Lidia Jean Kott is an intern at NPR Books.
Last month on the HBO show Girls, Hannah (Lena Dunham), interrupts a romantic moment to ask Sandy (Donald Glover) if he has had the chance to read an essay she wrote. The mood changes. "I've just been so busy, I haven't been able to ..." In fact, he had read it — and didn't like it. By the end of the scene, they're no longer dating. In honor of Valentine's Day, here are three literary couples who not only read each other's work with pleasure — but also understood it and liked it, and even fell in love because of it. Unlike the romance of say, Dante and Beatrice, these relationships are all built on literary collaboration. And what could be more romantic than that?
Literary Partnerships That Became Something More
Zadie Smith and Nick Laird
Zadie Smith reads from her book On Beauty in 2005.
Zadie Smith reads from her book On Beauty in 2005. Sergio Dionisio/AP
Zadie Smith first met Nick Laird when she submitted a short story to a collection he was editing. They were both undergraduates at the University of Cambridge. Her story, Laird told The Telegraph in an interview in July 2005, "was just head-and-shoulders above anything else." Smith's career took off after that. Her first novel, White Teeth, was an international best-seller and won critical acclaim. Later, Laird said that going to literary parties with Smith made him feel "two feet high." Even so, the two writers support each other — showing each other their unpublished work and exchanging advice.
Smith has also publicly described their relationship. In an essay published in the New York Review of Books, she explains that she and Laird work in the same library in New York — on different floors. At the end of the day, they tell each other about the people they have seen out and about, and re-enact the conversations they have overheard (at one point she says she couldn't wait to tell her husband about a cat-eyed teenager in a Pocahontas wig she saw "sashaying" down Broadway). "The advice one finds in ladies' magazines is usually to be feared," she writes. "But there is something in that old chestnut: 'shared interests.' "
Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine
The French poet Paul Verlaine lived with Arthur Rimbaud on and off from 1871 to 1873.
When Arthur Rimbaud was about 17 and in search of a mentor, he sent his poems to Paul Verlaine, a published poet he admired who was 10 years his senior. Verlaine wrote back, "come, dear great soul, we call you, we await you" — and included money for a train ticket to Paris. Rimbaud did not behave well. He sun-bathed naked and joked that he would spread lice to the people around him. Verlaine's wife, perhaps not surprisingly, told Rimbaud to leave. But by then the two men had fallen in love. They moved to Brussels, then to London, where they drank, smoked and fought. In 1873, Verlaine shot at Rimbaud twice in a hotel in Brussels. One of the bullets hit the ground, but the other grazed Rimbaud's wrist. Rimbaud reported the incident to the police, and Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison.
Despite the chaos of their lives together, it was during this time that they produced some of their best-known works. Verlaine almost finished Romances sans paroles, and Rimbaud wrote parts of Illuminations.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Elizabeth Barrett Browning dedicated her most famous collection of poetry, Sonnets from the Portuguese, to her husband, Robert Browning.
After Elizabeth Barrett's brother died in 1840, Barrett, who had been sickly all her life, retired to her bedroom in her family's home on Wimpole Street in London. It was during this period of near seclusion that she published the book Poems, in which she praised the work of Robert Browning. After Browning read Poems, he wrote Barrett a letter, saying, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett, — and this is no off-hand complimentary letter." It wasn't. They ended up exchanging 573 letters. Barrett's father had forbidden her and his other children from marrying in order to spare them the "iniquity of love affairs." Nevertheless, Barrett and Browning married in secret and ran off to Italy. They had one son, named Robert Browning, but nicknamed "Pen."