When Henry James’s friend Sarah Orne Jewett sent him a copy of her just completed historical novel The Tory Lover, written five years after the Maine stories of The Country of the Pointed Firs, he implored her: “Go back to the dear country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the palpable present-intimate that throbs responsive, and that wants, misses, needs you.”

The “historic” novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labour as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness … You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints, as much as you like—the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman—or rather fifty—whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force—and even then it’s all humbug.

There was, he went on to admit, “a shade of the (even then) humbug that may amuse,” and she had at least avoided many of the “childish tricks” of recent practitioners.

But even you court disaster by composing the whole thing so much by sequences of speeches. It’s when the extinct soul talks, and the earlier consciousness airs itself, that the pitfalls multiply and the “cheap” way has to serve.1

One is reminded of James’s letter by an essay in That Mighty Sculptor, Time by another very famous historical novelist, Marguerite Yourcenar. She writes here about “Tone and Language in the Historical Novel,” and the nub of her essay is that one cannot reconstruct the voices of the past, so that a historical novelist must at all costs eschew dialogue. Speaking of her Memoirs of Hadrian, 2 she remarks that the few fragments of common speech preserved in ancient literature gave her nothing “that would have enabled me to re-create with even a minimum of plausibility an exchange about serious or urgent, subtle or complex matters, a conversation between Hadrian and Trajan, or Plotina, or Antinous, or with his legate Severus concerning the affairs of Judaea.” Nothing, or virtually nothing, was left us of “those inflections, those quarter tones, those articulated half smiles which yet can change everything.” When it came to dialogue, she says, the only choice offered to her was between a “servile copying of a few ancient expressions known to everyone” (of the “Stab my vitals!” variety),3 or “the homespun ingenuity4 of Technicolor scenarios (‘Spartacus, I think I am going to have a baby’).”

Thus, though initially she designed her Memoirs of Hadrian as a dialogue, she very soon realized that it would have to be a monologue: an attempt at the dignified form of speech known in Hadrian’s day as oratio togata (toga’d oratory)—which is to say an essentially written form of speech. With this decision, troubles about inauthenticity fell away. Indeed, she says, the decision turned out to have a further and unexpected advantage. In theory, Hadrian is addressing his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius, but this simulation of oratio togata made it possible to present him as speaking over Marcus’ head to “Man himself.”

Now, I think it has to be said that Yourcenar has not seen how fundamental this problem about dialogue in historical novels really is. Far from being merely a technical problem, it points to an insuperable objection to a whole conception of historical fiction—the conception, in fact, to which she subscribed herself. In her “Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian5 she speaks of the historical novelist as having “one foot in scholarship, the other in magic arts, or, more accurately and without metaphor, absorption in that sympathetic magic which operates when one transports oneself, in thought, into another’s body and soul.” Now this pretension of a twentieth-century novelist to transport herself into the inwardness of a first-century Roman emperor, performing by “sympathetic magic” what the poor, plodding, factbound professional historian is incapable of, is surely a delusion and well deserving to be called “all humbug.” For to “become” a person from the past, even if it could be achieved, would not be a way of understanding him or her; understanding, on the contrary, would require some detachment. One can imagine what a person of the past was “like,” in the sense of comparing him or her with something, but that is a different matter. Thus her method, even if we were to believe in it, would not get us any nearer the past. There are wonderful historical novels (think of Waverley and Lotte in Weimar and The Name of the Rose), but they are written on a different assumption. We need not imagine that they will, or are meant to, add anything to our understanding of the past.


All credit to Yourcenar, of course, for being so frank about her working methods. She describes them clearly in the essay I have just mentioned. In the Historia Augusta,6 which is one of the two main sources for our knowledge of Hadrian (the other being Dio Cassius),7 we read how the ailing Emperor, “full of the utmost disgust for life,” made two unsuccessful attempts to kill himself. “He then became more violent, and he even demanded poison from his physician, who thereupon killed himself in order that he might not have to administer it.” To this skeleton account she added, she says, “a few details she hopes are plausible.” Hadrian’s doctor, Hermogenes, she imagines, has a charming young assistant from Alexandria, named Iollas, who attracts Hadrian with his intelligence, “both daring and dreamy,” and “the dark fire” of his “deepset eyes.” They like to talk together, speculating on “the nature and origin of things.” Thus in this emergency Hadrian hits on a plan to get rid of Hermogenes and to have a heart-to-heart-talk with Iollas, imploring him (for he knows that in Alexandria Iollas has discovered the formulae of “extraordinarily subtle poisons” compounded by Cleopatra’s chemists) to give him, Hadrian, a dose of poison. Hadrian begs, he demands, he offers bribes, and Iollas is at last won over; but later the same evening he is found dead in his laboratory, grasping a glass phial in his hands. “That heart clean of all compromise,” says Hadrian, “had found this means of remaining faithful to his oath while denying me nothing.”

