Why do women stay with brutes?

image I was astonished to read about the cruelty levelled by Sir Vidia Naipaul against the women who loved him – his Oxford educated wife Pat and mistress of 20 years Margaret Murray, for whom the attraction was merely sexual.

I found John Carey’s review in yesterday’s Sunday Times on the authorized biography of VS Naipaul, "The World Is What It Is", by Patrick French, both riveting and depressing.

It is certainly not going to make Naipaul liked, and he is reputed to be one of the most arrogant men in London literary circles. In Carey’s words, it "exposes him as an egotist, a domestic tyrant and a sadist to a degree that would be farcical if it were not for the consequent distress suffered over many years by his first wife, Pat."

Why do women stay with men who behave with incredible selfishness and cruelty? Just read what Carey says about Naipaul’s life:

"She (Pat) defied her family in marrying him, but things soon started to go wrong. It was partly, it seems, that he was too fastidious to commit himself wholly to another person. He would not give her a wedding ring, though she pleaded for one and eventually bought one herself. But it was also that she did not attract him sexually. He felt sexual desire to be shameful, and could not associate it with love. They were both too embarrassed to discuss his problem, and he began to consort with prostitutes, while Pat saw her hopes of motherhood fade.

Then, in 1972, he met an Anglo-Argentinian woman, Margaret Murray, and felt an instant attraction. They soon found that what French calls the kinks in their personalities matched. She enjoyed being his slave and victim, while he was aroused by mistreating and dominating her. It gave him, he said, carnal pleasure for the first time in his life. Being ignorant and not very bright (he estimated that her vocabulary was limited to 50 words), she was of no interest to him except as a sex object. When they were apart he did not bother to read, or even open, her letters. But, for the next 20 years, they would meet in locations around the world to do things that, Murray said, it would have made her sick to do with anyone else, though she longed to do them again with him. She cherished the wounds he inflicted as signs of his passion. On one occasion he beat her, on and off, for two days, until his hand became painfully swollen and her face was too disfigured for her to appear in public.

She left her husband and three children, in hopes that he would marry her. But he still needed Pat to guide, support and mother him, so he shuttled between the two women, repeatedly threatening each that he would put an end to their relationship. It destroyed Pat. The effect of his “hating and abusing” her, her diaries record, was to convince her of her own “revoltingness and folly”. He would reduce her to tears in front of guests, yet demand to be cosseted like a child. When he told her of his affair, he expected her to comfort him for being apart from Murray, and she did. Her love and admiration seem to have been limitless. In her diaries she refers to him as “the Genius”.

Murray became pregnant three times during their relationship. On the first occasion, Naipaul sent a cheque to cover the termination. “I was quite happy for it to be aborted,” he explains. “I would have had to give up so much.” The other two times he paid no heed, and left her to arrange what she called her “little murders” herself. This was typical of his undeviating self-concern, which French traces to the humiliations of his early life. Descended from destitute Indian labourers sent to Trinidad to cut sugar cane, he was made to feel inferior even within his own extended family by the failures and mental breakdowns of his beloved father, whom he was to commemorate in A House for Mr Biswas."

It is incredible that Naipaul authorised such an uncensored account of his shameful behaviour, and French was determined that there should be no interference in his writing. According to the biography, Naipaul accepts the fact that his affair with Margaret ‘undid Pat’s life’ and that his admission in a 1994 magazine interview that he had once been a ‘great prostitute man’ devastated Pat, who had just had a mastectomy, and contributed to her death in 1996.

Two months after Pat’s funeral, he married Nadira Khannum Alvi (pictured), a journalist for the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation.

I’ve had my fair share of unsuitable partners. But there has to be a limit to how much cruelty a woman can take, however much she loves a man. I felt so distressed for Pat and Margaret and their suffering. But why didn’t they walk away from him, from the unhappiness he deliberately inflicted on them? I very much doubt Naipaul behaves the same way towards his present wife, that she would tolerate such tyrannical treatment.

*Interestingly, French declined the offer of an OBE in 2003 so it did not compromise his independence as a writer. I wonder what his next project will be. Naipaul will be a hard act to follow, for many reasons.