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 href=”http://amzn.to/1Yl3tWq”> 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.”
Seven Housess was written not long after Johnson published The Inland Island (1969), a book that some have compared to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book very much about the impact of landscape on the writer’s life and perceptions. And, ironically, despite its title, Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places is as much about the landscapes and seasons outside as it is about the things that went on inside. “But there was too much house, too little land,” she writes of a house she shared with Cannon and their children for over ten years. At times, Johnson seems to be struggling to understand where she wants to go with her memoir, but even in its occasional disorientation, Seven Houses is a unique and often moving reflection on life in all its elements.
Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places, by Josephine W. Johnson
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1973
When Barbara Deming published this study of the American dream as portrayed in American films of the 1940s, she had spent over a decade speaking, writing, organizing, marching, and being imprisoned for the causes of racial and sexual equality and non-violent resistance. The same “strange split in consciousness” she saw in some of the movies she had watched and written about twenty years before was now on display at the national and global level: the United States applying all its economic and military power to fight the North Vietnamese at the same time it proclaimed support for the average Joe. “Believe in me or I will have to destroy you!” is how she summed up the philosophy of the Hollywood stereotype she labelled “Success Boy” in the late 1940s. By 1969, she was watching Success Boy becoming a political predilection she felt compelled to resist.
Deming had written by book — subtitled “A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the 40’s” — in the late 1940s, after working as a film analyst for the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1948, during which she estimates she watched a quarter of all Hollywood film features released. While viewing each film, she took extensive notes in shorthand, sometimes directly transcribing onscreen action and dialogue. As a result, her discussion of most films covered is deep and detailed. Unlike a lot of books devoted to films, particularly film noir, this is not a grazer’s guide. After reading her analysis of now well-worn classics such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will not only want to see them again, but you will see them through Deming’s eyes–even if not always accepting her interpretation.
“All the characters whom I trace in Running Away From Myself can be seen to be products of a deep crisis of faith.” The 1940s are often seen as the golden age of Hollywood, when many of the mythic figures that came to epitomize American culture–Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Gary Cooper–had their heyday. Deming’s view is considerably less rosy: “Virgil describes Hell to Dante as that blind world in which the good of the intellect has been surrendered. His words could also be used to describe the darkened world of the movie theater.” The act of sitting in a darkened theater–“playing a more passive role than he does in relation to any other art”–makes the viewer more suggestible, more open to manipulation. In these chapters, Deming often reaches over to her fellow moviegoers and challenges them: “What’s really going on here?” she demands.
On the other hand, for someone who so immersed herself in film, Deming is quite removed from the actual business and process of film-making. The fact that there was a whole studio system, with armies of writers, stars often locked into pretty narrow boundaries of roles and images, the need to generate a constant stream of new material to keep people going to theaters two or three times a week, and a strong drive to make movies that set American life and values in contrast to those of Fascism and Communism, is rarely acknowledged. And I have to wonder, after reading Running Away From Myself, whether Deming actually knew anyone directly involved with film-making when she wrote this book. She’s also quite selective in what she does and doesn’t cover. It’s striking that neither of the huge classics from 1946–The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life–are mentioned.
Still, if you love films–and especially if you love to dig into films, to treat them as more than just escapism–Running Away From Myself is a satisfying read. Whether you always agree with Deming’s analysis or not, you cannot argue that she doesn’t consistently reveal how much more is going on than the simple story playing out onscreen.
Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties, by Barbara Deming
New York City: Grossman Publishers, 1969
Reading All That Seemed Final, I was often reminded of another multi-player London novel I’ve listened to as audiobooks in the last year–John Lanchester’s Capital. Both books interweave the stories of a cast of characters over the space of roughly one year, switching from one to another from chapter to chapter, and drawing many links between the “Big H” history going around them and the immediate facts and issues of their own lives. And, as with Capital, throughout All That Seemed Final, I kept asking myself: “This is wonderfully entertaining, but is it more than that?”
I was perhaps jaded from having read several reviews that criticized Lanchester’s book for being somewhat superficial, for playing tried-and-true cards like death and bankruptcy for easy emotions. After listening to the book, however, I have to disagree, if only on by the simple litmus test of how much I still recall so much of its story and mood nearly a year later. And–with the exception of a few lightweight characters–I think I will be able to say the same of All That Seemed Final a year from now.
The story opens in the Spring of 1939, just as the flowers in St. James’ Park are beginning to bud and Hitler is invading Czechoslovakia. Colebrook introduces her cast in midstream–hosting a party for charity, heading home on a crowded bus, wondering whether to end an affair or a marriage. Quite a few are on the margins of society–a minor art critic, a shell-shocked veteran clerking in a tobacco firm. If they take note of the headlines about the possibility of war, it is, of course, only to wonder what inconveniences it might bring. “Will they intern my wonderful cook for being Austrian?” frets an aging femme fatale. Those most have memories of the last war, they are (the former soldier aside) as something fought “over there,” leading them to assume the next will also be somewhat distant from their own lives.
Colebrook takes her title from Proust: “Thus the face of things in life changes, the center of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded, and during his lifetime a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him the least possible.” And, to the credit of her originality, not all of the changes that come to Colebrook’s characters result simply from the outbreak of war. While the slick and successful painter finds substance and moral fiber within when he joins the Army, the adulterous wife is forced to a decision for reasons quite apart from the events around her. Although all feel themselves to be in a sort of limbo, for some the uncertainty contains more promise than dread. But Colebrook also shows, with great skill, the crushing fear of pain and destruction felt by a few for whom the waiting is the worst ordeal of all.
All That Seemed Final received positive reviews went it came out in the fall of 1941. Writing in The New York Times, Marianne Hauser called it “a fine, clever book, well written and thoroughly convincing.” But timing was against its success: English readers were already caught up in the war and American readers soon had problems of their own to worry about. The book has never been reissued.
Colebrook, who was born and raised in Australia, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and felt moved to write the book in frustration with “this callous and rather hopeless disregard of the obvious fact that Europe was again drifting toward open conflict.” It was not until she moved to America in late 1940, however, that she was able to finish the novel. She wrote just one other work of fiction, The Northerner (1948), which was set in rural Australia. She worked as a journalist and, on occasion, as a social worker, in New York City. She published three works of nonfiction, including The Cross of Lassitude (1967), a study of juvenile delinquency. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.
All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
Sibyl Sue Blue is an undercover cop who wears chartreuse mini-skirts, rouges her knees, smokes cigars, and knows how to take the wind out of an obstreperous Centaurian with a quick sledge-hammer swing of her handbag. Nearing forty, she’s passing as the girlfriend of a high schooler, thanks to a wig, cheek pieces and an occasional dab of skin-tightening cream. Though she carries a torch for her husband Kenneth, who was lost on a failed expedition to the planet Radix some years ago, she’s ready to go after the right man, if she finds him attractive. She reads Thucydides in original Greek while grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch. And she’s a single mother trying to raise a high schooler herself while keeping the streets clear of benzale dealers.
Sibyl Sue Blue can be sold as a long-forgotten cross between Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. It’s fast, violent, sexy, and adventurous, the sort of thing that could easily be translated into a camp but savvy film. There are fights and plenty of them–Sibyl is a walking poster girl for proactive self-defense. There’s a wild ride through a spooky night, with Sibyl and a cohort clinging onto the roof rack of a speeding car. There’s a space ship trip to Radix, during which Sibyl falls in and out of love with its billionaire playboy captain.
And there is a relatively effective attempt to depict a planet-encircling organic intelligence, something Stanislaw Lem had already done in his as-yet (in 1966) untranslated masterpiece, Solaris. But the promise of the novel is undermined by too much scope stuffed into what is basically a whodunnit with exotic trappings. Brown rushes to bring her story to an end in under 200 pages and left out more story construction material than might be safe. Imagine watching Barbarella on fast forward and you might get the idea. A narrative shouldn’t go so fast that the reader is left somewhere between disoriented and disinterested.
Sibyl Sue Blue was Rosel George Brown’s first novel and was originally published as part of Doubleday’s science fiction series. At the time, Brown was living in New Orleans with her husband, Tulane history professor W. Burlie Brown, and their two boys. The couple had met while Rosel was studying Greek as an undergraduate at Sophie Newcomb College, which was associated with Tulane.
Brown began writing short stories in the late 1950s, publishing her first, “From an Unseen Censor,” in Galaxy magazine in 1958, and went on to publish nearly two dozen in similar SF magazines over the next six years. A selection of these were collected in A Handful of Time in 1963. She collaborated with Keith Laumer on Earthblood (1966), and followed soon after with her own Sibyl Sue Blue. Unfortunately, she died less than a year later of lymphoma. Her husband assembled material for a second Sibyl Sue Blue she had been working on prior to her death and sold it to Doubleday, which published it as The Waters Of Centaurus in 1970. One of Brown’s early short stories, “Step IV,” is available online at Project Gutenberg (link).
Sibyl Sue Blue (later reissued as Galatic Sibyl Sue Blue), by Rosel George Brown
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966
The education of myself began one day in March at the University of Chicago. It happened suddenly during the spring term of my junior year. I was eighteen years old and I saw a blinding light. That day I went into the university bookstore and bought two notebooks, one of them to hold a list of books that was beginning to gather in my head. Yesterday a professor had murmured a lovely title, The Golden Treasury, which became my first entry, page 1. The second entry was Bernard Hart’s The Psychology of Insanity, though I have forgotten now why I wanted to read it.
For the second notebook I had no clear plan except to put it to immediate use. When I returned to my room, I thought for a while and then wrote on the inside cover, “Chiefly about Life.” The book, secret and indispensable, became a major part of my education. Thereafter, anything I read, in a book, magazine, or newspaper, was a possible source of material. It might contain powerful and enlightened words that I could copy into my notebook.
Heaven pardon my taste, but at least it was catholic. From Carl Van Vechten’s current popular novel Peter Whiffle, I wrote, “A man with a broad taste in food is inclined to be tolerant in regard to everything,” and believing tolerance to be a good thing, I stopped disliking any food. Out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s silliest volume, Flappers and Philosophers, I took this: “All life is just a progression toward and then a regression from one phrase, ‘I love you.'” From Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I noted and learned by heart what happiness is: “Happiness therefore is that estate whereby we attain, so far as possibly may be attained, the full possession of that which simply for itself is to be desired, and containeth in it, after an eminent sort, the contentation of our desires, the highest degree of all our perfection.”
I set down Miltons prayer to the heavenly muse: “What in me is dark/Illumine,” and wrote in large letters from Peer Gynt, “Troll, to thyself be enough.” Occasionally, I even quoted my professors if, like Professor Percy Boynton, they were given to aphorisms: “I dissent from the rather fatuous dictum that all the world loves a lover. Most of us are bored and embarrassed by him.”
It was the first of my notebooks, all chiefly about life. Since that spring I have always kept one to catch the powerful words, wherever they are. When found, I have a note of. Sometimes lately I am aware that time has brought real changes to my mind and to the tone of my selections, which tend to lack there former earnestness and sobriety. Only yesterday, I came across a useful quotation from Max Beerbohm, another definition of what happiness is. He called it “a four-post bed in a field of poppies and mandragora.”
Presented here to introduce Exertos.com, an off-shoot of this site, that is my own electronic equivalent to Helen Bevington’s notebooks: an Internet common-place book whose entries have in common only that I found them interesting and that they can usually be read in a minute or two.
Negative Entropy or
The Third Law of Thermodynamics or
How It is We Keep Alive
We feed on crystals, feast on minerals,
Batten, upon the moon, consume the stars
And through the channels of our love drain off
The sun’s heat and the whole world’s energy.
The crocus and the oak, the elephant,
The long-tailed tit, the taxidermist’s owl,
Our eyes, our hair, our nails, all, all the same
Millions of indistinguishable atoms
Chaos in single numbers, order in milliards.
Only the passionate indestructible pattern
Of the all-but-eternal molecule, carries the key.
Locked in its heart lies the secret
To grow from the acorn the oak,
From the corm the year’s yellow crocus,
From the fertilised cell the elephant,
From the egg the tit or the owl,
From eyes our children’s eyes, from hair their hair
And from our nails their same peculiar nails.
Each greedy of life resists death,
Sucks sustenance from the desert;
Devours the rock and the ruby.
Until we cool to our end
And dying provide new fires
For love and fresh generation.
from The Lightning Struck Tower, by Sheila Shannon
London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1947
A few readers have contacted me to recommend neglected books by women writers for me to consider as part of my theme for this year, and some of the most interesting suggestions have in common the fact that they were all issued as cheap popular paperbacks, and a few as originals. So let me dive into my favorite section in the bookstore, those shelves full of paperbacks from the days before anyone had dreamed up the concept of trade editions.
Bruce Durocher II wrote to recommend this, a comic Western from Lee Hoffman, who was better known as a science fiction writer, but who cut her teeth in the 1960s with a series of Western novels, both silly and serious. Her 1967 novel, The Valdez Horses, won the Spur Award as Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America. Blackjack Sam, however, was inspired by Ace Books editor Donald Wollheim, who provided the title and left the rest up to her. Well, she started by expanding the title out to, “Being an Absolutely Accurate Account (More or Less) of the Violent Events leading up to the Notorious Showdown at the O’Shea Corral, involving Red Injuns, Proddy Gunslingers, Gambling Gents, Purty Gals and Sundry Other Citizens, and including for the First Time a Genuine Eyewitness Account of said Outrage by a Petrified Participant Therein.” That already gets us to page 3.
Hoffman gets off to a great start, with Sam coming at us through a bedroom window: “When I went out that window, I lost both buttons off the back-flap and there was a bad draft.” It soon becomes clear that if Sam is legendary for anything, it’s bad timing. Had Yiddish been popular on the frontier, he would have been easily recognized as a schlmiel. The Legend of Blackjack Sam is a fast, funny romp, full of wimmen and bushwhackers and old coots. I’m sure it gave some lonely traveling businessmen a good laugh as they sat up reading in some motel somewhere between Omaha and Alamagordo. And paid the rent for Hoffman, who went on to write several others with titles like The Truth About the Cannonball Kid.