Well, no doubt this is how a certain class of historical fiction has to get written. Of course, in crude fact, Hadrian’s young doctor may have been thick-witted and blear-eyed and have killed himself out of sheer terror, but this need not worry us. The trouble lies elsewhere. It is that Yourcenar goes on to say: “I believe the tone of this passage to be more or less correct.” It is here that one digs in one’s heels. For who could doubt that Iollas’s “daring and dreamy” intelligence and the “dark fire” of his “deepset eyes” come, and could only come, from the pen of a twentieth-century novelist?

More important, her “correct” is an empty and gratuitous concept. It implies a belief that the novel, unlike any other art form, is transparent to reality and can be trusted to transmit “correctly” the life of a society which existed before this genre had ever been invented. This is a hopeless delusion about the novel, which is every bit as convention-ridden as a Renaissance allegory or a tragedy by Racine, the only difference being that it makes more effort to conceal its conventions. To write a novel about ancient Rome is, as it were, to introduce into that past civilization an institution as alien to it as a building society or baseball.

What Yourcenar is really up to in The Memoirs of Hadrian is something quite different. She is writing within a classic formula of the best seller, which we may call the “congratulation system.” According to this formula, the hero or heroine of the novel exercises his or her admirable virtues, and thinks his or her secret thoughts, without any longing for recognition. Nevertheless the plot is so constructed that—in a way all too sadly unlike real life—those virtues do, by quite unexpected means, receive their recognition and reward. Thus, in her rewriting of the incident of the doctor, the unstated inference left for us to draw is that Iollas is too overwhelmed by the beauty of Hadrian’s character to contemplate killing him.

Throughout the novel, in this way, the reader is being asked, though not in so many words, to say to himself what a wise, mature, sensitive, self-denying, and “modern” character the Emperor Hadrian really is. (People say how “true” her account of Hadrian is, as they sometimes do, because she is saying what they want to hear.) On the subject of his young lover, the beautiful Antinous, the ancient sources are reticent, only reporting his death and the conflicting rumors about it, and Hadrian’s subsequent cult of his memory. Thus Yourcenar is left with a clear field, and she makes the most of it, relating their love affair in a lavish and perfervid style, and explaining the death of Antinous in this manner: that, made anxious by the approach of his nineteenth birthday, Antinous decides that he must die while he is still completely beautiful. It would be “a last form of service,” a “final gift” to the man he worships as a god; and, seizing his moment, he quietly drowns himself in the Nile, choosing a form of departure which “should have no air of revolt, and should contain no complaint.”


Evidently—and here the congratulation system comes in—Yourcenar wants us to remark to ourselves what Hadrian himself cannot be allowed to say: i.e., that it is not just his godlike qualities but his marvelous human ones that have provoked his young lover to this heroic self-sacrifice. What is one to say about this invention of Yourcenar’s? I am afraid, that it betrays, indeed it positively shrieks of, its twentieth-century, post-Picture of Dorian Gray, origins. One is thrown back, discouraged, upon the despised Dio Cassius and Historia Augusta.

That Mighty Sculptor, Time, in which “Tone and Language in the Historical Novel” appears, is a roundup of shortish journalistic pieces together with a few more substantial items like this one. The topics include sculpture, ritual suicide, memory, the evils of the fur trade, the poet Oppian, and Buddhistic tantrism. A study of the Gita-Govinda, by the twelfth-century Bengali poet Jayadeva, becomes an occasion for a diatribe against Christian asceticism; and an essay on a striking dream recorded by Dürer in his Journal, in which the Earth is bombarded by innumerable waterspouts, reflects on a curious fact: that his account and sketch, though they come from the illustrator of the Apocalypse, are resolutely objective, containing no hint of allegorical interpretation.

