Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley

Hazel Rowley excels at writing about influential life partnerships. Her last book, Tête à Tête, was an eye-popping study of the relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, one which did much to redress the simplistic view of de Beauvoir as Sartre’s love-victim. Some reviewers failed to grasp that Rowley, a scholar with fine instincts for the psychology of relations between the sexes, was not gratuitously interested in the couple’s entangled sexual careers; rather, she was intent on laying bare the workings of their relationship – its power dynamic and shared values.

Her latest book has a similar motive, chiselling through the layers of myth around the marriage of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cousin Eleanor Roosevelt. Both grew up in the same privileged circles of East Coast money, tradition and influence. Polished, handsome, well-educated, FDR charmed both men and women. He was also a committed reformer and accomplished politician who, despite his affliction with adult polio, managed to lead his country out of the Depression and through World War II. Eleanor was as public spirited as her husband, but politically more radical and privately a more complex personality.

By the time they reached the White House, the couple was surrounded by so many doctors and nurses, secretaries and advisers, bodyguards and chauffeurs, adult children and in-laws, lovers and protegés, that their marriage resembled a Shakespearean king and queen’s: the union of two powerful, strong-minded individuals surrounded by their own rivalrous courts.

Franklin and Eleanor is a deceptively easy read and a very enjoyable introduction to one of the most influential political partnerships of the twentieth century. Perhaps its greatest achievement is to show us the Roosevelts eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart in the early and middle phases of their marriage, loving each other but accommodating each other as well.