Key Points:

A certain degree of weariness may initially accompany the approach of this book - a study of interconnected lives that for the most part have already been studied exhaustively for generations. Is there anything more to learn about Katherine Mansfield's desultory and disappointing marriage to her bloodless and selfish Bogey, for instance? Is further examination of the Bloomsbury group's peccadillos and fancies really worth the effort?

Katie Roiphe's extensive research appears to involve few primary sources, instead concentrating on the many and varied biographies already published. Her vivid and intimate exploration of social and sexual experimentation makes Uncommon Arrangements a lively read. Although her subjects' literary achievements are detailed, Roiphe places the marriages and domestic arrangements firmly centre stage. It helps, of course, that these husbands, wives, lovers and mistresses, were literary types. They kept diaries, penned memoirs and more tellingly wrote letters that have somehow survived any conflagration by the jilted lover, jealous spouse or embarrassed offspring. Roiphe begins each chapter with a snapshot, a particular moment in time of the marriages, before returning smoothly to their pasts, and ending with their futures.

H.G. Wells, although "one of the great libertine thinkers of the era", as Roiphe rightly describes him, believed that married women were above sexual passion. He regarded his second wife, Amy Catherine, as fragile and pure, even though she had come into his life initially as his mistress during his first marriage.

Domineering and controlling, Wells gave her a serviceable maid's name, Jane, and had her so well trained she would leave the room the moment she noticed he was interested in another woman. She tolerated his relationships with feminists Margaret Sanger and the young Rebecca West, the latter lasting many years and giving him a son, and she seemed to accept his definition of his countless affairs as "passades" and their marriage as his "modus vivendi". The Wells' marriage was not unusual - its ingredients of clever, literary, submissive wife, dictatorial husband, his long-term mistress and many other, briefer affairs, are repeated again and again, most closely in the marriage of Francis Russell (Bertrand's brother) and Elizabeth Von Arnim. Elizabeth, a diminutive, feisty woman, cousin to Katherine Mansfield, had achieved enormous success with her instant best-seller Elizabeth and Her German Garden in 1898, long before she met Russell. She went on to write a number of minor classics. During her first marriage to a German count she had had a long affair with H.G. Wells, which ended mutually. When she met Russell he wanted to make her his third wife almost immediately. Despite his bullying, appalling behaviour, Elizabeth consented and so began a long marriage of midnight escapes and heightened passion with a man she described to her daughter as "overwhelming".

Perhaps the most interesting chapters are the ones detailing the domestic arrangements of Clive Bell and the painter Vanessa Bell, and that of Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge. In 1918, Vanessa Bell was living with Duncan Grant in what Virginia Woolf was later to describe as "a left-handed marriage". It lasted 45 years, until Vanessa's death. Mostly homosexual, Grant had a long relationship with the painter David Garnett, who also lived with them and Vanessa's children in a crumbling mansion called Charleston.

Grant was the biological, though unacknowledged, father of Vanessa's daughter Angelica, a fact the latter did not discover until her late teens and which had a devastating effect on the rest of her life. How she isolated that cause among others it is difficult to know. Clive Bell, the man she knew as her father, was described by acid-tongued Lytton Strachey as having "a small, lascivious body [that] oozes with disappointed lust".

Her aunt, Virginia Woolf, wrote erotic letters to her mother Vanessa and had a long, though non-physical, love affair with Clive.

Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge were together 18 years before Hall fell in love with a Parisian nurse, Evguenia. Just as in the other "arrangements" in this book, they honoured the idea of monogamy and stuck it out, the "trio lesbienne" written up in the French newspapers years later.

Throughout the passionate, lengthy and tumultuous affair, Una did not remove herself once, not even through all the constant upheavals, compulsive house-moving and two trials for "gross immorality".

She stayed to serve Hall's genius, tolerating Evguenia as an "under-developed child". After Hall died, she cut Evguenia from the family purse and shed her feminine clothes and longer hair to wear Hall's shirts and jodhpurs.

The acknowledged truth that writers live in their heads is demonstrated time and time again through these seven literary marriages.

Some readers, perhaps, may view this book as a kind of literary self-help in the hope that their own marriages or domestic arrangements could be enlivened or enriched. They may simply wish they had the finances, time and upper-class origins to be quite so self-indulgent.

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven portraits of married life in London literary circles 1910-1939
By Katie Roiphe (Virago $39.99)

* Stephanie Johnson is an Auckland writer.