There are some rather dire imaginary conversations with Michelangelo (“I have never met a woman as beautiful as my figures in stone, a woman who could stay motionless for hours, without speaking, like some essential thing which has no need to act….”) But sculpture—like photography, one of Yourcenar’s great preoccupations—is also the inspiration of the very attractive essay that gives the collection its title. The theme of this is that statues have their own life as much as living creatures and suffer as many vicissitudes as they do, whether from iconoclasts or restorers, accident, neglect, or chemical process. The thought is a familiar one, but she follows it through with engaging wit, verve, and an inventive play of mind. “Even their fig leaves,” she remarks of eighteenth-century statues, “clothe them like the dress of that time.” For once, avoiding her usual snare, she is not straining after profundity. There is a place in the world for belle-lettrism, and this is an appealing example.

Time, here at least, is an inspiration to her; “timelessness,” on the other hand, is often her undoing. This at least is the feeling I get from her How Many Years.8 To define the book: with The Dear Departed9 and the unfinished Quoi? L’Eternité, it forms part of a triptych entitled Le Labyrinthe du monde, which is best described as “family history,” though for much of the time it is more like historical fiction. The Dear Departed is about her mother’s side of the family and, beginning in the nineteenth century, dips back into the past; How Many Years is about her father’s family and, by a reverse procedure, moves forward from the “remote, uncharted regions” of prehistory to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to a portrait of her father himself.

This father, Michel Cleenewerck de Crayencour (the pen name “Yourcenar” is an anagram of “Crayencour”), belonged to a family long established in French Flanders: one that, by the time of the Bourbon Restoration, was rich, ardently legitimist, and possessed of an extensive landed property named Mont-Noir. Michel’s father served on the Prefectorial Council of Lille and married the daughter of a wealthy judge. Thus Michel had very considerable financial expectations. However, he detested both his mother and—as he considered it—the stifling, bienpensant atmosphere of Lille, and at an early age he was already planning his escape. When fifteen he took off for Antwerp, planning to hire himself out as a cabin boy on some steamer bound for China or Australia; and a few years later, on another sudden impulse, he enlisted in the army. Before long, however, faced with a gambling debt he was quite unable to pay, he deserted and made his way to England. Here good fortune overtook him. A kindly stranger, the middle-aged Hungarian-Jewish manager of a clothing factory, offered him a job, out of sheer goodness of heart, and not only that, but invited him to lodge with himself and his young English wife in Putney.

Michel’s return for that was to seduce, or be seduced by, his benefactor’s wife, and eventually to elope with her. The relationship lasted, with intermissions, for quite a few years and entailed his deserting for a second time from the French army—a serious crime, outlawing him from the soil of France. During a quarrel with his mistress, who complained “he wouldn’t sacrifice so much as a fingertip for her,” he went out into the garden and shot off his middle finger. His father, who had been supporting him all this while, came over to London with a scheme for his erring son to return home (or rather to the other side of the Belgian border) and to make a “good marriage.” The idea appealed to Michel. He took the train back to his suburban cottage and prepared to make a break with his mistress, only to find that, sensing what was in the air, she had already fled.

Later events do nothing much to change the picture of Michel that we gain from this little saga, but it is important to remember that the stories mainly come from Michel himself. In his old age he and Marguerite were thrown a good deal on each other’s company and, in a casual way, he liked to reminisce to her—especially, it would seem, about his sexual philanderings. She was, plainly, deeply impressed by him, as a man-of-the-world par exemple and a disabused spectator of “the world’s theater.” “He was by nature,” she writes, “one of those people who never become deeply involved in anything.” She also took over from him his hatred of his mother, Noémie—“that abyss of pettiness” as she calls her—flaying her savagely every time she appears in the story.

In his photographs Michel, stonyeyed, choking in a quite enormous high collar, his long coat-hanger-shaped moustache growing more like the Kaiser Wilhelm’s as the years go by, appears very much the resident in first-class hotels; but one snapshot of him with unfurled umbrella has an odd look of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot. One would feel better about him if one could think of him as an eccentric.

