To be a writer who is told, again and again, that your life is made for fiction is rarely the pure good fortune it seems. Larger-than-life lives, after all, are not so easy to live. And truths that are stranger than fiction, the sort of truths that such lives are made of, can be next to impossible to turn into fiction. The novelist Janet Hobhouse heard the “great copy” line a lot, and her short life—she died two years ago at forty-one of cancer—was not only dramatic but hard. It was also very productive: along with a biography of Gertrude Stein and a study of twentieth-century artists and nudes, she wrote four novels, including the posthumously published The Furies. In her fiction she never strayed very far from her actual experience, but she had to struggle to put its most outlandish, powerful parts on the page.
Nearly every novelist, of course, both responds to and resists the claims of autobiography in one way or another. But for those, like Hobhouse, whose imaginations draw very directly from life, the trail of ambivalence is often blazed quite clearly in the work, not hard to follow once the underlying facts are known. Suddenly the camouflages are exposed, the evasions are obvious, and the recurring scenes make more sense. The Furies is Hobhouse’s best novel, and also her most autobiographical. “Any resemblance to humans living or dead was, far from accidental, deliberate and contrived,” her ex-husband wrote of the book in a reminiscence of his life with Hobhouse. Perhaps better labeled an imaginative memoir, The Furies is a last work whose revelations not only chart new ground but can serve as a guide to the veiled and uneven self-portraiture in her previous three.
Nellie Without Hugo (1982) and Dancing in the Dark (1983) were timely contributions to a burgeoning genre: scenes from the marriages of sexually and emotionally restless young women in Manhattan during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nellie takes up with an old boyfriend while her English husband, Hugo, is off in Africa; Gabriella, in the later novel, frenetically does the disco scene with her gay friends while her English husband, Morgan, mopes at home. Hobhouse has an eye for uptown yuppie trappings: the “right” West Side apartment decor, gourmet foods, midtown office ambience, shows at MOMA, along with a few downtown clubs and a loft or two. And of course she provides a sampling of sex. Her characters discuss it (“You mean all the little buttons,” Gabriella said, “nipples and so on? But it’s masturbatory”), enjoy it (“morning sex, long before the patches of light had come together to make the day, when the giant stirred, half of him still owned by sleep, half belonging with consciousness to Nellie, self-given, unasked for but dedicated”), and avoid it (“They held like that for whole minutes, Gabriella listening to Morgan’s movement inside his bed, and his hurt, angry breathing, and he listening for signs of her relenting …