“Gladys Bronwyn Stern, or G. B. Stern (17 June 1890 – 20 September 1973), born Gladys Bertha Stern in London, England, wrote many novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, biographies and literary criticism,” states the opening sentence of G. B. Stern’s Wikipedia entry. Many as in over fifty, or roughly one a year starting in 1914.
She was never, apparently, at a loss for words.
One way she managed such an impressive rate of production was that she dictated most of her books while laying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “If I wrote them myself, I know I should always be stopping to draw patterns,” she told an interviewer once. Another was that she was perhaps more open to the potential of detours than any other writer. Wherever her thoughts might wander in the course of her dictation, she was more than willing to follow:
A straight line, so I have been taught, is the shortest way between two given points. This book [Monogram, her first volume of autobiography] will probably prove to be the longest possible way between three given points: objects picked up at random from my own sitting-room; from the rubbish heap of a garden in the South of France; from anywhere. A straight line cannot enclose anything; but if you join three points, you have a triangle, and something exciting may or may not be discovered, afterwards, enclosed inside a triangle, wherever and however you happen to draw it.
So Stern was a born non-linear thinker, and her reader should not be surprised when her thoughts not only lead off the beaten path but often cross the lines between one genre and another. Her temperament was well-matched with the imaginative absurdity of the snippet of Marx Brothers dialogue that serves as the epigraph to Monogram:
Groucho: “It’s my opinion that the missing picture is hidden in the house next door.”
Chico: “But there isn’t a house next door.”
Groucho: “Then we’ll build one!”
When her publishers, Chapman and Hall, approached Stern with the idea of writing an autobiography, she chose to interpret the label liberally: “So let us try, for a change, to put our words into thoughts. Surely this should be what they call autobiography?,” she asked.
Inspired by the example of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, she determined to follow his example, in which “everything is linked to everything else.” This worked for Stern, for as she saw it,
There is hardly an object, however recently acquired, however sharply free from cobwebs and memories, that would not start an association with some incident, some person, that would lead on to another and another; honestly allowing the line of the pattern to take whatever twists and curves and backward looks, angles and zigzags and convolutions it wills; honestly; not forcing it in this direction nor in that, simply because this or that direction might make the prettier or the more rhythmical pattern.
So Stern seizes upon a little blue and white glass dragon figurine on her mantelpiece, and off she goes. In the space of the next ten pages, she leads us to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, to the fact that she had named characters Maitland in four different books but had never known anyone with that name, to a memory of associating the word “Hydrant” with magical powers until her Nannie explained what one was, to a recollection of a chalet in the Tyrols, to an account of attending the first performance of R. C. Sherriff’s war play, Journey’s End, in Berlin in the early 1920s.
And on the book rolls, taking countless twists and turns and diversions, until ending 300 pages later with a joke about Einstein’s wife. And on Stern would roll, through a further eight volumes over the course of the next twenty-four years. Although several conformed a little more closely to a pre-set structure (And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957) was a collection of sketches of famous people she had known, such as Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm, All in Good Time (1954) and The Way It Worked Out (1956) were about her conversion to Catholicism), none fully restrained her from wandering off-topic when her curiosity took over.
It’s no surprise, then, that some critics couldn’t stand this approach. Reviewing Trumpet Voluntary (1944), Albert Jay Nock wrote that Stern “… presents uninteresting personages doing most uninteresting things in extremely uninteresting circumstances. Its narrative is desultory, garrulous, inconsequential.” (Another critic wrote that Stern was “occasionally inconsequential but never trivial”).
Most reviewers struggled to capture the unique nature of these books. One called Another Part of the Forest (1941) “a desultory, enticing, and ingenious volume of recollection, comment, reverie, and imagination.” Another labeled Trumpet Voluntary “a Commonplace Book, into which the author throws quotations, favorite and otherwise, opinions on books, on authors, everyday happenings–in short, everything that comes into her head at the moment.” A third wrote that “for those who love them,” each of Stern’s autobiographies was “a river of a book, now in flood, very rarely reduced to a trickle, but with occasional excursions into idle, tree-protected pools.” In its starred review of Monogram, Kirkus Reviews provided a good description that could any of the nine books:
There is no beginning, no end; no background of birth and parentage; no chronology of events; no category of friends and acquaintances. Instead, at the end, you have a rich tapestry of a full life, a life savored, shared, enjoyed to the utmost. You pick up facts, and weave them into the pattern, with no illusion of importance as to where and when they belong. You meet as intimates — or as passing acquaintances–the people that enliven today’s literary world, artistic world, theatrical world. There is humor–and poetry–and appreciation–and keen commentary on the passing scene–and it’s grand reading from first page to last.
Looking across the full set, from Monogram (1936) to One is Only Human (1960), a gradual trend toward more serious, deep-rooted thoughts can be seen. Monogram is almost effervescent, still retaining the high spirits and optimism of Stern’s first great successes as a novelist, playwright, and celebrity in the 1920s. Another Part of the Forest (1941) is full of enthusiasm for Merry Olde England (and crazy new America) but mentions of mobilization, bomb shelters, and the fact that her beloved France was cut off and under occupation remind the reader that Stern was writing in wartime. the war becomes even more prominent in Trumpet Voluntary (1944), which opens with a reflection on the destruction of her flat in London:
I used to wish that something would happen, something quite harmless, naturally, to remove the Military Tailors [a shop across the road from her flat] and leave me with a wider view. How I used to wish it! … I need not even have seen it happen; one morning, pulling aside the curtains, the building opposite would not be there, and I should have my unremorseful view.
… And then one morning, the morning of October 15, 1940, to be exact, the Military Tailors drew aside their curtains, and my rooms were not there, and instead, they had a heavenly outlook; at least, they would have when the rubbish and ash and bits of gutted wall had been cleared away. It was almost the same thing, you see; the Green Djinn had got it as nearly right as could be expected from Djinns, only it had not struck me, and I am afraid did not strike me till two years later and on this afternoon of November, 1942, that the Military Tailors might also have been doing a bit of intensive wishing, and that they were better at it than myself.
In Benefits Forgot (1949), the memories of war are still fresh. Stern comes across letters written her by American and British soldiers and learns that the R.A.F. pilot who wrote her in praise of Trumpet Voluntary died while on a raid the day after he posted his letter. All in Good Time (1954), The Way It Worked Out (1956), and, to a large extent, One is Only Human (1960), all deal with spiritual matters, tracing Stern’s long journey from being raised as a secular Jew to embracing Catholicism in her late fifties.
Throughout all the books and all their many changes of subject, one thing remains constant: Stern’s unwavering good humor. Even Albert Nock admitted that, “Chatterbox as Mrs. Stern is, commonplace as her people and their doings are, she brings them before you pervaded with the warmth and glow of an inexhaustible affection.” If her spirit of whimsy and stream-of-consciousness narrative logic can, at times, become a wee bit tiresome, Stern’s fundamental generosity and gently self-mocking tone almost always provides a restorative effect.
I have to confess that while I’ve never managed to read any of them from beginning to end, I have kept one or more of Stern’s books in my nightstand for most of the last two years and probably always will. Dip into any page of any of these books, and I guarantee that within a page or two you will have read something interesting, something amusing … and probably switched subjects at least twice along the way. Someone could probably assemble a terrific book of about 400-500 pages with the best excerpts from the lot, but I suspect it might come off a bit like a fruitcake without the cake. Till then, I highly recommend picking up any one of them (many copies are going for as little as $1.00 plus shipping) and diving in.
Here the big stars roll down
all down your face;
darkness that has no walls, the empty night
that fingers grope for and are lost,
is nightfall in your face.
The big stars roll,
the glittering railway-line unwinds into the constellations.
Over and under you the dark,
in you the rocking night without a foothold,
and no walls, no ceiling,
the parallels that never meet, the pulses winding out to the
Night has no end.
Light travelling from the stars is out
before you ride along it
with the black tears falling,
all fall down.
Passage of an August (1938)
In solitary august, like a story
he met grief’s lassie with the quartz-bright hands;
and she became his darling,
who was young, was sorry
there among the grasses blowing over pit and brands.
She walked beside him back the way he came,
into the whitening hills, and cut his throat.
Although she called him by another name,
she was no stranger, love. And none
can drive her out.
Barbed Wire (1940)
The silence, with its ragged edge of lost communication,
silence at the latter end,
is now a spiked north wind.
toss about me in the streets, waste paper
or a cigarette butt in some gutter stream
from crumpled darkness.
“Look, I am plunged in the midst of them, a dagger
in their midst.”
and over the edge
the nightmares peer, with their tall stories
and the day’s unheard-of cry.
What can forgive us for
the clothes left lying and the rocking journey,
flashing poles and pylons standing into fields of air,
in flooded fields?
Something flew out of our hands,
the cup incomplete,
air of invasions and land of defeat.
There was the tree felled in another valley,
behind the flown carpet
and nothing left to remember, all to forgive.
Nothing to remember but
the windows slammed against the cold,
the helmet crushed down on the eyes.
And who, beside the darkened station lamp,
remembering, started back.
These are stark, grim poems, very much in the spirit of their time, when there was little good news and a great deal of bad, and no one knew how far away better days might be. But there is an underlying toughness and realism that reflects the attitude of a survivor, of someone who wasn’t going to give up in the face of loss. I would have included more such poems had discretion not held me back. Sadly, Eithne Wilkins never published a collection of her poems, so one has to root through the pages of long-defunct little magazines to find them.
She attended Oxford in the early 1930s, then moved to London, where she worked as a translator and reader for various publishers. Her poems began to be published in British literary journals around 1937, and in 1949, a selection of them were included in The New British Poets, a collection edited by Kenneth Rexroth and published by James Laughlin’s just-founded New Directions Press. That same year, she married the Austrian writer and translater, Ernst Kaiser. Although she worked on English translations of a number of well-regarded books, including Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, she appears to have stopped submitting her poems for publication sometime after the New Directions collection was published, and her one book, The Rose-Garden Game (1969), was a popular history about the origins of rosary beads as an accessory to Catholic worship.
from The New British Poets, edited by Kenneth Rexroth
New London, Connecticut: New Directions Press, 1949
What proportion of your business is selling drugs?
Do you sell more drugs to keep people well or to help them recover from sickness?
What would you do if a man came into your store to purchase some bichlorid of mercury tablets?
These are a few of the questions that Imogene B. Wolcott (Mrs. Roger Wolcott, the title page advises us) proposes her reader ask a druggist. What to Talk About is a simple pocket-sized handbook full of what Mrs. Wolcott suggests are “Clever Questions” that aid in “Social, Professional, and Business Advancement.” Her theory is that the key to a successful conversation is to express interest in people: “Forget yourself and think only of the person to whom you are talking.”
And so she offers the reader nearly three hundred pages worth of questions to use in a conversation. What to Talk About is a classic of the first great era of the American self-help book, a contemporary of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, when the shortest path between a person’s problems and their solution was a straight line. Like the first pre-packaged foods, all you had to do to enjoy the banquet you craved was add water and stir.
In Mrs. Wolcott’s world, a man’s line wasn’t something he used to pick up women in bars–it was his job, and his job was his identity. The first third of her book is devoted to questions organized by jobs and professions. Of civil engineers, she proposes one ask that probe their expertise: “Why is steel used to reinforce concrete?” “Which usually offers the greater engineering difficulties: drainage or irrigation?” She offers contemporary questions: “How much progress has been made on the tunnel under the English Channel?” “What use has been made of the valuation of the railroads made by the Interstate Commerce Commission?” And she explores the civil engineer’s philosophical side: “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?”
Mrs. Wolcott’s selection of professions offers us insights into the working world of a century ago. Lumbermen and newspapermen rubbed elbows with trolley officials, steamship officials, detectives, dry goods merchants, jobbers, public office holders, and sculptors. Because it was the Roaring Twenties, she was careful to include flappers (“Why don’t you like chaperones?”), debutantes, and “Matrons (Society)”–for whom she offers the obvious question, “What do you think of the conduct of the younger generation?” (And its follow-up, “Does the fault lie with the young men of today, with the girls, or with their parents?” Me, I blame Society (Matrons)). She does not, however, provide a category for gangsters or rum-runners, so were the reader to run into Al Capone, he would have to make do with “Importers and Exporters”: “What proportion of our foreign trade is done on American bottoms?”
Mrs. Wolcott also wrote in the midst of the first great wave of American leisure time. And hence, she provides a substantial section devoted to questions based on a person’s hobby. This might be a sport (Ice Hockey, Jiu Jitsu, or Tobogganing) or an indoor occupation (Weaving, Stamps, or Painting). She was not above recognizing that some might indulge in minor vices (Billiards, Poker, or Smoking). She includes a sample of questions for the person interested in “Heredity and Eugenics” that would certainly liven up a conversation today: “Should first or second cousins marry?” “What is meant by the mutations theory?” Or, if you should run into a fan of this site, you can ask, “Which do you think is more healthful, the coarseness of the eighteenth century novel or the brutality of a school of our novelists?”
Finally, What to Talk About reminds us that there was a time when, no matter where you went, you never quite shook the dust of your home ground off your shoes. A time when people wore such labels as “Yankee,” “Dutchman,” “Irishman,” and “Philadelphian.” In fact, she suggests asking a Californian, “Do you see many Mexicans? Japanese? Chinese? Iowans?” Iowans? So it is only natural that Mrs. Wolcott ends her book with questions to ask the natives of such places as Denmark, Deauville, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and “The South” and “The West.” Most aim at confirming some stereotype about each place and its inhabitants: “Is it ture that people of Charleston dine at four o’clock in the afternoon?” “Is cheapness of labor the only factor that permits China to compete in a commercial way with the rest of the world?” “Do the majority of the women who spend the winter in Florida try to get tanned or to avoid a coat of tan?” “Is it true that one seldom sees a sunset in Pittsburgh?” “What has been done in your section of the South to combat the boll weevil?”
A few of her questions, though, would probably stump even a native nowadays:
“What is meant by the three-cent cult?” (Cleveland, Ohio)
“What has the Pan-American Conference accomplished?” (South America)
“In what regard do Philadelphians hold Edward Bok?”
“Did you see many lepers?” (Holy Land)
“Were you shown the site of Annette Kellerman’s diving activities in the preparation of her most famous moving picture?” (Anyone? Anyone? … The correct answer is Bermuda.)
A book as full of questions as this one cannot help but raise a few that reach beyond the limits of place, profession, and hobby, timeless questions we could all do well to take a moment to ponder:
“Does the fear of death become stronger or less strong as one grows older?”
“Does personality or ability count more in business?”
“At what age does a hen cease to be profitable?”
“What is the future of Palestine?”
And one many of us have asked recently:
“Why is it that so many of our Vice-Presidents have come from Indiana?”
What to Talk About: The Clever Question As an Aid to Social, Professional, and Business Advancement, by Imogene B. Wolcott
New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923
A few weeks after my post on Anne Goodwin Winslow’s 1949 novel, The Springs, I came across the following, from American Panorama (1957), edited by Eric Larrabee, a collection of essays on the 350 books chosen by the Carnegie Corporation as “most descriptive of life in the U.S.A.”:
Mrs. Winslow’s reputation as a novelist is based on an exquisite specialization. She writes about the Southern gentry at the turn of the present century. This might well prove trivial or suffocating if it were not for the author’s astonishing power to make life pulse vigorously in the constricted places, situations, and people that she chooses. Her outlook is perhaps best expressed in the contrast between the title of one of her other novels—— A Quiet Neighborhood (1947)——and the violent events, the passions leading to murder, which inform the work.
Mrs. Winslow belongs to no school, for although some of her perceptions are akin to William Faulkner’s and her technique is in the tradition of William Dean Howells, her temperament, style, and biography set her in a world apart. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, which is to say a “border state” in the great North-and-South struggle of the past century, Mrs. Winslow married a Northern army engineer and spent many years in New England and abroad. She has returned to live in her home state and it is the distillation of her childhood memories through her traveled mind—emotions recollected in tranquillity — that she gives us in her novels and tales.
The Springs is a study of character which by its subdued atmosphere makes one think of Henry James’s The Europeans. But the “culture” in which the characters evolve is markedly different, as is the fact that Mrs. Winslow’s interest in household detail lends a peculiar vividness, almost a pathos, to the scene. It is as if, suddenly transplanted to those quiet old days we sometimes long for, we discovered their slow terror, which not even conventional happiness could allay.
Barzun’s last sentence captures the unique quality of Winslow’s writing that I probably haven’t done justice to: it’s delicate, subtle, and somewhat nostalgic, but there is an underlying potential for same anger, pain, and violence that percolates much closer to the surface in Faulkner. And if we had forgotten that this potential is apparently an ineluctable element of the American character, the events of the last year have done much to remind us.
As a veteran, I would like to take this day as an opportunity to remember that one of the worst things about a war is the suffering that continues after its end. In the stereotypical versions of the end of World War Two in Europe one sees in America and Britain, the symbol of V-E Day was the great joyous crowd doing the Lambeth Walk in Piccadilly Circus. But on the Continent, the end of the war merely opened a time of displacement, disruption, and slow, painful reconstruction.
Four fine neglected books, all written by women, remind us of one of the greatest tragedies to follow the war in Europe — namely, the plight of the millions of prisoners, forced laborers, and refugees who were displaced from their homes and stranded in foreign countries, often without the means to return.
Wilson, an English academic who had already worked with refugees from the First World War, Russia, and the Spanish Civil War, joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in early 1945, and was one of its first staff members to arrive in Germany to begin to deal with the enormity of the problem created with the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The first DP (Displaced Persons) camp she worked at was Feldafing in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army set up to house a trainload of Hungarian Jews one of its units found near Mühldorf , a satellite camp of Dachau. In these early days, those organizing relief quickly realized that they were dealing with people who had been subjected to a dehumanization more extreme than anything that even an experienced worker like Wilson had ever experienced:
They had the furtive look and gestures of hunted animals. By years of brutal treatment, by the murder of relatives, by the constant fear of death, all that was human had been taken away from them. We went into the dormitories where they were eating — the collected their food from the kitchen and brought it back to devour in relative privacy: nothing would persuade them to eat in communal dining-rooms. I noticed a man who was trying to eat but was too weak to finish his food. Three boys were staring at his plate. I had once seen the same look of burning yet cautious intentness on the Russian steppes. When the sick man pushed his plate away a thin arm shot out and seized the lump of meat left on it. The lad who had secured it slid out of the room, like a starving dog with a bone.
Despite the challenges of woefully inadequate supplies and staff, an oncoming winter, and a population devastated by malnutrition, disease, and depression, UNRRA and other relief organizations gradually established some degree of sanitation and comfort in the camps. But none of them was quite prepared to delete with the special challenge presented by the former residents of lands now incorporated into the Soviet Union. And their responses were not always something to be proud of:
They are now in exile because they do not wish to become Soviet citizens. Only they can decide about this. Soviet citizenship should be accepted voluntarily, and the policy not to compel their return is a right one: but the policy of leaving them to rot in DP camps is utterly wrong. Poland will not accept her former Ukrainian citizens — those who tried to go back there were turned back from her frontiers. Military authorities in Austria were trying last September to make a temporary solution. They reduced their rations, which had been kept to the 2,000 calorie level, to the 1,200 of the surrounding population, saying at the same time that all those who were physically able must pay for their board and lodging in the camps…. But unless these uprooted peoples are to be permanently absorbed in the German or Austrian economy — and this neither they nor their hosts desire — this is only a temporary solution. When all have gone home who will or can, there will still be three-quarters of a million irrepatriable DPs….
In 1945, Kathryn Hulme arrived as UNRRA director of the Wildflecken DP camp in northern Bavaria. Like Wilson, she encountered a desperate situation and struggled in the first months to establish conditions fit for the people in the camp. Her first impressions, she wrote “entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.” At Wildflecken, she also met Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun. The two became close friends and were to remain together as companions when they left the camp. Hulme would later fictionalize Habets’ experiences as a nun in the 1958 best-seller, The Nun’s Story. The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly award as best non-fiction book of 1953. Although not rare (AddAll.com lists over 50 copies for sale), it’s become something of a collector’s item, with prices starting at $35 and running to over $400 a copy.
Roosenburg was a young Dutch woman imprisoned in 1944 by the Nazis as a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) inmate for her activities as a member of the Dutch Resistance organization. When the war ended, she and four other Dutch women were inmates of a prison near Waldheim in Saxony, in the Russian zone of occupation. Because one of the women was too ill to walk, they were left behind in the initial evacuation, and after turning their friend over for medical care, they had to work their way back over four hundred miles of territory that was still in chaos. It required an extraordinary amount of strength, ingenuity, and persuasiveness, and reading The Walls Came Tumbling Down serves as another illustration of the fact that a group of women is usually ten times smarter, better organized, and more practical than any equivalent group of men. Roosenburg, who worked as a journalist after the war, first wrote about these experiences in a four-part series in The New Yorker titled, “Annals of Liberation — The Journey Home.”
The Children was the only book of non-fiction published by Ursula Torday under the pen-name of Charity Blackstock that she used mostly for murder mysteries and light thrillers. In it, she recounted her five years’ work as director of a scheme organized by an association of British Jews organized to help locate and reunite family members who had survived the Holocaust. The scheme involved arranging for displaced Jewish children being kept in group homes in France to be placed — only temporarily at first — with Jewish families in England. The Children provides a vivid demonstration of the paradoxes of memory: how quickly people in France and England could forget their own troubles during the war and grow callous to the plight of children orphaned and displaced in its wake; and how long these children remained scarred and disturbed by their experiences. Even for herself, Torday admits, “This business of going back is dangerous: by doing it one virtually stands still, and tomorrow is surely more interesting than today.” And she is able, writing nearly fifteen years later, to recognize that for the children, “The Scheme, the families, the Homes, are all part of a black and stinking past, to be remembered by all of us, but to be forgotten as far as it is possible by them. Even I myself, even the best of hostesses, must be unwilling reminders of a time when they were dependent on charity, deprived children, pathetic victims.”
To mark the last day of what has been an ugly and troubling election campaign, let me note a fine neglected book about the toxic cocktail that results when you mix family dynamics, political ambition, and relentless media coverage: Janet Burroway’s 1969 novel, The Buzzards.
The Buzzards centers on Arizona Republican senator Alex Cofer, running for President and finding it forcing him to make uncomfortable choices between his ambition and his family.
It shouldn’t take much to guess which wins out in the end.
Cofer is, at the start, a relatively decent if clueless man, safely conservative but not unpalatably rabid, with stereotypical politician’s good looks — silver hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. His wife, Claudia, is already bitter from years of his neglect. Their elder daughter is a frustrated housewife finding her life being drained away by the demands of three kids. Orin, their son, has given up on America and take refuge in Paris. Only Evie, a teenager with all-American girl good looks — isn’t loaded down with psychological baggage, and even Evie becomes a bit of a problem when she acquires a boyfriend who’s a little … well, brown.
And as the campaign progresses, Alex finds himself becoming more strident in his statements and positions, just to put himself in contrast to his more liberal opponent: “Every man who takes an oath of office in this country, implicitly declares himself ready to use force as he deems it necessary for the preservation of a peaceful and lawful union. He declares himself ready to place in jeopardy the lives of those nearest to him in spirit….”
You can imagine how well the family bonds bear up when doused with the battery acid of months of campaigning and media coverage. Raised in Arizona, it’s not surprising that more than one of the Cofers compares the press to a flock of buzzards, constantly circling, waiting to dive down and feast on the victims.
I’ve read that The Buzzards was a finalist for the 1970 Pulitzer, but can’t confirm from the Pulitzer site. Though an interesting read in any election year and full of points ready-made to make one reflect on today’s equivalents, I found it awfully full of fictional devices for the sake of … well, because Burroway could. Multiple narrators, stump speeches, a diary, stream-of-consciousness, news reports — ample evidence that she was well qualified to write the book she’s best known for, the standard of college courses everywhere: Writing Fiction. Still, if you feel the need to remind yourself of the soul-grinding spectacle of the last umpteen months in American politics, you can do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Buzzards.
The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway
Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969
I don’t believe in golden ages. Pick anyone’s candidate for a golden age — the Athens of Socrates, the Italian Renaissance, Paris in the Twenties, Eisenhower’s America — and without much looking you will find someone — the slaves, the serfs, the blacks — for whom the time was no great party. But I do believe in golden moments — a few months or a few years when circumstances allow a few people to something uniquely marvelous and irreproducable. Music at Midnight is a memoir of one of these golden moments: two years (1912-1914) when Paul and Muriel Draper rented a house at 19 Edith Grove, Chelsea, and it became the center of the music world of London.
Paul Draper was an aspiring American tenor who came to London to study lieder with a renowned voice coach, Raimund von Zur Mühlen, bringing his socialite wife Muriel and their two sons in tow. Although Draper proved a good but not great singer, the couple quickly managed to attract many of the finest musicians living and performing in London at the time. A list of their friends and acquaintances is impressive: Igor Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Chaliapin, Rubinstein, Pierre Monteux, Pablo Casals, Eugene Goossens, Gertrude Stein, John Singer Sargent, and even Henry James were among those who spent evenings at the Draper’s. And no gathering was complete without music.
It often occurred that an artist who did not live in London would arrive for the night of the concert only, leaving London the next day. This meant that he would not arrive at Edith Grove until after the concert and its tedious artist’s-room salutations and compliments were terminated (though I never knew one who did not like them) anywhere between ten-thirty and midnight, and would not leave until it was time to catch the boat-train in the morning. He would find perhaps a movement from a Brahms violin sonata, a Beethoven trio for flute, violin, piano, a Chopin mazurka or German song cycle already in full swing and would creep into a chair or on a cushion until it was over. Then, usually hungry and a little tired from the strain of a concert, we would carry him off upstairs for food and drink. After which the really serious work of the evening would begin and continue until the skylight in the roof above us would turn from black to black-blue to blue-grey to yellow-grey and at last show clear blue sky beyond yellow sunlight, seen through blue-yellow-grey layers of smoke from burning wood, burning tobacco and burning candles. It would be six o’clock — seven o’clock — eight o’clock in the morning before we would make another visit to the dining-room, where the miracle maids after eight hours’ sleep had somehow managed to clear away the debris of Chester’s pink food and lonely parts of deserted fowl and make room for fresh coffee, scrambled eggs in an enormous chafing dish, raspberries and strawberries in big bowls. Oh! those English berries! We would breakfast, and break day by going to bed.
Their neighbors were less enthusiastic about the Draper’s musical soirées. The folks behind them once staged a protest one evening, going from window to window, “blowing policemen’s whistles, shooting off torpedoes, and filling the night air with hootings and rattles.” In response, Rubenstein and John Warner merely attacked the Bach prelude and fugue with even greater enthusiasm. “Bach is stirring enough played by two hands: by four, it is not conducive to sleep,” Muriel notes.
In one way, Music at Midnight is a bit like a snooty man’s version of People magazine — or, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, McDonald’s of the soul. It’s utterly superficial and primarily of interest for the glimpses of the great when they let down their guards. But what English major can resist an account of Henry James on the phone?
To be called to the telephone by Henry James was an experience in itself. The first time it happened I, all unaware, took up the receiver eagerly, and said, “Yes — this is Muriel.”
A voice that began to twist and turn on the other end of the wire, finally spoke.
“Would you be — er — or, rather, my dear, — er — my very dear, if I may call you so, child, would you, — not by — er — er arrangement, but would you — more — er — truthfully speaking — be — er — er NATURALLY at home — this afternoon?”
By that time I was not naturally anything at all, and could only gasp, “Yes, always, any time — yes, yes, this afternoon at five, I will, unnaturally or not, be here — yes,” and hung up.
Muriel soon discovered a trick that many a reader of James has probably been tempted to repeat:
I soon learned to talk with him and listen to him, by withdrawing the weight of my attention from his actual words and the anguished facial contortions that accompanied them, and fastening it on the stream of thought itself. I even diverted my eyes from that part of his face from which the phrases finally emerged, namely, his mouth, and directed them to a more peaceful spot between his eyes, which I imagined to be the source of tought. It proved helpful. … My effort to ignore the words and extract the meaning by a sense of weight, inflection and rhythm which emanated from him … proved an excellent modus operandi from then on….
Even though Carl van Vechten groused in his diary that Muriel Draper couldn’t write, Music at Midnight bubbles with what one critic called “the zeal of a child anticipating a good time,” and is filled with memorable sketches of the greats. Of the actress Eleanora Duse, for example: “She permeated the air with the ethereal assurance that she was inhabiting her body, but could leave it if she chose.” Or the intimidating Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, who “had the shape and substance of a rock, the smell and sound of vast stretches of earth and water, and breathed like the winds in the air.”
The parties at 19 Edith Grove might have carried on for years, but like most golden moments, it came to a ugly and unexpected end with the start of World War One. Caught on a tour in Germany, Paul Draper obtained passage back to America, leaving Muriel and the boys in London. She hung on, selling off bits of furniture for cash while foreign exchange with the U.S. was restricted, but by mid-1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, she decided it too risky to postpone their own return. When the cab arrived to take them to the train station, a group of friends serenaded their departure.
The Drapers divorced not long after Muriel’s return to the US. Paul Draper married a show girl in 1920 and she divorced him a few years later. He died in 1925 at the age of 38. The New York Times reported the cause as heart disease, but in truth, he drank himself to death. Muriel carried on without him, remaining active in New York social and artistic circles. Despite the fact that Van Vechten dismissed Muriel’s ability to write, he photographed her often in the 1930s. And she was a great supporter of young talent, as actress Marian Seldes recalls in this YouTube clip.
Her son Paul Jr. became a well-known dancer, particularly for his fusion of tap and modern dance. His brother, Sanders, went to England and joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He died a hero’s death when he steered the plane he was flying, which had been severely damaged and was plummeting to the ground, and avoided crashing into a school full of children in Hornchurch, just outside London. Muriel became a proponent of Communist and socialist causes until scared off by investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee. She died in Manhattan in 1952.
Music at Midnight, by Muriel Draper
New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1929
My father was extremely active physically, and he had adopted, in later life, the custom of pacing the long passages at Renishaw because, he said, by cultivating such a habit one ceased to trouble if the days were wet and cold, or torrid and weighted by the heat, were drawing out or drawing in. If you paid no attention to a fact, it ceased to exist. He remembered, however, that the weather was useful as a basis for conversation (he would speak with approbation of noisy female nonentities who “kept the ball rolling,” by which he meant rattling out unceasing nonsense obliterating the passage of time, at every meal). Apart from these interludes, only the sound of his footsteps and the care for his health remained to bind him to reality. He did not believe in taking risks, however, and, though an agnostic by profession, said his prayers every night, on the chance of this being a good investment.
When pacing the passages he walked very slowly, occupying as much time as possible, in order that the house should seem even larger than it is—for he liked to think of it as very large. Occasionally (about once or twice a day) he would pause outside a door, if he could hear voices in the room beyond—not because he wanted to eavesdrop or to spy, since there was nothing he could hear that would interest him, but because he was enabled in this way to touch, for a moment, the world in which others moved, thought, acted, without being obliged to become part of it; and this made him real to himself, real in his isolation, in the separation of his identity from the world that he could yet touch at will. For this reason he would pretend to secret information from an unknown source: “We happen to know,” he would say; and when a letter arrived for my mother in a handwriting he did not know, he would enquire “How are they?” He would spread various objects belonging to himself all over the house, in the many rooms—his hat in one room, his stick in another, his spectacle case in a third—because when he came face to face once more, in the course of his wanderings, with these records of his personality, he was reminded of himself, which was pleasant, and because it enabled him to stake his claim on every room in the house as sole inhabitant. Should any other person enter one of the rooms in question, my father would follow him there, and, conveying suddenly the impression of very great age, would make it clear by his manner that he had intended to rest there and had hoped that he would not be disturbed. Then, having by this means routed the intruder and put him to flight, he would continue his walk.
When he was not pacing up and down the passages, my father spent much of his time in walking up and down outside the house, and when he did this, he would succeed in appearing like a procession of one person—he being the head, the beginning and the end.
I was over halfway through Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, Taken Care Of (1965), before I realized that it was back in print, thanks to the Bloomsbory Press’ Bloomsbury Reader series, and hence, technically disqualified to be featured here. However, I couldn’t resist posting this excerpt, which follows a portrait of Sitwell’s mother etched with the same comic acid. Sitwell obviously had no sympathy with Louise Bogan’s view of looking back at one’s parents (“There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them”. She seems never to have gotten over the fact that her very handsome and self-centered parents saw their first child ‐ angular, unconforming, and decidedly eccentric in orientation — more as an odd creature than the fruit of their flesh, and in her old age gave them the same treatment, placing them under her magnifying glass like a couple of entomological specimens.
Whenever I think about Anne Goodwin Winslow, I tend to pair her up with Isa Glenn (whose work was discussed in my interview with Veronica Makowsky). They were both true Southern belles, daughters of wealthy and powerful men, who married Army officers, followed them to exotic assignments, and then, as widows, turned to writing (for a few years) and then faded into obscurity.
Whatever the similarity in their lives, however, their approaches to writing were strikingly different. Glenn, who settled in Manhattan after her husband’s death and started publishing in the 1920s, was usually satirical and looked back upon the South in which she grew up without an ounce of nostalgia. Winslow, on the other hand, retired to her family home, Goodwinslow, outside Memphis and portrayed the South in light strokes and subtle tones. This is not to suggest that she saw her past as a better time — simply that she was a sketcher, while Glenn was an etcher.
Winslow’s delicacy of style may be her greatest handicap in appealing with today’s reader. As I wrote in my post on her final novel, It Was Like This (1949), “Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection.” It seems like so little happens in her books that it’s easy to miss what does.
Not that there isn’t drama in her third, and best-regarded, novel, The Springs. A jealous husband arrives one night and murders the handsome local boy with whom his wife has become infatuated, leaving the body lying beside the springs of the title and calmly walked away, knowing his money and influence would keep him from any punishment. From the moment Mr. Dupree had arrived from New Orleans to deposit his wife and children at the hotel, people had smelled trouble. Stocky and arrogant, his capacity for violence was palpable, and Mrs. Dupree was quickly seen to be a stupid and foolish woman unable to admit her age.
But what I’ve just written is crude and obvious compared to how Winslow tells the story. And it isn’t even the central story in The Springs. In fact, I somewhat suspect that Winslow included the Dupree’s re-enactment of Othello to enhance the contrast between the coarse lines of their drama and the almost imperceptible filaments of the triangle that forms around Alice, the seventeen year-old girl through whose memory the story is filtered.
Mr. Mason, a man from Charleston, South Carolina sent to work in Memphis in the cotton business, falls for Alice at first sight. But though he spends hours walking and talking with her, often telling her of his family’s once-grand plantation, he feels himself encumbered by a commitment to help restore his parents to their former status in Charleston society. When Mason introduces Alice to Brian Howard, a rich and handsome young Englishman (“They really do seem to be surprisingly like they are in the books they write about themselves,” he observes), he consciously puts Brian forward as a more suitable candidate for her hand.
Though Alice seems oblivious to the maneuver, when Brian falls for her and returns the next year with his family’s approval, she accepts his proposal. Mason has gracefully exited stage right, and when he comes back later, she is somewhat perplexed, feeling that it was Mason who had failed her. To her, Mason is the poetic soul and Brian just the rugged outdoorsman, best seen with shotgun in hand and brace of pheasants hanging from his belt. The fine, the beautiful, the romantic thing to do would be to flee with Mason to his doomed plantation by the sea.
But the real story Winslow is telling in The Springs is not about passion or romance but about perspective. The perspective than transforms experience into memory.
Once when they were going through the woods and the others had gone on ahead, she and Mr. Mason stopped under the tree where they used to spend so much time talking, and it made her feel a little strange. In spite of all you could do, and no matter how happy you were, things were always slipping. You never could hold on to them; you just had something else instead.
“It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?” she said.
He had taken off his hat and stood looking up into the tree, but now he looked at her. “How can it, when you’ve never been in any long ago? That’s a place you are never going with me. I’ve told you that.”
“Do you mean you can really hold on to things — in your mind — so that you don’t feel sad about them?”
“Maybe they hold on to me.”
“This place, for instance?”
“This place. But I have had you here with everything green around you. Stand over there and let me put the colors in. Without your hat.”
She stood quite still, helping him to get the picture he wanted to keep; then he let her go and they walked on.
“You mustn’t ever worry about the past, Miss Alice,” he said. “It hardly ever lets you down. As a rule we like it better and better as we go along, or we can keep working on it until we do.”
Mason sees Alice from the distance of a man twenty years her elder. Alice recalls this time from a distance of forty years and another continent. Winslow, who was 74 when The Springs was published, had the perspective of even greater distance, and was able to show — subtly — delicately — indirectly — how each separation from experience loses something in intensity but gains something in proportion.
Winslow never suggested it, but from a few bits of information, one can determine that there was a strongly autobiographical element to The Springs. The home where she grew up, Goodwinslow, butted up against the edge of Raleigh Springs, a resort that was set up in the late 1800s to take advantage of the supposed medicinal benefits of the local natural springs, somewhat of a Deep South competitor to the Greenbrier and Saratoga. Like the Springs in Goodwin’s novel, the Raleigh Inn eventually lost its prestige and was turned into a girls’ school. Winslow kept up Goodwinslow, however, dying there in 1959, and it remains one of the fine Southern mansions gracing the outskirts of Memphis.
The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949
Louise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”
Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer, a professor of English at Goucher College, after the idea was suggested by Amanda Vaill, then an editor at Viking. Limmer framed the work in rough chronological order, using text from a story Bogan published in The New Yorker in 1933 titled “Journey Around My Room” as introduction, close, and chapter prefaces. She also used the lines from one of Bogan’s poems, “Train Tune” (“Back through clouds/Back through clearing/Back through distance/Back through silence…”) as chapter titles. Finally, she pulled from the mass of papers Bogan left extracts from journals, notebooks, poems, letters, short stories, scraps of paper, essays, even recorded conversations hundreds of fragments, the tesserae from which she assembled this mosaic.
The rough and vulgar facts are not there. Without the outline of Bogan’s life that Limmer provides in her autobiography, the reader would not know when she was born, that she was briefly married, to a soldier with whom she had almost nothing in common, that she had a daughter and then left him, that she had a second marriage, to writer Raymond Holden, that also ended, that she had an affair with Theodore Roethke and an infatuation with Edmund Wilson, that she served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, that she was hospitalized several times for depression, that she spent much of her later life living alone in what she called the faubourg of Washington Heights. Bogan explained her reticence as an attempt to make sure that future researchers into her life would have to work for their pay, but the truth was simpler: her solitude was essential to both her work and her survival.
William Jay Smith, one of her few close friends, with whom she collaborated on a collection of poems for children, wrote after her death that when he used to call her up to meet for lunch, Bogan would always decline, saying she had a dentist appointment. He eventually figured out that no one could need so much dental work. As Limmer puts it, “She came first.” She once wrote, in response to a questionnaire she set for herself, that her wish was “To live without apology.” She had no desire to confess her sins and no interest in trumpeting her virtues. “The fact of the matter,” Limmer writes, “is that Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them.”
Bogan’s childhood experiences clearly did much to shape her sensibility and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Her father was a reticent man who held a series of jobs in small mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, moving the family every few years. Her mother was the catalyst of the explosions and scandals that led the family to pull up stakes. “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head,” Bogan writes, but she does remember one scene: “The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror.”
From Elizabeth Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1986), one can learn that Bogan’s mother saw herself as a great beauty and pursued men she met in the hotels and boardinghouses in which the family often stayed. She was victim to “her own vanity’s desire for praise and love.” She left her husband on at least one occasion and always considered him unworthy of her. As she grew older, her pursuits more and more ended in frustration. A certain level of resentment and impending chaos simmered throughout Bogan’s childhood. “I had no idea of ordered living.” No wonder she remembers such affection for the home in which her friend Ethel Gardner lived. “I can only express my delight and happiness with the Gardners’ way of living by saying that they had one of everything.”
Eventually Bogan’s mother surrendered her hopes of romantic escape and the family settled in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Boston. Revisiting the area as an adult, Bogan found the sense of failure overwhelming: “I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of my family’s complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me.” Yet she also recognizes that “The thing to remember, and ‘dwell on,’ is the extraordinary courage manifested by those two disparate, unawakened (if not actually lost) souls: my mother and father.” What little money they had paid for music lessons for Louise and her brother, for occasional theater tickets, for tram fares to the Girl’s Latin School, from which Louise graduated in 1915. And they survived “in this purgatory — with an open hell in close relation.”
Again, for what happened next we have to turn to Limmer’s introduction or Frank’s biography. Bogan attended Boston University for year and was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had begun to attract some attention for her writing, getting a number of poems published as a freshman. She chose instead to marry an Army corporal named Curtis Alexander and followed him when he was assigned to a post in the Panama Canal Zone. She found the life unendurable. “All we had in common was sex. Nothing to talk about. We played cards.” She took her baby, Maidie, back to Boston in May 1918. A few months later, the family was notified that Bogan’s brother Charles had been killed in a battle in the Haumont Woods in France. The news devastated Bogan’s mother, leaving her emotionally shattered for the rest of her life. About a year later, Alexander died.
Bogan took the meager widow’s pension from the Army and used the money to pay for a trip to Europe. She spent a year in Vienna studying piano, reading Tolstoy, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and writing. Then she returned to the U. S., settling in New York City, where her first collection of poems, Body of This Death (1923), was published. Her portrait appeared, along with those of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Genevieve Taggard in a Vanity Fair article, “Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of the Men.”
She began a relationship with Raymond Holden and they married in 1925. She was invited for a stay at the Yaddo Colony and published her second collection, Dark Summer (1929). On Boxing Day 1929, the house she and Holden were living in burned down, taking with it almost all of her first ten years’ work. Her relationship with Holden was troubled by her jealousy and their mutual heavy drinking, and she entered a sanitarium, complaining of depression and exhaustion. There would be more such stays in the next thirty years. She took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933 to return to Europe, this time spending the spring and summer in Italy and France.
She separated from Holden in 1934, began her affair with Roethke in 1935, and lived by writing reviews and stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. These stories, which can be found in Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005), edited by Mary Kinzie, were impressionistic but clearly autobiographical, and Bogan discussed the possibility of building a novel, to be titled Laura Daly’s Story, with an editor at Scribner’s. Limmer incorporates passages from several of the stories into Journey Around My Room.
By the end of the 1930s, Bogan had divorced Holden, taken up residence in the apartment in Morningside Heights that she maintained to the end of her life, and become the regular poetry editor for The New Yorker. Over the next three decades, she continued to write, if more slowly as time wore on, and kept up a steady round of engagements as a lecturer and visiting professor at colleges around the U. S.. She published three more collections, one per decade: Poems and New Poems (1941), Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (1954) and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968).
Unlike many of her peers, she avoided involvement with social causes, and one would have little idea what was going on in the outside world, as well as her own life, from reading Journey Around My Room. “What is staler than old politics?” she once wrote. “It is like walking over old furnace cinders to read what once was news of political chicanery or change.” Her foremost concern was her own work. “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre. The woman who ran away.”
Bogan felt her talent doomed her to insignificance.”‘My time will come,’ you say to yourself, but how can you know whether or not your time has not already come and gone?”:
Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, squandered out, in taking streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes — in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair — older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age.
This is not to suggest that she faded away in lonely isolation. While Journey Around My Room shows us a woman who spent a great deal of time exploring the deeper currents of her spirit, an hour reading her letters, particularly those from the Forties on, in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters makes it clear that she never lost touch with what was going on around her. She read copiously and was quick to recommend books to her friends. She went to plays and kept up with the movies, taking delight in Jules and Jim and other films that hit the New York art houses in the Fifties and Sixties. She loved an occasional indulgent dip into gossip and could toss out razor-sharp barbs when in the mood.
But she also struggled increasingly with depression and was frustrated by the necessity for — and the effects — of the the drugs she took to cope with it. “This morning I thought that the 1st pill was going to see me through; a clear, untroubled interval would show up (take over) every so often…. But soon that secondary sort of yearning hunger (which is not real hunger, but is in some way attached to the drug) began again.” She found less and less energy to write. “Any true writing … will have to be done in the afternoon.” The unpublished poems Limmer includes in the last chapter, “Back through the midnight,” however, reveal that Bogan maintained some amount of hope that this, too, would pass:
The Castle of My Heart
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I lived for long with little joy.
For Falsest Danger, with its counterpart
Sorrow, has made this siege its long employ.
Now lift the siege, for in your bravest part
Full power exists, most eager for employ;
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I have lived for long with little joy.
Do not let Peril play its lordly part;
Show up the bad game’s bait, and its employ.
Nor, for a moment, strut as future’s toy.
Advanced, and guard your honor and my art.
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart.
Six months before her death, she wrote her long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell:
The struggle with silence still goes on. —But I plan some secretarial help, after the holiday. If this doesn’t help, I’ll have another conference with you; and plan some strategy. Surely I can outwit this thing! I don’t want to give up just yet.
Louise Bogan died in her apartment, in the early hours of February 1970, of a heart attack.
“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier,” she once complained. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Journey Around My Room has not left my nightstand since I first read it over 18 months ago. I have discovered and written about many good books over the course of the past ten years, but I am conservative in the use of words like “great” and “masterpiece.” Journey Around My Room is a masterpiece, one of the truly great American autobiographies. Every time I open it I find something stunning in its honesty and insight.
Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer
New York: The Viking Press, 1980
The best time to write about one’s childhood is in the early thirties, when the contrast between early forced passivity and later freedom is marked; and when one’s energy is in full flood. Later, not only have the juices dried up, and the energy ceased to be abundant, but the retracing of the scene of earliest youth has become a task filled with boredom and dismay. The figures that surrounded one have now turned their full face toward us; we understand them perhaps still partially, but we know them only too well. They have ceased to be background to our own terribly important selves; they have irremediably taken on the look of figures in a tragicomedy; we now look on them ironically, for we know their end, although they themselves do not yet know it. And now — in the middle fifties — we have traced and retraced their tragedy so often that, in spite of the understanding we have, it bores and offends us. There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them. This attitude comes hard and must be reached with anguish. For it one is to deal with the people in the past — of one’s past — at all, one must feel neither anger nor bitterness. We are not here to expose each other, like journalists writing gossip, or children blaming others for their own bad behavior. And open confession, for certain temperaments (certainly for my own), is not good for the soul, in any direct way. To confess is to ask for pardon; and the whole confusing process brings out too much self-pity and too many small emotions in general. For people like myself to look back is a task. It is like re-entering a trap, or a labyrinth, from which one has only too lately, and too narrowly, escaped.
For a writer who became associated with Maine and the Northeast and life on a small farm, Elizabeth Coatsworth managed to cover more of the rest of the world’s terrain in her first 25 years than many of her more cosmopolitan peers. And her last book, Personal Geography is aptly named, covering both great travels and years spent in the space of just a few square miles.
The book’s subtitle, “Almost an Autobiography,” is also apt. While Coatsworth manages to tell us most of the essential facts of her life, she does it by weaving together passages from her diaries and journals, going as far back as the early 1900s and running up to the time she was writing — an amalgam of things, she calls it, “Each piece a moment in my life, caught in passing.” And she recommends it be read the same way she wrote it: “in snatches — picked up and put down, and I hope picked up again.”
Coatsworth was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1893. She refers to Buffalo as “my Middle East”: “There is a Middle East in this country as surely as there is a Middle West, but it is not called by that name. It is an emotion rather than a nomenclature.” Her father owned Buffalo’s largest grain exchange and the family lived in one of the best houses in town, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. They wintered in California, traveled to Europe and Egypt, and sent Elizabeth and her sister to Buffalo’s best girl’s school and, in Elizabeth’s case, on to college at Vassar.
When her father died in 1912, her mother sold the mansion. After Elizabeth graduated from college in May 1914, they set off, with her younger sister Margaret, for Europe. They visited England, France and Holland before war broke out, but carried on regardless, moving on to Spain, Italy, Egypt and Palestine. Then they sailed to Japan and China, down to Southeast Asia, and finally back to California. Of all the countries they visited, she loved China the best: “I think my whole preference for China could be epitomized by a flaking wall near a temple, on which someone had sketched a narcissus and a line of Chinese characters. In Japan that would have been tidied up. But not in China, the lovely decrepit China of those days.”
Elizabeth’s idle itinerant life ended in 1929 when she married the writer Henry Beston. Beston had just written his best-known book, The Outermost House, which related the story of a year living in an isolated house on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. A year later, they bought Chimney Farm, near Nobleboro, Maine, which remained their home for the rest of their lives, and Coatsworth published her second book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which went on to win the Newberry Medal as the best children’s book of the 1930.
Though they together wrote nearly two dozen books at Chimney Farm, Beston and Coatsworth had fundamentally different approaches to writing. Beston would spend months planning, researching, organizing, thinking — and lining up his publishing contract. Coatsworth tended to write in a flash. “Writing was for me an addiction like drink, which I kept as much as possible out of sight.” A dedicated naturalist, Beston helped her learn to observe the life of the plants and animals in and around Damariscotta Pond, the lake alongside Chimney Farm. And she came to find outside her window sights as amazing as anything she’d seen on her world travels:
Now and then a heavy shower passes over our road eastward beyond the lake and its dark shores. The clouds will mass in a black wall there on the other side, while the sunshine strikes in the fields on this side, and every grass-blade, weed, and flower in them, to a wet and burning green. A tremulous rainbow hangs against the clouds. Looking out through your skull’s two windows you know you are seeing a beauty rare and certain to be gone in a moment. It is one of the miracles of daily life that you should see it at all. It is, surely, an enchantment more fit for the eyes of magicians than for everyday human beings ourselves.
Still, she never thought she could match Beston’s gift for observation: “I think sometimes that when Henry and I die, Henry will go knowing that he has given an exact impression of the world and life as he has seen it, but that I shall know that I have left behind me only glimpses, random remarks, things seen at a tangent.” Henry, who was five years older, died in 1968. When Coatsworth wrote Personal Geography, she had lived alone on the farm for eight years. “After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight.”
Yet she is in no hurry. “I don’t want to die because even in this narrower radius there are so many people and things still to enjoy.” And even as she acknowledges having to give up driving, her mind is still wandering far afield. She imagines the lost cities in the oases of the deserts between China, India and Russia, the icebergs off Greenland, and the hundreds of small volcanic cones in Anatolia. “None of these places have I ever seen and certainly never will see. But I do not wish to see them. They swim in my fancy, often nameless. They are a living part of my thought.”
Personal Geography belongs on many a nightstand, to be picked up and put down and picked up again.
Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene, 1976
The walls of my room would be covered with portraits if only I know the spell to call them forth from my mother’s mirror with its round silver frame. The first portrait would perhaps be of Mother in her wedding veil, tucking orange blossoms between the veil and soft fair hair. There would be many quick sketches of Mother later, in the first frilled shirtwaist, wearing for the first time her gold pince-nez, and then as an older woman, holding the same sweet look she had had as a girl. Father was not one to look much in mirrors, but he may have looked in this once or twice to see if the part in his hair was straight. There would be hidden here no portraits or sketches of Grandmother Coatsworth. She would, I think, never have entered her daughter-in-law’s room. A young woman has a right to some privacy, and if Mother’s was minimal, at least I am sure it was absolute.
Of course there would have been many sketches of Margaret and of me, so unlike in everything but our youth. The only carefully studied mirror-portrait of me was taken when I was ten or twelve years old.
Mother came into the room and said mildly, “You’ve looked long enough at yourself, Betty.” Or was I still “Bess” then? Anyway she was completely mistaken. I was not admiring myself. I was searching to find out who and what I was. There was no humor in the eyes that looked back at me under the arching brows, but I am sure there was humor in the thoughts back of the eyes. Like Father, I could make a joke without smiling. Like him, I could not laugh, just as I could not whistle or sing. As yet no one even guessed when I thought something was funny.
So if I knew the magic formula, all about this room there would be sketches and sometimes portraits of us all, of blue-eyed, smiling Margaret, and of sober, solemn Betty dark as a shadow. Our spirits did not know then how akin they were, how in later years the fair and the dark would merge into one complete whole, which even death would not completely destroy.
from Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press, 1976
On the few times I get to spend in a used bookstore, I find myself increasingly depressed at how often I can tell in a glance that there’ll be little chance of finding something I haven’t seen before. Which is, obviously, something of a natural consequence of running this site for over ten years. When this happens, I give it one last shot by heading for the poetry section.
