Much more than just a cunning linguist

Patricia Highsmith’s voluminous diaries paint a full picture of their author


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The furore caused by the posthumous publication of an author’s diaries or notebooks is at least one barometer of their success. Take Sylvia Plath’s heavily abridged journals, published by Ted Hughes in 1982, amidst claims that one of her diaries was lost, dark admissions of another being destroyed, and stories that entries made within days of her suicide had been similarly expunged. 

And a century earlier, the publication of Dorothy Wordsworth’s diaries suggested her brother’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” had in fact consisted in pilfering images and verbatim descriptions from his sister’s journals. 

So the publication of Patricia Highsmith’s Diaries and Notebooks is ripe for literary gossip of a different kind. Since Andrew Wilson’s first major (and brilliant) biography Beautiful Shadow in 2003 there have been two others: Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith (2009) and Richard Bradford’s Devils, Lusts, and Strange Desires (2021), as well as a would-be revelatory 2003 volume from Marijane Meaker, Highsmith’s former lover. 

The salient details of Highsmith’s life are the same in all the biographies. Readers learn of her penchant for pet snails and martinis, her near-nymphomaniac sexual voracity, her alcoholism, her literary ambition, and her ultimate decline into an embittered, anti-Semitic crone in her castle in Switzerland. But, in the case of Richard Bradford’s biography, this is where the commonalities stop. 

Highsmith published Edith’s Diary in 1977 and dedicated it to one of her more passionate love affairs — Marion Aboudaram. It is the story of a bright, political Pennsylvania housewife who suffers the indignities of an oafish alcoholic son, a grumpy incontinent great uncle, and her husband running off to marry his secretary. In the face of these difficulties, Edith turns to her diary for revisionism. Here, her son is a successful Princeton undergraduate, the uncle barely appears, and her husband Brett is dead. 

The diary is Edith’s escape, but it is also her downfall: the novel ends with her growing inability to distinguish between fiction and reality. Her ex-husband — who is very much alive — plagues her with visits from psychiatrists and psychoanalysts. There must be something wrong, he thinks, with a woman who prefers to live her life between inky pages.

It would be remiss to discount the similarities between Highsmith’s life and novels completely

Bradford is somewhat akin to Edith’s Brett. He boldly declares that Highsmith’s diaries are a “fantasy” and “invented”. According to him, Highsmith never even met her formative early crush Mary Sullivan — the bookseller who first appears in Highsmith’s journals in 1941 and who introduces her to the Greenwich Village scene and her other early love, Rosalind Constable. 

He even goes as far to argue that Virginia — called “Va.” in the diaries, and a giver of “heavenly kisses” — didn’t exist. Bradford’s scholarship has been called into question by everyone from the London Review of Books to the diligent Andrew Wilson, but a permeable division between Highsmith’s fact and fiction persists. 

It is difficult to read all 949 pages of Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks and doubt the veracity of Highsmith’s entries. There is too much youthful earnestness in the yearly years (“Va. kissed me!! I kissed her two — three — four —five times in the women’s restroom at Jumble — and even on the sidewalk!! The sidewalk!!”) and too much cruelty in the later years for it to have been a project of self-glorification. 

Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, edited by Anna von Planta (W&N, £30)

But it would be remiss to discount the similarities between Highsmith’s life and novels completely. Critics note the likeness between Highsmith and Tom Ripley — the anti-hero of The Talented Mr Ripley and its four sequels, known collectively as the Ripliad. The author did little to dispel the similarities between herself and her shape-shifting, serial-killing, opportunistic creation; she signed letters “Patricia Highsmith-Ripley” or “Tom (Pat)”. 

Much of the Ripliad is driven by Tom’s autodidact abilities. He teaches himself Italian to become Dickie Greenleaf, French to marry, and German to carry out a miscellaneous range of murders and body-disposals. Highsmith’s diaries are marked not only by intense academic ambition — the early years are peppered by bad days caused by low grades at Barnard College — but by her linguistic skills. Entries switch languages (English, German, French, Italian and Spanish) almost mid-sentence, and her tone alters with them. Patricia Highsmith-Ripley is as linguistically capable as her fictional foil. 

And it is well-known that The Price of Salt — Highsmith’s lesbian love story that was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan — has some basis in Highsmith’s own experience. She was working in a department store in Manhattan when a “blondish woman in a fur coat” bought a doll from her. Highsmith was besotted. 

In the novel, the young Therese buys Carol a handbag for Christmas. The handbag costs far more than Therese can afford; she pawns a necklace given to her by her boyfriend Richard. In 1942, Highsmith describes buying a wallet of “wonderful ostrich” for Rosalind Constable’s birthday. It costs far more than the permanently broke Highsmith can spare. But, like Therese, Highsmith wants to spend her money on her older, sophisticated lover. 

Highsmith’s diaries are a mine of details like this. From the names of the bars she drinks at to the plays she reads, it is easy to lose count of their double appearance in fact and fiction. 

But the diaries are not just her novels with the murders removed. Anna von Planta’s edition — taken from more than 8,000 pages of spiral-bound notebooks — meticulously charts the author’s painful, difficult, and brilliant life. From her youthful delight in Latin and Shakespeare in the 1940s, to her brief membership of the Young Communist League, the emotional turmoil of more than one lover’s suicide attempt, and her life in Suffolk, Italy, and Switzerland, a full picture of the woman so often known only for her sexual dalliances and literary output emerges.

Better to remember her as the girl who so desperately wanted to write, to fuck, and to matter

Brought low by alcohol and decades of smoking, the late Highsmith, when she was living alone in Switzerland and writing angry missives about anyone and everyone, has always been difficult to sympathise with. But, in the long sweep of her diaries, a different understanding of the aged author emerges. 

Even in 1941, when she was just 20 years old, Highsmith was afraid of ageing: she will know she is old when she buys “clothes with generous hems”, when she doesn’t fall in love because someone is not “quite good enough”, and when she thinks the “anti-liberals have a bit of a side too”. And, in 1955 she writes that “maturity descends like a slowly collapsing cake, enveloping the individual, pinning his arms, pinning his legs…” 

By February 1995, when she died, the collapsing cake of maturity had long since enveloped Highsmith — she had a lung tumour, circulation problems, and few friends left. Better to remember her as the girl who so desperately wanted to write, to fuck, and to matter — and who succeeded, fiercely, at all three. 

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