But in all fairness, I did read the book through with growing exasperation and speed (for one can't, at my age, afford to waste too much precious time on clumsy and shambolic drivel). Here then is a brief taste of this fanciful, ill-written, appallingly proofed, shoddily 'edited' and wildly misbegotten tome. Katherine Mansfield, "possibly the greatest short story writer in the English language rivals masters of the art like Chekhov". H.D. produced "some of the most brilliant poetry of the twentieth century". Elizabeth Smart was "author of one of the greatest works on love ever written." Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn "were a literary Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the Posh and Becks of American letters". Phooey, piffle and codswallop, of course, and therefore hilarious passim. Who is she, this sublimely insouciant humourist, perhaps one of the funniest of the 21st century?
Ms McDowell, we learn from the jacket, is a young literary journalist who writes for the TLS and the Independent on Sunday; she's gleaned "a Scottish Arts Council award for her second novel" and "earned a Ph.D. for her work on James Joyce". Wow, all very impressive. Yet I do hope her clunky, turgid style eventually improves, and hope too that, however assiduous her future researches may be, her accuracy and fact-checking prove less slipshod. It's pretty clear that Ms McD. never met or knew the people about whom she blithely pontificates and fantasises, but that of course needn't necessarily be a stumbling-block to the litcrit faculty. The trouble is, all this pretentious pseudo-feminist tosh is relentlessly recycled, fifth and sixth-hand stuff, as the citations and bibliography make clear: the devil is very much in the detail here. And boy, does the girl get those details wrong! One example (I can't bear to trawl through this 365pp. weighty tome looking for more, but just take my word for it): Dr McDowell imagines that Sleep It Off, Lady is a Jean Rhys novel.
Well I did happen to know four or five of the excellent writers selected for her tendentious generalisations, and so found both style and content doubly depressing. Libelling and labelling the dead is a cheery post mortem pastime, it seems, and perhaps now even a profitable one. As for this sort of slack, unappetising, fashionably speculative piece of trash, it's neither useful literary dissection nor detection. I'm really rather relieved that my own two books about Jean Rhys are apparently unknown to McDowell. She does, though, draw upon the equally fanciful, if marginally better written, recent 'portrait' of Jean by Lilian Pizzichini, whose The Blue Hour (2008) seems to derive its title and some other biographical angles via pp. 233-4 of my first book about Jean, Jean Rhys revisited (2000). Pizzichini was inevitably lauded for her gushing middle-of-the-road fabrications by the dreadful Sunday Times panjandrum and hackademic, Professor John Carey (for whom, see also pp. 149-151 of JRr). But she did deign to mention my memoir of Jean, even though the publication was listed incorrectly… As to the whole issue of spurious criticism and tired, sensation-seeking books about 'fascinating personalities' who reportedly behave in a larger than life, bold or 'bohemian' manner, we've surely had enough of them: save the trees, for heavens' sake!