If they have one. If they don’t, it’s time to abandon all hope.
If they do, there is a better chance of finding something hitherto unknown because by God there are a lot of skinny books of poetry that have been published over the last hundred-some years. A lot of it is pretty forgettable, as a growing stack of skinny books of poetry in my “To Donate” box attests. But there’s a good share that was doomed to neglect simply because it’s from too small a press, doesn’t include anything that got pulled into an anthology, or has some hideous design or amateur artwork that screams “Stay Away!” to all but worshippers of one of the poetic muses.
Or, as in the case of Helene Mullins’ collection, The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969 (1970), so boring that it could easily be mistaken for a review draft. Except the one I found earlier this year was in immaculate shape, protected in Brodart, included an inscription by the author (“To Bob Adams with good wishes”), and sold for just $4. The Mirrored Walls came from a moderately well recognized publisher (Twayne) and included blurbs from John Hall Wheelock, Louis Untermeyer, and A. M. Sullivan, so it indicated that Mullins had made it under the mid-20th-century American poetry Big Top, if not quite into the center ring.
So who was Helene Mullins? Of the few online sources, the short bio sketch on the Yale Library page devoted to her papers (and those of her sister Marie McCall, who published a few novels) offers the most information. Born in New York City in 1899, she spent most of her life in the city. Married twice, began publishing poems in the early 1920s, including regular appearances in FPA’s (Franklin Pierce Adams) “Conning Tower” column in The New York World newspaper. Along with poetry, she wrote two novels early in her career — Paulus Fry: The History of an Esthete (1924), a quirky, elegant little jeux d’esprit in the vein of Carl Van Vechten and James Branch Cabell (“a flutterby-butterfly book,” one review called it), co-authored with her sister; and Convent Girl (1929). Convent Girl was an apparently autobiographical account of a girl’s life in a city convent boarding school for three years that was praised for its “clearness of vision” and “calm, well balanced prose, free of all flamboyant sentimentality and flashy brittleness, written frankly, and undoubtedly without prejudice.” She published four collections of poetry: Earthbound and Other Poems (1929); Balm in Gilead (1930); Streams from the Source (1938); and The Mirrored Walls. Married twice, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1935. She spent several weeks in a coma and it took her several years to recover. She lent her support to a number of liberal, human rights, and peace causes over the years, and died in 1991.
Mullins was one of the younger women poets to come to notice in the 1920s, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie reigned, but she quickly gained a solid foothold, publishing in Scribners, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. She was among the more frequent contributors of poetry to The New Yorker in its first ten years.
Irony to the Ironical
Accept from me, at least, an admiration
Not cultivated too laboriously.
Most delicate shall be the situation,
A matter of wit and wine and poetry.
You need not give me caution in exchange,
For I am self-sufficient and content.
I think that you are beautiful and strange,
And willingly I yield to sentiment.
Passionate Beyond Belief
Passionate beyond belief
Is the crisp and dying leaf.
Watch it whirl through clouds of dust,
Determined not (until it must)
To yield and be forever still.
What a brave display of will!
What a glorious, futile fight!
O gathering dark, O waiting night,
Few such do you absorb when all
The casualties of autumn fall.
I like the fact that this last little ode to death appeared alongside ads for Peek Frean biscuits, the National Horse Show, Kauffman for Riding Togs (since 1876), and Alix’ Famous Collarless Wrap from Bloomingdale’s. You can see why at least one acquaintance called her “a mix of Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” On the other hand, Mullins managed to rub Southern poet Allan Tate wrong in a big way: “I’m in favor of rejecting all verse henceforth by this piece of baggage! She’s the vulgarest, rudest wench I’ve yet graced with my presence. She also has a voice like the taste of a persimmon.”
Mullins’ basic style changed little over the years. Of her first collection, Earthbound and Other Poems, one reviewer wrote, “She is content to let the theme develop with practically no ornament; she delights in harmony but rarely employs counterpoint.” Of Balm in Gilead, another wrote that her verse “is honest, admirable, and wise”: “Constant war is being waged between her high heart and the lesson of bitter resignation she thinks we all must learn.”
A significant shift in perspective, however, can be detected in the poems found in Streams from the Source, the first collection to appear after her accident and convalescence:
She Marvels Over What They Say
It cannot last,” they said to me,
When I with Love went dancing.
“The end is always ruthlessly
And quietly advancing.”
But I knew better, being young.
And I would not endeavor
To understand a dismal tongue;
My dance would last forever.
Now that with Pain I’m lying prone,
“It cannot last,” they tell me,
And in a calm and soothing tone
Endeavor to compel me
To be assured the end will come.
But though it chafe or grieve them,
I find their comfort wearisome;
I still do not believe them.
“Her lines are no longer founded on self-pity or self-preoccupation,” wrote Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review. “It is not an austerity so much as a gathering of intellectual forces, a translation of the fanciful in terms of the philosophic.”
Her subjects also shifted to social issues: unemployment, justice, and, with the start of World War Two, the fight against totalitarianism. “Interview with a Dictator,” for example, asks “What is it to be in power, a ruler of men/To advance beyond the humble of the earth/Who strive and suffer, and fall to rise again/Begging their fellows to recognize their worth?” These would remain a major focus of her work, at least as reflected in her last collection, The Mirrored Walls. In “How Forgive the Power of Rulers,” twenty years after “Interview,” her question remains essentially the same: “How forgive the power of rulers/waging wars with borrowed breath/of entertainers who copyright/our dramas of life and death.” (You can hear Mullins reading this and other poems, along with fellow poet Henrietta Weigel on a KPFA show from 1964 on the Internet Archive (Link).
These are not, however, the poems to remember her by. They remind me a little of the Red flag-waving poems that Genevieve Taggard wrote during her New Masses phase. You do have to give credit for hanging in with her causes, though. Rounding the corner on seventy, she still managed to feel the fire of comradeship with the Flower Power generation: “We march and sing and demonstrate./We are the rebels who extol/the equal rights that cry for peace,/the liberty which keeps man whole” (from “Hippy Song”).
Instead, if there is anything to be remembered from The Mirrored Walls, it is Mullins’ poems that deal with the personal, not the social, the intimate and not the public:
My Mother’s Final Gesture
Before she left, my mother,
trying to make it easier for us,
by slow degrees erased her identity.
Shedding the meretricious ornamentations,
the perpetual hopes, the outworn new beginnings,
she covered with the tenuity of old age
her beauty, grace, the poor remains of a gaiety
hoarded against a need that might arise.
So intent was she
on divesting herself of all familiar lineaments,
she did no heed a word of what we were saying:
that we were glad she soon would be released
from the tremors of our menaced civilization,
the fears and horrors seeping through our walls.
Barely recognizable at the end,
except to us who knew her as she was,
she slipped away
with a reassuring flutter of her hands.
We watched her go toward her unknown destination,
then turned to face our own.
Dynamic of Life
Everything changes, everything passes away,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
The joys impatient to leave me I try to delay,
None of them pause, outlast my clumsy embrace.
New flowers bloom and new songs come into fashion,
The hair of my love is black and then it is gold.
I shrink from the touch of an unfamiliar passion,
I reject the strange and new, I cling to the old.
Everything changes, everything passes away,
Nothing will heed me, nothing remain in its place.
The warmth I will need tomorrow goes from me today,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
I wouldn’t say that any of what I read in this neglected collection were great poems. But as someone about a block away from rounding the corner on sixty, whose mother is going gently into that good night, I will say that these two were tough to read without feeling a chill down my spine.
The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969, by Helene Mullins
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970
A Lady who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in Spain, during the reign of Charles 11., killed with her own hands a beautiful woman, the mistress of her husband, and having prepared the heart of her victim, placed it at dinner before her husband. When he had eaten it, she rolled the head of the woman to him on the table. She then took refuge in a convent, where she became insane through rage and jealousy.
BRUN, MADAME LE
Was a French artiste or painter, who gained considerable reputation at Paris. Her paintings, historical pieces as well as portraits, were exhibited in the Louvre. Madame de Genlis speaks of the talents of Madame 1e Brun with much warmth of praise, and complains that the men sought to depreciate her paintings because she was a woman.
ERAUSO, CATALINA DE
Tns Monja Alferez, or Nun-Lieutenant. More famous women have lived than this, but a more extraordinary one has never been recorded. Her career was one of singular adventure, of wild passions, of unsparing cruelty, of heroic bravery; the few virtues which palliate her vices and savage conduct are such as are found to vindicate the dormant element in the breasts of brigands and pirates. And it is not the least singular circumstance connected with such a history, that it has been written down, detailed, and powerfully described by the heroine herself, in a style wonderfully vigorous, clear, and in pure and classic Spanish.
… It would be impossible, in this sketch, to detail her numerous homicides and fierce anger; but one may be alluded to from its consequences. Becoming enraged, at a gambling house, with a man of consequence, of Chile, she attacked him, and savagely killed him. She was obliged to take the refuge of a sanctuary; but as the friends of the murdered person were of rank and power, her retreat was carefully guarded, and after remaining there eight months, she felt the necessity of escaping into another government. The only way to effect this was by traversing the icy deserts of the Andes. “In this attempt I may find death,” said she; “by remaining here I shall certainly find it.“ At the outset she met three outlaws, who, like herself, were fugitives from justice. These banded themselves by necessity: fatigue and hunger were their first difficulties. Successively they killed their horses, when all other food was spent; but soon advancing into higher regions of the mountain, the cold became intense and biting. Still Catalina cheered on her companions, infused her own courage, and sustained their efforts to drag on, when one of them uttered a cheerful cry — help, aid dawned! Two men were standing at a little distance; the wretched creature tried to spring forward; he fell on a heap of snow. Catalina followed his indication; alas! horror and misery—the two men were unfortunate beings, dead, frozen stiff, with a ghastly look of anguish stamped on their frightful faces! Even Catalina was for an instant daunted. She turned to the man who had first seen them -— he was dead! She felt it was no time to pause, but urging on her remaining companions, sought a new impetus for exertion in her very despair. The cold became more and more bitter; still she stopped not. She saw her companions sink, one by one; she had no time to mourn them — recommending herself to the Virgin, she went on. The temperature became milder; at last she reached Tucuman, where she met with the utmost kindness and hospitality. She soon resumed her wild military life, always involving herself in quarrels.
FONTANGES. MARIE ANGELIQUE, DUCHESS 0F
Successor to Montespan in the affections of Louis XlV. “She was beautiful as an angel, but silly as a goose,” as Abbé Choisi said. She nevertheless captivated the affections of Louis XIV, who was tired of the pride and the caprice of Madame de Montespan. As soon as she discovered the passion which she had inspired, and had secured her royal conquest, she became haughty and extravagant, spending a hundred thousand crowns a month, and retorting a hundred-fold the disdain she had experienced from Madame de Montespan. She became the general dispenser of the king’s favours, and the model of fashion. One day, when she was on a hunting-party, the wind having put her head-dress in disorder, she fastened it with a riband, the knot of which falling over her forehead, this fashion spread all over Europe under her name. The king made her a duchess; but she did not long enjoy the rank, as she died when scarcely twenty years old, in the abbey of Port Royal, Paris, shortly after an accouchement.
Was the wife of Alboin of Albovinus, king of Lombardy, in the sixth century. Alboin slew her father, Gunimond, king of a neighbouring horde, in battle, and married his daughter by force. And, in order to retain a monument of his victory, he converted the skull of Gunimond into a drinking-cup, which he sent full of wine to Rosamond. In revenge, she had him assassinated.
Snake is a tight short novel about two people who come at their marriage from very different directions.
Everybody likes you. A good man. Decent. But disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? That wife. Those children.
Your wife. You love and cherish her. You like to watch her unobserved, through a window, across a road or a paddock, as if you were a stranger and knew nothing about her. You admire her springy hair, slow smile, muscled legs, confident bearing. If this woman were your wife, your chest would swell with pride.
She is your wife, she despises you. The coldness, the forbearing looks, the sarcastic asides, they are constant. She emasculates you with the sure blade of her contempt. The whirring of the whetstone wheel, the strident whine of steel being held to it, that is the background noise to the nightmare of your days.
Just 157 pages long with 77 chapters, some no more than a paragraph long, Snake is a novel distilled to a series of moments across a twenty-year relationship, and goes down as strong and biting as a good whiskey. Setting her story in a dry land of farms where drought and dust sometimes leech the life out of all living things, Jennings also reduces her words to lean, sinewy lines: “She chewed on the injustice of it like a dog with a piece of hide”; “Irene always said nobody could read thoughts; they were the only things that were truly your own”; “These were people so certain of their own superiority they need not remark on it; in their complacency, they resembled well-stuffed sofas.”
Snake is one of just two novels written by Kate Jennings. Moral Hazard (2002) is equally brief, with a similar structure of pithy chapters. It draws upon Jennings’ experiences of working as a corporate speechwriter to help pay for care for her husband, graphic designer Bob Cato, who developed Alzheimer’s, and now seems prescient in its depiction of the risk-heedless appetites of Wall Street that led to the crash of 2008.
All the Books of My Life was the last of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s over fifty books, most of them novels with settings in rural England — the sort of books that Stella Gibbons parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. In scope, it puts the bibliomemoirs of the 21st century to shame: this is truly a lifetime’s account of reading, starting with the books she came to know at the foot of her nanny and ending with the religious works that came to command a larger part of her reading list as her interest in Catholicism and mysticism grew over the years. And in the titles covered, it provides a remarkable contrast with the kinds of titles one finds in recent bibliomemoirs.
I doubt, for example, that many of today’s girls would be willing to put up with the earnest Victorian morality and innocence found in the many tales by L. T. Meade that she devoured. They will not find the works of Rosa Nouchette Carey, Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey and Mrs. Philip Champion de Crespigny filling up the tables of their local lending library — particularly since lending libraries were already a thing of the past when Kaye-Smith was writing. Nor are young readers likely to come across a copy of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, let alone spend the next months reading it. Kaye-Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to follow her interests wherever they might lead, as long as they remained within the confines of the school library: “If you find anything that’s improper you can always skip it. It seems a pity not to read the book when you’re enjoying it so much.”
She acknowledges that her youthful hunger for reading often led her past the point of her own understanding. “Read Thackeray later,” one of her mother’s friends advised. “You wouldn’t understand him now. You’d miss a lot.” “This was perfectly true,” she admits, “and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early.” Among these was Middlemarch: “I read it painstakingly, without skipping a word, but most of its virtues — and they are pre-eminent — were thrown away on me.” I have to say that I thought the same thing many times when I saw the college-prep reading lists our kids received: “King Lear? For a sixteen year-old? Are you kidding me?”
She admits to have struggled unsuccessfully with certain authors who were regularly recommended to her. While Austen became a lifelong love, each time she picked up something by Trollope, “I waded —- yes, that is my word —- through Trollope’s prosy style, in which his characters struggle for life like sheep in a swamp.” She also argues that a fair number of the authors whose works were considered classics in her youth have failed the test of time: “Any novelist in the second or third rank today could make rings round Maria Edgeworth; and compare Bulwer Lytton’s method of writing history with that of Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott —- it is not only changing fashion that has blurred the colours of the earlier writers. They were always dingy and no closer to what they represented than a Victorian stained-glass window.” Ironically, one could say the same thing now if comparing a book by Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott to Wolf Hall or The Seige of Krishnapur. Of the two writers whose work she stored up to tide her through the dark years of World War Two, P. G. Wodehouse’s readership stays comic and carries on; I’m not sure the same could be said for the Catholic theologian Friedrich von Hügel or his relatively light Letter to a Niece.
“In spite of all the books I have read there are so many more that I want to read and there is so much more that I want to know,” Kaye-Smith writes at the end of All the Books of My Life. Sadly, however, she did not even live to see this last of her own books in print.
All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956
A paragraph in a local paper told me a few weeks ago that orders had been given to “prune the railings” at Brighton, and use them for battleships.
A short time ago I had to drive up from Berkshire through Western London. Wherever I looked I became aware of railings, still in their rusty iron slumber, but dangerously potential; a delirium of railings planted in a frenzy most often where they could not possibly have been needed; as stoutly reinforcing a stout wall; as guarding sturdy little posts that would obviously rather have remained self-reliant; as shielding triangles of trodden grass that once were plague-pits (but this is no time to be out of date); as lining up in front of well-shuttered shops and barricading blind alleys; railings defensive and offensive; and railings content to stand in pure decoration (sic); an abundance, an orgy, an ecstasy of superfluous railings, which at a certain period in our history of architecture must have rushed down upon the city and conquered it with the same enthusiasm that great Birnam Wood once came to Dunsinane.
I have little doubt but that driving north, south or east, now that my attention was awake to railings, I should have seen them four times multiplied, striping our parks and our streets and our squares with bad-tempered vigilance. For the soul of railings is essentially rigid and narrow-minded, not to compare with benevolent cheerful wooden fencing which swirls into friendly knots and peepholes; but with the vicious snarl of barbed wire, the cruel jagged repartee of broken glass stuck upright on top of a wall.
Had we ever paused, down the peaceful years, to reflect upon the solemnity of a life guarded by railings, it might have seemed a little bit foolish. What did they fear, these nineteenth century folk, that they retired behind such preposterous regiments of iron? For though it is difficult to trace the very first man who cried “Eureka!” and leapt to his feet, inspired to design the very first railing, and triumphantly planted it, and having accomplished his life’s work, went satisfied to bed, yet most volumes of authority agree in yielding up the date 1812 for the beginning of railings in their multitudes; why this should coincide with the burning of Moscow is a matter that gives play to the most charming conjecture (or perhaps it was merely accident). What did they fear? They could not, even they, have thought that now and for ever they were adequately protected from the foe (their songs and ballads show us that enemies were always “foemen” in a Victorian world).
A proper valediction to railings could be illustrated with the picture of a disconsolate ghost in flowing whiskers and Albert watch-chain, weeping over a symbolical railing offered up to serve its country in time of war. For now, in time of war, the whole matter quite simply reverts to sanity: Is this not the very thing we are fighting for, that bars should be translated into battleships, and battleships into freedom? A London child of the past, probably also a Brighton child or a Birmingham child, always accepted railings as a matter of course, created as part of a seven-day universe; plenty of juvenile uses for railings; but chiefly for that urchin impulse to run along drawing a hoopstick across them, making sweet music. Friendly errand-boys leant their bicycles against the area railings outside your house, and then clattered with their baskets down the deep Victorian steps to deep basements copied from the Italians.
Just beyond the railings at the entrance of Kensington Gardens stood the woman with the balloons and the man with the toy windmills. Once inside, the railings did not bother you at all: you soon discovered, though they stood upright in sentinel rows along two sides of a grass enclosure, along the third they irrationally dipped to a low rail running horizontally only a foot high from the path, so that all you had to do, you and your dog, was to skip across the low boundary and go capering back to forbidden territory with perfect ease and a clear conscience. Yes, nice familiar things, railings, that made your gloves dirty, and who cared except Nannie?
Usually, in spring, when the awnings went up and the window-boxes blossomed, the railings became a freshly painted menace, vivid and sticky and very, very beautiful. “Don’t touch, child, they’re wet!” You smiled seraphically; you had already touched, and proved it for yourself.
I keep meaning to put together a post about G. B. Stern’s … well, autobiographies, to use the label that was put on them, although “commonplace book-channeled through stream-of-consciousness” is probably a more accurate one. They are both irresistible and unreadable. Irresistible because you can open them up at just about any page and alight upon a wonderful little improvisation on a topic like railings or walking sticks or taxi-cabs. Unreadable because there is really no shape or structure to these books, and at a certain point, that becomes unbearable. I’ve never managed to get through one from start to finish: I inevitably toss it aside in frustration.
At such moments, wandering along with G. B. Stern on a random walk through her memories reminds me of something John Waters once wrote of Edith Massey, one of his early amateur Baltimorean stars:
Edie and I used to do this kind of date together, but we’d drive by car, and she would drive me crazy because she would say out loud every single thing she saw. We’d be driving along and she’d say, “Car, house, lawn, pretty lady, red car, telephone pole, lawn, lawn, lawn…” I said, “Edith!!” It was just… internalization was a concept she was very unfamiliar with.
I’m a great believer in the miracle of serendipity. For me, it usually takes the form of the thing that appears in my path while I’m looking for something else. In this case, it was a children’s book that fate had arranged to have misplaced in a shelf of literary fiction in a bookstore in Ellensburg, Washington. I was rapid losing interest in browsing any further, since it was obvious that the store’s stock was almost entirely made up of recent trade paperbacks, when I pulled out a rare hardback, a thin volume titled Dear Rat. I quickly twigged that it was a children’s book from the illustrations, but there was something so likable about the book’s opening lines that I had to buy it: “I am a rat. I’m tough and I’m tender. I know my way around, thanks to having been bounced off the hard surfaces of the world.”
Dear Rat is narrated by Andrew, a rat from Humpton, Wyoming who finds himself in Chartres, France, having smuggled his way onto a freighter and then hopped a train from Le Havre. He quickly runs into the worst and the best that France has to offer. The worst is a thug named Gorge, a local rat gangster whose henchmen dust up Andrew before he manages to get away.
The best is a great building that confronts him when he scurries out of the cellar where he’s gone in search of food: “My brain searches around in my head like a squirrel for a name for this great, wonderful thing. It comes up with ‘cathedral’ and then quiets down again into blank astonishment.” He’s stumbled onto the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres . Wandering inside, he is struck speechless by a statue of a lady on a pillar wearing a crown of gold studded with jewels.
The worst and the best becoming intertwined in a caper that leads Andrew to the court of King Depuis Longtemps the IV, ruler of the Paris sewers and into a romance with the King’s daughter, Angelique Rocqueville de Chenonceau de Tournevallance de Mistraille de Chauminceparcyne de Lot (which is just a big mouthful of French nonsense), or Angie for short. Andrew discovers there’s a rat (sorry) in the court in the form of the Prime Minister, who subjects him to a battle of wits–or, as Andrew puts it, “plays checkers” with him. An upstanding character and a little American ingenuity, however, and, as you might expect, the hero gets the girl.
Dear Rat was Julia Cunningham’s second book, and shared many elements with her first, The Vision of François the Fox (1960), which was also set in France and told the story of a scavenging critter who tries to become a saint after being moved by something he sees in a cathedral. Cunningham had spent a year living in France, and French themes would make their way into a number of her books.
Cunningham’s best-known book, Dorp Dead (1965), about a boy who finds himself trapped as the ward of an abusive grandfather, was one of the first modern works for children to treat a dark subject openly and deliberately, and is now considered a fore-runner of the Young Adult genre. It was reissued back in 2002 but is out of print once again.
Cunningham knew something about grim childhoods. Her father abandoned his family when Julia was six and never returned. Her mother struggled to raise two children on her own, which became even harder when the Depression hit and what was left of the family’s money was wiped out. She made her way through a series of low-paid jobs for nearly twenty years before she saved up enough for her trip to France. In the late 1950s, she moved to Santa Barbara, California, where she worked in a bookstore and continued to send manuscripts to publishers until she sold The Vision of François the Fox Houghton Mifflin.
Cunningham had considerable success as a children’s author. Burnish Me Bright (1970) was selected as a New York Times Outstanding Book for the year, The Treasure Is the Rose (1973) was a National Book Award Finalist, Come to the Edge (1977) won a Christopher Award, and Flight of the Sparrow (1980) won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. But then, in 1986, her publisher, Pantheon, dropped its children’s book line and her contract along with it. She kept writing and submitting manuscripts, but it was not until 2001, when Susan Hirschmann of Greenwillow Books brought her back in print with The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems. Cunningham never married, but was close friends with a fellow children’s author in Santa Barbara, Clyde Bulla, and mentored other writers in her community. Her brother John Cunningham was also a writer, mostly working in Westerns. His story, “Tin Star,” was the basis of the movie High Noon. I highly recommend reading her obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent website.
In Modern Chivalry, Silver Fork novelist skewers an easy target, the idle man of sufficient status in Victorian society to live “the life of those the business of whose day is digestion.” In this case, the man is Frederick Howardson, sometimes known as Howardson of Greystoke (his family estate) or Howardson of Sentinel (a race horse he briefly owned). Gore tells us in her introduction that she set out to sketch a stereotype of a “Man of No Feelings,” a consumate egoist, and she succeeds superbly.
With tongue firmly in cheek, Gore tries to characterize Howardson’s efforts to remain exactly in the mean, comfortably set with an income sufficient to keep a house in town, a reputation sufficient to earn him a place in the right clubs, and no talent exceptional enough to arouse anyone’s jealousy as a constant and courageous struggle. She compares it to the struggle of Waterton, the naturalist, who “asserts that whenever he encountered an alligator tete-a-tete in the wilderness, he used to leap on its back and ride the beast to death.” “Just so are we situated with regard to the world,” she argues:
Either we must leap upon its back, strike our spur into its panting sides, and in spite of its scaly defences compel it to obey our glowing will, or the animal will mangle us with its ferocious jaws, and pursue its way towards its refuge in the cool waters, leaving us expiring in the dust. Either the world or the individual must obtain the upper hand.
At the start of the story, Howardson has mastered the alligator. “Everybody was glad when he came, — everybody was sorry when he went.” He had not “that inconvenient appendage, a confidential friend — otherwise, an intimate enemy, who becomes the depositary of your secrets for the good of the public.” Instead, he had so many friends that none of them had any claims upon his confidence and rarely did any of them entrust him with theirs. He enjoyed, as Gore puts it, that “smooth, level, unmeaning mediocrity [that] affords a wider and sublimer view of the distant horizon.”
He even has the good fortune to have a beautiful and gracious woman of good reputation, Lady Rachel Lawrence, whose company he can enjoy as he needs of an evening, located just next door. Indeed, “her chief attraction in his eyes consisted in being a next door neighbour, who relieved him from the trouble of getting rid of his leisure hours, and ordering out his cab in rainy weather.” Being married to a Lord well-rooted to his own estate, Lady Rachel has the further advantage of presenting no risk of matrimonial entanglements.
Because Howardson’s chief quandary is that of making the absolutely perfect match. Which means a woman of substantial fortune unencumbered by a meddlesome family; a woman of admirable beauty and sophistication but not so much as to compete with him in social circles; a woman who will dote upon him whenever he needs tea and sympathy yet leave him alone for the many hours he would prefer to spend by himself or at the club; a woman of purest virtue yet sufficiently refined to ride with the changing waves of social mores. Each woman he considers has something not quite perfect about her, and so he moves on to another. In other words, he’s caught in the same dilemma as the man in Seinfeld’s “Gas — Food — Lodging” joke:
I think that for some reason when a man is driving down that freeway of love, the woman he’s with is like an exit, but he doesn’t want to get off there. He wants to keep driving. And the woman is like, “Look, gas, food, lodging, that’s our exit, that’s everything we need to be happy… Get off here, now!” But the man is focusing on sign underneath that says, “Next exit 27 miles,” and he thinks, “I can make it.”
In Howardson’s case, he ends up driving past all the exits and winds up in a sad old hotel in Paris, with “grey hair and crowsfeet within, as without; and his soul was bald with a baldness that set Macassar oil at defiance.”
Modern Chivalry is as insubstantial and irresistable as a potato chip. Howardson is one of the great egoists, a precursor of George Meredith’s The Egoist and a whole lot more fun. By the way, Modern Chivalry is attributed in American editions to William Harrison Ainsworth, but the “CFG” credited in the original English edition is most definitely Catherine F. Gore.
Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore
London: John Mortimer, 1843
When Evelyn Waugh read Daphne Fielding’s memoir, Mercury Presides, he quipped that the book was “marred by discretion and good taste.” Considering that the author was one of the more sparkling of the Bright Young Things whose exploits and indulgences Waugh satirized in Vile Bodies and other early novels, one can understand his assessment.
There is an awful lot of material about her travels with her first husband, Henry, Viscount Weymouth (later 6th Marquess of Bath) and their efforts to prop up Longleat, the family estate that Henry’s father dumped upon him in the early 1930s. Though considered one of the stateliest of the stately homes of England, Longleat was a money pit and Henry and Daphne had to resort to ingenious measures (read, selling tickets for tours and opening up parts of the grounds for public use) to keep it up. Even then, they got the occasional complaints from their guests, such as Lord Beaverbrook’s sharply-worded letter about the dust on the windowsills and the dried-out inkwell in his room.
What there isn’t is much about Daphne’s carryings-on, which led the 5th Marquess of Bath and his Marchioness to disapprove of her marrying their son (not “steady wife” material). Before the marriage (which was first made in secret to avoid the wrath of the parents), Daphne was known as the kind of girl who liked to par-tay — which in those days usually involved lots of French champagne, driving too fast on narrow country roads (which was pretty much all the British road system in those days), and making absurd impositions on servants and other members of the working class. Ah — good times, good times. No wonder Waugh remarked that “the adult part [of the book] is rather as though Lord Montgomery were to write his life and omit to mention that he ever served in the army.”
We do, however, learn why Daphne might have been inclined to be a bit out of control. Her mother ran off with another man when Daphne was four (or, as she was told, her mother had “gone away to the sea-side”), and her father appears to have struggled to understand that Daphne and her brother Tony were not to be treated as just a couple more of his hunting dogs (his usual admonishment to his children was “Heel!”). And her mother’s father was a right charming old Victorian who used to bring prostitutes home and order them at gun-point to undress and climb in bed with his wife. No wonder that Granny McCalmont, as Daphne knew her, “was a great hater.”
In fact, Daphne had more than her share of odd pieces of fruit in her family tree. Take, for example, her uncle Shugie — Sir Hugo de Bathe, Granny McCalmont’s brother:
He was a tall, thin, sunburnt man with lean hollow cheek-bones, side-whiskers and a brushed-up moustache which particularly enthralled me. His arms were tattooed, and one of them was disfigured by a long burn scar. He accounted for this by explaining that he had once loved a princess of the South Sea islands, whose name had been tatooed in the place of honour in the middle of his forearm, but since she had been untrue to him he had held his arm in the flame of a candle and burnt her out of his flesh.
Once married to the Viscount, much of Daphne’s time and energy, up to the start of World War Two, went into having children — four sons and one daughter. She reprints a long extract from her diary about the birth of her fourth son, Valentine:
They started giving me chloroform. Nanny B. did not give it well; it was either too much or too little, and the cotton wool seemed to smother me and burn my nose, nevertheless it was balm. Roy Saunders arrived to give me the anaesthetic. I vaguely took him in; he had helped with Christopher’s birth. Whenever they let me come round the pains seemed to be crushing me and all my strength pressed down to fight them out. Roy Saunders is really a gynaecologist but gave the chloroform beautifully. How I love it — the buzzing, swimming feelings, the dreams which solve everything. I become a Jimmy-Know-All in the ether.
I came to in my own big bed, crying, and wanting to see Henry. “Lady Weymouth, you have got a beautiful little boy … a beautiful little boy … beautiful little boy ….” Another boy? I wished it was triplets, or black … or a furry little animal, different in some way … just not a boy. But the baby was there, a new person … I opened my eyes, sat up quickly and asked for the child. Unutterably sweet was the new little son shown to his mother.
When the war did come, Longleat was soon commandeered as a military camp, first by the British and then by the Americans. Daphne helped out in various ways, including running the camp switchboard at one point. The Viscount spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Germans. Aside from further mentions of trips taken and problems with Longleat, she offers little about their relationship — until, three paragraphs before the end of the book, she simply states that, “During and since the war we both developed along different lines, so divorce became inevitable.”
Of course, the fact that she had spent six months gallivanting about Crete with Alexander (Xan) Fielding, best known for his SOE exploits on the island during the war alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor, might also have had something to do with it.
But you’ll have to read the sequel, The Nearest Way Home (1970), to find out what happened after that. I suspect that a lot of Lord Montgomery’s army career is missing from it, too.
Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding
London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954
Ida Maria Luise Sophie Frederica Gustave, daughter of Carl Friedrich Graf (Count) von Hahn, married her wealthy and elderly cousin Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Graf von Hahn, and thus became Ida Maria Luise Sophie Frederica Gustave, Gräfin (Countess) von Hahn-Hahn, giving all of us the pleasure of a small chuckle. The marriage was unhappy and they divorced less than three years later. She took it in mind to be a writer and proceeded to produce several books of poetry and then a string of novels “depicting, in a very aristocratical manner, the manners of high life in Germany,” according to Sarah Josepha Hale’s Woman’s Record.
And she took it in mind to become a traveller. According to Hale’s account of her life, Countess Hahn-Hahn went to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, England, Central Europe, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt over the course of roughly ten years, after which she retired to a convent to meditate, pray, and write devout books.
The only point in mentioning her here is that her collections of letters from her trips to France, Spain and the Near East were considered exceptional by the reviewers of their English translations. Of course, exceptional is a double-edged adjective: “The merits and demerits of her writing are so interwoven that it is hard to pronounce upon them without being unjust to the one or far too lenient to the other,” wrote one. Yet, “In liveliness of observation, readiness of idea, and spirited ease of expression, she is unsurpassed by any lady writer we know,” wrote another. Male readers seem to have delighted in her frank opinions, which she felt free to express with vehemence even though it seems pretty clear that she expected her correspondents to hang on to her letters so she could publish them after returning from her journeys. Her writings were held to have “an air which is not ill-described by the term insolent. Saucy is hardly strong enough. Exceedingly saucy women, however, when they happen to be pretty, witty, and well-informed, are often agreeable companions, and almost always pleasant correspondents.”
The countess was certainly capable of painting a pleasant word picture when offered the right scene. Here, for example, is life on the streets of Pesth (the eastern side of Budapest):
People do not merely walk—they sit, work, sleep, eat, and drink in the street. Almost every third house is a coffee house, with a broad verandah, around which are ranged sophas and blooming oleanders. Incredible quantities of fruit, grapes, plums, particularly melons, and heaps of water-melons, are offered for sale. Unemployed labourers lie, like lazzaroni, on the thresholds of their doors or on their wheelbarrows, enjoying the siesta. Women sit before the doors, chatting together and suckling their infants. The dark eyes, the loud, deep voices, here and there the piercing eyes, are all southern.
Here she offers us the streets in Constantinople in all their anarchic glory:
If none but dogs were the inhabitants of Constantinople, you would find it sufficiently difficult to make your way through a city where heaps of dirt, rubbish, and refuse of every credible and incredible composition, obstruct you at every step, and especially barricade the corners of the streets. But dogs are not the only dwellers. Take care of yourself — here comes a train of horses, laden on each side with skins of oil — all oil without as well as within. And, oh ! take care again, for behind are a whole troop of asses, carrying tiles and planks, and all kinds of building materials. Now give way to the right for those men with baskets of coals upon their heads, and give way, too, to the left for those other men — four, six, eight at a time, staggering along with such a load of merchandise, that the pole, thick as your arm, to which it is suspended, bends beneath the weight. Meanwhile, don’t lose your head with the braying of the asses, the yelling of the dogs, the cries of the porters, or the calls of the sweetmeat and chestnut venders, but follow your dragoman, who, accustomed to all this turmoil, flies before you with winged steps, and either disappears in the crowd or vanishes round a corner.
At length you reach a cemetery. We all know how deeply the Turks respect the graves of the dead — how they visit them and never permit them to be disturbed, as we do in Europe, after any number of years. In the abstract this is very grand, and when we imagine to ourselves a beautiful cypress grove with tall white monumental stones, and green grass beneath, it presents a stately and solemn picture. Now contemplate it in the reality. The monuments are overthrown, dilapidated, or awry — several roughly paved streets intersect the space — here sheep are feeding — there donkeys are waiting — here geese are cackling — there cocks are crowing — in one part of the ground linen is drying — in another carpenters are planing — from one corner a troop of camels defile — from another a funeral procession approaches — children are playing — dogs rolling — every kind of the most unconcerned business going on.
She was vocal in her dislike for the manners of a minor member of the Ottoman nobility who travelled on the same ship with her to Constantinople: “If you had anything in your hand that attracted the pasha’s notice, an operaglass, for instance, or a telescope, he beckoned to one of his slaves, and the slave instantly took the opera-glass, or whatever it might be, out of the hand of the owner, and delivered it to his master. He examined it, tried it, and when he was tired of it, he gave it back to the slave and the latter to the owner. Some chose to consider this behaviour simple, childlike, engaging; for my part, I could only think it rude….”
Nothing so attracted her disdain, however, as the French. Her beloved papa fought alongside von Blücher at Waterloo, and she never forgave his people for raising up the upstart from Corsica. “I shall now go to France, Heaven knows what the consequence may be, for I hate France! I hate the spirit of vanity, fanfaronade, insolence and superficialness; in short, I hate the national character of the French. It is unmitigated barbarism.”
Needless to say, her letters from France are less saucy than venomous.
My horizon has been widened in the last few months thanks to Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works (2011), which introduced me to the wealth of interesting Australian writers beyond the ones I’d been aware of (Stead, Patrick White, Miles Franklin). Easy the most intriguing book discussed by Gleeson-White is Eve Langley’s 1942 novel, The Pea Pickers, which she describes as “a raucous romp through the Victorian countryside in praise of Australia, and a voyage through the passions of a young woman with the soul of a poet determined to live by her own elusive law.” Novelist Georgia Blain proclaims it “a wonderful book, absurd, hilariously funny, messy, anarchic; the kind of book that so rarely gets published.”
Yet Gleeson-White’s biographical sketch of Eve Langley was even more intriguing. She wrote the novel while pregnant with her third child, entered it into a competition for unpublished works by Australian and New Zealand writers and won, but was committed to a psychiatric hospital before the book was published. Released seven years later, she took to wearing men’s clothes and had her name changed legally to Oscar Wilde. She spent her last years in conditions no better than a bag lady and was found dead in her shack in 1974. A little more digging turned up a 1989 biography, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite. Drawn heavily from Langley’s own diaries and letters, it looked like an interesting read, and I sent off for a copy from a dealer in Australia.
In some ways, I found The Importance of Being Eve Langley even more remarkable than The Pea Pickers — even though the novel is utterly unlike any book written by a woman I’ve ever read. Langley seems never to have stopped writing, even when she was confined in the mental hospital. As Thwaite puts it, both of Langley’s two published books were taken from the “diaries, letters, poems, and jottings from her interminable stock of scribblings,” and this output flowed on to at least ten other unpublished books. Yet, as Thwaite observes early on, “It is never wise to trust absolutely in Langley’s voice.” Whether or not she was mentally ill, Langley was certainly prone to wild flights of imagination and appears to have had a relatively loose understanding of what other people would consider normal behavior.
Langley was born in at a cattle station in New South Wales in 1904. Her father was an itinerant farm worker who died when Eve was still a girl, and her mother raised Eve and her sister June while managing a small hotel in Crossover, a small town in Victoria. Although Eve’s education was incomplete, she was, as her biography Joy L. Thwaite, puts it, “a precocious and omniverous reader, a weaver of tales, a haunter of libraries.” By the time she was 20, one of her favorite amusements was to imagine herself the incarnation of some great writer she had been reading, such as John Keats or Francois Rabelais. Eve herself only half-jokingly referred to her reading as a medical treatment: “My early arnicas of Mathew Arnold, small balsams of Wide, Rabelaisian cauterizers, Shavian foments and Shakespearean liniments.”
She had also formed an extravagant passion for Gippsland, the rural area of Victoria where her mother had been raised, and in 1924, she convinced her sister June to head out with her for Gippsland in hopes of getting work picking peas. “Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever,” declares the narrator in The Pea Pickers. And, as in the book, Eve and June dressed up in men’s overalls and took to calling themselves “Steve” and “Blue.”
Over the next four years, Steve and Blue made annual trips to Gippsland during the growing season, traveling from farm to farm, living in tents and earning poverty wages hoeing and picking crops. For Langley, the experience seems to have been more like a personal transformation than a youthful adventure. “At some part of the journey, my hereditary Gippsland mind awoke. It was a totally different apparatus to my Dandenongian mind,” she would later write in The Pea Pickers (Dandenong being the fictional stand-in for Crossover).
Eve tried to make a go as a farmer herself, but was too likely to become diverted by her reading and writing to keep a successful crop going. In 1932, she moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where June and her mother had settled. She began getting poems published in literary magazines, but also had a disastrous affair with an Italian car salesman that resulted Eve becoming pregnant and giving the child up for adoption.
Several years later, she became infatuated with an artist named Hilary Clark. Clark was eleven years younger than her and more interested in men than women, but the two ended up marrying and Eve had three children by him over the next four years. (Their names were Bisi Arilev, Langley Rhaviley and Karl Marx.) They were separated and she was keeping the first two children in squalid conditions and pregnant with the third when she began writing The Pea Pickers. She typed it on cheap paper a friend had given her and couldn’t afford to buy a new ribbon when the text began to be illegible. Nevertheless, she finished the book and mailed it off to Sydney as an entry for the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize competition.
At Sydney publishers Angus and Robertson, a very large package containing a manuscript by “Gippsland Overlander” (the competition required all entries be submitted under pseudonyms) arrived in June 1940. As Jacqueline Kent writes in her biography of one of A&R’s most influential editors, Beatrice Davis: Backroom Girl of Modern Literature, “It was an editor’s nightmare — typed in single space on flimsy pink paper with a faded ribbon, words drifting off the edge of the page….”
Yet the readers quickly recognized that this was a novel of unique energy, language, and imagery. Langley’s descriptions of the Gippsland countryside, the sunrises and sunsets, the smells on the breeze were of exceptional intensity. At the same time, the headstrong personalities of Steve and Blue, never quite blending with those of the other farm workers, made for some wonderful absurd human comedy — as in this scene, when Steve and Macca, the man for whom she’s formed an overwhelming passion, go to bed for the first time.
We tiptoed into the hut and lay decorously on the bed. Excited by the events of the night, I tossed beside him and could not sleep. I wished to talk of verse and cry out passages of the Aeneid all night. He began to breathe with a monotonous regularity, slowly and evenly, opposing my short passionate breath. His calm animal sound maddened me, at last. I could not bear it. I appeared to be breathing my life away, two to his one. Then he snored faintly. Enough! I struck him sharply.
“Go home! I cannot sleep. If you won’t talk to me of the Aeneid, go home!”
Sitting up on the straw mattress, his figure black against the wirenetting window and the bilious clayey light of the moon, he said cruelly, “Steve, you’re a little cow!”
“Then, O, to be in India where they worship them,” said I. “There I could eat milk tins in the very streets, and wear a hat on my horns and who would dare to cry me nay?”
“I’m going home. It must be nearly daybreak.”
Not all the judges were as impressed, however, and in the end, the prize for 1940 was split three ways between The Pea Pickers, Kylie Tennant’s novel, The Battlers, and a biography of an early governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times, by M. H. Ellis. Angus and Robertson took the rights to publish Langley’s novel, but a great deal of editing was required to get the material into publishable shape. They also sold the U. S. rights to by Dutton, which didn’t publish it until 1945, as Not Yet the Moon.
Before the book was released in Australia, however, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Public Trustee Office in Auckland, stating that Eve Langley, a “married woman, a mentally defective person” had been committed to the Auckland Mental Hospital by her husband. Both Langley and her husband appear to have had extreme paranoid reactions to the possibility of Japanese attack on New Zealand and took their children out on a small sailboat they owned, looking for places their might hide. During one stormy night, Langley spilled boiling water on at least one of the children and all three were taken into custody by a nurse who knew the family. Her husband became concerned about her stability, particularly because he was expected to be called up for service, and he arranged for her to be committed for observation. Langley would spend the next seven years in the hospital, and during that time, A&R heard nothing from her.
Then, in 1950, June 1950, she was released in custody of her sister June, who secured her a position in the book binding shop of the Auckland Public Library. A&R editor Davis wrote expressing her happiness at receiving the news and inquired if Langley had been able to do any writing during her confinement. A year later, Langley replied that her new book, White Topee, was progressing well, and she sent it to the publisher in 1953.
In her report on the book, A&R editor Nan McDonald wrote, “This novel, pruned and condensed, would certainly be worth publishing. It is written with Eve Langley’s characteristic brilliance and originality and no one else could have written it. But I am afraid that no amount of editing will be able to make it as good as The Pea Pickers.” White Topee (I link here to AddAll.com, since the only copy currently on Amazon goes for over $3,500!) was eventually published in 1954.
It did not repeat the success of The Pea Pickers. Reviews were few and unenthusiastic: “Not so much a novel as a marvelous oddity,” wrote one reviewer. Like The Pea Pickers, it drew heavily on the Gippsland experience and on all the materials Langley had written about it over the years. Even before White Topee was published, however, Langley sent A&R another manuscript, Wild Australia.
This time, the A&R editors found it hard to be be charitable. One called the book “dazzlingly irrational.” “Many pages were devoted to Eve’s account, as Oscar Wilde, of a trip she and her lover Lord Alfred Douglas made to Cairo so that Eve/Oscar could be operated on to become female.” When Nan McDonald wrote to say that A&R would be returning the manuscript, Eve wrote back in panic, “Nan McDonald, DEAR Nan McDonald I AM OSCAR WILDE AND YOU’RE KILLING ME… And I hate being Oscar Wilde because NO ONE WANTS OSCAR WILDE… Dear Nan, please reconsider your most awful decision and don’t send that book. O I know what death is now….”
Nevertheless, she proceeded to send yet another manuscript, Bancroft House, to A&R and a year later, another titled Somewhere East of Suez. She continued to believe that her work was something the publisher would be thrilled to receive. It was clear from her correspondence, however, that Eve was spiraling out of control:
I am just going to pack up the latest book “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest,” and send it over to you. It’s all about my life over on the North Shore in Auckland and full of rich warm glowing material from a journal kept in those days of marriage to an artist husband and a batch of children as well…. you will get “The Land of the Long White Cloud” soon. Then comes “Demeter of Dublin Street”, followed by “The Colossus of Rhodes Street”, then “The Old Mill”…. then after this one comes “Remote, Apart” to be followed by “Portrait of the Artist at Chelsea” and then “The Saunterers” and “Beautiful Isles of the Sea” and lastly “Apollyon Regius”…. Two books come in between, introducing to you “The Land of the Long White Cloud” and these are “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian” … so that’s eight to come, no nine with “Golden Wattle Warriors”, no eleven with “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian”.
“This is IMPOSSIBLE,” one A&R reader wrote. Nan McDonald quipped in one report that “seven full-length works are too much Eve Langley for anyone to take in a few months without indigestion.” Beatrice Davis tried, however, to let Langley down gently, writing, “Heaven knows when we shall be able to publish all these so attractively titled novels.”
In 1960, Eve moved back to Australia. She bought a house — barely more than a shack — near Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Langley referred to it as “Iona Lympus,” and began planning a trip to Greece, where she hoped to commune with the spirits of Homer and other ancient Greeks. By now, she had taken to wearing men’s clothes all the time. One of her closest acquaintances and most loyal supporters during this time, Hal Porter describes a typical Langley outfit:
… dressed in a navy-blue chalk-stripe double=breasted suit a la [Australian prime minister Robert] Menzies, and what I call a publican’s cardigan, one of those maroon and fawn things, and a tie with stripes across it. She had quite small feet in boots, they must have been schoolboy’s shoes she bought. Over this she had flung a very long fur coat, ankle-sweeping, quite an opulent one, made of black cat or some strange material. And topping all this, a white topee.
Davis helped Eve apply for a pension as an invalid, which provided pretty much the only income she had. She had a few poems published, but, as Thwaite puts it, “was living for the most part on fish and chips, cakes, muscatel and Penfolds wine.” In September 1965, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Australian ambassador to Greece reporting that Langley had been found penniless in Athens and inquiring if she had any means of support. Eve had convinced herself that she could work picking grapes for a Greek winery and somehow managed to pay for a berth on a freighter to Athens. She enjoyed the trip tremendously, but was also, based on her journals from the time, hallucinating wildly, seeing a various times Nazi warships and ancient Greek and Egyptian vessels out in the sea around her. She lost most of her luggage after disembarking in Piraeus, and within a few weeks was surviving by scavenging food from back alleys.
Davis and other friends managed to collect and send her several hundred pounds, but the embassy put her on a plane back to Sydney in December. Back home, she continued to decline into fantasies. She thought she could transform her shack into a Greek temple. She was convinced that German soldiers were moving through the woods around her. She treated her colds and aches with home-made remedies involving treacle, kerosene and eucalyptus bark. Yet she managed to arrange a trip to New Zealand to visit her daughter in 1968, although her eccentricities soon pushed filial piety past the breaking point. An old friend who saw her during the visit recalled her “as someone living quite outside reality.”
When Eve returned to her house in Katoomba, it had been ransacked, though little of value had been taken. Eve was convinced an elderly neighbor was the culprit, however, and she smashed the woman’s door with a golf club. She began to carry on conversations with an imaginary companion named “Albi.” She collected little dolls, dressed them up, and sent photographs of them to her daughter. And the whole time she continued to record everything meticulously in her diary — which is how we know so much about her last years.
In 1974, a social worker was sent to check on Langley after a neighbor noticed that her mailbox was filling up. She found Langley’s body on the floor of her shack, beginning to decompose, her face partly gnawed by rats. The coroner estimated her time of death as a month earlier. Among her papers was found a notebook whose last entry was dated a few months before her death:
Dear god of the planet Mars, how
how you are!
Your dear girl weeps
but I feel sleepy and
soon will sleep.
Steve Langley, Igh, Infelia Dido, of thought
The Importance of Being Eve Langley came out fifteen years after Eve’s death, but it seems to have been a little ahead of its time and has never been reissued. However, as acceptance of cross-dressing, transgender, and “fluidly gendered” people has grown, interest in Eve’s life and work has begun to grown. The Pea Pickers is now well-established as an Australian classic, even making it to #5 on a list of candidates for the Great Australian Novel. And several plays have been written to celebrate her unique life and character. Margi Brown Ash, an Australian therapist and actress, has performed a one-woman show, “Eve,” in several countries. Ash refers to Eve as “the character I keep returning to again and again … for she is the voice of the invisible female artist of the Australian landscape.”
The Pea Pickers, by Eve Langley
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1942
The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1989
In 1929, in Paris, I decided that the time had come to end The Little Review. Our mission was accomplished; contemporary art had “arrived”; for a hundred years, perhaps, the literary world would product only: repetition.
I didn’t want the Little Review to die a conventional death, so I discarded all the material that had been amassed for a Last Number and decided, instead, to ask the artists of the world what they were thinking and feeling about their lives and work. We drew up a questionnaire — ten simple but essential questions — and sent it out to all our contributors.
Those who responded included Richard Aldington, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, and Joseph Stella. Others took the attitude of Djuna Barnes, who wrote, “I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public.”
Dorothy Richardson, however, provided a set of answers that, as might be expected, reflected her doggedly insistent individuality:
1. What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied).
To build a cottage on a cliff.
How to be perfectly in two places at once.
Member of a world-association for broadcasting the goings-on of metaphors.
2. What wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?
Because I can’t separate future from present.
3. What do you look forward to?
Can’t separate future from present.
4. What do you fear most from the future?
Can’t separate future from present.
5. What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (If you care to tell).
A recurring moment. Another recurring moment.
6. What do you consider your weakest characteristic? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?
Lack of concentration. Ability to concentrate. A certain changelessness. Superficiality.
7. What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will).
Dancing, an English valley in mid-May an hour before sunset, sun behind seer. Seagulls high in sunlight. Shafts of light. Most people under the age of three. Beautiful women. Ugly ones. Such hippo-hided men as guess they are half-truths. Most Irishmen. Synthesis.
Line engravings. Gothic. Daumier. Sisley. Blake. Brzeska. Alan Odle. Rossetti. Dumas pere. Balzac. Jane Austen. Hugo. Andre Gide. Wilde. The books Osbert Sitwell will write, and After [Before] the Bombardment. The plays Noel Coward will write between forty-five and sixty.
The cinema. Cafes. Any street. Any garden. Mornings. Sundays. Brown bread and Cornish butter. Soap. The cinema. Onions. Split greengages. Cigars. Berkshire bacon. The cinema. Munich Lager. Conversation. Dry champagne. Planter’s punch. Gilbert and Sullivan. Bach. Antheil. Bach. Wagner. Beethoven. Beethoven. Beethoven. Bach. Bach. The cinema. Quaker meetings.
