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AWW 2013: Ann-Marie Priest's Great Writers, Great Loves

Ann-Marie Priest’s Great Writers, Great Loves

I am not entirely sure where I picked it up from.

But I live in Fremantle where there are three Elizabeth Bookshops and a plethora of other bookstores and secondhand bibliophile’s havens (or heavens if you prefer). Its prior home could have been anywhere but most probably had an address within the Fremantle post code. But I like writing and I like anything to do with Virginia Woolf so of course it somehow came home with me.

Priest’s idea is not a new one. People often comment and ask writers which character in book X is based on them. Readers often assume that what is discussed in a novel, though fictionalised, is nevertheless somehow based on a realistic parallel in the author’s present or past lived experience. But Priest doesn’t want to assume a connection, she actually wants to see if it is possible that it occurred, if it is possible that it was known and intentional. Because what she does know is that every single twentieth century author profiled in the book has shaped and re-shaped the commonly held idea of love and what it should be like. So did they lead varied and complicated love lives where their principles matched up to the ideas that they espoused and can you see these in their novels, in their characters? Are we directly beholden to these authors not for just writing about different ways of loving and living but for them actually attempting to successfully live them out themselves?

Priest uses all sorts of material to find references and hints and outright declarations. Letters between lovers and spouses and friends, novels and poetry written by the writers, memoirs, biographies and essays and even works written by those around them, family members and friends, all are sifted through.

So we get characters like Virginia Woolf living with Leonard in a loving relationship and pursuing a known sexual one with Vita Sackville-West. Letters between the lovers, and to and from friends exist. Vita’s son Nigel recalls vividly what his mother was like. Vita’s letters about Virginia to her husband Denys (he himself having homosexual affairs at the time) are cited along with letters between Leonard and Virginia.

Along with her calmer, but perhaps deeper, relationship with Leonard, it was the great love of her life. Her companionate marriage has become a kind of icon for many, a much-revered idyll. But at the same time – and in keeping with the complexity of many contemporary relationships – her lesbian affair with Vita led to explorations of sexuality and gender that would reverberate through the twentieth century.
– Excerpt from Great Writers, Great Loves by Ann-Marie Priest

The other writers are no different. We get D.H. Lawrence trying to decide if women should be submissive or not and his wife Frieda commenting that perhaps he had always been a bit afraid of women and that was what drove him. We find Sylvia Plath lost in her ideals of what a relationship should be like and Ted lost with her, nearly taken over by everything to do with her. Australian writer Charmain Clift struggles with the problem of writing while having it all in love as well and Frank O’Hara finds it hard to manage freedom, romantic relationships and platonic friendships. Katherine Mansfield thumbs her nose at propriety early on and Dylan Thomas’ love life is overshadowed by alcoholism in the form of co-dependency.

This is a book that reminds us how powerful the written word can be when new ideas are broadcast through its medium and ripple out to play their part in creating significant change in society. It’s a book that reminds us that above all else, these writers were human, they were people, struggling to be themselves often in a world that was clinging onto a way of being that didn’t allow for new ideas without an immense fight. That they had flaws and that intentionally or otherwise, their beliefs, ideas and experiences coloured the stories they would write with subtle shading and subtext or with glorious rainbow-like tapestries.

And Priest in reminding us of this fact makes us wonder now: what incredibly new ideas lurk in the written words being put down by writers today that will lead to societal change in the near future?

Author: Ann-Marie Priest
Genre: Non-fiction: writing, writers, literary criticism
Publisher: Black Inc. (Schwartz Publishing imprint)
Publication Date: 2006

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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