Mary Halloran wrote to recommend Lolah Burford’s “revisionist” bodice-rippers, particularly her first, Vice Avenged: A Moral Tale. Burford dedicated the novel to one of the giants of the romance novel, Georgette Heyer, but cautioned that “Here is an eighteenth-century fairy tale, frankly unserious, frankly unrealistic, for a realistic, serious Age.” Frankly unrealistic indeed! It’s basically about a rake — a Mohock, to use a contemporary term from eighteenth century England — who rapes a young woman of good family on a bet and then suffers the consequences. He writes to her father, admitting what he’s done, and in return, Father makes him marry the girl and then has her brothers kidnap and take the groom off to a private imprisonment in France. After various adventures, the rake returns, takes up the girl and their young son, and all ends well. It’s rather arch and intentionally artificial, as if Burford wanted us to know all along that her tongue was set firmly in cheek. At the time it was published, it was considered rather good, but to me, it was neither fish nor fowl: not original enough to be truly memorable, not conventional enough to satisfy most serious romance novel fans. Burford wrote a number of books after, and from the looks of them, each moved a little closer to the standard elements of mainstream bodice-rippers.
After the release of Eric Meyer’s Uncle Mame, I thought I was pretty up to speed on the circle of satirical books about New York’s society dames and denizens penned by Edward Everett Tanner II under the pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, but I didn’t know that his wife — a bona-fide dame herself — had written her own. Miss Bannister’s Girls is the group portrait of the class of 1940 from Miss Bannister’s School (basely on “Miss Chapin’s School for Girls and Kindergarten for Boys and Girls,” which Mrs. Tanner attended and which still operates today as the Chapin School). In spirit and approach, it’s very much the sorority sister to Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here, which I mentioned here back in 2009: mocking its subjects from an insider’s perspective but without going so far as to lose friends. The pokes are gentle, none so hard as to leave a bruise.
It would be hard not to also draw a parallel with another group portrait of a class of privileged East Coast society girls, Mary McCarthy’s huge best-seller The Group. Like McCarthy, Louise Tanner was a Vassar grad (’44 to McCarthy’s ’33), but there the resemblance between their works ends. McCarthy loved not just to stick the knife into her subjects, but usually couldn’t resist giving it one last twist. And her girls are so darned earnest and serious there’s barely a smile to be found in the whole book. To be honest, to me it now seems painfully dated. In contrast, Miss Bannister’s Girls is still a hoot. McCarthy was considered daring for featuring a lesbian among her classmates. Tanner’s token gay is out there and loving it, living in a Connecticut farmhouse full of pictures of “big, splashy Negro girls stripped to the waist” and recovering from an injury suffered while playing Falstaff on stage. One of the cover blurbs on the Macfadden Books paperback edition says the book is “Dipped in the same acid bath” as McCarthy’s. If there’s any acid here, it’s lactic. Miss Bannister’s Girls is comic, coy, and completely charming.
Len Finch recommended this odd work by Madelaine Duke, who originally published it under the pseudonym Maxim Donne. It’s a satirical science fiction-cum-secret agent story, set in the distant future of 1979, in a world dominated by white, mostly European, and exclusively male, capitalists. While the boys play nation- and world-running, Mrs. Connie Munster and her ladies quietly — even graciously — go about arranging the assassinations of those in danger of taking the game a little too seriously. A wealthy philanthropist who goes around funding hospitals and opening children’s schools, Mrs. Munster manages to collect a Nobel Peace Prize while discussing the next hit with her ladies over, yes, claret and sandwiches.
I found it an intriguing but not particularly well-written book. Naturally, any dystopia set thirty-some years ago always has a certain retro charm about it, but the characters and plotting were just too stiff to bring out the comedy. The farce was false. But Duke herself seems more interesting than her book. Born in Switzerland and trained as a chemist, she somehow got involved with the Allied effort to round up German scientists after the end of World War Two, an experience she wrote about in her first book, Top Secret Mission (1954). She went on to write books about other spies, including Slipstream (1955), about her brother, Anthony Duke, who worked as a “false” double agent, and No Passport: the Story of Jan Felix (1957), about the work of S.O.E. agent “Captain Hilton” (Hans Felix Jeschke). She then turned to fiction, with novels with titles like Ride the Brooding Wind (1961), before taking a couple turns at science fiction. A few years after she turned out This Business of Bomfog (Bomfog stands for “Brotherhood-of-Man-Fatherhood-of-God”), which also took shots at the notion that the world was somehow better off with men in charge. After these flopped, she turned out a series of mystery novels featuring physician-turned detective Dr. Norah North, in which, in the words of one encyclopedia of mystery fiction, “Duke overloaded on plots and then had difficulty coordinating their conclusions.”
This was recommended by pseudonym emailer “greadership,” who called it “a dystopian novel that ranks with the best of Ursula Le Guin.” The Blue Chair was, somewhat unusually for that time (I can say this because I was regularly scouring the shelves for new paperbacks back then) as an original Avon paperback, and it was Thompson’s first book.
The story in The Blue Chair would probably resonate with readers now much more than it did when first published. It’s set in a world in which America is run by white people waited on by people of color from the Third World. Medical science has advanced to the point where immortality is possible, but to keep its possible complications from spiraling out of control, it’s also made available only to a selected portion of the population. Poet Eve Harmon is not eligible, since she had two children instead of one, but her son Jason is high enough in the power structure to bend the rules for her and her husband John is a senior researcher working on new ways to extend life. But Eve is not interested in fighting for that option. Instead, she spends her hours sitting in her comfy blue chair as her cancer spreads, allowing herself to pass in and out of a mental fog that takes her back through her life and relationships. The ironic message of the book is that Eve gains the greater satisfaction and joy from accepting the end of her life than do John or Jason from knowing theirs can go on forever.
This Dell edition of Maxine Kumin’s The Passions of Uxport, a “probing novel of marriages and matings,” features a man and woman moments before doing something unsuitable for supermarket shelf display. The back blurb compares it to Updike’s novel of group sex, Couples, and John Cheever’s novel of suburban obsessions and murder, Bullet Park. You can bet that lust, adultery, and who knows what other steamy, sweaty things will be found inside.
I knew Maxine Kumin as a poet and vaguely knew she had written some novels, and would never have picked up this book if not for her name on it.
But as Bo Diddley sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Here is the opening sentence of The Passions of Uxport: “At the time of his arrest, Ernie Makkinen had just come upon a well-developed Irish setter, two or three days dead, lying on its side, eyes fixed on what must have been the last object it had seen–a beer can suspended in a clump of frost-blackened goldenrod.”
“Crows had cleaned the spilled guts up to the limits of the matted hair of the dog’s flanks,” Kumin goes on, and “A crew of beetles was busily at work under its tail.” Ernie, we quickly learn, is a holy fool convinced that God has assigned him the task of collecting all the roadkill from the highways of New England and giving it a proper burial.
We are a long way from a casual hop in the sack here.
Now, sex and its consequences is certainly an element in this novel. Although we start with poor, mad Ernie and his truck full of rotting carcasses, adultery does eventually wander in, as does an unwanted pregnancy and even an old man’s sexual fantasy. But Kumin might better have titled this The Frustrations of Uxport, because this is mostly a book about people struggling with some of the crappy things that come their way: the anger of teens trying to break away from parents, the arrest of someone they know and trust, the death of a child.
At the center of the book are two couples living in Uxport, a suburb somewhere on the northwest side of Boston. Hallie and Mellon got married in college when she got pregnant, and their twins are about to head off to college. Sukey and Martin met and fell in love while experiencing Europe on $5 a day and, despite their very different interests and personalities, have a cozy little family with their young daughter, Binky. By the time the book is ended, they will all have been raked over the coals in one way or another and have managed, for the most part, to survive.
But what’s most memorable about The Passions of Uxport is not so much the story as the detours. The book is of moderate length–about 350 pages–but it reads like something twice the length. Kumin is comfortable with wandering away from center stage to spend time exploring the odd corners of the set, discovering the lives of the bit players, as in this aside, which appears in the midst of the most dramatic scene in the book:
(Later, Joan Mixter, whose maiden name had been Shadwell–it was a Shadwell who had founded the Et Ux Club and died at the age of eighty-three, choking on a fishbone at the annual Dry Fly banquet–confessed to the same confusion of sounds that had confounded Hallie. She had been standing in the next aisle over between the Pepperidge Farm cookies and the sesame cocktail crunchies when Ernie erupted, and although she had always known Harriet Peake was of Jewish extraction, hence rendering the otherwise impeccable Mellon ineligible for club membership, she was rooted to the floor in horror. A can of Strongheart live had thereupon grazed her shin, raising an ugly lump, but she was not one of those who rushed forward to subdue the poor mad soul. Yet the Shadwells were not unaccustomed to such outbursts, for Joan had had a twin whose youthful hallucinations involving the Virgin Mary had been held responsible for her early decline. When she pined away and died at the age of nineteen, her name, which had been Agatha, died with her until this day, when it flew back into Joan Mixter’s head. Poor Agatha! she thought with charity–the Agatha she had killed in hundreds of adolescent dreams until death had kindly come and done its own murdering.)
I am just in awe of this paragraph, which wanders all over the place, is funny and bizarre and touching, has nothing whatsoever to do with the main scene, yet manages to be more striking than it.
And also illustrates the problem with The Passion of Uxport: what is best about the book–most interesting, most unexpected, most moving–is not the story but the things that happen in the margins. Ernie and his roadkill epiphanies. Iris, the aging secretary Mellon has a one-night stand with. John Ventury, the construction site supervisor whose prescription glasses constantly remind him of all he yearned for when he was a poor and hungry kid. Aram Ramabedian, the dry cleaner whose heart is breaking over his dead wife and his mentally handicapped son. Even Hallie and Mellon’s dreams and fantasies are more interesting than their lives.
In other words, while The Passion of Uxport is not a particularly good novel, it is full of particularly good reading. In the end, that’s what matters more, anyway, but that’s also what guarantees a book will be dismissed by reviewers and quickly forgotten.
Which is why we shouldn’t let the reviewers make our decisions for us. You can miss the heart-broken dry cleaner and the saintly collector of run-over Irish setters.
The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin
New York: Harper and Row, 1968
A long time ago (by the Internet clock), I mentioned the efforts of Karen DeCrow, one-time president of the National Organization for Women, to get a publisher interested in reissuing Small World, a 1951 novel written by Carol Deschere. DeCrow sent a letter to dozens of publishers, urging them to take another look at Deschere’s book. As DeCrow wrote,
Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.
Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual.
Given my decision to focus on books by women this year, I didn’t hesitate when I spotted a copy of Small World for a little less than the starting price of $48 that I found back in 2008.
I have to confess that I felt a bit mislead by DeCrow’s take on the book. Yes, it’s true that this is a book about the life of a housewife–her home, family, and neighbors–with little sense of the big world beyond, but DeCrow seems to have found the book more interesting as an example of the limitations experienced by women like Deschere than as a piece of writing. In reality, if there is any tone that prevails in Small World, it’s one of joy, not frustration.
Small World is a thinly-fictionalized account of about ten years in the life of Deschere and her husband, Ralph Berendt. It follows the couple from their decision to move from New York City to Ithaca (more centrally located for Ralph’s work as a salesman for his family’s shoe company) and then to Syracuse, through their starting a family and encountering all the typical mishaps and misadventures of 1950s suburban life. The Saturday Review summed up the plot, such as it is, nicely: “We moved from New York City to Ithaca, where we kept house for a year with my husband’s brother and his wife, Lois, then we moved to Syracuse and Lois and I each had a baby, and then in a couple of years I had another, and we lived in several apartments and then we bought a house and the children went to school.”
If anything, it’s far more in the spirit of The Egg and I–or Lesley Conger’s Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, another domestic comedy by a woman of intellectual aspirations mentioned here a few months. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a decent 50s comedy film being based on the book. What distinguishes this book isn’t the story or the post-historical context but simply the delightful voice of its narrator. I love the way the Saturday Review reviewer put it: “I read somewhere that it is a test of a lively imagination and a glib tongue to be able to expatiate for fifteen minutes on the characteristics of a billiard ball without pause and without repetition and to hold one’s listeners spellbound in the process. This, in effect, is what Carol Deschere does with her Small World.”
Deschere’s approach to telling a story is never straightforward and, occasionally, wanders so far afield as to never arrive at its intended conclusion. But with the right story-teller, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Here, for example, is how she introduces an episode about the family dog bringing home its first piece of roadkill:
I was in the cellar sorting a load of wash and putting it through the machine, a process which occupied only the hands, leaving the brain free to drowse a little. The pulsing rotation of the machine, like the rocking of a cradle, added its soothing in?uence. Doing the laundry was one of the pleasantest of household chores, with a robot assistant which could be summoned, like a genie out of a bottle, at my command. Paul had tried to explain to me how the Bendix worked, but, losing itself somewhere among the thermostats and timing elements, my mind had wandered off to the old Victrola we had had when I was a child. A man lived inside of it; his name was Caruso; he sang music with words you couldn’t understand, and that made it all right, somehow, for him to stay in that cabinet all the time. My thinking still ran along those lines; it was so simple to pretend there was a human activator concealed within the washing machine, a perfect laundress, who turned the faucets with strong, bony ?ngers, and tested the temperature with a sharp, swift elbow. She had a personality too, but it was so unvaryingly eficient I didn’t care to contemplate it. . . .
The machine began to drain itself of suds. Next door, a child’s wagon clattered down the porch steps, and I heard my neighbor call out, “Micky, on your way home from the park, stop at the store and get me the things on this list, of, and a pack of Camels, too.” Micky grumbled and the clatter dwindled down the street. My mind still dozed. These sounds were part of my habitat; they barely touched the surface of my consciousness.
By the time the dog shows up, we’ve long forgotten it was a story about him. In fact, the mutt kind of gets in the way of an otherwise respectable meander.
