No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin (1943)

Title page from "No More Mimosa"After writing a fairly disparaging piece about Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs two years ago, I wouldn’t have counted on finding her work on my reading list again. But then I read a thoughtful piece on her 1943 collection, No More Mimosa, originally printed in the December 2013 edition of the Bulletin of the Labour History Project of New Zealand, which was particularly enthusiastic about one of its stories, “Refugees,” which describes the lot of a group of Spanish republicans living in exile in London: “In a few descriptive pages Mannin crystallized the universal experience of political exile and loneliness.” Finding a copy of No More Mimosa for under $25 (the starting price is higher now, I’m afraid), I put it on my list for this year of short stories.

In her preface to the collection, Mannin writes that she “sought to give the book as definite a ‘shape’ as a novel.” To that end, she collects stories set in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two in the first section, “Before the Deluge”; in the second section, “Thunder in Spain”, she includes four stories centered upon the defeat, flight, and exile to England of an actual group of Spanish pro-Republican radicals, including Joaquin Delso de Miguel, to whom she dedicated the book; and in the final section, “The Deluge”, she depicts a Europe in the midst of a war which, at the time she was writing, there was no apparent end.

While a few of the stories in No More Mimosa are run-of-the-mill magazine fodder–more O. Henry than Chekhov, and forgotten minutes after finishing them–the collection could, with a bit of editing, serve as a striking record of its time. Mannin is an interesting case. Hugely prolific, she managed to sell well throughout her long career. The stories in this collection first appeared in such mainstream publications as Good Housekeeping, Nursery World, and The Evening Standard. At the same time, she was fierce and unapologetic in her politics and causes, supporting the Anarchists in Spain and refusing to register for national service in World War Two. In this book, these contrasts improve its interest and variety, as Mannin portrays a wider range of classes and circumstances than one is likely to find in any collection from one of her contemporaries.

With the opening story, “Mimosas for Remembrance,” she signals a clear awareness–even writing some years before the start of the war–that storm clouds were gathering:

The light was fading and the room was filled with a soft greyness, upon which the scent of mimosa floated like a dream in a sleep. A dream of spring; of other springs, in other worlds, long ago. There had been mimosa lighting the greyness of the olive-groves above Lake Como. And mimosa woods on the hillsides of Cavalière….

“Europe is doomed and damned,” one character predicts. “We’ll to the woods no more–the mimosas are all gone! It’s probably the last European spring in which they’ll not spread their branches above machine-gun nests, or be mown down before tanks.” He sums up the world they see nearing its end:

… the lives we lived sitting on cafe-terraces, drinking green wine under the chestnut trees in little Tyrolean towns, running in and out of art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, all the lying in the sun we did on little plages in the South of France, the Balearic Islands–the painting, the writing, the love-affairs, the wild parties, the scandals–all lived out to a background of bars and cafes, olive-groves, mimosa woods, and rapides with romantic names–the Rome Express, the Flèche D’Or, the Blue Train, and trains that pulled into Paris from Istanbul, Belgrade, Wien, Napoli….

And the tales Mannin tells in this first section are utterly cosmopolitan in character. Mostly under five pages long, the sixteen stories comprising “Before the Deluge” are scattered all over the map: Buenos Aires, Algiers, Marseille, Sarajevo, Ragusa, Jerusalem, Montparnasse, and Moscow. And her people come from all over the social spectrum: English spinsters, French nobility, a Palestinian nationalist, an ambitious Algerian wharf-rat, a down-on-his-heels Eton graduate making his way around the Balkans as a member of a sad nightclub dance act. Some of them are still coping with the aftermath of the last war. Of a Russian family in Paris, Mannin writes, “They fled across Europe and into France, which is something which is said in a few words, but which in living meant months and years of semi-starvation in all the capitals of Eastern Europe.”

Ironically, while Mannin’s characters are almost all great travelers, one can’t help but notice after a few stories that few of them are actually heading somewhere in their lives. The English dancer changes partners in the course of his story, but this make no real difference: “Between the time of their arrival and opening they had to find rooms, find the bar, rehearse. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor the last.” Even in the rare case, as in “Algiers”, where the wharf-rat manages to polish up his act, make enough money to pass himself off as wealthy (for a few days, at least), and insinuate himself into the fringe of Paris society, the final destination of his climb up the ladder proves a dead end and, soon enough, he finds himself back on the waterfront. For all its travel opportunities, Mannin’s world of the thirties seems rather claustrophobic.

In the middle section, “Thunder in Spain,” her characters don’t lack for a cause or direction to their lives, but this proves to matter little when you find yourself on the losing side. She follows a group of five pro-Republican organizers fleeing first from Madrid to the temporary capitol, Valencia, and then to the small port of Gancia. In “The Last Night in Gancia”, which Mannin describes as “historic fact”, they spend their last hours on Spanish soil in a tense limbo, wondering whether they would be caught and executed by the Nationalists or rescued by the French or British warships circling offshore. When at last the business of embarkation begins,

[A] great motley crowd of men, and a few women, with pale strained faces, some of them with their eyes dark with misery or wet with tears because they were leaving behind everything they held dear, those they loved and might never see again, and with them the grey ashes of their dreams, some with their eyes alight with hope; for some the embarkation was tragedy, for others, in spite of everything, adventure; for some it was the end of everything, for others merely the end of a chapter.