Near the end of his life, he unearthed the first chapter of a novel he had begun twenty or more years ago, a wry, somewhat Maupassant-like, account of a wedding night and the conviction of the newly married protagonist of the utter banality of marriage and “love” and of life itself. He suggested that Marguerite publish it as a short story under her own name, and she, “charmed by the exact tone of this story with no literary pretensions,” did as he suggested, revising it by turning the hero into more of an intellectual—which, she ruefully admitted later, “did nothing to improve the text.” The story, under the title “The First Evening”—it forms one of the three items in A Blue Tale and Other Stories—was accepted by the Revue de France and won her a prize.

It is a problem for Yourcenar, in How Many Years, that there are vast gaps in her information just where we most need it. Michel and his first wife, Berthe, the daughter of the Baron Loys de L., are mad about horses and the roulette table. Joined by Berthe’s divorced sister Gabrielle, they move continually from one spa town or gambling resort to another, and Yourcenar is reduced to summarizing large tracts of their life in a single impressionistic phrase. “For a whole ten years Michel, Berthe, and Gabrielle seem to be gliding on a skating rink in time to fashionable waltzes, under lighting that evokes scenes by Toulouse-Lautrec.” (She knows even less about his father’s life with his second wife, her own mother, and again has to epitomize it in a phrase: “Three years of a slow waltz across Europe.”)

Michel has a son by Berthe, called Michel-Joseph, but, as Yourcenar says defensively, “the boy couldn’t very well accompany his parents on their endless round of resorts and horse shows.” He is thus farmed out to his grandparents, and grows up with an implacable hatred of his father, with whom he sometimes comes to blows.

A colorful incident occurs when Michel, entirely cleaned out at the gaming table and deeply in debt, accepts an invitation from a fellow-gambler for the trio to take refuge on his estates in the Ukraine, with some vague idea that they might help him with his stud farm. The saunas, the isbas, the vermin-infested peasants alarm them a good deal, but when their host at last arrives to join them, things look up and “he turns the nights into revels filled with gipsy music.” Then, it seems, there is some kind of rift. At all events they come back to the West alone, supporting themselves by joining a traveling circus, for which they perform an equestrian act.

The final scene is grimmer. The year is 1899, and the three are in furnished lodgings in Ostend, both of the sisters dying as the result of a “minor surgical procedure”—by which we are presumably to understand botched abortions. Michel blamed the doctor and his wife, and twenty years or so later there is a repellent little aftermath to the affair. Yourcenar and her father are in Nice, when he spies the doctor’s wife outside an antique shop. He follows her in and corners her, brandishing his fists at her and vociferating, “Killer’s wife! Thief! Murderess!” and—“as if gusts of foul air were escaping suddenly from the cellar of a ruined house”—“Dirty Jewess!” Yourcenar claims that, in his normal existence, her father was not anti-Semitic and had even been a Dreyfusard, and we have no reason to disbelieve her. She shows a good deal of honesty in telling what she can of a life so much of which plainly remained hidden from her.

One admires the skill, too, with which, with the aid of tricks with chronology and artful digressions, she conceals the gaps in her material and achieves the illusion of a rounded portrait of her father. In a way the effect here is almost the opposite of what we find in the earlier chapters, the ones that take us from the original formation of the Flanders landscape to the paleolithic cave painters (“those pre-historic Pisanellos and Degas”), the Celts (“those fiery-tempered men” with their “ravenous sensual hunger” and “robust love of life”), and the Flemings of Spanish Flanders in the “rosy dawn of the Renaissance.”

The trouble with these chapters, as opposed to ones where her own memories are involved, is that she can fill the pages arbitrarily: the material offers her no resistance. The Cleenewercks have a family connection with Rubens’s wives, Isabella Brant and Helena Fourment, so this becomes the cue for a lengthy lecture on Rubensian flesh painting. Michel’s mother’s branch of the family is of humbler origins, and Yourcenar, though she knows one or two of their names, confesses her entire ignorance about them. Accordingly she tells herself she must try to get closer to one of them “by dint of imaginative sympathy”—that is to say by making her up, in the way she makes up so much in Hadrian.

Hey, Françoise Leroux! Hey! She doesn’t hear me. But with a good deal of effort I manage to catch sight of her, there in her house with its floor of beaten earth (I saw one like it in the vicinity of Mont-Noir when I was a child), watered with beer, nourished on brown bread and cream cheese, wearing an apron over her woolen skirt…. Hey! Good-woman Leroux! I’d like to know if, in her youth, she worked as a tavern maid or a servant in a château, if she loves her husband or cuckolds him….