Yet, in deference to Karen DeCrow, one must acknowledge that there is a consistently feminist note that now and again rises to make itself heard:
Evelyn felt that she always had to appear at her super-best for the simple reason that, plain and unvarnished, she mightn’t be able to compete with her husband’s other interests, while we felt no such compulsion. Keeping herself and her house well-groomed was part of Evelyn’s job, and Harold praised her for it to pay off his own conscience. It wasn’t vanity at all; it was insecurity . . . and maybe it wasn’t exactly insecurity but a kind of guilt-edged security! Oh, we had really hit on something this time. The women’s magazines, always harping on the idea that a girl must look fresh as a daisy even if she was feeling like a piece of stinkweed, had put this thing on a national basis. Then there was insufficiency to consider, too. You made a full-time job out of housekeeping because that was easier than looking for something else to do; it was an out that society handed you, and the busier you kept yourself with furniture polish — and nail polish — the less time you had to fret over the fact that you weren’t doing anything else.
Carol Deschere’s most profound influence as a writer was not on other women, however, but on her son, John Berendt. Forty-some years later, he saw a book he had worked on for years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, achieve spectacular success, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and spending over four years on The New York Times bestseller list. As he told an interviewer, “The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.”
The following appears on the back cover of Small World:
I was born in New York city, and although I see no reason why the date should appear on the jacket of my book, I’m perfectly willing to confide to your files that it was April 13, 1915. When I was six, my parents reluctantly acted on their belief (now shared by me) that the city was not the best place in which to bring up children, so we moved to the nearest available “country,” which happened to be Westchester. I went to school in New Rochelle, and the ink on my high-school diploma was hardly dry when, my childhood being officially over, we moved back to New York.
I went to Hunter College–which I loved–and was graduated in 1933, having been married the year before. I can highly recommend the combination of going to school while learning to keep house, as it give the bride the properly casual attitude toward housewifery. (Another effect, however, may not be quite so wholesome. After sixteen years, I find myself still taking courses.)
We left New York in 1936, and have been living in Syracuse for years. The children, aged thirteen and eleven, have always had an enormous amount of civic pride, and we have finally caught a mild form of it from them. At least, we now regard Syracuse as home.
From the Syracuse Post-Standard, 20 May 1951:
Finally, I must reproduce this early example of a publisher’s attempt to collect feedback, which was still securely nestled midway inside the immaculate copy of Small World that I received from thebooksend:
Small World, by Carol Deschere
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951
I will not come today–
I cannot come tomorrow.
I am gone far away
Beyond the realm of sorrow;
Beyond the reach of sleep,
And past the firmament
I am gone. No word is sent.
I am submerged, sunk deep
In the black basalt of eternity.
So call no name–you will call hopelessly.
But let the turning sky be fair and blue,
With what I loved the most: the eternal hue
Of hope and wonder, that is always you.
fromNight Sky, by Bernice Kenyon
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951
In memory of Bill Andrews, August 29, 1955 – October 3, 2014
Errol was exceptionally tidy in his personal habits. Sometimes he shaved twice a day and) he took constant showers. But one day Beverly said to me: “Mama, isn’t it strange? He doesn’t use anything under his arms. You’d think a man who’s been around as much as Errol would know about a little thing like that, wouldn’t you?”
I certainly agreed. He Wasn’t offensive—far from it. But it proved to me once again that those women he’d run around with for years—all those top sex charmers—were a bunch of dummies in some departments. You’d think one of them might have gotten around to giving Errol the message. But not one of them knew how to tell him.
With Beverly herself it was simply no problem. She was such a sweet person she didn’t need an underarm deodorant, but she used one just to be safe. One night when she and Errol were preparing to go somewhere in New York, she suddenly brought up the subject. It was always her way to be quite frank with him.
“Errol,” she said, “why don’t you use Mennen’s under the arms, or something like that?”
He took it as quite an insult. He had been shaving, and he turned away from the washbowl and gave her a hurt look.
“Well,” he said, sarcastically, “I’ve always considered myself a fairly clean man.”
“But why not use one? ” said Beverly. Her persistence made him a little angry.
“Damn it,” he said. “Who uses that stuff anyway? Besides, how come you know so much about what men are supposed to put on?” He looked at her half-suspiciously, half-jokingly. “I thought you were supposed to be a virgin before you met me. So how come you know all about this? Who told you?”
“My father!” snapped Beverly. “That’s who! He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Errol laughed and finished shaving. He didn’t say anything more about it then, but not long after that he started using a deodorant.
FromThe Big Love, by Mrs. Florence Aadland (as told to Tedd Thomey)
New York: Lancer Books, 1960
I arrived in New York with thirty-five dollars, a camera and a fur coat. I asked the taxi driver where he thought I ought to stay and he took me to a small hotel on Broadway in the seventies. Here I found a room for nine dollars a week, paid for two weeks, and went out to pawn the camera and the coat.
When I got back I was tired, and more than a little afraid. I lay on the bed in the stifling little cell with its grimy walls, and turned on a switch marked “radio.” A grating in the wall gave forth with dance music. Then there came a pause and a man’s voice said gravely: “Now for an important message.”
“Here it comes,” I thought. “War . . . it must be war. . .” I braced myself in anguish for what everyone in Europe feared, expected. . . .
“Do you suffer from acid indigestion?” the grave voice asked. I could not believe what I heard. I thought perhaps my mind had given way. The strain of recent years, the journey, this exile in a foreign country . . .
There were no commercials on my radio in Europe. It was my first encounter with the never-never land of phony sell. I listened bewildered. The news when it came said nothing about war. It talked of names and people and events I could not relate to. I knew nothing about the United States except what I had gathered in my childhood. I might as well have traveled to the moon for all I knew about my new surroundings.
The name of Ouida has been vaguely familiar to me ever since I saw Under Two Flags on the list of Classics Illustrated comic books. Somewhere in the course of studying English literature, I assimilated the knowledge that she had written a great many popular novels of no great merit in the second half of the 19th century, and as I more recently began to investigate what works by neglected women writers there might be to discover, I kept seeing her titles popping up in search results on the Internet Archive. And I would probably have left it at that have I not stumbled this morning onto Elizabeth Lee’s 1914 book, Ouida: A Memoir, began to read it, and from there set off on a meandering path around the many corners of the web that led me to conclude that this is a life that deserves to be better known, if only for its quirks and contrasts.
She was born Maria Louise Ramé, with a French father and English mother, in Bury St. Edmonds in 1839. She hated the town, which she considered an uncultured backwater. She referred to it as “that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land,” and said that “the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.” Many years later, when the town placed a plaque in her honor outside the house where she was born, she snipped to a friend, “This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind you named being put as you say.”
Maria Louise was delighted to leave the town behind and moved with her mother to London in 1857. Through their doctor, she was introduced to the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was then working as the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany and who encouraged the girl’s interest in writing. Her first story, “Dashwood’s Drag: or, The Derby and What Came of It,” appeared in the magazine in 1859 under the pseudonym, “Ouida,” which appears to have been her own toddler’s version of “Louise.” “Dashwood’s Drag” is something of an anomaly in Ouida’s oeuvre, as it’s told in the voice of a rough-and-tumble young friend of Dashwood’s and displays a certain amount of humor–a quality legendary in its absence from her writing.
She quickly learned what appealed to readers, and to her great fortune, that was much of what appealed to her, too. Although her own education was limited, she thought her father’s French roots entitled her to consider herself a woman of culture, and she aspired to be treated as one of the gentility. At the same time, however, she loved melodramatic subjects. As Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodge Holt put it in Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction, her first two novels, Held in Bondage and Strathmore “contain secrets, bigamy, adultery, the dead-alive, murder, shipwrecks, gypsy fortune tellers, secret marriages, and strong female villainesses.” With her talent for what Anthony Powell would later call “an extraordinary vitality in the presentation of her narrative” soon gained great popularity,” Ouida became one of the most successful writers of her time.
Over the next forty years, she would publish 47 books, including 41 novels, several short story collections, and a few works of nonfiction. Of these, her best-known today are A Dog of Flanders (1872), of which at least ten different film versions have been made, and Under Two Flags (1867), which was also filmed several times. With its story of a Guardsman who runs away to Africa and joins a precursor to the French Foreign Legion, Under Two Flags almost certainly inspired P. C. Wren’s 1924 best-seller, Beau Geste. Looking back from a far difference perspective than that of 1867, however, Talia Shaffer, in her The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Victorian Literature and Culture Series), describes it as “a novel of homoerotic thrills.” It’s hard not to say she might be right, given Ouida’s description of her hero, Bertie Cecil, known as “The Beauty of the Brigades”:
His features were exceedingly fair — fair as the fairest girl’s; his hair was of the softest, silkiest, brightest chestnut; his mouth very beautifully shaped; on the whole, with a certain gentle, mournful love-me look that his eyes had with them, it was no wonder that great ladies and gay lions alike gave him the palm as the handsomest man in all the Household Regiments — not even excepting that splendid golden-haired Colossus, his oldest friend and closest comrade, known as “the Seraph.”
Less than thirty years after the novel was published, Willa Cather gave it the kind of mixed praise that characterizes even Ouida’s most enthusiastic advocates: “Really, it would be hard to find a better plot than is in that same Under Two Flags, and the book contains the rudiments of a great style, and it also contains some of the most driveling nonsense and mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness to be found anywhere.”
In some ways, Ouida’s novels were the action comic books of their time. Her characters were certainly as one-dimensional as comic book heroes and villains. As Bonamy Dobrée wrote, “Her wicked are so deeply wicked, her good so extravagantly good, the issues between them so strenuously fought out, that one abandons any hankering after analysis, probability, subtlety, and floats, even now, deliciously on the great wave of her exuberant, superabundant vitality.” “Ouida’s persons are types, or rather, they are what used to be called ‘humours'”, Dobrée wrote; Max Beerbohm — one of her fans — called them “abstractions.”
Take, for example, the French nobleman/defender of the people/artistic genius of her 1870 novel, Tricotrin. Tricotrin is everything but faster than a speeding bullet:
A man with the wit of a Piron, the politics of a Jean Jacques, the eloquence of a Mirabeau, the Utopia of a Vergniaud! — a man with the head of a god and the blouse of a workman, the brain of a scholar and the life of a scamp, the soul of a poet, and the schemes of a socialist.
And a “Straduarius” violin with which he plays Mozart for the peasants in the fields.
“Straduarius” is only one of the many, many factual gaffes for which Ouida was criticized. She commonly put historical figures in places they’d never been, placed events in the wrong year, and misinterpreted or mistranslated foreign terms. She gave elaborate and fanciful descriptions of places she’d never seen, attributed incredible abilities to her characters, and moved her narratives along with utterly implausible motives and actions. As W. H. Mallock wrote in his memoirs, “Ouida lived largely in a world of her own creation, peopled with foreign princesses, mysterious dukes — masters of untold millions, and of fabulous English guardsmen whose bedrooms in Knightsbridge Barracks were inlaid with silver and tortoiseshell.”
Subtlety was never her forté, but her work seems to have left no one in the middle ground. The reading public of the time loved almost everything she doled out. Reviewers–pro or con–were rarely unmixed in their assessments. Of her 1885 novel, Othmar, one reviewer wrote, “This latest production from the fertile pen of “Ouida” is at once one of the most powerful and penetrating, and weak and superficial, novels of the year.” Writing in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, George Bernard Shaw described the typical Ouida novel as “diffuse, overloaded with worthless mock sociology, perceptibly tainted by a perversion of the sexual impulses, egotistical and tiresome and yet imaginative, full of vivid and glowing pictures, and not without a considerable moral stiffening of enthusiasm — half-reasoned but real — for truth and simplicity, and of protest against social evils which is not the less vehement because certain emotional and material aspects of it have a fascination which the writer has not wholly escaped.” Robert Louis Stevenson and some of his friends once wrote a parody of Ouida as a parlor game. The result, titled, An Object of Pity; or, the Man Haggard: A Romance (it also mocked H. Rider Haggard) carried the following dedication: “Many besides yourself have exulted to collect Olympian polysyllables, and to sling ink, not Wisely but too Well. They are forgotten, you endure. Many have made it their goal and object to Exceed; but who else has been so Excessive?”
Few of the many thousands of her readers objected to any of this, however. Indeed, they reveled in all the things that serious critics derided. And it earned her a very plush lifestyle. At the height of her success, Henry James wrote a short story, “Greville Fane,” which mocked her strategy of aiming for the lowest common denominator:
She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop. She put in plenty of sugar and of cochineal, or whatever it is that gives these articles a rich and attractive colour. She had a serene superiority to observation and opportunity which constituted an inexpungable strength and would enable her to go on indefinitely.
Ouida held her own work in considerably higher regard. As early as 1881, she was writing one of her publishers, Baron Tauschnitz, “English literature is very sorry stuff nowadays. You must make much of me for now George Elliott [sic] is gone there is no one else who can write English.” She had a very old-fashioned view of success, however. She wasn’t interested in pursuing the cult of celebrity and tended to avoid publicity for herself. She once described interviewers as “the vilest spawn of the most ill-bred age that the world has ever seen.” And she didn’t think much of the changes in the publishing business that were taking place. In a letter to the Times she wrote, “The literary agent … is a middleman between other middlemen and the producer; he is, to use a homely simile, the maggot of the nut; he is neither the kernel nor the shell; he is an esoteric body living between and upon the two. Maggots have rights and uses no doubt, but the nut never yet was the better for them.”
What success entitled her to was not celebrity but social status. “Please to address me Madame de la Ramée, or Madame Ouida. It is the more correct way to address a woman of eminence,” she advised a new acquaintance. And her bias toward gentility sometimes put her in foolish positions. “In whatever company she might be in, her first anxiety was to ingratiate herself with the most important members of it,” Mallock recalled,
but she was constantly making mistakes as to who the most important members were. Thus, as one of her entertainers — Violet Fane — told me, Ouida was sitting after dinner between Mrs. _____ , the mistress of one of the greatest houses in London, and a vulgar little Irish peeress who was only present on sufferance. Ouida treated the former with the coldest and most condescending inattention, and devoted every smile in her possession to an intimate worship of the latter.
Toward the end of the 1880s, Ouida’s work found a new set of advocates among the Aesthetes. Writing in 1889 the same magazine as Shaw, Oscar Wilde rose to her defense, calling her “the last of the romantics.” He admitted that her style was “full of exaggeration and overemphasis,” but held that it showed “some remarkable rhetorical qualities and a good deal of colour.” He did, however, concede the limitations of her intellect, writing that “Ouida is fond of airing a smattering of culture….” As with many of her supporters, his endorsement is less than unqualified: “Guilderoy, with all its faults, which are great, and its absurdities, which are greater, is a book to be read.”
