Poetry News

Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor, a Love Story

By Harriet Staff


Carlene Bauer's latest novel imagines the what-coulda-been love story between Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor. Though the two were indeed penpals, their epistolary relationship never developed into a full-on tryst. Over at the New York Times, Claudia La Rocco reviews the book:

“Flannery, I love you very much,” the poet Robert Lowell wrote to his friend Flannery O’Connor in 1954. He hastened to add parenthetically, “This isn’t a proposal, I have other eggs to fry.” In her own letter to “A.,” in 1956, O’Connor said of the troubled Lowell, “I feel almost too much about him to get to be able to get to the heart of it. He is a kind of grief to me.”

The two writers corresponded with each other until O’Connor’s 1964 death at 39, but they were never lovers. That is, until now, in Carlene Bauer’s epistolary novel, “Frances and Bernard,” whose title characters are based, both in temperament and biographical detail, on the pair, with Frances here in part to explore the difficult choices female artists must often make between work and love.

While Bauer takes their letters as a starting point, she layers their relationship with fiction, as novelists tend to do.

The portraiture is hardly exact. While Bernard, like Lowell, is a well-born Bostonian poet buffeted by manic depression, O’Connor’s avatar is granted fictional mercy, and a rather more straightforward life story.

For starters there’s the romance, unfurling messily over the course of their roughly decade-long correspondence, which vaguely charts the authors’ rising literary fortunes, the prizes won and teaching gigs endured. (In sharp contrast to Lowell’s famously full and turbulent love life, O’Connor never married, and perhaps only ever experienced one brief kiss, which was likened, in ghastly detail by the man on the other end, to kissing a skeleton.)

Huh. Make the jump to read the rest.

Originally Published: March 5th, 2013