Villas. Flats. Bungalows. Lapdogs. Diamonds. The sight of a moist-ended cigarette, of anyone lighting a cigarette in instead of above a flame, of anyone tapping off ash before it is ready to fall. Archness. White china and glass-ware. Satin. Plus-fours. Marcel waves. Trousers. Sinuosity. Aquilinity. Dogmatic eccentricity. North London. Burne Jones. Sound and Colour in cinema. The idea that everything has an evolutionary history.
8. What is your attitude toward art today?
Regret on behalf of literature in so far as it allows the conjectures of science to stand for thought and of “art” in so far as it is slick, clever, facile and self-conscious.
9. What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)
That humanity is the irreducible minimum of life, and affirms it by denying the existence anywhere in “life” of anything corresponding to what it finds in itself.
10. Why do you go on living?
Because I only just begin to see how to begin to be fit to live.
Books on jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, and other styles of popular music are, for me, the closest written equivalent to potato chips. I have to be careful taking one down from the shelf, because there is a high risk I will get nothing else accomplished until I finished it. And it’s worse now with the Internet, since just about any tune mentioned, no matter how obscure, can be located and downloaded in seconds, so reading slips all too easily into listening and, suddenly, who knows where the time goes? At least in the old pre-Net days, all you could do was write down the record title and hope that some day in the distant future you might have the luck to find a copy in some used record store.
So when I got a copy of Val Wilmer’s terrific autobiography, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, I saw a lost weekend coming. She got her first taste of jazz via an early teen boyfriend and a copy of Rudi Blesch’s pioneering study of jazz, Shining Trumpets (1949), and the rest is history. Over the course of the last 60 years, she has listened to, photographed, interviewed, wrote about, partied with, and gotten to know most of the major figures, and many more of the minor ones, in pop music. You can get a good sample of her talent for sizing up musicians as performers, artists, personalities, and human beings in The Guardian’s archive of obits she’s written (and you can get a small sample of her work as a photographer here, here, and here).
But there’s some serious starch in Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. As Wilmer’s eyes and ears were opened up by her exposure to a variety of styles — including African, West Indian, and Jamaican pop years before it hit white audiences — her understanding of the social, economic, and gender dimensions of the music and the musicians also grew deeper and more sophisticated. She quickly learned a few lessons as a young and single white woman spending hours in the company of musicians, mostly black and uniformly male:
Many feminists believe there to be an unspoken bond between males, the understanding that all women belong to all men. Where the white woman and the Black man are concerned, this understanding of the woman as shared possession, breaks down under the white man’s gaze — unless the woman can be shown to be a “prostitute.” If she wasn’t, back in the 1960s, then in my experience the white men on the scene made sure she’d be treated like one. This was the penalty to pay for associating with Black men and breaking down the order of things white men had established. No woman was allowed to exist in her own right as an autonomous individual, if she was there, it had to be for the benefit of some man. As a result, hotel porters, bus drivers, stage doormen — real “jobsworth” to a man — became a thorn in my side when it came to moving around with musicians. If the thought of sex had never crossed anyone’s mind, these people certainly put it there.
Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This is really much more than a book about music, though it’s exceptional on that level. But Wilmer’s life is something of a distillation of much that was of importance in the 1960s and 1970s. The growing recognition of race as a political factor, of the rise of civil rights. The increasing influence of American culture in British life. The changing British economy (Wilmer collaborated on a never-published oral history of coal mining). And the sexual revolution.
“It is how we are treated as women, rather than as individuals, what happens to us because we are women, that dictates the direction of our lives,” she declares in the book’s introduction. “To us the personal is political, whether we like it or not.” In her case, it was not only a matter of being witness to the rise of the woman’s movement: she took an active part, helping to organize the first “Take Back the Night” events in London.
And her understanding of her own sexuality grew, as she came to recognize her preference for women. She describes experiencing a thrill when Althea Gibson was kissed by an opponent after a match at Wimbledon and the shock of seeing lesbian couples openly embracing and dancing in Paris nightclubs. In the mid-1960s in London, however, lesbians had to seek the safety of forming private clubs — which even then were occasionally subjected to vice squad raids. Yet the act of going to one of these clubs was also a matter of asserting a gay woman’s rights:
… because what we were doing by walking through that door was declaring ourselves — what some would call “coming out” — there was about the whole exercise a sense of terrible excitement. It revolved around bravado and ritual. Getting ready to go there was a ritual, the crease in the trousers, the eyes made-up just so Parking the car was a ritual, as near to the club as possible to avoid the voyeurs and the challenge of passers-by. Gaining entry meant mustering bravado. And for what? To spend time in a place where you could, supposedly, be yourself.
Wilmer acknowledges the large and positive role her mother played in her life. Her father died when she was still young, and her mother raised two children on her own, taking in boarders to get by. Despite a most conventional English middle class upbringing, her mother was remarkably open to both her daughter’s interests and the string of musicians — almost all of them black, male, and from other countries — that Val brought home for tea. Her hospitality became legendary among jazz performers visiting London. Harry Carney, Duke Ellington’s great baritone sax player, sent her Christmas cards every year. “Randy Weston stayed at our house and talked Africa and Nationalism, she cooked him bacon and eggs; the Liberian Ambassador invited her to his parties and she drank champagne.”
And though her mother never quite understood her daughter’s sexuality — “Well, not for women, dear” — she was open to just about anyone Val associated with: “I always knew I could bring my friends home to a warm welcome. Without such a love behind me, I doubt whether I could have even coped with the stresses of trying to be myself in an essentially homophobic society.” The only things she wouldn’t tolerate were slovenliness and mistreatment of her daughter. Other parents could learn from her example.
“People often write autobiographies as if they had no mother, no children, as if sexual love had passed them by,” Wilmer writes at the start of Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. “This not one of those.”
Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer
London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1989
A few months ago, Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and I had a long dialogue on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which both of us had — coincidentally — just read and written about. That pleasant experience led to suggestions of other books to read and discuss, and we settled on Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages a 700-page saga that follows a family of English actors from the mid-18th century to the 1920s. I’d read very enthusiastic reviews several years ago and thought it might be a long, rich, and entertaining read.
Kate: When you suggested this novel I was keen because I enjoy reading novels about the theatre, and have long had Clemence Dane on my radar as an author I ought to know more about. I hadn’t realised that she wrote novels as well as plays (over 30 plays and 16 novels, and the Wikipedia entry suggests that she was also a painter and a sculptor). Now that I’ve read this novel (which is more like three or four), I’d rate her at the same level as J. B. Priestley: highly competent, excellent with character and dialogue, but not convincing as a literary stylist. She is a quintessential English middlebrow author, I think, but (in this novel) doesn’t give more than an absorbing family saga with lots of domestic drama. She’s vague about historical detail (especially shaky in the early, Regency part), but I think that’s because she’s writing as a playwright. All her characters are actors and her sets are stage sets. So much dialogue, and characters that draw the audience’s attention by being outrageous, or by saying arresting things. I found almost all them objectionable: selfish, obsessive, unkind, bullying and unreasonable, which is probably what makes them good dramatic subjects.
Brad: I’d have to concur with your assessment. Let’s face it, this novel is an order of magnitude lower than Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which we last discussed.
I was primarily interested in reading it because the reviews (both UK and US) when Broome Stages first came out were gushingly enthusiastic: “No lover of good fiction or of the theatre can afford to leave Broome Stages unread,” and that sort of thing. The Saturday Review (US) reprinted a long excerpt from it and the universal assessment seemed to be that it was a big, rich book studded with memorable characters large and small, and irresistibly readable. Personally, I found it all too resistable to read, at least in the first third or so.
In those early chapters, Dane uses a rather arch style that attempts, I guess, to mimic the tone of a Fielding but comes off (now, at least) stale and irritating. And I found it quite difficult to form a sustainable sense of many of the main characters. A sum of mannerisms and vices usually isn’t enough to turn a character from a name to a persona. The style, at least, grows a little more limpid as the story nears (Dane’s) present day, but the characters–well, I would certainly fail if you gave me a test of matching Broome names with their respective generations and actions now, a month-plus after reading it.
It did pick up momentum–a bit–but I felt that Dane didn’t some much end the story as stop it: as if she just ran out of ideas. There was one intriguing element toward the end. There is a fairly pointed hint at one point that youngest of the last Broome generation, John, is engaged in homosexual relationships at boarding school and then another, even more obvious, that he has a male partner–which his mother simple takes in stride, happy that her son is happy. Dane herself was gay and involved in a long-term relationship with a writer of children’s books, Olwen Bowen, so it might have been a way of asserting as normal and unexceptional something that was, at the time, considered acceptable only if covert.
Priestley is a good comparison. I thought of a huge best-seller in America around the same time–Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which was a 1,000-plus page historical novel intended to invoke the spirit of Sir Walter Scott and maybe even Tolstoy, but which is now considered more as a curiosity than a work of any serious literary merit. Such doorstop wonders seem to pop up every generation.
Kate: Looking at my notes I see that from the last generation of the Broomes it’s Richard who is gay, Henry dies in the war, Gerry is a lazy waster, and John is a mercurial playwright destined for greatness and to be the next Broome of the stage. But I need the notes to remember, you’re right about the personalitiesthemselves being forgettable. Hilaret, Lettice, Elinor, and Domina are the only named women characters I can recall. There was also Lionel’s illegitimate daughter who married into a Viennese Jewish family in the 1880s (very G. B. Stern, that), went to Brazil and brought forth another daughter who ended up in England to help Elinor elope scandalously with Lewis. Dane could absolutely create dramatic and entertaining storylines, but I agree, character definition was not her strong point.
Considering (now that you mention it) that Dane was herself gay, and presumably interested in women and their relationships, its odd that she create hordes of male characters, but only five women across three centuries of Broome breeding. They are all dominant, but stand out like illustrations of ‘the female condition in this century’ rather than working participants in the plot.
The staginess of the novel is quite attractive. I can visualise it working as a film or a TV series in the style of Dallas or Dynasty, endless sweepings on and off in big hats after huge rows and passionate arguments between men and women, and men who don’t behave as men are supposed to behave. The characters’ obsession with the continuance of the Broome legacy is typical of that genre. And, of course, after writing that I go to IMDB to check, and yes! It was made as a TV mini-series in 1966, starring many actors who don’t now have photographs by their names so they’re no longer working, or remembered. Only one series, though, and no pictures from it floating around on Google.
Brad: I think you hit the nail on the head: the staginess of this novel of the stage may weaken its merit as a work of literature but make it perfect material for adaptation to the screen. There have been plenty of great movies made from bad novels and bad movies made from great novels. And just think how a good screenwriter and a cast of expert scenery-chewing actors could turn the nastiness of many of the Broome characters into delicious viewing. Some of the best television of the last 10-15 years has been based on the ability to seduce viewers into sympathizing with some very bad people (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Urquhart/Underwood). And 1966 is fifty years ago–more than enough time to justify a remake.
Shall we contact the BBC? Surely pitching a concept to some show-biz types is on one of our bucket lists.
Kate: The 1966 miniseries began with the Lewis Whybrow elopement and used up the remainder of the novel, which I think was wise. I can’t think of a TV series that crosses so many historical periods as this book does. The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Poldark, all the British TV series of the 1970s that my mum was addicted to, and I took one look at, uncomprehending: they’re intense family sagas set in a discrete period, following the life of one individual and perhaps of their offspring as well. Perhaps that’s why Broome Stages is ultimately disappointing. Dane isn’t interested in people, she’s interested in creating a sweep of history, the rise and fall of a dynasty over centuries rather than generations. She loses the human focus, which is why her characters are unsatisfying. They have their moments of concentrated attention at crisis points, but years and decades go by in the turning of a page, which isn’t how one tells a story about people’s daily struggles.
Brad: True: any adaptation would have to focus on one period, at least in the case of Broome Stages. There have been a few examples of series that were able to successfully span several different time frames, but they required more narrative ingenuity than was demonstrated by Dane. As others have pointed out, she structured the generations and personalities of Broome Stages on the Plantagenets–which might be helpful for a reader familiar with that slice of English history but was utterly useless to a colonial such as I. In fact, one could hold up Broome Stages as a good illustration of why writing a novel around an arbitrary structure will rarely produce a work of the same merit as one building upon a strong story or interesting characters.
Which pretty much exhausts what I have to say about Broome Stages. I was hoping for better, but I’m afraid I will have to place it into my “Justly Neglected” file.
Kate: I never realised until I started reading up on the book afterwards that the Plantagnets were her framework. So that worked well, obviously ….. as you say, an arbitrary structure with more than a touch of staginess to it. So, goodbye Broome Stages. If I come across any other Clemence Dane novels I’ll read ’em, but I’m not expecting wonders.
Broome Stages, by Clemence Dane
London: Heinemann, 1931
John Hull, an Australian theologian living in England, went blind in his forties. Black, black blind from detached retinas. His book describing the profound disorientation of self in blindness was the first I took up on my return to reading. It took some time to finish so closely did it echo my fears: the fear of the loss of self, of being cast from God’s light. The journey he recounts is as much of the passage of the soul through darkness as of the daily reality which came with a blindness so complete that he knew that he faced the sun only by the sensation of heat on his face. Even food, unseen, lost its appeal. He was no longer hungry. Life as well as sight dimmed within him.
While he struggled with the real limitations of a life without sight, treading his way with cautious steps to avoid the sudden slide when the ground slopes, or the path diverges, or obstacles block the way, he struggled also with the archetype of blindness within which he felt himself enclosed. At first the meanings he could give to the dark were as closed and as isolated as the world he inhabited even in the midst of a loving family. And indeed it is true that in many cultures, and certainly in ours, blindness has been crudely associated with a condition of unrelatedness: of being cast out, along, ignorant and confused. Because blindness disrupts the distinction between the known and the not-known that is regulated for the rest of us by sight, it represents, he says, dissolution, the borderline between being and not being. An alternative to death; as good as death.
Immersed in this archetype, unable to deny, or refuse it, yet not accepting it either, a glimmer of light flickered, a small beacon which took the form of a paradox, which as a theologian John Hull was quick to grasp, thought as a blind man slow to understand. For of course there is a paradox. For God, that transcendent being, as the blind psalmist sings, darkness and light are both alike to thee. It is for us with our dualistic either/or thinking that one is cast from the other, that one is held in opposition to the other. But a greater reality, and one we resist in our fearfulness and limitation, is that of light in darkness, and, more to the point, that of darkness in light. None of those who dwell so noisily in the realm of light wish to consider that light might contain its own darkness. And there is little in our culture to help those who inhabit the darkness grope their way to light.
In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Drusilla Modjeska notes that, in her struggle to write the story of Australian painter Stella Bowen, she gave up at one point and, instead, wrote the “novel” The Orchard. I put novel in quotes because there are many essay-like passages, including a number related to Stella Bowen, that appear to be much more the thoughts of the author than of the nameless narrator in whose voice the story is told.
Modjeska attempted to weave her story around the old folk tale of “The Handless Maiden” (or “The Girl without Hands” or “The Girl with Silver Hands”). In the tale, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands in a bargain with the devil, and, many years later, her hands are restored through the love of the king who marries her. I say attempted because it’s only told at the end and, as far as I could tell, offered little to illuminate the story. The fictional element of the book is about several Australian women, united through their acquaintance with Effie, a woman in her eighties who has always pursued a very self-directed life, mostly tending to a garden seen by her friends as a haven.
Though I wasn’t persuaded by the fiction in the book, I found the narrator/Modjeska’s asides consistently interesting, and I read the book in one sitting, on a flight from Brussels to Dulles last month. Even if the novel per se wasn’t successful as such, it seems to have allowed her to work through thoughts that came together in the subsequent Stravinsky’s Lunch. Such as:
We live in a culture that daily encourages us to find our identity in that reflection of another, to experience ourselves as most real when we are in love. We live in a culture that encourages us to see ourselves as others see us. To become an object in the regard of others means that other become objects to us; and so too do we to ourselves. No wonder we are all in pursuit of control: to make sure that object is ours.
Considering that this was written before the Web exploded and social media and selfies became labels, there is a certain amount of prescience in this. Although I might argue that today, we are encouraged to think we are most real when we get a requisite number of “Likes” (in whatever form they might actually take).
[By the way, the Macmillan Australia hardcover edition I read has to have one of the most pleasant formats I’ve read in years. 7.5″ high by 4.5″ wide, it’s larger than a traditional paperback and smaller than a typical trade paperback or hardback, typeset in 11/13 Bembo. I would be happy to have a few hundred others like it — a perfect size for a myopic guy like me to travel with.]
The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska
Sydney: Macmillan Australia, 1994
A visit to the Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, Montana, has been one of my rituals during our annual stay in Missoula, but this year events put books and many other things on hold. I did, however, snatch about 45 minutes in the store, just before closing, on my way back from a hospital in Spokane, and harvested about a dozen books from their basement paperback stash. Old paperbacks hold a special place in my heart, perhaps because they were the first books I bought when I started haunting used bookstores back in the mid-1970s. And one of the reasons I love the Montana Valley Bookstore is that it’s one of the ever-dwindling number of used bookstores that still has a substantial holding of paperbacks from the decades before trade paperbacks took over.
With only a short time to spare, I focused on looking for interesting titles by women writers. It’s harder and harder to surprise me — but not impossible, and easily the biggest surprise was the two thick Dell paperbacks by Arona McHugh.
If I’ve ever seen either of these books, I’ve forgotten. But from a material standpoint alone, I recognized a substantial piece of work when I saw it, and, of course, bought them both. Taken together, A Banner with a Strange Device and The Seacoast of Bohemia tell the stories of a collection of young men and women in post-World War Two Boston. Running over 1300 pages, the two books put Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to shame in the Great American Doorstop Novel Race. Whether the same can be said about their literary merits is something I cannot yet say. The New Yorker’s brief review offered the faint praise that “Mrs. McHugh’s rough, able-bodied style carries her at full speed through almost six hundred pages, in which she describes the manners, looks, and varying sexual capacities and appetites of a group of young Boston people during the years immediately following the Second World War.” Writing in The New York Times, Haskel Frankel was a little less polite, saying that Banner should have been titled, “The Sun Also Rises on King Kong and Lady Chatterley.” Exactly one year later, Seacoast and Frankel again was the Times man on the scene. He surmised that the two books were, in fact, one novel roughly hewn in two by a publisher afraid to launch a single monolith into bookshops, and credited McHugh as “a natural-born storyteller, one of that rare type who can write about rocks and reduce the reader to a jelly.” On the other hand, he also concluded that “Enough is enough and 1,259 pages of painful youth in Boston is too much.” So perhaps I will not be assaulting Mount McHugh anytime soon.
The name Maude Hutchins struck a vaguely familiar note, which is why I picked up Honey on the Moon, but only after a quick search did I see it was because NYRB Classics reissued her novel of a girl’s coming of age, Victorine, with an introduction by Terry Castle. Hutchins spent 27 years in an unhappy marriage with Robert Maynard Hutchins, who played a large role in elevating the University of Chicago to a level equal with the Ivy League. But after their divorce, as Castle puts it, “the defection of the boy wonder that seems to have changed her, almost overnight, from dabbler in the avant-garde to serious writer.” Thumbing through the book, I gathered it’s the story of a young bride who begins to suspect that her older husband married her for her resemblance to — and value as a cover for his interest in — a younger man. Kirkus Reviews called it a “screaming spoof on the New Wave films, the anti-novel, and those drugstore bestsellers of purple passions.” Another reviewer wrote that Hutchins wrote for “the kind of reader who will assume her complexity from her carefully selected simplicities.” This one sounds worth placing in the to-read pile.
I knew exactly who Elizabeth Jenkins was when I spotted this copy of her 1963 novel, Brightness. Jenkins, who may hold the longevity record for writers, having passed in 2010 at the age of 104, is best known for her novel of marital tension, The Tortoise and the Hare. When that book was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, Hillary Mantel wrote that it was “as smooth and seductive as a bowl of cream,” and that Jenkins “seems to know a good deal about how women think and how their lives are arranged; what women collude in, what they fear.” Which is interesting, considering that Jenkins herself never married. Brightness is about the relationship between two very different mothers (and their no-so-different sons) in a small English village — the sort of situation that lead immediately to comparisons with Jane Austen. One reviewer called it “a fine novel — rather on the side of the angels, but without a smidgen of candied inspirational guff” and quoted the excellent line, “If you’ve only come across suffering that could be cured by psychiatry, you’ve done pretty well so far.”
The Inner Room purports to be a novel, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a linked set of short stories. It tells the individual stories of five women committed to an asylum for a variety of conditions ranging from post-partum depression to alcoholism. One of the stories was originally published in The New Yorker. Although, in an early NY Review of Books issue, Martha Cameron wrote that the book was “affecting and yet somehow fraudulent,” Randal appears to have based the work on first-hand observations, as he went on to publish a second novel (story collection?) on essentially the same topic, You Get Used to a Place.
The New York Ride was the second of Anne Bernays’ ten novels, an account of the growing up and growing apart of two friends — first on a tour of Italy, swapping away ever-hovering Italian men, then in New York City as they navigate through the “floating crap game” artists, poets and poseurs in the Village, and finally in their married lives, when one’s apparent bi-polar disorder (two decades before it was routinely diagnosed) starts to rip things apart. One reviewer wrote that it was “fueled by a wit, intelligence and perception that make it a pleasure to read.”
“Several cuts above Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” declares a quote from a Sacramento Bee review. This was enough to pick Jeeney Ray as a subject for further research. What I did find out was that Iris Dornfeld was another woman who was better known as Mrs. Someone Else — in her case, Mrs. Carey McWilliams, whose husband was editor of The Nation magazine and journalist who first came to fame for his work exposing the brutal conditions of farm workers in California. Jeeney Ray earned respectable reviews from the few major national papers and magazines to review it. In The Saturday Review, Aileen Pippett wrote, “Every memorable novel has its distinctive tone. This one sings. Yet the characters are mostly brutal, ignorant, or depraved, their language is coarse and their actions are in keeping. Nature pleaseth, in Northern California, but man is frequently vile. Against a murky background Jeeney Ray herself shines like a star.” Jeeney Ray is considered mentally handicapped by most everyone in her town, but her grandmother has a greater trust in her senses. After many hardships and misunderstandings, Jeeney Ray is correctly diagnosed as spastic — not that a diagnosis alone make for a happy ending. Interestingly, Dornfeld’s only other novel, Boy Gravely, dealt with a protagonist who didn’t understand he was suffering from epilepsy. Dornfeld had grown up in the same area Jeeney Ray is set in, from what she called “a family of singers, storytellers, bible-reciters, make-believers, and downright liars.”
Based on what 45 minutes produced, I look forward to having more time to browse when I return next year.
“Let us begin with two sisters dressed for a ball,” Drusilla Modjeska writes in her introduction to Stravinsky’s Lunch. “Whenever I look at this painting — which, as it is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is quite often — I think they are waiting for the century to begin…. You can see from their faces that they are not the girls who went to balls in nineteenth-century novels; and you can see from their clothes that there is nothing of the modern woman about them.”
In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska looks at how two near-contemporaries of the two women in the painting (the painter’s sisters), Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith — both Australians, both painters — took on the century they encountered and carved out lives and careers very different from the conventions of the Victorian world in which they were raised. Modjeska refers to the book as “a koan in my own practice as a woman and writer.” The choice of the term is apt, as Stravinsky’s Lunch is a book that raises many questions and finds few definitive answers to them.
Such as the story of Stravinsky’s lunch, which Modjeska first heard over a restaurant meal with other writers and artists. It’s not really a story, so much as the fact that when the composer Igor Stravinsky was working on a composition, he insisted that his family eat lunch in silence. “All artists are selfish,” wrote Robert Craft in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972), “they must be, to get their work done. And they sacrifice the people around them.” for Modjeska, Stravinsky’s selfishness raises larger questions: “What are we prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.”
Stella Bowen offers an example of a woman who, at first, sacrificed herself willingly on the altars of love and art. She happily entered into a relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, taking on the many domestic burdens of their rustic, near-penniless existence, in return for the sake of his love and his company: “… to have the run of a mind of that calibre … was a privilege for which I am still trying to say ‘thank you,'” she wrote in her memoir, Drawn from Life. But she also sacrificed her own development as an artist, as tending to Ford’s needs left her with little time and energy for her own work:
Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.
When, after one too many affairs with other women on Ford’s part, Bowen broke off their relationship, he failed to understand what all the fuss was about. As Modjeska puts it, he didn’t realize “that the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place — her courage, her intelligence, her engagement with life — were precisely those that would take her away from him.” And that courage and intelligence were also what allowed her to produce her best work when she herself was free to focus. Yet, as is clear from Drawn from Life, Bowen never looked upon her time with Ford with regret, certainly not when she thought of their daughter. “Was Love the one, in the end, that she chose?” Or did she even chose one or the other? “Is choosing what she did?”
When I first read the story of Grace Cossington Smith that makes up the second half of Stravinsky’s Lunch, I was quite disappointed. There was none of the drama of Stella Bowen’s life. “No husbands. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris…. In the prejudices of her time, she was, simply, a spinster.” Smith spent most of her life in the same house with her parents and two of her three sisters. Most days, she painted scenes and people she saw around her in Sydney and the nearby country and seaside, working in a small studio her father had built at the back of their yard. She was over sixty before she was accepted as a serious artist of her own generation, over seventy when she was finally recognized as one of the greatest Australian painters of her century.
Much of Smith’s story is a matter of producing painting after painting, moving first towards a striking mix of realism and abstraction, as illustrated by her 1926 painting, Trees. Smith said she was trying to paint all sides of a tree at once. When it appeared in her first solo show, one newspaper critic condemned it as a “freak.” Modjeska sees the work as revealing Smith’s keen eye for the dual nature of her Australian world: “For this was a young woman who understood both the settled pleasures of a garden with its bloom of peach, and the hectic tangle of branch and leaf, the mysterious possibilities that lay beyond, in bush and gully.”
As she grew older, Smith turned from subjects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge to her immediate surroundings, painting the rooms in her family home — always with at least one window or door opening out into the world, but always from the perspective of someone on the inside. She experimented with color, settling on yellow as her primary tone, offset with blue (which is why it’s surprising that Modjeska doesn’t quote the opening phrase from Drawn from Life: “The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country”).
But there is another story, which Modjeska brings out. Of Smith’s three sisters, one married early and another took on a lifetime profession as a nurse. But her sister Madge stayed at home and cared for their parents and Grace, and after their parents died, for Grace alone. It was Madge who cooked the meals and saw that the rooms were cleaned and laundry washed and ironed. Modjeska reprints a photo of Grace, Madge, and their father from 1919. It’s one of those family photos that, though accidentally and perhaps misleadingly, seems to betray a secret. “There is Grace with her strong, intelligent face lifted to the sun. Madge’s lowered head is shrouded in misery so intense it seems to burn the paper their images are printed on…. You can tell at a glance that there’d be no question of Grace taking over the kitchen.”
So, despite forging a career in art that was very much of her own shaping, deliberately enforcing her isolation so that she could focus on her work — focus to the point that her paintings from her last decades all depict scenes less than a few yards from her own home — Smith did, in her own way, insist on a form of Stravinsky’s lunch. No wonder that when Madge accompanied Grace on a trip to England in 1949, she found a widower in need of a wife and married him, leaving Grace to return to Australia alone.
Yet Modjeska admits that her attitude toward the story of Stravinsky’s lunch changed in the course of writing the book, and, in particular because of Smith’s example. The nature of the book as a koan is revealed in her realization that the story “not only buys into a way of thinking that would separate art from life, with art striding above and beyond, transcending the ordinary and humble, but it sets life against art, or art against life.” Smith never involved herself in artistic movements and stayed rooted to the home and family she knew. And as her energies diminished with age, she focused on the things she saw immediately around her: her bed, her table, her windows, her mirror.
Some reviewers objected to Modjeska’s interjection of herself, of her own reflections, into her accounts of the lives and careers of Bowen and Smith. But Stravinsky’s Lunch is not really a work of biography as much as an exercise in understanding — and as much Modjeska’s self-understanding as her understanding of the two women she portrays. In 1999, perhaps it was just slightly too early for critics to be comfortable with a work that did not fit neatly into the boundaries of one particular genre, but I think we are seeing now a proliferation of books that sweep across genre boundaries with never a second thought. I hope today’s readers will be ready to seek out a copy of Stravinsky’s Lunch and enjoy it as thoroughly as I did.
Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999
I came to Stella Bowen’s memoir, Drawn from Life (1941), through Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful book, Stravinsky’s Lunch (which I’ll discuss in a separate post). Born in Adelaide, Australia, Bowen met the writer Ford Madox Ford while studying art in London and they lived together from 1919 to 1927. Modjeska devotes the first half of her book to an account of how Bowen struggled to establish herself as an artist while simultaneously dealing with domestic demands — first of Ford and later as a single mother raising their daughter, Julie — and quotes liberally from Drawn from Life. It only took a few excerpts to convince me that I had to read more.
“The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country,” opens Drawn from Life, with a rhapsody about the landscape of Australia — which, ironically, she left at the age of 18 and never returned to. Though her father died when she was just three, her childhood, as she recounts it, was entirely conventional: “We were, in fact, a suburb of England.” Her mother was a staunch Victorian, pure and true in her principles, and Bowen acknowledges it “a privilege to be associated with anyone whose life is a simple and perfect demonstration of all that they believe.” Her mother did, however, bend a little, allowing Stella to take classes at an art school run by a pioneering woman painter, Rose McPherson.
When her mother died in early 1914 and Stella and her brother were left with an annuity of two hundred pounds a year, Stella seized an opportunity to accompany a friend’s family on a journey to England. In London, she studied painting under Walter Sickert, who drove the importance of seeing the unique visual features of any subject. “He taught one to trust one’s faithful eyes, and to open them wide. I had never before been required to look at things so minutely, and having looked, to record them with so little fuss.”
She also met a number of influential figures, starting with the poet Ezra Pound, and in early 1918, at one of Pound’s parties, she was introduced to Ford Madox Ford. They experienced an instant rapport. Bowen found him “quite simply the most enthralling person I had ever met.” He quickly began confiding in her about all his troubles, including his inability to divorce his wife and to disentangle himself from his lover, the writer Violet Hunt. Soon he was telling her that “he wished to place his person, his fortune, his future in my hands.” He was tired of the world and just wanted “to dig potatoes and raise pigs and never write another book.”
Within a year, after Ford’s discharge from the Army, they were moving into a tumble-down cottage in Sussex. It had a hole in the roof, continuously damp, and surrounded by mud whenever it rained, but they loved their hideaway. They bought some chickens and pigs and planted a garden. Not long after, Bowen became pregnant.
Although Ford had vowed to give up writing, it didn’t take long for them to realize they couldn’t survive without the income. He set to work on articles and a novel, eventually published in 1923 as The Marsden Case. Soon the rhythm of the house became set by Ford’s work:
He would retire upstairs to write, and leave me to wrestle with the dinner. At eight I would say, “are you ready to eat?” and he would reply, “in a minute.” At eight-thirty I would say, “It is eight-thirty, darling,” and he would reply, “Oh, give me another twenty minutes,” and I would return to the kitchen and concoct something extra — another vegetable, or a savoury. At nine I’d say, “what about it?” and he’d tell me to put the meal on the table. At nine-thirty I would suggest putting it back on the fire, to re-heat. “What!” he’d cry, “dinner on the table all this time? Why ever didn’t you tell me?” Well, we’d eat perhaps at ten, with enormous appetite, and discuss the progress of his book and of my cooking.
“We enjoyed ourselves,” Bowen writes, but the preservation of Ford’s “working conditions” meant that she had to take over most of the domestic chores and all of the responsibility for managing their affairs. “I must manage to keep all worries from him, which was difficult. It meant that I must not let him know how overdrawn we were at the bank, nor how big the bill from the corn mills had become, nor how badly we needed a paraffin tank.” It was not enough for Bowen to keep the pig from wandering off to the next farm or take care of all the cooking and cleaning and feeding while in the last months of her pregnancy. “If ever a man needed a fairy godmother, he did,” she eventually concluded. And meanwhile, her painting “had, of course, been hopelessly interfered with by the whole shape of my life….”
A major theme in Drawn from Life is the near-impossibility of a woman working as an artist when all her time, attention, and energy is devoted to caring for a man pursuing his own career. “I was learning the technique of a quite different role: that of consort to another and more important artist.” Bowen’s blunt eloquence makes this a pioneering work of feminism, on the order of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” And still quite relevant, as the following quote from Jenny Offill’s recent novel, Dept. of Speculation: “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”
Eventually, both Ford and Bowen came to resent the drudgery of rural life, and in 1922, they sold the cottage and, with daughter Julie in hand, headed for France. Their friend, the poet Harold Monro, had offered them the use of his tiny villa perched on a hilltop outside the town of Villefranche. Although the house was barely better furnished than their cottage, they relished the warmth of the Mediterranean weather, and Ford began working on Some Do Not …, the first volume of Parade’s End. The next spring, Ezra Pound’s wife Dorothy invited Bowen to join her on a tour of Tuscany, and the precise and flattened perspectives of Giotto’s murals strongly influenced her subsequent work.
They moved to Paris in September 1924, and were soon at the heart of the thriving expatriate scene. Ford’s brother, Oliver Hueffer, convinced him to take on the job of editing a new magazine he was establishing called the transatlantic review. Although the review failed after just one year, what a year that was. Ford has a marvelous gift for spotting good writing and collected pieces from Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and H. D., although with the first excerpts from James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” (Finnegans Wake). He also published the work of a fragile and destitute writer from the West Indies named Jean Rhys — and began an affair with her.
Though circumspect about the affair, the memory of it drives her to her most strident tones. She lumps Rhys in with a larger group of bohemians she refers to as “Wild Ones”: “It was quite all right to be dirty, drunk, a pervert or a thief or a whore, provided that you had a lively and an honest mind, and the courage of your instincts.” The affair was brief, however, and Ford and Bowen agreed to stay together in another rough villa outside Toulon for the winter of 1925-6.
Here, the Spanish painter Juan Gris encouraged Bowen to put her painting ahead of the matters of tending after Ford, and she managed to produce a number of vibrant landscapes. It was becoming clearer, however, that she could not continue to struggle with two competing demands, particularly not after being betrayed. When a French painter remarked that her work still seemed very immature, she thought in exasperation, “It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back at great deal.” She refers to homemaking as a “specialization”: “Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to his kind of specialization, but society, and your own affections, and the fear of loneliness that besets us all, may keep you at it…. But beware: unlike other specialists, you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service. Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job.”
They made one last move back to Paris, and enjoyed something of a productive truce period. They placed their daughter in the care of a French woman outside the city and rented a space in Montparnasse where Bowen was able to set up a studio and the two worked during the week, visiting Julie on the weekends. But even with her own work space, Bowen found Ford constantly sending her out on errands: “I wish you’d go and sound so-and-so about such-and-such. I don’t want to do it myself, but it should be quite easy for you.”
Ford spent much of the next two winters in the United States, and Bowen was able to focus on her own work without distraction for the first time. Upon his return from his second trip to the U.S., however, Ford informed her that he had taken up with another woman painter, Janice Biala. That was enough for Bowen. She began action to take full custody of Julie and told the girl that Ford would no longer live with them. “I imagined that facing Paris without Ford was going to be full of difficulties,” she writes. Instead, “There were none. I felt chilly and forlorn at one moment and like a million dollars the next.”
Unfortunately, that feeling soon faded as Bowen confronted the practical obstacles of an increasingly unfavorable exchange rate and a crashing real estate market. Desperate for ways to bring in some much-needed cash, she took an opportunity raised by her American friend, Ramon Guthrie, and sailed for the U.S. where she could get portrait commissions and make several thousand dollars in the course of a few months. Though it helped her out of her financial straits, the visit to America makes for easily the weakest chapter in the book, one filled mostly with unremarkable observations about American life and culture.
By the time Bowen returned to Paris, it was clear that she could not afford to keep living in France, and she and Julie moved back to England, settling in London. With the onset of the Depression, work was almost impossible to get and the two struggled through some lean years. And Bowen found herself temperamentally out of place: “I dare say I have never known how to communicate with people in the English idiom.” In Paris or New York, she could manage to carry on conversations, tossing the ball back and forth with others. In London, however, the conversational ball “crashes to the ground where it lies looking like a suet pudding under the cold and silent eyes of the company. Agony!”
After a few years, she managed to make some headway. “I developed a technique for doing portrait sketches in two or three days and got a good many orders.” Julie studied set design at the London Theatre School and Bowen found a quiet cottage to her tastes in Green End, a hamlet in the Norfolk countryside east of London. Janice Biala contacted them saying that Ford was dying and Julie traveled to Honfleur, France to see her father one last time. It was June 1939.
Drawn from Life closes as summer 1940 nears. Though military encampments are being set up around Green End and the possibility of evacuation is being whispered about, for Bown, “Mostly I feel this is my last ditch.” Earlier, she wrote, “Four times in my life I have gone away with two suitcases, leaving all behind me, never to return,” but she was ready to “stay put and take what comes.”
Though written on the promise of popular interest in her relationship with Ford, Drawn from Life earned Bowen little more than her advance, and she struggled to keep things going until late 1943, when she was commissioned to paint for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. She produced several dozen canvas over the next two years, including several group portraits of Australian bomber crews that evoke the murals of Giotto that she’d seen in Italy with Dorothy Pound. Before the war ended, however, she had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and, after a short remission, she died in October 1947 at her home in Green End.
Drawn from Life deserves to be recognized as a minor classic. It’s a fiercely feminist text, one that echoes the messages of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech, “The Solitude of Self,” and anticipates The Feminine Mystique and other works of decades later:
If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of your own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, and abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far! Otherwise, emerging from a love-affair into the position of a middle-aged housekeeper, you may suffer the most desperate sensations of constriction and futility which your situation will give you little chance to survive.
At present, there appear to be around thirty copies available for sale, with prices starting at over $20 and ending at over $2,000, according to a search on AddAll.com. First published in the UK in 1941, when a paper shortage ruled out the possibility of any immediate reissue, it’s been republished several times (in 1976 by George Mann, a small regional UK press, in 1984 by Virago, and in 1999 by Picador in Australia), but none of these were large quantity runs and (I’d like to think), it’s a book that, once bought, people tend to hang onto.
Drawn from Life: Reminiscences, by Stella Bowen
London: Collins Publishers, 1941
Three times in the course of Dorothy Richardson’s “novel in chapters,” Pilgrimage, a tea shop in a small and unnamed London street spurs an intense connection in the subconsciousness of her protagonist and fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson. The first occurs in The Tunnel, the fourth book of the series and the first in which Miriam comes to live and work in central London. Richardson gives the moment extra dramatic effect by setting it as a chapter onto itself:
Why must I always think of her in this place…. It is always worst just along here…. Why do I always forget there’s this piece … always be hurrying along seeing nothing and then suddenly Teetgen’s Teas and this row of shops. I can’t bear it. I don’t know what it is. It’s always the same. I always feel the same. It is sending me mad. One day it will be worse. If it gets any worse I shall be mad. Just here. Certainly. Something is wearing out in me. I am meant to go mad. If not I should not always be coming along this piece without knowing it, whichever street I take. Other people would know the streets apart. I don’t know where this bit is or how I get to it. I come every day because I am meant to go mad here. Something that knows brings me here and is making me go mad because I am myself and nothing changes me.
When the shop appears again, in Chapter III of Deadlock, the 6th book in the series, its emotional impact has diminished. Now four years after first walking past, it has been integrated with her thousands of experiences of London streets:
Two scenes flashed forth from the panorama beyond the darkness and while she glanced at the vagrants stretched asleep on the grass in the Hyde Park summer, carefully to be skirted and yet most dreadfully claiming her companionship, she saw, narrow and gaslit, the little unlocated street that had haunted her first London years, herself flitting into it, always unknowingly, from a maze of surrounding streets, feeling uneasy, recognising it, hurrying to pass its awful centre where she must read the name of a shop, and, dropped helplessly into the deepest pit of her memory, struggle on through thronging images threatening, each time more powerfully, to draw her willingly back and back through the intervening spaces of her life to some deserved destruction of mind and body, until presently she emerged faint and quivering, in a wide careless thoroughfare. She had forgotten it; perhaps somehow learned to avoid it. Her imagined figure passed from the haunted scene, and from the vast spread of London the tide flowed through it, leaving it a daylit part of the whole, its spell broken and gone.
In its last mention, in Chapter III of Dawn’s Left Hand, Miriam recognizes that not only the memory of the shop, but also her reaction to it, has become integrated with her larger emotional experience:
And as she surveyed the little back street, where now she found herself, in search of food to be consumed in the ten minutes left of her lunch-hour, she felt, with a comfortingly small pang of wistfulness, the decisive hour that had just gone by slide into its place in the past and leave her happily glancing along the shopfronts of this mean little back street.
Teetgen’s Teas, she noted, in grimed, gilt lettering above a dark and dingy little shop….
Teetgen’s Teas. And behind, two turnings back, was a main thoroughfare. And just ahead was another. And the streets of this particular district arranged themselves in her mind, each stating its name, making a neat map.
And this street, still foul and dust-filled, but full now also of the light flooding down upon and the air flowing through the larger streets with which in her mind it was clearly linked, was the place where in the early years she would suddently find herself lost and helplessly aware of what was waiting for her eyes the moment before it appeared: the grimed gilt lettering that forced me to gaze into the darkest moment of my life and to remember that I had forfeited my share in humanity for ever and must go quietly and alone until the end.
And now their power has gone. They can bring back only the memory of a darkness and horror, to which, then, something has happened, begun to happen?
She glanced back over her shoulder at the letters now away behind her and rejoiced in freedom that allowed her to note their peculiarities of size and shape.
In his invaluable Notes on Pilgrimage George Thomson reveals that Richardson took artistic license in her use of the name Teetgen’s Teas: “Kelly’s Directory records seven outlets and a factory in London for Teetgen’s Tea, Tea and Coffee Dealers and Chocolate and Cocoa Manufacturers, but none was in central London where Miriam would be likely to encounter it. As the matchbox cover shown to the right states, Teetgen’s did have a shop in Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Station, but that would have been a fair hike to the east of Miriam’s dental office on Harley Street. So we will likely never know just whose gilt lettering inspired such strong feelings in Richardson/Miriam.
Richardson’s sister-in-law, Rose Odle, did shed some light on the possible emotional connection between the shop and Richardson’s own life in an article, “Dorothy and Alan,” that appeared in Miron Grindea’sADAM International Review in 1966. “Until Dorothy was eighteen, except for worry over Mrs. Richardson’s fluctuating health, life was good,” she wrote. Then, when Dorothy was 17, her father lost most of the family’s money in business speculations and she was led to seek employment as a means to take some of the financial burden off his shoulders. This led to her taking a post as an English teacher in a private girls’ school in Hanover, Germany – the experience recounted in the first book in Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs. “On her return home,” Rose Odle wrote,
… the little mother, who, despite her semi-invalid existence, was “the centre of jollity,” became seriously ill. For six months, Dorothy devoted herself to her — it was humanly impossible for a young girl to do more than she had done — yet, when Mrs. Richardson died, Dorothy felt not only the loss, but failure. There is a very short chapter — just a paragraph — showing it impossible for Miriam to walk in a street in London where she had been for the last time with her mother. Her dear friends of long standing have shared with me the impression that Dorothy was always somewhat withdrawn, afraid for long years — perhaps until her marriage — to give herself completely. There was always a noli me tangere about her: too great a friendship might mean a parallel loss. It may be her mother’s death that left a permanent mark on Dorothy’s mentality.
Her mother’s death is treated so indirectly at the end of Honeycomb, the third book in the series, that readers working through the text without a guide like Thomson’s are likely to miss it entirely. As Horace Gregory recounts in his short book, Dorothy Richardson: An Adventure in Self-Discovery, “On November 30, 1895, at Hastings, Dorothy Richardson took a short morning walk away from her lodgings. On her return she learned from her landlady that her mother had committed suicide by cutting her throat with a kitchen knife.” Gloria Fromm has even less to say of the event in her biography of Richardson.
But a last clue may be found in an article, “What’s in a Name?,” which appeared in Adelphi in 1924. In it, Richardson recounts her strong reaction to the name of St. Botolph’s, which was the name of the church “that saw my first spiritual desertion” at the age of six. For Richardson, “St. Botolph’s is the void, flatulent of horror.” In his name “neither shelter nor fragrance.” And she recalls when she experience her final decision to side with the agnostics against St. Botolph’s and any other church:
There was, leading to the church, a straight road, treeless. Long it probably was not. But I remember it as interminable. At intervals there were houses, large brick houses soured by being heralds of the final bitterness of St. Botolph’s, and surrounded by high walls that allowed no glimpse of gardens. My spirits, flagging always on leaving the winding ways of the old town for this bleak stretch of road, one day failed utterly, and I wept my despair aloud. That my spirits would be high and my pace eager if at the end of my walk there waited something that I loved, was the burden of the rebukes administered by outraged elders. That was true. Too true. But my logic had no words. And for words if I had them, my bitterness was too deep.
What actually did wait at the end of the dreary road, what was the quality of the good offered to youth and age in the hated edifice, I shall never know. But I know that always, treading that via dolorosa, I heard that sound: Botolph.
Whether there was any real connection in Richardson’s mind between her St. Botolph’s and Miriam’s Teetgen’s Teas, I can’t say. At the time Richardson was writing Pilgrimage, there was great interest in Freud’s writings on repressed memories and motivated forgetting, as well as the possibility of seemingly random sensations to provoke memories of suppressed traumas. Perhaps Teetgen’s Teas was Richardson’s attempt to provide an illustration of such an experience from her own life. If nothing else, the prominent treatment of the first response to the shop’s gilt lettering in The Tunnel and the subsequent mentions in Deadlock and Dawn’s Left Hand demonstrate one way in which the process of writing Pilgrimage was, as Horace Gregory puts it, a journey of self-discovery for its author.
Between John Sutherland’s wonderful encyclopedia, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, and the Internet Archive, I can lose hours wandering through the three-volumed forest of English 19th century fiction, particularly in the last year that written by women. It can be soul-leeching, though. There is something relentlessly earnest and deliberate in so much English fiction after Amelia Opie. There aren’t many female counterparts to Thomas Love Peacock, Thackeray, Dickens or Wilde to lighten things up.
I thought I’d stumbled across a hidden gem when I started reading Amy Dillwyn’s 1884 novel, Jill, in which our heroine, making her own way through the world, is not above padding her travel claims or pocketing a precious object her employers clearly failed to appreciate adequately. And then I found that Jill was reissued by the Honno Press a few years ago as part of its Welsh Women’s Classics series.
And then I came across the following sentence in an essay about George Eliot: “She held her hands and arms kangaroo fashion; was badly dressed; had an unwashed, unbrushed, unkempt look altogether; and she assumed a tone of superiority over me which I was not then aware was warranted by her undoubted leadership.” It was attributed to Eliza Lynn Linton, a minor Victorian novelist and essayist, and a brief memoir that was published after her death in 1898. Such undisguised nastiness, so uncharacteristic of memoirists before Frank Harris and Beverly Nichols made it acceptable to add a hearty shake of bitters into the mix, deserved further investigation.
And the good old Internet Archive didn’t let me down. I quickly located an electronic copy of Mrs. Linton’s My Literary Life and proceeded to read the whole thing online (it’s a short book).
You know you’re in for some splenetic prose when the book opens with a warning — in this case from Mrs. Linton’s friend, another neglected late Victorian novelist, Beatrice Harraden (Ships that Pass in the Night — Anyone? Anyone?): “It is to be regretted also that she is not here herself to tone down some of her more pungent remarks and criticisms, hastily thrown off in bitter moments such as come to us all.” “Mrs. Linton’s pen was ever harsher than her speech,” Harraden offers in excuse, but My Literary Life rages on while Mrs. Linton’s dulcet tones have been silenced for more than a century. “It has been thought,” her publisher writes in introduction, that the incomplete sketches she was able to write before her death “possess an independent value which justifies republication.” Perhaps the same value upheld on a weekly basis by the National Enquirer.
Linton opens with a quick series of sketches of “My First London Friends,” who included the painter, Samuel Laurence, George Henry Lewes (not yet involved with Mary Ann Evans), and the poet Walter Savage Landor. Laurence, we learn, “by his experiments in glazes, grounds, and varnishes, some of his oil paintings were soon ruined by peeling off in broad patches, or by sinking into the canvas.” And was married to “a tall, fine, handsome woman, who overtopped him in height and I should say surpassed him in weight.” Lewes, she tells us, “would discourse on the most delicate matters of physiology with no more perception that he was transgressing the bounds of propriety than if he had been a learned savage.” And Landor, who is otherwise portrayed by Linton as a man of great kindness and learning, was a bit challenged in the haberdashery department:
He was dressed in brown, and his whole style was one of noticeable negligence. His clothes were unbrushed and shabby; his shirt-front was coarse and plain, like a nightshirt ; a frayed and not over-clean blue necktie, carelessly knotted, was awry; his shoes were full of bumps and bosses like an apple pie….
Linton goes on to discuss Thackeray and Dickens, contrasted the two men in both character and literary style for pages before adding the caveat, “I did not know either man intimately, but if not the rose itself, I knew those who stood near.” For their sakes, we can be grateful, since she quickly adds, with ominous tone, “Many secret confidences were passed on to me, which, of course, I have kept sacred; and both men would have been surprised had they known how much I knew of things uncatalogued and unpublished.”
She concludes with a chapter on “A First Meeting with George Eliot” in which she offers her timeliness comparison of the great author to a kangaroo. But not before polishing off a sampling of the women writers from the generation before hers — or, as Linton describes them, “remnants of a palaeozoic age.” These include Jane Porter, once celebrated for her historical tales such as The Scottish Chiefs, but in Linton’s eyes, “a kid of ghost from the tomb — a living monolith of pre-historic times.” Sadly, Linton confesses that “Charlotte Bronte I never saw; nor Harriet Martineau….” Lucky ladies. Linton only met Mrs. Norton only once, but that was enough to slip a quick knife in (it was “in later years, when her beauty was more a memory than a possession”).
Needless to say, the reader learns nothing of importance about George Eliot and far too much about Mrs. Linton’s squinted perspective on her contemporaries, and with her judgment that Eliot’s relationship with Lewes was nothing more than a house of cards, closes the cover on this short, brutish, and nasty book. Utterly forgettable and more than justly neglected, of course.
But after a long and heavy meal of Victorian seriousness, a palate cleanser nonetheless.
My Literary Life, by Mrs. Lynn Linton
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899
Credulity is unfortunately a weakness common to the human race; and a tendency to exaggeration is scarcely less universal. Between the two failings, monstrous stories obtain circulation; and as it is easier to assent than examine, the world becomes overrun with en’ors and prejudices. A curious anecdote related from mouth to mouth, becomes exaggerated into a miracle. Thus, as regards the longevity of parrots, a bird of this species which happens to survive three generations of the same family, though the period may not exceed thirty years, is talked of in the circle of their acquaintance as a Nestor or Methuselah; till, at last, from exaggeration to exaggeration, its age becomes converted into a miracle. No one, however, can personally attest the age of a parrot beyond fifty or sixty years. All the rest must be hearsay.
False pretensions and vulgar errors of this kind abound in the world: — as for instance, the belief that the pelican pierces her bosom to feed her little ones with her blood — that the scent of bean-flowers produces delirium — that the mole is blind — that the dove is a model of gentleness and conjugal fidelity; and how often are the questions still mooted whether Hannibal really worked a passage through the Alps with vinegar — whether the coffin of Mahomet be really suspended at Mecca between two loadstones — whether shooting stars be fragments of shattered planets, or souls progressing from purgatory — whether beasts of prey are afraid of fire; and whether human nature have ever exhibited affinities with the brute creation in the form of fauns, dryads, satyrs, or centaurs.
The proverbial fidelity of the dove to her mate has been equally disproved by naturalists; no person having ever kept a pair of doves without noticing that they are birds of a peculiarly irascible and quarrelsome nature.
