Can Literary Couples Be Just Friends?
Studies have called into question whether men and women can be "just friends." Are our XY friendships doomed to fracture us into lovers, strangers, exes, and enemies? Writers like Hemingway and Virginia Woolf tell us otherwise. Here are famous literary friendships between the sexes that stayed (pretty) platonic.
The Monsters: Mary Shelley & Lord Byron
According to legend, Frankenstein was brought to life one dark night in 1816 in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva when Lord Byron challenged his friends Percy Shelley, Shelley's soon-to-be-wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori each to tell a ghost story. Literary scholars and monster nerds alike debate how much influence Byron had over Mary Shelley's work (she wrote heroic, cameo roles for him) and heart (the poet was a notorious lothario once described by a lover as "mad, bad and dangerous to know"). Claire Clairmont had love affairs with both Percy Shelley and Byron but would later call them "monsters of lying, meanness, cruelty and treachery." The story of what really went on during that summer and beyond is unraveled in The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein, by Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler.
Means of 'Escape': Virginia Woolf & Lytton Strachey
The Bloomsbury Group in pre-war London was just as full of sex, love and bookishness, though its members weren't quite as louche and loose as Lord Byron. Among the friends and lovers were Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive and Vanessa Bell, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey and others. Strachey came close to pushing the boundaries with his friend Virginia Woolf, noting in a letter to his brother: "In my efforts to escape, I had a decided reverse the other day... I proposed to Virginia, and was accepted. It was an awkward moment, as you may imagine... luckily it turned out that she's not in love." As Michael Holroyd points out in his dishy biography, what the writer of Eminent Victorians was trying to escape was his suppressed homosexuality. What else are friends for?
Because the Night Belongs to Us: Patti Smith & Robert Mapplethorpe
Punk rocker Patti Smith was also there in times of need for a young, somewhat confusedly gay Robert Mapplethorpe, long before Smith's "Horses" or Mapplethorpe's taboo-smashing erotic photography. The two discovered themselves as artists, adults and sexual creatures in the '60s and '70s New York of Andy Warhol and the Chelsea Hotel. Smith and Mapplethorpe had the rare friendship that went from Platonic to carnal and back to Platonic—without things getting weird—as Smith recounts in her National Book Award–winning memoir, Just Kids.
A Moveable Feast: Ernest Hemingway & Gertrude Stein
As Woody Allen reimagined it in Midnight in Paris, the community of expat artists in the City of Lights in the 1920s was full of passion both artistic and erotic. How could it have been otherwise? At the center of this circle was Gertrude Stein, a mentor and mother figure to Hemingway, whose relationships with other women tended to veer toward "it's really complicated." (See also Paula McLain's novel The Paris Wife, with Hemingway's beleaguered spouse in the lead role.) Hemingway wasn't immune to the charms of Paris, as he vividly recounts in his memoir, A Moveable Feast.
Two Souls at the White Heat: Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Emily Dickinson was less inclined than Hemingway to hang out with a bunch of randy writers. Nevertheless, the famous recluse had as devoted an advocate and mentor in the minister and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Though they met in person only twice, Higginson saw early signs of Dickinson's genius and became her champion. He recognized in the poet a sly wit and passion that belied her hermit-like persona, and after meeting her in the flesh, he remarked that he'd never met someone "who drained my nerve power so much." Ooh la la! Brenda Wineapple records their unique companionship in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Dovetail: Harper Lee & Truman Capote
One of the longest-lasting and most obsessed-over literary friendships was that between Truman Capote and Harper Lee, who grew up together in Monroeville, Ala., and later went on to write two of the most iconic books in the American canon: In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both books were based on real-life murders, and the writers helped each other along as they grew, with occasional spikes of jealousy and upset that fortunately didn't turn murderous. Charles J. Shields paints a vivid portrait of Lee in Mockingbird, and George Plimpton compiles a fittingly edgy oral biography of Capote in Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.
Please Write Back at Once: Deborah Devonshire & Patrick Leigh Fermor
Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, was the youngest of the six legendary Mitford sisters. Unlike others in her colorful family, "Debo" wasn't a famous writer, a Communist or a friend of Hitler's, but she did have a life filled with friendships with luminaries such as the Kennedys, painter Lucian Freud, photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and even Errol Flynn (who did not get "in like Flynn" with the Duchess). Debo was relatively unschooled compared with her sisters, but she kept up a smart, witty and idiosyncratic correspondence with writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor, a friendship that lasted from 1956 until Fermor's death in 2011. Their letters have been collected in the book, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Life Studies: Robert Lowell & Elizabeth Bishop
Elizabeth Bishop wrote that when she met Robert Lowell, "I loved him at first sight." The passionate, moody poets struck up an intimate friendship and a dialogue about poetry that lasted decades—and lived most vividly in their letters, collected in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop and Lowell called each other "soul mates" and could have been lovers. But perhaps thankfully for posterity, they didn't muddle their muses with marriage.
If you liked this, we recommend signing up for the Bookish newsletter! Once a week, you'll get the best spam-free and book-filled editorial content.