For the revolutionaries, however, as Mannin shows in “Refugees”, their next chapter is another, duller form of limbo:

After all, when you have nothing whatsoever to do, from the time you get up, late, in the morning, till the time you go to bed in the small hours of the following morning, it does not matter how you get through the time. Time flowed over us in a grey stream, empty, endless, unmeasured–we who had lived such intense, crowded lives. Now we were lost in a vacuum of futility. We had endless political discussions that developed into impassioned arguments, voices raised, fists banged on the table, and usually someone sweeping out; we held endless futile political post-mortems. We played chess; we wrote letters, and were eaten out and in with longing for letters, for news, that never came; we made fitful attempts at learning English; we struggled with the grey labyrinth of London; we made a good deal of coffee, and we spent a good deal of our time lying on our beds and looking at the high dirty ceiling, our thoughts flowing endlessly backward.

When the war does come, however, it doesn’t prove to offer anything better in the way of a direction for most of the characters Mannin portrays. The Army comes to the rescue of a couple whose dream of running a quaint little hotel in the country by buying them out–but financial relief is a poor second best to actually seeing their dream succeed. An actress and an escaped prisoner spend a night together discovering just how well human nature can let down our hopes. A chorus girl struggling to find work gets played by a con artist, only to be dragged out of the rubble after a German bomb hits their bar. And two sets of evacuees find themselves and their hosts disappointed, then unhappy, then disgruntled and resentful. Patriotism turns out to be a pretty weak force in the face of people who simply dislike each other intensely. Mannin could not have foreseen it, but she was doing a good job of preparing her characters for the Cold War to come.

If this makes No More Mimosa sound like grim fare, I must point out that Mannin is a solid and professional story teller. She has a remarkably talent for sketching in enough details for the reader to accept the story’s setting and principals in a matter of a page or two. I often thought of Maugham while reading the book–that same sense of a writer saying to the reader, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story, and I know what I’m doing, so your job is just to read along. Shall we?” However, Mannin’s characters are, in general, a bit rougher around the edges–you wouldn’t be surprised to see some dirt under their fingernails or a bit of food in their teeth. Come to think of it, they’re a lot more like the inhabitants of Orwell’s fiction. I don’t want to oversell the book, however–it’s not “Rain” meets Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But for anyone looking for an antidote to nostalgia for the thirties and war years, No More Mimosa offers a convincing demonstration that the West had its share of grim, grey lives well before anyone came up with the phrase “Iron Curtain.”


No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1943

Among the Dangs, by George P. Elliott (1961)

Cover of first US edition of 'Among the Dangs'I’ve never found anything written by George P. Elliott entirely satisfying–yet I keep coming back to his work.

Considered a rising talent in the 1950s, when his short stories such as “The NRACP” and “Among the Dangs” began appearing in anthologies and to be mentioned as some of the more significant works in then-contemporary American writing, Elliott was solidly placed in the literary mainstream by the 1960s, when his name often appeared alongside those of Bellow, Heller, and Roth; beginning to be seen as marginal by the start of the 1970s; and largely forgotten by the time he died at age 62 in 1980. His books are all out of print today, and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (yet).

What happened? I think a look at his best-received book, the short story collection Among the Dangs (1961), can explain a lot.

Among the Dangs includes several stories that stand out quite starkly from most of what was being published at the time. In the title story, a black American academic and anthropologist studies and then becomes a member of a violent Amazonian tribe, the Dangs, only to flee from them in the end, in fear that he was on the brink of reverting to their more instinctual and primitive level. I remember thinking it a remarkable and memorable story when I first came across it in some anthology of contemporary short stories back in college, and that memory was the main reason I but the book on my “to read” list for this year.

Nearly forty years later, the impression left by “Among the Dangs” is not nearly so powerful. Aside from the novelty factor of a white writer adopting the voice and perspective of a black man, there is nothing revealed about the narrator that gives any sense that this was anything but an arbitrary choice by the writer. The color of his skin could just as easily have been purple for all it adds to the story. Elliott later wrote that, “My work in composing ‘Among the Dangs’ was made the easier because I was so little interested in all those aspects of the world which are recognizably arranged in a realistic story,” and this gets to one of the first problems with his fiction.

When I dug back through contemporary reviews of Among the Dangs, one theme jumped out as a constant. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer described Elliott’s outlook as “disinterested and detached. Critic Benjamin DeMott said that Elliott wrote with a “mild irony and a certain detachment from his characters.” Another wrote that Elliott “… entertains and interests us and at the same time puzzles us–puzzles me, perhaps not you–for he conveys a sense of great moral and emotional earnestness without making clear what more or what emotion he wants us to feel.” And another simply confessed defeat in the face of Elliott’s detachment: “I don’t know what George P. Elliott thinks of the people in his stories.”

Elliott’s most reprinted story also appears in Among the Dangs. Originally published in the Hudson Review in 1949, “The NRACP” is such a dryily-written satire that more than a few readers miss the joke entirely. NRACP standa for “National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons,” and the story postulates an America in which a government-run program is quietly carrying out the genocide of its black citizens. In some ways, it’s a fictional demonstration of the old saying about how to boil a frog (i.e., very slowly). Much of the story deals more with the personal dilemma of the protagonist, a relatively hapless guy torn between staying with his wife or having a fling with his younger and more attractive secretary. Only vaguely does the reader come to understand that all around, the blacks are being taken away to camps and disappearing from the streets. And Elliott’s protagonist is even slower to catch on.