Thiers informs us that an illustrious astrologer invented a talisman for intercepting the approach of flies to a house; when to his horror, no sooner was it suspended, than a fly, more daring than the rest, deposed a contemptuous mark of disregard upon the charm.
Albany Poyntz was at least one of the pseudonyms that Catherine Gore used for quick side projects that brought in cash to supplement the income from her novels and stories. These compendia of miscellaneous facts were very popular in the 19th Century. One industrious compiler, John Timbs, published several dozen of them on topics ranging from food and religion to medicine and literature, many of which can now be found on the Internet Archive (Link).
A world of wonders, with anecdotes and opinions concerning popular superstitions is available on the Internet Archive (Link).
from A world of wonders, with anecdotes and opinions concerning popular superstitions, by Albany Poyntz (Catherine Gore)
London: Richard Bentley, 1845
Not having access to a major library, I often indulge my love of browsing in the Internet Archive. I’ll admit that it often requires much sifting through extraneous material to locate the occasional gem, but even after ten years I’m surprised at what I manage to find. Here, for example, is a selection of some exceptional autobiographical works by women, mostly published between the 1920 and 1960.
Born and raised in Terre Haute, Indiana, Janet Scudder was one of the first American women to make a name and career for herself as a sculptor. Passionate about art from childhood, she studied drawing and sculpture and then moved to Chicago, where she worked carving decorative features on furniture before being hired by Lorado Taft as one of his White Rabbits, a remarkable team of women sculptors who created dozens of statues and decorative friezes for buildings in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She then traveled to Paris, where she studied under Frederick MacMonnies. She writes of the experience, “I’m sure, if I had known it when I was studying in MacMonnies’ Paris studio, the only woman among a number of men who were working from nude models, I should have seen the ghosts of the whole congregation of missionaries rising up in their wrath to denounce me.” She found Paris liberating, but hardly the sinpot it was considered in America: “Zulh Taft ([Lorado’s sister] and I were there quite alone, unchaperoned; she was studying painting in a studio, while I worked away at sculpture; we ate about in restaurants, we were thrown with all sorts of people who were responsible only to themselves, we had no one watching us and no one to whom we were accountable, we went to life classes in the evening and tramped home from school late at night and we felt as protected and safe from harm as though we had been living in the heart of a family in the Middle West.” She went on to Florence, where she began to create the classically-inspired fountains that became her specialty. Returning to the U. S., she struggled, but eventually managed to establish a reputation and a steady stream of clients. Modeling My Life ends with an account her return to France as part of a YWCA mission that helped care for and entertain troops with the American Expeditionary Force.
The Stone Wall is something of a landmark in American LGBT history, perhaps the first autobiography in which the author openly acknowledges her attraction to another woman and their long and happy partnership. Born and raised on a New England farm to family with deep Puritan roots, Casal recalls having to defend herself from sexual assault from hired hands and other men while still a teen. She began to realize her feelings towards women early on, and had her first physical contact (kisses and hugs) with another woman while in college. She felt great pressure to conform to conventions, and even married a man, an entirely unsatisfying experience that ended in divorce after she gave birth to a stillborn child and, in her grief, fled to New York City. There, she came to peace with her feelings for the first time: “My city contact had caused me to look at myself less and less as a sexual monstrosity.” She writes candidly of the practical difficulties of finding ways to spend time with another woman in public, given the rigid social customs of the time, let alone taking the risk to express her feelings. It was not until she was in her thirties that she met her long-term lover, Juno, and they set up house together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Today’s reader will probably cringe at a few aspects that date the book (she refers to homosexuals as “inverts”), but it’s a window into how one gay woman managed to make a life for herself in a time of considerable intolerance.
Reviewing Out on a Limb in the Saturday Review, Grace Frank quipped that Louise Baker could have easily called her book “The Leg and I,” in imitation of Betty Macdonald’s best-seller of the same period. The two books certainly share the same comic outlook, with every character an eccentric and every episode retold with tongue in cheek. While still a girl, Louise Baker was struck down by a passing automobile and had to have her right leg amputated. “When I regained consciousness ten days later in a white hospital bed, with the blankets propped over me like a canopy, I had one foot in the grave.” Such are the sort of puns with which Baker fills her book. Baker’s parents insisted that she make every effort to get along with her bi-pedal friends, and she soon developed a spirit of independence that led her, in the course of time, to learn to ski, skate, and play tennis (she was encouraged to write the book to provide inspiration to the many disabled veterans just returned from World War Two). She preferred using crutches to wearing an artificial leg, and accumulated a considerable “crutch wardrobe”: “Crutches don’t come in gay colors but any good enamel works the enhancing transformation. I am now just as likely to complain, ‘I haven’t got a crutch I’d wear to a dog fight,’ as I am to say, ‘I haven’t got a decent dress to my name.'” Baker also wrote a comic novel, Party Line, about the 43-year career of switchboard operator Elmira Johnson in the small town of Mayfield, California, and a humorous account of her time working in a boy’s boarding school in Arizona, Snips and Snails, which was made into a gawdawful movie, Her Twelve Men (1954).
Published the same year as Out on a Limb, Borden’s book is its polar opposite in tone. The book recounts Borden’s experiences in organizing and leading the Hadfield-Spears Ambulance Unit throughout much of the Second World War, beginning in France in February 1940 and then, after evacuating to England and regrouping, in Syria and Egypt, and finally, in France again after D-Day. This was Borden’s second experience of battlefield nursing: she wrote of her time in field hospitals on the Western Front in The Forbidden Zone (1929). Borden, an American heiress and novelist (I featured her ambitious 1927 novel, Flamingo, here in 2009), was married to Brigadier General Edward Spears, who was Churchill’s military liaison with the French government up to its defeat and then with DeGaulle’s Free French forces. Much of Journey Down a Blind Alley is colored by a bitterness towards DeGaulle that stems in part from his at times petty treatment of Spears and in part from the many egos and attitudes among the French military with whom Borden had to deal, since the ambulance unit spent most of its time assigned to support Free French forces. She does admit that much of the difficulties had their roots in the complexity of interests among the French: “Looking back I realized now that the confusion and discord in the hospital reflected what was happening throughout France. Was not France herself in the winter of 1945 a medley of discordant elements with her F.F.I. and F.T.P., her heroic resistance and her bogus resistance, her Petainists and her milice and her armies from overseas who were straining their strength to the utmost limit of endurance so that France should not be said to have been liberated by strangers?” Journey Down a Blind Alley offers a sobering antidote to anyone still harboring an inclination to view the Second World War in simple good-and-bad terms.
“I went on this journey to find an image of the human being that I could feel proud of,” Lillian Smith writes at the start of The Journey. Smith, whose 1944 best-seller, Strange Fruit, was one of the first books to openly deal with segregation and racism in the South, finds herself reconsidering memories from her childhood and decides to travel along the coastal roads of South Carolina and George, “trying to recover the feel of the country where my family once
lived.” Along the way, she encounters people with varying views of life, race, and faith, including a motel owner whose ideas of progress, she realizes, come from a very different place than hers:
The manager of the motor court came to my door to offer a television set. He was of the swamp country, I saw now, as he stood there. He had the look that is left on a face when hookworm and malaria and malnutrition have done their destructive work early in life. And in his speech were the old accents which were natural to the wire grass and swamp people who found schooling as hard to come by in the old days as shelter and food. People who, in my childhood, were almost as remote from books and learning and science and art and comforts as are the peasants of China and India.
Now he operated a motor court, looked at television, drove a Buick, took a trip in a plane each fall (so he told me) to the World Series, and read a newspaper.
As I made use of the conveniences with which our scientific age has filled this motor court, set close to the swamp — old and mysterious and deep-rooted in time as our human past — I kept thinking of this man.
“Everything in the place is modrun,” he proudly told me, as he flung open the door to show me the mauve-colored lavatory and the mauve-colored toilet and mauve-colored toilet paper. And as I stared at the splendor I knew that his sanitary facilities as a child had been limited to a wash pan, a lean-to privy and the ancient corncob. No wonder he was proud of participating in these modern times.
As with many books, the best parts of The Journey are those that deal with the specific, the individual. As Orville Prescott wrote in his New York Times review, when Smith “writes about people she has known — quoting their conversation and telling their stories — she does so with sure skill and considerable emotional power.” However, “When she writes about abstract ideas she occasionally lapses into spasms of embarrassingly lush rhetoric and passages where her generous feeling is obvious, but where her precise meaning is lost….”
Dickey Chapelle rarely followed a conventional path in her life. At age sixteen, she was studying aeronautical engineering on a scholarship to M. I. T.. Though she flunked out after two years, her love of airplanes and flying remained, and she earned her pilot’s license, paying for lessons with articles she sold to aviation magazines. When her husband was stationed to an Army unit in Panama after Pearl Harbor and she was told that wives could not accompany the men, she figured out that she could follow as an accredited journalist, and her career as a war correspondent began. Chapelle worked as both reporter and photographer. Her first combat assignment took her to Iwo Jima a week after the first landings. There she had a sudden wake-up call when encountering a wounded Marine whose “story probably is one of the reasons I’ve kept on being a chronicler of wars”:
After I took his picture, while the chaplain administered the last rites as the corpsman began transfusing him, he came back to consciousness for a moment. His eyes rested on me. He said, “Hey, who you spyin’ for?”
“The folks back home, Marine.”
“The folks-back home-huh? Well-fuck the folks back home,” he rasped. Then he closed his eyes. I didn’t see where his stretcher was carried.
After we had ceased loading for the day, his voice haunted me. What lay behind that raw reflex answer? What dear-John-I-know-you-understand letter? What other betrayal?
I remembered his wound. A piece of a giant mortar shell had sliced across his stomach. So I went down into the abdominal ward with my notebook in my hand. There were no names in it yet because I wasn’t willing to hold up moving stretchers while I spelled out names. But I had copied the dogtag numbers of each man as I made his picture. The nurses’ clipboard listed the serial numbers of the men being treated. The number I wanted wasn’t there. I thought perhaps I had been mistaken about the kind of wound he had, so I tried to find him in the other wards, the other decks, even those of the officers. I couldn’t find his number.
There was only one more set of papers aboard. This showed the dogtag numbers of the men who had died on deck. The number for which I was looking was near the top of the list.
So I think I was the last person to whom he was able to talk. And I had heard him die cursing what I thought he had died to defend.
It was my first and most terrible encounter with the barrier between men who fight, and those for whom the poets and the powers say they fight.
Chapelle went on to report on the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, on the U. S. Marine intervention in Lebanon, on Castro’s war against Batista in Cuba, and on the civil war in Algeria. She was captured by the Russians while accompanying a group of Hungarian resistance fighters along the border with Austria in 1956 and spent seven years in a Budapest jail. She had strong anti-Communist views and, with her husband Tony Chapelle, formed a relief organization, AVISO (American Voluntary Information Services Overseas), that provided food and information support on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the years following the Second World War. She was killed in Vietnam on November 4, 1965 while on patrol with a Marine platoon near Chu Lai. She was the first female American war correspondent killed in action. A selection of Chapelle’s photographs was published on the Washington Post website in December 2015 and over 500 of her pictures are available online at the Wisconsin Historical Society website.
At that moment a sports car roared up outside the block of flats, and another herd of young swept in as boisterously as an equinoctial gale to sweep my daughter off to some jollity or other, and suddenly the living-room (which is the only place I can put my desk) was seething with ebullience, and the girls were clattering backwards and forwards down the hall to put on different clothes, or to exchange the ones they were wearing (I don’t know why; I thought they looked very nice in their own), and so the boys had to wait while the girls shrieked and giggled in the bedroom, and because they had to wait they obviously thought it polite to make conversation with me, and while this was going on the landlord called to see me about a cleaning lady he had heard of (and whose ministrations I await with the ardour of a girl longing for love), a blast of rain spattered against the windows and I remembered that there was washing on the line and had to tear downstairs to retrieve it because there wouldn’t have been any towels for anybody otherwise, or clean shirts, or pyjamas for my hospital-incarcerated husband, and while I was pelting upstairs again (they were yelling down at me that I was wanted on the telephone) I thought wildly of Virginia Woolf, and also of something somebody said to me only the week before:
“You must live such an interesting life,” she said, “and meet so many interesting people.”
I’ve had Catherine Gore on my list long before I started focusing on the works of women writers in the last two years. Gore was perhaps the most prolific authors of Regency and early Victorian era genre known as the silver fork or “fashionable” novel. As Tamara Wagner describes the silver fork novel on Victorianweb.org, “it was at once escapist in describing former elegance and glitter, anticipating the genre of the Regency Romance, and censorious in judging the frivolities and often supercilious emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the moral that characterised aristocratic high society.” At the time, these books sold like hot-cakes. By many estimates, one of the most representative silver fork novels, Bulwer-Lytton’sPelham , was the single biggest bestseller of 19th century England. They indulged the fascination of a large share of the British reading public with the details of what the rich wore and ate, of the interiors and exteriors of their city houses and country estates, and of their manners and affairs.
Although the “silver fork” label is usually applied to works from this period, some consider it a genre that’s never gone out of style. As recently as 2008, Diane Johnson opened a New York Times review of Alex Witchel’s novel, The Spare Wife by asking the question, “Is it a ‘silver fork’ novel?” Silver fork novels, she argued, were “a subgenre that has been around almost as long as novels themselves, affording the reader the double pleasures of following the lives of the aristocracy and scorning its mindless snobbery, triviality and malice.” They allow us to peek in on “a world most of us can only participate in vicariously.” In other words, the literary equivalent of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Keeping Up with the Kardashians–or, what comedian Jim Gaffigan calls “McDonald’s of the soul”: “Momentary pleasure followed by incredible guilt eventually leading to cancer.”
But my theory was that somewhere in Catherine Gore’s 60-plus pile of silver fork trash there must be a pony. And so I’ve carried a half-dozen of her books, none of which are now in print (I refuse to include the crap that comes from Kessingers and other print on demand recyclers of public domain material), on my Kindle for a couple of years, waiting for an opportune time to dive in. That time came recently, on a long flight from Frankfurt to Seattle, and so I launched into Men of Capital (1846) with an open mind, leaving it up to Gore to win me over.
“Few will deny that the age we live in is the age of Money-worship,” she writes in her preface, clearly declaring the moral tone she would be taking. While she credits the spirit of capitalism “constitutes a fertile source of national greatness,” she also identifies as one of its most corrupting elements a practice dating back to the Middle Ages: “One of the chief causes which render this pursuit a bitterer as well as more pardonable struggle in England than on the Continent, is the unequal and capricious distribution of family property.” She’s referring to primogeniture, the automatic inheritance by the first son of the entire estate — leaving any succeeding children to fend for themselves on a small annual income or the charity of their elder brother.
In “Man of Capital,” the first of the two novels that comprise Men of Capital“>Men of Capital, Gore illustrates the effects — good and bad — of primogeniture on the younger sons. It opens by introducing us to Bartholomew (Barty) Brookes, a daredevil younger son. Though he follows his older brother to Eton, their paths diverge from that point on. Sir Robert Brookes goes on to Oxford and becomes master of Wrenhurst Park, their father having died when they were still boys. Barty learns early on “that a man must square his elbows who has to push his way through the crowd; while his elder understood the wisdom of standing still, that his way might be pushed for him.”
Barty secures a commission in a Guards regiment through a family connection but quickly discovers that in the high-spending world of hunts, balls, and card-games in London clubs, five hundred pounds a year doesn’t go very far. At this point, he meets Percy, a fellow younger son in his regiment. It is Percy who narrates the story, which soon becomes as much about him as about Barty. Barty is easily the most popular lieutenant around, charming his way into invitations to country house weekends while Percy remains in barracks, reading about nature and taking long walks in the countryside. Percy confesses — in a passage that only a woman could have written — that,
Men by themselves, and in numbers, are the greatest beasts on earth. Like trees, they require thinning out from the plantation, to acquire anything like dignity of proportion ; and it is only by associating with women that the higher qualities of their nature are developed. The earthly particles require too much preponderance when fed with nothing but cigars, brandy-and-water, and the unlicensed gossip of bachelorhood.
But the two share their misery as paupers in a unit full of lords and baronets. They also share secret passions for beautiful but poor young women: Barty for Emma, orphan ward of his guardian, Justinian Broadham, M. P., and Percy for Barty’s own sister, Harriet. The two sets of lovers pledge their respective troths to wait for a day when they can wed and live on in humble happiness. But when Barty learns that his brother has up and married Emma, something cracks within him, and he sets his aim on finding the quickest route to a fortune he can. When Juckeson, a millionaire from the spice trade, acquires a grand estate near the regiment’s garrison outside Windsor, Barty begins stalking Juckeson’s daughter, Sabina.
The true heart of the story, though, is less about Barty than about the narrator himself. Walking in the Windsor Forest one day, he meets Mr. Stanley, an elderly gentleman, as they shelter together from a sudden rainstorm. Stanley invites him home for dinner, where Percy meets the very beautiful (and much younger) Mrs. Stanley. He hears that his friend Barty has been a regular visitor, and eventually realizes that Stanley had been wandering about the forest in hopes of catching Barty en route to a rendezvous with Mrs. Stanley.
Mr. Stanley and Percy soon become close friends, but a few months later, while on leave, Percy reads a death notice for Mr. Stanley. When he returns to Windsor, he learns that Stanley died from despair. And when he sees Mrs. Stanley again, he realizes why. Mrs. Stanley is … well … with child.
Percy proves himself a good Christian and sticks with Mrs. Stanley through her difficulties, shielding from her the fact that her husband took his revenge upon her infidelity in his will, leaving her to become destitute upon the birth of the child. And twisted the knife by dictating that the child be taken from her and sent to a guardian in London. The bad things continue to snowball until both child and mother are dead and Percy is left to pick up the pieces.
The dramatic twists don’t end there, though. The last thirty pages of “The Man of Capital” is chock full of plot turns, and the story ends in a lovely but tragic scene as the wheels of Percy’s coach roll through his beloved Harriet’s village, crushing the flowers from her wedding into the dirt, as he moves on to a new life as a “Man of Capital” like his former friend, Barty.
The second novel, “Old Families and New,” is longer and less effective than its predecessor. Gore contrasts the haughty Squire Cromer, a man of old blood, with Mordaunt, a man of new wealth from his Manchester cotton mills and his shares in the regional railroad. Gore writes cynically of Cromer that,
Of modern improvements in rural economy he knew nothing, and took care not to improve his knowledge either by reading or observation; while, as to refurnishing or remodelling his house, nothing short of a fire would have driven him to so dire an extremity. It was an article of religion with him that every thing should remain in the state in which, at the marriage of his father, sixty years before, Cromer Hall had been fitted up in honour of the bride.
She also reaches back to an old plot warhorse, the romance between the children of two feuding families. Squire Cromer vehemently opposes his daughter’s marriage to Mordaunt’s son, declaring, “I would as soon have my blood mix with that of the hangman, as with that of a Manchester cotton-spinner.” Like “A Man of Capital,” the story ends with a wedding — but a happy one this time around. Which, of course, is why you know it’s a bit of a let-down after the juicy drama and hanky-wringing tragedy of “A Man of Capital.”
An anonymous reviewer, assessing one of Catherine Gore’s novels for the Westminster Review, once wrote, “We do not deny the smartness, and occasionally, the shrewdness, of Mrs. Gore’s views of manners and life, but still we are far from tracing even a remote resemblance between the labours of the two ladies. Miss Austin’s [sic] novels are histories of the human heart, and in the more occasional parts, wonderfully exact analyses of character and disposition: whereas, in Mrs. Gore’s books, we can see little more than a series of brilliant sketches, bordering occasionally on the caricature.” Which, as April Kendra put it, is a little like Lloyd Bentsen’s retort to Dan Quayle, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
But honestly, isn’t any attempt to equate the work of two writers a bit of a slap in the face to one or both of them? Catherine Gore spent most of her life writing at a frantic pace to bring in enough cash to keep an unemployed husband and a house full of children (she bore ten, only two of whom survived to adulthood), so it’s not surprising that the average artistic quality level of her output might come in a few notches below Jane Austen’s. What should matter for a reader is whether the reading experience of a book proves worth the time invested. For me, “A Man of Capital” was more entertaining and more interesting than any movie Lufthansa had to offer, while “Old Families and New” tested my commitment to get through at least one of Catherine Gore’s books. “A Man of Capital” would make a terrific little show on BBC or Masterpiece Theatre. it moves, has a core cast of well-rounded characters, and plenty of plot twists to keep the momentum rolling. Its companion piece, “Old Families and New,” on the other hand, does come off a bit too stale and predictable to recommend to any but a Gore absolutist — and I suspect there aren’t any of them still walking the planet.
Men of Capital is available on the Internet Archive in the original 1846 three-volume edition (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3) and in a one-volume edition from 1857 (link).
Men of Capital, by Catherine Gore
London: Henry Colburn, 1846
Neglect is a relative term, particularly when you look at writers from a global perspective. Charmian Clift is a good example. In the U.S., she gained slight notice for her two books about life on a Greek island back in the 1950s, disappeared after that, and is utterly unknown today. In Australia, she and her husband, the novelist George Johnston are major figures in the country’s cultural history, and adjectives such as myth, legend and phenomenon are attached to her story, and this collection of her essays can be found on the Australian Society of Authors’ list of the 200 Greatest Works of Australian Literature.
Had Clift been American and People magazine been in business during her life, she would have been a staple of the supermarket check-out aisles. Beautiful, smart, and talented, she was already gaining considerable publicity and attention before she met and married Johnston, who was one of the most dashing of Australia’s war correspondents and a rising figure in the country’s postwar literary scene. Their romance scandalized some, as Johnston was married and eleven years older. They collaborated on a novel set in Tibet, The High Valley (1947), that won the Sydney Morning Herald award as the best Australia novel–the first of three they would write together. A vocal opponent of the government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Johnston left Australia in 1950 to take a job as a correspondent in London, bringing along Clift and their two young children.
After a few years in chilly England, chafing against the constraints of journalism, Johnston quit his job as correspondent and the family moved to Greece in 1954, where they soon set up house on the small island of Hydra. Their dream was to enjoy the warm weather, cheap living, and freedom from distractions and concentrate on writing. And at first it worked. George wrote several novels, as well as a number of thrillers under the name of “Shane Martin” (the names of their first two children), and Charmian wrote two books about life on the island: Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959).
But although Hydra was a small and largely forgotten island, it had attracted a fair number of expatriates, and some of them, like Johnston and Clift, were hard drinkers and partiers. They collected in the back room of a small grocery store run by the Katsikas brothers, and soon the parties were starting right around noon and running all night. Hydra’s reputation as a haven for bohemians spread, attracting, among others, the young Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, who bought a house there in 1960. Photographer James Burke visited the island and made the expat scene the subject of a photo essay, with Clift and Johnston prominently featured. Both passionate people, Johnston and Clift gave vent to their feelings when drinking, and became known for their bitter fights. Cohen would later write of the couple that they “drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.”
And, despite the warmth of the Greek summers, life in an unheated house took its toll on Johnston, who never enjoyed the most robust constitution. He contracted tuberculosis, and spent long months incapacitated, which cut into his time for writing and hence the family’s income. Finally, he borrowed some money and flew back to Australia in 1964, and Clift followed him soon after with their children (now three with the addition of Jason, born on Hydra).
Johnston’s health continued to decline, although he was able to complete his autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack (1965), now considered an Australian classic. But Clift had to take over as the main breadwinner, and, by happy coincidence, was offered the job of writing a weekly column in the women’s section of the Melbourne Herald and Sydney Morning Herald. The papers published a large ad announcing Clift’s engagement alongside her first column featuring her photo and mentioning the couple’s recent return from Greece.
Clift’s first piece (titled “Coming Home” but changed by the editors to “Has the Old Place Really Changed?”) reflected on the contrasts between the landscapes, urban environments, and people of Greece and Australia. She remarked how often her old acquaintances would tell her, “The old place has changed quite a bit since you saw it last.” But, in fact, she noted, many of the characteristics of Australian life — characteristics that had led her and Johnston to leave ten years earlier — hadn’t changed. It was, she found, still a country wrapped up in its concerns for conformity.
Though the column came to her largely as an accident, the timing was perfect. Australian society was beginning to open up, influenced by the racial, sexual, and cultural changes it saw happening in England and America. Before Clift began writing, the women’s page of the Herald confined itself to lightweight pieces on beauty, fashion, food, and child-rearing. Clift’s style and outlook was anything but conventional. Though her debut column noted that Australia’s symbolism was growing old, she saw on the horizon “a real cultural and social flowering, spiky and wild and refreshing and strange and unquestionably rooted in native soil.”
And she was aware of significant geopolitical changes on the horizon as well. The Menzies government introduced military conscription for young men the same month that Clift began writing her column, and soon after began increasing its commitment of troops to support the Americans and South Vietnamese in Vietnam. At the same time, Asian immigration was being seen as a threat to the Australian economy and identity. Clift argued that the shift was inevitable:
Indeed, our national policy might be dedicated to the proposition that we stay, racially, as we are — 98..7 per cent European excluding the Aborigines (although it seems doubtful whether the Aborigines are going to go on meekly submitting to exclusion) — but since the end of the war it has been impossible for any one of us, as Europeans, to ignore the fact that two great continents, teeming with the differently coloured skins that comprise half the world’s population, lie between us and home base….
Coming back to Australia one is even more conscious of Asia. Not as the Far East. Not as the Near North. Not even as Our Neighbours. One is conscious of Asia as the place where one lives.
But what set out Clift’s columns from anything that had preceded them was how personal and intimate her voice was. There was really no concession to objectivity or fitting into a pattern. She wrote about the passing of the kitchen as the focus of family life, or the act of transcribing the addresses of friends and family members from an old address book to a new one, or of the wonder of discovering a jungle filled with “billions of nasturtiums” at the bottom of a ravine near her house. “I am becoming addicted to sunrises,” she wrote in one piece:
I suspect I always was, only these days I get up for them instead of staying up for them. Staying up needs stamina I don’t have any more, although I remember with pleasure those more romantic and reckless days when it was usual for revelries to end at dawn in early morning markets, all-night cafes or railway refreshment rooms, with breakfasts of meat pies and hot dogs and big thick mugs of tea, or — in other countries — croissants and cafes au lait, bowls of tripe-and-onion soup, skewered bits of lamb wrapped in a pancake with herbs and yoghourt, in the company of truckers and gipsies and sailors and street-sweepers and wharf-labourers and crumpled ladies with smeary mascara: it is amazing how many people and of what a rich variety belong to that indeterminate dawn time. Real enjoyment of this sort of thing depends, probably, on a sense of drama, the resilience of youth, and whether you can get in a decent kip after.
Clift quickly gained a large and loyal following of readers, both women and men, who had been hungering for something original and alive in their routine newpaper fare. She was able consistently to convey, as Nadia Wheatley put it, “the sense that the writer is conducting a two-way conversation — a dialogue — with the reader.” Less than a year after she had begun the column, her first collection, Images in Aspic, was published with an introduction by Johnston. “Charmian Clift writes thoughtfully and carefully,” he wrote.
She is concerned with style, elegance, choice of the exact word. She often writes very long, unjournalistic sentences. She takes time to muse, to reflect, to drive through experience. If this is daily journalism it is very different from anything in my experience.
Johnston’s health continued to deteriorate during this time, however, and he had to be hospitalized for the better part of a year. Clift took over the job of writing the script for the television series based on My Brother Jack, and her hopes of finding the time and energy to write another novel faded. Despite the success of her essays with newspaper readers, she was sensitive to the fact that she was working in a generally disrespected form. As Wheatley writes, “Through the beauty of her prose style and her mastery of the essay form, Charmian Clift was putting literature onto the breakfast tables of these thousands of very different Australians. Yet there has always been a kind of critical question mark over her place as a writer. She herself got to the heart of the matter when she told David Higham that she was ‘writing essays for the weekly presses to be read by people who wouldn’t know an essay from a form-guide, but absolutely love it.’ The problem, as far as her reputation is concerned, is that she was writing essays at the wrong time and in the wrong place.”
Though she prided herself on her commitment to the regular schedule of writing the column, as she entered her forties, she appears to have begun to feel trapped.
It didn’t help that she and Johnston had continued to be heavy drinkers. Some of the inevitable physical damage of prolonged alcohol abuse can be seen in photographs from this period. She began to suffer from depression, perhaps connected with the onset of menopause. Finally, one night in July 1969, after an evening of drinking and fighting with Johnston, she swallowed a bottle’s worth of his sleeping pills, laid down on their couch, and never woke up.
The news of Clift’s suicide came as a huge blow to her readers. According to one observer, “Thousands couldn’t believe it, bombarded the Herald with inquiries and sent the switchboard berserk.” The paper published a special Letters to the Editor section a few days later to accommodate just some of the thousands of letters sent in. The critic Allan Ashbolt wrote in a lengthy obituary piece published in the Herald, “As a columnist she found, I think, a role eminently suited to her witty and humane outlook…. She went straight to the human essence of any problem, straight to what a situation would mean in human happiness or suffering.”
Johnston assembled a second collection of her Herald essays, The World of Charmian Clift in 1970, and it was reissued again in 1983. In the second edition, her son Martin, who had by then become recognized as one of Australia’s leading poets, wrote,
For most writers with only a couple of novels — by no means bestsellers — a couple of travel books, and miscellaneous essays to their credit, that would have been that. And yet it hasn’t been. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who’ve asked me, ever since my mother’s death, when they could expect a re-issue of one or all of the books, so I can hardly be alone in welcoming this one.
For the Johnston family, however, the tragedy continued to play out after Charmian’s suicide. George died just after The World of Charmian Clift was published. Their daughter Shane committed suicide three years later, and Martin died of the effects of alcoholism in 1990 at the age of 42.
“Never before have I heard of an exiting new literary talent bursting forth at the age of 80. But here, I am convinced, we have one,” Tom Wolfe in Harper’s Bookletter in 1975. He was remarking upon the publication of Carobeth Laird’s first book, a memoir of her marriage to anthropologist John Peabody Harrington, Encounter with an Angry God, by the small, volunteer-run Malki Museum Press.
Chances are slim that Wolfe would have learned of the book had not two writers, Harry Lawton and Anne Jennings, associated with the museum, sent copies of it to some of their contacts in New York publishing circles. Lawton and Jennings knew a remarkable piece of writing when they saw it. Encounter is a frank, self-deprecating, and eloquent account, written from a distance of fifty years, of how Laird met, married, worked with, and, ultimately, divorced Harrington, a pioneering linguist and anthropologist who was singularly driven to pursue his researches at the cost of everything else, including his wife’s health. Thanks to their efforts, the book gained reviews in a number of major papers, including The Washington Post, in which Larry McMurtry positively gushed: “… if it were fiction, it would be a great, if not the greatest, American novel.” The small press’s initial edition of 2,000 copies sold out quickly, another run of 5,000 was released, and the book was picked up for release as a mass market paperback by Ballantine Books.
Yet Encounter is a classic case of a book being so entwined with an author that the two cannot be judged separately. Carobeth Tucker was already an exceptional young woman when she enrolled in Harrington’s introductory class on linguistics at the San Diego Normal School in 1915. Born in Texas, she had traveled with her family to Mexico in 1913, met and fell in love with a married man, and became pregnant with his child. She moved with her parents to San Diego and together, they raised Carobeth’s child. Unable to gain admission to a college, given her situation, she undertook self-study instead, demonstrating a real aptitude for learning languages. When the opportunity to study linguistics at the Normal School came up, she jumped at it.
Her first thought upon seeing Harrington enter the classroom on the first day was that he looked “like an angry god.” Although he hated teaching and his manner was abrupt and awkward, “his magnificent head and face” stirred her imagination, and Harrington soon learned that she, in turn, was extremely alert and grasped both the principles and details of linguistics with ease. She started staying after class to help him grade papers and they discussed poetry, evolution, and his dreams of field research. In a matter of weeks, Harrington was speaking “as if it were completely settled that he and I should spend our lives together,” although she was already noticing that “at other times all his planning left me out completely.” He later tried to explain his fluctuating manner by saying that he was worried she was a Jew.
He was also tactless and intellectually arrogant, wore clothes that were threadbare and needed a wash, shoveled his food in with a spoon, and talked with his mouth full. Her parents weren’t particularly impressed when they met him, but they considered him somewhat prestigious, given his degrees and faculty position, and already thought Carobeth “desparately self-willed.” They merely went along with her wishes when she followed Harrington up to Los Angeles and joined him on a field trip researching Indian languages in the Santa Ynez Valley. Though he virtually ignored her aside from relying on her command of Spanish and typing skills as research tools. They fought. And, after a few months in the field, they got married.
Early in the book, Laird acknowledges that what Harrington needed was “a wise, firm and sympathetic guide, not a youthful slave and disciple.” From what she describes, slave was her primary role in their time together. Harrington was not only utterly focused on research work he saw as a race against time, given that the California Indian populations had been so decimated and many of the surviving native speakers of Indian languages were aging and ill, but he also had a deep streak of paranoia. Despite the fact that they worked together day in and day out, and he could see the sacrifices to personal concerns she was making on his behalf, he would take off at times without a word and tried to keep some of his field notes in code to avoid her reading them. Although a diagnosis from a distance of a century is risky, I strongly suspect that Harrington was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome.
When Carobeth became pregnant, Harrington’s received the new with irritation, concerned mainly about the disruption it would bring to their work. At one point, when Carobeth was eight months pregnant, he left her alone in a rude mountain cabin with barely any food, and she slept each night with an axe beside her bed. He packed her off to San Diego to have the baby, a girl, and counted on her returning as soon as the infant could be left to be raised by her parents. (Which brings up one of the disconcerting aspects of Encounter. Laird would ultimately have seven children by three different men, but the two daughters she had at the time of this book go virtually unmentioned aside from when they are waving goodbye to her from a train window.)
Although Harrington essentially neglected his wife, he did respect her intelligence and skill in field work, and when an opportunity arose to document the language of the Chemehuevi Indians, he sent her alone to Parker, Arizona, to begin work on a study he would ultimately take over. She quickly developed a friendship with her guide there, a soft-spoken blacksmith, “built like a buffalo,” named George Laird: “From the moment of our meeting, there was a rapport between us which went much deeper than a shared interest in words and myth, though at first it could only be expressed in such sharing.”
George Laird was twice her age, living with another woman, and barely educated. But she soon found herself weaving “amorous fantasies about him.” Harrington was so impressed by the quality and detail of the notes his wife was sending on the Chemehuevis that he asked her to bring George to meet with him in Santa Fe, where he was now teaching. At one point in the visit, Harrington tossed a book to his wife for her to read. It struck her in the stomach:
Both men leaped to their feet. Both exclaimed with a single voice.
George said, “Did it hurt you?”
Harrington said, “Did it hurt the book?”
When Harrington was assigned to the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington, he insisted on bringing both Carobeth and George along Over the course of the following winter, with George sleeping on a cot in the couple’s kitchen, the two men worked on Harrington’s notes on the Chemehuevi and Carobeth and George fell in love. By the spring on 1920, she decided to leave Harrington, and she and George drove back to San Diego in an old Chevrolet.
Her parents didn’t think much of Carobeth’s new lover and insisted he find a room in a hotel to stay in. George took a job as a ditch-digger and slowly began working his way into her mother’s good graces. After a year, her father agreed to pay for a divorce lawyer, and, despite many delays and a last minute attempt by Harrington, the divorce was finalized in 1922. Her parents asked Carobeth and George to wait a year to get married, but helped them look for and buy a small farm in Poway, a town outside San Diego. The couple finally married in August 1923. She was 28. He was 52. They were to be married for 17 years, until George died in 1940.
Much of the power of Encounter with an Angry God as a story comes from the contrast between the edgy, tense relationship between Carobeth and Harrington and the gentle and patient love she shared with George Laird. If she was able to take a more balanced view of Harrington, recognizing her own faults as well as his, it is surely due in part to the influence of George, who appears, in her affectionate portrait, to have been a man of remarkable strength and forbearance.
In 1969, Carobeth was living with Georgia, the oldest of the children she had with George, when she was contacted by researchers looking to pick up the threads of the research on the Chemehuevi they found in the huge archive of field notes (over a million pages, by one account) left by Harrington. What they discovered was that what complete work there was in the archive was probably done by Carobeth. And, more amazingly, they learned that throughout the time she and George had been together, she had been documenting the Chemehuevi language and myths.
The Malki Museum Press contracted with her to publish The Chemehuevis, a summation of her research. When Harry Lawton, on the board of the press, learned of Carobeth’s story, he encouraged her to write her own autobiography. As a memorial to Carobeth put it, “The rush of memories came in flood, so much so that she completed almost a chapter a week,” and the book was finished in a little over three months. Anne Jennings sent a copy of the galley proofs to her acquaintance, Tom Wolfe, and Wolfe offered to contribute a blurb for the back cover. “Carobeth Laird’s story of how she married the Genius Anthropologist and left him for one of the natives he was studying manages to be at once tender and ruthless — ruthlessly funny — and to offer and amazing slice of American life.”
Malki published The Chemehuevis not long after Encounter with an Angry God. The subject and the more scholarly approach of the book meant that it was unlikely to have the same popular success, but in its field it was immediately recognized as a classic work. In a memoriam written after her death in 1983, Lowell John Bean, professor of anthropology at California State University, Hayward, paid tribute to her accomplishments as an anthropologist:
The Chemehuevis is an important book not only because of its enormous amount of ethnographic detail, but because that detail is so well analyzed. Laird implicitly understood what anthropologists today call a systems approach. She saw how each aspect of the culture was systemically related to other aspects of culture. The book is not a laundry list or simple description, it is an analysis of culture. This is particularly clear in her use of mythic materials where she draws out the sociological, economic, psychological, and philosophical implications of the myths for everyday Chemehuevi life.
Carobeth had little chance to enjoy the fruits of her recognition. A little while before the publication of Encounter, she suffered a severe inflammation of her gallbladder while living with one of her grandsons in a trailer near Lake Havasu. She was hospitalized and soon operated on, but being dirt poor and with none of her children in a position to help, she was sent to a fairly spartan nursing home. There, she found that most of her fellow residents were suffering from some form of dementia, and that the staff simply assumed that she had to be, too. It took a considerable effort, culminating in a ruse by several of her friends to rescue “Professor Laird” from the home.
She was taken in by two of her old neighbors from Poway, who gave her a safe place to recuperate. So angered and frustrated was she by her experience in the nursing home that she immediately began writing an account. “It was neither the best nor the worst of nursing homes,” she wrote “It wasn’t horrible, just dehumanizing.” Although she finished the book quickly, it took months to find a publisher, as none of the major firms wanted to deal with a book about aging. She finally signed a contract with a tiny firm, Chandler & Sharp, out of Novato, California, and Limbo: A Memoir about Life in a Nursing Home by a Survivor was published in 1979. Once again, a small press was no impediment to her publicity, and stories about Carobeth were run in dozens of newspapers, include a two-page profile spread in the popular Sunday supplement, Parade Magazine.
Her health began to fail soon after this, and she died in 1983. Her last book, which collected the many Chemehuevi myths she had been told by George Laird, Mirror and Pattern: George Laird’s World of Chemehuevi Mythology, was published posthumously by the Malki Museum Press. The University of New Mexico Press reissued Encounter in paperback in 1993, but it’s been out of print since then.
About the time I was well into reading through Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage a couple of months ago, I discovered that Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading and fellow Brussels expat, was also working through the series and posting about it on her blog. So I asked if she would be willing to undertake a dialogue about the experience and our respective thoughts on the work as seen from a distance of nearly a hundred years and in the context of the literature of its time and since, and she agreed most generously. The following is being posted simultaneously to our blogs, in hopes that one of us might inspire other intrepid readers to discover the fascinations (and frustrations) of Pilgrimage.
Brad: Congratulations on finishing Pilgrimage! It’s a happy coincidence that we both chose to tackle Dorothy Richardson’s magnum opus at the same time, since Pilgrimage is certainly a work that, once read in its entirety, one feels compelled to talk about with others. And given its relative neglect, there aren’t a lot of other readers who’ve made it through all thirteen novels.
With a work of this magnitude, there is an enormous number of possible topics to discuss–starting with the question of how to refer to it: Is it one novel in thirteen “chapters,” as Richardson sometimes referred to it? Is it thirteen novels linked through a common narrative? Is it in fact a novel or fictionalized autobiography? But lest we get bogged down counting angels on a pin, let’s start with a basic question: what was your experience of reading Pilgrimage?
For me, it was an endeavor that consumed a large share of my time and attention over the course of a month or so. I chose to read the 2,000-plus pages straight through and set myself a quota of pages to complete each day. As Richardson writes in a highly impressionistic style that often takes liberties with time and narrative continuity, I found it challenging as I sat at the dining room table, pencil in hand, and with George Thomson’s Reader’s Guide nearby to help explain the many glancing and cryptic references in the text.
On the other hand, I found it profoundly illuminating to spend so much time looking at the world through the eyes of a woman who dedicated herself so utterly to understanding her own thoughts, experiences, and emotions. I’ve been exclusively reading the works of women writers for the last year or so, but nothing else I’ve read in that time was so immersive and so forcefully different from a male perspective. And yet, though Richardson is at times almost strident in her feminism, in the end, I think what distinguishes Pilgrimage is its dedication to the importance of individual identity. I found its emphasis on making–and accepting the consequences of–one’s own choices very contemporary.
How did it seem from your side of the gender divide?
Kate: That’s a very disciplined approach! I let the structure of the novels, and the edition I was using (the 1938 4-volume Cresset press) dictiate how I read the sequence. When I finished a novel (and sometimes when I’d stopped for the night, still with chapters to get through), I wrote it up in my reading diary. This was essential: I could not have recalled much of the plot, the events, my responses and my unfolding thoughts about her writing, without recording as much as I could along the way. Once I’d fnished reading a novel, I sometimes went straight onto the next one, but I also often took a break and read some science fiction, or a novel I needed to review.
I found Miriam a demanding narrative voice, and don’t like her very much, but her London life resonated very strongly with me. I agree with you about the immersive power of the reading experience in that respect. I too (I think I’ve already said this in my earlier blog about Backwater and Honeycomb) was a young woman earning my own living in my twenties, alone in London, with not many friends, but revelling passionately in the freedom and opportunities for finding out what I liked to do and who I wanted to be. I spent a lot of time in and around Bloomsbury, as I was reading for my PhD at University College London, so I know the ‘Tansley Street’ and Euston areas well. All her midnight wanderings and long walks, and her dingy rooms and uncongenial neighbours: been there, done that too.
I found Richardson’s feminism less strident than you. I was very aware (because I’m a book historian) that DR was writing these novels as historical accounts, and so although Miriam was discovering feminism, and suffragism, for DR these issues were old hat when the novels they appeared in were published. (Some) women received the vote in 1919, when only the second or third novel was published, so when Amabel was in prison for militant suffragism, her first readers were in the 1930s, and about to receive full suffrage for all women. But at the same time, these novels were probaby among the first historical accounts of the very recent advances in feminist history (as opposed to the suffrage fiction published at the time of the Suffrage campaigns), so they were powerful even for their first readers.
I didn’t have the Readers’ Guide (until you lent it to me much later), so I wasn’t able to check things as i read. Though I did some research online to sort out Richardson’s connection to H G Wells. It was obvious when Hypo Wilson appeared that he was Wells: such an opinionated, obnoxious little man. (Though I enjoy his fiction greatly, had I ever met him I would have slapped him for his condescending philandering and preying on young women.) I was content to absorb the novels’ characters and settings as probably based on Richardson’s own life, but it wasn’t important for me to find out the ‘real’ source, because these are novels, not autobiography. I was determined to read them as fiction.
Which produces my question: did you read these novels as conventional, linear realist fiction, in which a plot and characters are constructed and arranged to produce what we in the trade call ‘rising and falling action’, ie a simulation of tragedy, or any other kind of story, that is tidily contained within the novel’s beginning and end? Or were you able to read the texts more impressionistically, to follow her ‘stream of consciousness’ experiment? (Thank you, May Sinclair, for that genius descriptive term.) I ask because I don’t think many of the Pilgrimage novels are a success as a pure stream of consciousness, as with (the inevitable) Mrs Dalloway, or as a slice of unplotted, no beginning-and-end life, as in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.
Brad: I didn’t read Pilgrimage as conventional linear fiction, or at least that wasn’t the way I perceived the novels. To me, the story is far less about what happens to Miriam than about how her understanding of herself develops. Richardson clearly found herself by far the most fascinating character in her own story, which is probably one reason why Miriam isn’t fiction’s most likeable character.
I’d have to agree with you that Pilgrimage isn’t purely a stream of consciousness narrative. It’s really more of a hybrid, a mix of two different generations of fiction, if you will. Don’t forget that the writer who most influenced Richardson was Henry James (remember Miriam’s revery over The Ambassadors in the early part of The Trap?). So throughout the books, the style shifts back and forth from interior monologue to closely (at times microscopically) observed social intercourse: Richardson puts us inside Miriam’s head, then sets aside and recounts the scene from the perspective of a detached observer. Not an omniscient observer–at least I don’t recall that she ever tries to get inside the thoughts of any other character.
When I described Richardson’s feminism as strident, I wasn’t referring to feminism as a movement in any political sense, so perhaps my use of the word was incorrect. What I meant was that Richardson is emphatically of the view that men are relatively unthinking, unobservant, and unperceptive lunks who have done a pretty poor job of organizing and running the world. Now, having raised two sons and one daughter, I’ll admit that there’s some truth to that, but as Pilgrimage progresses, you’ll find statements to that effect being made over and over, to the point that it does get somewhat tiresome.
What never got old for me were the wonderful passages about life in London, the life in the streets and the cafes, the light on the rooftops, the bustle of crowds on the sidewalks, the shop windows and omnibuses. You could say that Miriam’s most passionate relationship is with the city itself–I think she says something to that effect in one of the later books (Dawn’s Left Hand?). All the lyrical passages about London collected together would add up to a work of a hundred pages or more, and they certainly had the effect for me of leavening what might easily have become a monotonous string of long stays inside Miriam’s head. I love visiting and walking through the streets of London, and it was a pleasure to imagine Regent Street, Oxford Street, and Bloomsbury from a hundred years ago as channeled through Richardson’s prose.
This leads me, though, to a question I told you I wanted to discuss–namely, how should Pilgrimage be approached, if there is any hope for it to regain a place of greater recognition among the literature of its time? Even when the authoritative edition emerges over the course of the next decade or so, most readers won’t be willing to take on the task of reading through all 13 novels. The easy answer is to say, read Pointed Roofs and keep going if you feel like it. It’s not the book I’d choose as an introduction, though. My vote would probably be for The Tunnel. But as one who teaches literature as a profession, how would you approach it? Or would you say that it doesn’t quite rate a spot on the syllabus? (There are plenty who’ve assessed Pilgrimage as an impressive but ultimately minor work.)
Kate: The close-gripped focus on Miriam and her life, her perspective, her view of the world didn’t seem to get annoying for me, despite her personality being aggravating. I liked the consistency, and I liked trying to see pst her point of view to think about how her behaviour might have seemed to others, like Mrs Philips or Dr Densley. The confusion I felt as she left each (what seemed to me to be) perfectly reasonable situation or relationship, again and again, was me putting myself in her situation (so that’s a sign of good fiction-writing). I had to respond to that to ask why Miriam had taken each action, eg to ask myself questions about her character and motivations. By making the narrative so completely Miriam’s, DR was making the reader observe her more closely than we might have done if other perspectives had been available.
I’d forgotten the Henry James elements, and I agree. I don’t particularly like reading James, so perhaps the more Jamesian parts of Pilgrimage may be where I did a little skim-reading….
I think DR does draw some fairly enlightened male characters: Dr Densley and Mr Hancock seem sensitive and considerate human beings, and Michael Shatov puts up with Miriam for way longer than I could have done. But the system (political, social, economic, educational) was entirely directed at and for men, so that’s what she was rightly railing against. And there was no sign of change, which would explain why the subject is returned to again and again in successive novels.
The London parts are wonderful for a Londoner! (Anyone who’s lived in London for a few years is a Londoner.) Even though the buildings and street patterns have changed after wars and demolition, what she writes about is still there, which is lovely.
How should Pilgrimage be approached for teaching? The Dorothy Richardson Project will be doing something about that now, since they have UK academic funding, and their website has finally been updated (http://dorothyrichardson.org/), and the Dorothy Richardson Editions and Letters will be published by Oxford University Press between now and 2020, so the basic resources will be there for students to use. Teaching it now is easy enough using e-editions (although I loathe them, students like them). I would start with Oberland as a standalone example of Richardson writing, and because the novel is relatively unconnected to any of the others, to need extensive explanations and catch-up briefings. It’s also short, and about a very appealing, recognisable subject (holiday! Learning to sledge in a long skirt! Flirting with new people!). Its attention to introspection and details is just as strong as in other novels, and the narrative voice works in the same way.
If I were teaching a seminar on Richardson and other modernist authors, where we had to work on three or four novels for each author, I’d also use Backwater and Honeycomb as a pair, since they make a strong contrast, they show Miriam’s character in many different ways, they raise questions about women’s education and careers, about inhabiting spaces not one’s own, about resisting external pressures and corruption. Lots of talk about and get students working on in there. The Tunnel is VERY long, which is a negative (but did that ever stop Ulysses being taught?), but I can see lots of positives: an excellent ‘London’ novel (often teaching by theme is more interesting than teaching by chronology or by genre), very good for modernist style and the development of s-of-c; good for the sociology of the period (women in work, women sharing rooms, the boarding-house economy, illness and health). It also has the immortal (or, rather, not immortal, but still) Miss Dear, who is a parasitic monster the like of which I have never encountered before.
I do think Pilgrimage should be on the syllabus, if only for students to know that it exists, and what it represents as a woman’s literary endeavour and as a monumental modernist work. The individual novels should be taught, because they (some more than others) are significant works of literature, and there are precious few woman modernist authors taught apart from the inevitable V Woolf, and DR predates her considerably.
My question now: I’ve often wondered whether London’s attraction as a setting in fiction of the past 2 centuries or so depends on its familiarity. If DR has set these novels in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or another large and successful British city, would they have the same appeal to those who don’t know the cities? I can’t quite work out where the Londonness of the novels comes from, and how important it is to Miriam’s story. The contrast of city versus the country and suburbs is very important, but why London?
Brad: The release of Pilgrimage in authoritative editions from the OUP should go a long way toward restoring Richardson’s status in the academic community, and I can only hope that a certain amount of publicity in the press will accompany it. But I suspect many readers will still be put off at the prospect of scaling its massive rock face. Oberland is an interesting choice as a point of entry–as you remarked in an earlier email, it’s something of an anomaly within the overall context of Pilgrimage. I also thought it was the most Jamesian of the lot. (I’m not a great fan of James, either, but more because my life doesn’t offer sufficient time and energy to give his work the level of focus I think it demands–at least not at the moment.)
I am a great lover of novels set in big cities, but I’m not sure the actual choice of city always makes a difference. I loved John McIntyre’s Steps Going Down, for example, which is set in Philadelphia, but it could just as easily have been set in a dozen other US cities or in an entirely fictional one. Still, for some countries, there is one city in particular that is such a focal point that any other choice turns the novel into a regional work: London for the UK, Dublin for Ireland, Paris for France, Rome for Italy, Madrid for Spain, and, yes, New York City for the US.
In the case of Pilgrimage, London had to be the setting merely because Miriam’s story is so closely based on Richardson’s own. It certainly helps to make the series more accessible to a wider audience than if she had chosen, say, Glasgow or Manchester. London was where the Fabians were founded and thrived, where there was a strong current of foreign influences as one of the great global cities of its time and capitol of the Empire, and where a wide variety of cultural and religious activities could be found. If you think of a contemporary novel from her time set in a city outside London — one of Arnold Bennett’s for example — there is always a sense that whatever is going on, the really big, important things are happening in London.
I’m glad to hear that you would put Pilgrimage, at least in part, on the syllabus, particularly to broaden the coverage of women writers beyond Woolf. Woolf has come to dominate the place of women writers in the first half of the 20th century to a point that almost everyone of her peers is unfairly ranked as second-classers as a result. And, in some ways, I think Pilgrimage stands a better chance of finding sympathetic readers among female students, in particular, since her protagonist is an independent and working woman, which was such a rarity in literature of the time and yet such a commonplace of our world today. There aren’t a lot of Clarissa Dalloways walking around London today, but the tubes and busses are full of Miriam Hendersons.
