I’ve always been fascinated by intelligent women who subjugate themselves to the egos of their male partners. The now infamous marriage of writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick to poet Robert Lowell is often interpreted as one such tale of subjugation, a complicated relationship that defies easy explanation.
In her slim, new novel, Divine Madness, Lynne Kaufman explores Hardwick and Lowell’s tumultuous relationship in spare prose. Kaufman is first and foremost an award-winning playwright, and before Divine Madness was a novel, she wrote a play under the same title that was performed on Zoom during the pandemic. “I’ve written dozens of plays, and none of them have tempted me to transform them into novels,” says Kaufman. “Lowell’s and Hardwick’s relationship is so against the tide of feminism, but what pushes against the expected is interesting to me.”
But with his bipolar swings and overspilling emotions, Lowell dominated the stage—or, rather, the screen—while Hardwick remained a secondary and somewhat vaguely outlined character. To remedy the imbalance of the play, Kaufman’s novel adopts Hardwick’s point of view, exploring the myriad motivations that led Hardwick, an extraordinary essayist and cofounder of the New York Review of Books, to stay with Lowell despite his betrayals, infidelities, and volatility.
Kaufman’s novel, unlike her play, leaps two decades into the past, when Hardwick was 33 years old and first became intimate with Lowell at Yaddo, the literary colony. It’s a critical scene, one that seems to provide at least an early explanation for the longevity of their relationship. Their connection is instant: “The talk is far more lasting, varied, and thrilling than the sex,” writes Kaufman, inhabiting Hardwick. “I am in love with his mind. The mind that creates the brilliant poems I devour.”
The rest of their story is told using an episodic structure, reminiscent of Hardwick’s novel, Sleepless Nights. Time is often compressed. The first seven years are presented in one chapter. Then another seven years are compressed in one chapter, and soon they are 40. In some ways, the structure of Divine Madness mirrors Hardwick’s life, which was constantly disrupted by Lowell’s bipolar episodes that required yearly hospitalizations. Yet Kaufman avoids reducing Hardwick to a martyr, or a victim of sexist domination.
Many of Kaufman’s playwriting instincts followed her into the novel. “I don’t like describing things,” she says. “I like brevity, compression, flashes of things. I know what a chair looks like. I don’t care what kind of chair it is. I’m impatient. I’m drawn to incisive, tight writing, writing in which you can’t miss a sentence. It’s how I write my plays.” Yet she doesn’t lean too heavily on dialogue, taking full advantage of her new form to explore Hardwick’s interior monologue—her thoughts, ideas, writing habits, philosophies. Which is to say, the woman beyond the marriage.
To research the play, and later the novel—both of which were written prior to the publication of Cathy Curtis’s biography of Hardwick, A Splendid Intelligence—Kaufman read as many of Hardwick’s essays, short stories, and novels as she could, and often quotes her directly in Divine Madness. And throughout, she attempts to mimic Hardwick’s now iconic voice: “I write an essay for Harpers,” she writes, ventriloquizing Hardwick,
‘The Decline of Book Reviewing,’ creates a great stir. Although the fates of authors and publishers depend on book reviews, no one has thought of reviewing the reviewers. So it’s a first, and I don’t spare any feelings. Not even the august New York Times or Herald Tribune escape my scorn. I call the reading of the Sunday morning book reviews a dismal experience, a mush of concession. Sweet, bland praise. A universal, lobotomized accommodation.
But repeatedly, the book returns to Lowell, or Cal—as in “Caligula, the cruel and deranged Roman emperor,” explains Hardwick’s friend, Mary McCarthy. “Cal for Caliban, the spawn of a monster.” When he meets Caroline Blackwood and doesn’t return to New York, Hardwick understands this is not his usual fling. After seven months of back and forth, she files for divorce. Then a year later, he asks if she wants to see his new collection of poems. She’s heard through the rumor mill that it’s autobiographical, confessional. When The Dolphin is finally published, Hardwick is devastated to see that Lowell has excerpted Hardwick’s letters to him, sometimes even rewriting them for his own purposes.
In the end, after Lowell leaves Blackwood, Hardwick takes him back. How? Why? “What I miss most is married life,” Kaufman’s Hardwick writes. “Having a partner. Having a family. Shared meals. Shared talk. Shared money. Shared space. And having Cal read his poems to me. That I am the first person to hear those thoughts. To feel his eyes fixed on my face, hungrily awaiting my approval.”
Kaufman isn’t done with these two literary figures. She’s working on another play, longer, more complex. “I’m not ready to leave it somehow,” she says. “They are brilliant, complex, conflicted, driven, and ever so human. I keep looking at pictures of Hardwick and Lowell together, searching for clues. I keep reading their letters, listening to their hearts’ revelations. This is very unusual for me.” As she did in her novel, Kaufman, steeped in the world of Lowell and Hardwick, is sure to abide by one of Hardwick’s credos, as she does in this novel: “The great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”