This is what she calls “circumscribing” a person “by the most ordinary deeds and gestures,” and she does it with enormous facility, but all one can arrive at by such a method, one cannot but think, is the “typical”—or, to use a harsher word, platitude. “Her life was doubtless more difficult than mine; but I suspect it was average,” writes Yourcenar. One can be very sure that Yourcenar never thought of herself, or of her own life, as “average.”

Dealing with a later period, she adopts another historical novelist’s ploy, one which reminds us of Umberto Eco’s remark that the favorite rhetorical trope of the historical novelist is preterition, i.e., saying that you are not going to say something and thereby saying it. When her paternal grandfather goes up Etna, she asks: “Does the thought of Empedocles cross his mind? I expect not, for he has certainly never read those sublime fragments scattered throughout two or three dozen works of antiquity…” etc. The album of dried flowers that he compiles, she tells us, “does not give the impression that the miracle of plant forms meant anything to him.” During the repression of the Commune in May 1871, she wonders: “Did he take note of the ninety-six hostages shot by the insurgents and the twenty thousand or so poor devils liquidated by the powers at Versailles? Did he see the horrible photograph…?” etc. To historical novelists, ignorance on the part of their characters is a welcome challenge.

Finally, one comes to her dealings with the “timeless.” It is always a bad sign with her when she poses as one contemplating human life sub specie aeternitatis and finding nothing new under the sun. She imagines that her grandfather, when nearing his death and forced to leave the woods of Mont-Noir, “gazed at the trees with the eye of a man who has put some of his immortality into those tall green creatures.” True, as she admits, the thought very likely never entered his conscious mind. “Still, it floats, unformulated, from century to century, from millennium to millennium, in the minds of all those who love their land and their trees.” Time, she likes to insist, endlessly repeats itself. We can all pride ourselves on having participated in the Crusades through some ancestor or other. Those people in medieval Flanders “knew the rolling wheat fields that bordered the roads in Hungary, the wind and the wolves in the stony mountain passes of the Balkans”; nor were we “the first to have seen the dust of Asia Minor in summer, its white-hot stones, the islands smelling of salt and aromatic herbs, the sky and the sea harshly blue.” Everything, she says, “has already been felt and experienced a thousand times.” The “timeless,” clearly, is closely akin to the “typical” and the “average,” and they are the stock-in-trade, as they are the fatal snare, of the historical novel.

It is wrong in principle to explain the work of a writer, even a writer one does not greatly admire, by reference to his or her life. For one thing, the connections often tend to be so obvious. No doubt it was natural for Yourcenar, who was usually a mountain of scarves and shawls and would ring long distance “to tell the world she had a cold,” to identify in imagination with the Emperor Hadrian, who always went bareheaded and refused to wear anything over his toga even in the pouring rain. The fact is rather charming but is not worth poring over. A writer’s life needs to be studied for its own sake, and Yourcenar’s was in some ways a very remarkable one.

Josyane Savigneau, a journalist who got to know her in her last years and came under her spell, tells the story10 with a very decent mixture of admiration and reserve, treating her as a great writer, but not afraid to call her a mythomaniac and a tyrannical egocentric (“one needed a certain amount of courage to be Marguerite Yourcenar’s publisher”), or on occasion to be scathing about her literary judgments. There is perhaps too much detail in Savigneau’s book, information about travel and engagements that doesn’t really tell one anything, but some readers like this, and maybe it is appropriate in a pioneering biography. She is also a shade too combative or hesitant about her interpretations, too fond of “Did she know?” and “We cannot rule out the possibility.” They are hardly necessary, for sensible readers do not take biographies as holy writ anyway.

From one point of view, one might consider the heart of the book to be Yourcenar and the passion to be a writer. I suppose not many writers have been more totally consumed by authorial vanity, and a period during the Second World War, when she felt she might have come to the end of her career, was certainly the low point of her life. But then, it was not a petty vanity. Her intransigence, with publishers especially, was sublime, and it went with a lot of shrewdness; she knew just what she could get away with, and it paid off magnificently. It is, after all, no small thing to have become the first woman elected to the Académie Française. Her native intelligence comes out strongly on this occasion. She refused to canvass for support, though would-be Academicians almost invariably do so, and she even arranged to be leaving for a cruise on the day the decision would be announced.