One question you raised when we were considering this dialogue was: Do the novels in Pilgrimage bear any resemblance to other novels being published at the time? When Pointed Roofs came out, it was immediately remarked upon as a work of some novelty, but by the time Dimple Hill and the first four-volume editions came out (1938), a whole generation of modernistic literature, much of it considerably more experimental and challenging, had been published and read. We know from Richardson’s own correspondence that she was an active reader and kept up with much of what was being written. Do you sense that she was influenced in any way by the changes in literature? Or did she just stubbornly stick to the furrow she began plowing in 1915?
Kate: I’ve been doing some research on women writers of this period, as it happens, so this is something I have data for. Contemporary and present-day critics interested in women’s writing of DR’s period write about these authors, as well as Woolf and Richardson: Rose Allatini, Edith Bagnold, Mrs Baillie-Reynolds, Stella Benson, Mary Borden, Phyllis Bottome, Lettice Cooper, Clemence Dane, E M Delafield, Ethel M Dell, Mary Fulton, Constance Holme, Winifred Holtby, Violet Hunt, Storm Jameson, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Margaret Kennedy, Rosamond Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, Viola Meynell, Hope Mirrlees, Eleanor Mordaunt, Baroness Orczy, Amber Reeves, Vita Sackville-West, Dorothy L Sayers, Ethel Sidgwick, May Sinclair, Cynthia Stockley, Rebecca West and E H Young. Obviously loads of male authors were active at this time too, but they are more easily looked up in the canonical sources. Of the women authors that I have read working in DR’s period, I’d say Mary Borden’s work was closer to DR’s in terms of the emerging technique of stream of consciousness, and Stella Benson’s in terms of writing about London as an experience rather than as a setting. I think also that once DR had got Miriam going, she stayed with that style because it suited what she wanted to say and do. There are fluctuations, obviously: the novels as a single creative stream have ebbs and flows of more modernist, less modernist, more realist, more novelettish, even. The Jamesian moments are like quicksand.
Better critics than I have already spent a lot of time discussing DR, and I not an expert by any means, I just know the period well. Kristin Bluemel, Gloria Fromm and George Thomson are the scholarly names to read, while waiting for the DR project to get underway. Their bibliography is also useful for further investigation.
My question for you: I’ve been thinking about how DR expected her reader to read these novels. They are unrelentingly personal, interior, single-perspective: there is no omniscient third-person narrator to give useful and helpful background details, nor is there a coherent cumulative list of dramatis personae. By the time of The Tunnel Miriam is no longer focused on her sisters, and her mother is dead (which we have to infer), her father simply disappears for several novels. Her perspective is written as tunnel vision, a beam of light on her world that doesn’t record anything that was happening elsewhere. This is part of the modernist technique, I assume, to get away from the conventional realist novel and only focus on what was important to one character. How did reading this technique feel to you, I know I was struggling between two ‘modes’ of reading, if you like: absorbing the single-directional Miriam-perspective as DR intended, but also querulously grumbling that I wanted to read the novels as if they were Victorian or Edwardian sagas; to know the continuing stories of Sarah, Eve, Harriett, the Philips family that we re-encounter in Interim, all the people that Miriam meets and rushes past, as if they’re leaves blown away in the wind of her high-speed velocity. DR makes no concession for that need the reader will feel, except for a few very late catch-up remarks much later in the sequence.
Brad: I actually enjoyed DR’s “unrelentingly personal, interior, single-perspective,” perhaps because it seemed more “exterior” than other works based in an interior monologue. When Miriam sits by herself in her room and reflects, her window is open and she’s taking in the world outside, where the feeling from many other books using the technique is one of having to live inside the narrator’s head–with the windows shut, the door locked, and maybe even the lights out.
It’s absolutely true that what DR sacrificed in her pursuit of this one very focused objective was a huge amount of the context one would expect from a conventional novel. Contrast, for example, the family in Rebecca West’s series that started with The Fountain Overflows. Here the sisters all have lives, experiences, and come and go in a fairly predictable manner, so that at the end of the series the reader can, essentially, tot up the status of the original cast. Whereas in Pilgrimage–to take the most blatant example–the manner in which the suicide of Miriam’s mother is conveyed is so indirect and glancing that more than a few readers have finished Honeycomb without a clue to what actually happened.
Which is probably why the ending of the series, the last few pages of March Moonlight, do seem so out of keeping with the rest of the work. There is just enough tying up of loose threads that it comes off as more conventional than anything the reader has come to expect.
For me, there is something quite refreshing in DR’s willingness to let characters step away and disappear. It reminds me of the experience of watching Monty Python when the series first came on in the 1970s. When the Python crew found that a sketch wasn’t working, they simply cut to something else. This was so liberating after years of watching sketch comedy shows where the conventional form, which demanded an ending that provided some dramatic closure or a punch line, forced the actors and writers to carry on to some painfully awkward and unfunny endings.
It may have also been the right decision in terms of her own ability as a writer. I honestly think she could be a better writer in sticking to her monomaniacal individualism than if she had tried to conform more closely to existing narrative conventions. I probably am somewhat biased in thinking that it takes a exceptional talent to create a work of striking originality while staying within the bounds of a conventional form, and that sometimes the abandonment of form helps a writer overcome her own limitations as much as it enables her artistic aims. I’m not sure DR’s work would be quite so memorable and distinctive if she had tried, say, to follow scrupulously the example of Henry James. Given a choice, I’d take any volume of Pilgrimage over one of H. G. Well’s conventional novels (Ann Veronica? The Passionate Friends?)–or even, for pure reading pleasure, one of James’.
But then I don’t really agree with the view, which Thomas Staley and some others have proposed, that each of the books in Pilgrimage should be viewed as a complete and independent novel outside of the context of the series. That might be the only way to introduce students to Richardson’s work, but I don’t think it does justice to her accomplishment. She truly committed her life to reinterpreting and transforming her own life through a continuous narrative centered on a fictional counterpart. Once she set out on this path, she really abandoned the possibility of other works. As long as she had the energy, she worked on Pilgrimage. The fact that it was incomplete when she died was, to me, inevitable. Could she really have set it aside and written a 200-page satirical novel? Or a play? Or a romance? I can’t fit any of those possibilities with what I’ve learned of Richardson’s life and character.
Which is why, in trying to reach my own summary assessment of Pilgrimage, I have to put it in something of a category of its own, or perhaps a category by In Search of Lost Time and possibly a few other works one could call “life-long narratives.” It is fiction, and it is, technically, a form of autobiography, but both labels are inexact fits. The term roman-fleuve, taken literally, might be more accurate, since the story flows on from book to book like a river–but, like a river, without precise borders between stages. It’s kind of Michael Apted’s Up series of films, which are individual documentaries but so much more when seen as a series, as a whole bundle of “life-long narratives.” Few writers have the resources or take the opportunity to stick with a work over the course of decades, as Richardson did. And yes, the result is massive and intimidating and, at times, frustrating. But also immersive and illuminating and rewarding. So whatever label you choose to apply, I think you’d agree that Pilgrimage is a monumental accomplishment absolutely worthy of acclaim, endless study, and appreciation by anyone who loves remarkable writing.
Kate: I agree completely that DR’s ‘interiority’ is completely about what Miriam is experiencing through her senses: it is not about her internal agonies. The world really matters to her, whereas in other modernist works the exterior world is occluded by the size of the narrator’s ego. I also agree that March Moonlight is a sad falling-off of quality and tone. It really does feel as if she had forgotten how she produced the fierce focus of the earlier books: but it’s an unrevised draft, I think, not a final novel, and published after she died, so it wouldn’t be fair to judge DR on that. However, its existence does suggest that DR could have written a competent realist novel in the conventional way, had she wanted to. Its a hybrid.
I do try to read Wells’ novels when I stumble across old editions: about to start Marriage, which should be a hoot, considering his actions and views on the subject. His personality and convincement that he was right, suffuse his writing. Its not possible to know if the same happens with DR, because she didn’t make a living forcing her opinions on the world the way that Wells did: his novels are just extensions of his personality and his times, whereas hers are creative accomplishments of technique and perspective, far less bound to the period in which she was living. Perhaps that is what makes them feel so outside historical time, they simply aren’t concerned with the social environment of Miriam’s day, but with Miriam’s own growth.
DR’s willingness to allow characters to disappear and for scenes to end without conventional resolution is one of the most revolutionary techniques that she introduced. Narrative unity is abandoned completely, and it is so refreshing. She mimics real life perfectly in that respect, because the effect is a result of Miriam’s lack of knowledge about the future, she cannot know that X will reappear in two books’ time, or that she will never see Y again. Roman-fleuve seems about right to me.
I’m sure that we could keep going with this dialogue for many more pages, particularly if we rolled up our sleeves and dove into a volume-by-volume analysis. As it is, we may well have exhausted the patience of all but the most intrepid readers. But I have no doubt that we would both agree on two points: first, that reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage is a large investment in time and attention that richly rewards any reader who undertakes a serious effort to work through the series; and second, that it’s a book that makes you want to seek out other people who’ve read it, so you can have a chance like this to exchange thoughts and help process that experiences into some meaningful form and refine your own understanding of its meaning and significance.
A few months ago, I was contacted by Professor Veronica Makowsky of the University of Connecticut, who is researching the life and work of Isa Glenn, a forgotten woman writer of the 1920s and 1930s whose novel Transport I reviewed here some years ago. Dr. Makowsky is something of an expert on neglected women writers, having published biographies of Caroline Gordon and Susan Glaspell and, just out, The Fiction of Valerie Martin: An Introduction, about the work of a contemporary American writer whose work has been underestimated. She is the author of numerous articles on F. Scott Fitzgerald, American women writers, and southern writers, and has served in editorial and directorial positions over the course of her career.
Isa Glenn is a writer I’ve been interested in for years. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she grew up in the highest circles of Southern society and studied art in Paris under her cousin, James McNeill Whistler. In 1903, she married S.J. Bayard Schindel, an Army captain who had taken part in the battle of San Juan Hill, in a ceremony that took place in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City and was reported in all the New York papers. Over the next two decades, until Schindel died in 1921, she moved with him as he served in Army posts in the U.S., Panama, and the Philippines.
After her husband’s death, Isa Glenn and her son, John Bayard Schindel, settled in New York City and she became involved in the city’s literary and social circles. She also began writing fiction, and published her first novel, Heat, which was set in the Philippines, in 1926. She published a total of seven novels over the space of nine years, and then, it appears, stopped abruptly and never published again. She died in 1951 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with her husband.
I was excited to see Dr. Makowsky’s interest in Isa Glenn’s work and took the opportunity to ask if she’d be willing to do an interview by email, to which she agreed graciously. Given her credentials and that fact that she is perhaps the only academic to take a serious look at Glenn’s work in many years, she is in a unique position to offer a perspective on its qualities and on Glenn’s place in American literature.
How did you become interested in Isa Glenn’s life and work?
Throughout my career, I have been interested in American women writers who were well known and esteemed in their day, but were erased from the literary canon over the first half or so of the twentieth century. My first book, a biography of the Southern novelist Caroline Gordon (1895-1981), was set in motion because one day, while I was a graduate student at Princeton, I noticed that many boxes were being delivered to the library archives where I was doing some research. When I asked about them, I was told that they were Caroline Gordon’s; she was the wife of Allen Tate, and, oh, also a writer.
My second book on the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and fiction writer Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was provoked by the constant coupling of her name with that of Eugene O’Neill as a founder of the Provincetown Players; when I began with the most cursory research, I was struck by her many accomplishments and her vast renown during her lifetime. The book I published this year concerns the works of contemporary American novelist Valerie Martin (1948–); I couldn’t figure out how and why a writer of such amazing talent and imagination, who won the UK’s Orange Prize, was so little known in her own country.
My interest in Isa Glenn was sparked by a brief biographical sketch of her on page 254 in George Hutchinson’s biography of the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen (In Search of Nella Larsen, Harvard UP, 2006). Hutchinson writes of her novels: “Remarkable as they are in their expert dissections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, they have so far been completely lost to literary history” (254). Like that of Gordon, Glaspell, and Martin, Glenn’s work was well-recognized for its topicality and literary techniques during her lifetime, but was “disappeared” in the mid-twentieth-century in favor of male writers when male scholars were deciding who should be studied in colleges and whose work should be included in the literary canon or “canonized.”
Having read a number of her books, would you consider her justly neglected or deserving of rediscovery by today’s readers?
Glenn’s work is richly deserving of rediscovery by today’s readers for a number of reasons. First, as a literary scholar, I want to point out her excellence in various literary techniques, such as structure, patterns of imagery, and characterization, but, above all, point of view; she is technically a fine writer. Secondly, her work has remarkable range: the American South, South America, ships at sea, the New York literary scene, Washington DC, army outposts, the Philippines, and the Far East. Thirdly, she addresses topics that are timeless yet timely in her day and in ours, particularly power relationships based on race, gender, and class, mother-and-daughter and mother-and-son relationships, the burden of the past opposed by the tyranny of trendiness, “helpful” Americans abroad making a mess of their lives and those they are supposedly assisting, the judgmental, clannish, and exclusionary aspects of human nature, the monumentalizing of a social value until it becomes an oppressive weight rather than an aspiration for growth, and many others. She is writing about specific times and places, but her novels remain uncannily relevant today.
Glenn was something of a Southern belle, being the daughter of a one-time mayor of Atlanta and the wife of an Army general. Why do you think she ended up writing novels that were satirical about the culture she grew up in?
I can only answer with speculation based on her fiction and some published interviews since I have not been able to find more than a few of her letters nor a diary or journal. The small collection of her papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library is a good source for her published work, but reveals little about her as a person.
From her fiction, I would speculate that she observed that various cultures, for all their good points, tended to fossilize and become absurd and constricting as they failed to adapt to changing times. She examines many such cultures in her works, to cite a few examples from her novels: Southern culture in Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930); army culture in Heat (1926, her first published novel) and Transport (1929); white colonial culture in Heat, Little Pitchers (1927), and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age (1933); trendy literary New Yorkers in the late 1920s and early 1930s in East of Eden (1932); or the claustrophobic culture of Washington DC’s old families in The Little Candle’s Beam (1935, her last published novel).
Although these works can be considered somewhat satirical, there is also a respect for the strength of the perpetuators of these fossilized cultures who are often formidable older women such as the title character’s mother A Short History of Julia; the central consciousness and mother of two daughters in Southern Charm; the “Old New York” mother-in-law of the woman torn to death between marriage and her writing in East of Eden; and the lioness-like mother and leader of the Washington “cave dwellers” in The Little Candle’s Beam. I believe these ideas about calcified cultures may have been developed through her interest her interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of attaining a higher consciousness and full human potential, which she pursued through her acquaintance and correspondence with Gurdjieff’s expounder, A. R. Orage (1873-1934) from the late 1920s through the early 1930s, another intriguing aspect of Glenn’s writing and life that calls for more information and reflection.
A number of her novels are set in the Philippines and Far East, where she lived for some years while her husband was in the Army. How would you describe her view of relationships between Filipinos and the Westerners?
In her depictions of such relationships in Heat and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, Glenn was ahead of her time and yet not what we today would see as completely “politically correct,” so we need to assess her work in the context of her day, unblinded by our “presentism.” She skewered the devastating effects of American colonization on the local culture and the local environment as she characterized the arrogance and blindness of the colonizers. At the same time, perhaps because she was often conveying the sentiments of her white American characters, she often portrayed Filipinos, Malays, Chinese, and other “Orientals” as both strange and menacing. Her novels give her more balanced portraits, but many of her short stories (published in prominent and popular magazines of her day) seem to cater to prevailing titillating stereotypes of inscrutably treacherous “Orientals.”
I asked Dr. Makowsky a number of other questions about Glenn’s work and career, but she confessed to having run into one of the challenges in researching the work of a long-forgotten writer, which is the lack of reliable sources and large holes in the remaining documentation.
These are excellent questions, but, as of yet, I have not located materials that will satisfactorily answer them. This points to a major difficulty in reviving interest in Glenn’s work, a sort of vicious circle in that we lack the information about her that would help revive interest in her work and her work is out-of-print so it is difficult to revive interest in her as a literary figure.
What we know of her biography suggests a woman with a playful, witty character which led her to a number of remarkable and fascinating experiences: Southern belle; student in the atelier of her cousin painter James McNeill Whistler; army wife all over the globe, particularly in the Philippines in a time of rebellion against the colonizers; single (widowed) mother of a son; her self-reinvention as an author when she was well into middle age (her forties and fifties) including becoming a prominent part of the 1920s literary scene in New York. All these aspects are beguiling lines of inquiry whose results would greatly lead to a revival of interest in her work, but I currently lack the kind of detailed information about the author’s life and views that can be found in correspondence by, with, and about her; family documents and memorabilia; a diary or journal if she kept any; and various other personal effects and documents; as well as memories, oral or written, of those who knew her.
I have been piecing together what I can from public records (birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records), ships’ passenger lists, papers largely relating to her publications at Yale’s Beinecke library (including notes toward a novel, According to MacTavish, which, as far as I know, may never have been completed or published), mentions in newspapers in literary sections and in gossip or society columns, army records, and published interviews with her. Everything that I find suggests a fascinating woman with a fascinating life that requires more facts and, especially, more of her own voice speaking about her experiences.
Her son, John Bayard Schindel, published his own novel, Golden Pilgrimage, which was based on his childhood experiences on Army posts, and then never published again. Can you tell us what happened to him after that?
Isa Glenn’s son, John Bayard Schindel, known as “Bayard,” is a captivating character in his own right as well as the catalyst for some of his mother’s work. He was born on November 4, 1907 when Isa Glenn Schindel was probably thirty-three years old (she gave various dates of birth that made her younger and younger as was not unusual for women of her era). His childhood was the peripatetic one of the army brat due to his father’s steady advance in the army’s hierarchy; Bayard recounts and rejects these experiences in his novel Golden Pilgrimage (1929), published when he was only about twenty-one.
His father, Isa Glenn’s husband, died in 1921 when Bayard was about thirteen; the topic of a son’s need for a father and the widowed mother’s feelings of inadequacy are topics that Glenn explores in Little Pitchers and The Little Candle’s Beam. He shared his mother’s interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of self-development as expounded by A.R. Orage (1873-1934) with whom both took classes in New York. According to Yale’s Beinecke Library’s website on the Schindel papers (Isa Glenn and Bayard’s), Bayard “studied for a time at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France.”
On August 25, 1943, Bayard married Charlotte Marie Cline in St. Margaret’s Church, Washington DC; he was a Captain in the Army; she was an Ensign in USNR. They had three sons. According to Charlotte’s obituaries, they lived in occupied Japan, and bases in Alaska, Virginia, Maryland, and finally Newport News where he died in 1980; his death certificate lists his occupation as civil servant. More information about his life and experiences, particularly in his own words, would be of great interest, not only for his mother’s life and work, but illuminating his own intriguing and accomplished character.
If you had the chance to pick one of her books for republication now, which one would it be?
This is a difficult question to answer because no one novel exemplifies the range of her themes. Heat, her first novel, is written with the great verve that its title epitomizes, but while quite compelling, it is not as mature in theme and technique as some of her later works. For colonization and imperialism, I prefer Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, which is her revision (in a way that presages postmodernism) of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, set in the Far East instead of Paris; this novel is marked by Glenn’s inimitable use of point of view, characterization, and imagery. Of the “southern” works, I like best A Short History of Julia for its remarkably evocative setting and characterization, but also for Glenn’s astute rendition of relationships between black female servants and their white female employers.
Attempt what’s perpendicular. Scale what’s impossible.
Try the knife edge between two voids; look into both abysses.
Bring back some word of wordlessness if strength enough is in you.
Write doggedly of dizzying things; with small implacable digits
Delimit space to fit the brain, that it may bulk and be.
No one but you can help us much. Subdue what blasts. Dare do it.
Ride formlessness, word wordlessness. Be not aghast. Be poet.
fromCollected Poems, by Abbie Huston Evans
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970
And chances are that Evans would have taken this in stride. Few poets have had her capacity for patience and her ability to see things from the long view.
When an eye ailment required a series of surgeries that forced her to postpone entering Radcliffe College for six years, she waited, spending endless days walking along the coast near her home in Camden, Maine. Over thirty when she graduated, she still took on the challenges of a younger woman, traveling to France to work with the Red Cross during World War One and returning to the States to work in social relief for miners in Colorado and steelworkers in Pittsburgh. By the time she joined the faculty of the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, she was forty-one; she taught there for the next thirty years.
With a little help from Edna St. Vincent Millay, who’d been one of Evans’ Sunday school students in Camden, Harpers agreed to publish her first collection of poems, Outcrop, in 1928. Evans was 47. “Read these poems too swiftly, or only once, and your heart may still be free of them. Read them again, with care, and they will lay their hands upon you.” Evans herself acknowledged that she favored things that required long study. “For some twisted reason I/Love what many men pass by,” begins one of her early poems, “Juniper.”
She could write of “The Mountains” that “they are at best but a short-lived generation,/Such as stars must laugh at as they journey forth.” Looking at the stones in “The Stone-Wall,” she could see that, having been dug up from the earth, they were “Back to darkness sinking/At a pace too slow/for man’s eyes to mark, less/Swift than shells grow.” No wonder that when Richard Wilbur presented Evans with the Russell Loines Award for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961, he said that “her subject is nature, and it is not a nature bordered by candytuft. It is ancient, vast, mysterious, and catastrophic; it includes the polar ice-caps and ‘knittings and couplings’ of the atoms.”
Some of this tendency she owed to her father, a Welshman who emigrated to the U. S. as a young man, and who worked for years to be able to put himself through college and theological seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in his thirties. Evans was proud of her father and commemorated him in “Welsh Blood,” a poem written in her seventies.
Here my own father
Worked in the coal seam
Out of light of day,
Going in by starlight,
Coming out by starlight,
First, a child of seven.
Last, a man of twenty,
Throwing down the coal pick,
Crossed the ocean,
Found my mother,
Evans’ second collection, The Bright North (1938) gained little recognition when it was published in 1938, but a few other poets cherished a number of poems from the collection. Louise Bogan liked to include Evans’ “To a Forgotten Dutch Painter” in her readings, perhaps because it celebrated the same attention to fine details that was integral to Bogan’s own style:
You are a poet, for you love the thing
Itself. In twenty ways you make me know
You dote on difference little as that which sets
Berry apart from berry in the handful.
It was not until she was nearly eighty, however, that she won the Loines Award and her third collection, Fact of Crystal, was selected as winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. A slender book of just thirty-seven poems, it had taken her over twenty years to write. “Words have to ripen for me,” she once explained, and she was satisfied that two or three poems a year was a perfectly respectable rate of production.
If anything, Evans felt that haste was antithetical to good poetry. In “The Bridgehead Generation,” she cautioned her colleagues,
We are too near. In the face of what we see
Silence is better than the sound of words.
Homer himself sang not till Trojan swords
Were long since rust in an old century.
Not till the tumult dies, and under green
Lie all of us, and time has brought to birth
Poets whose frame-dust slumbers deep in earth
Can men make song of what our eyes have seen.
And yet she remained very much aware of the changes taking place around her. She took part in a “Poets for Peace” reading in New York City in 1967, alongside Wilbur, Arthur Miller, and Robert Lowell. When the University of Pittsburgh published her Collected Poems in 1970 as part of its Pitt Poetry Series (which is full of fine volumes of unjustly neglected poetry), it included five new poems Evans had written within the last two years. Among them was “Martian Landscape,” inspired by the signals sent back to Earth by Mariner 4 and Mars 3 spacecraft. In it, she demonstrated an understanding both of the nature of digital communication and the possibilities of finding poetry at the cutting edge of technology:
I think of the Martian landscape late delivered
To the eye of man by digits of a code
Reporting shades of grayness, darker, lighter,
In dull procession; in the end disclosing
To the rapt eye the unimagined craters.
— And I see a poem, word by word assembled
In markings down a page flash into code,
And bring in sightings of another landscape
No eye has seen before.
When Evans died at the age of 101 in 1983, no major newspaper noted her passing. Her friend, Margaret Shea, wrote of her interment, “I didn’t expect trumpets and a Bach chorale, but I had hoped for some better farewell to a great poet. One spray of flowers lay on the astro-turf; on a small disposable table behind the flowers stood a box containing her ashes…. What a ceremony for such a lively, gallant lady.”
Evans was a great lover of music. She had season tickets to the Philadelphia for decades, and sometimes quipped that half of the musicians in the Orchestra had been in one or other of her classes at the Settlement Music School. And so I want to close by reprinting a lovely and funny tribute to music from Fact of Crystal:
All Those Hymnings-up to God
All those hymnings-up to God of Bach and Cesar Franck
Cannot have been lost utterly, been arrows that went wide.
Like homing birds loosed from the hand, beating up through land fog,
Have they not circled up above, poised, and found out direction
(The old God gone, the new not yet, but back of all I AM)?
Such cryings-up confound us; I think they are not tangential,
But aimed at a center; I think that the through-road will follow their blaze.
No man has handled God, but these men have come nearest.
I trust them more than the foot rule. Bach may yet have been right.
“Joyce Elbert had just turned thirty and divorced her second husband when she wrote this astonishing first novel … a daring story of a single woman’s frantic search for love in a loose living, free-wheeling world,” blares the cover of the Bantam paperback original of A Martini on the Other Table. I think I’ve seen about three hundred copies of this and other Elbert novels (Crazy Ladies, Drunk in Madrid) in used bookstores and thrift shops over the years and never paid the slightest attention to it, but when I spotted it in a discard box a few months ago, I thought, “Well, I’m focusing on women writers this year — why not?”
Looking for something quick, light, and a little newer after devoting a month to Dorothy Richardson’s weighty (in both length and substance) Pilgrimage, I fished A Martini on the Other Table out on the stack of cheap paperbacks perched precariously in front of a double row of other cheap paperbacks crammed into one of the bookcases in the basement.
I am something of an eternal optimist when it comes to cheap paperbacks. Experience has shown me that there is always a possibility that some remarkable and hitherto neglected gem lies behind a cover cleverly disguised to look like all the other junk that sat in a revolving wire book rack in front of the cigarette stand or the drugstore check-out. A slim possibility, but then you don’t maintain a site like this unless you’re willing to trust in outliers.
A Martini on the Other Table proved to be neither gem nor junk. A lost classic it ain’t, but it was something of a satisfying nostalgia trip for a kid who remembers spying on cocktail parties as I crouched in the hallway in my Dr. Dentons. Set in New York City, it’s narrated by Judy, just separated from her husband, a novelist enjoying his first wave of critical acclaim, and making her way writing superficial pieces for women’s magazines. No longer starry-eyed about love or fame, she makes the rounds of parties and gallery openings, having decided to post her picture next to the definition of blasé in the dictionary. She drinks too much and finds herself in bed with strange men on a regular basis. I half expected one of them to be Don Draper.
Most of the book is taken up with a intricately woven tangle of relationships, as a struggling artist and his socialite girlfriend befriend, and then bed (in turn) Judy, as a wealthy gallery owner watches her husband fall for a good-looking would-be actor, as Judy herself falls for a director of “industrial films” who turns out to be married (but not any more — or is he? — or isn’t he?). It’s all very complicated and utterly uninteresting, since none of these characters is anything but a name, hair color, facial expression, and personality quirk.
How much of Judy’s story is based on Joyce Elbert’s is anyone’s guess. Elbert is quoted on the back cover as saying, “The greatest thing that happened to me was when I turned thirty and divorced my second husband…. Fitzgerald was all wet. Freshness and youth don’t stand a chance alongside anxiety and dissipation.”
If you squint hard enough, that line almost looks like something from Dorothy Parker. There are more than a few echoes of it in A Martini on the Other Table. When Judy and the film director take in a play, she says she’s “glad that Ed and I had not driven in from the suburbs after a rushed supper and anxiety over the new baby sitter…. If a man is going to cut out on his wife I would much rather be the girl friend than the wife, who usually gets him back in the long run. Uncertainty beats the A&P-on-Saturday syndrome any time.”
But Elbert’s rebel act rings a little hollow. A lot of people go to a lot of parties in this book, and none of them seems to have any fun. Judy spends far more time brooding about men and relationships than about independence and sexual freedom. “The only person I ever really cheated was myself,” she confesses just after the director proposes to her. It’s hard not to believe there’s an A&P lurking on a Saturday not too far in her future.
… I have been viewing an old American serial (on TV) called Gomer Pyle. He’s a marine, kind-hearted goof, neat and able but always causes trouble, has the best heart, loveliest southem accent in the States; is a tall, lank anti-Yank, slightly bendy because he’s tall, and has an overwhelming grin. So what? Last night, I looked at him again (I’ve always liked him) because l saw it said ‘Talent Contest’ and someone told me he could really sing, not just ‘O, my Papa‘, and in fact, he can; he let out some impressive howls and (of course) won the contest. But in the course of bringing him out, the handlers (directors to you) have been really producing him and last night he stood up and sang and was really lovely and I thought, ‘But of course, that’s why I like him, he’s really a bit like Ettore‘ and though he’s called Nabors (his real name) he looked Italian (or Albanian?). Do you know? I can assure you this quite good actor is no discredit to you. Soft girlish stuff, eh? Forgive the girl….
… I asked her, myself considering it for the first time, to imagine herself spending her life in a village, amongst people all known to her and many of them her relatives; to picture the experience accumulated in the consciousness of a village child, even before school pumps in its supply of easily forgotten knowledge of the business of birth and death, sudden sickness, insanity, the relentless slow progress of every kind of incurable disease, of infirmity and senility, with the exhaustive knowledge of all these things acquired in a village lifetime; to remember that in ‘a sleepy village where nothing happens,’ crime and cruelty, kindness and joy and sorrow go their way under the highest white light of publicity known to mankind. And then to imagine falling into a richly experienced, preoccupied village consciousness whose every day brings a fresh event somewhere in the huge family, even the simplest of questions, even a demand for the way to the next village, to the inquirer only an imaginary destination, the momentary halting-place of his will-o’-the-wisp, but for the local man a storehouse of memories and the scene of current events through whose crowding presences, while with vacuous, expert eye he sums the stranger up, he must thrust his way to the desired information….
From March Moonlight, by Dorothy Richardson
Published in the 1967 collected edition of Pilgrimage
For nearly 30 years, Dimple Hill (Amazon) was the last chapter in Dorothy Richardson’s novel series, Pilgrimage.
That was not Richardson’s plan. Even as the 1938 collected edition of Pilgrimage was being distributed by J. W. Dent in the U. K. and Alfred A. Knopf in the U. S., she was continuing to write, still planning to add further chapters to the work. But as the saying goes, life is what gets in our way as we’re making other plans. By 1938, Richardson was in her sixties, and she and her husband, the artist Alan Odle, spent their lives shuttling between cheap lodgings in Cornwall and London, getting by on almost no money, going without heat at times, skipping meals, fighting colds that hung around for months, and consuming most of their energy just getting through their days.
In her correspondence (published in the excellent Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson (1998), Richardson mentions working on the book once in 1939. The next mention comes in 1943, when she writes to her friend Bryher that “Since my break-down eight years ago I’ve been slower than ever…. [I] don’t care a hoot whether or no I ever write another word. In 1944, she writes of “my recently hauled forth Pilgrimage ms. put away nearly five years ago.” In 1945, she complains that “present conditions & lack of domestic help … have permitted me to write, in six years, half a book….” In 1948, she tells Bryher, “I’ve written a few lines of Pil….” Two years later, she writes that “Whenever possible, my morning includes the putting together of a few lines of the new vol.” To the novelist Claude Houghton in early 1952, she wrote, “I still add scraps, when poss., to another volume.” In November, she wrote Bryher that “The second half of the book goes more & more slowly, the days when I can manage any writing beyond dealing, usually belatedly, with my ever-increasing correspondence.”
March Moonlight is, therefore, an awkward book. It was assembled from papers found when Richardson died in 1957 and published as the last chapter in the four-volume collected edition of Pilgrimage released by Dent and Knopf in 1967. Though by far the shortest book in the series, it covers the longest span of time — from 1909 to 1912 (based on the sketchy temporal milestones provided in the book). Three sections of the book were published under the title of “Work in Progress” in several issues of the journal Life and Letters Today, which was owned by Bryher, between 1944 and 1946.
In his introduction to the 1967 J. W. Dent collected edition of Pilgrimage, Walter Allen called March Moonlight “a coda … the rounding off and summation of all that has gone before.” I think that credits too much intent to what clearly is an assembly of parts rather than a finished work. Chapter One of March Moonlight is somewhat anomalous, not only based in Switzerland, away from the setting of the rest of the book, but written in the first person. There is a genuine coherence of narrative and style in Chapters Two through Nine, as Miriam shifts between family and friends in London and the farm at Dimple Hill, and, as George Thomson details in his careful chronological explication in A Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” (which is an invaluable aid to unraveling the often mystifying use of time and flashbacks in Pilgrimage, fits fairly neatly within a space of six months, from April to October 1909. But Chapter Ten is closer to an outline of future work: set two or possibly three years later, and blasting through a half-dozen dramatic highlights in the space of eight pages.
The book opens with an extended flashback describing a visit Miriam made to Switzerland in “the winter of ’08-’09,” as guest of Miss Lonsdale, a retired English school teacher. The memories are stirred by a letter from Jean, a Scottish woman she became friends with during the visit (Jean refers to Miriam as “Dick,” one of the many references a reader is likely to miss without Thomson’s guide at hand). Jean is deeply religious, and during Miriam’s stay it becomes obvious to her that Jean is infatuated (at least in a spiritual sense) with an Anglican bishop vacationing at the resort. Though the two never discuss religion, Miriam does decide she has “a preference for living, if ever circumstances should compel the choice, with even the most hypocritically sanctimonious pietists, flopping to their knees on every possible occasion … than with even the most enchanted and enchanting humanists.” As with the Quakers in Dimple Hill, Miriam finds great sympathy with the quiet nature of this religious woman: “Out intermittent silences, rather than tension-creating searches for fresh material, were fragments of a shared eternity….”
This flashback occurs to Miriam as she sits in the backyard of her sister Sally’s house in suburban London, and Chapter Two, which returns to the present and third person, is certainly the most conventionally domestic in all of Pilgrimage, with Miriam joking with her niece and nephew and observing her sister’s care for all the conventional proprieties and mundane household concerns. This theme continues in Chapter Three, where she moves on to a visit to her friends Michael and Amabel, now married and preparing to move to their own house. “Marriage is awful,” Amabel confesses to Miriam. Miriam sees that “the absence in their daily life of a common heritage” (he is a Russian Jew, she is a passionately feminist Frenchwoman) makes “the state of these two the worst of all.” “Be glad,” Amabel tells her, “that you can go away.”
Miriam is happy to return from London to the Roscorla’s farm at Dimple Hill. As she waits for her train, she thinks, “Last year this station had meant just the end of the journey towards an unknown refuge. Today it is the gateway to Paradise.” Though she is benefiting from a gift from her friend from Oberland, Mrs. Harcourt, intended to help Miriam set herself up again in London, she plans to use the money to allow her “to stay where I can live on almost nothing, and am going to write.” “To write is to forsake life,” she acknowledges, but she has come to see that this is the only choice that works for her.
Paradise never lasts, however. Rachel Mary, the Roscorla sister and housekeeper, tells Miriam that she will be away for much of the summer visiting a distant brother, and that, as a consequence, Miriam will not be able to stay. With few options, Miriam settles on taking a room at the Young Women’s Bible Association (Richardson’s fictional counterpart of the YWCA) house in St. John’s Wood in London. And even though she returns to Dimple Hill in September, the stay is short-lived.
She learns that the Roscorlas have agreed to provide refuge for Charles Ducorroy, a former French monk who has decided to leave the Church and needs time to regain a sense of himself. Able to speak French, Miriam naturally spends a great deal of time in conversation with Ducorroy, who proceeds to fall in love with her. Ever a believer that honesty is the best policy, though, Miriam feels she has to tell him about her affair with Hypo Wilson and the miscarriage. Ducorroy rejects her, then has second thoughts, but not before Miriam is informed that her room at the Roscorlas’ will not be available again due to redecorating (hard as it is to believe that a poor Quaker farm family would redecorate).
So once again Miriam returns to London, this time taking a room at a Bloomsbury boarding house run by a Mrs. Gay. There she meets a scarecrow-like figure, an artist named Mr. Noble, for who she feels an immediate sense of … well, not attraction so much as, perhaps, protectionism. Mr. Noble is Richardson’s counterpart for her own husband, Alan Odle, whom she meant in just such circumstances. And seconds later, it’s all over.
Bear in mind that what I described in the last three paragraphs takes up barely 30 pages in March Moonlight. This is not Richardson’s typical closely-observed, slowly revealed style but a break-neck sprint for the finish. It’s generally assumed that Richardson meant for Pilgrimage to end with Miriam’s equivalent of her own meeting with Alan Odle, and these last pages do appear to be a set of fragments thrown together to get to this point rather than to provide a coherent narrative.
Is March Moonlight the end of Pilgrimage that Richardson intended? It seems clear that Richardson intended to write more. As late as 1952, she wrote Bryher that “I hope to survive long enough to finish the present vol [March Moonlight]. There were to have been four, but war-time demands put them out of the questions, & post-war conditions, though differently, are hardly less exacting.” George Thomson argues in his Reader’s Guide that Richardson’s idea was to produce “a Volume V comprising Dimple Hill, March Moonlight and two or three further books.” From an artistic standpoint, this makes some sense, as Clear Horizon brought Miriam’s London period to an end, while Dimple Hill and March Moonlight move her forward into a period like that of Richardson’s early years as a writer, living in different places on almost nothing and establishing herself as a writer.
I’ve purchased several of the major works of Richardson scholarship to help guide me through Pilgrimage, which is, as Thomson writes in A Reader’s Guide, “a compressed & fragmented narrative,” “an exactingly selective narrative,” and “a demanding narrative.” I’ve also gone through the issues of Pilgrimages: The Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies on the Dorothy Richardson Society website. I’m struck by how little information there is available on the process of assembling March Moonlight and the 1967 collected edition, so it’s difficult for me to do much more than speculate. But it seems clear to me that one can only view it — and consequently, Pilgrimage itself, as an unfinished work.
I’m planning to publish a conversation with Kate Macdonald about our respective journeys through Pilgrimage when she finishes it, and one of the questions I’ve already thrown out for consideration is whether Richardson set for herself what was, effectively, an impossible artistic task: that of writing a work so carefully considered and closely examined that it could never be finished — at least not within the meager economic means and hard-scrabble life she lived with Alan Odle. I think this has a lot to do with the subsequent neglect of Pilgrimage: we have an inherent bias toward books that are complete, that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, that reflect, if you will, a complete artistic conception and design. Just the idea of a 2,000-page novel that is ultimately unfinished is probably enough to put off all but a tiny number of readers, and also kills its chances of being widely taught or written about.
Which is a true shame. Pilgrimage is easily the best, most involving, most thought-provoking, and most memorable work I’ve read in years. Reading it has been one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve taken in my life.
March Moonlight, published in Pilgrimage, a 4-volume set, released by:
London: J. W. Dent & Cresset Press, 1938
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938
Twenty-four years after launching Pilgrimage with Pointed Roofs, Dorothy Richardson found herself struggling to progress with its twelfth volume, Dimple Hill (Amazon). The sales of her books had dwindled into the hundreds with each succeeding volume. Over sixty, she was thirty years away from the experiences she was trying to recreate through her fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson.
Yet Dimple Hill manages to be something of a new beginning for both author and character. Miriam literally packs a new set of bags, buying a glossy new cabin-trunk and a hat box, “incredible symbols of freedon,” before she sets out from London. She starts out on her rest vacation with a week with Grace and Florence Broom, the sisters she first met at Wordsworth House school in Backwater, whose home has always represented something of a sanctuary of happiness and acceptance for Miriam. They visit Chichester Cathedral, and although Miriam still resists any conciliation with the Anglican church, she finds herself relaxing, giving in to the luxury of an undefined time ahead of her, even saying to Florence, “I’m never going to think any more.”
Quickly, though, life as an itinerant guest, wandering from friend to friend, staying a week here, a week there, pales, and she searches to find a place where she can remain for a much longer time. Fortunately, her friend Michael Shatov recommends the Roscorlas, a Quaker family whose farm, Dimple Hill, lies just a few miles from the coast in East Sussex. There, they keep orchards, grape vines, vegetable plots, and an herb garden, and have a spare room they let to boarders.
The Roscorlas take in Miriam on the assumption that she has suffered some kind of emotional breakdown and will need a long period of quiet recovery. She soon comes to love the beauty and peace of the country around Dimple Hill, spending hours reading under a great tree that spreads a gentle shadow over the lawn behind the farmhouse and walking through the fields and along the lanes. She finds herself marveling at the taste of fresh food from the farm: “Long ago, before she had learned that fod could be a substance indifferently consumed to keep life going, its flavour had had this assaulting power, taken for granted…. For a moment, with the first shock of perception, she had indeed felt that even in a potato grown upon their happy land some special virtue must reside.”
But even more than the landscape, the soft-spoken grace of the Roscorlas, who often sit together in silence after supper:
In place of the sense of loss oppressing the air when silence descends at last upon a talking group and its members, fallen apart, deprived of the magnetic stream, realize each other as single individuals, lessened and variously pathetic or in some way, for all their charm, offensive, there was a sense of recovery, of return to a common possession, the richer for having been temporarily forgotten.
Miriam finds something to like and admire in each member of the family. Richard, the strong, handsome older brother who runs the farm, has an air of self-confidence grounded in ability that contrasts with the blustering front of Hypo Wilson and other men she encountered in the city, and she is somewhat attracted to him. But both she and Richard are too reserved for anything to come of it. Alfred, the younger brother, is usually the butt of family jokes, yet he astonishes her in the depth of his spiritual expression when he reads a passage at the first Quaker meeting she attends with them. Rachel Mary, the sister, has charge of the house and kitchen and takes her duties seriously without losing a sense of humor and perspective. Even their quiet elderly mother warms to Miriam, taking tea with her and conversing in soft, gentle tones.
A profound sense of peace and healing pervades much of Dimple Hill. Richardson herself felt a great affinity with the Quakers, who were the subject of her first book, The Quakers Past and Present (1914). Sometime in spring 1908, she resigned from her post in Dr. J. H. Badcock’s dental practice in Harley Street and went to stay with a Quaker family, the Penroses, at their farm near Windmill Hill, a hamlet near Herstmonceaux in East Sussex. She appears to have spent most of the next three years with them, although as Gloria Fromm writes in her biography of Richardson, “These are veiled years she spent in Sussex.” There is no correspondence from this time, although she did publish several color sketches in The Saturday Review around this time, including a piece titled “A Sussex Auction” that was reworked into a chapter of Dimple Hill.
“Why should it be only Quakers who employed, in public as well as privately, this method of approach to reality,” Miriam wonders at a Quaker meeting as she sits with the congregation in contemplative silence. For her, the stillness allows her to draw energy for the work she is determining to undertake, the piece that in Richardson’s hands would become Pilgrimage:
Bidding her mind be still, she felt herself once more at work, in company, upon an all-important enterprise. This time her breathing was steady and regular and the labour of journeying, down through the layers of her surface being, a familiar process. Down and down through a series of circles each wider than the last, each opening with the indrawing of a breath whose outward flow pressed her downwards towards the next, nearer to the living centre.
She sets up a table under the branches of the great tree behind the Roscorla’s house and begins to write. “Here,” she thinks, “amidst the dust-filmed ivy leaves and the odour of damp, decaying wood, was the centre of her life.” “Write the confessions of a modern woman,” she recalls a man saying to her many years back. The notion to her represents everything she does not want in her work: “… everything would be left out that is always there, preceding and accompanying and surviving the drama of human relationships; the reality from which people move away as soon as they closely approach and expect each other to be all in all.”
The wedding of her friends Michael Shatov and Amabel draws Miriam back to London for a brief visit, and when she returns to Dimple Hill she is determined, despite her love of the place and the Roscorlas, to move on. Much as she has gained from the experience, she realizes that she could never in a lifetime become a true local. An acquaintance from her time in Switzerland (Oberland) writes to suggest that Miriam join her at a resort near Geneva the book closes.
Although Richardson had some hope that the promise of Dimple Hill’s inclusion in the four-volume edition published by J. W. Dent in 1938 would create some suspense, so fresh interest in the work, the entire oeuvre went virtually unnoticed in the U. K. and received only a few reviews (for the parallel publication of a four-volume set by Alfred A. Knopf) in the U. S.. She concluded that reviewers either saw the book as “a cul de sac rather than a conclusion” or congratulated themselves for predicting years before that Pilgrimage would end with a whimper, not a bang. Aside from a very occasional short piece — mostly for Life and Letters Today magazine (owned by her friend Bryher) — the sets from Dent and Knopf where her last publications. It would be almost thirty years before the last chapter of Pilgrimage would appear.
Dimple Hill, by Dorothy Richardson
Published in Pilgrimage, a 4-volume set, released by:
London: J. W. Dent & Cresset Press, 1938
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938
Clear Horizon (Amazon) brings the London period of Pilgrimage to its end, ten years later, with Miriam Henderson passing thirty and taking the decision to turn her back on her life and work there.
Having struggled with her feelings for Amabel, whose own love for her was open and ardent, and having ended her affair with Hypo Wilson (the fictional counterpart of Richardson’s real-life lover, H. G. Wells), Miriam seems to be searching for ways to gracefully cut her ties. The thought occurs to her of introducing Amabel to Michael Shatov, the Russian Jew she had been involved with, at least tentatively, in earlier chapters, and she seizes upon it immediately. “It stood there before her, solving the mystery of her present failure to suffer on Michael’s behalf, filling so completely the horizon of her immediate future that it seemed to offer, the moment it should become the reality into which she had the power of translating it, a vista ahead swept clean of all impediments.”
She also experiences a moment of revelation that fills her with a sense of joy that strengthens her resolve to take a deliberate step away from the life she has been living:
And it was then that the wordless thought had come like an arrow aimed from a height downwards into her heart and, before her awakened mind, dropping its preoccupation, could reach the words that already were sounding within it, in the quiet tone of someone offering a suggestion and ready to wait while it was surveyed, she was within that lifting tide of emotion.
With a single up-swinging movement, she was clear of earth and hanging, suspended and motionless, high in the sky, looking, away to the right, into a far-off pearly-blue distance, that held her eyes, seeming to be in motion within itself: an intense crystalline vibration that seemed to be aware of being observed, and even to be amused and to be saying, ‘Yes, this is my reality.’
She was moving, or the sky about her was moving. Masses of pinnacled clouds rose between her and the clear distance and, just as she felt herself sinking, her spirit seemed to be up amongst their high, rejoicing summits.
When she later tries to share this experience with Hypo, and then with Amabel, however, it is taken as metaphor rather than sensations she took as reality. Miriam was already a person who tended to see herself as separate and apart from others. To now have an intense physical and spiritual memory of the moment and find it impossible to communicate with those she feels closest to only reinforces her sense of isolation.
This sense is compounded by a meeting she has with Hypo Wilson, who manages in his glib way to ensure that Miriam is pushed yet further away. He thinks at first that Miriam is pregnant (with his child), then interprets her saying that she has come down from the clouds as meaning that she had discovered that she wasn’t. He clumsily compliments Donizetti’s, the little Italian cafe that had become Miriam’s favorite refuge outside of her room: “It’s almost the irreducible minimum in little haunts, isn’t it?” And then he proposes that “one has to invent … a special category” for Miriam: “the individual’s individualist.” As they leave the restaurant and walk out into the London evening, she thinks of their relationship as “so conclusively ended.”
Having already made an emotional break with Amabel, Miriam’s decision is confirmed when she visits her in Holloway Prison after Amabel’s arrest in a suffragette demonstration. “I wanted to come,” she says, but immediately wonders, “what kind of truth lay behind her words, whether she had wanted most to see Amabel or, most, to achieve the experience of visiting an imprisoned suffragist….” Upon further reflection, she decides that “Amabel was a tornado, sweeping oneself off one’s feet and one’s possessions from their niches.”
The process of separation takes its toll on Miriam. Michael is concerned at her appearance, telling her that she looks “pulled down.” And when she visits her doctor to discuss an operation to be performed on her sister, Sarah, who has been living in increasing poverty and has to be taken as a charity case, he demands, “What are you going to do to get the better of this seriously run-down condition?” His prescription is simple and emphatic: “Well, my dear, I should say, in the first place, rest; and secondly, rest; and, in conclusion, rest.” His conviction pushes Miriam into the decision she has been hovering around, and she sets her course to find a place in the countryside, away from London, where she can rest–which she interprets as devoting herself to reading and writing.
Perhaps the most touching moment in Clear Horizon–indeed, in the whole of Pilgrimage–is Miriam’s farewell to the dental office where she has worked for the last ten years. Although Hypo Wilson jokes that she should use the experience to write “a dental novel,” the office–and Dr. Hancock in particular–has occupied a large place in her life, thoughts and emotions. She lingers an extra few minutes to tell him a trivial story, but in reality, just to “remain, for yet another moment, encircled by the glow of his kindliness, in the midst of the busy activities of the practice, by whose orderly turmoil surrounded they had so often taken counsel together.”
Among the many remarkable attributes of Pilgrimage, I think its most overlooked is its treatment of work as an activity that can be intellectually stimulating; personally satisfying as well as, at times, exhausting; and the basis of a web of relationships that leave lasting impressions–whether good or bad–that echo in our consciousness ever after. In what other work of fiction from the early 20th century is the experience of working given such extended, balanced, and overall positive treatment? It’s one of the factors that I find strikingly contemporary in Pilgrimage. I suspect one could find a dozen women of Miriam’s age, independence, and intellectual aspirations working in London dental offices today–and, I would hope, a dozen dentists of Dr. Hancock’s professionalism and generosity.
Over sixty, and having spent over seventeen years caring for her sickly husband, Alan Odle, in a series of cheap and ill-furnished digs in London and Cornwall, Richardson found it harder and harder to find the energy and time to focus on Pilgrimage. After sending the manuscript off to her publisher, J. W. Dent, she wrote her friend, the novelist John Cowper Powys, that she feared they would find it “too short & its last third ‘too thin’, & may send it back to be enlarged….” To her friend Bryher, she wrote that “The last few sections, having been written under difficulties, are rather scrappy & dim.” She later reported that Dent had sold just 400 copies of the book, although they were still quite interested in releasing Pilgrimage as a set, assuming it was the end of the series.
The last chapter in Pilgrimage to be published as a separate book, Clear Horizon went virtually unreviewed. By the time it came out, Richardson’s work had either been forgotten or was considered worth forgetting. The latter view was expressed by Queenie Leavis in her review for Scrutiny: “This is the eleventh and latest, but not last, volume of the novelcycle Pilgrimage, the first, Pointed Roofs, having appeared in 1915, when it fell like a rock from a height into the literary waters. Since then each succeeding volume has made less of a splash, and the latest is likely to part the surface with scarcely a ripple.” Leavis thought Pointed Roofs by far the best of the series, dismissing the rest as “increasingly small beer.” Hardly a fan of feminism herself, she saw that Richardson’s strong focus on the feminine perspective “a pervasive weakness.” About the only good thing she had to say about Pilgrimage was that it “will be a gift to the research student of the two-thousands,” which has proved more true than she might have thought.
Clear Horizon, by Dorothy Richardson
London: J. W. Dent & The Cresset Press, 1935
Within the stillness she heard the jingling of hansoms,
swinging in morning sunlight
along the wide thoroughfares of the West End;
saw the wide leisurely shop-fronts
displaying in a restrained profusion,
comfortably within reach of the experienced eye
half turned to glance from a passing vehicle,
all the belongings of West End life;
on the pavements,
the trooping succession of masked life-moulded forms,
their unobservant eyes,
aware of the resources all about them,
at gaze upon their continuous adventure,
yesterday still with them as they came out,
in high morning light,
into the adventure of to-day.
sure of their weapons in the gaily decked mélée,
and sure every day
of the blissful solitude of the interim times.