Wilde’s review quotes numerous epigrams from Guilderoy that certainly betray more than a few signs of being an influence on his own style:
Moralists say that a soul should resist passion. They might as well say that a house should resist an earthquake.
Men always consider us unjust to them when we fail to deify their weaknesses.
And the country in England is so much more intolerable than anywhere else, because the weather is so bad: to endure it long one must have the rusticity of Wordsworth’s mind, and boots and stockings as homely.
Ouida’s characters often speak in epigrams, and in her day these nuggets were consider worthy of being captured in books titled The Wisdom, Wit, and Pathos of Ouida and A Flash of Ouida. Not all of them stand the test of time, however: “A pipe is a pocket philosopher, a truer one than Socrates. For it never asks questions. Socrates must have been very tiresome when one thinks of it.”
Not long after Wilde’s review, G. S. Street wrote “An Appreciation of Ouida” that appeared in the influential magazine that gave its name to the 1890s, The Yellow Book. “I respect an unrestrained and incorrect eloquence more than a merely correct and periphrastic nothingness,” he wrote in something of a left-handed compliment. For Street, the two qualities that underlay the best of Ouida’s work — “and which must have always saved it from commonness” — “are a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression.” In the end, he declared, “I take the merits in Ouida’s books to balance their faults many times over.”
Another The Yellow Book dandy, Max Beerbohm, dedicated his 1899 collection of essays, More, “To Ouida, with Love,” and offered similarly passionate yet qualified praise: “Her every page is a riot of unpolished epigrams and unpolished poetry of vision, with a hundred discursions and redundancies. She cannot say a thing once; she must repeat it again and again, and, with every repetition, so it seems to me, she says it with greater force and charm.” Yet more than a few critics and academics have since noted evidence of Ouida’s influence in the work of George Meredith, J. K. Huysmans, and Ronald Firbank.
Ironically, while the Aesthetes were rising to her defense, Ouida’s own career was beginning to decline. Her formula was growing weaker and weaker from constant reuse and dilution. One of her harshest critics, Malcolm Elwin, later wrote that, “Towards the end of the ‘eighties, she began to lose her grip. In spite of her highfalutin blather about her ‘art’, she wrote purely and simply for money, and all but herself could see that her work had degenerated.” Even one of her more recent advocates, Talia Shaffer, writes bluntly that by the 1890s, “Ouida finally ran out of ideas.”
By that time, she had long left England for good, moving to Florence, where she bought an expensive villa where she and her mother lived with a pack of pet dogs. She quickly developed a deep affection for Italy and the Italian people, and within a few months of arrival had written a novel, Pascarel (1873), set there. It was the first of nearly a dozen, including A Village Commune (1882), In Maremma (1882), and The Waters of Edera (1900). Some, like In a Winter City portrayed the expat society around Florence and Rome, but most were set in the countryside and portrayed the various ways in which corruption and capital was used to exploit and repress the peasants and workers.
She fell in love with an Italian nobleman, the Marchese della Stufa, who took maximum advantage of her adoration and generosity while at the same time encouraging the affections of other women, including a fellow English expat, Janet Ross. Ouida took revenge on Ross by writing Friendship (1878). A little taste of how Ouida took the knife to her victims can be obtained from this excerpt from a less-than-enthusiastic review:
The whole plot of the story is that a thoroughly depraved, covetous, swindling, bullying, brazen adventuress of noble Scottish birth, whom some early and unexplained scandal has forced into a marriage of convenience with a speculating trader, first pigeon and then rook, and who is compelled to live out of England, has succeeded in forcing an Italian prince into a prolonged intrigue with herself (the friendship of the title), carried on with the full knowledge and consent, but simulated ignorance, of her husband, who is partner with his wife in the business side of the transaction, which consists in ruining the lover, and practically seizing his ancestral estate.
Yes, folks, that’s all one sentence. Della Stufa seems to have been her one great love. She never married and became, increasingly, an eccentric recluse. As Rose Macaulay later wrote, “She spent her great fortune recklessly, on lavish living, on rich dinner menus for her dogs, on going continually to law.”
By 1893, Ouida had spent so much that when her mother died, as Elizabeth Lee recounts in her memoir, “There was literally no money in the house at all, and there seems no doubt that Ouida kept her mother’s body upstairs long after it should have been buried because she could not endure the thought of laying her in a pauper’s grave in the Allori Cemetery.” Yet she refused to accept help from her friends, and when one of them arranged for meals to be brought to her from one of the finest restaurants in Florence, she gave the food to her dogs, preferring to live on tea and toast. A notable neighbor and expat, Walburga, Lady Paget wrote that she found Ouida on one visit “… in a draggled white nightgown, trimmed with lace, and a black cape. Eight dogs kept up an infernal noise and went on mistaking the lace frill of her nightdress for a lamp-post.” And another friend confided in a letter that “Ouida is now by her own folly denuded of everything.”
She eventually had to give up the villa and move, first to Bagni di Lucca and then to a cheap apartment in Viarregio, on the coast north of Pisa. (Viareggio has attracted its share of unfortunate English writers, starting with Shelley, whose body washed up on its shores, and later, Marjorie Bowen, who nursed her husband there through much of the First World War.) Her situation became so desperate that Lady Paget begged the then-Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, to award her a Civil List pension in 1906 — to which Ouida responded in typical hauteur, “What right have they to offer me a pension only fit for superannuated butlers?” She died there of pneumonia in early 1908. Her friends purchased a fine tomb for her in the cemetery in the spa town of Bagna di Lucca.
Her obituary in the Times shows just how far her star had fallen by then — indeed, it’s almost shocking in its derisive tone:
The comparative study of her writings, though these cover a period of about 40 years, discloses but little artistic growth. From first to last Ouida, with certain exceptions to be noted, entirely failed to realize the life that was going on around her. Her most famous novels all suggest a schoolgirl’s dream of the grande passion. She seems to be living and moving in a world, not of men and women, but of demi-gods and demi-reps. She takes her facts from her imagination, and does not check them by inquiry.
“To enjoy her work,” declared the Times writer, “it is necessary to forget everything that you know, and resign yourself to hallucinations and deceptions.”
By the 1930s, Ouida was a favorite object of ridicule. In his survey of popular Victorian literature, Victorian Wallflowers, Malcolm Elwin wrote dismissively, “The popularity of Ouida’s novels illustrates the degenerate taste of the new reading public of the commercial middle class…. As a novelist, she lacked humour, reality, and humanity, she had the scantiest of skill in devising a plot, a stereotyped sense of character, and an almost complete absence of culture.”
With the rise of feminist critics and academics in the last thirty years, however, Ouida’s critical reputation has begun to be restored. Two academic books — Schroeder and Holt’s and Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, edited by Jane Jordan and Andrew King — have been published in the last ten years, and she has been the subject of a 2008 PhD dissertation by Carla Molloy. 300-some different versions of her works are available for free on the Internet Archive. And in an age where the pulp fiction and sleazy novels of the 1950s and 1960s are routinely celebrated and studied, one could argue that this great Victorian producer of potboilers deserves her own recognition, whether you side with her critics (“a schoolgirl’s dream”) or her supporters (“extraordinary vitality”).
When you go away
Then I enter your room,
A faint and lingering scent
Like the perfume of bruised violets
In the quiet gloom
Of twilight, and I begin to look
Around me and I see
That is open on its face
In the place
Where you laid it.
And I find ashes still scattered on the floor.
And my heart beats faster when I remember
That before you left
I loved to kneel and brush them out of the way.
Because I knew that you had spilled them
And would spill more. . . .
And then I look into the mirror until it seems
As empty as a house of dreams.
Or the white-pillowed bed where recently you lay,
And I shut the door
And go away.
from David and Bath-sheba, and other poems, by Sally Kinsolving
Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company, 1922
One of the best ways to guarantee a writer’s work will be overlooked is to write in a less-widely known language, especially if it’s thought difficult to translate. If, on top of that, the writer is a woman, the barrier to entry to a wider audience is even higher.
A good example is the work of Margit Kaffka, a Hungarian woman who published a number of novels before and during World War One that dealt with the constraints that her contemporary society–as with most Western societies at the time–placed on a woman’s ability to make her own life decisions. Her 1912 novel, Színek és évek, translated here by George F. Cushing as Colours and Years, is considered one of the great works of Hungarian fiction of the 20th century as well as a significant fiction of feminist fiction, yet it was only in 1999–eighty years after Kaffka’s death–that it was translated into English, and already it’s out of print. And so few non-Hungarians, occasional academics aside, are even aware of this fine novel.
Colours and Years is narrated by Magda, an “old” (early fifties) woman who looks back on a life marked by failures, tragedies, and countless reminders of the narrow set of roles and rights available to a woman of her time. The daughter of a family of waning gentility, Magda is barely eighteen when she is married to Jeno, a young lawyer from a family of some money and thought to have a promising career ahead of him. Having been raised with few skills aside from making decorative little things and reading romantic poetry, she quickly grows dependent upon Jeno but chafes as their domestic routine.
She dabbles in a bit of romantic fancy with a local cad, but mostly tries to be a faithful and supportive wife. Jeno runs for a local office, imagining it the start of the path to a post at the national level, but soon discovers that his naïveté is little better than Magda’s. He irritates a few local power brokers, is defeated, and finds his law practice evaporating before his eyes. He takes ill and dies, leaving Magda with a young son and debts, and she is forced to return to a family little able to care for her.
In fact, life is nothing but a series of setbacks for Magda, defeats made worse by her own lack of skills and her utter dependence upon the choices made for her by men. “I had no real understanding of the value of money or of the connection between life and work. While my husband was alive, no large sum was ever entrusted to me, but he provided me with everything; we never talked much about trifling material matters …. Small lovers’ tiffs and letters caused much more turmoil in me.” As her situation steadily deteriorates, she feels an ever-growing sense of weariness: “I lived a life, a miserably miniscule, creaking, dull, hard and grinding life.” It makes for some grim reading.
Although Magda is essentially a passive victim in her own life, the bleakness of her situation is relieved in the end by a spiritual, reflective outlook: “Life goes on at a great distance from me, problems, altercations, industry and application….” She achieves an almost-Buddhist sensibility. Old age, she announces, “is not as horrible as it may seem from a distance. You do not feel one state more acutely than another, nor do you feel the lack of things for which the desire has long since died in you.”
Published in 1912, Colours and Years is something of a novel of two centuries. With its rich set of characters and strong tragic narrative, Kaffka’s tale is one that could easily be placed alongside those classic 19th century novels of Balzac, Zola, or Perez Galdos. Yet Kaffka’s message about the fate of women assigned to negligible roles in a society controlled by men would soon find its echo in the work of Virginia Woolf and other 20th women writers.
Kaffka herself was something of a woman of her new century. She trained as a teacher, and although she married at the age of 25, she found she was not made for domesticity and separated from her husband after five years, taking her son with her to Budapest. There she was able to make a living as a writer, publishing poetry, short stories, and several novels, starting with Colours and Years. She divorced her first husband, took up with a man ten years her junior, a Jewish medical student, and married him. Her sales and critical reputation continued to grow with each book, and she had started on a historical novel when she contracted the Spanish flu and died on 1 December 1918. Her son died the day after. A few months before her death, Kaffka’s close friend, the poet Endre Ady, wrote of her, “Let us rejoice in Margit Kaffka because she has arrived and proves the triumph of Hungarian feminism: one need not be polite, pay false compliments to her. She is a strong person, an artist with an assured future: no criticism can hinder her true destiny, the path marked as her own.”
Colours and Years, by Margit Kaffka, translated by George F. Cushing
Budapest: Corvina Books, 1999
“There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.”
The world can be divided into two groups: those who gag at that line and those who glory in it.
I have to confess that I belong to the second group. To me, this is one of the great opening lines in American writing, right up there with “Call me Ishmael.” It’s proud, shameless, sleazy, and sycophantic–all at the same time. Whatever else you might say about ghostwriter Tedd Thomey, you can’t deny that he masterfully conveyed Florence Aadland’s unique voice to the printed page.
I am not the first to recognize The Big Love. It’s pretty well known about those who celebrate great celebrity trash writing such as Mommie Dearest and Mother Goddam, and pops up twice on this site (named in Writer’s Choice by William Styron and W. H. Auden and in Tin House magazine by John Marr). Which helps to explain why this book sells for 55 bucks and up, if you can find a copy. I had the great luck to find a copy for $1, which goes to show that God does want us to browse the shelves of the “Religion” section of used bookstores: you never know what you might find misplaced there.
The facts of the story have been hashed, re-hashed, and even filmed, so I will be brief. In October 1957, one-time dashing and successful actor Errol Flynn spotted Beverly Aadland among the extras on a studio set, took her out to dinner, and raped her. Well, in those days, he would have said he seduced her, but by Florence’s account, she tried to fight him off.
She was then 15 years old.
Looking old for her age, Beverly was passing as 21 to get studio and nightclub work, and Flynn probably did not know the truth (though he’d already been charged several times with having sex with underage girls and was, in the words of his FBI file, “a man perverted in his sexual desires, and who ultimately will cause Warner Brothers a considerable amount of difficulty if he doesn’t kill himself in the process”).
But Flynn found himself intensely attracted to Beverly, and despite the rape, she agreed to meet him again. The relationship developed, with frequent dates and visits to Flynn’s house. Flynn invited her mother, Florence, on several occasions. Florence was bowled over by Flynn’s looks, charm, and glamor, and enjoyed the lavish meals that featured “caviar, pate de foie gras, and other swank items.”
A few months later, Flynn flew daughter and mother to join him in New York. On the plane there, Beverley told her mother the truth about the rape. Stunned and furious at first, Florence was somehow persuaded by Beverly that she and Flynn were truly in love. Quickly, Florence saw what needed to be done: “I decided I was going to put up one hell of a fight to see it it that he married my daughter.”
