In the abstract, everyone would like to fall in love with a famous writer. It holds out the promise of fabulous love letters and, if one is very lucky, immortalization as the subject of a super-romantic poem. I mean, Keats’ beloved Fanny Brawne really lucked out, I think, with “Bright star, bright star / would I were as steadfast as thou art.” I would be thrilled if someone would write that about me.
But it’s not always like that. In fact, it usually isn’t. A few years back, the wonderful music critic Nitsuh Abebe took to his Tumblr to point out that, in fact, writers are actually sort of terrible to date. Selfish, too focused on writing, did I mention selfish? And though Abebe doesn’t cite specific examples, I will. Literary history is littered with them.
Of course, viewed in a certain light, nearly every famous writer has a checkered romantic past. But some are worse than others, on the relative scale of romantic tomfoolery. Here are some truly egregious examples from the annals of literary history, mostly men, which was not a conscious choice of mine but just sort of happened. Make of that what you will.
He might be the patron saint of the Romantics, but that’s just a generic description. It’s hard to pick just one caddish incident from Byron’s biography. He carried on a long, incestuous affair with his half-sister while married to one of his wives. She alleged, when they separated, that he’d raped her during the marriage. A later affair with Mary Shelley’s sister, Claire Clairmont, resulted in a child he refused to acknowledge or pay for. The columnist and poet Katha Pollitt insisted, however, in a 2009 article in Slate that this didn’t make Byron an irredeemable jerk: “Byron’s great insight, in an era where women were expected to be placid and insipid (not that they were!), was to see that women were much like men: They wanted sex and went after it eagerly, if secretly.”