A fair number of readers were shocked by the story when it first came out, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the violence of the story’s premise came to seem even more dramatic. Elliott was considered coarse and insensitive by liberals and viewed as mocking the beliefs of conservatives. Elliott himself said that it was the first story he ever sold that made him enough money to go out to dinner on: “So I invited Josephine Miles and some other friends out, but Josephine wouldn’t go. She would not dine on that story because she thought it was so bad, so wrong.” The America of “The NRACP” is one increasingly split between the winners and the losers–or, as Elliott puts it, “Those who get it and those who dish it out.” Of all the stories in this collection, it’s certainly the most relevant for readers in today’s America, where this sort of divide is becoming more and more apparent.

A third story, “Faq'” (a title likely to be misunderstood by most readers today), evokes the work of Borges, Kafka, and other metaphysical writers. In it, an American geographer sees a remote settlement in the Atlas mountains of Morocco while flying on an Army Air Corps mission and vows to visit and study it after the war. What he finds is a long-isolated civilization where the men spend all day worshipping numbers while the women–kept at a rough ratio of three to every male to ensure a ready workforce. The people of Faq’ have come to believe that their existence depends upon continuing the communal task of counting: “By hypothesis the highest nameable number is as far from the end as one is, and there is no end to counting. It is the function of Faq’ to test this hypothesis in the only statistically verifiable fashion, actually by counting forever.”

As with the anthropologist of “Among the Dangs,” however, the American ultimately flees and returns to the world he is more familiar with. He is determined “never to go there again, for he is sure that though he does not know what is right for men ordered perfection is wrong, and that though suffering is bad the lack of suffering is much worse.”

This last statement could easily serve as Elliott’s motto. The anthropologist gains a place among the Dangs in part through his prowess as a storyteller, and the primary story he tells them is that of the life of Christ. While not an overtly religious writer, Christian themes–particularly those of human fallibility, of sin, of the need for repentance, and of the possibility of forgiveness–are easily found throughout Elliott’s work. And he always had a moralist’s disdain for the notion that seeking freedom or pleasure would ultimately change man’s situation. He would have agreed with wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” As Elliott wrote in a piece in The Nation titled, “The Happiness Rat Race”, “To be sure, having the kind of fun you have to have doesn’t hurt as much as finding out what’s really wrong and doing something about it. But finally, rather than that grinning stupefaction, I’d prefer to hurt.”

Human failure is in many ways Elliott’s favorite subject. Although one critic wrote that the story, “A Family Matter”, “sounds as if it had been written as a contribution to a seminar on the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett”–and Elliott himself later admitted that he had written it as an experiment after reading several of Compton-Burnett’s novels. “That is, I felt like writing a story in which the plot problem is announced at the outset, developed in clearly marked stages, and resolved near the end, and in which all the characters are connected with the same family and speak concisely and hyperconsciously.”

In the story, an elderly millionaire returns to the place where his ex-wives and children live, in part to try to understand what led to his becoming so distant and detached from them. In the end, neither he, the ex-wives, the children, nor the reader is any more the wiser–and yet, it’s clear that the effort was both necessary and useful. Elliott was a firm believer in the necessity of trying to come to grips with the world we live in–even if that effort is likely to prove unsuccessful: “A good deal of fiction derives from the writer’s impulse to understand or cause the reader to understand the true nature of part of the world. Whether he does it for himself primarily or for the readers he wants to affect does not matter as much as that he is pressed by the need to understand the world, to order experience.”

I think this is what continues to interest me in his work: even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it always reveals an individual making a deep and serious effort to understand. As someone has probably already said, it’s probably more important to have the right questions than to have the right answers.

Though Elliott published four novels during his life, all were consistently judged interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Many reviewers remarked that his short fiction was better than his novels. And reviewing his second story collection, An Hour of Last Things, William Peden judged that Elliott was “As much a thoughtful essayist as story-teller.” But even in his essays, Elliott could, at times, become somewhat strident and brittle. However, as Phillip Stambovsky writes in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, a few of these essays, mostly autobiographical, “are among the most original and impressive of his literary productions”: “A Brown Fountain Pen” and “A Piece of Lettuce” from A Piece of Lettuce; “Never Nothing” from Conversions; “Snarls of Beauty” from The George P. Elliott Reader. “Whatever other qualities this unnamed, unshaped age we are entering may have,” Elliott once wrote, “I hope that it will realize it needs art in order to live.” I will have to return to these essays next year, when I plan to focus on autobiographical works, to give Elliott’s art the appreciation it deserves, in its own earnest if never fully successful way.


Among the Dangs and Other Stories, by George P. Elliott
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

I recently had the chance to travel to Estonia for the first time, to attend a conference in Tallinn. In the spirit of this trip, then, I took along a copy of The Conspiracy, a collection of stories by one of the leading Estonian writers of the last 50 years, Jaan Kross. I was thoroughly impressed by the people, sights, food, and energy of life in Estonia, and once you’ve read a little of the country’s history, you realize how long and hard they have had to struggle to establish–and reestablish–their independence and to maintain their culture and way of life in the 50+ years they spent under Nazi and Soviet control.