The stay in New York mostly involved Flynn painting the town and spending long hours at the Park Lane Hotel with Beverly while Florence cooled her heels in another (cheaper) hotel. She only saw Flynn a few times, and when she did, “I never did get a chance to tell Errol off. Whenever the opportunity arrived, it was gone in a flash.” The problem, it turns out, was that, “He was such a lively character, so flip, so quick to turn a person’s thoughts onto a new subject.”
Who knew that sparkling personality was a form of mind control? Imagine if Flynn had turned his superpower to the cause of good?
Well, Flynn’s charm managed to keep Beverley close at hand and Florence at bay for over a year and a half. Beverly traveled with him to Africa, on tour with a flop play, and back to Hollywood. She joined him in Cuba and appeared in a bit part in his last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, which Wikipedia describes, oxymoronically, as a “semi-dramatic documentary B movie.” Then, in October 1959, while the pair were in Vancouver, Canada, trying to sell Flynn’s yacht to fund his divorce from Patricia Wymore, his third wife, Flynn collapsed suddenly and died. The cause was ruled heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver.
Despite Florence’s hopes and an unsigned will leaving much of his estate to Beverley, the pair were soon back where they started, rich in nothing but notoriety. Which compounded about a year later when Beverly’s then-boyfriend shot himself in her bedroom and Florence was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Beverly was made the ward of a Baptist minister and his wife, and Florence went in search of a book deal.
But Beverly’s affair with Errol Flynn is, in the end, not the real reason people take such delight in The Big Love. Instead, it is the sublimely unwitting and adorned crassness of Florence. She is blissfully unashamed that her main location throughout the affair was offstage, usually far offstage. That, while Beverly and Flynn were off in Africa or Jamaica or Cuba, she was working as a coffee shop waitress or manicurist, aware of what was going on through what were clearly very occasional phone calls.
Instead, she celebrates the miracle that saved her from death when she went into shock from uremic poisoning after Beverly’s birth: was her doctors yelling at her, “Come on, you silly little dumb bitch! Fight! Fight!” No wonder she later found that she and Flynn “could speak the same language together”: “There were times when we traded four-letter words, and I know he respected my ability to use such language when the occasion demanded.”
Indeed, we learn that Florence had finer side–was something of an intellectual, if you will. We are told that, after joining the Rosicrucians, she “made a detailed study of life and the universe” and “learned as much about the human nervous system as a doctor does.” When Beverly was still quite young, Florence “read Shakespeare to her and he was always one of her favorites.” No wonder that later, when they were visiting Flynn in New York, he and Beverly “spent hours watching the United Nations sessions on television, following the complicated events day after day, trading opinions, offering detailed judgments.”
Florence also raised Beverly to be refined in her sensibilities. Although Flynn “shaved twice a day and took constant showers,” Beverly was put off by the fact that he didn’t use deodorant. She felt he could not meet the standard upheld by her father: “He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Though Flynn and Beverly were never to marry, Florence had no regrets about their affair: “Have no difficulty finding an answer to the question my friends often ask me. ‘Flo,’ they’ll say, ‘if you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?'” To which her answer is always the same: “Of course I would. And I mean it from the heart.”
And as for those who would condemn them, as for those who cannot appreciate the qualities of The Big Love, we can share Florence’s sentiment that, “They are the ones who will never, never try to understand what kind of a man Errol Flynn was and what kind of person my daughter Beverly is.” And take comfort in the knowledge that “people like that don’t count with us anyway.” Or with us–am I right?
The Big Love, by Florence Aadland as told to Ted Thomey
New York: Lancer Books, 1961
The pear is weighted now with more than fruit–
In hordes they come, a winged avalanche,
Descending on the tree from tip to root,
Shaking the leaves, bending each silver branch.
They overflow the meadows for miles around
In multitudes, spilling their liquid song;
This is the time of swallows; along the ground,
On fence posts, bushes, these living beads are strung.
And then, in thousands, they reclaim the sky,
Sailing across the soft blue sea of air,
A bright, light-winged armada; we watch them fly
To what far destination; suddenly aware
Of the year’s waning, as the quick eye follows
The end of summer in the flight of swallows.
from In Time of Swallows: 52 American Birds, by Mae Winkler Goodman, illustrated by William E. Scheele
New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1951
Regular readers of this site (both of you) know that I tend to save the books I want to really concentrate on for the Transatlantic flights I have to take 5-6 times a year. This last trip, I thought I’d really found a good one. “Corrupt Power! This is the blistering story of a ruthless political boss whose thirst for power corroded his soul and blinded him to evil” proclaimed the flyleaf of the Signet Giant paperback I found in the basement of my beloved Montana Valley Bookstore. I am a sucker for a good city novel, and this had some indicators that it would be a good one: corruption; realism; dense plot packed into one evening during a state political convention; tempting review quote (“Full of violent, dramatic drive”–New York Times). It also appeared to have an interesting structure, with the core of the story told sequentially through three of the main characters. And it was unknown to me, which is usually a good sign that it’s probably unknown to most folks. So I happily tossed it into my briefcase for the next day’s trip.
I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. Some folks stop if the first page fails to grab them, others wait until the end of the first chapter, others until their patience gives out. I’m usually in the last category, and even then I will hang in to the very end on the off chance that it suddenly gets better. In the case of Caesar’s Angel, though, it was clear by the end of the first, mostly scene-setting chapter, that this was going to be predictable and pedestrian, something along the lines of, say, Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle.
Now, I know there are some–many, in fact–who consider these great books. And maybe there was a time when they were truly better than most of what was available. Kinda like the way Hill Street Blues seemed good when it first came out. But what seemed good, gritty, snappy and real when it was new can come to seem tired, thin and predictable when it’s got a few decades under its belt.
A simple run-down of the quartet of principal characters offers enough evidence for anyone to fill in the rest of the story without even reading the book:
Tony Maggiore, the tough, smart kid from the Italian ghetto who quickly realizes he gets more miles per gallon of political ambition with that special fuel additive: mob money.
Leo Stansky, the tough, smart kid from the Polish ghetto who becomes a prosecuting attorney with a special taste for busting hoods like the ones he grew up with.
Al Piazza, the idealistic, naive kid from the Italian ghetto torn between the heritage he shares with Tony and the black-and-white sense of right and wrong he shares with Leo. Oh, and who also carries a torch for …
… Jean Maggiore, the blonde angel attracted like a moth to Tony’s bright light of power and charisma but beginning to have her doubts.
It’s a little like Name That Tune: four notes are all it takes to identify the melody.
This was Mary Anne Amsbary’s one and only adult novel. Under the pseudonym of Kay Lyttleton, she wrote a series of novels for teenage girls about an earnest young woman named Jean Craig who grows up, goes to New York, becomes a graduate nurse, and finds romance. Or, at least, that’s what I assume happens given that these are the titles of those books.
She clearly tried to raise her sights to a much higher standard with Caesar’s Angel: a social message, the use multiple narrators, and a web of complicated relationships that I took the liberty to illustrate below.
But this illustration also shows what’s wrong with the book: a collection of stereotypes does not a convincing character make. I stopped reading comic books a long time ago. It takes a riveting narrative, stunning prose, or palpably realistic scene-setting to get me to hang in with cartoon-like characters (Hell, these days, even cartoon characters are more convincing than these mannequins).
Or a Transatlantic flight with nothing else to read. Which is the only way I got through Caesar’s Angel.
Heaven Pays No Dividends, a novel of postwar Germany by Richard Kaufmann. Frederic Morton wrote of this novel in the Saturday Review, “That a novel so grim in its setting, so formidable in its moral implications, can at the same time be so wonderfully engaging, is a tribute to Mr. Kaufmann’s skill. He has armed his hero with a perennially childlike resistance to ulterior motives, with an imperviousness to sophisticated compromise. The effect is not dissimilar to the one Mark Twain achieved when he let Huck Finn’s gusty innocence loose upon life’s devious rascalities.”
Down All Your Streets, by Leonard Bishop, a long, rough, macho novel, one of the first to deal with drug addiction and drug dealing. William Burroughs feared it would take away readers he hoped would read his first book, Junky.
Natural Child, Calder Willingham’s fifth novel, set in Greenwich Village, flirting with the issue of abortion, and still well-regarded for its dialogue and use of an unreliable narrator.
Oh, and there’s Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. Well, they can’t all be great.]
In this year of reading the work of women writers, I should take a moment to note the remarks of Isabel Paterson, whose 1933 novel, Never Ask the End, was one of the earliest neglected masterpieces I came across after starting this site, on four of her contemporaries whose own work has long gone unread. These come from some of the book reviews Paterson wrote for The Bookman magazine before and after it was bought by her mentor, Burton Rascoe.
There is much more sting and sharpness to the work of Grace Flandrau in Entranced. It is like the difference between the American and English air. And Mrs. Flandrau’s special quality, which is brought to perfection in this book, is her ability to render atmosphere; not mere local color, nor even a personal background, but the tension and temperature, the shading and tone, of a certain group of persons involved in a given relation to each other at a definite place and time.
The action of Entranced passes in St. Paul, and it really is St. Paul, not even Minneapolis, or perhaps anything but Minneapolis, since unplumbed spiritual abysses separate the Twin Cities. So this is no vague, delocalized ‘midwestern metropolis,’ but St. Paul. The Robinsons belong in it, are rooted there. Richard and Rita Malory, marrying into the Robinson family, attempt to amalgamate themselves with it. They fail.
That is the story. Richard and Rita are not of the same stuff as the Robinsons; there is a difference in texture, in density and specific gravity. The Robinsons are solids and the Malorys are fluids. They are cursed with the curse of Reuben: “unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.” Richard Malory is a dilution of Lucien de Rubempre, a man lacking in that inner integrity which is essential to success. Rita does not lend herself to glib definition. I should like to read more of her — what happened to her and Ives and Gordon, afterward. There is, by the way, an especially delicious chapter — what a woman thinks about when she is annoyed at her husband. Don’t miss this.
Entranced is so rare now that there appear to be only two copies for sale at the moment, both priced over $100. It was Flandrau’s second novel. Of her first, Being Respectable (1923), F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was “better than Babbitt” and reported that Edith Wharton liked the book “better than any American novel in years.” Joel Van Valin published a long article on Flandrau’s life and work in his Whistling Shade literary magazine in 2008.
In The Matriarch Miss Stern accepts the universe. She presents a panorama stretching over almost a century, but focused on the figure of a gorgeous, eccentric, autocratic old lady. To get so much into one volume requires a perilous process of foreshortening. All the same, it is a fine rich jumbled hamper Miss Stern has packed.
One is willingly subjugated by old Madame Anastasia Rakonitz, chieftainess of a far spreading Jewish clan noted for its masterful womenkind and its straight Greek noses. Disraeli sprang from just such a brilliant, mercurial strain as this. I believe he had a grandmother very like Anastasia. They are the kind of Jews who form a yeasty element in the countries of their adoption, who make an adventure of business, a business of art, and an art of living. Their essential stability consists in their strong family feeling; they rise and fall and rise again together, so tightly interlocked that an outsider pitchforked among them comes near to suffocation. One could pick flaws, but the main point is that The Matriarch is a decidedly likable book.
G(ladys) B(ronwen) Stern, who was one of most successful and prolific of that generation of successful and prolific British women “middlebrow” writers that included Ethel Mannin, Storm Jameson, and Phyllis Bottome that collectively published thousands of novels over of course of fifty-some years between 1920 and 1970. From The Matriarch alone, Stern produced as much as some writers do in an entire career, turning it into a play that was a hit in both London and New York, and following it up with three more novels about the Rakonitz family–A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), and Shining and Free (1935)–that were then combined in a massive 1400-page tome titled, The Matriarch Chronicles, in 1936. The Matriarch was reissued several times in paperback, most recently in the mid-1980s as a The Matriarch“>Virago Modern Classic. It was originally published in England as Tents of Israel (1924).
We may as well swallow the bitter pill first, reserving the jam for consolation. But since Miss Macaulay’s tonic is sugared with tolerant amusement, it goes down most easily. It is an antidote to Victorianism, containing a salutary reminder that we may have achieved a distinction without a difference in our Georgian emancipation. If the Victorians were self righteous, aren’t we a little smug in our superiority to those benighted creatures? The plot belongs to the great universal stock; Miss Macaulay helps herself to it gracefully. She premises that in 1855 there sailed from England a shipload of some forty orphan children of tender years, London waifs philanthropically destined for San Francisco under the aegis of a virtuous maiden lady of the Anglican persuasion, a clergyman’s daughter. Miss Charlotte Smith had all the prejudices proper to her social status. A decent Scotswoman had been brought as a nurse. The ship’s doctor was Irish, bibulous. Rabelaisian, and a Roman Catholic.
The ship was wrecked in the lee of a fertile and uninhabited South Sea Island. Seventy years later a rescue party arrived. They found that the orphans had thrived and multiplied, preserving in their island home an undiluted mid-Victorian atmosphere. Miss Smith, aged ninety eight, was a reduced but still majestic replica of the late dear Queen. The social, political, and economic problems of the tight little island had reproduced themselves with the same grotesque fidelity. If the microcosm is funny, the author implies, what of the original? And if they were funny, what of ourselves? How shall we look to our grandchildren?
It is all done in good humor, with a touch of broad comedy for a high light in the distressing circumstances of Miss Smith’s marriage. She had been deceived by the doctor; he had a wife in Ireland. Miss Smith never knew it until she had borne ten children in this bigamous union; and she kept the secret thereafter, reacting to her hidden shame by a more rigid respectability in law making. Illegitimacy she would not tolerate. On principle she was also a teetotaler, though she fuddled herself on palm wine with great dignity, calling it fruit juice prescribed for her health. It is excellent satire, and if to youthful readers it seems inapposite, that is because they can’t visualize the object. Their elders will enjoy it.”
Orphan Island is among the hundreds of books by fine mid-century British men and women writers that have been reissued in e-Book format by Bloomsbury Press in the last couple of years. You can find a Kindle version on Amazon.
