is not when I have a baby, but that I have one, and more, which is of supreme importance to me,” she wrote in her journal in June 1959. “And for a woman to be deprived of the Great Experience her body is formed to partake of, to nourish, is a great and wasting Death.” Having children may not save a person, as it did not save either Plath or Sexton, but it may add to their portion of pleasure (if also drudgery).
As the mother of one child, a daughter—and as an aunt to twenty nieces and nephews—I have rarely tried to parse whether I would have written more if I had remained childless, if only because I know myself to be ceaselessly drawn to distractions in whatever form they arrive. If anything, I have pondered whether my life would have felt fuller and more intensely focused if I had had another child or two, the better to force me to schedule my time more fruitfully. Then again, perhaps my work doesn’t mean enough to me to give it the kind of sovereignty that Celia Paul and others like her do. Or perhaps, like Plath, becoming a mother was an experience I longed to have every bit as much as I longed to write. This might make me a victim of the patriarchy and its creation of the sacral myth of motherhood, or it might make me simply a writer and a mother, as proud of one kind of expression as the other.