Bloomsbury to Brooklyn

Or, The Enduring Difficulty with Intellectual Women


Aldous Huxley’s name is synonymous with Brave New World these days, but before he wrote that book, he wrote several novels of manners about the English literary scene. Huxley spent a good portion of the 1910s at Garsington Manor, where he rubbed elbows with Bertrand Russell, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and the rest of the Bloomsbury group. In the twenties, he palled around with D.H. and Frieda Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and Mary Hutchinson as he trekked between Europe and England. Novels like Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925), and Point Counter Point (1928) offer a satirically tinged view of the modernist literati and the circles they travelled in.

Huxley was constantly alienating friends and family members by putting thinly veiled portrayals of them in his novels. Lady Ottoline Morrell, mistress of Garsington, was particularly hurt by his mockery of a hostess character who resembled her in Crome Yellow; and Huxley’s father, annoyed by a too-close-to-life description of a protagonist’s mother, accused Aldous of “botanising on your mother’s grave.” Yet these early novels combined a gossipy feel with a philosophical battle of ideas in ways that were irresistible to many readers. Friends and reviewers said the novels were “vindictive,” that their wit “compel[led] the reader to hold his nose”; Huxley himself acknowledged that they might be “at first sight rather repulsive.” But they sold. Everyone was reading them.

I thought of Huxley last month as I was reading Adelle Waldman’s 2013 novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Waldman, too, documents a literary scene—New York in the 2010s rather than London in the 1920s. And Waldman, too, puts a gossipy gloss on a rather serious exploration of literature, politics, and gender. In Nate Piven’s world, as in Huxley’s, everyone seems to be a writer or artist. Superficial friendships mask artistic rivalries, and there’s a bohemian, progressive feel to the scene. Bloomsbury has a reputation for smart, successful women—think Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Katherine Mansfield—and sexual liberation. It seems ahead of its time. Indeed, Nate Piven’s circle is positively tame in comparison to the sexual permutations among the Bloomsbury crowd. There seems to be a standard of compulsory heterosexuality and serial monogamy among Nate’s friends that was not present among Huxley’s friends.[1]

Bloomsbury and Brooklyn’s bright young things have something else in common too. Underneath the veneer of liberal politics and liberated women lies a fair amount of good old-fashioned sexism. Women may write, read, and talk ideas with the men, but on some level the men continue to perceive them as sexual conquests rather than intellectual equals.

Huxley’s novel Those Barren Leaves demonstrates the problem. Among the coterie gathered together at an old palace in the Italian countryside are Calamy, a philosophical young man, and Mary Thriplow, a young novelist. When we first meet Mary, she is scheming how best to seduce Calamy. At first she thinks an urbane, worldly persona should do the trick, but upon discovering Calamy is a more world-weary sort, she shifts tack and pretends instead to be an innocent child of nature. The seduction works, even if the act doesn’t. Calamy becomes entangled in Mary’s web, and it is only by extricating himself and leaving Mary to live alone in the Italian mountains that he is able to pursue his true intellectual destiny at novel’s end.

Put thusly, this subplot seems like the most clichéd kind of sexist garbage. The notion that literary women like Mary are not sincere artists but rather insincere harpies looking to entrap men, and that men must get away from them in order to Find Themselves in the Wilderness, is one of the more boring male novelist fantasies. But I have to give Huxley a little more credit than this, because I believe something else is true about These Barren Leaves: Mary Thriplow is Huxley.

It’s evident in the way she describes her writing: “I’m trying to do something new—a chemical compound of all the categories. Lightness and tragedy and loveliness and wit and fantasy and realism and irony and sentiment all combined.” And the way she speaks of her readers: “They like my books because they’re smart and unexpected and rather paradoxical and cynical and elegantly brutal. They don’t see how serious it all is.” And the way she knows herself and recognizes her flaws: “She could not help suspecting, when she read Dostoievsky and Tchehov, that she was organized differently from these Russians. It seemed to her that she felt nothing so acutely, with such an intricate joy or misery as did they.”

This is not just Mary Thriplow explaining herself. This is Huxley explaining himself, explaining his own cynical style. The primary difference between the two is that Mary is a woman and Huxley was a man. And that difference makes all the difference. For Mary never gets to stop being a woman and just be a writer. She has to seek sexual attention to get intellectual attention, to perform whatever kind of femininity Calamy or her readers like. Huxley gets to be an ironist on the page, while Mary is doomed to be an ironist in life, a hypocrite.

