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The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle, edited by Saskia Hamilton – review

This collection of correspondence between the critic and the poet as their marriage fell apart provides a riveting study of ethics and betrayal

Life is raw, but we expect literature to be properly cooked. Hence the notorious fuss about Robert Lowell’s confessional sonnet sequence The Dolphin, the narrative of an adulterous relationship in which he high-handedly versified excerpts from the distraught letters written to him by the wife he abandoned, the critic Elizabeth Hardwick.

In 1970 Lowell took up a fellowship in Oxford, leaving Hardwick and their teenage daughter behind in New York. A week later, after a party in London, he began an affair with the rackety bohemian heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood. Hardwick wondered at his silence – for which his excuses included not knowing how to buy a stamp or to lick the gummed edges of an aerogram – but even after learning the truth she remained his distant, dutiful helpmeet, preparing his taxes, dealing with “degrading money things” like car insurance, and replacing his typewriter ribbon in the hope that he would return. When the bipolar Lowell suffered a bout of mania, she hastened to London to nurse him. Blackwood had no interest in such connubial care, and preferred to express emotion operatically or perhaps alcoholically. “If I have had drunken hysterical seizures,” she told Lowell, “it’s because I love you so much.”

Often he helped himself to Hardwick's words verbatim, but when he changed them, he cruelly misrepresented her

Related: Novel, letter, essay, memoir? Eimear McBride on Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights

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