The Conspiracy offers a particularly good fictional introduction to what the Estonians endured during that time. Kross, who was born in 1920, not long after Estonia declared its independence, reached adulthood at about the time when that independence was crushed–first by Soviets (1940-1941, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ending soon after the German invasion of Russia), then by the Germans (1941-1944), and then again by the Soviets, who settled in for over forty years. The stories in The Conspiracy trace this history through episodes in the life of Kross’ fictional counterpart, Peeter Mirk.

The first story, “The Wound”, is set in the time around the start of the German invasion of Poland, when Germany offered ethnic Germans in the Baltic republics the opportunity to move into settlements in recently-conquered Poland and begin the process of establishing Hitler’s precious lebensraum. Peeter Mirk’s first love, a neighbor and fellow student in Tartu University, belongs to a family with German connections who decides to accept the offer. At a farewell party, feelings of nostalgia overtake the two young people and they decide in a moment of haste to run away and get married. As they run from the restaurant through rainy streets, however, she slips and falls, getting a severe cut on her leg, forcing them to stop and go back. Their impulsive act leads, in the end, to just the first of many casualties suffered by people in Peeter’s life over the next twenty years.

Kross was able to complete law school and stay on as a member of faculty for the first years of German occupation, in part through a series of medical dodges, avoiding the “lead piping” into which many Estonian men were channeled:

And the lead pipes, as already mentioned above, were, according to these notices, two in number. One of them spewed forth its load on to the front via the notorious Bad-Tölz training camp, that is to say, via southern Bavaria after a period of three to four months. The other pipe did the same, after a couple of weeks of basic drill at the Kohila or Elva training camps. Those spewed out of the first pipe wore SS uniforms and were told that they constituted the elite of Neues Europa and of the Estonian people. The second pipe spat forth so-called “Volunteer Assistants”, who were in fact required to stay in the frontier zone in the same section as the prisoners of war stationed there.

But some of Kross’s friends were not so lucky. Even those who tried to escape to Sweden or Finland took extraordinary risks, as is illustrated in the stories “Lead Piping” and “The Stahl Grammar.” And Kross himself ended up being arrested by the Germans in 1944, only to be set free from a Tallinn prison by the first wave of Soviet troops to retake the city. Two years later, however, he was again arrested, this time on the charge of being a “bourgeois recidivist”, and was sent to the Vorkutlag complex of camps. He spent the next eight years in the Gulag, finally returning to Estonia in 1954.

Jaan Kross in a light-hearted mood, 1973
Fortunately for Kross and his readers, he was possessed of a spirit of extraordinary resilience and good humor. He was lucky, he once remarked in an interview for the Guardian, that he was imprisoned by the Soviets and not the Germans: “Such was their Ordnungsliebe –passion for order–and their savage discipline. The Soviets at least had their saving virtues of inefficiency and incompetence.” He had an intense interest in other people–indeed, at a few points in his stories he pulls himself up with a remark such as, “But why have I begun to describe him in such detail?”

And Kross works details into his writing with all his senses. The reader gets the sense not just of how things looked, but also weather, textures, sounds, and, most of all, smells:

I had keys to Uncle’s apartment. We climbed the stairs with their faint smell of polish and stepped into the hall of the apartment. For some reason (or perhaps because we entered without switching on the light) it was the smells of the apartment which impinged on my consciousness on that occasion: the faint smell of ether emanating from Uncle’s surgery into the hall and its extension which served as a waiting room; the faint smell of naphthalene which arose from the Biedermeier furniture in the living room, the faint smell of cooking oil from the dining room through which we groped our way and where rye flour pancakes fried in a drop of sunflower oil, obtained goodness knows where, had been eaten; the fragrance of Soir de Paris which seeped through his wife’s door which stood ajar; the smell of the liquor store from the chink in the bathroom door, though this could have been mere imagination, since Uncle stored his several-liter stock of spirits in large flagons which stood in the bath which was half-filled with water as a precaution against fire and air raids; and then the comically coarse yet subtle whiff of tobacco from Uncle’s own room (for he had, for donkeys’ years, been smoking a weed grown by some patient or other and prepared with rose oil in his straight-stemmed pipe).

After Kross returned to Estonia, he realized that the only way he could survive was to write things that would not be closely examined for possible counter-revolutionary themes. So he became a historical novelist, carefully disguising his criticism of Soviet rule and calls for Estonian independence through characters and situations from hundreds of years earlier. Through this work and teaching, he was able to survive to see Estonia’s return to independence in 1991, and even to sit in its first Parliament and participate in writing the country’s new constitution. He died in 2007.

Four of Kross’ books, including his best-regarded novel, The Czar’s Madman, were translated into English, by Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens, and published by Harvill in the mid-1990s, and a further novel featuring Peeter Mirk, Treading Air, was issued in 2003. Most of these are now out of print, but recently, Quercus Publishing began releasing an English translation of his most popular work in Estonia, a historical trilogy, Between Three Plagues, starting with the first volume, The Ropemaker.

In a piece for the Estonian Literary Magazine, Kross once wrote of the disadvantages and benefits of being a writer from a small, much-invaded country. Starting out as a writer at perhaps the worst time in his country’s history, he became “not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country.” When, after fifty years’ wait, he had the chance to reclaim his country, he was burdened

… with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home–the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.