When I first read this in Revolving Lights, I immediately marked it and wrote in the margin, “poetry.” Certainly, it wasn’t written as poetry, but I think it works better as a poem than the few genuine poems (example) she wrote.
From Revolving Lights, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1923
Of all the Pilgrimage series, Dawn’s Left Hand (Amazon) by far offers the richest lode for Richardson scholars to mine for publication material. Not because it’s the longest (it’s not) or the best (it’s not, IMHO) or the densest with references (my vote for this award would be Deadlock), but because of the sex. This is not only the book in which Miriam finally recreates with Hypo Wilson the affair Dorothy Richardson had with H. G. Wells somewhere around 1907, the affair that led to her pregnancy and miscarriage and that added to the long list of talented women (e.g., Violet Hunt, Rebecca West, Odette Keun) with whom Wells had slept. But it is also the book in which another woman writes “I love you” with a piece of soap on Miriam’s mirror, and in which Miriam wonders if she can reciprocate that emotion. While certainly not the first novel of its time to deal with lesbianism, it is among a tiny number to entertain the possibility of bi-sexuality. And like it or not, sex sells, folks, even in academic circles.
To dispense with the affair, of which the angst beforehand greatly exceeds the passion in the actual conduct thereof, Miriam returns from her trip to Switzerland (Oberland) to find a letter from Hypo Wilson that declares, “I’m more in love with you than ever.” The mixed feelings Miriam had about Hypo before getting the letter are not the least bit changed by this revelation. “[B]ehind the magic words was nothing for her individually, for any one individually,” she thinks. And even when the two finally do spend an evening together in one of the discreet London restaurants that specialized in individual rooms and maximum privacy for consenting couples, she notes that Hypo’s body is not beautiful and caters to his sexual egotism, murmuring, “My little babe, just born” as they embrace.
My theory is that, for Miriam, the attraction in the affair is almost entirely the novelty of the experience. Having gotten past romance novels, having had at least a few men show genuine attraction and interest in romance with her, and having considered whether she could have the same feelings — and dismissed the idea in all cases so far — the great unknown for her at twenty-eight is not romance but sex. And I suspect she was pragmatic enough to realize that this was an affair that held little risk of turning into romance, let alone marriage, on either’s part. And so, with the opportunity to leap in front of her, she decides to take it. At one point, a few days before their first rendezvous, Miriam thinks of herself as “this person, who was about to take a lover,” almost as if she were giving the notion a trial run. In any case, Miriam’s trial run with Hypo proves to be a pretty short run. By the end of Dawn’s Left Hand, it has joined the many memories that Miriam has to reflect upon in future chapters.
The other relationship in the book, with Amabel, a passionate and beautiful young woman raised in France, also reproduces one in Richardson’s life, in this case with Veronica Leslie-Jones, who was an activist and suffragette she met around the same time as her affair with Wells. Unlike Hypo/H. G., who was more interested in the getting than the keeping, Amabel is clearly in love with Miriam, and considers it destiny for them to spend the rest of their lives together. She sneaks into Miriam’s flat to leave the message on her mirror, she leaves a very long and beautifully penned love letter at Miriam’s office, she frequents their women’s club and Lycurgan Society meetings in hopes of encountering her.
And Miriam is drawn to Amabel to an extent fundamentally different and more perplexing to herself than in any previous relationship with men. When Amabel asks if Miriam is repelled by the prospect of a woman being in love with her, she replies, “No, it makes no difference . . . with you.” She thinks about stroking Amabel’s hair, and considers that, unlike her affair with Hypo, it would demand a long-term and fundamental choice: “For if indeed, as her own ears and the confident rejoicing that greeted every work she spoke seemed to prove, then she was committed for life to the role allotted to her by the kneeling girl.”
“Amabel” was, in fact, Richardson’s working title for Dawn’s Left Hand. And though it’s the affair with Hypo/H. G. that tends to get mentioned most often in sound-bite mentions of Pilgrimage, it is Amabel’s love that causes the more significant spiritual dilemma for Miriam. It’s not clear that she ever feels love for Amabel with quite the same certainty and intensity, but she does recognize the price, in terms of personal commitment, that it would demand of her. And the competition it presents for her first love — her own individuality — is what causes her the greatest distress.
Dawn’s Left Hand ends with Miriam fairly definitively closing the door on her short affair with Hypo, but the story of her relationship with Amabel continues to unfold in Clear Horizon. If Miriam has learned nothing else thus far in her journey of self-discovery, she understands that her choices can only be made through long consideration. Which is something Hypo misses entirely:
“It’s the committing yourself you’re afraid of. Taking definite steps. You’ll miss things. And live to regret it.”
“How can one miss things?”
“Mere existence isn’t life.”
“Why mere? Most people have too much life and too little realization. Realization takes time and solitude.”
Which could easily serve as Dorothy Richardson’s credo.
Richardson struggled with Dawn’s Left Hand for years. She refers to it (as “X”) in letters as early as 1927, and almost four years later, in January 1931, she writes Bryher, “So once more I sat down to Vol. X.” When it was finally at the printer’s in September 1931, she wrote (again to Bryher, who had become her closest friend and supporter), “[T]he book fills me with despair by reason of its ‘thinness’ & brevity; the shadow of a book it is, result of momentum of the unconscious, got going a thousand times in these four years, & a thousand times broken off with devastating results to both author & work.” It was very nearly four years more before Clear Horizon was to follow it.
On the less serious side, I must note that Dawn’s Left Hand deserves special recognition for Pilgrimage’s single greatest Moment of Zen. Sitting in an opera house box with Alma and Hypo, listening to Wagner, Miriam thinks,
To know beforehand where you are going is to be going nowhere. Because it means you are nowhere to begin with. If you know where you are you can go anywhere, and it will be the same place, and good.
These are lines truly worth painting on a rock.
Dawn’s Left Hand, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1931
For those reviewers who were growing weary of the “gas-light drabness” of Pilgrimage’s London novels, Oberland (Amazon) offered a refreshing change of scenery — literally. For reasons that, in typical Richardson fashion, are never quite explained, Miriam Henderson has been given the gift of a two week trip to a resort in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, and the action — and, by Pilgrimage’s standard, this is certainly the most action-packed book in the series — is entirely set within the space of Miriam’s trip. So, in terms of time covered, this is also the most condensed chapter.
Oberland is based on a trip Richardson made to Adelboden, a resort town, in 1904, on a recommendation and at the expense of her employer, Dr. J. H. Badcock. In Miriam’s case, the time is two years later, in February 1906. When Richardson was writing the book, therefore, she was looking back some twenty years, from the perspective of a woman over fifty, and the increasing distance between author and subject as time went by — when added to the not-insignificant hardships she was dealing with as a nearly penniless writer — is certainly one of the reasons why progress on Pilgrimage grew slower and slower.
Oberland most differs from the rest of Pilgrimage in its treatment of landscape. The great snow-covered mountains that surround Miriam are completely unlike anything she has ever seen:
The leap of recognition, unknowing between the mountains and herself which was which, made the first sight of them — smooth snow and crinkled rock in unheard-of unimagined tawny light — seem, even at the moment of seeing, already long ago.
They knew, they smiled joyfully at the glad shock they were, sideways gigantically advancing while she passed as over a bridge across which presently there would be no return, seeing and unseeing, seeing again from the first keen vision.
Looking out on them from her hotel room, she imagines them saying to her, “Watch, see, if you can believe it, what we can do.” And when she wakes the next morning, she feels “It was as if all her life she had travelled towards this radiance, and was now within it, clear of the past, at an ultimate destination. The bold, bright light that bounces off the mountains and all the snow-covered slopes around her, is such a contrast with the rare bursts of sunshine she enjoys in London that Miriam experiences a spiritual glow whenever she ventures out during her stay.
There is more outdoor activity in Oberland than in the rest of the series in total. Many of the guests go skiing, a sport which had just begun to become popular among visitors, although Miriam is never persuaded to try it. Tobogganing (or what Americans would call sledding) is the favorite among the less athletic, and Miriam takes her first runs down the slopes after a little convincing, and takes up the sport with the same enthusiasm as she did cycling. For the more sedate, there is always a leisurely glide around the town’s large skating rink. And, towards the end of the book, she watches a ski-jumping (referred to as sky-jumping) competition, which Richardson describes in a much more visually dramatic style than has been typical:
Here he came, in black against his snow, deep velvety black against the snow, gliding past the little hut with a powerful different gait. . . . From the edge of the shelf he leapt high into the air and seemed to stand there against the sky, in a dream. Down he swooped, sailing, dreaming, to the track, rose smoothly from the terrific impact and smoothly went his way. . . .
All the Swiss, though some were rough and ungainly, moved with that strong and steady grace. But Zurbuchen was the best. It was he who would live in her memory, poised against the sky like a great bird.
Miriam comes to the Hotel Alpenblick, a small, over-heated pension at which a variety of guests, mostly English but including one American and an Italian businessman whom everyone takes for Russian. This little interior world is the counterpart to the bright, white outdoors. Unlike the preceding chapters, much of the social interactions in Oberland are related directly or through observation, and far less is refracted through Miriam’s subsequent thoughts. Closely observed, though, it remains, and I wonder if Richardson was, perhaps, trying to emulate Henry James rather than the unique interior style of her previous books.
Yet this is still Richardson and Miriam we are dealing with, and even in the invigorating and liberating mountain setting, the fierce battle to retain individuality carries on. Approached by a silly but warm-hearted English woman named Mrs. Harcourt, Miriam is both pleased and on guard. As they exchange introductory chit-chat, a warning voice tells her to withhold: “Even a little talk, a little answering of questions, would falsify the past. Set in her own and in this woman’s mind in a mould of verbal summarizings, it would hamper and stain the brightness of to-morrow.”
However, it is Mrs. Harcourt who alerts Miriam to the last stunning sight of her trip:
“Look out of ve window!”
Sitting up in bed, she saw hanging in mid-air just outside the window a huge crimson lamp, circular in a blue darkness. Sleepily she cried her thanks and leaped awake to dwell with the strange spectacle, the gently startling picture, in its sudden huge nearness, of the loveliness of space. The little distant moon, enormous and rosy in blue mist, seemed to float in the blue as in blue water, seemed to have floated close in sheer unearthly kindliness, to comfort her thoughts, on this last day, with something new and strange.
Richardson struggled to get Oberland published. She had become frustrated with the poor sales and lack of promotion by Duckworth, which had published the first eight books in Pilgrimage, and H. G. Wells encouraged her to think that she would do better with other firms. After wasting nearly six months on unsuccessful approaches to three other publishers, she ended up settling for Duckworth’s offer, which was worse than anything she’d taken before: instead of giving £10, half of their previous price, they gave her a royalty of 7.5% of sales. Knopf, her U.S. publisher, was only slightly more generous at 10% royalty. Duckworth sold under 300 copies; Knopf less than 500.
The U.K. reviews were few and negative. In the U.S., Earl Aldrich dismissed it in The Saturday Review: “Oberland, vivid though it be, is after all only a very limited travel book — the thing that a female author might send in sections to a friend, and later publish because he public wanted some personal impressions.” The New York Times gave the book first place in a full-page review of new fiction, gushing that, “It is scarcely possible to say enough in praise of a book of such rare, such quietly dazzling beauty.” Unfortunately, next to the review, they also printed a photograph of an American author, also named Dorothy Richardson. This mistake would be repeated several times during Dorothy (M.) Richardson’s life, and it always drove her nuts. “I shall write advertising,” she wrote in frustration the first time it happened. And in The New York Post, Conrad Aiken made the generous prediction that Richardson was entitled to “as precise and permanent a place in the history of literature as it is ever possible to predict for a living author.”
The book was even short-listed for the Prix Femina Anglais, although it lost to H. M. Tomlinson’sGallion’s Reach. Richardson herself admitted that the book was “slight.” Writing to her friend, the novelist E. B. C. Jones, she explained that, “It is due partly to the need to condense that grows with each vol. & partly on M’s becoming more out-turned really living, partic. for this year or so, much more on the surface than she did.” “Each episode could have filled a single volume in the old wudgy manner — but I should have been in my grave before M’s fortnight was at an end & there are things calling ahead.” And years later, the novelist Eva Tucker, who was otherwise a tremendous advocate for Richardson’s work, told an interviewer that Oberland “doesn’t quite hang together for me as part of the series. It seems a bit out of step of out of place in Pilgrimage as a whole.”
Oberland, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1927
Having expanded her social horizons over the course of the last four chapters, in The Trap (sorry, no online text available, cheapest edition available is a used copy of Volume 3 of the Virago set) Miriam Henderson decides to undertake an experiment in social living that proves the quandary from which Richardson takes her title. After years of living alone in her room at Mrs. Bailey’s, Miriam lets a flat in a house in Flaxman Court that she will share with a recent acquaintance, a social worker named Selina Holland.
At first, the two women see the move as a great adventure. Miriam hears in the tone of Selina’s voice “Garden sunlight that had been missing through all the wandering years.” They collaborate on arranging their things, putting up a curtain, buying a few small pieces of furniture to fill the vast space of their two rooms. And Miriam, for the first time in her life, splurges on her own desk to write at: “The bureau was an experience: seen from any angle it was joy complete. Added to life and independent from it. A little thing that would keep its power through all accidents of mood and circumstance.”
“Here in the mornings,” she delights, “there would always be beauty, the profiles of things growing clear on either side of the pathway of morning light. . . .” As the men move in the last of her belongings, Miriam can’t resist dipping into her copy of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — “the book that had suddenly become the centre of her life.” Even in that first hour, though, she can see the first warning signs that her personality and Selina’s are simply too different to avoid an inevitable strain. “Miss Holland would get nothing from James. She would read patiently for a while and pronounce him ‘a little tedious.'”
Neither is she likely to appreciate the revelation of who the tall figure who inhabits the apartment opposite theirs on the court:
Yeats: and he lived here. Miriam drew back and sat down on the end of her bed. This queer alley was then the place in all London in which to live. Was he dismayed at the sight of Philistines invading the retreat where he lived hidden amongst unseeing villagers? . . . .
To which Selina’s response is, “The strange room,” said Miss Holland, who also had left the window, “has a tenant as eccentric as itself.” No wonder, then, that Selina also fails to appreciate the little Italian cafe, Donizetti’s, that Miriam had discovered years before and come to think of as a haven. In bringing Selina to Donizetti’s, Miriam is offering her a little piece of herself. Selina, however, has little patience for the experience: “It is now well past midnight. This has been a unique experience. And just for this once, I do not object to it. But it must certainly not be repeated.”
To add to Miriam’s headaches, she comes to realize that their landlord is a bit of a creep with a mother complex and their downstairs neighbors an alcoholic commercial sculptor who battles frequently with his wife. Yet she has a tremendous capacity to find joy in the midst of tedium. Even waking on a work day in a bedroom she shares with a less-than-compatible roommate, she can find something wonderful:
The morning lays cool fingers on my heart and stands there an intensity of light all about me and there is no weight or tiredness. When I open my eyes there is a certain amount of light — much less than I felt before I opened them — and things that make, before I see them clearly, an interesting pattern of dark shapes; holding worlds and worlds, all the many lives ahead.
“I shall go on getting happier and happier. Because it takes almost nothing to make me as happy as I can bear.” Miriam’s Pollyana dream cannot, of course, last. Later that same day, a woman at the dental office cautions her, “It’s your life you are living here, lassie,” and Miriam suddenly realizes that “This scene that she persisted in seeing as a background, stationary, not moving on, was her life, was counting off years.”
She does have some respite from this bleak prospect as she attends a happy New Year’s celebration held by the Lycurgans. A handsome older man asks her to dance, and she looks around the floor and sees George Bernard Shaw and Wells (not referred to as Hypo Wilson this time) dancing as well. “That’s not dancing, it’s the Ethical Movement,” someone wisecracks, but Miriam finds the innocence and awkwardness charming. And when everyone joins hands to sing in the new year with “Auld Lang Syne,” she thinks, “To stand thus linked and singing was to lose the weight of individuality and keep its essence, its queer power of being one with every one alive.”
At 110 pages, The Trap is the shortest book in the Pilgrimage except the final, unfinished March Moonlight. The experiment in group living has been short and unsuccessful. The experience has shown Miriam that a room of her own is essential for her survival, and as The Trap ends, with the wild squealing of cats outside and Mr. and Mrs. Perrance having another drunken quarrel downstairs, she thinks, simply, “Away. Away. . . .”
Published 10 years after Pointed Roofs, The Trap was reviewed by relatively few, and the general tone of most reviews was that of ennui. Pilgrimage was beginning to seem endless, fulfilling the prediction first made in 1920 in S. P. B. Mais’ Books and Their Writers: “there is no reason why the series should not be continued to infinity.” As Hamish Miles put it in The Saturday Review,
And so, for the eighth time, Miriam Henderson trickles sandily through her predestined hour-glass. One more stage measured. One more pallid dawn suffuses the Euston Road. Grain by grain, Miriam has slipped through the upper bubble to the lower. Turn over the contraption the other way up (the glass is clean and dry) and there, once again, patiently marking off a ninth furlong of time, the same sand will accomplish the same journey: one more novel will have been tacked on to Miss Richardson’s untiring sequence.
She would offer them some relief with the next chapter, Oberland, of which one reviewer would write, “The book is rich in poetic passages that are a full reward for the gas-light drabness of the earlier books in the series.” Which is what folks in the Midwest refer to as a left-handed compliment.
The Trap, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1925
Revolving Lights (Internet Archive, Amazon) is both a fairly seamless continuation of the preceding chapter, Deadlock, and a progression towards the style and perspective of the remaining books in Pilgrimage. Having spurned Michael Shatov’s interest in marriage, Miriam carries on with their friendship, if only for the opportunities it provides her for encountering different people and outlooks. She spends a long vacation at the seaside home of Hypo and Alma Wilson (Richardson’s fictional counterparts for H. G. Wells and his wife Amy), which both excites her intellectual interests and reinforces her sense of the superficiality of even those society consider intellectuals. And she has her first encounter with Quakers, whose silent worship makes a profound impression on her and whose company, in later books, she seeks out. Yet the book is also full of passages that demonstrate Miriam’s growing assurance that her preference for solitude is an honest and proper response to the world.
Revolving Lights is organized in four chapters, each centered on one or two episodes around which the whole chapter is constructed. Chapter One is almost the entirety of the London chapters of Pilgrimage in microcosm. Having attended a meeting of the Lycurgan Society (Richardson’s stand-in for the Fabian Society), Miriam walks through midnight London to her room in a Bloomsburg boarding house and reflects on the meeting, on a party she attended with the Wilsons, on her daily work at the dental office on Wimpole Street, and on her own preferences and choices.
Of the hall in which the meeting took place, she thinks,
The building of the large hall had been brought about by people who gave no thought to the wonder of moving from one space to another and up and down stairs. Yet this wonder was more to them than all the things on which their thoughts were fixed. If they would take time to realise it. No one takes time. No one knows it. . . . But I know it. . . . These seconds of knowing, of being told, afresh, by things speaking silently, make up for the pain of failing to find out what I ought to be doing. . . .
Noticing and reflecting are essential for Miriam. Although Richardson, a great fan of Henry James’ style and careful observation, never quotes him in the book, it’s clear that she aspires for Miriam to “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Her choice to continue working in the dental office, which, while not well-paid, provides her with just enough money and time to follow her interests where they lead her: “She, with no resources at all, had dropped to easy irresponsible labour to avoid being shaped and branded, to keep her untouched strength free for a wider contemplation….” In this, Miriam is something of a forerunner of what is an increasing segment of today’s workforce, among whom there are more and more people choosing to take undemanding jobs with lower pay for the freedom it gives them to pursue travel, sports, or creative interests.
Miriam worries, though, that the choice to devote great chunks of her time to contemplation could be dangerous in the long run. “[B]eing her own solitary companion would not go on for ever. It would bring in the end, somewhere about middle age, the state that people called madness.” But Richardson is clear that this would only be a case of being labelled as mad for what society simply finds unfathomable and irrationally non-conformist, that “Perhaps the lunatic asylums were full of people who had refused to join up,” but who spent their days in a “state of amazed happiness.”
And for Miriam, one of her constant sources of happiness is the experience of living in London. As she walks along Oxford Street, passing Bond Street, she imagines the city saying to her, “Walking here you can keep alive, out in the world, until the end, an aged crone, still a citizen of m kingdom, hobbling in the sun, along my sacred pavements.” She feels “the spirit of London” coming to greet her, and thinks in almost romantic terms, “Nothing in life could be sweeter than this welcoming — a cup held brimming to her lips, and inexhaustible. What lover did she want? No one in the world could oust this mighty lover, always receiving her back without words, engulfing and leaving her untouched, liberated and expanding to the whole range of her being.” But she sees that these are feelings she must keep to herself: “. . . she must go on, uselessly, unrevealed; bearing a semblance that was nothing but a screen set up, hiding what she was in the depths of her being.”
The long interior monologue that comprises Chapter One (at 56 pages, one of the longest in the entire sequence) is contrasted by the next two chapters, which deal with social encounters. Michael Shatov takes Miriam to meet the Lintoffs, an intense couple, both Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries, attempting to show her off to them and hoping to rekindle some romantic feelings in Miriam, but which leaves her feeling weighed and found wanting. When he takes her to a Quaker meeting on St. Martin’s Lane, however, she experiences, for the first time, a form of worship that doesn’t make her feel lectured to and chafing to escape: “[B]eing in the silence was being in something alive and positive; at the centre of existence; being there with others made the sen of it stronger than when it was experienced alone.” Richardson foreshadows the final books of Pilgrimage in writing that, “It had felt like the beginning of a life that was checked and postponed into the future.”
The weeks she spend with the Wilsons at Bonnycliff, covered in Chapter Three, however, leave her with mixed feelings. She is thrilled by the talk and music and self-confidence of Hypo Wilson and their other guests, which include a woman novelist (Edna Prout, a ficitional stand-in for Violet Hunt) and the editor of a literary magazine. In the course of the stay, we learn that Miriam has begun to write. Her first piece was a review “of a bad little book on Whitman,” but she recalls feeling overwhelmed at the experience: “I went nearly mad with responsibility and the awfulness of discovering the way words express almost nothing at all.” Hypo encourages Miriam to do more: “You’re lucky you know, Miriam, in your opportunities for odd experience. Write it up. Don’t forget.”
Towards Hypo Miriams feels both attracted and repelled. She is interested in him because he is quite obviously interested in her, and because he is an interesting person in much of his talk and in what he has been able to accomplish as a writer. But she also resists what she considers “his twofold vision of women as bright intelligent response or complacently smiling audience.” There is always a somewhat mocking edge in his treatment of Miriam. During one conversation, Hypo refers to her as, in order, “Quarrelsome Miriam,” “Harsh Miriam,” “Pugilistic Miriam,” “Mysterious Miriam,” and “Diplomatic Miriam.” And he is incapable of just sitting in silence. “The test of absolutely everything in life,” she tells him, “is the quality of the in-between silences. It’s only in silence that you can judge of your relationship to a person.” At the end of Chapter Four, however, which is devoted to a busy day at the dental office, Richardson leaves us with the closest thing to a cliff-hanger to be found in Pilgrimage. Returning home, Miriam finds a letter from Hypo waiting: “Dear Miriam … When can I see you? Just to talk.”
What happens next? Tune in next time, kids, for another exciting episode of Pilgrimage.
Revolving Lights, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1923
Deadlock (Internet Archive, Amazon) opens the third volume in any of the various four-volume editions of Pilgrimage. Roughly half way through, in other words, at least in terms of pages. And I suspect that many readers find themselves giving up hope at this point.
The problem is that the flow of Miriam Henderson’s thoughts here begins to flow at such an unmoderated rate that anyone who hasn’t by now become accustomed, if not enamored, with it can be excused for turning away and gasping for air. Dorothy Richardson clearly put intense effort into capturing these thoughts and sensations by mining her own memories. But at times — and those time start coming more frequently as the chapters roll on — artistry (and here I take the definition of artist from that old quip: “Someone who know when to stop — and does”) becomes the victim of authenticity. As Rebecca West once wrote, “Miriam’s interior monologue went deeper and deeper, and in the end Dorothy Richardson would not interrupt it to record such external facts as the going out and coming in of other characters, with the result that is is never certain who is speaking to whom.” Or when, either, as she increasingly began to play with time, leaping backwards and forwards with no notice and few clues to ensure the reader could keep up with her.
Deadlock is further weighted down with a few too many philosophical discussions, none of which I can imagine are of any serious interest to today’s readers. Yes, Miriam’s intellectual development, her exposure to different political, moral, scientific, and cultural perspectives and beliefs, is a major element of her process of self-discovery, and in that way, absolutely important. But page after page of, say, a conversation about the virtues and shortcomings of the French versus the Russian versus the English, benefits neither our understanding of Miriam nor the narrative momentum. After a few too many of these, I could not help but agree with the nameless woman in the following snippet from one such discussion:
“I think I have said” — his face beaming with the repressed radiance of an invading smile, was lifted towards the audience, but the blue eyes modestly addressed the frill of green along the platform edge — “that metaphysic, with respect to some of the conceptions of science, while admitting that they have their uses for practical purposes, denies that they are exactly true. Theology does not deny the problems of metaphysic, but answers them in a way metaphysic cannot accept.”
“In that case theology,” began a rich, reverberating clerical voice . . .
“This is veggy boring,” said the woman.
Richardson’s tendency to allow the ideas being discussed to drown out the spirit of a conversation particularly plagues what otherwise would be the centerpiece of Deadlock: Miriam’s acquaintance, then friendship, then unsure romance with Michael Shatov, a lively, sophisticated, and highly opinionated Russian Jew living (initially) in the same boarding house as Miriam. Michael is Miriam’s guide, introducing her to a number of different the philosophical and political movements. They share an enthusiasm for Emerson. She is excited by his willingness to accept her as an intellectual being, to consider her having an equal capacity for intelligence and discrimination. They kiss — at least once — and she refers to him as her “dear, funny little man.”
But Miriam is also never free from her constant conflict between the expectations of other people and her own need for solitude and introspection. And Michael helps usher Miriam towards what is perhaps the greatest discovery along her pilgrimage — namely, her ability to reach much greater depths of understanding through writing. At first, it’s not really writing but translating, translating a lecture written by another boarder, a Frenchman named Lahitte. As she translates Lahitte’s piece, however, she becomes aware that her own sense of prose style is far better than his — indeed, that she can express herself quite well. The moment is a great turning point in Pilgrimage, like its first great turning point: the recognition of her room at Mrs. Baileys as her haven. “You know in advance when you are really following your life,” Miriam thought at that time. Looking at her papers, she is reminded of that moment:
Rising from the table she found her room strange, the new room she had entered on the day of her arrival. She remembered drawing the cover from the table by the window and finding the ink-stains. There they were in the warm bright circle of mid-morning lamplight, showing between the scattered papers. The years that had passed were a single short interval leading to the restoration of that first moment. Everything they contained centred there; her passage through them, the desperate graspings and droppings, had been a coming back. Nothing would matter now that the paper-scattered lamp-lit circle was established as the centre of life. Everything would be an everlastingly various joyful coming back. Held up by this secret place, drawing her energy from it, any sort of life would do that left this room and its little table free and untouched.
And ironically, this realization also tempers — perhaps forever — Miriam’s expectations of connecting with other people, and Michael in particular — through conversation. A thought occurs to her in the midst of a discussion of women’s rights that could almost be seen as Richardson’s credo: “If only one could speak as quickly as one’s thoughts flashed, and several thoughts together, all with a separate life of their own and yet belonging, everybody would be understood.” Unfortunately, she concludes that, “As it was, even in the most favourable circumstances, people could hardly communicate with each other at all.”
There are other reasons that lead Miriam … well, not so much to break up with Michael as to choose not go further in their relationship. One is something in his past that she finds she cannot accept. What it was — an old love? a shameful episode? indecent exposure? — is a mystery, given Richardson’s hyper-oblique treatment:
“Before you go,” Mr. Shatov was saying. She turned towards his suddenly changed voice, saw his pale face, grave, and working with the determination to difficult speech; saw him, while she stood listening to the few tense phrases in painful admiration of his courage, horribly transformed, by the images he evoked far away, immovable in the sunshine of his earlier days. The very trembling of his voice had attested the agonising power of his communication. Yet behind it all, with what a calmness of his inner mind, had he told her, now, only now, when they were set in the bright amber of so many days, that he had been lost to her, forever, long ago in his independent past. The train was drawing in. She turned away speechless.
I leave it to your filthy imagination to fill in the details.
And the other reason is, ahem, the Jewish question. Michael tells Miriam that he would not expect her to convert if they were married, tells her that he has no special religious feelings himself, but there is something about the fact of his being Jewish that becomes like a scab she cannot resist picking. And so, having learned of an Englishwoman who married a Jew and converted, Miriam writes and goes to learn about the woman’s experience. Again, in typical Richardson style, much is inferred from glancing references and truncated conversations. “Much of course depends upon the synagogue through which one is admitted,” the woman tells her. “Ah,” Miriam thinks; “she had felt the impossibilities. She had compromised and was excusing her compromise.”
This episode, and numerous other references to Jews and Jewishness in Pilgrimage — none of them in the least suggestive that Jews are malicious or devious or racially impure or any of the other stereotypes of outright anti-Antisemitism — obviously leave today’s reader a little unsettled. There are just enough hints of an other-ness about Jews that Richardson will never get a clean bill of tolerance. And that graduate students will for years to come find an easy subject to base theses and dissertations on.
Deadlock ends with Miriam closing the door on her relationship with Michael; and the next chapter, Revolving Lights opens another on the relationship that will keep Richardson’s name in the history books no matter what happens to Pilgrimage: Miriam’s relationship with Hypo Wilson, the fictional counterpart of H. G. Wells, with whom Richardson had a brief affair that led (it is believed) to a miscarriage.
Deadlock, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1921
Interim (Internet Archive, Amazon) opens (once again) with Miriam, bag in hand, on a doorstep. In this case, it’s at the Putney home of Grace and Florrie Broom, two sisters who were her students at Wordsworth House in Backwater. Miriam is spending Christmas (1896) with the Brooms, whose house and friendship remains, throughout Pilgrimage, a haven of acceptance and calm. Although there were real-life counterparts of the Broom sisters, with whom she remained close until their deaths in the 1930s, Richardson never disclosed their real names; however, in an article in Pilgrimages: The Dorothy Richardson Society Journal, Rebecca Bowler and Carol Overhill speculate that they were Ethel and Kathleen Higgins, two sisters recorded as students at Edgeworth House in the 1891 census.
Despite the hospitality and affection of the Brooms, however, Miriam cannot shake the sense of being an outsider. Walking in the High Street near their home, she observes the people bustling about on last-minute Christmas errands. “Long ago,” she muses, “she had passed out of their world for ever, carrying it forward, a wound in her consciousness unhealed, but powerless to re-inflict itself, powerless to spread into her life…. [T]hey could never touch her again, ensconced in her wealth.” Miriam may not have a clear idea of what she wants to do with her life, but with each chapter, her convictions about what she doesn’t want grow ever stronger.
As mentioned at the end of the post on The Tunnel, with the decision of her landlady, Mrs. Bailey, to take on boarders (meaning renters who take meals at the house), Miriam’s circle of acquaintances must, unavoidably, expand. Soon after, she is startled to hear a dinner gong sound downstairs: “They were having tea. Of course; every day; life going on down there in the dining-room.” Miriam’s routines have already become so solitary that such a normal event almost strike her as bizarre.
Richardson’s description of Miriam’s thoughts in this moment would be comical if the reader hadn’t grown familiar to how fiercely she fights to preserve her identity as a separate and independent person:
Involuntarily her feet were on the stairs. She went down the narrow flight holding to the balustrade to steady the stumbling of her benumbed limbs. What was she doing? Going down to Mrs. Bailey; going to stand for a moment close by Mrs. Bailey’s tea-tray. No; impossible to let the Baileys save her; having done nothing for herself. Impossible to be beholden to the Baileys for anything. Restoration by them would be restoration to shame. She had moved unconsciously. Her life was still her own. She was in the world, in a house, going down some stairs. For the present the pretense of living could go on. She could not go back to her room; nor forward to any other room. She pushed blindly on, bitter anger growing within her. She had moved towards the Baileys. It was irrevocable. She had departed from all her precedents. She would always know it. Wherever she found herself it would always be there, at the root of her consciousness, shaming her, showing in everything she did or said.
Despite her resistance, however, into the dining room she goes, and quickly finds herself the object of considerable curiosity by Mrs. Baileys new (male) boarders: Antoine Bowdoin, an artistically-minded and musically-talented Frenchman; Bernard Mendizabal, a Spanish Jew who is variously taken for Italian, French, or Russian; and a trio of Canadian doctors following a course of specialty studies. And Miriam, in turn, is intrigued by their, well, foreignness. Her short time in Germany (Pointed Roofs) and a short trip to Belgium (barely mentioned in Backwater but referred to in later chapters) have only spurred her desire to know more about other cultures — in part, one suspects, for the opportunity they provide as contrasts to the prevailing English attitudes.
But she’s still a young and fairly naive woman, as is shown by her gushing reaction when she enters the apartment taken by Antoine Bowdoin, who is hosting a little musical soirée:
This was Bohemia! She glanced about. It was the explanation of the room. But it was impossible to imagine Trilby’s milk-call sounding at the door It was Bohemia; the table and chairs were Bohemian. Perhaps a big room like this would be even cheaper than a garret in St. Pancras. The neighbourhood did not matter. A bohemian room could hold its own anywhere. No furniture but chairs and a table, saying when you brought people in, “I am a Bohemian,” and having no one but Bohemians for friends.
Not surprisingly, Miriam’s ability to judge the motivations of these exotic foreigners is similarly immature. She spends a good deal of time with Mendizabal simply out of a desire to have her horizons widened, only to find out after the fact that he was trying to lead the other boarders to think they were having an affair — a fact which sends Dr. von Heber, the most eligible and interested of the Canadian doctors, to pack his bags and head home.
Miriam’s social range is also expanded by the increasing number of lectures she attends. Looking around during a lecture on Dante one evening, she is impressed by the attentiveness of a number of the women in the audience — and their ugly and weather-worn clothes. “[T]he women were really interested in it, they were like people who had climbed a hill and were eagerly intent on what they could see on the other side. It was refreshing and also in some way comforting to be with them. They represented something in life that was going to increase.”
Coming home in a rapture, though, she faces a dilemma: how to share this experience? Make it just a matter of passing conversation? “I have been to a lecture she said in imagination standing by the window. It was what any other boarder would have said and then so fine, such a splendid lecturer and told the subject and his name and one idea out of the lecture and they would have agreed and gone cheerfully to bed, with no thoughts.” Or just keep it to herself? To truly share it appears impossible: “To try and really tell anything about the lecture would be to plunge down into misrepresentations and misunderstandings and end with the lecture vanished.”
The core story in Interim is, in a way, the core story of Pilgrimage distilled down to its essence: how one woman learns to live in society while maintaining her own sense of self. In Miriam — and Richardson’s — case, the key was overcoming the fear of loneliness and coming to peace with her own need for a large share of solitude:
The only real misery in being alone was the fear of being left out of things. It was a wrong fear. It pushed you into things and then everything disappeared. Not to listen outside, where there was nothing to hear. In the end you came away empty with time gone and lost. . . . To remember, whatever happened, not to be afraid of being alone.
She stood staring at the sheeny gaslit brown-yellow varnish of the wall-paper above the mantelpiece. There was no thought in the silence, no past or future, nothing but the strange thing for which there were no words, something that was always there as if by appointment, waiting for one to get through to it away from everything in life. It was the thing that was nothing. Yet it seemed the only thing that came near and meant anything at all. It was happiness and realisation. It was being suspended, in nothing. It came out of oneself because it came only when one had been a long time alone.
The more I reflect on Pilgrimage as I write these posts, the more I am impressed by how contemporary and relevant is Miriam’s story. Thanks to the many ways in which our sense of what is “normal” has been expanded or exploded, it is perhaps easier than ever to choose one’s own path, even if it leads into less conventional, and hence less widely accepted, choices. But it’s still not so easy that a fair amount of risk-taking and courage isn’t involved. And, like life at any time in history, some mistakes and failures are unavoidable. Miriam Henderson should be seen as a heroine by anyone who wants to chart his or her own course: it isn’t easy; it takes a day-in, day-out, mindful effort; but it can be done. Pilgrimage is the story of one woman who did.
Interim, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1919
The Tunnel (Internet ArchiveAmazon) opens with another arrival, as Miriam Henderson comes, heavy bag in hand, to Mrs. Bailey’s lodging house at 7 Tansley Street (Richardson’s real life equivalent was at 7 Endsleigh Street) in Bloomsbury. There is no trace of the horror of her mother’s suicide that ended Honeycomb. This is Miriam feeling, for the first time, the freedom of an independent life in her adored London.
Its center is her attic room, a small somewhat run-down garret that to her seems like something close to heaven:
She closed the door and stood just inside it looking at the room. It was smaller than her memory of it. When she had stood in the -middle of the floor with Mrs. Bailey she had looked at nothing but Mrs. Bailey, waiting for the moment to ask about the rent. Coming upstairs she had felt the room was hers and barely glanced at it when Mrs. Bailey opened the door. From the moment of waiting on the stone steps outside the front door everything had opened to the movement of her impulse. She was surprised now at her familiarity with the detail of the room . . . that idea of visiting places in dreams. It was something more than that … all the real part of your life has a real dream in it; some of the real dream part of you coming true. You know in advance when you are really following your life.
This room and Mrs. Bailey’s house are truly at the heart of Pilgrimage, as Miriam is to remain here through the seventh chapter, Revolving Lights, and return to it again at the end of The Trap, and many of her experiences will be intertwined with people she meets here.
The Tunnel is easily the most delightful chapter in the entire series, so suffused are its pages with Miriam’s delight in her life and London: “London, just outside all the time, coming in with the light, coming in with the darkness, always present in the depths of the air in the room.” She pays seven shillings a week rent, out of the munificent salary of one pound per week that she receives in her new job as the secretary of a prestigious Harley Street dental surgery.
Most of the references I’ve seen to the fact that Richardson spent years working in a dentist’s office make it seem as if it had been some form of tedious penance. Quite the contrary, in fact: if Miriam’s experience mirror Dorothy’s (as they do a great but not absolute extent), she found it busy, challenging, and satisfying work. The whole of Chapter Three of The Tunnel — at 42 pages one of the longest in the entire series — is taken up with a blow-by-blow description of just one day in the office, as Miriam rushes between the two examination rooms of Doctors Hancock and Orly, tends to paperwork, ushers in patients, and brings supplies and impressions to and from the dentists and the little laboratory in the basement. And, as the photo above of the office’s waiting room, taken from Gloria Fromm’s biography of Richardson, shows, even the office’s decor could be described as hectic.
Miriam is greatly impressed by Dr. Hancock, the junior member of the practice but by far its professional superior. He has a taste for art, particularly Japanese, and is active in the British Dental Association, for whose journal, The Dental Record, Richardson would later write numerous articles and columns. He is also taken by Miriam’s enthusiasm and intelligence, and takes her to her first lectures at the Royal Institution. He briefly considers a romantic relationship with her, but Miriam gently dissuades him. Much as she admire him, she senses a gulf between their classes she could never overcome: “Never, never could she belong to that world. It was a perfect little world; enclosed; something one would need to be born and trained into; the experience of it as an outsider was pure pain and misery.” The word enclosed will come to hold great significance for Miriam as Pilgrimage, occurring again and again when she thinks of the prospect of entering into relationships with various men.
Dr. Hancock’s real life equivalent, Dr. John Henry Badcock, was, in fact, a leading figure in his profession, eventually becoming president of the British Dental Association which later established an annual series of lectures in his name. Badcock practiced at 140 Harley Street for forty-six years. He was very generous to Richardson, paying for several of her vacations, including the trip to Switzerland that would be the subject of Oberland, the ninth chapter in Pilgrimage, and corresponded with her up to his death in 1953.
Miriam’s daily walk from Mrs. Bailey’s to the dental surgery and back again is just the start of her London excursions. There seems to be nothing about London, not even sinister shadows and encounters with the occasional drunk, that she does not experience with delight. I take the risk of including the following lengthy excerpt to demonstrate just integral to Miriam’s world are the sensations of walking in London:
Strolling home towards midnight along the narrow pavement of Endsleigh Gardens Miriam felt as fresh and untroubled as if it were early morning. When she had got out of her Hammersmith omnibus into the Tottenham Court Road she had found that the street had lost its first terrifying impression and had become part of her home. It was the borderland of the part of London she had found for herself; the part where she was going to live, in freedom, hidden, on her pound a week. It was all she wanted. That was why she was young and glad; that was why fatigue had gone out of her life. There was nothing ins the world that could come nearer to her than the curious half twilight half moonlight effect of lamplit Endsleigh Gardens opening out of Gower Place; its huge high trees, their sharp shadows on the little pavement running by the side of the railings, the neighbouring gloom of the Euston Road dimly lit by lamps standing high in the middle of the roadway at long intervals, the great high quiet porched houses, black and still, the shadow mass of St. Pancras church, the great dark open space in front of the church, a shadowy figure-haunted darkness with the vague stream of the Euston Road running to one side of it and the corridor of Woburn Place opening on the other.
In The Tunnel, Miriam has her first encounters with women who refuse to be secondary figures in mens’ lives. She is first awed, then disgusted, by Miss Szigmondy, a sophisticated woman introduced to her by Dr. Hancock, as she comes to realize how deliberately the woman is manipulating the men affected by her beauty to serve her purposes. She finds herself taking another young woman, Eleanor Dark, somewhat unwillingly under her wing when Eleanor becomes homeless and jobless, and eventually comes to understand that she is also somewhat manipulative and devious, if to different ends. She befriends Mag and Jan, two wise-cracking and worldly women a little older than Miriam, whose disinterest in the affairs or opinions of men greatly encourage her. Her friendship with them will continue through the rest of the series.
And she discovers the liberating effects of a novel form of transportation — the woman’s bicycle. Able to afford one even on her small salary (picking up one second hand from Miss Szigmondy), she overcomes the awkwardness and embarrassment of her first attempts to use it and soon finds herself exploring the far reaches of London. One Saturday, in fact, she rides so far out into the countryside that she is forced to spend a night in a village inn after she gets a puncture in a tire. Cycling also brings liberation to her wardrobe, as less cumbersome skirts become available to meet the demands of lady cyclists.
The Tunnel also introduces what will become one of the most significant relationships in Miriam’s life. An old school friend, Alma Wilson, invites her to join her husband and some of their friends for a weekend at their country house. Alma’s husband, Hypo, has begun to enjoy great success as a writer, particularly of imaginative and politically provocative novels. Hypo is the fictional equivalent of H. G. Wells, which whose wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, attended Miss Sandell’s school in Putney with Richardson. Hypo is the first to encourage Miriam to write and, much later in the series, enter into an affair with her. The affair results in a pregnancy and miscarriage, as was the case for Richardson and Wells, although Richardson’s treatment of the matter in both fiction and real life was so discreet as to require a fair amount of tea-reading by would-be biographers.
In the last scene of The Tunnel, Mrs. Bailey informs Miriam that she has decided to turn her lodgings into a boarding house, and with the next chapter, Interim, the horizon of Miriam’s social world will increase significantly.
Having just finished the last chapter, March Moonlight, I would say that The Tunnel is, in my view, the most representative book in the entire Pilgrimage series. Many of the situations and thoughts that occur to Miriam in its pages will re-occur, in nuanced variations, throughout much of the rest of the series, and the style and content of the book is among Richardson’s most consistently interesting and vivid. If you were not ready to take on the challenge of reading the full series and wanted to read just one book, The Tunnel would have to be the one I’d recommend.
The Tunnel, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1919
Honeycomb (Amazon/Internet Archive) opens with Miriam Henderson stepping off a train at a dark English country station late one March evening in 1895. Many of the chapters in Pilgrimage begin with Miriam setting off for or arriving at some place, reinforcing the sense of a journey implicit in the title. Having spent the months since leaving Edgeworth House school at the end of Backwater cooped up in the small house in west London that has been loaned to her family by Bennett, the fiance of her sister Sarah, she is grateful to taking on a new position as governess to the two children of the Corries. Mr. Corrie is a successful lawyer, a Q. C. (Queen’s Counsel) prosecuting high-profile cases in London, commuting each day from their large villa outside London, and his wife is a kind but superficial and somewhat crass woman of leisure.
Honeycomb covers a similarly brief time as Pointed Roofs and Backwater, about four months, from March to June, plus a brief episode at the end in the fall of 1895. Whatever Miriam aspires to become, by the end of Honeycomb, it is clear that it will not involve teaching. Although May Sinclair was to write, in her famous review published after the publication of Honeycomb, that “In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens,” a survey of the chapters in the book do, in fact, demonstrate not only that things do happen but that Richardson did provide some structure to her work and did not simply let one continuous stream of consciousness (to use the phrase applied by Sinclair):
Miriam arrives at Newlands
Her first day and her introduction to the Corrie’s children and household
A day in which Miriam thrills to a late snow
Her second week at the Corries
A day in London accompanying Mrs. Corrie on a hat-shopping trip
A short, rapturous walk Miriam takes while Mrs. Corrie visits with a friend
Miriam takes a quick trip to London to shop for a wedding present with a potential suitor
Miriam walks into town and a scrappy bull-dog follows her back to the house
A weekend in May, during which Miriam wearies of the Corries and their friends
Miriam returns home to attend the dual wedding of her sisters Sarah and Harriet
Miriam accompanies her mother to Hastings, hoping the rest will improve her mother’s depression
It won’t qualify as a cliffhanger, admittedly, but clearly there is some shape and direction here.
Honeycomb shows Miriam still overcoming tremendous naïveté. She stumbles upon Mr. Corrie’s private study, a “curious soft brown room” that fascinates her, and she fantasizes about him using the space to engage in profound thinking: “… she would say, ‘What do you think about everything?’ Not so much to hear what he thought, but because some of his thoughts would be her thoughts.”
In contrast, she quickly realizes that, although a woman with impeccable taste in clothes and the ability to maintain a beautiful and orderly house, Mrs. Corrie is vapid and uncultured. The two children were spoiled and immature: “For years life had been for them just what it was to-day — breakfast in bed, chirping at their mother from the dressing-rooms where they slept, and scolding at Stokes as she waited on their toilet….” They were used to an hour or two of the most superficial teaching –usually just reading from Rollo books — and being allowed to spend most of the day riding their ponies and running about in the yard. By her second week, she concludes that “it was impossible and would always be impossible to make two hours of application anything but an irrelevant interval in their lives.”
And the Corries’ friends, who frequently come out from London for weekends, are well-off, on top of the latest society gossip, and utterly philistine. “What sort of place is Balone to stay in?” Mr. Corrie asks one just returned from France. “Why do you call it Balone?” the friend demands, and informs him that the correct pronunciation is “Balloyne.” “Oh, Lord, they mean Bologne,” Miriam realizes. For her, their wooden ears are symptoms of a general deafness to the world:
What did it matter, after all, the right pronunciation ? It did matter; not that Balone was wrong, but the awfulness of being able to miss the right sound if you had once heard it spoken. There was some awful meaning in the way English people missed the right sound; all the names in India, all the Eastern words. How could an English traveller hear hahreem, and speak it hairum, Aswan and say Ass-ou-ann ? It made them miss other things and think wrongly about them.
As grows increasingly apparent in Pilgrimage, some of Miriam’s most significant experiences are those that take place as she sits by herself in a room. The many quiet nights at the Corries’ give her time to indulge even more in one of her favorite pastimes, reading. After going through dozens of popular novels while staying at Edgeworth House, her taste in books has grown a little more sophisticated: “If it was finished and the interest gone when you know who married who, what was the good of reading at all?” Instead, her enthusiasm for Ouida’s work grows:
That was why Ouida put those others in the shade, not, not, not because her books were improper. It was her, herself somehow. Then you read books to find the author ! That was it. That was the difference . . . that was how one was different from most people. . . . Dear Eve [one of Miriam’s sisters]: I have just discovered that I don’t read books for the story, but as a psychological study of the author . . . she must write that to Eve at once; to-morrow. It was rather awful and strange. It meant never being able to agree with people about books, never liking them for the same reasons as other people. . . . But it was true and exciting. It meant . . . things coming to you out of books, people, not the people in the books, but knowing, absolutely, everything about the author. She clung to the volume in her hand with a sense of wealth.
As many have suggested, the greatest love story in Pilgrimage is that of Miriam’s passion for London. And when she accompanies Mrs. Corrie on a hat-shopping trip to London, she is perfectly happy to be politely ejected for an hour when Mrs. Corrie stops for tea and gossip at a friend’s Mayfair flat. She seizes the chance and experiences a rapturous thrill as she walks toward Regent Street:
Wide golden streaming Regent Street was quite near. Some near narrow street would lead into it.
Flags of pavement flowing along — smooth clean grey squares and oblongs, faintly polished, shaping and drawing away — sliding into each other. … I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone . . . sunlit; gleaming under dark
winter rain; shining under warm sunlit rain, sending up a fresh stony smell . . . always there . . . dark and light . . . dawn, stealing . . .
Life streamed up from the close dense stone. With every footstep she felt she could fly.
There will be many more such walks before the series is through.
While Richardson felt that — as she once wrote an inquiring reader — that “the handing out of direct information is . . . excluded” in her writing, she does firmly, if obliquely, set the time frame of Honeycomb with a reference to Oscar Wilde’s first trial, on his charge of criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensbury, Alfred Douglas’ father:
“What is it ? ” said Miriam, shaking and flushing. ” Don’t tell me, don’t tell me,” cried her mind, “don’t mention it, you don’t know yourself what it is. Nobody knows what anything is.”
“I couldn’t tell you!” cried Mrs. Corrie.
“Why not?” laughed Miriam.
“It’s too awful,” giggled Mrs. Corrie.
“Oh, you must tell me now you’ve begun.”
“It’s the most awful thing there is. It’s in the Bible,” said Mrs. Corrie, and fled into the house.
It was agreed that for her mother’s health, Dorothy and she were to go into lodgings at Hastings. There was again the persistent illusion that “sea-air” was good for invalids no matter what was wrong with them, and it was hoped that Hastings with its esplanade and bandstand and pavilion would life the depression that had settled over Mrs. Richardson’s mind. . . . On November 30, 1895, at Hastings, Dorothy Richardson took a short morning walk away from her lodgings. On her return she learned from her landlady that her mother had committed suicide by cutting her throat with a kitchen knife.
It’s hard to imagine a more horrific experience for a young woman, and the knowledge that the suicide took place while she had left her mother alone must have produced a crushing sense of guilt.
It’s also hard to imagine that any reader would have a clear understanding of the event from the way Richardson describes it in the last two pages of Honeycomb. Returning to the lodging from a visit to a homeopathic practitioner, Miriam’s mother tells her that “God has deserted me. . . . He will not let me sleep. He does not want me to sleep. . . . He does not care.” Just two paragraphs later, we read:
The bony old woman held Miriam clasped closely in her arms. “You must never, as long as you live, blame yourself, my gurl. She went away. Miriam had not heard her come in. The pressure of her arms and her huge body came from far away. Miriam clasped her hands together. She could not feel them. Perhaps she had dreamed that the old woman had come in and said that. Everything was dream; the world. I shall not have any life. I can never have any life; all my days.
I had read Gregory’s book before starting Pilgrimage, but even with that forewarning it took me a second reading of the last chapter of Honeycomb to realize that this was how Dorothy Richardson placed in the life of her fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson, what must have been a violent and life-searing memory. Though some critics argue that Pilgrimage itself was how Richardson expunged her sense of guilt, I can’t agree. George Thomson’s Notes on Pilgrimage identifies a total of two references to Miriam’s mother in the entire series (I think I found a third). More telling, though, is the fact that there are no references to Richardson’s mother in the nearly-700 pages of her letters, spanning over four decades, collected in Windows on Modernism. One cannot help but wonder if what she expunged was the memory itself.
