Liam Rector on Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood, by Nancy Schoenberger (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.50 cloth)
Nancy Schoenberger's biography, Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood, is a splendid book for anyone interested in literature, painting, class, Anglo-Irish life, American-British life, beauty, booze, history, aging, poetry, and any number of other things.
Dangerous Muse is essentially the story of writer and Guinness heir Caroline Blackwood, wife of painter Lucien Freud (Freud's grandson), friend to painter Francis Bacon, and the final wife of poet Robert Lowell. Blackwood's novels and nonfiction books are renowned for their satire suffused with a nihilism that is unflinching, specializing in unsympathetic character and characters.
For anyone interested in the Lowell lineage in American poetry this book is an absolute field day, comparable in many ways to David Larkin's recent Partisans. Both books are Gossip of a Very High Order, intravenously shot through with a matter-of-fact hipness, spareness, speed, and razzle-dazzle, operating at great depths and picking up what's important along the way. (History itself is gossip of a High, Middle, and Low order.) Both books have an excellent feel for both the life and times, and Schoenberger's book has an especial grasp of the role of sheer money. No aristocratic variation on the boho from Soho character has been so well sketched since Tom Wolfe.
The photographs of Caroline Blackwood in Dangerous Muse are one of the more eerie aspects of the book. I found myself, as I read, returning to these photographs over and over. Blackwood goes from an early ravenous beauty, captured in photographs by Walker Evans, to a kind of Audenesque face on which time and hard living have had full play. This narrative of beauty is deeply ingrained not only in Blackwood's face but in Schoenberger's story of Blackwood's life. Beauty not only fades; in the mind, spirit, and body of Caroline Blackwood it slashes and tears, though it finally stands up with a kind of stoical, macabre dignity of character.
Poet Frank Bidart is quite interestingly one of Schoenberger's main sources on Lowell, and Schoenberger has conducted quite her own study of unsympathetic character in Dangerous Muse.