When Kross died in 2007, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted him in a funeral service that was broadcast live on Estonian State Television: “He was one of those who kept fresh the spirits of the people and made us ready to take the opportunity of restoring Estonia’s independence.”

The Conspiracy can also be borrowed in electronic format from the Open Library: (Link).


The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross
London: Harvill Press, 1995

The Conspiracy

The Russian-Estonians, from The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

In a year such as 1947, a Russian-born Estonian was only a zemlyak, a compatriot of mine, to a most problematical degree. Such trusties with their partly, or wholly, unidiomatic phrases, their doubting and distrustful eyes who had, since the war, seeped into the university, from the dean of faculty right down to posts among the teaching staff and special departments, and in everyday life from executive committee and militia down to the local apartment block administration, had instilled in me a feeling which was as mixed as what must have been going on inside them themselves: pity and watchfulness.

At any rate, we home-grown Estonians and Russian-born Estonians had lived such different lives on our respective sides of the border that our mutual alienation had become inevitable. On both sides of the border irrational things had been said and printed about the other side. In Estonia, hungry children were supposed to go about scavenging for food in dustbins. While in Russia, claimed the Estonian daily Paevaleht in, for instance, 1937, the year of the great show trials, it had emerged that men who had been the vanguard of revolution only fifteen years before were now infiltrators, traitors and foreign agents who had with their bare hands mixed broken glass into the butter sold to the proletariat…

Ten years earlier, nothing but such news items were to be found about Russia in our papers. And never a whisper of protest or denial from their side of the border, something which would have been quite natural in the circumstances, had these proved to be lies. So you were bound to conclude: there must be some truth in the matter. And this then led one to ask: which side had gone mad over there, the courts or those who appeared before them? And to answer without hesitation: the courts. For if the courts had been normal and the accused, therefore, mad, then the mass-executions of those accused would not have been able to take place. And Russia’s Estonians lived right in the thick of this madness, in this oppressive atmosphere of mistrust which resulted from this madness, which Russia allowed especially to afflict the minorities on her western borders.

So that people who were used to all this seemed, according to my first impression, and soon a priori, more problematical, evasive, shifty-eyed and ill-defined than others. Especially if they tried (and as far as I could observe, they always tried) to justify that what had been, and was still occurring in their country was right and proper in itself; unequivocally right and proper that is, according to the conversations of uneducated people, but to a more problematic degree according to those arrested – well, anyway, right and proper, not always in that cosy petit-bourgeois sense of the expression, but in a nobler and more general sense.

from “The Ashtray”, in The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera (1988)

In “The Fall”, the first story in Virgilio Piñera’s collection, Cold Tales (Cuentos Frios), the leader of two mountaineers climbing a peak slips and falls. The fall pulls his partner down after him, and the two plummet, topsy-turvy, down the mountainside, colliding into rocky outcrops and losing limbs along the way. By the end, all that is left is the leader’s beard and his partner’s eyes: “But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.”

Cold Tales is a collection of stories where things take place in this world we all know but happen in ways that defy all our common senses. This may be a reflection of Piñera’s own perspective, as his life was lived both in the midst of his world and always standing somewhat outside it. In his introduction to the collection, Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes that “Virgilio Piñera’s short stories are far from any received notion in literature, for they come from absolute alienation, where the shortest distance to hell is not through paradise but purgatory.”

In his native Cuba, Piñera is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, but few of his works are currently in print in English translation. Born in Cárdenas in 1912, he began writing plays and poems in the 1930s and participating in Cuban politics and literary affairs. He was also homosexual, and the treatment of the Cuban government of people with his sexual and political inclinations led him to move to Buenos Aires as a voluntary exile. There he met the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, and helped him translate his novel, Ferdydurke. Piñera also became acquainted with other writers and Cuban exiles and began writing absurdist short stories, likely influenced by Gombrowicz and Borges and anticipating. Many of the stories in Cold Tales were written during this period.

In 1958, anticipating the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Piñera returned to Cuba, and was, at first, involved in the circle of political and literary personalities forming around the core of the new regime. His pieces appeared in some of the most widely-read periodicals. But while acceptance of his political views had changed, attitudes toward his sexuality had not. Castro’s government wanted to eliminate what they called “the three Ps”: “prostitutes”, “pimps” and “pájaro” (homosexuals in Cuban slang). Che Guevara himself once hurled one of Piñera’s books off a shelf in the Cuban embassy in Algiers, shouting, “How dare you have a book by this foul faggot!”

In October 1961, he was arrested and jailed for pederasty, after which it became a struggle to live and love freely. He got work as a journalist and translator, and a few of his plays were performed, but it was well known that he was in Castro’s disfavor. Ostracized by many who had known him, he became known as something of a literary ghost. Though it was difficult to get his work published, he continued writing, and when he died of a heart attack in 1979, eighteen boxes of unpublished material were recovered from his apartment.

His work did gain some attention outside Cuba, however, being published in France, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. And in 1988, Eridanos Press, a small (and much-missed) U. S. publishing house backed by Bompiani, the literary arm of Italy’s leading publishing corporation, Fabbri, released Cold Tales, taken from Piñera’s Cuentos Frios, published in Buenos Aires in 1956, along with over twenty more written afterwards, in excellent translations by Mark Schafer. Two years later, Eridanos also published one of Piñera’s three novels, Rene’s Flesh. And, in 2012, he finally received some posthumous recognition from the Cuban government, which organized a conference and several events to recognize el Año Virgiliano in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Cold Tales has been, for me, the discovery of 2017 (so far). Unlike Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories, which suffer too much from taking place in the head and not the flesh, Piñera’s stories are both fantastic and palpably real. “These tales are cold because they limit themselves to the hard facts,” Piñera asserts in his Foreword.