Honeycomb, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1917
In Backwater (Internet Archive, Amazon), Miriam once again goes to work as a teacher in a girl’s school, but closer to home this time, on opposite Banbury Park in North London. (Dorothy Richardson’s real life equivalent was on Seven Sister’s Road, opposite Finsbury Park.) The book’s title reflects Miriam/Dorothy’s opinion of North London: “shabby, ugly and shabby.” She despises the same-ness of the houses, the little neat houses with little neat fences, all aspiring to a common denominator of conventionality. Although Miriam is still in an early stage of her journey of self-discovery, she already recognizes a great divide between herself and the people she meets in North London: “The people passing along them were unlike any she knew. There were no ladies, no gentlemen, no girls or young men such as she knew. They were all alike. They were . . . She could find no word for the strange impression they made.” Indeed, for her, there is almost an alien quality to them:
Off every tram-haunted main road, there must be a neighbourhood like this where lived the common-mouthed harsh-speaking people who filled the pavements and shops and walked in the parks. To enter one of the little houses and speak there to its inmates would be to be finally claimed and infected by the life these people lived, the thing that made them what they were.
Miriam joins the staff of Wordsworth House, which is run by the Pernes, three spinster sisters — Miss Deborah, Miss Jenny, and Miss Haddie, all “dressed in thin fine black material” and with “tiny hands and little softly moving feet.” Miriam quickly develops mixed feelings for the sisters. On the one hand, she finds a genuine spirit of Christian charity in them, and she appreciates the freedom they allow her in shaping the curriculum she teaches the younger girls in the school. But she also finds the sisters stereotypical in their conventional attitudes toward education, culture, religion … and women.
Likewise, the sisters find Miriam a bit of an odd fish. One Sunday, after she rejects the value of the Anglican service they have attended with the girls, she and Miss Haddie find themselves on opposite sides on the basic question of the role of clergy. Miss Haddie is ready to put all her trust in their vicar’s ability to see to their spiritual needs. Miriam disagrees: “Oh, but I think that’s positively dangerous,” said Miriam gravely. “It simply means leaving your mind open for whatever they choose to say.”
“Did ye discuss any of your difficulties with yer vicar?” Miss Haddie asks with concern.
“He wasn’t capable of answering them,” replies Miriam.
“Ye’re an independent young woman,” concludes Miss Haddie.
As usual, George H. Thomson helps explain the links between the fictional world of Backwater and its counterparts in Richardson’s own life. In an article for the Proceedings of the Dorothy Richardson Society, he writes,
Who were the Pernes of Backwater? They were a trio of maiden sisters named Ayre who conducted a private school in North London called Edgeworth House at 28 Alexandra Villas, which was also 28 Seven Sisters Road opposite Finsbury Park. In the Autumn of 1892 Dorothy Richardson began to teach in their school, her job was to look after the younger students. Her employers were Anna Mary Ayre, the Principal, and her sisters Emma Ainsley and Isabella Reed Ayre. A fourth sister, Fanny Ellen Ayre, had died in March 1892, six months before Dorothy Richardson arrived. And a fifth sister Annie Oxley Ayre, in 1884 at the age of 40, had married.
Miriam’s personal revolution against the conventions of her day is marked by several small victories in Backwater. She realizes, for the first time, that a young man is interested in marrying her — and quickly dismisses the idea as ridiculous. She discovers a source of cheap popular novels, including some by Ouida, and sits up into the wee hours reading in her room. Inspired by Ouida’s passionate — and politically liberal — romances, she thinks, “I don’t care what people think or say. I am older than anyone here in this house. I am myself.” And she smokes her first cigarette:
Her nostrils breathed in smoke, and as she tasted the burnt flavour the sweetness of the unpolluted air all around her was a new thing. The acrid tang in her nostrils intoxicated her. She drew more boldly. There was smoke in her mouth. She opened it quickly, sharply exhaling a yellow cloud oddly different from the grey spirals wreathing their way from the end of the cigarette. She went on drawing in mouthful after mouthful of smoke, expelling each quickly with widely-opened lips, turning to look at the well-known room through the yellow haze and again at the sky, which drew nearer as she puffed at it. The sight of the tree-tops scrolled with her little clouds brought her a sense of power. She had chosen to smoke and she was smoking, and the morning world gleamed back at her….
And she begins to experience a sense of herself that, at times, strikes her with near-ecstatic intensity: “She became aware of a curious buoyancy rising within her. It was so strange that she stood still for a moment on the stair…. It was as if something had struck her, struck right through her impalpable body, sweeping it away, leaving her there shouting silently without it. I’m alive…. I’m alive…. ‘It’s me, me; this is me being alive.'”
Miriam stays at the school for nearly a year and a half, but finds the gulf between she sensibility and that of the Pernes sisters too great to be endured, and once again, she moves on. As the sisters present her with an expensive umbrella in a farewell ceremony, though, she is surprised, to witness the effect she has had on the sisters and the students: “… the amazement of hearing from various quarters of the room violent and repeated nose-blowings, and away near the door in the voice of a girl she had hardly spoken to a deep heavy contralto sobbing.”
Backwater, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1916
As I mentioned in my introductory post on Pilgrimage, there have been five editions in which the complete set of chapters/novels were published:
A four-volume set with 12 chapters/novels, from J. M. Dent and Cresset Press in 1938
A four-volume set with 12 chapters/novels, from Knopf in 1938
A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from J. M. Dent in 1967
A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from Popular Library in 1976
A four-volume set with 13 chapters/novels, from Virago in 1979
Of these, by far the oddest is the mass-market paperback set from Popular Library, one of which I am now the proud owner of.
I kind of remember seeing these when they first came out. As an English major, I was vaguely aware of Dorothy Richardson, probably having seen a reference to her in some survey piece I had to read as part of Prof. Malcolm Brown’s course on the 20th century British novel, but knew not much more than that she was lumped with Virginia Woolf, who I considered (at the time, and in the words of one of my classmates) “too adjective-y.” But when I saw these on the shelf, probably of the University Book Store , is it any wonder that I quickly labelled and filed them away under “soft porn”?
If I bothered to open any of the four volumes — and I’m sure I didn’t — nothing in the inside cover would have dissuaded me from that opinion. To help would-be readers out, Popular Libary provided one-line synopses of the chapters:
• Pointed Roofs
“filled with the intrigues and hidden passions of a German girl’s school…”
“a school of life and love in London, where two different men each demand that Miriam be his…”
“an escape from the bondage of the flesh into the ecstasies of the spirit…”
“in which Miriam Henderson plunges into an affair with a man of an alien race…”
• The Trap
“a world of women who scorn men — an inverted world that welcomes Miriam with open arms…”
• Dawn’s Left Hand
“introducing Miriam to the joys and the agonies of a passionate love between two women…”
Even now, it makes me want to wash my hands.
And then there are the cover photos. OK, they are true on one point: Miriam is a woman.
But the books are set between 1893 and 1915. And Miriam is short (5′ 4″, according to Richardson). And not considered particularly good looking by any of the men she encounters. And a brunette. Who was probably lucky to wash her hair more than once every few weeks, and who certainly never used a conditioner. And, though I haven’t done my research on this point, I’m pretty sure she never used lip gloss, either. Or had her portraits taken by Bob Guccione.
Contrary to the tag line above each volume title, Pilgrimage was not a “towering novel of the female revolution.” If it was, the females lost, unless “level of self-knowledge” had more political power back then than it does now.
In case we unwary buyers weren’t convinced by the covers, the backs of the books further promised that this could the kind of soft porn you could read in public — sort of like Proust meets Emmanuele:
Now, anyone who bothered to read the finer print below it would actually get a fairly objective description of Pilgrimage:
The magnificent novels that comprise Pilgrimage constitute one of the most enthralling and revealing [as in illuminating, not as in she takes her clothes off … a lot] fiction experiences of our time. Each novel is designed as a separate drama, but all form beautifully wrought links of a chain of being and becoming that lead its remarkable heroine, Miriam, through the major conflicts and decisions that have affected humanity, and most particularly women, in our century of crisis and change.
In this extraordinary work of art, Dorothy Richardson creates a style and projects a vision that give twentieth women both a voice and an identity. For this is woman’s fiction in the finest sense of the term — fiction that explores the many facets of modern life, whether sex or politics, friendship or art, though the eyes of a woman bent on changing the world as she changes herself. Long considered by leading critics one of the key achievements of modern literature, Pilgrimage at least reaches the American public in this four-volume edition.
The trouble is, if soft porn is what you have in mind, you could read all of the above and think this was a female version of My Secret Life (which was also, by the way, a fairly regular item in a liberated fiction section in the late 1970s).
There is little chance that this Popular Library series will make a permanent mark in publishing or literary history. Quality was never a hallmark of the company. As you can see from the above, the four books are actually even the same size, quite. When I got this set in the mail recently, I opened up the first volume and the brittle cover proceeded to break off completely from the binding. Another decade or two, and these puppies will self-destruct. And another scarifying ’70s relic will, thankfully, be lost forever.
The opening chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs (Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Amazon) immediately launches into Miriam Henderson’s long voyage of self-discovery. Like Richardson, she has been forced by her father’s bankruptcy into finding paying work through one of the very limited set of choices available to a well-bred, somewhat schooled, middle-class young woman in the England of 1890s. And like Richardson, what she obtains is a placement as an English teacher in a small private girl’s school in Germany.
As she travels with her father from England through Holland to Germany, Miriam swings back and forth between eager anticipation at the novelty and adventure of her first time in foreign countries and grave doubts about whether she is up to the challenge. Her willingness to go it on her own is helped along to some extent by her irritation at her father’s attempts to glorify the situation:
He was standing near her with the Dutchman who had helped her off the boat and looked after her luggage. The Dutchman was listening, deferentially. Miriam saw the strong dark blue beam of his eyes.
“Very good, very good,” she heard him say, “fine education in German schools.”
Both men were smoking cigars.
She wanted to draw herself upright and shake out her clothes.
“Select,” she heard, “excellent staff of masters… daughters of gentlemen.”
“Pater is trying to make the Dutchman think I am being taken as a pupil to a finishing school in Germany.” She thought of her lonely pilgrimage to the West End agency, of her humiliating interview, of her heart-sinking acceptance of the post, the excitements and misgivings she had had, of her sudden challenge of them all that evening after dinner, and their dismay and remonstrance and reproaches–of her fear and determination in insisting and carrying her point and making them begin to be interested in her plan.
After a long train ride through Holland and northern Germany, they arrive in Hanover, where her father leaves Miriam at a school run by Fräulein Lily Pfaff in a large house near the old part of town (whose medieval half-timbered houses and roofs inspired the title of this chapter). The school had about a dozen boarding students, a mix of German and English girls between the ages of 8 and 14 — barely younger than Miriam/Dorothy herself, who was just 17 when she came to the school. Typical of the educational approach for such girls at the time, Fräulein Pfaff’s curriculum is a mix of language instruction (German, French, English), singing and piano lessons, sewing, and religious training by a Lutheran pastor, with many idle hours and occasional outings. Perfect preparation, in other words, for a life as the well cared-for and placid wife of a comfortably rich man.
I am indebted–and will be throughout the rest of these posts on Pilgrimage–on George H. Thomson’s A Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (1996) and his Notes on Pilgrimage: Dorothy Richardson Annotated (1999). The former provides a detailed chronology of the narrative events, the latter identifies and explains the many otherwise cryptic references in the text and reveals the depth to which his research took Thomson into such esoterica as card games, popular songs, railway routes and fares, and London shops of the period (1893-1915) covered by the books. In addition, Gloria Fromm’s Dorothy Richardson: A Biography (1977) is invaluable in providing a key to the ways in which characters, places, and events in Miriam Henderson’s life do — and do not — mirror those of Richardson’s.
With the help of Thomson and Fromm, for example, we can identify that Fräulein Pfaff’s real-life counterpart was Fräulein Lily Pabst, who ran the school at 13 Meterstrasse (Google Maps) in Hanover at which Richardson taught in the first half of 1891 (two years earlier than Miriam). According to Fromm’s biography, Richardson did not realize until halfway through writing the book that she had been using the real names of her characters, when she changed Pabst to Pfaff. In some cases, she never did come up with fictional alternatives.
As one might expect for a girl barely out of school herself and with no formal training or preparation to teach, Miriam is filled with doubts. Even before she leaves home, she dreams of being rejected by her students: “They came and stood and looked at her, and saw her as she was, without courage, without funds or good clothes or beauty, without charm or interest, without even the skill to play a part. They looked at her with loathing.” Riding through Germany, she looks out at the night as anxious thoughts run through her mind:
It was a fool’s errand . . . to undertake to go to the German school and teach . . . to be going there . . . with nothing to give. The moment would come when there would be a class sitting round a table waiting for her to speak. . . . How was English taught? How did you begin? English grammar . . . in German? Her heart beat in her throat. She had never thought of that . . . the rules of English grammar? Parsing and analysis…. Anglo-Saxon prefixes and suffixes … gerundial infinitive…. It was too late to look anything up.
And while she never does lose those doubts, Miriam manages to charm her girls with her youth and enthusiasm for the experience. However, she also quickly realizes that she is temperamentally incapable of going along quietly with a curriculum designed to produce passive and unquestioning helpmates. She seethes inside as the girls have a simplistic Lutheran dogma drilled into their heads and are led off to spend hours at services at the local church. She begins to realize how exceptional — if still imperfect — was her own schooling, which encouraged girls to think beyond marriage as a future: “the artistic vice-principal — who was a connection by marriage of Holman Hunt’s and had met Ruskin, Miriam knew, several times — had gone from girl to girl round the collected fifth and sixth forms asking them each what they would best like to do in life.” Tellingly, Miriam’s prompt response was, that she wanted to “write a book.”
Pointed Roofs introduces us to two themes that will remain constant throughout Pilgrimage: the role of music and clothes in Miriam’s world. For Miriam and her sisters (like Richardson, she has two older and one younger sister), music is an essential part of their lives. A piano and a rich collection of sheet music is the centerpiece of the family’s living room, and they all spend hours playing and singing, by themselves, with family, and for parties. Musical references account for a considerable share of Thomson’s annotations. In just the first 100 pages, Miriam thinks of, plays, or hears The Mikado, “Abide with Me,” Don Giovanni, Lohengrin, Chopin nocturnes, Beethoven sonatas, Mendelsohn’s Spring Song, and songs from the period like “Beauty’s Eyes,” “Venetian Song,” and “In Old Madrid.”
And there are her clothes. Miriam is lucky enough to have avoided the worst of the days of corsets and stays, but the awkwardness of women’s clothing of the time and the shabbiness, age, and poor quality of her own is an irritation never too far from her mind. Walking out in the chill of one of her first days in Hanover, she catalogs the shortcomings of her English clothes:
She hated, too, the discomfort of walking thus at this pace through streets along pavements in her winter clothes. They hampered her horribly. Her heavy three-quarter length coat made her too warm and bumped against her as she hurried along–the little fur pelerine which redeemed its plainness tickled her neck and she felt the outline of her
stiff hat like a board against her uneasy forehead. Her inflexible boots soon tired her.
Her family’s effort to supplement her wardrobe don’t help, either: “‘We are sending you out two blouses. Don’t you think you’re lucky?’ Miriam glanced out at the young chestnut leaves drooping in tight pleats from black twigs … ‘real grand proper blouses the first you’ve ever had, and a skirt to wear them with … won’t you be within an inch of your life!'” As Pilgrimage progresses, Miriam’s struggles to deal with cheap shoes, dowdy blouses, and skirts that show all the stains and marks of daily wear in a working world are reminders of the meager circumstances to which her poorly-paid jobs condemn her, and the fine dresses and hats she sees other women in are symbols of a power and privilege she can never aspire to.
Miriam’s enthusiam for her German adventure carries her through the worst days, but she unwittingly earns Fräulein Pfaff’s criticism: “You have a most unfortunate manner,” the school mistress tells her. “If you should fail to become more genial, more simple and natural as to your bearing, you will neither make yourself understood nor will you be loved by your pupils.” Though Miriam would like to stay on at the school, she runs into a simple financial predicament when they arrive at the summer holiday period. Two of the girls invite her to join them and their families at the North Sea, but she simply lacks the money to cover the expense of her lodging and food. And Fräulein Pfaff makes little effort to encourage her to stay. Just five months after coming to Hanover, Miriam boards a train to return to England, knowing she may never come back to Germany again.
Pointed Roofs superbly introduces us to Richardson’s style, viewpoint, and journey. Miriam is still awakening, still naïve, and still tentative in her engagements with the adult world, but she already has a strong sense of an inner drive that will not easily accept the conventions of her day. In its very first paragraph, Richardson tells us that contemplation is as essential to Miriam’s being as breathing: “There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over….” As Walter Allen wrote in his introduction to the 1967 J. M. Dent collected edition, the first complete edition of the novel, “Pilgrimage shows us, uniquely, what it felt like to be a young woman, ardent, aspiring, fiercely independent, determined to live her own life in the profoundest sense….” Having just passed the halfway point through Pilgrimage, I think it may represent the high point so far in my year-plus exploration of the world as seen through the eyes of women writers.
Pointed Roofs, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1915
Depending on one’s perspective, A Prison, A Paradise is one remarkable book or two remarkable books in one cover. The first half, “The Summer Birdcage,” is the diary of a woman caught up in a mad, bad love triangle that nearly destroyed two of the three principals; the second, “The Tilted Spiral,” the diary of a woman consumed in a quest for a spiritual love that could overcome her earthly concerns. The first book competes with Alison Waley’s A Half of Two Lives, discussed here last year, as an account of a passion pursued about twenty exits past all reason; the second has been compared with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. And together, they tell the story of a woman who, as Kathleen Raine put it in her introduction, “followed the unfashionable vocation of living her thoughts.”
In A Prison, A Paradise, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. “Loran Hurnscot,” an anagram of “Sloth and Rancour” — which she saw as her principal sins — was Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall, who was known Gay Taylor after she married Harold Midgeley Taylor (referred to as Hubert Tindal in the book), an idealistic and tubercular aesthete whose failed enterprises included the Golden Cockerel Press, which became one of the premier British art presses after it was bought by Robert Gibbings in 1924. In Taylor’s largely untrained hands, however, it was strictly an amateur affair. A. E. Coppard later wrote of the Golden Cockerel edition of his first collection of stories, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me that, “the type was poor, the paper bad, the leaves fell out, the cover collapsed….”
Coppard (referred to as Barney) was also, as it happened, the third corner of the triangle. Barely capable of taking care of themselves, Gay and Harold convinced themselves that they shared enough interests to justify getting married. As Loran/Gay put it in her Afterword to “The Summer Birdcage,” “I married n the eighth proposition of Euclid.” Unable to perform as a sexual partner, Harold encouraged Gay to take Coppard as a lover. Then, when she did, he became insanely jealous … while also becoming increasingly dependent upon her as his illness grew worse. Gay fell madly in love with Coppard, running off to sleep with him in the fields, to dance naked in the rain, and to generally rub salt into Hubert/Harold’s wounds. To compound problems, Coppard (already married) was a philanderer.
Within a year of starting the affair, Loran/Gay was writing, “I live with him [Coppard] in superficial happiness, but with a grief of heart, a loss of self-respect, that doesn’t end.” She began to see that the only way to keep Coppard’s interest was to constantly keep him wondering: “He loves me best when he is loved least.” “There’s something sub-human about Barny … that will eventually destroy our relation.” At the same time, she was “deeply convinced” that Hu/Harold “only wants me near him so as to have something weaker than himself to bully.” Still, all three remained entwined in their own miserable, self-destructive web until finally Loran/Gay found herself abandoned by both men. Harold died, leaving her just £50, and Coppard carried on with other women. Looking back on the affair, Loran/Gay would conclude that “the central sin was that no one loved anyone.”
Volume Two, “The Tilted Spiral,” picks up over a decade later. Loran/Gay is barely surviving, living in cheap flats in London and taking whatever work came to hand. Having given up on romantic love, she is desperately seeking salvation if unclear on how to find it. She went to endless lectures by P. D. Ouspensky. She studied Buddhism. She studied Swedenbourg. She read Thomas Merton. She scoured astrological charts, and developed an intricate system by which to record her moods:
Towards the end of the war I started to keep a mood chart, just to see whether I was turning into a melancholy gloomy character: I classified the mental states by colours, of which there were ten divisions, based on the spectrum but ending in dark blue and black. It was kept in a book of squared paper, and I put down my “temperature” as T. B. cases do, twice a day. Perhaps, as I have often held, the observed thing changes. But to my surprise the general level was far higher than I’d supposed; there were weeks and even months that could be called happy and equable; the descents were rare and rapidly recovered from. I kept it for two or three years and then laid it aside.
Much of this part the book is a record of Loran/Gay’s encounters with different belief systems, in each of which she initially finds something attractive and satisfying, only to grow disenchanted — often more with the personalities involved (Ouspensky) or the dogmatic constraints (“even the cloister is now like the Civil Service,” she writes of one Christian retreat). Yet she also managed to find joy. While living in a particularly dingy rooming house, at one point, she wrote that, “Almost immediately, heavenly bliss flooded me, and even in my wretched room, the Beloved was there. The flow of divine love was almost overwhelming, and tears of adoration and sorrow stood in my eyes.”
In the end, Loran/Gay came to believe that the only spiritual guide she could truly trust was herself. “There has always been a fastidiousness in Loran Hurnscot that rejects all that rings false in human behavior, or in religious cant,” Raine remarks in her introduction, and the days recorded in “The Tilted Spiral” had as many moments of disgust and disillusionment as they did of serenity.
“You must understand,” Loran/Gay once said to Raine, “all I have is my life.” And A Prison, A Paradise ranks with Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman as an account of a woman following Polonius’ injunction, “To thine own self be true,” to such an extent that friendships, creature comforts, and the conventions of society could all be sacrificed in the interest of self-discovery. And yet, it’s also sensual, acerbic, and even, on occasion, funny, as in this encounter with a census-taker:
“Let me see — are you a housewife?” “No, I am not a housewife.”
“Well, are you employed?” “No, I am not employed.”
“Self-employed, perhaps?” “No, at present I am not self-employed.”
“Well, then, you must be unemployed.” “No, I’m not unemployed either.”
He began to look sweaty and anxious. “I’ve got to put you down as something,” he said.
“Haven’t you any other categories,” I suggested.
“Then put me down as incapacitated,” I said firmly. “I’ve been looking for that word for years.”
I recently embarked upon my longest voyage into the sea of neglected women writers, a journey through the thirteen volumes and over two thousand pages of what is easily the most neglected great serial novel, Dorothy Richardson’sPilgrimage. I am a little late, by this site’s standards, in coming to read Richardson, who, according to a Guardian article published last May, is finally receiving the recognition she deserves. The article came out the day a Blue Plaque in her honor was unveiled in Bloomsbury, at the address where she lived during 1905 and 1906, marking the centenary of the publication of her first novel, and the first book in Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs. She has her own website, run by Professor Scott McCracken, who is also the lead editor for the Dorothy Richardson Scholarly Editions Project launched by Keele University, which plans to release annotated editions of all of Richardson’s works over the course of the next decade. Broadview Press released scholarly editions of Pointed Roofs and the fourth novel in the series, The Tunnel, in 2014, an online exhibition of her letters was opened a few months ago.
However, while a complete scholarly edition of Richardson’s work may become available ten years from now, today the situation is little better than it was fifty years ago, when Louise Bogan wrote, “Merely to get at Dorothy Richardson’s novels … has, of late, become so difficult that the waning of her reputation may be partly put down to the absence of her books themselves and data on their author.” The best complete edition, issued in four volumes by J. M. Dent in 1967, goes for $250 and more, if you can find it. For about $50, you can assemble the four paperback volumes issued as Virago Modern Classics in 1979, but they tend to be “well read” copies. There was also a cheap paperback set published by Popular Library in the U. S. in the 1970s, but it’s more of a wreck than a reference. I decided to compromise, picking up the four volume set published by Knopf in 1938, in excellent condition from John Schulman’s Caliban Books, supplemented with the VMC volume 4, which includes the posthumous thirteen novel, March Moonlight. However, I’ve also provided links below to free electronic editions of the first seven novels, courtesy of the Internet Archive.
And it’s very appropriate to devote a month to Richardson during this (second) year of exclusively reading the works of women. For Richardson was never anything but ferociously her own person, and that person was most definitely female. As Derek Stanford wrote in an obituary piece in 1957, “In all the two thousand pages of Pilgrimage there is not one effort to see the world from a man’s point of view.” Pilgrimage was, for Richardson, more than a work of fiction. Indeed, much of what occurs to Miriam Henderson, the heroine of the novels, is what happened to Richardson. The places, events, and characters can almost all be traced to their real counterparts in her life. As Horace Gregory wrote in his marvelous introduction to her work, Dorothy Richardson: An Adventure in Self-Discovery (1967), “To reread Pilgrimage today is to recognize that this particular work of art is closer to the art of autobiography than to fiction.”
Yet Pilgrimage is also much more than Richardson’s autobiography. I think Gregory got it right: writing the books was Richardson’s form of self-discovery. One of Richardson’s earliest supporters, the novelist May Sinclair, mistook her technique as imaginative in a purely fictional sense, referring to William James’ phrase, the stream of consciousness:
In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on. It is Miriam Henderson’s stream of consciousness going on and on…. In identifying herself with this life which is Miriam’s stream of consciousness Miss Richardson produces her effect of being the first, of getting closer to reality than any of our novelists who are trying so desperately to get close. No attitude or gesture of her own is allowed to come between her and her effect.
Writing to an inquiring reader some thirty years after beginning Pilgrimage, Richardson was a little uncomfortable with the “autobiography” label but most definite that what the books weren’t was fiction:
If by “autobiographical” you intend the telling of the story of a life, then, though all therein depicted is dictated from within experience, Pilgrimage is certainly not an autobiography. Nearer the mark, though too suggestive of “science” in the narrowed, modern application of that term, would be “an investigation of reality.” The term novel as applied to my work took me by surprise; but I did not then know what was beginning to happen to “the novel.
Vincent Brome, who was the last person to interview Richardson, shortly before her death in 1957, tried to capture what she described as the experience of writing the books: “She would feel herself surrendering to the consciousness
of what seemed to be another person, to look out on that brilliant world, awaiting the final metempsychosis … until all signs of self-consciousness vanished and she was no longer herself; and then disconcertingly, it seemed to her that this other world had identities with a buried self dimly apprehended in states of reverie. Her plunge had
become a plunge into her own unconscious.” When she reached this point, Richardson said, the writing flowed, accompanied with “a sense of being upon a fresh pathway.”
Indeed, in the final volume of Pilgrimage, March Moonlight, Miriam/Dorothy defined writing as a form of establishing reality from her reflections:
While I write, everything vanishes but what I contemplate. The whole of what is called “the past” is with me, seen anew, vividly… It moves, growing with one’s growth. Contemplation is adventure into discovery; reality. What is called “creation,” imaginative transformation, fantasy, invention, is only based on reality. Poetic description a half-truth? Can anything produced by man be called “creation?”
Richardson, asserted Louise Bogan, “is not recounting it to us retrospectively; she is sharing it with us in a kind of continuous present. Not this is the way it was, but this is the way it is.” And it is this quality that makes Pilgrimage vibrant and enthralling reading even a hundred years after it was written.
And so, we set out on Dorothy Richardson’s voyage to discovery her own reality. There is no better synopsis that the one provided by Bogan in her review of the 1967 J. M. Dent complete edition:
[W]e finally have Richardson through “Miriam” complete: the brave, if not entirely fearless (for she is often racked by fear), little wrong-headedd-to-the-majority partisan of her own sex (and of living as experienced by her own sex), in her high-necked blouse and (before she took up cycling) long skirt, from which the dust and mud of the London streets must be brushed daily; working endless hours in poor light at a job which involved physical drudgery as well as endless tact; going home to a tiny room under the roof of a badly run boardinghouse; meeting, in spite of her handicapped position, an astonishing range of human beings and of points of view; going to lectures; keeping up her music and languages; listening to debates at the Fabian Society; daring to go into a restaurant late at night, driven by cold and exhaustion, to order a roll, butter, and a cup of cocoa; trying to write, learning to write; trying to love andyet remain free; vividly aware of life and London. And continually sensing transition, welcoming change, eager to bring on the future and be involved with “the new.” And reiterating (on the verge of the most terrible war in history, wherein all variety of masculine madnesses were to be proven real): “Until it has been clearly explained that men are always partly wrong in their ideas, life will be full of poison and secret bitterness.”
“When I say I’m a feminist, what do I mean?” Ann Oakley asks near the end of Taking It Like a Woman. “I mean that I believe that women are an oppressed social group, a group of people sharing a common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions (and being over-represented in others). The oppression, she argues, is that of being “subject to the awful soul-destroying tyranny of being told the meaning of their lives by others in terms which are not theirs.” In part, Taking It Like a Woman is an account of the various interpretations of the meaning of her own life that Oakley encountered in the first forty years of her life.
Oakley’s childhood and youth were heavily influenced by the success of her father, Richard Titmuss, who played a large role in the shaping of the British welfare state and the policies of the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with the example of her mother, a social worker, he defined for his daughter a life model involving competition, intellectual rigor, and dedication to society — in other words, one little open to anything that might smack of selfishness. To a young woman full of the natural doubts and uncertainties that any teenager might experience, it was, while never harsh or cruel, as relentless as the rigidity of sworn Fundamentalist parents.
Ironically, while Oakley found a very forward-looking husband, who was open to sharing household chores and comfortable with her playing the more dominant role as a bread-winner, and managed to find time and space to raise children as well (which she described in Becoming a Mother (1980)), she still struggled to find a fully satisfactory life model for herself. Indeed, I found it rather odd that she devoted such a significant portion of Taking It Like a Woman to what she refers to on her website as “fictionalised narratives about a love affair.” Nine of the book’s twenty-five chapters, in fact. In them, a woman (Oakley, I assumed, until I read the statement on her website) and a man, a sophisticated jet-setting academic from a far-off country (India? Indonesia? Japan? I couldn’t tell), meet in different hotels and resorts and share their souls — and amazing sex. After some years, he breaks it off, and she suffers a terrible crisis, only to decide that, “In the end, no one else was a reason for living: faith had to come from within, but within was no faith. So she finally took responsibility for her own life in a way that she always knew she would — being in the end just another woman.”
It’s hard to accept that these passages are purely fictional, in light of a remark Oakley makes at the start of the book: “I have persevered in this task precisely because I know I am living and writing about something which is recognizable to others.” Really? Yes, growing up, marriage, children, making a career, running a household, dealing with the death of a parent, recovering from cancer — all of which Oakley describes — are things recognizable, even familiar to others. But an extended affair with a handsome, intelligent, exotic man in good hotels all over Europe? Maybe not so much.
Oakley ends with more questions than answers: “There is no certainty in anything,” she says to her daughter, as they walk along a seaside. Yet she does establish at least one fact that she has seen in her own life and the lives of the women she has studied and worked with: “The tension between the interests of the family and the interests of women as individuals has been rising for some two centuries. It is not possible for these interests to be reconciled.” She foresees more battles over this issue to be fought, and if she finds any hope, it is in the growing willingness of other women to “look at the circumstances of their lives.” For me, her own example was intellectually intriguing but not inspiring. I wasn’t convinced that Oakley provided any clues for how other women could overcome their “common exclusion from full participation in certain key social institutions.”
Taking It Like a Woman: A Personal History, by Ann Oakley
New York: Random House, 1984
Bernice Kenyon published just three collections of her poetry, the last over thirty years before she died. And perhaps this is because her preference for simple, concise words and phrases reached the point at which writing itself became impossible. Even in her twenties, one critic remarked that “Miss Kenyon is an artist who loves to chisel at her material until she achieve perfection.” Whatever the real reason, her work is largely forgotten now, and while I wouldn’t argue that she deserves recognition as one the greatest American poets of her time, I do find her last collection, Night Sky (1951) a quiet, humble, and moving set of meditations upon our place in the universe. Take the lines that open the book:
Let me lift up my glance to the night sky —
More strange than mystery, more clear and plain
Than treasured truth; so shall I hope and try
Unceasingly, and even if in vain,
To know, though I can never indeed define,
The infinite way, its symbol, and its sign.
On old interminable strife,
On deep unrest, we build secure;
And who shall find for any life
Foundations yet more sure?
For want of basic certainty
The little structure of these days
Would go unbuilt. But wiser we:
Our tower rocks and sways
And mocks the assaulting elements
With slender strength and fragile form.
And we can laugh if its defense
Comes clattering down in storm.
Kenyon began working as a story editor at Scribner‘s magazine soon after graduating from Wellesley, and, in 1927, moved over to the magazine’s publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons, where she worked as an assistant to legendary editor Maxwell Perkins throughout most of Perkins’ time with the firm. Her husband, Walter Gilkyson, was nearly twenty years her elder, and the couple enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle that sometimes earned the jealousy of other writers and artists with whom they socialized. In one of her letters to Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan wrote, “you should see her: she closely resembles a Swedish cook and she wears false furs (meow, meow) in profusion….”
I suspect, in fact, that Kenyon’s poem, “Smiling Woman,” may have been a veiled portrait of Bogan, who often wore a Mona Lisa-like sardonic smile in her photographs:
Her personable countenance
Incites the mind devoid of laughter;
She is a smooth and supple lance
That, bent, retained some bending after.
Always the sun will flash from it,
Tracing that length that never broke —
Her lovely grace — her singing wite
That cuts a curved and cruel stroke.
The title of Songs of Unrest is unfortunate and misleading. Kenyon’s work was not the least bit radical or revolutionary, and whatever unrest she intended to convey was purely personal and psychological.
The centerpiece of her second collection, Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 (1933), is a sequence titled, “Sonnets in Protest,” but the protest has nothing to do with the political or economic conditions of her time. Instead, these are the replies of a lady “to the Poet who wishes to immortalize her in his verses”:
Write if you will, in each enduring phrase,
Of her whose cruelty has brought you sorrow;
But when the past devours a thousand days,
And you count treasure fr the hundred morrows,
You will be baffled with a wordless rage
To find your captive vanished from your cage.
I find Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 an uneasy mix of anger, love of nature, and the occasionally whimsical (e.g., two poems about cats). Her comments upon the crowd in “Sonnets Written in the Pennsylvania Station” seem almost snippy with superiority: “They do not live. There is not one is warm./There is not one who cares to give or yield/An atom’s breath.” In the hands of someone like Philip Larkin, such nastiness can sometimes rise to the level of art. But not here.
Night Sky is, by far, her best collection and perhaps the only one fully worth rediscovering. Night Sky collects around fifty poems, organized into four sections: “Of the Green Earth”; “Of Human Kind”; “Of One Love”; and “Of Several Destinies.” A rough arc is traced through this progression, from the specific and mundane to the vast and infinite. In “Sigrid’s Song” in the first section, Kenyon rejoices in the vocabulary of wildflowers (“Fire-weed, saxifrage, bee-balm and feverfew”) but recognizes that what endures is their timeless beauty: “Nothing lasts as flowers last, with simple form and savour;/Nothing shines as flowers shine, although their time be brief.”
Impermanence continues as a theme in “Of Human Kind,” with lines like “Thus are my walls gone down, and the tower crumbled./These I had hoped would last forever and longer” and “Of One Love” (“The stars have given no pledge that we should be/Forever happy as we are today”). As Gerard Previn Meyer wrote in Saturday Review, “Deeply introverted, tranquilly unified in theme, these poems express the poet’s search through time toward timelessness, through the finite toward the infinite.” In the final section, “Of Several Destinies,” each poem is a variation upon a single theme, that of acceptance of our limitations, our inability to fully grasp the vastness of time and space in which our life is just a blink:
Since there is not, for you and me,
One instant of tranquility,
But always beating in the throat
Such clamor and such high confusion —
Let us preserve the mind remote,
And build our silence of illusion.
Think for a little of those shining
Worlds where no man has set his foot:
Where dark and daylight have no meaning —
Only as distance; where no root
Of deep disaster strikes and holds;
Where only wonderment unfolds.
Then you will find, most certainly,
That all you sought was fantasy.
The stream of life runs loud and wide,
Bearing us toward infinity.
How shall we learn to know — to ride
The noise of this our destiny?
Here rest a moment — rest you here,
Where your own thoughts are still and clear.
From an artistic standpoint, I can see weaknesses in Kenyon’s poetry. Her choice of words may, at times, be too simple, her statements too direct, to stand up under sustained study. And perhaps this is why, although she continued to write, she published no other collection before her death at 84. Her New York Times obituary suggested that she was in the process of compiling a four book, “Mortal Music,” when she died, but there is no evidence that she was working with any publisher. It’s a shame to have lost her best poems (such as “Never,” reprinted here last year), however, as they achieve a level of peace and understanding that is almost like a prayer. I have a feeling that Night Sky will have a lasting place in my nightstand, as a book I can reach for again and again to settle the day’s madness.
Her pen-pal Abbie Raymundo, who wrote letters “in black ink, green ink, and white ink on blue paper, in mirror writing and on handcrafted jigsaw puzzle pieces” and who once sent “a selfauthored, handwritten booklet ‘How to Burp,’ giving numerous multicultural (e.g., the Chinese After Tea Burp) variations on the theme.”
Her mother’s clothes shopping technique: “Buy half a dozen, … try them on at home after school, return five of them the next day, bring home some more and start the cycle again.”
All the aunts and uncles. Aunt Pearl, whose peculiar way of venting her anger at Linda’s mother was to whisper over the girl’s crib, “You have a bad mother, you have a good aunt, you have a bad mother, you have a good aunt.” Uncle Harry, “dapper as Adolphe Menjou” but petrified at being left alone by himself at night.
The family myths. Offered the choice of marrying one of two sisters, her grandfather answered, “I’ll take the fat one.”
Aunt Beck’s way of swearing: “Canary!”
The Wise Old Aardvark: “My favorite picture book was The Wise Old Aardvark, the story of a wiseman-turned-anteater who got a job giving diabolically clever solutions over the radio to the perplexing problems of people all over the world—such as a Chinese family whose grandmother had been carried up into the sky by a huge balloon, some Eskimos who saw two scary eyes glaring out of their igloo, and two Egyptians whose camels hated each other. The wise old aardvark finally earned enough money to retire and employ an esteemed Italian singer named Signor Pompinelli Ragusa to sing to him exclusively for the rest of his life.” Published in 1936 and written and illustrated by Dorothy Kunhardt, best known for Pat the Bunny, this children’s book is scarcer than hen’s teeth now: I found one copy for sale, at over $300. I want this book!
The structure, which stems from a list Rosenkrantz began making on a flight from New York to Los Angeles: “I opened my notebook and found myself writing the words ‘500 Things About My Childhood: My Life is [sic] a List,’ followed by a few sentences: All my elementary school teachers had the same handwriting. All my aunts floated but none of them swam. There were only two girls in my class who weren’t Jewish.”
It’s not one that would sustain a long book, but neither could it make for a book worth reading without (a) the individual entries being striking or interesting enough to stand on their own and (b) there being a sufficient shape and flow to the whole collection. Rosenkrantz remarks that “the thought struck me several times that in a sense this was an exercise that would be interesting and revealing for other people to try doing, in their own way.” Yet, if this was only a therapeutic exercise, it wouldn’t have deserved publication.
Rosenkrantz’s first experiment with form, her 1969 novel, Talk, was reissued last year as a New York Review Classic. Talk is entirely composed of dialogue among three characters and was based on tapes she recorded as she lay on the beach in New York talking with her friends. Given that most of the rest of her published output consists of a bunch of books about naming a baby, the downside to her creative approach is that it apparently hasn’t produced too many finished works.
The late Marianne Hauser (who still lacks a Wikipedia article of her own nearly a decade after her death) was something of a chameleon in her art and attitude toward things. In her one novel still in print, The Talking Room, written when Hauser was 65, she assumed the voice of a 13 year-old girl. In The Memoirs of the Late Mr. Ashley (1986), she wrote in the voice of a bisexual art collector who was writing from beyond the grave. Born in Alsace, which changed from France to Germany and back to France before she graduated from the gymnasium, and having spent her young adult years in India and China before settling in the U. S., she developed a rather fluid sense of nationality.
So it’s not surprising that in this slender novel, Hauser managed to convey with convincing accuracy the voice and outlook of a young mother while also providing a depressingly vivid characterization of the woman’s mother, whose slide into alcoholism and dementia have led the daughter to admit her into a nursing home. The Bide-a-Wee (“A+ rating”) home is neither heaven nor hell-hole. It’s just an institution — which, a doctor explains to the daughter, is effectively a form of tranquilizer: “Here one learns how to avoid punishment, though hardly humiliation.”
Hauser wrote Me & My Mom at an age (82) when she could easily have been in just such an institution. Clearly, she was no stranger to their tendency to drag their residents down to a lowest common denominator. The narrator, like anyone in her situation, is torn over what she has had to reduce her mother to, but also able to recognize that there are no apparent alternatives. Her mom’s suffering from short-term memory problems, easily disoriented, unstable on her feet and prone to falls.
There is a certain bitter satire in Hauser’s recounting the tale through the daughter’s voice. Though struggling with dementia, the mother has been an intelligent and passionate woman, one who worked as a proof-reader and has little patience for fools. She remembers fondly moments from her earlier life, such as the perfect Eggs Benedict served at the Hotel Majestic. The daughter sees the Majestic as nothing but a dump, a derelict building that collapses, killing a few of the junkies and homeless people crashed in its rooms. Just as the finer things in her life fade due to the mother’s loss of memory, so do they fade due to the daughter’s youth and cluelessness.
The daughter’s distress only grows when she has to move to rural Ohio, a thousand miles from the Bide-a-Wee and New York City. She can’t have mom stay with her, there are no homes to which she could be moved, and she’s reduced to calling and hoping that she can have a few minutes’ coherent conversation. And an occasional postcard:
p.s. I’m pregnant mommy
As one whose own mother has been in a home for several years and who also hopes for a few minutes of coherent conversation as her memory limitations cause more and more of our lives together to fade away, I can only say that Me & My Mom hits close to home. Like life, our memories and connections with those we love are evanescent things we can’t hold onto forever. And yet we have to try.
Me & My Mom, by Marianne Hauser
Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1993
Not long after I mentioned her 1977 novel, The Blue Chair, in a Reader Recommendations post, Joyce Thompson emailed with thanks for the notice and reported that she’s busy working as a writer of fiction again, after a long stint as a technical writer for Microsoft. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Blue Chair and about some of her more recent works.
What was your reaction when you found a post referring to The Blue Chair as a neglected book?
Better neglected than forgotten! Over the many years since its original publication, I’ve gotten correspondence from readers who can’t forget the book, or heard the occasional voice in the wilderness proclaiming it a must read. Most recently, someone found and pinged me on Facebook to say, Now that I’m the age that Eve Harmon was, I’m struck by how much of The Blue Chair has come true.
The Blue Chair was your first novel. How did you come to write fiction?
My kindergarten report card says, Joyce keeps us amused with her stories.
For me, storytelling is the key to the kingdom, the journey and the test and the joy. Stories find me and I engage with them. I’ve also written stage plays, produced, and a few screenplays, paid for but not realized on film. I used to think of myself as a poet. But prose fiction is the most durable, most pliable container for a storyteller. Sometimes it requires you to reinvent the form so that your story can be told.
And The Blue Chair was not my first novel. I’d written a much more realistic novel right out of college, part of teaching myself the form. Seymour Lawrence, who then had a star editor imprint at Delacorte, read it and gave me a lot of great notes. He even called me a couple of months later to see how my rewrite was progressing. But I had no idea how to rewrite a novel then, so I waited for the next one to come along. That was The Blue Chair. Nobody asked for rewrites. Lawrence did, bless him, make me understand that I needed to tame my lyrical impulse in order to write good prose. That lesson stuck. At the time it was published, The Blue Chair was considered science fiction. Looking at it now from a distance of almost forty years, does that label still fit?
Insofar as the social premise is based on the assumption that science will advance, and those advances will affect humans in unforeseen and irremediable ways, sure. I think I was a lot closer on the pure science than the technology. People consume text on screen, I got that right, but in 1975, I was imagining microfiche on steroids, not the digital revolution.
What does resonate today is the premise itself: That in the course of looking for a cellular level treatment for cancer, science has discovered a way to extend human life indefinitely, an innovation with serious implications for the ability of the planet to support a species that does not replace itself and die. In the novel, only white first-world citizens are eligible for immortality, this only if they choose not to reproduce. Those who do reproduce are limited to two children per couple; once they reach the age of 70, they’re entitled only to palliative, not life-prolonging medical care. The rationing of health care and state intervention in the cycles of life and death doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore.
I would add that I consider myself a “literary” writer who likes to put a genre engine under the hood. Fiction is my way of exploring the other—in terms of race, age, gender, class, sexual preference, soma, soul. That’s novels—the form for exploring what you don’t understand but want or need to. Short stories, for me, are the form for writing about what you do understand, what you know in your bones. My stories—two collections published—are more conventional, more drawn from my own real experience than my novels are. The Blue Chair is set in an America where the privileged (white) people are cared for by an underclass of (dark skinned) emigrants and have the possibility of attaining immortality. To what extent would you say that some of what you anticipated has come true?
The premise was that people could escape the chaos and deprivation of the Third World by indenturing themselves to the First (imperialist) World. In the novel, American blacks are citizens with full rights, but too often mistaken for indentured immigrants because of the color of their skins. That’s all pretty much come true. What I didn’t foresee in 1975 was the Reagan/Clinton one-two punch, the infusion of drugs into communities of color and the mass incarceration of young black men, coincident with the rise of for-profit prisons, that we were, in effect, building our own Third World, from our own citizens and in our own neighborhoods.
Was your characterization of the security state in which TThe Blue Chair is set in any way a reaction to things you saw going on in the Seventies, such as Watergate?
The security state was pretty much a 20th century paradigm, a meme of the tendency of governments to control their people through surveillance, oppressive bureaucracy and domestic military policing. It’s kind of an inescapable historic and literary theme. I just put my own spin on it.
The Blue Chair was published as a paperback original by Avon Books, which had up to then been pretty much exclusively a re-publisher of works first published in hardback. How did their choice to release your book come about? The Blue Chair’s first person protagonist is a 70 year old woman poet in a dystopian future society, who is able to re-experience her life by sitting in her blue chair. Ten editors said lovely things about the writing and their personal experience of the book—and also said they didn’t believe it would sell. The 11th was a young editor at Avon and The Blue Chair was either the first or the second book she got to choose herself—risk fiction. She grew up to be Susan Moldow, now President of the Scribner Publishing Group, with a long and brilliant career in publishing. At that time, she worked under Bob Wyatt’s wing—he who brought out affordable English translations of the all the emerging Latin American novelists of the time. I felt like I was in good company.
Paperback originals are ephemeral, but the first press run was huge, there was a substantial second printing adding up to over 100,000 books out there in supermarkets, bus stations and bookstores. A couple of years later, Avon reprinted the book in their Bard line, which kept it in print longer and in better company than would otherwise have happened. Checking WorldCat today, I see it’s the only one of my six published novels that doesn’t currently have any library life.
In the mid-1990s, you took a break from writing fiction and joined Microsoft as a technical writer. How has that experience changed your perspective as a writer?
In the mid-90s, I was raising and supporting two kids by myself. I was having a wrangle with my then-publisher about the second book of a two book contract and teaching fiction in a not-very-exciting MFA program. A friend invited me to do something new in another part of the forest. I went for new—not technical writing but writing creatively and collaboratively for new media. I worked on various teams at Microsoft for 3 ½ years, then stopped commuting to Redmond and started my own business. That’s when I discovered I could talk to engineers and translate them into language regular people could understand. I’ve never written manuals but I’ve helped bring 20 years’ worth of emerging technologies to market and public attention. That experience has given me an inside view of the vast changes in culture, consciousness and communication those technologies have driven. The novel I’ve just finished, A Wake for Paper, is about three generations of writers in one San Francisco family, living out those tectonic shifts through the recent recession. Grandpa’s a poet/professor, the parental generation are journalists, the youngers a coder/hacker and an online blogger, respectively.
Harper Collins published Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu, a memoir about dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s and your initiation into Santeria, in 2003. Are you interested in doing more autobiographical work, or are you planning to stick with fiction? I loved writing Sailing My Shoe, which I did in the year after my mother died. If I’m lucky enough to live an interesting life for the next ten or twenty years, I might have another memoir in me.
Has the reception of your 2013 novel, How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery, encouraged you to write another work featuring your lead character, Archer Barron? How to Greet Strangers, like The Blue Chair, is a story and character that took hold of me and demanded to be written. Archer is a black drag queen disengaging from Santeria and an accidental detective in the mean streets of Oakland, where I’ve lived for the last 15 years. Like The Blue Chair, it’s a book that keeps readers up all night and mainstream publishers say they can’t sell. In its small press edition, it was a finalist for Lambda Literary’s Best Gay Mystery. The ALA called it “an important addition to any fiction collection.” The second volume of Archer’s story, Cops and Queens, is done. Did I mention that I’m looking for someone bold enough to publish them right? Here’s hoping this post catches the eye of an interested publisher. Thanks, Joyce.
In a short prose piece, “Letdown,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1934 and excerpted in Elizabeth Frank’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan recalled how the art lessons she took from a spinster named Miss Cooper opened up a world of culture and civilization to her, until one day when her rapture was broken by the revelation that her teacher was also an ordinary human being:
One afternoon she came out of the kitchen and stood behind me. She had something in her hand that crackled like paper, and when she spoke she mumbled as though her mouth were full. I turned and looked at her; she was standing with a greasy paper bag in one hand and a half-eaten doughnut in the other. Her hair was still beautifully arranged; she still wore the silver and fire-opal ring on the little finger of the right hand. But in that moment she died for me. She died and the room died and the still life died a second death. She had betrayed me. She had betrayed the Hotel Oxford and the replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the whole world of romantic notions built around her. She had let me down; she had appeared as she was: a tired old woman who fed herself for comfort. With perfect ruthlessness I rejected her utterly. And for weeks, at night, in the bedroom of the frame house in Harold Street, I she tears that rose from anger as much as disappointment, from disillusion and from dismay. I can’t remember that for one moment I entertained pity for her. It was for myself that I kept that tender and cleansing emotion. Yes, it was for myself and for dignity and gentility soiled and broken that I shed those tears. At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart.
In her remarks on this passage, Frank writes,
In the story of Miss Cooper’s fall from grace, Bogan tells us everything essential about the person she had become by the age of fifteen. That person was a full-blown romantic, with the romantic’s despotic requirement that reality conform to her wish, and the romantic’s susceptibility to desolating disappointment. She does not say that Miss Cooper was the first in a line of other infatuations and disillusionments, but she does not need to. It is the idea of “civilization,” and not her personal history, that she seeks to define in her memoir, and what she implies is that without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow.
I find both Bogan’s memoir and Frank’s remarks examples of stunningly good writing. Indeed, it’s a pity that Bogan never finished the autobiographical work she referred to as her “great long prose piece,” which she turned to over and again through much of her life, although we have, thanks to Ruth Limmer, a close approximation to it in Journey Around My Room (1980). But who wouldn’t want more amazing lines like “At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart”? Or Frank’s wise conclusion that “without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow,” which I am almost tempted to adopt as a motto?
When a poor Indian family intended to travel, it seemed to take its entire belongings and move with them and all its family members — as Fa’s babus called them — into the station and camp until the right day and time arrived to take the train. They spread their mats on the platform, slept there, cooked their food over small braziers, washed under the station tap, while the coolies and other passengers and railway officials stepped round or over them; nobody seemed to mind but the platforms were crowded in a babel of noise. Not only humans used the stations: there was always a sacred bull, wandering from camp to camp and calmly helping itself to the food; there were goats, chickens, pigeons, and pye-dogs which were well fed compared to street ones — people threw scraps from trains. The beggar children knew this; people even threw money, perhaps because travelling was so spendthrift anyway that a pice or two more or less did not matter. Beggars were not allowed on the platform — the railways had some rules — but the children bobbed up on the other side of the train and stood between the tracks rubbing their stomachs and wailing, “No mummy. No daddy. No foo-oo-d,” but as they wailed they laughed and pulled faces at us. All along the platform were booths, kiosks, and barrow stalls that sold inviting things, especially hot good-smelling Indian food, but, “Not safe,” said Mam and Aunt Mary. In those days there were no ice-cream barrows but sherbert was sold, and brass trays held sticky Indian sweets. Mam bought oranges and bananas, but not the open figs or dates. There were sellers of green coconuts who would obligingly hack off the top of the nut so that the customer could drink the cool juice, and sellers of soda water, lemonade, and the virulently red raspberryade we always longed to try. There were water-sellers too. Magazines and cheap books printed in English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, were carried round on trays but best of all were the toy barrows that had chip baskets of miniature brass cooking pots and ladles, or bigger baskets of wooden toys painted with bright flowers, and wooden animals and birds, all sizes, painted with flowers too: crimson daisies, green leaves, yellow roses. There were feather dusters and fans, strings of beads of the sort worn by tikka-gharri ponies, and there was always bustle and drama and noise.
