Biographies of Three Women Writers

The lives of three diverse women writers, all born in the early years of this century, are explored at full length for the first time in three recent biographies. All are highly intriguing subjects, but the treatment they receive is uneven.

IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE OF LAURA RIDING, by Deborah Baker (Grove Press, 478 pp., $30). A brilliant and original poet who renounced poetry and who was also a wildly erratic woman, Laura Riding (1901-1991) may well be one of the most baffling figures of modern literature. The daughter of first-generation immigrants, Riding was the beneficiary of New York's then-great public school system. Her early poems impressed the group of Southern writers known as the ``Fugitives,'' but before long, she left America and her first husband for an association with the English writer Robert Graves and his wife.

Graves and Riding had a tempestuous love affair: Rumor had it that she was his inspiration for the cunning, monstrous Livia in ``I, Claudius'' and for his concept of ``The White Goddess.'' In 1940, following the publication of her ``Collected Poems,'' her break with Graves, and marriage to Schuyler Jackson, Riding stopped writing poetry, declaring that the temptation to achieve verbal beauty and dramatic effects at the expense of accurate meaning made it incompatible with her deeper commitment to telling the truth. She and her husband spent years on a futile attempt to compile a completely accurate dictionary.

Unfortunately, the most conspicuous product of Riding's last years was an outpouring of convoluted letters-to-the-editor in which she settled old scores, claimed credit for ideas allegedly stolen from her, and endlessly ``clarified'' her position in a manner that was ever more confusing.

It is a pity that the first major biography of Riding will likely add to this confusion. First-time biographer Deborah Baker has a genuine feel for her subject and for the genius amid the megalomania. But she tells the story in such disorganized fashion -

jumping ahead, then backing up to explain, losing the threads of chronology and logic alike - that it's nearly impossible to follow. So the best introduction to Riding is still Riding herself.

Several of her core works have been issued by Persea Books, including ``First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding,'' ``Selected Poems: In Five Sets,'' and ``The Word `Woman' and Other Related Writings.'' The poems, in particular, exert a powerful fascination.

ELIZABETH BISHOP: LIFE AND THE MEMORY OF IT, by Brett C. Millier (University of California Press, 602 pp., $28). A more limited - if more polished - poet than Laura Riding, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was as understated and reticent as Riding was audacious and flamboyant. Yet she too is something of a mystery. Raised by two sets of grandparents after losing her father and mother at an early age, the introspective child grew into a shy, quirky Vassar girl, who intrigued and puzzled her contemporaries.

Born and bred in the brisk climate of the Northeast, Bishop spent a lot of her adult life in Brazil, where she was involved in a sort of triangle with two other women. Her poems - elegant, superbly crafted, arch or impassioned by turns - won her wide esteem from critics and fellow poets.

This detailed, workman-like biography provides full coverage of Bishop's life and work: a complicated, poignant, and unusual story. If Millier's telling of it is sometimes less than inspired, it is, at least, insightful and informative.

MARY RENAULT: A BIOGRAPHY, by David Sweetman (Harcourt Brace & Co., 322 pp., $24.95). Mary Renault's keenly imagined, soundly researched historical novels continue to delight readers and scholars alike. Renault (1905-1983) grew up in England and lived much of her adult life in South Africa, but she wrote about ancient Greece. In books like ``The Last of the Wine'' (1956), ``The King Must Die'' (1958), and ``The Bull from the Sea'' (1962), she portrayed the ancient world so that modern readers might view its customs and values through the eyes of its kings, slaves, citizens, poets, and heroes.

Renault's portrayal of homosexuality in ancient Greece enlightened rather than shocked her mainstream audience. Renault herself shared her life with a woman. Yet she did not think of herself as a lesbian.

David Sweetman, a journalist who made a documentary about Renault, presents a clear, accessible account of her life and work. He highlights the paradoxes and ironies of her personality and her politics, although he doesn't probe very deeply. Still, this is a lively and intelligent introduction to and appreciation of a writer who broadened the horizons of readers the world over.

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