You can see this in “Meat,” for example, in which people respond to a growing famine by cutting away and eating parts of their own bodies. “One distinguished physician predicted that a person weighing one hundred pounds (discounting viscera and the rest of the inedible organs) could eat meat for one hundred and forty days at the rate of half a pound a day.” One of the most obese men in town cannot control his hunger, however, and disappears in fifteen days: “After a while, no one could ever find him. Evidently, he was hiding….”

In “Swimming”, the narrator learns to swim on dry land–which, he admits, “has an agonized quality about it.” “… [A]t the same time one is dying, one is quite alive, quite alert, listening to the music that comes through the window and watching the worm crawl across the floor.” And there are benefits: “Once in a while I sink my hands into the marble tiles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.” In “The Mountain”, a man resolves to eat an entire mountain. He realizes that people will think him crazy, but takes comfort that, very gradually, “the mountain is losing mass and height.”

Some of Piñera’s stories are a mere paragraph long. Here, for example, is “Insomnia” in its entirety:

The man goes to bed early. He can’t fall asleep. He tosses and turns in bed, as might be expected. He gets tangled in the sheets. He lights a cigarette. He reads a little. He turns out the light again. But he can’t sleep. At three o’clock, he gets out of bed. He wakes his friend next door and confides that he can’t sleep. He asks the friend for advice. The friend advises him to take a short walk to tire himself out. And then, right away, to drink a cup of linden blossom tea and turn out the light. He does all that, but is unable to fall asleep. He gets up again. This time he goes to see a doctor. As usual, the doctor talks a lot but the man still doesn’t fall asleep. At six in the morning, he loads a revolver and blows his brains out. The man is dead, but hasn’t been able to get to sleep. Insomnia is a very persistent thing.

Cold Tales ends with perhaps Piñera’s last story, written in 1978, within a year of his death. In “The Death of the Birds”–just two pages long–the narrator reviews the different theories offered to explain why all the birds have died–epidemic, mass suicide, sudden thinning of the atmosphere, etc.. Many millions of birds lie strewn all over the earth and humanity is “filled with fright by the impossibility of discovering an explanation for such a monstrous fact.” But then, suddenly, they all come back to life and take flight.

Why? One can imagine a wise smile coming across Piñera’s as he wrote these closing lines:

The fiction of the writer, erasing the deed, returns them to life. And only with the death of literature will they fall again wretched onto the earth.

Cold Tales is now, sadly, out of print and used copies fetch over $30. But perhaps someone from David R. Godine, which bought Eridanos Press some years ago, will notice this piece and realize the simple step that can be taken to forestall the death of literature and keep the birds flying.


Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer
Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, 1988

An Anonymous Book, from Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding

An anonymous book for children only was published by an anonymous publisher and anonymously praised in an anonymous journal. Moreover, it imitated variously the style of each of the known writers of the time, and this made the responsibility for its authorship all the more impossible to place. For none of the known writers could in the circumstances look guilty. But everyone else did, so this made the responsibility for its authorship all the more difficult to place. The police had instructions to arrest all suspicious-looking persons. But as everyone except the known writers was under suspicion, the department of censorship gave orders that the known authors should be put in prison to separate them from the rest of the population and that everyone else should be regarded as legally committed to freedom. ‘Did you write it?’ everyone was questioned at every street corner. And as the answer was always ‘No’, the questioned person was always remanded as a suspect.

The reasons why this book aroused the department of censorship were these. One–it imitated (or seemed to imitate) the style of all the known authors of the time and was therefore understood by the authorities to be a political (or moral) satire. Two–it had no title and was therefore feared by the authorities to be dealing under the cover of obscurity with dangerous subjects. Three–its publisher could not be traced and it was therefore believed by the authorities to have been printed uncommercially. Four–it had no author and was therefore suspected by the authorities of having been written by a dangerous person. Five (and last)–it advertised itself as a book for children, and was therefore concluded by the authorities to have been written with the concealed design of corrupting adults. As the mystery grew, the vigilance of the police grew, and the circulation of the book grew: for the only way that its authorship could be discovered was by increasing the number of people suspected, and this could only be done by increasing the number of readers. The authorities secretly hoped to arrive at the author by separating those who had read the book from those who had not read it, and singling out from among the latter him or her who pretended to know least about it.

….

Therefore the time has come to close. I am discovered, or rather I have discovered myself, for the authorities lost interest in me when they saw that I would discover myself before I could be officially discovered, that I would in fact break through the pages and destroy the strongest evidence that might be held against me, that is, that “An anonymous book”, etc. I understand now that what they desired to prevent was just what has happened. You must forgive me and believe that I was not trying to deceive, but that I became confused. I over-distinguished and so fell into satire and so discovered myself and so could not go on, to maintain a satiric distinction between authorship and scholarship.

from Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding

The Sex Without the Sentiment, by Thyra Samter Winslow (1957)

Cover of 'The Sex Without the Sentiment'When I reviewed Thyra Samter Wilson’s first short story collection, Picture Frames, I wrote that there was “No room for nostalgia in this tough cookie’s heart.” In the thirty-plus years that separated Picture Frames from her last collection, The Sex Without Sentiment, Winslow seems to have squeezed a little in. But as her title proclaims, it’s not much–a broom closet, maybe, as the subtitle, “Short Stories Written With Understanding But Without Sentiment” emphasizes.