For me to assume an attitude of impartial criticism of ” The Crystal Cup, or any other of Gertrude Atherton’s novels, would be sheer pretence. I am biased, if not totally disqualified, by my enthusiastic admiration of the author, which cannot be set aside, even hypothetically, for the consideration of her work “on its merits”, because her books are charged with her personality. Not that they are intimate confessions nor factual autobiography; it is self-evident that they are very far from being anything of the kind; but the dynamic quality with which she was so greatly and fortunately dowered by nature flows through the point of her pen; and her attitude toward life, which she has not only accepted but welcomed and enjoyed, determines her choice and treatment of material.
Always her characters are positive. Confronted by the dilemma which is prerequisite to a story, they arrive at definite decisions and act upon them with energy and even ruthlessness. And, though in some instances the power which moves them is felt as directly owing to the writer rather than to the fictive characters in their own right — which is the final achievement of creative art — nevertheless it is genuine, and it serves its purpose: to rivet the reader’s attention. The degree of illusion she creates varies considerably. In The Crystal Cup, the problem is the main thing, rather than the subtleties of character analysis, although the story hinges on character. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a question of a certain type breaking through fortuitous and adverse circumstance to find a normal channel of expression.
Gita Carteret, inheriting the beauty and charm which made the women of her family successively the reigning belles of their period, was warped by the unhappy experiences of her girlhood into a fierce antagonism toward men. Her father was a rake, a spendthrift, and a drunken brute. Besides reducing his wife and child to poverty, he exposed them to the insulting gallantries of his raffish associates. Gita grew up hating her own femininity, wishing herself a man; and in self defense she dressed and acted as much like a boy as possible. But at twenty-two, already an orphan, she found herself an heiress in a small way, through the death of her grandmother. The singular expedient to which she resorted to secure her share of life while excluding men from her personal scheme of things, and the unexpected result of it all, provides a very brisk plot, enlivened with a touch of melodrama and one scene (at least) of fine tense drama. It is safe to say The Crystal Cup will be among the best sellers. It marches.”
Not all reviewers shared Isabel Paterson’s enthusiasm for Atherton’s work. In the Saturday Review, H. W. Boynton wrote, “Again Mrs. Atherton has made an elaborate gesture and produced a stuffed rabbit out of the hat. Its skin is real but its eyes are glass, and its little insides are cotton and excelsior.” The Crystal Cup is available in a ridiculously over-priced direct-to-print paperback–or you can get an original edition for just $2.99.
*I do have to say that I fear this embrace of Paterson by Libertarians has put the kibosh on her chances of getting accepted by academia and published by any mainstream reissue press (e.g., New York Review Books) anytime soon.
Anyone with romantic fantasies about the life of a popular writer need only read Margaret Campbell’s autobiography The Debate Continues to get over them. Under such pseudonyms as Marjorie Bowen, Robert Paye, George R. Preedy, Joseph Shearing, and John Winch, she published over 150 books, many of them best-sellers in both the U.K. and U.S.. She tended to specialize in highly authentic but melodramatic historical novels such as The Viper of Milan (1906), which she wrote at the age of 16. Indeed, the popularity of The Viper of Milan, which was a best-seller of its time, was such that her publishers put relentless pressure on Campbell to write more like it. And the extravagant demands of her family–first her mother and then her ailing first husband–on her income, as she was typically the only bread-winner, kept her writing book after book in a genre and style she considered beneath her true abilities.
Margaret’s parents separated a few years after she was born, and she spent most of her early years moving from one cheap apartment to another as her mother, Mrs. Vere Campbell, an aspiring but utterly unsuccessful playwright, outran collection agents and leaned upon the charity of her friends. Her mother made it clear that Margaret, whom she considered thin, unattractive, and stupid, was by far the least favored of her three daughters. It made for a pretty grim childhood: “The great object of my days,” she wrote, “was to escape blame or punishment, for active pleasure or amusement was beyond hope.” Her grandmother, who was part of this wandering band, was little better: “Nana, too, would always remain as she was—slovenly, slack, with a sly, malicious tongue, untrained in everything save the shifts of poverty and the intrigues of cheap lodging-houses and tenth-rate flats.”
As what little money her mother could spend on schooling she reserved for her other daughters, Margaret largely taught herself, painstakingly working out the meaning of words in the rare book that might be lying around one of their apartments. By her early teens, however, she was spending many of her days at the British Museum, reading about history, art, and culture. She picked up a few small jobs as a fact-checker and ghost-writer, and was soon the one reliable source of income for the family. Not that this did anything to improve her standing in her mother’s eyes. Her mother was, variously, dismissive, discouraging, or bitterly envious.
Margaret’s first attempt at writing a novel was, by her own account, highly amateurish and relied heavily on guidebooks for its settings. Passed around from publisher to publisher for several years–most of them simply refusing to accept that a young girl could have written it–it was finally accepted in 1906 by Gilbert and Sullivan’s publisher, Alston Rivers. A moderate success in the U.K., The Viper of Milan became a best-seller when published by McClure in the U.S.. Quickly, the demands of both her publishers and her family turned Margaret into a full-time production machine. Although she held no great opinion of her work, Margaret did scruple to stick with subjects that required at least some knowledge and craftsmanship on her part:
… I liked historical work. It never could be as slap-dash and careless as light, modern stuff. A good deal of effort, research and painstaking, and a severe self-discipline were necessary for the writing of these books in which history was to be transformed into fiction and men and women of the past given some kind of life. The harder the work involved in the preparation of a book the better I liked it. I seemed to be giving something solid in return for the money I earned; too much money for what I gave, I always privately thought. And at least there was a certain dignity about this kind of fiction that there would not have been about ephemeral love or adventure stories of the life about me.
She also found, ironically, some relief in her tendency to favor stories of revenge, murder, and Gothic horror: “I found that, by writing of dark and gloomy subjects, I, in a way, rid my mind of them.”
“Margaret Campbell thus ended her account of her childhood and youth.” With this odd statement, Campbell opens the second half of her book and abruptly shifts from first person to third person. The transition also marks the start of her life as a married woman. In 1912, she met a Sicilian man at a party hosted by one of her mother’s friends, and more as an escape than out of love, married him soon after. Within a few weeks, they were on their way to Italy, and soon after that, Margaret found she was pregnant with their first child. Her account of the child’s delivery at the hands of a local Sicilian mid-wife, “who had every appearance of being a witch and whose knowledge of superstitions, of incantations, of good and bad omens was only equalled by her complete ignorance of medicine and hygiene” is as terrifying as anything she wrote as fiction.
Her husband then had the inspiration to rent the palace of some German prince along the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Pisa in the off-season. There was truly nothing to be recommended in this plan: the place was gloomy, impossible to heat, sitting near stagnant water, and with little in the way of food. Margaret’s husband, who was never very healthy, quickly fell ill and began to waste away. He hung on for over a year, with Margaret all the while struggling to care for him, search for food, haggle with the local pharmacist over patent medicines, find wood for the stoves … and, in her spare time, keep writing. “There were times,” she wrote, “when she wished she could have been treated as they treated stray dogs, given some warmth, food, and quietly exterminated.”
Margaret’s husband hung on for over a year. In his last few months, she finally found a reliable doctor to care for him. Long anticipated by her maid, who spoke of the man’s legendary care-giving abilities, “The Professor” came over to the house early one summer evening. She was utterly unprepared for what happened next:
She supposed that she had read or heard of such an experience as was now hers, but she had scarcely believed in it. What had happened was that the focus of her existence had altered; she had been absorbed, to the point of obsession, with her husband, with his illness, with his approaching death. For months she had thought of nothing else, save intermittently of the child in England. Only a few stray unbidden dreams and visions had interrupted the intense concentration on this one subject.
Now, in one moment of time, the moment in which she had met this stranger on the threshold of her alien home, everything had altered. It was no longer her husband who was her chief concern, but the man who was now shut up with him, the man who had been so incongruously and absurdly termed “the Professor.”
Margaret’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Professor, an elegant Venetian in his late sixties. As he left their villa a few days later, he spoke to her: “Before he left her he said he would come again in the morning early. Then he added, in a voice that was suddenly changed by emotion, that he loved her and would do so for the rest of his life.”
Their romance was one of the most proper to be found in literature. What few minutes they could share away from the dying man allowed time for nothing more than a short walk around the villa. And when, after the funeral, they were able to spend a few days together, concern for appearances kept things from going beyond an occasional holding of hands. Yet so convinced were they of their love that Margaret promised to marry the Professor when she returned from England with her son, who had been living with Nana.
But it was not to be. While in England, Margaret received a letter from him saying that his health was too poor to ever allow them to marry. In the space of three or four pages, she sweeps past her second marriage and two more children to arrive at the present. And switches back again to the first person: “It seems to me that it would have been simple for me to make a harmony of my own life, but it has always been cut across by the discords of other people’s lives.”
One has to respect Margaret Campbell’s dedication to her work as an income-earning writer, and in retrospect, she is certainly considered among the better genre novelists of her time. However, one is also tempted to play amateur psychoanalyst in reading her autobiography: why the shift from “I” to “Margaret” and back to “I”? And is it selflessness or resentment that lies behind this statement: “I think I should have known how to live simply, pleasantly, and gaily myself, but no life can be entirely self-contained and my designs have been overborne by those of other people”? Even without the analysis, though, The Debate Continues is an absorbing and fast-moving story that will leave you in awe of this woman’s energy.
Another feature of Hastings was a shop at the edge of the old town and the fishing quarters, with glass cases outside, full of every kind of shell, and boxes covered with shells, and shell necklaces, and shells painted with views; and dried starfish there were, and the hedgehog-like shells of sea-urchins, and shells like great horns–cornucopia such as one saw in paintings of goddesses of plenty, shells with rosy interiors, shells like great silver snails, shells that were flat plates of mother-of-pearl, and long narrow razor-like shells, and black ‘devil’s purses’-—a most wonderful and exciting shop. And just as you could listen forever to the blind men playing the violin and the piano together, so you could gaze at this wonderland of sea-treasures forever. What is good should never end, the moment be extended into eternity.
Only a few years ago I went back to Hastings, and to my great joy the shell shop was still there, and I could have sworn the same shells were in the glass cases, and I gazed as raptly in my forties as the child with not a decade of years to its name had gazed, in summers that seemed always hot and sunny. We do not, fundamentally, change; of that I am convinced. Life knocks us about, pushes us around, this and that happens to us as our bodies increase in size and our minds expand in receptivity and power, but the core of the individual remains the same-—delighted with cornucopia shells, frightened of dogs, shy of strangers, the anxieties and the eagernesses better under control, but induced by very much the same experiences. And, given a chance, we are still capable of that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which makes it possible to hear-—quite plainly—the sea’s murmur in a shell.
This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a slender tribute to her father that Ethel Mannin wrote several years after his death. She later wrote that she considered it her best work. The book certainly displays a tenderness, a wistfulness, that is rarely found in her own memoirs.
Robert Mannin led an unexceptional life. Born in Westminster when that area of London still had its share of slums, he took advantage of what little education he had to earn a low-paying position as a mail sorter in the Post Office, where he worked for over thirty years. When he retired, he and his wife took a small house in the countryside near London, and he spent many of his last days living with Ethel. He died on Christmas Eve, 1949, in the public ward of a London hospital. At his funeral, “No one wept, and no one felt constrained to utter any of the conventional falsities.”
This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a tribute more to his character than his accomplishments. by his daughter’s account, he was a pleasant man who held no great credos aside from an almost-Buddhist sense of peace with his fate. He refused, for example, to leave his bed and evacuate to a shelter during the bombing raids on London. “If a bomb’s got Bob Mannin written on it,” he told Ethel, “then I’m for it whatever I do, and if it hasn’t there’s nothing to worry about!” Although he loved to tell stories about the music hall performers, such as Little Tich and Marie Lloyd, that he saw in his youth, he was could also spend hours sitting in Ethel’s garden doing nothing more than watching the clouds in the sky. His relaxed approach to life hardly rubbed off on his daughter, though, who wrote that, “My own inclination is always against procrastination or postponement, just because ‘tomorrow’ so soon becomes ‘today.'”
The odd, alien green tint of the cover of the U.S. edition of Mary McMinnie’s second novel, The Visitors is somehow appropriate for this long out-of-print book, for it manages to be, at the same time, both highly realistic–indeed, drearily, tediously, relentlessly realistic at times, the kind of realism that’s so convincing that it can feel like the writer is holding your head under water and you want to struggle to break free–and utterly artificial.
The artificiality comes from the situation in which McMinnies places her main character, Milly Purdoe. A beautiful, lively but superficial woman, she find herself stuck in a grim provincial Polish city–a fictional equivalent of Krakow–in its bleakest, most repressive post-Stalinist days, the trailing spouse of a minor British Foreign Service officer. (The German title of the book was Seltsame Gäste–“Strange Guests.”) Quartered in a cold apartment in the town’s once-grand hotel, she has little to do but avoid tangles with her children’s stone-faced nanny, look for antiques in the pathetic stores and flea markets, and read Madame Bovary. Although the nanny is a novelty, a sign of her husband’s rise in the civil service, everything else is a little too familiar to Milly:
Already it was October. That was how time passed. Between departure from the last place, arrival at the next, and for a week or two either side, miraculously it stood still–if you could always be doing that, coming and going, going and coming. But no sooner had you arrived than you began, because it had to be and you were experienced at it, to settle in. No sooner were you settled in and starting to find your feet, yet still making discoveries like where to buy the best sausage and the bread and each day holding the promise of some novel experience before it close, than, before you knew where you were, the days would begin to assume a pattern, to merge into each other, yesterday like to-day, to-day like to-morrow; and in front of your eyes, little by little, the excitement would be fading, the novelty becoming stale, until in no time at all you knew you would be passing through the intermediate stage, the seemingly endless one you care for least, between coming and going. It would be like living in a dream; not uncomfortable, because only reality is that–your pulse-beat steady, you would be eating well, sleeping well; but certain times of day, the performing of certain actions, sherry at twelve, gin at six, brushing your teeth, pouring tea, seeming to come round with deadly regularity until you would feel something simply had to happen to joly you out of it, the dream routine; even if it were to be no more than a gale, like the gale with had raged the night before and had swept not only a great many leaves off the trees but a leaf off the calendar, too, and now it was October.