I think, though, that the book has something even more valuable to offer in what it tells us about the homosexual life. In the 1930s Yourcenar, who was then in her own early thirties, conceived a violent passion for her editor at the firm of Grasset, a young and beautiful homosexual of fascist sympathies named André Fraigneau. The relationship ended in tears and rage, and Fraigneau later denied that it had ever been a physical affair, though, he said, he had admired her as a conversationalist and a writer. But meanwhile, with less emphasis on romantic passion, Yourcenar seems to have been having lesbian relationships. According to Fraigneau’s own account, he used to meet her at “those tea-houses she was in the habit of going to in order to meet women.”

Then fate intervened. In February 1937 Yourcenar was talking to a male friend in the bar of the Hotel Wagram in Paris when an American woman broke into the conversation, to tell them they were talking nonsense about Coleridge. This was Grace Frick, a university lecturer from Kansas City. It was not the first, and would not be the last, time that Frick bestowed unwanted advice, and it would often get her into terrible trouble, but on this occasion it precipitated an ecstatic and long-lasting love affair. By the summer the two were touring Italy and Greece together, and Frick persuaded Yourcenar to spend the ensuing winter with her in America. She wanted her to come and live in America permanently, and with the coming of the war, after some vacillation, this is what Yourcenar did. A few years later she obtained American citizenship.

It was a “marriage,” and it lasted for forty years, that is to say till Frick’s death from cancer in 1979. Frick’s view of things was perfectly clear-cut. She had formed an undying passion for Yourcenar, wanted to be her helpmeet, chronicler, slave, and secretary, and would have liked to keep her entirely to herself: her perennial dread was that Yourcenar would be lured back to Europe. With fanatical meticulousness she entered every day’s activities in a daybook, with a symbol for moments of joy. Every telephone call was taken by her, and every letter, both received and despatched, was read by her. Frick had an inflexible will; and since the same can be said of Yourcenar, one might have expected furious clashes and struggles for power. In fact, though, they seem to have established their respective rights without much friction. It was understood that Frick should be Yourcenar’s authorized translator, and though she nearly drove Yourcenar mad by her slowness, this agreement was never violated.

In 1950 they went to live, in great seclusion, in a house on Mount Desert Island off the Maine coast. It suited Yourcenar, who did not like to feel that she was living in America, or indeed anywhere in particular: in imagination her home was neither America nor France, but simply the French language. Life was not altogether easy for them in the little island community. They would go out walking with their arms round each other’s waist, and this led to malicious gossip about lesbians. Yourcenar made not the slightest effort to know her neighbors, while Frick, with her meddlesomeness, frequently enraged them. According to one of these, “She thought nothing of knocking on the window to tell you that the table was set wrong, that you hadn’t put out the right wine glass.” Their unpopularity hardly bothered them and perhaps did not amount to very much. Frick would organize children’s parties, and they made a little income by selling homemade bread. One gets the impression that, thanks a good deal to Yourcenar’s fundamental shrewdness and instinct for survival, they made a very desirable life together. After Frick’s death, Yourcenar was inclined to speak of it dismissively as a “marriage of convenience,” but we are not compelled to believe her.

By this time, moreover, Yourcenar’s life had taken another and spectacular, though you might say symmetrical, turn. Now in her late seventies, she for a second time took up with a beautiful young homosexual man, the (not very talented) film director Jerry Wilson. During the years of Frick’s illness, she had come to feel imprisoned and the moment that she was free, she embarked with Wilson on a series of travels to every part of the globe. In some sense it was evidently a rerun of her relationship with André Fraigneau; they were a “couple,” and this time a united one. For a year or two it was bliss. Then Wilson acquired a new male lover and insisted on his traveling with them, whereupon life began to be hellish for her. There were violent quarrels and disputes about money, and Wilson even occasionally knocked her about. Then, in India, he fell ill, and was diagnosed as having AIDS. By February 1986 he was dead.

On the Nile, during one of their immense tours, Wilson had a bathing accident and, “dripping ice-cold water,” took refuge in Yourcenar’s arms, exclaiming “I should have drowned myself like Antinous.” One wonders, one would dearly love to know, who stage-managed that.

This Issue

October 19, 1995