If Balzac had been a woman living in Manhattan in the 1950s, he might have written The Sex Without Sentiment. Like Balzac, Winslow’s human comedy is closer to Greek tragedy than to anything with the remote chance of evoking a laugh. And to Balzac’s grim fascination with human failings Winslow adds a feminine perspective. Woman, as they appear in The Sex Without Sentiment, are abused, cheated on, gossiped about, kept down, and, most often, ignored.

Winslow’s stories reveal a female version of the same rat race run by the businessmen scurrying over the island of Manhattan each work day. In a few cases, they are fighting their way up the same corporate ladder, but in most, the competition is for the simple matter of being noticed. In “Fur Flies,” a beautician in an expensive Midtown salon offers a quick overview of the race’s most popular heats:

When a woman like that hits a spot like Emily Deane’s there are only a few reasons. A younger man has fallen for her, which is unlikely, unless she’s a rich widow. Or somebody’s left her a fortune, and that’s unlikely, too, unless she tells about it; folks always want to tell about a fortune. Or her husband has fallen in love with another woman and she wants to get him back—the routine reason. Or her children think she’s dowdy and put the pressure on her.

Even for someone as the low end of the social scale, such as “Sophie Jackson”, a maid looking for a job, the feminine rat race has its trickle down effects:

Looking back, there wasn’t so much difference between the best and the worst places. Lazy mistresses or worried mistresses. Generous ones or those who, through nature or necessity, kept her from getting enough to eat. You got up early and set the table and cooked breakfast. Breakfast got lighter every year, but there was always toast and coffee and fruit–and eggs most of the time. Even this meant dozens of steps and dishes.

And, after breakfast, the work started. Beds to be made. “Don’t forget to turn the mattress. You didn’t turn it yesterday.” Rooms to be cleaned. Silver to be polished. And one eye on the clock, so lunch wouldn’t be late. And maybe a couple of visits to the store, during the morning. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed eggs? I believe you like to run to the store!”

After lunch, more dishes and more cleaning. And children coming home from school. Vegetables to prepare. Dinner—and more dishes. And washing on Monday and ironing on Tuesday. “Don’t get Mr. Watkins’ collars so stiff. These are soft shirts, Sophie!” And one room cleaned thoroughly each week. And staying in nights, so the children wouldn’t be alone.

Nights off—every Thursday, if you were lucky, and every second Sunday. Going to the movies alone, unless you made friends with one of the girls working in the neighborhood. The mistresses didn’t want to be mean. Sophie knew that. But they were harassed too. Or were worried about money. Or had difficult husbands. Or wanted to be out of the house, away from the work, as much as they could be.

In the race for romance, the odds are against Winslow’s women. Marriages, when they do happen, are usually unhappy. Or the price of love means being the other woman. In “More Like Sisters,” Lela Robbins, having been bound to her widow mother as a companion for the whole of her prime, has learned to take quick stock of her occasional dates: “She’d never hear from him again, or from the other men who would appear briefly and seem to like her a little.”

So some woman look for proxies. Rita, one of the four career women in “Girls in Black”–“and all four of them liked to think of themselves as career women, instead of professional women or girls who ‘go to business’”–finds one by inviting her older sister to move to Manhattan from Ohio: “Why, with Millie here, she belonged to someone. They were a family, the two of them. A woman alone at night is a pitiful sight. A woman alone in a restaurant always looks out of place, forlorn. But two women–that’s different.”

In “A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog,” an elderly widow discovers that something as small as having a dog makes the difference between being treated as part of a community and being ignored: “Before she had Frisky it never occurred to Mrs. Taylor that she was practically invisible. She had worn dark, decent clothes and thought that people treated her very well. Now she saw, curiously enough, that no one noticed her. She went out on the street–and it was just as if she were not there!”

Ironically, Winslow sold her work primarily to women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harpers Bazaar, Journal of Living, Todays Woman and Womans Day. Now, these are certainly stories of their time and not, for the most part, timeless classics. Perhaps The Sex Without Sentiment is more artifact than art, so it could be argued that, sixty years later, many women have found ways to avoid Winslow’s version of the rat race. Yet I could also point to Vivian Gornick’s recent Odd Woman in the City, which was discussed here at the end of last year, and suggest that there are still many effective ways to render older women living alone invisible.

The Sex Without Sentiment can be found for free in electronic formats on the Internet Archive: Link.


The Sex Without the Sentiment, by Thyra Samter Winslow
London and New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1957

Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding (1935; 1971; 1982)

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories is something of a litmus test for readers. For some, it is a neglected masterpiece, a revolutionary work in the development of fiction, a book like no other. For others, it a book like no other … in its pretentiousness, its relentless interruptions to remind the reader that he/she is reading a piece of fiction, and its refusal, in many stories, to follow any conventional narrative pattern.