And so, like Flaubert’s romantic trapped in a dull French provincial town, Milly soon finds ways to keep busy that are undoubtedly amusing to her but also clearly dangerous and self-destructive when carried out under the eyes of a paranoid police state.
The Visitors is a big, ambitious book, rich is characterization and description, ruthless in its social satire, mesmerizing in its powerful narrative vortex. Some reviewers found that McMinnie’s ambitions outstretched her artistic reach, comparing her work with that of the period’s biggest over-the-topper, James Jones. It was picked up by the Book of the Month Club, which boosted its U.S. sales, and was twice released as a paperback, the second time in 1967 as a Penguin paperback. It’s been out of print ever since, though, and McMinnies appears to have published nothing since. A couple of readers remember it with enthusiasm on Goodreads and Amazon, but their reviews and this one are the book’s sole mentions on the Web.
The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies
New York City: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1958
Of course it’s possible to make generalizations about numbered ten-year slots, thought they don’t much work until after the fact. “We’re not in ‘the eighties,'” said Abbie Hoffman about a later decade, “we’re in a delicatessen in New York City.” You could say the fifties were the end of the era when chauvinism was still about countries and a dip was something you did on the dance floor, not stuck your crudités into; before smoking officially killed you and food, air, sex, and water generally didn’t; when the drugs in circulation were legal and it was safe to walk alone at night. But such observations have no significance at the time to a person who is simply swamped by the whole thing. When you are growing up in it, it isn’t the fifties or the sixties or anything else–it’s just a part, your part, of some terrible, vast ocean. You don’t give any thought to whether the waves are Atlantic or Pacific; if they’re about to drown you, who cares if they started in the Black Sea or the Red, or are saltier or tougher than the Caribbean? In the decade of your youth, the first wave merges with the last, and you know nothing about the time’s distinctness: your job is just to keep afloat.
Sally Belfrage’s Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties is both one of the funniest and one of the saddest books. Growing up in an America where fitting in seemed a higher goal even than getting rich, Belfrage was cursed with some seemingly insurmountable obstacles: “My parents were foreigners and got married a lot, they went in for weird food and funny clothes, they were always moving.” Her mother, Molly Castle, had been the hottest young columnist in England in the 1930s, “The Girl Everyone Reads,” a voice of authority on style, glamor and celebrity. Her father, Cedric Belfrage, had been a film critic, a press agent for Sam Goldwyn, a screenwriter in Hollywood, an operative for M.I.6 in New York City, an agent for the Americans in post-war Germany, setting up democratically-oriented newspapers, and–oh, yeah, an ardent leftist and one-time Communist. He also had a mistress he’d brought back from Europe and set up apartment with, leaving his family to fend for themselves much of the time. She was the only kid in her class whose phone was tapped and whose house was regularly visited by F.B.I. agents.
“When my teens began, it dawned on me: the only untried, unheard-of, truly original ambition I might pursue was to be normal.” Much of Un-American Activities is devoted to recalling her earnest efforts to fit in. She had the help of her downstairs neighbor, Debbie, who knew everything from how to keep boys from getting past first base to when and when not to wear lipstick. Tall, blonde and beautiful, Sally should have had an easy time achieving a survivable level of popularity, but her academic abilities landed her in the Bronx High School of Science, where she still the oddball, the lone shiksa in a school full of geeky Jewish guys.
And there was the matter of her parents. Despite the fact that the half-life of Cedric Belfrage’s Communist Party membership could be measured in days, he was an open and unabashed pinko, the kind of radical who befriended emigrant European intellectuals, partied with Paul Robeson, and kept on founding left-wing magazines. He was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He simply would not keep a low-profile. Ironically, it was his wife who was the first to be deported.
Despite all this turmoil, however, Sally managed to get a boyfriend–a West Point cadet, no less. He offers her the promise of a life complete with two kids and a station wagon. All she has to do is keep his mother, who’s torn between hating her for being the daughter of Communists and hating her for being Goy. But then, when her father is finally kicked out of the country, Walter Winchell blasts out the news on his nightly radio show: “Flash. Pinko Cedric Belfrage, who edits a smelly sheet in NYC, will be taken from West Street jail to be deported, probably tomorrow. Good riddance!”
Un-American Activities ends with an epilogue in which Sally revisits her parents, both remarried (her father several times over) thirty-some years later, nurses her father in his final days, and has a whirlwind affair with her old West Point boyfriend, now a two-star general involved in Reagan’s Star Wars program. It is something of a let-down, offering little in the way of added perspective on the preceding story.
Which is unfortunate, because her story after her parents’ deportation–if she’d been a little more willing to go into the details–is that of a life far more interesting and individualistic than either of her parents. In the late 1950s, she played hooky from an escorted tour to the Soviet Union and ended up spending six months on her own in Moscow, telling the tale in her first book, A Room in Moscow (1958). A few years later, she joined the Freedom Riders, traveling through the segregated South and helping blacks register to vote, which she wrote about in Freedom Summer (1966). In the late 1970s, she left her husband (Bernard Pomerance, author of The Elephant Man) and spent time on guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram, an experience she described in Flowers of Emptiness (1981). In the mid-1980s, she traveled to Belfast to collect the impressions of resident on all sides of the conflict for her 1987 book, The Crack: A Belfast Year. None of her books made much money, and when she died of breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 57, she was living in a tiny flat in Maida Vale. She was fondly remembered by her friends, however. Ceremonies were organized in her honor, including a tribute in New York City hosted by Maya Angelou.
Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties, by Sally Belfrage
New York City: Harper Collins, 1994
In the eyes of some critics, Taggard has only herself to blame. Somewhere in the early 1930s, Taggard decided that her work was simply not confronting the traumatic social conditions she saw around her. She “refused to write out of a decorative impulse because I conceive it to be the dead end of much feminine talent.” Instead, she chose to write what she considered “poetry that relates to general experience and the realities of the time.” Although she gives Taggard prominent mention in her landmark survey, A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter concludes that the poet’s choice to reject her early lyrical style in favor of a more politically-oriented realism “stifled the ardent feminine voice that had made her poetry alive.”
The fact that her second husband, Kenneth Durant, was the American agent of the Soviet news agency, Tass, and that her poems regularly featured in New Masses, colored the opinion of even her closest friends. In an interview for an oral history project, Sara Bard Field claimed, “She wrote a poem called something like ‘Our Good Father Stalin.'” (Bard may have been recalling Taggard’s 1942 poem, “Salute to the Russian Dead,” which includes such propagandistic declarations as, “Whatever is good and tangible and fair in time to come/Begins here, where they die in their blood, in their genius.”) Certainly, Taggard’s tendency to reach for the red banner and to wave it a little too enthusiastically after her marriage to Durant is difficult to look past, particularly after The Gulag Archipelago and the declassification of the Venona intercepts.
Yet it’s worth taking the effort to look past Taggard’s most strident verses and discover more about this woman and her work. And a great deal can be understood by a series of autobiographical pieces she wrote for various magazines between 1924 and 1934. The last of these, titled “Hawaii, Washington, Vermont,” appeared in the October 1934 issue of Scribners magazine, and contrasts the two extremes of her childhood: the bleak, narrow-minded aridity of Waitland, a small town in the farmlands of Eastern Washington; and the lush, gentle warmth of rural Oahu, Hawaii.
Taggard was born in Waitland, where her father had come at the invitation of his brother, a successful apple farmer, in hopes of improving his always-fragile health. The dust of farmland life, however, was ruinous, however, and in 1897, when Genevieve was two, he accepted an offer from the Disciples of Christ to run a missionary school on Oahu. They lived there for over ten years, then returned to Waitland, came back briefly, then left Hawaii for good, settling back in Waitland, where Genevieve graduated from high school in 1912.
For Taggard, Hawaii was, literally, “our Garden of Eden.” They lived with the diverse cultures of the island–“the Portuguese, the Filipinos, the Puerto Ricans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hawaiian-Chinese, and the hap-a-haoles.” They ate mangos, scooped minnows by the hundreds from coastal lagoons, picked algarroba beans, and played in the warm Pacific surf. Having to return to Waitland was like being cast out of Paradise. In an article titled, “A Haole Scrapbook,” published in the June 1924 issue of The Bookman, Taggard recalled one of her last days before leaving:
John Frank, the greatest swimmer of all the native lads, stood on the big rock that overhung the Kalihi-kai swimming pool, the last day I saw him. His fathers had fished there, with spears and torches. The fish, white and languid, went back and forth, that day, in a shaft of sunlight that knifed the yellow-green water. John Frank stood on the stone worn into a little hollow by the feet of his forefathers. He didn’t own the stone. It was on a white man’s estate now.
“Wellakahou”, shouted John Frank, and cut the water with his joined palms.
I sat on the stone when he left it and strung myself a lei–it was a goodbye lei made of ilima flowers. The first span of my years–the first ten years spent in the islands–was ending the
John Frank’s smooth black head popped up from the water. “How long you going stay in the States?” he asked me, as if it had just become clear that I was really going,
“Three months”, I said.
“Mangoes getting ripe soon”, he offered.
A sudden pang at the thought of missing mango season went through me. John Frank had dived again. The water was sooty black and quiet. Then in a whirlpool came a brown arm. This time he popped up with a well formed idea: “Too bad you gotta be haole”, he said, and went under again.
Off and on, I have thought so too, all my life.
Waitland, on the other hand, seemed something very like Hell:
Hot stubble faces met us at the train window. I ducked down and took a quick look at the hot face of the town, with the feeling of a person about to enter a jail. Dust, ankle-deep, paved the
main street. Broken wooden sidewalks bordered by dusty weeds led to a block of ramshackle stores. A drooping horse and a spring wagon stood hitched in front of the post office. No trees in
sight; just stubble-covered hills through which we had come for hours. We children found even the first day in the new home town as dull as ditch, or rather dish, water. Houses had the blinds down to protect carpets. Houses were tight and smelled of dust. Kitchens were hot with wood stoves. Parlors were not to sit in. Flies swarmed around doorways. Outside there was stubble or dust, no grass. Children must not play in the orchards. If little girls were bored they could hem dish towels or swat flies.
James Taggard, Genevieve’s father, was given a miserable plot of land between two railroad lines and planted with a withering stand of pear trees. His brother, who had gotten his start with $2,000 borrowed from James, told him the orchard was repayment and just needed “intensive farming.” Instead, it failed, as did James’ already-poor health, and when Genevieve was accepted into the University of California Berkeley in 1914, the whole family moved with her.
Her mother ran a boarding house and Genevieve worked when she wasn’t taking classes. It took her five years to graduate, after which she parted from her family and moved to Greenwich Village. She quickly landed a job with a literary magazine, then another, then founded Measure, a Journal of Verse of which she worked as editor, and also worked as poetry editor of the Liberator, the slightly toned-down version of the Masses set up by Max Eastman. Her university classmate, Josephine Herbst, joined her, and the two were soon best friends. Taggard helped arranged for Herbst’s abortion after she became pregnant during her affair with Maxwell Anderson. The two complained about the character of the men they met: “What’s in the men nowadays–the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth?,” Taggard once wrote Herbst.
Then she met Robert Wolf, who styled himself the model of the serious artist: “He had an extremely high idea of his own value as a poet,” recalled Sara Bard Fields. Taggard fell for him, hard, and they soon married. In an anonymous piece, “Poet out of Pioneer,” published in the Nation in 1927, it’s clear she was still convinced that Wolf’s art was the great cause for which she had to sacrifice: “I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was…. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry….. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult….”
She gradually discovered just how difficult Wolf could be. He insisted he had to go off on his own to write, that she was too intrusive and confining for him to be able to create around her. After Genevieve gave birth to their daughter, Marcia, in 1921, he said she would have to take full responsibility for raising the child. They moved back to California and Genevieve went to work at Mills College while Wolf went off to the Pacific coast to write. Soon, instead of looking on her marriage as her “chief improvement,” she was writing Herbst that it was hard to sacrifice herself for his art “when you struggle for weeks with stoves and mud and diapers and canned food….”
Though they did not finally divorce until 1934, Wolf and Taggard spent less and less time together. He became subject to bouts of depression, bouts of hyperactivity, and bouts of anger, most of it directed at Genevieve. She continued to be the main bread-winner, working as a book reviewer, teaching at Bennington College, and still managing to write far more than Wolf did. Her first book, For Eager Lovers, was published in 1922. In it, in a poem titled, “Married,” the refrain tells us much of the state of her own marriage: “Apart, apart, we are apart.” The book included a poem that demonstrated just how much her initial idealism had given way to a much more measured view of the world:
Men go to women mutely for their peace;
And they, who lack it most, create it when
They make because they must, loving their men–
A solace for sad bosom-bended heads. There
Is all the meager peace men get no otherwhere;
No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves,
Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl’s hair,
No sound of valley bell on autumn air,
Or room made home with doves along the eves,
Ever holds peace like this, poured by poor women
Out of their heart’s poverty, for worn men.
Her second book, a small volume titled, Hawaiian Hilltop, was published in 1924. In 1925, Eastman asked her to edit May Days: An Anthology of Verse from Masses-Liberator. In her preface, she remarks that re-reading the back issues of the magazines “had the same fascination that the face of your father at the age of sixteen has, when you come upon it peering from an album, for the first time after years of pre-occupation with your own generation.”
Her third book, Words for the Chisel, was published by Knopf in 1926, but it was Travelling Standing Still (1928) that first earned her serious critical acclaim. Edmund Wilson called Taggard “a poet of our common human experience” and lauded her poem, “With Child,” as the best poem about birth he’d read. William Rose Benet, writing in the Saturday Review, said he found it “almost impossible to classify Miss Taggard as a poet. If you use the image of a gem, she has many facets, and she has always possessed a quality like the moods of water.”
Though she no longer considered her marriage a triumph, she still saw herself as something of a rebel against the conventions of her parents. In a piece titled, “Statements of Belief,” published in The Bookman, Taggard described how her inclination toward contrarianism started early:
We always sang four-part songs, in the Islands, at school and singing was important. I sat with the altos and sang the dark humming parts. After about a year, came along a singing teacher who applied her octaves and diagnosed: “But you are a soprano.”