From one perspective, though, Mary emerges the victor in the wake of her relationship with Calamy. When he leaves her, and the worldliness she symbolizes, for a more meditative life, she doesn’t pine. She’s already planning her next novel, one that will capitalize on the thoughts and emotions provoked by her recent affair. “Love is [women’s] natural business, the reason of their existence,” another male writer character in Those Barren Leaves declares. But love isn’t Mary Thriplow’s natural business; writing is.

Nate Piven would never put it so vulgarly, but he too seems to think that love, and not writing, is women’s natural business. Nate, a newly successful writer living in NYC, thinks of himself as an enlightened, progressive guy. He’s writing an article an essay about how the “elite… outsource the act of exploitation”; they shop at Whole Foods and live in newly renovated apartments without personally witnessing any of the exploited laborers who make their feel-good consumption possible. It’s the kind of thing you might read in The Nation or Salon.

But Nate’s liberal tendencies notwithstanding, he finds it difficult to perceive the women in his social circles as intellectual equals. On his first date with Hannah, another writer, she tells Nate that it doesn’t matter to her whether the public at large cares about books or appreciates Nabokov. “It flashed through Nate’s mind that Hannah’s position wasn’t very feminine. She sounded more like an aesthete than an educator, and women, in his experience, tended by disposition to be educators. He felt intuitively that she was paraphrasing someone else (a professor? Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature?) and that the someone was a man.”

For Nate, literature is a man’s game—he reads mostly men and prefers a kind of writing that “seem[s] inherently masculine.” Smart women exist, Nate acknowledges, but they “seemed to be primarily interested in advocacy, using intellect to serve a cause like feminism or the environment or the welfare of children, or in the interpretation of their own experience.” Either too personal or too political, intellectual women “seemed less capable of (or interested in) the disinterested aesthetic appraisal of literature or art: they were more likely to base judgments on a thing’s message.” Nate’s theory of literature here is drawn from the modernists. Like someone who read a little too much Ezra Pound or Oscar Wilde in college, he believes in aesthetic autonomy.

Nate is enough a man of the twenty-first century to know that he can’t say these things aloud. Yet they inflect many of his interactions with women. When Nate and Hannah’s relationship dissolves, he begins dating Greer, another writer. Greer is even more successful than Nate—she gets a much larger book advance than he does—but Nate is not threatened because he considers her intellectually inferior to him. Her writing is “feminine,” emotionally and sexually charged memoir. Nate thinks that “Greer had ideas of her own, all sorts of them. They just weren’t rooted in any context beyond that of pop culture and a certain strand of women’s literature.”

Despite this not-so-subtle contempt for Greer’s work, the two stay together. Sometimes Nate feels sad that his intellectual side is “simply incomprehensible to her,” but he likes her charisma and her femininity. It never occurs to Nate that Greer might be just as smart as he is, that his read of their situation might be delusive or self-aggrandizing. What Waldman seems to be suggesting is that for men like Nate, intellectual respect and sexual attraction cannot coexist.

I can’t judge whether The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an accurate portrayal of the New York literary scene (though all signs point to literary magazines having a lady problem). But I can say that Nate’s problems with intellectual women would not be entirely out of place in academia. Academia, too, is a setting where intelligent banter and erudition are cultural currency, and where outspoken feminism sometimes veils latent sexism. Often it’s unconscious—I’ve been to many meetings, talks, and conference panels where men dominate the conversation without any nefarious intentions. They simply don’t doubt that what they have to say is important and insightful, the way many women have been socialized to do. Other times, of course, it is conscious, as David Gilmour’s self-congratulatory sexism showed.

If performing intellect, rather than simply being smart, is part of the job description, and if the cultural image of the intellectual is a white man—an old white man in tweed or a young white man in jeans—then women and people of color are going to be at a disadvantage.[2] That’s almost as true in 2015 as it was in 1925. Huxley and Waldman remind me that feminism isn’t just something we need to reform stodgy, conservative circles. It’s a light we need to keep shining in our own closets.

[1] I’ve been reading Nicholas Murray’s biography of Aldous Huxley, which tracks the sexual relationship between Aldous and Maria Huxley and Mary Hutchinson, no doubt one of literary history’s greatest threesomes. And the extramarital relationships between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and… well, pretty much everybody with Duncan Grant, are well known to modernist scholars.

[2] Another commonality between the two literary scenes is that they are mostly white. I think it’s important to recognize that if we see women struggling to get intellectual respect in Huxley and Waldman’s novels, we hardly see people of color in them at all. Literary publishing and academia have perhaps an even bigger problem with racism than they do with sexism, something that writers like Kiese Laymon, Junot Diaz, and Roxane Gay have addressed much better than I can.

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