In October 1948, four months after her famous short story The Lottery was published in The New Yorker, arriving at the hospital to have her third baby, Shirley Jackson was asked by the admitting clerk what profession should be noted on her official record. “Writer,” Jackson told her. “Housewife,” suggested the clerk. “Writer,” Jackson repeated. “I’ll just put down housewife,” said the clerk.
Although Jackson later employed this anecdote with excellent comic effect in her domestic memoir Life Among the Savages (1953), it also speaks to the struggle female authors face in trying to combine both the serious pursuit of their art with the exhausting demands (both practical and psychological) of motherhood. As Cyril Connolly famously put it: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”
One solution was to put your crying baby on the fire escape – a brutal but no doubt also extremely effective answer to beating the pram-in-the-hall effect – as painter Alice Neel was accused of doing, so she could work in peace. Though apparently untrue, it is the now-apocryphal story that gives the title to the award-winning biographer and critic Julie Phillips’s new book that examines how a handful of 20th-century women have negotiated being artists and mothers simultaneously.
The sci-fi writer Ursula Le Guin was able to pursue these two facets of her identity in parallel; believing, in fact, that her domestic demands kept her tethered to the real world, allowing her to “take imaginative risks[…] by giving her a place to come back to”.
But she also had the assistance of a hands-on husband; a partnership of the kind that poet Audre Lorde sought when she proactively married and had children with her gay friend Edwin Rollins – though as it turned out, it was Lorde’s later female partner, Frances Clayton, who proved herself a far more effective helpmeet.
Clayton’s devotion to Lorde’s career and the responsibility that she took for the care of their household, children included, Phillips explains, “gave Audre space to grow, as a poet, as a teacher, and as the public figure that successful artists and writers must eventually be.”
For many, however, it was more of a battle. Neel fled the confines of early marriage and motherhood, trading, as it were, her daughter Isabetta – whom she left with her in-laws in Cuba – for a life of freedom among the bohemians of New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing, meanwhile, forfeited custody of her children when she deserted them and their father, her husband, in Rhodesia, absconding to London in an act of political and artistic awakening. Interestingly, forsaking their children didn’t mean disowning motherhood – both Lessing and Neel went on to draw on their maternal experiences as material for their work.
Rather refreshingly, Phillips isn’t especially interested in arguing whether the art her subjects produced was worth the cost it came at. In fact, the book is inspired, she explains, by the daughter of Frieda Lawrence (a writer who left three children to elope with DH Lawrence), when she wrote: “I believe [Frieda] was right to act as she did; all the boring women who have told me, ‘I could never leave my children’ have helped to convince me.”
But it’s also inspired, Phillips adds, by Toni Morrison’s assertion that the only two things she really wanted to do in life were to write and to mother her children. Phillips herself seems more sympathetic to the Morrisons of her study than the Frieda Lawrences. Nevertheless, she keeps an empathetic, open mind throughout.
The flipside of this is that The Baby on the Fire Escape is ultimately more illustrative than argumentative. The book’s strength lies in Phillips’s nimble talents as a portraitist. Her ability to drill down into the marrow of some of the most private elements of her subjects’ lives makes for engrossing, if largely vexing, reading; not least because the struggles she’s writing about are still all too real for many mothers today.
Feelings of frustration, guilt, tiredness and sacrifice loom large in these pages – and to try to downplay them would be to do both the book and its subjects a disservice – but Phillips does also find moments of pride, joy and a deep sense of satisfaction. It’s just not quite as cut-and-dried as Connolly once suggested.
The Baby on the Fire Escape is published by WW Norton at £19.99. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books