There it was again. I was a freckled blonde when I wanted to be brunette, white when I wanted to be Hawaiian, and a soprano when I wanted to be alto.
“I’m going to keep on singing alto.” That was final.
“Very well, and ruin your voice. You have a real soprano. And you might sing solos.”
And so, Alto against Nature, with now (she was right), no voice at all . . . and the only chance for singing, on paper. Uncomfortable as a dog within ear-shot of high sopranos, still liking best middle register and counterpoint.
And so, Alto against Nature, she proclaimed herself quite the opposite of all that her parents stood for: “I am a poet, a wine-bibber, a radical; a non-churchgoer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial.”
The late 1920s and early 1930s was perhaps the period of Taggard’s best work. Benet later selected a poem Taggard published in the 13 October 1928 issue of Saturday Review for his anthology, Fifty Poets (1933). The poem offers hints of the two worlds of her childhood:
Try Tropic for Your Balm
(On the Properties of Nature for Healing an
Try tropic for your balm.
And after storm, calm.
Try snow of heaven, heavy, soft, and slow,
Brilliant and warm.
Nothing will help, and nothing do much harm.
Drink iron from rare springs; follow the sun;
To get the beam of some medicinal star;
Or in your anguish run
The gauntlet of all zones to an ultimate one.
Fever and chill
Punish you still,
Earth has no zone to work against your will.
Burn in the jewelled desert with the toad.
In evening mist across your haunted face;
Or walk in upper air the slanted road.
It will not lift that load;
Nor will large seas undo your subtle ill.
Nothing can cure and nothing kill
What ails your eyes, what cuts your pulse in two.
And not kill you.
Taggard later wrote that, “One Summer evening in 1928 in a special key of loneliness and intensity and certainty, the whole thing came as if dictated…. When I wrote it … I had myself and you, reader, in mind … and many others … all of us, and there are many now–who run through books and landscapes looking for something, with worn faces. I chose this poem because it is about our life and our way of behaving.”
She joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and began work on a biography, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, which was published in 1930. In 1931, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Europe, where she spent several months living on the island of Mallorca.
When she returned to the United States, she appears to have brought back a conviction that she had to make a fundamental change in her poetry. She felt her previous work was frivolous, and she now wrote with a thumping seriousness worthy of Robert Wolf:
To the Powers of Desolation
O mortal boy, we cannot stop
The leak in that great wall where death seeps in
With hands or bodies, frantic mouths, or sleep.
Over the wall, over the wall’s top
I have seen rising waters, waters of desolation.
From my despair bibles are written, children begotten;
Women open the wrong doors; men lie in ditches retching,–
The horrible bright eyes of insanity fix on a blue fly,
Focus, enlarge. Dear mortal, escape
You cannot. I hear the drip of eternity above the quiet buzz of your sleep….
In a review of a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams written for New Masses at around the same time, Taggard bemoaned that Williams had “fallen among the Imagists” and declared that, “We do not need to pay such exaggerated attention to ‘real objects’ because now the fog clears off; real ideas challenge us.”
Divorced from Wolf in 1934, she joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she remained until forced by ill health (chronic hypertension) to leave in 1946. Through her work for New Masses, she met Kenneth Durant and they married in 1935. By all reports, the two were deeply in love. She became a member of the Communist Party and they took a tour of the Soviet Union in 1936. She published a selection of her new, realistic poems, Calling Western Union, soon after, and two years later, Collected Poems: 1918-1938, in which she formally declared her lyrical work a thing of the past.
Interestingly, her shift from modernism to realism was mirrored by a renewed respect for the values her parents–and, in particular, her mother, stood for. In the November 1938 issue of Poetry, she published the following:
To My Mother
The long delight and early
I heard in my small years clearly:
The morning song, bed-making, bustle for new undertaking,
With dish-washing and hay-raking,
This vanished, or seemed diminished,
Was lost, in trouble finished.
I did nervous work, unsteady, captive work and heady.
Nothing well-done and ready.
And heard in other places
Than home, and from foreign faces
The dauntless gay and breezy communal song of the bust,
I–idle and uneasy.
I said, my work is silly,
Lonely and willy-nilly.
See this hand with nicotined habits, this useless hand that edit
A chronicle of debits.
Join, if I can, the makers,
And the tillers of difficult acres;
And get somehow this dearly lost, this re-discovered rarely
Habit of rising early.
She had apparently also forgiven her mother for keeping a volume of Edgar Guest’s poems next to Genevieve’s books on her nightstand.
During the Forties, Taggard spent a good deal of her free time at a farm near Bennington that she had bought with the profits from her Dickinson book. Although she acknowledged she could never fully assimilate with the locals, the rural atmosphere somehow brought back her memories of Hawaii, and a lyrical strain began to force its way back into her poetry. She published A Part of Vermont in 1945–a slender book but with nary a sign of red banners or marching masses.
A year later, she published Slow Music, which showed a writer torn between the cause she believed in and the sensuality at the core of her spirit. Dross like “Salute to the Russian Dead” is overwhelmed by such poems as “Hymn to Yellow,” “A Dialogue on Cider,” “A Poem to Explain Everything About a Certain Day in Vermont,” and the playful “A Sombrero Is a Kind of Hat This Poem Is a Kind of Nonsense.” And the woman who rejected William Carlos Williams for fixating on objects came up with a lovely little poem with echoes of William’s red wheel barrow:
Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian cafe
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots …
… In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagne … The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.
And so, with her last book, Origin: Hawaii (1947), Taggard returned to Oahu for the last time (and perhaps knew it for the first time). In her introduction to the collection, she wrote that, “A place that has not been truly felt and communicated does not, in a certain sense, exist. Just as a human being who is not quite conscious may be said not quite to exist either.” The collection includes the last poem she wrote, “Luau,” which, one could argue, offers her own equivalent of the Last Supper:
So I come home in the valley of Kalihi,
My bare feet on hard earth, hibiscus with stamen-tongue
Twirled in my fingers like a paper windmill,
A wheel of color, crimson, the petals large,
Kiss of the petal, tactile, light, intense …
Now I am back again. I can touch the children:
My human race, in whom was a human dwelling,
Whose names are all the races–of one skin.
For so our games ran tacit, without blur.
Here we are dipping and passing the calabash
In the ceremony of friends; I also;
But in frenzy and pain distort
The simple need, knowing how blood is shed:
To sit together
Drinking the blue ocean, eating the sun
Like a fruit …
Geraldine Taggard died in New York City in 1948 at the age of 53, of the debilitating effects of long-term chronic hypertension. Though all her books are now long out of print, by far the best place to start to discover her poetry is the collection compiled by her daughter, Marcia Durant Liles, To the Natural World, which was issued in 1980 but is available for free in PDF format (link. It includes some of her very best poems and suffers none of the shortcomings of Taggard’s “realism” period.
I am not a follower of ballet or dance, but when I started leafing through Martha Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory: An Autobiography, I soon found I had to keep going and finish it. Now, this is hardly what one would call great writing. Indeed, there are some suggestions that it was more dictated, to her companion and assistant, Ron Protas. Protas himself cautioned Martha’s editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Jackie, this is a mix of Martha and me talking.” Kirkus Reviews said the book “feels as if it were dictated a few minutes at a time and left largely unedited,” and the Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that it reminded one of the “rambling, disjunctive quality as the dangerously long, seemingly shapeless pre-curtain speeches she insisted upon making once she could no longer dance her own repertoire.” And toward the end, the names start dropping like bits of shrapnel.
But, at the same time, you’ve got to respect the kind of passion that could keep Graham going until she succumbed to pneumonia just a few weeks short of her 97th birthday. Graham doesn’t try to sugarcoat the fact that a double helping of ego tends to be part of the package when one is a creative genius, nor is she apologetic about the fact that she liked men and went after those she wanted. When it became clear that she had to stop dancing herself, it led to too much drinking, too much brooding, and a personal crisis: “A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish.”
And she would probably have agreed with Arnold Palmer that “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” “I believe that we learn by practice,” she declares in the second line in the book, and she goes on to describe just how much practice she would put herself and her dancers through, starting with intense drilling in basics–400 leaps in five minutes, as a start. Though Graham obviously didn’t aim for this to be a self-help book like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, the pages are full of inspirational words that any dancer, artist, or other creative person could draw ideas and encouragement from. Graham recounts more than a few situations where it was only her “damn the torpedoes” attitude that got her through.
Blood Memory: An Autobiography was published about four months after Graham’s death. It was followed three weeks later by the publication of Agnes De Mille’s biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, and I’d encourage anyone interested in Graham to check it out, too. De Mille and Graham had danced together and known each other as close friends for over fifty years, and De Mille had been working on the book for years, holding it back from publication out of respect. She approached it as a serious, almost scholarly work, despite her feelings for Graham, and in itself, is a remarkable book, particularly considering that De Mille was past 85 when it was finally published.
Blood Memory: An Autobiography, by Martha Graham
New York: Doubleday, 1991
Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille
New York: Random House, 1991
Willa Cather is hardly a neglected writer, but even in the work some of the best-known writers, there are little gems that have been rattled off into a dusty corner by the thumping feet of their magna opera. This comes from an essay on Katherine Mansfield in Not Under Forty (1936), which was the last book Cather published.
I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavour. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.
One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another–secret and passionate and intense–which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works.
Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936
One has to wonder what the residents of Piermont, New York thought of Alice Beal Parsons. A writer and–for her day–a radical feminist, with a strong liberal tack to her politics, she bought a house–more like a cabin–on the slopes of Tallman Mountain (now a New York State Park in the late 1920s. Probably few had read or were even aware of her book, Woman’s Dilemma (1926), which argued for equal rights in work and sexual matters at a time when that was still a decidedly minority view.
Parsons commuted to New York City by ferry most days, working for The Nation and The Bookman as a book reviewer, but she had enough time to observe the residents of Piermont and their doings to become inspired. Within a year or so of settling near the town, she had fictionalized it as Pawlet-on-Hudson and made it the setting of her first novel, John Merrill’s Pleasant Life (1930), which told the story of an idealistic young engineer who has his life spirit drained from him even as he rises to great success running the town’s main factory. Two years later, she used the setting again in A Lady Who Lost (1932), which portrayed the place as a microcosm of the social disturbances caused by the Great Depression. In the book, an idle woman married to a wealthy man becomes involved with the case of a woman tried for the murder of a lover and then with a strike (also at the town’s big factory) organized by Communists.
Then, during the Second World War, she published The Mountain (1944), which was an autobiographical account of life in and around Piermont. She described how her attitude and relations with her neighbors evolved over the course of time, with her initial prejudices and stereotypes gradually giving way to more nuanced and sympathetic understanding and affection. She also rhapsodized about the beauties of the changing seasons on the mountain and offered some comic sketches of her own life and a few of her more colorful neighbors. The book was very favorably reviewed. Saturday Review called it, “… one of those books whose subject matter defies formal classification and whose charm depends partly, of course, on the style of its writing, but almost more on the intimate relationship the author manages to establish between you and her from the start. When you finish it you feel almost as if you had been the week-end guest of a delightful hostess.” One imagines her standing rose at least a little in the eyes of the Piermontese.
But then, a couple of years later, Parsons published I Know What I’d Do (1946), which made poor little Pawlet-on-Hudson a hotbed of adultery, racism, Xenophobia, and violence. The title comes from something several folks in town tell Al Miller, a returning vet, soon after he arrives back in town: “Yes, I know damn well what I’d do if I heard the sort of story some of youse fellow is agoin’ to hear now you’re back home. It ain’t no Sunday School story some of youse is goin’ to hear.” In other words, while Al was off training in England and fighting in Italy, his wife, Sally, had an affair with someone in town. Al’s friend, Jim Phelan, in fact.
At first, Al tries to be rational about things. He’d slept with an English girl himself while overseas. And it’s just innuendos at first, until Sally confesses to him one night. Only in her version, it wasn’t an affair–it was rape. And she got pregnant and now needs money for an illegal abortion. Oh, and just to ratchet up the melodramatic volume, the local Ku Klux Klan klaven burns a cross on their lawn–their version of a red letter A.
Things quickly spiral out of control. Al Miller hunts down and murders Jim Phelan. The scene instantly becomes the center of attraction in town:
In spite of the gas and rubber shortage, the traffic on Prospect Avenue out of which Penross Drive opened was greatly increased by the murder of Jim Phelan. Cars drove slowly by, obstructing north-bound traffic. Because of the jam, parking was forbidden on the Avenue. Sight-seers got around this difficulty by turning into abutting driveways and gazing their fill from these safe vantage points. Some determined individuals actually left their cars and strolled up Penross Drive, though everyone knew it was a one-way street. If they encountered anyone they pretended, according to sex and condition, to be looking for apartments, or stray dogs, or to be selling insurance.
The murder and the sordid details behind it split the community into factions like a prism. Much muck is shoveled up and raked over in the course of the subsequent trial. Fortunately for Al, his case is helped by a sympathetic woman writer living near the town–a fictional version of Parsons herself, one imagines–and civic rationalism prevails.
When I Know What I’d Do came out, critics divided into two camps. One saw the book as a soap opera and an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the very current topic of the struggles of returning veterans. The other applauded Parsons for her multi-faceted approach to her subject and characters. And it’s true that while there are bigots, bullies, and gossips a-plenty in Parsons’ Pawlet, there are others who demonstrate the same kind of depth and complexity of character that Parsons revealed among her neighbors in The Mountain. Grace Frank, writing in Saturday Review, easily spotted the parallels with Parsons’ earlier book:
Most of the portraits in the book, even the incidental ones, are admirable likenesses: the returned soldier, abstracted and uninterested until someone accidentally speaks his language; the young woman, a devoted wife and mother, who nevertheless yields to the excitement of an experienced seducer; a bullying sport, making another man pay for his fun; a worldly-wise writer, equating the effects of love and loneliness on Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Sally, and herself; the opposing lawyers, a woman of the man-eating type, a shrewdly cantankerous young doctor, a dowager aristocrat, and finally the different local characters, including the irreconcilable families of Sally and Al. Pawlet may be purely imaginary, as the author contends, but for all that it and its inhabitants are as real as Route 9W [Route 9W is the highway that runs through Piermont.–Ed.]