“This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone,” write Jon and Rumer Godden at the start of this magical book. At the time the book was published, both women were experienced writers of novels and short stories. Rumer was the more prolific and successful, best known for her 1939 novel, Black Narcissus, and her 1963 best-seller, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Jon did not begin publishing until she was over forty, but like Rumer, she set a number of her books in India, including her 1956 novel, The Seven Islands.
Two Under the Indian Sun is a lyrical, funny, and charming recollection of the seven years the sisters spent with their family in Narayanganj, a city on the Shitalakshya River in then-East Bengal (and now Bangladesh). The girls had been sent to live with relatives in England and receive proper English educations in 1913, but a year later, with war about to break out in Europe, they were brought back to the relative safety of India.
And safe India was, particularly from their child’s eyes: “We never felt we were foreigners, not India’s own; we felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we were never to be content in our own country.” Their father, referred to as Fa, ran a steamship company based in Narayanganj, and the girls enjoyed the run of a large house with a courtyard and a retinue of cooks, amahs, maids, babus, and other servants. Like many of the better-off Anglo-Indians, the family travelled into the lower reaches of the Himalayas and summered in one of the hill stations like Simla.
They also had the chance to travel up some of the wide, slow rivers on their father’s steamships and were able to experience a considerable part of East Bengal. “We never thought,” they write, “as many people do, that the Bengal landscape was monotonous and dull; each little village, with its thatched roofs among the tall slim coconut palms and dark mango trees against the jewel-bright background of the rice or mustard fields, was beautiful in its own calm way and full of interest.” These trips were among their favorite times. “It was bliss to wake early and lie watching the reflected sunlight dancing on the ceiling, to feel the comfortable beat of the engines beneath us, to listen to the tinkle of the carafe on the washstand, and to know that another whole river day was before us.”
Taught at home by their Aunt Mary, the girls quickly discovered a talent for writing. They competed in devising stories and offered rudimentary criticism to each other as — usually — the sole readers of each other’s work. Only rarely did any of the adults take notice, as in the case of Jon’s carrot saga:
Jon could illustrate her books; she seemed set fair to be that luckiest of combinations, an author who could illustrate her own writing, an artist who could write her own text, and this double talent meant that her books were more exciting that Rumer’s, but most even of Jon’s efforts stayed unnoticed. Occasionally, though, one would soar into attention, as unpredictably and, to us, as inexplicably as any best seller in the real literary world. It happened, for instance, when Jon wrote a novel about a family of carrots, four male carrots called No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4. In spite of their prosaic names they were surprisingly alive characters and, in its miniature way, the book was a complete novel; very often we did not finish ours. There were two villains, a cross cabbage and an apple tree that spitefully rained apples on the carrots’ heads. Then, “Ho, horror!” as the book said, a human boy dug up No. 1 and carried him away, but it was only to scoop him out and hang him up in the window to grow again — as we had done in our London day school. Finally the cabbage was dug up and eaten, the apple tree had its apples picked; No. 1, having grown, was replanted and four more carrots came up in the carrot bed, luckily all females, so that “there were four little carrots more.” It was vividly illustrated and Mam and Fa showed it to their friends. Jon was congratulated, which she half liked and half detested.
Reading Two Under the Indian Sun, one is challenged to tell one author’s voice from the other. The two blend together into an almost seamless narrative, and the only clue to a change is when one of the sisters is named: if it’s Jon, then Rumer is writing, and vice versa. And the book was also something of a unique creation from the publishing standpoint, as it was released under the dual imprints of Knopf, Rumer’s publisher, and Jon’s publisher, Viking. Distributed by Viking and picked up by the Book of the Month Club, it was probably Jon’s best-selling book. It was reissued in the late 1980s by Beech Tree Books, but is now out of print.
from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
New York: Alfred A. Knopf and The Viking Press, 1966
Almost as mysterious as our sharp individual preferences in names, are their rise and fall from fashion. When I went to school, more than fifty years ago, Dorothy was the name prevailing, with Gladys, Marjorie and Hilda as runners-up; there were, I believe, six Dorothys in my class. Joan, Vera and Winifred were also quite well represented; and Christine, Ruth, Phyllis, Norah and Olive. Ruth, like David, seems to have surmounted its Old Testament association, to survive as a popular name, whereas Esther, Naomi, Rebecca and Rachel still seem to be bestowed chiefly for Biblical reasons. My greatest friend, when I was about eight years old, was called Naomi, and because I had never encountered the name in any story book, it added to her originality in my eyes (she was the first little girl I had ever seen with a straight bob). Unluckily for me, by her precocious talent for acting she was chosen to play “Alice” in the school theatricals; her Alice was so delicious that the older girls took her up and let her walk round them at rec. (the old phrases insist on being used); they would hail her affectionately as “our little Alice,” and it looked as though my friend Naomi were never coming back to me — until she swallowed a penny and was seriously ill and away from school for several months. When she returned, glamour and dignity alike had fled; she was greeted callously and a little cruelly by Upper and Lower School, with “Hallo, Moneybox!”; while reeling from our own wit, we would beg her to cough up a penny to buy a bun, and keep the halfpenny change.
This paragraph illustrates the primary characteristic of G. B. Stern’s … well, Wikipedia calls them autobiography, but Stern herself once described them as “the ragbag chronicles that apparently I am under some compulsion to write every three or four years.” In the end, she wrote nine of them. Each had some slender connecting thread. Monogram started with objects of memorabilia sitting around her living room; Trumpet Voluntary celebrated “small good things, those that were left to us, that still went on and could not be destroyed” by the war; and this excerpt comes from A Name to Conjure With, which discursed upon the subject of, well, names.
But no matter what Stern chose as a unifying theme, she rarely managed to stay on topic for a whole paragraph, let alone a whole book. It would be close to madness to try to read them through from start to finish. Better to dip into them from time to time — long enough to savor Stern’s irrepressible good humor and endless curiosity, not so long as to want to send her off to the Laurence Sterne School for Getting to the Point.
From A Name to Conjure With, by G. B Stern
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953
Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglement of my handwriting and read my Rough [draft], it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Som would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clichés, straight flat-footed reprting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for “Exp” (meaning Expand, “X” (meaning Wrong), “//” (meaning much the same as “X” only more so) and “?” (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.
Pen to Paper “should be be firmly forced into the self-confident hands of any enthusiastic amateur who imagines that writing novels is easy,” Noël Coward once wrote. His implication, of course, was that writing a novel is bloody hard and the world might be the better if a few would-be novelists were scared off by an injunction from someone with far more experience at the business.
And experienced she was. At the time Pen to Paper was published, Pamela Frankau had nearly thirty novels to her name, along with an autobiography and a short story collection or two. She was one of that generation of industrious British women writers, now referred to — admiringly or dismissively — as “middlebrows,” who managed to produce at least a novel or two a year for decades on end, until they had as many titles to their credit as a polygamist has grandchildren.
She came by it naturally. Her father, Gilbert Frankau, and his mother, Julia Frankau were themselves prolific novelists, and Pamela got her own start, with Marriage of Harlequin, at the age of 19. As with her father, money needs led her to writing and the comfort of somewhat steady income kept her writing books we can safely call works of craft, not art.
Still, she had her standards, and three of her books — A Wreath for the Enemy, The Winged Horse, and her most popular novel, The Willow Cabin — were reissued as Virago Modern Classics about eight years ago. And she’d had successes in both England and the U.S., earning in the latter the Bronze Star of commercial achievement, selection of one of her novels as a Readers’ Digest condensed book. Which is why she could write with authority on how to write for the two different audiences. (She demonstrates some prescience in writing of America as “the place where umbrage grew wild”: “Never, surely, were so many offended so easily by so little.” And this was back in 1962!)
I long ago realized that I probably didn’t have the stuff of a novelist in me, but it was still a useful learning experience to read Pen to Paper. Frankau doesn’t stint in stressing how much energy and time is involved in writing a novel. In her case, she wrote all her novels out by hand at least twice: the first draft the haphazard hodgepodge she refers to above as the “Rough”; and the second a more painstakingly assembled second draft she called the “Smooth.” She insisted in carving out hours to write almost every day, whether at home or staying as a guest, while on a train or a cross-Atlantic steamship, and with or without inspiration. Although she relates how some of her best ideas came to her, she also admits that a few evaporated before her eyes when she tried to describe them to a friend or transformed over the course of creating the Rough into something completely different. And no matter how well or badly a book finally turned out, she was never truly satisfied: “I believe that in the difference between a writer and a hack, the discontent is all.”
But she does have some encouragement for those who would take on the challenge she’d faced at least thirty times before. In particular, she dismisses the notion that, for a writer, there is no substitute for first-hand experience:
“I never robbed an old-age pensioner: I couldn’t: I don’t know how it feels. It’s too revolting.”
You have, in your time, stolen a piece of toffee; cheated the Customs; conveniently forgotten a debt; pocketed the money you found on a taxi-floor; helped to destroy a reputation; denied a vulnerable person a kindness and seen the look in that person’s eyes….
By the time I am engaged on this kind of experience, I’m well on the way to writing the scene.
In an obituary, Rebecca West — who’d had a fairly erratic friendship with Frankau — judged her a second-rate writer: “None of her novels, though they are better than most, was as good as she was.” So it might be easy to dismiss Pen to Paper as even less worthy of rediscovery than these novels, but I suspect the reverse is true. Although it might not inspire many would-be writers, it certainly provides a candid and self-deprecating inside look at the craft from one who’d spent over thirty years working at it.
Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook, by Pamela Frankau
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962
A year ago, I made a public pledge to devote 2015 to covering the works of neglected women writers. I was reacting to Phyllis Rose’s comments in her 2014 book, The Shelf, who was, in turn, reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson committed himself “to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” Rose’s reaction to this pledge was to find it “lovable and, could it be legislated, highly effective, solving all kinds of problems, including, probably, the one of respect for women writers.”
Although I have covered the works of numerous women writers on this site, the fact was that, prior to 2015, men and their writings accounted for over 75% of my material. At a minimum, I felt that a year devoted to women would help correct that imbalance, but I also suspected that the experience might pry open my own blinders a little. I grew up in a household where my mom was the only female, and she was the only daughter in a family with ten sons. Living with my wife continues to be a daily learning process, and having my own daughter has been delight, even if it’s occasionally put me in situations for which I’ve had no point of reference as a male … like the day when, as the only parent home, I had help her shop for her first feminine hygiene product. But if I step back and take a look at my studies, my work, and my interests, the fact is that they’ve been dominated by male voices and perspectives.
I didn’t think that respect for women writers was a problem for me, but I would have to say that it’s largely been something I’ve tended to keep from a distance. And spending this last year reading nothing but the words of women has given me respect for something I don’t think I ever really appreciated before. For some weeks, I’ve been mulling over how to express this, and the right words still elude me, but to put it simply, throughout all the books I’ve read this year, the one absolutely consistent difference in perspective I’ve found between the writings of women and those of men is that women never assume that they–or someone like them–is running their world. They may run the household or make their own decisions about where they live, what they do, who they love, but there is always sense of a culture, government, economy, society, and geography controlled by others … meaning men.
Of course, there are many male writers who write from a position of dis-empowerment, whether it’s political, economic, class, or cultural, so that’s not quite the differentiating factor. But Solzhenitsyn, Frederick Douglass, Franz Fanon, or Victor Klemperer were writing against oppression organized and carried out by other men, and implicit in each of their messages was the assumption that a world free of the oppression they opposed would still be a world run by men.
Now, just from observing the informal organizational abilities of my wife and daughter and comparing them to mine or those of my sons, I often wonder why women aren’t running the world. Take, for example, this viral video of a college women’s swimming team goofing around at an airport or, closer home, this music video made a few years ago by some of the girls on our local high school volleyball team during a long bus ride back from the U.K.: how many boys’ teams would have the level of creative inspiration, motivational spirit, and organizational ability to put something like these together? OK, it does happen–but it’s more likely that most of them are just hunkering down, focused in on their iPhones, and killing time. So I support Sheryl Sandberg’s message that more women should “lean in” and take leadership roles, and I hope our first woman President follows our first black President without too many more years’ delay. But this isn’t the world we’re living in yet, and it certainly wasn’t the world in which any of the women I’ve read in the last year lived.
The other significant different in perspective I’ve come to appreciate is that of women’s grasp of the particular. When any of these women imagines a utopia, it is a small world, centered on their own lives, often just involving the freedom to make simple choices or be free of certain narrow social conventions. It’s not a vast, abstract concept peopled by generic bodies with no distinguishing identity. When E. F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful, it was received as something of a revolutionary message, but women writers have always understood this. And, in truth, attention to the particular almost always makes for more interesting writing.
The final observation I draw from this last year is that there is a wealth of fascinating but forgotten books written by women, and even one year’s exclusive study wasn’t enough to make a serious dent in this trove. I had been planning for some months to focus on the short story in 2016, since short story collections are, more often than not, sales dogs in the publishing world, and, unless included in some anthology, short stories tend to be far more perishable than novels. But as I reviewed the long list of titles I collected a year ago, I realize that I really don’t have a good reason to stop mining this particular vein. I recently bought a fine copy of the four volume edition of Dorothy Richardson’s pioneering novel sequence, Pilgrimage, from John Schulman’s excellent Caliban Book Shop, and the quality of Richardson’s writing captured me with the very first page, and convinced me that I would have to keep going and finish the nearly two thousand that followed it. That no one has made a connection between Richardson’s fictionalized autobiographical sequence and Karl Ove Knausgård’s much-discussed My Struggle series just demonstrated how much the world have forgotten her work.
And so, instead of bringing this experiment to a close with the end of 2015, I’ve decided to extend it for a second year, and to continue devoting these posts to bringing the neglected works of fine women writers to light. Although evidence such as the recent list of the top 200 most-used texts in college curricula published by the Open Syllabus project demonstrates that the work of women writers commands a larger share of the canon that ever before, one only has to look at counterexamples, such as Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay for Tin House, “On Pandering,” to see that the balance is still in need of some shifting.
And, of course, I can’t help but feel tremendous empathy for her call for readers to create their own canons:
Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.
I’d like to think that Watkins’ ending manifesto speaks not just to the need to judge the work of women writers without recourse to comparisons with that of males or that of an arbitrary list of books but only based on “what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up.” I can honestly say that not a single book I read during 2015 failed to challenge me and to open me up to perspectives and sensibilities I had never really taken the time to consider. And that is reason enough to keep going.
My mother has pneumonia, and is, I think, dying. After a long struggle with her pride, I managed, this morning, to get her into St. Luke’s. — How I feel, with my pride, I don’t think you can imagine.
What we suffer, what we endure, what we muff, what we kill, what we miss, what we are guilty of, is done by us, as individuals, in private. — I wanted to kill a few interns this morning, and I shall want to kill some nurses tonight, and I know that it is a lousy system that keeps the poor, indigent old from dying as they should. But I still hate your way of doing things. To hell with the crowd. To hell with the meetings, and the public speeches. Life and death occur, as they must, but they are all bound up with love and hatred, in the individual bosom, and it is a sin and a shame to try to organize or dictate them.
Thank you for the poem. I shan’t ever see you again, I suppose,
To Morton Dauwen Zabel
December 23, 1936
The [picture of]Fury came intact, and it is so beautiful that I cried. — I would have written you before this, but my mother took sick the night before last, and today I managed to persuade her to go to the hospital, and it is pneumonia.
If you could have seen the fight she put up, right to the last. But now she is a poor dying woman. I wish I could stop remembering her in her pride and beauty — in her arrogance, that I had to fight so — and now I feel it would have been better if I hadn’t fought at all. Because under it all was so much love, and I had to fight that too.
I’ll write soon, after this is over — after I stop feeling that Lucifer should have won. The damned, niggardly, carroty, begrudging world!
To Morton Dauwen Zabel
December 27, 1936
My mother died yesterday afternoon. — In death she looks terribly scornful and proud, but I think she loved up to the end.
All I could do, last night, was read Yeats’ later poems, on what old age is, and what it does.
Somewhere beyond the curtain
Of distorting days
Lives that lonely thing
That shone before these eyes
Targeted, trod like Spring.
Say a prayer for her. Her name is Mary.
What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973
“I want the truth known,” she said, sitting upright on a sofa, her hands crossed at the wrists, palm upward. “I believe the American people are entitled to the truth and I believe they want to know. Now I will agree that immediately after the assassination, and while President Johnson was taking the place of President Kennedy, let me say in all respect that this was not the time to bring these truths before the public. But after his time in office most people think — I don’t agree, but that’s beside the point — that he is a very powerful President, and the assassination itself has subsided. I think the truth should be leaked now, and if in the leaking they can prove to me that my son was the assassin of President Kennedy, I won’t commit suicide or drop dead. I will accept the facts as a good straight human being. But up until this day they have not shown me any proof and I have things in my possession to disprove many things they say. I understand all the testimony off the cuff is in Washington and will be locked up for seventy-five years. Well, I’ve got news for you. It will not be for seventy-five years, because if today or tomorrow I am dead or killed, what I have in my possession will be known. And I in my lifetime have got to continue what I have been doing, using my emotional stability and speaking out whenever I can. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Because there was no hiatus between the proclamation of unwavering purpose and the hospitable, colloquial question, and because both were delivered in the same tone and at the same pace, I did not immediately take it in, but in a moment, I did and said I would. (The drinking of coffee in Texas is almost as involuntary as respiration.)
A Mother in History centers on three visits made by Jean Stafford to Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, in her little Fort Worth duplex in 1965. Stafford, who was better known as a fiction writer, may have taken the assignment for a piece originally published in McCall’s magazine out of a morbid fascination. Marguerite Oswald was quickly typecast as an eccentric in the media frenzy that followed her son’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the job was very much out of Stafford’s line. She had little prior experience as a journalist: it was only after the first day with Marguerite that she thought to rent a tape recorder and even then it took the combined efforts of both women to get it working.
In many ways, A Mother in History is an early and overlooked example of New Journalism. Stafford writes in first person, puts herself into the middle of the story, and makes no effort to hide her opinions:
“And as we all know, President Kennedy was a dying man. So I say it is possible that my son was chosen to shoot him in a mercy killing for the security of the country. And if this is true, it was a fine thing to do and my son is a hero.”
“I had not heard that President Kennedy was dying,” I said, staggered by this cluster of fictions stated as irrefutable fact. Some mercy killing! The methods used in this instance must surely be unique in the annals of euthanasia.
Neither does she disguise the sense of awe and absurdity with which she views Marguerite Oswald. Although Marguerite pronounces her family as “basic and normal” to Stafford, the course of her adult life had been pretty erratic. She had three sons by two different husbands, changed jobs and moved frequently, and dragged Lee Harvey through a dozen schools and over twenty residences before he enlisted in the Marines at 17. As folks in the South might put it, she was about a half bubble off plumb.
And she was a talker. Stafford resorted to the tape recorder after being overwhelmed by Marguerite’s non-stop recitation on the first day, which swerved in and out of past and present, fact and fiction, down-home truths and wildest fantasy. Marguerite keeps a simple but immaculate house, plays the gracious hostess with great Southern charm:
Terms of endearment came naturally to her lips, as they do to those of many Southern women; she could have been the stand-in and the off-stage voice for the woman from who I had bought a rain cape in Neiman-Marcus that morning, who rejected the first one I tried on, saying, “No, honey, that just won’t do. You little dress shows.” A Northerner is at first taken aback, then is seduced, then realizes — sometimes too late — that these blandishments are unconscious and wholly noncommittal and one need not feel obliged to reciprocate by buying the next rain cape. (In this case I did, and it comes nicely below the hems of all my little dresses.)
Despite Lee Harvey’s crimes — which Marguerite variously denies or acknowledges but never recognizes as deliberate — she is proud of Lee and his brothers. “None of them ever entered my home stinko,” she boasts to Stafford. The product of a dysfunctional family herself, Stafford treats Marguerite’s cluelessness with a certain (if there is such a thing) kind sarcasm: “Relatives are often (perhaps more often than not) the last people on earth to know anything about each other.”
Had the term been around in her day, Marguerite would have proclaimed herself an advocate of “truthiness.” Facts were less important than gut feelings. Of Lee Harvey’s Russian wife, Marina, she declares, “Marina seems French to me.” In calling Kennedy a dying man, she declares that he was suffering from Atkinson’s disease, “a disease of the kidneys,” for which there was no cure. (In fact, it was Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands and is — and was in 1963 — treatable.
Marguerite delights in an audience, and considers herself the star of her show, “A Mother in History,” her self-description that gives Stafford the title for the book. Lee Harvey’s act was merely the accident that shoved her into the spotlight. And as Stafford notes, in Marguerite’s “recitative,” “President Kennedy was little more than a deus ex machina, essential but never on stage.”
Stafford quickly realizes that Marguerite needs little prodding to get started, after which she can keep going like an Energizer bunny. After she makes a remark about the difficulty of finding housing in New York City, Stafford quips to her reader, “I agreed, even though by now I knew that she was not interested in any response of any sort to anything.” Still, Marguerite does have a few secrets she prefers to keep to herself:
“My theory is a little different, because I know who framed my son and he knows I know who framed my son”
“Is ‘he’ in Texas now?”
“I can divulge nothing on that score,” she said brusquely, but screwed up her eyes in a cordial grimace to show that she forgave my intrusion into something that was none of my beeswax.
A Mother in History is not a good — in the sense of virtuous — book. Stafford does not go out of her way to protect Marguerite Oswald from herself and clearly build this book around the spectacle of a woman blithely unaware of the possibility that others might consider her ridiculous. A harsh critic could easily dismiss it as both shameless and shameful, an upscale version of Florence Aadland’s The Big Love.
But it is a good — in the sense of absorbing — read. Foreshadowing Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the combination of Marguerite’s mania and Stafford’s sarcasm result in a book that is both fascinating and funny, in a manner worthy of the best black humor of the Sixties.
A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966
A couple of months ago, the encyclopedically knowledgeable Robert Nedelkoff emailed:
I want to bring a novel by a woman – an extremely and undeservedly neglected novel if there ever was one – to your attention: Life Signs, by Johanna Davis, nee Mankiewicz, published by Atheneum in 1973 and by Dell in paperback the next year, just after she died when she was struck by a taxicab outside her Greenwich Village apartment building at the age of 38.
You can find a reminiscence of her and a short discussion of her one book, written by Gilbert Rogin’s niece, Katie, on the Literary Mothers blog (link). It mentions she came from a “Hollywood family” of writers, but doesn’t specify that she was the daughter of the man who wrote Citizen Kane; the niece of the man who gave us All About Eve; and the aunt of TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. [Nor that her brother Frank ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign and her brother Don won the Harper Prize for his novel, Trial.
I took Robert’s suggestion and ordered a copy of Life Signs. Its opening gives a good clue to the book’s subject and Davis’ wise-cracking tone:
The way Camilla Ryder saw it: somewhere, tucked off in a back cranny of her brain, lived a tiny old lady, retired from active duty as a postal inspector but still interested in keeping her hand in. To this end, she ran a merciless, night and day operation over Camilla’s thoughts, zeroing in on any that seemed even slightly uninhibited with a furious red ink stamp. RETURN TO SENDER. The notion was improbably, if pleasing (Our Lady of the Medulla would wear Supp-Hose and an Orlon sweater set, tint her hair blue and eat off a tray), much like the explanation furnished by Camilla’s older brother for other mysteries of life; it took high school physics to finally rid her of Daniel’s persuasive visions of Lilliputian men striking and extinguishing microscopic matches inside of light bulbs, marching in and out of radios to give their news and spin records.
Camilla lives with her film-maker husband and a baby boy in a Greenwich Village apartment. She is eight months pregnant and her synapses are firing in overdrive. She regularly wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, leading her husband to suggest she see a therapist.
Despite his many affectations of sophistication, the psychiatrist’s advice is basically sound, but Camilla’s brain is in control of a particularly demonic set of little men. Another mom at the local playground sets her up with a beginner supply of amphetamines. Soon, she is having an absurd conversation with her son:
Jacob reached for her hair, making pigeon sounds. “Goo-goo,” he said. “No,” Camilla was firm. “Goo-goo is how babies go. Mommies go cuckoo.” She tucked him into clean rubber pants, and sat him up, and happy golden Kewpie doll she had won without trying. “Koo-koo,” he said. “Mommy koo-koo.” “Right,” said Camilla, unprecedented love coming at her like a flash flood as the pill hit. “Your first sentence, you smart thing. Have a zwieback.”
The novel follows Camilla through four days, until her water breaks and she delivers after a frantic taxi ride to the hospital. Though she promises her husband there will be “No more crazy salad,” within a week, she’s sleepwalking.
There are more than a few parallels between Camilla’s situation and Davis’ own. Married to a film-maker herself, she had had her own breakdown of sorts when her second child was born. Years after her death, her friend Brooke Hayward told People magazine, in an article about Davis’ husband, that “Peter literally took over the role of mother for the children.” “It was Peter who would bathe them, Peter who would pick up the groceries and Peter who often would cook. He’s a family man, and he never was anything but.”
Daughter of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, niece of director Joseph, Davis was known as Josie growing up in Hollywood. As a teenager, her closest friends were Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, Jane Fonda, and Jill Schary, daughter of MGM head of production Dore Schary. If the literary output of this group is any indication, Davis had plenty of the ingredients for a crazy salad of her own: Jill Schary, writing as Jill Robinson, published Bedtime Story, a memoir of drug addiction, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior; Hayward’s own memoir, Haywire, described how she wrestled with the question, “How do you cope with the fact that your parents were unfit for parenting?” Let us not forget that Fonda’s mother Frances committed suicide in a New York sanatarium when Jane was 12, and, as Jonathan Yardley put it in his review of Fonda’s autobiography, for both Jane and her brother Peter, “yearning for their father’s love has been a lifetime’s preoccupation.” And, as her cousin, producer Tom Mankiewicz, revealed in his memoir, My Life as a Mankiewicz, it was Josie who discovered the body of her aunt, actress Rose Stradner, after Stradner committed suicide in 1958. At the time, Josie was 19.
Davis seems to have had the same kind of manic energy, wit, and intelligence as her heroine. In a memorial piece for The New York Times, Richard P. Brickner wrote, “She was the most literary person imaginable, in the sense that she was a natural story-teller and a natural story. She was all alertness, all poised eye, ear, and tongue. She invented incessantly, she read people incessantly, and she narrated incessantly in conversation.” In the People piece on Peter Davis, Anne Rogin, Katie’s mother and Johanna’s roommate at Wellesley College, recalled that, “Josie took stage center when she was in the room or in your life. She was a star, and when you have someone like that, people tend to see you as a satellite.”
In her Times article, Nora Johnson wrote that Camilla and similar women in such novels as Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends (1970), Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Alix Kate Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), “Have been driven mad not by men, but by the social principles of the patriarchy, so familiar as to be almost invisible. We dwell uncomfortably with those softer, more humanistic principles so hard to tease out and explain or understand, which are historically women’s. These are, besides, unpopular, unworkable, even ridiculous.”
I wouldn’t say that Camilla finds a workable resolution for her own situation. Her story ends before we have the chance to find out. Davis herself may have achieved some resolve by writing Life Signs. Unfortunately, her own story ended too soon, too. She was killed on 25 July 1974 near her apartment in Greenwich Village when two taxis collided in an intersection and one careened onto the sidewalk where she was walking with her 11 year old son, Timothy. Timothy was uninjured but the cab struck Davis and threw her into a mailbox, causing a fatal blow to her head. Davis was survived by Timothy, Nicholas, then 9, and her husband.
Life Signs, by Johanna Davis
New York: Atheneum, 1973
We sit by stone and ivy leaves
For flute and oboe’s disquisition;
The evening, after heat, receives
This gentle Middle West rendition.
The foursquare walls of courtyard cup
Two funnels at their intersection,
The music running down and up
On lukewarm currents of convection,
So that the twin parabola
Of clarinettists’ conversation
May tunnel for mandragora
Or plummet to a constellation.
The body may be earthed or skied,
But mind, extrinsic to seduction,
Spreads out into a thin glass slide,
Incising music’s cones of suction.
Leave those twinkling points to pair
With ground bass in a Bach Invention
Cry me not up to meet them there —
I balance on my disc of air —
In a glass darkly I shall stare
At inklings of a fourth dimension.
fromPoems, 1947-1961, by Elizabeth Sewell
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962
In his foreword to The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), Sir John Gielgud writes, “I have always felt that Ruth Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Yet, despite the fact that her career spanned the eras of sound recordings, radio, films, and television, virtually no trace of her performances now remains aside from a few recordings she made — with some reluctance — in 1954, less than two years before she died. These recordings have recently been remastered and are available at www.drapermonologues.com. Their release led Michael Feingold, writing on TheaterMania.com, to call Draper “America’s Greatest Woman Playwright (Maybe)” and inspired Annette Benning to recreate four of them in a 2014 show at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
One of her performances, before a 1954 meeting of the Community Service Society, is available online at the WNYC Archives. In “Three Generations From the Court of Domestic Relations,” which she first performed in 1919, Draper appears as the 79 year old Anna Abrahams, then as Anna’s daughter, Sadie Greenman (47), and finally, as Rosie Greenman (19), Sadie’s daughter. The three women are speaking with a judge, and it gradually emerges that Rosie is trying to convince the judge to direct that her mother and grandmother be put in a home for elderly women so she and her boyfriend can leave for some small town out West where he’s been promised a job. All we hear is Draper’s voice, of course, but from that alone — her changing accents, diction, vocabulary, emotional tenor — that she transforms completely in the course of a 20-minute performance.
She explained her inspiration in an early — and rare – interview with a Boston reporter in 1925:
I used to know a City Magistrate who presided in the Domestic Relations Court, and he told me I could come and sit with him when I wanted to and see what was going on. That’s where I saw the old Jewish woman. In real life, though, the situation was not the same as it is in the stage sketch. The old woman’s daughter and her granddaughter wanted to have her sent away. I thought that was less interesting than placing the stress on the attitude of the youngest generation, so I built the sketch around the young woman, instead of the old one.
Despite the fact that she played poor women in many of her monologues, Draper was accustomed from birth to the society of the wealthy and famous. Her father was a successful surgeon in New York City and her mother was the daughter of Charles A. Dana, editor and part owner of The New York Sun. She attended an exclusive girls’ school, came out as a debutante in 1902, and was active in the Junior League. She would later use her insider knowledge of society women to devastating effect in such pieces as “The Italian Lesson,” “A Debutante at a Dance,” and “A Cocktail Party.”
But she had shown a flair for performance from a young age, and a family friend, the great Polish pianist Paderewski, encouraged her to pursue her passion: “You must do this professionally,” he told her in 1910. “You must make the decision. It must come from you, from inside.” She began by performing short one-person skits of her own creation at private functions at the homes of society friends around New York, and quickly gained a reputation as something of a phenomenon. Henry Adams saw her perform in Washington, D.C. in 1911 and wrote thereafter, “She is a little genius and quite fascinates me.”
In 1913, she traveled to England, where she appeared at parties hosted by society dames and ladies of the nobility. Her audiences included, on different occasions, King George V and Queen Mary and Prime Minister Henry Asquith. While in London, she became friends with Henry James, who once remarked to her, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet — stand on it!” James even wrote a sketch for her, though Draper never attempted to perform it. The artist John Singer Sargent made several sketches of her, including the one featured on the cover of The Letters of Ruth Draper, which shows her in costume for the sketch, The Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island.
She returned home to America just before World War One broke out, and her mother died a few weeks after her arrival. She toured the country performing on behalf of War Relief Benefits, and, for the only time in her career, acted as a member of a full cast in a Cyril Harcourt play, A Lady’s Name. The experience quickly convinced her that she should only perform solo, and in works she had written and conceived herself. In October 1918, she returned to England and then, on the day after Armistice, crossed to France.
For the next eight months, she toured American Army camps, entertaining the troops. She returned to England and resumed making the rounds of private homes, but her experience of performing before the soldiers had given her confidence that her art could appeal to more than just the wealthy and privileged. In January 1920, she booked Aeolian Hall in London for a single performance, and the reviews encouraged her to book it for five more in May 1920. This run rocketed her to success. “She is a hit of the season,” wrote The Observer, and The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer proclaimed:
The art of Miss Draper stands alone…. To hold an audience enthralled for nearly two hours with this brand of dramatic art, without the aid of properties, music or scenery, is indeed a triumph. There is no doubt that her listeners would cheerfully have allowed Mis Draper to continue indefinitely.
The letters in The Letters of Ruth Draper begin at this point and continue over the course of the next 36 years, up to just two weeks before her death, at the age of 72, in 1956. Throughout these decades, she travelled all over the world, performing constantly. As Morton Dauwen Zabel writes in the memoir that introduces The Art of Ruth Draper: Her Dramas and Characters (1960), which can be found in electronic form on the Internet Archive (link):
She performed wherever her travels took her — in theatres, in halls, in drawing-rooms, in college auditoriums, in a country store in New Mexico, in a ship’s salon. She carried none of the enormous equipment of scenery, lights, costumes, managers, impresarios, and paraphernalia the great Frenchwoman [Sarah Bernhardt] required. She travelled through six continents and over thousands of miles by land, sea, and air without retinue, staff, or company, carrying all the equipment she needed in a few dress-cases or hat-boxes and the most rudimentary of make-up kits.
When the French actor and producer, Lugné-Poe, who assisted Draper in arranging her tours over the next twenty years, first approached her about appearing at his theater, he asked her how many assistants and other cast members she would need. “Non, oh non,” she answered. “Je suis seule. Je n’ai besoin de personne. Seule, moi. Un rideau [curtain], seul.” The simplicity of her needs is demonstrated by a sample of the stage requirements listed in an appendix to The Art of Ruth Draper:
A Class in Greek Poise:
A plain straight chair, and a small plain table.
Christmas Eve on the Embankment at Night:
A plain low wooden bench, if possible of weathered appearance.
A Cocktail Party:
A drawing-room chair with or without arms, and a low coffee-table.
A Dalmatian Peasant in the Hall of a New York Hospital:
A plain straight office chair.
A Debutante at a Dance:
A large roomy upholstered or overstuffed armchair.
Doctors and Diets:
A small rectangular table to serve as a restaurant table, and a straight restaurant chair.
She could … arrive at the theatre twenty to thirty minutes before curtain time. She would glance at her mail, ask her stage manager which “sketches” were on her program for that performance, and then, with the help of her dresser, slip out of her dress or suit, and don her pinkish kimono while she supllemented — really only strengthened — her makeup: a little blue eye-shadow, the minimum of mascara and brown eye pencil and rouge — very little — dark lipstick shaped on with her fingertip, powder with a rabbit’s foot or soft brush. She simply wore her own face — her primary tool of expression. Dark brown wavy hair, large brown eyes compelling, expressive, and all-seeing, skin clear with a tone slightly — very slightly — tawny.
Then into her stage dress: brown or beige lace, a dark brown velvet, always sleeveless, basic, unobtrusive, to which could be added shawls or bits of costume for her characterizations. A final glance in the mirror and she walked quickly out to the wing where her dresser had laid out on a table the “costumes” and props for that performance, put on the necessary items; the curtain rose, and with a final word to whomever she was chatting with, she walked into the stage lights — a different character and personality. No more than that, no rehearsal, no moment of reflection or of gathering herself together.
Despite the fact that she was among the best-paid and most in-demand actresses of her day, Draper was little interested in publicity. The playwright Russel Crouse, who worked as her first press agent, once wrote that, “It was a strange association for she did not want any publicity, refused to see me half the time, and every thing I did to help her sell out, which she did, I did in spite of her.” She would do her part by performing, Warren writes, “but personal interviews, details of her off-stage self, most definitely not!” She once called publicity “only a sham sort of literature, pre-digested by someone else for ‘ready reading.'”
In part, the simple pace of her career kept the scope of her private life limited. Of the hundreds of letters published in The Letters of Ruth Draper, the majority are to a few of her close friends and relatives. But when she did have a great romance, it turned out more dramatic than any of her pieces. In early 1928, while appearing in Rome (among Draper’s talents was an ability to perform with equal facility in English, Italian, French, and German), she met Lauro de Bosis, a poet, scientist, and classical scholar. She was 43, he 26, but they were immediately drawn to each other. De Bosis pursued her in earnest, but Draper was filled with self-doubts. After some weeks together, she returned to the U.S., in some confusion. “My great object is to stop thinking — stop worrying — rejoice in the fact that I am loved — in the wonder of my life with its richness and beauty. I seemingly have everything — yet I can’t grasp it — that’s my trouble.
De Bosis followed her a few months later, taking a post with the Italy-America Society in New York City. He and Draper spent many days together, and when she boarded a ship for a tour of Europe the next spring, de Bosis travelled with her. By late 1929, they were considering marriage, but events intruded on their plans. A passionate anti-Fascist, de Bosis abruptly decided in June 1930 to give up his post and returned to Italy, where he began organizing a resistance group, Alleanza Nazionale. It soon attracted the attention of Mussolini’s police, and while de Bosis was away in New York settling his affairs, they arrested two of his associates, searched his mother’s house, and, upon finding incriminating letters, arrested her, too.
Signora de Bosis was released after she signed a letter to Mussolini denying any sympathies for the anti-Fascist cause, but the situation made it impossible for de Bosis to return to Italy. Instead, he moved to Paris, taking a job as a concierge to survive and working with other exiles to organize support against the regime. Inspired by a bold daylight flight by a fellow radical, Giovanni Bassanesi, during which he scattered anti-Mussolini leaflets over Milan, de Bosis began taking flying lessons and bought himself a small airplane. On 3 October 1931, he took off from Marseilles with less than a full tank of fuel, having told the ground crew that he was headed for Barcelona. Instead, he headed for Rome, where he dropped leaflets and circled the city for half an hour before heading out to sea. He was never seen again.
His fate was unknown for some time. Two weeks after his departure, Draper wondered to a friend “if Lauro should call me up perhaps from Spain, or South America, or Egypt.” By early November, howerver, it was clear that he had crashed somewhere at sea, most likely having run out of fuel somewhere between Italy and Corsica. Though she grieved for the loss, she committed to carry on: “O well, I must grit my teeth and know one can’t recall the past, and have a second chance — with all my weaknessses and failures he loved me — and regretted nothing — that I know. By early January 1932, she was touring again, appearing in a series of twelve one-week engagements throughout Great Britain.
And tour she continued to do, despite the travel restrictions of a world war, for the rest of her life. In the last twelve months before her death, she performed in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Scotland, London, The Hague, Vienna, Italy, and Paris. When she couldn’t cross the Atlantic two or three times a year, as had been her habit, she settled for crossing the U.S. by train, appearing everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington. A few weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, she wrote enthusiastically to Corinne Robinson (mother of columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop) from Minot, North Dakota:
We go to such funny places, and now and then to a friend and luxury and comfort, and in spite of the bad hot air I do like trains! I have superb audiences everywhere, and the response is terrific. New people, young people, alert and keen and warm, and it’s very gratifying…. No worry about advertising, no risk, and assured packed house everything with the “best people” in town and, what I love, the youth! The high school and civic auditoriums I simply hate, but that’s where concerts are held, so I have to bear it, but the audiences seem wild with delight, and it’s a wonderful satisfaction.
By the early 1950s, her place in the world of the arts was so respected that she was awarded a CBE in 1951 and invited to give a private performance at a gala dinner at Windsor Castle. As she ended her last piece, The Scottish Immigrant, she slipped and fell flat on her back. “I managed to get up rather gracefully considering the shock,” she wrote her niece, “and the first persons who came forward were the Queen and both Princesses.”
Such exalted recognition did not lessen her appeal, however, as a young Kenneth Tynan wrote in one of his Observer reviews:
I want to declare Miss Draper open to the new generation of playgoers, and to trample on their suspicions, which I once shared, that she might turn out to be a museum-piece, ripe for the dust-sheet and oblivion. She is, on the contrary, about as old-fashioned and mummified as spring, and as I watched her perform her thronging monologues the other night, I could only conclude that this was the best and most modern group acting I had ever seen….
I have an idea that, at the back of her mind, Miss Draper is hoping still to find a company of actors skillful enough to stand up to comparison with the accuracy, tact, and wisdom of her technique. She is actually doing her
contemporaries a great kindness by not exposing them to such a hazard.
The Scottish Immigrant, which Draper first performed in 1912, was also her very last monologue. On December 29, 1956, the fifth night of what was intended to be a four-week season at the Playhouse Theatre, just off Broadway, she complained to her assistant at one point that, “I just went blank — and kept on talking. I never did that before.” She closed the show with her piece about the girl from the Highlands arriving at Ellis Island to join her fiance, rushing off stage at the end, calling out, “Sandy, my Sandy — I’m here!” Afterward, she asked to be driven to see the Christmas lights in the city, then went home for supper. Her maid found her in bed the next morning, dead from a heart attack.
While her work has inspired several generations of performers, including Lily Tomlin, Spaulding Gray, and Julia Sweeney, and continues to be celebrated, her decision to devote herself strictly to live performances has ensured that Ruth Draper will forever be something of a neglected genius. As David Benson remarked in connection with a 2002 BBC Radio 4 tribute to her work:
If you want to be immortal you must be in films – the best theatre dies with its audience and the best telly and even radio disappears after a while. But movies are forever. Ruth Draper made no films, apart from a few experimental tests with Alexander Korda which were never used. It is a great shame, as the audio recordings, brilliant though they are, only give us half the magic of her work. We miss seeing what she did.
The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), edited by Neilla Warren
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979
If I am at all an expert on planning, painful experience rather than astounding success has brought it about. I am learning, however, and I think I can share with you what I have learned, which is basically this: Begin by understanding the purpose of planning.
The purpose of planning is not to hem you in, not to make you toe the line and meet schedules, not to inhibit all those impulses to follow sudden inspirations. The purpose of planning is to eliminate dithering, to free you of small daily decisions and to disengage your mind from concerns other than the one immediately at hand. The purpose of planning is also to assure you, before you begin, that you actually have something substantial worth writing. If you are an impulsive writer constantly beginning with great ideas that somehow dwindle away into nothingness and have to be abandoned, you may need to plan your work, simply to find out whether you have anything there to write. If you can’t put the gist of it into some kind of outline or statement, maybe you don’t have any gist: and it’s better to find this out before you start page one rather than after you finish page twenty.
But all plans should be flexible and roomy. Work should be planned flexibly enough to allow the mind to play and move freely. Time should be planned flexibly enough to allow for diversions and delays. Rigidity and creativity are incompatible. Cast-iron chapter plans and cast-iron schedules for writing them are fine — if you have to be a talented computer. If you are human, something closer to Play-Doh or Silly Putty would be more suitable.
The virtue of planning is that once you have an outline or a schedule made, you can give full attention to the page in front of you, knowing that you have allocated and organized properly for the pages still to come. In other words, plan ahead — and then stop looking ahead.
To Writers, with Love, by Lesley Conger
Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1971
The Department Store: A Novel of Today was German novelist Margarete Böhme’s magnum opus, five hundred pages long and stocked with nearly as many characters as flowed through the doors of the great Berlin store, Müllenmeister’s Emporium, around which the story centers. Böhme is remembered today for her novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) (1905), which purported to be the authentic journal of a young woman forced by circumstances into prostitution. A huge best-seller in its time, it was twice filmed, the second version (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst and starring the iconic American silent film actress, Louise Brooks.
Reviewing the novel in The Bookman, Frederick Taber Cooper found it hard to believe that, “with such a thoroughly virile grasp of the theme, and strong, bold, unflinching portrayal of its dramatic elements,” the book could have been written by a woman:
It contains the life history of a dozen families, in all the various social strata of the Prussian capital, a sweeping and comprehensive bird’s-eye view of German manners and customs, in the social world and half-world alike….
You are not merely made to see the surge and rush of bargain day, the disciplined army of clerks working, like the separate cogs and wheels in some monster machine, driven at full pressure, the eager crowds, pushing, jostling, laughing, frowning, catching the contagion of the hour, yielding to the shopping craze — you not only see all this, but you become actually part of it; you feel yourself caught and drawn along, gasping and breathless, in the very thick of the press, you almost start to take out your own pocket-book and buy recklessly of things that you in no wise want!
The Department Store, an electronic copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive (link), is something of the flip side of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883), in which the great Paris department store, modeled on Le Bon Marché, is portrayed as a symbol of the abundance and extravagance of the Industrial Age at its height, and in which the owner/entrepeneur is won over by the beauty and virtue of one of his shopgirls.
While Böhme’s emporium overflows with just as many goods as Zola’s, its celebration of capitalism is undermined by a sense of corruption and shoddiness. The store’s furniture shines as brilliantly as those in the most exclusive shops, but its manufacture and materials are cheap and unreliable. The underpaid salesgirls spend ten or twelve hours a day standing behind their counters, while shop chiefs keep the stock boys and warehousemen scurrying back and forth without relief. And the shopgirl with whom the young heir to the store falls in love proves craven and unfaithful. While not quite a radical novel, it’s not too many steps from the kind of stories of worker exploitation and organized labor that were just beginning to appear.
The Department Store was one of the very first books reviewed by the young Cicely Fairfield under her new pen name of Rebecca West, in The Freewoman. West made her opinion of department stores plain from the start: “A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart.”
Unlike The Ladies’ Paradise, which she called “a miracle of sensuous perception,” Böhme’s won West’s respect as “the brooding of a masterful intellect over a social phenomenon.” Where Zola’s heroine is near saintliness in her virtue, Böhme’s leading female character, Agnes Matrei, is “the woman who is the kind of flower that grows in that hot-house: hardly a woman, rather some phantom formed from the unwholesome mist that rises from the marsh by moonlight.” In West’s estimation, the novel was “an absorbingly interesting book.”
Not everyone had such a high opinion of The Department Store, though. Borrowing his metaphor from the book’s subject, The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed it by writing that “In a shop one can get pretty nearly everything under the same roof and carry on a successful business; but the same tactics do not good in writing a novel.”
Having taken up writing as a way to make a living after she divorced her husband in 1900, Margarete Böhme went on to publish a total of forty novels over the space of the next twenty-some years. By the time of her death, however, none of her books were in print, her most famous novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, having been banned from republication by the Nazi Party for its disreputable portrait of German womanhood. It was resurrected a few years ago in both German and English editions featuring stills from Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl.
The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1912
In the course of this year of devoting my time to reading and writing about neglected books by women, one genre that has particularly captivated me is the autobiography. Like many men, I find women a subject of endless fascination and every piece of autobiographical writing by a woman seems to be an opportunity to understand just a little better these extraordinary creatures who share my habitat. In my search for lost books, I’ve come across a rich trove of autobiographies and memoirs written by women over the last 150 years, assembling a list of titles that could easily keep me going for another couple of years.
A few women have found autobiography an especially fruitful form and carried on from a first volume for three, four, or even more. I’ve discussed Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs here earlier this year, and will have to find time soon to mention G. B. Stern’s equal number of … well, let’s call them logo-psycho-philosophic-autobiographical rambles for the lack of a precise label. Marie Belloc Lowndes, best remembered for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock first great silent film, The Lodger, wrote four volumes of autobiography in the last years of her life, while Anthony Powell’s wife, Lady Violet Powell, wrote her four volumes over the span of more than fifty years. But here I want to mention two trilogies of memoirs, both out of print, and both well worth rediscovering.
• Janet Frame
It’s a little astonishing to see that New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies are out of print. Frame’s life is a testament to the challenges and rewards of not fitting in. Her behavior as an adolescent was considered eccentric at the time, but in hindsight seems more understandable given what was going on around her (two sisters died of drowning, two brothers regularly suffered epileptic seizures). After a difficult time while attending college, she attempted suicide, and, not long after that, was committed to the psychiatric ward of her local hospital for observation. She spent much of the next eight years in mental hospitals, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. But she also began writing and publishing, starting with short stories, and was saved from a schedule lobotomy when it was announced that her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), had been selected for the Hubert Church Memorial Award.
Frame left New Zealand in 1956 and lived in England and Europe before returning home in 1963. She published numerous novels and short story collections and her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fiction grew, particularly as she was able to grapple with issues about madness, loneliness, and the destruction of language and meaning. In the late 1970s, she began writing her autobiography, which was published in three volumes between 1982 and 1985: To the Is-Land (1982), Angel at My Table (1984), and Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White said the books ranked “amongst the wonders of the world.” When the trilogy was published in a single volumen in 1990, English biographer Michael Holroyd called them “One of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” In his Sunday Times review, Holroyd described the books as, “A journey from luminous childhood, through the dark experiences of supposed madness, to the renewal of her life through writing fiction. It is a heroic story, and told with such engaging tone, humorous perspective and imaginative power.” In the same year, Jane Campion directed a wonderful film, An Angel at My Table, and the two events brought Frame worldwide acclaim.
• Kate Simon
Simon was born Kaila Grobsmith in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw ghetto, came to the U. S. with her family in steerage at the age of 4, and grew up in the Tremont section of the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College, she went to work as a journalist, and, beginning in the 1950s, as a travel writer. Her first memoir, which recalls in a vivid but utterly unnostalgic manner her experiences growing up, was titled Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood. It was selected as one of the twelve best books of 1982 by The New York Times Book Review and one of the five best of the year by Time. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence, was published in 1986, and dealt frankly with her early sexual experiences, which included brushes with lesbian faculty members and living with a man outside of marriage–both of which were generally considered shocking and rarely discussed at the time. The last volume, Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), was written as she was suffering from the cancer that took her life, and described her travels and adventures–cultural and sexual–in places such as Mexico, India, Italy, and France. It also dealt with death of her first husband, her sister, her daughter (at the age of 19)–all of brain tumors–and her own, which she referred to as “The Bone Man.” Throughout all three books, Simon is candid, open-minded, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan, and a thoroughly engaging narrator.
Walk on over the leaf-patterned carpet, under the gas lamps, and there is Pickwick and Sam Weller in a huge gilt frame. It hangs above the piano. This is a busy room. There is a “dado” of landscapes near the ceiling. And pictures of landscapes on either side of the great Pickwick. I have a recent yearning for pictorial pictures again. To stand and look far back to distant mountains, to which tiny boats are heading, and on the shore tiny people picnic, while near at hand a family group of peasants — or of wealthy sightseers — gesticulate, smiling or sad, dangling long ribboned hats. patting long-haired, carefully painted dogs. The storytelling picture, the romantic painting — but at least doing something. Not blobs of color.
There are tall vases on the mantel, a shiny black bust of Beethoven on the piano. The chairs have carved legs, flowered seats, curved rockers; antlers sprout from the walls; flowers sprout from flowered vases. The Mexican vase is there. The bookcases have glass doors. Parlors, hallways, living rooms all seem to flow every which way, kept in order by massive sliding doors with square carved panels. There is so much going on in silence!
Josephine Johnson wrote Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places when she was in her sixties, and it’s a memoir constructed around the unusual framework of the seven houses in which she had spent most of her life to that point. The daughter and granddaughter of prosperous St. Louis merchants, she grew up in a household full of sisters and aunts but dominated by strong male figures. She took early to writing, but was astonished to learn she’d won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, Now in November, in 1935.
And despite this success, as she writes in Seven Houses, “I seemed to be waiting to begin to live, and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper … all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find.” Despite establishing herself as a successful writer and growing up around strong women, her outlook was still dominated by the need for a strong male figure: “And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting to live was over and the real life began.”