Riding first published Progress of Stories in 1935, when she was living with the poet Robert Graves on Majorca and running the Seizin Press. She had already made a name as a modernist poet in the U.S., divorced her first husband, had an affair with the poet Allen Tate, attempted suicide and broken up Graves’ first marriage–although she cut off sexual relations with Graves early in their time as a couple. If Riding comes across as a woman inclined to take things to extremes, that comes across in her fiction.

In the words of Graves’ nephew and biographer Richard Perceval Graves, “Her plenipotent intellect and personality swept away all resistance, reducing to discipleship, abject servility, or virtual madness anyone who could not manage to shake him/herself free from her mesmerizing, tyrannical influence. Her most subjective responses to experience were translated (by her as well as her followers) into world-historical imperatives and aesthetic universals, while her insight into the multiple layers of human personality enabled her to manipulate everyone around her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.” (There is a striking resemblance between accounts of Riding by people who knew her–and her responses to them–and those of another litmus-like figure, Ayn Rand.)

I must confess defeat through exhaustion in dealing with Riding’s life and a good deal of her opinions. This is a woman who, in her eighties, could chastise Harry Mathews over four lengthy paragraphs for referring to her in a New York Review of Books article of the 1982 of Progress of Stories as “Laura” rather than “Laura (Riding) Jackson” (her preferred name after her 1941 marriage to critic Schuyler Jackson). She also made sure to note that “my work and myself” were subjects “which no professional literary man or woman can afford to disregard in his or her position-taking.” And I nearly surrendered before even reaching the stories in Progress of Stories thanks to 33 pages of prefaces (the one to the 1935 edition, followed by a second for the 1982 edition).

From the start, Riding draws a stark line between her work and those of virtually all her predecessors: “There is a quaint cult of story-writing which practises what is called ‘the short story’; pompous little fragments in whose very triviality, obscurity and shabbiness some significant principle of being is meant to be read.” Instead, it is time, she declares, that “we should be telling one another stories of ideas.” This is no earth-shaking assertion, but soon after it, Riding challenges the reader to digest the following sentence: “Thus the story-telling model of human speaking, or, as speaking recorded for silent apprehending is literarily named, ‘writing’, persists, in its natural casting of speaking or writing as reduplicating the live processes of happening, into the open areas of knowledge and understanding that all minds share as the world of intelligent being—partaking, in their unitary reality as minds, of the identity of mind.”

I balked for a moment, but plowed on (write me if you can explain what she meant). Or rather, detoured past the rest of the preface material and headed into the stories themselves. The book is organized in three major sections: the stories from the 1935 edition, followed by a selection of stories from Riding’s first two fiction collections, Anarchism is Not Enough (1928) and Experts Are Puzzled (1930). It concludes with “Christmastime,” a story she wrote in 1966 and her own reflections on some of the preceding stories.

The Progress of Stories section represents something of a journey out of conventional story-telling into the new territory Riding proposes to discover. The seven stories in Part One, “Stories of Lives”, a written in a very spare style but still somewhat represent other short stories one might be familiar with, although rather as if being viewed under a microscope like a specimen.

In Part Two, “Stories of Ideas,” however, Riding sets the reader down in wholly unfamiliar material. “Reality as Port Huntlady” opens with a simple, traditional narrative sentence: “Dan the Dog came to the town of Port Huntlady with two friends, Baby and Slick.” OK, no problem there. But then Riding tells us that, “Port Huntlady was not a town as other towns are towns. It was rather like a place where one felt a town might one day be, or where one felt that perhaps there had once been a town.” Port Huntlady, in other words, is not your usual seaside resort town. No, it is a town that–like the story itself–hovers between life in the real world and life in a world of ideas: “Port Huntlady was a place where things might happen; not the things that happened in the world proper, which were personal experiences, but universal experiences, such as the end of the world, or great turning-points in the course of human events.”

At the center of Port Huntlady affairs is Lady Port-Huntlady–herself an orphic figure who might well be a fictional counterpart for Riding herself: “Never seeming to say anything—and yet, after one had left her presence, it seemed that she had said a great deal, at least that one had understood a great many things that one did not really understand.” Indeed, a cynic might say the same thing after finishing Progress of Stories

But it doesn’t really matter what Lady Port-Huntlady might or might not say during her soirees, since, as Riding soon tells us, “We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case.” The inclusion of details is, for Riding, part of the attempt the story-teller to be believable, but this is ultimately equivalent to hypnotism: “this true-seeming is the power of the story to keep your interest until you have abandoned, quite frankly, those rational standards of interest with which we all prop up our chins when our thoughts scurry between brain and heart and we can do no better than be proud. It is the moral pretence of the story created by our joint vanity in being conscientious, orderly and truthful creatures—before we give ourselves up to its gentle idiocy….”

“But, indeed,” she asks further on, “is our story very important? Is any story very important? I assure you that no story is of much importance; and I think you will agree with me. Are we not all agreed that only a few things are really important?” Though she introduces other characters and engages them in various actions, she notes that these matters are both pointless and, therefore, infinite in their possibilities: “… how Lady Port-Huntlady would have consoled the cats by bringing down the remains of their lunch from the lounge; and how Miss Bookworth would have left Port Huntlady soon after to take up a post as secretary to a wealthy invalid whose hobby was corresponding with patients in tuberculosis sanatoria, in which he had spent much of his own life; and how a story may go on indefinitely unless there is perfect understanding at the start of the limitations that keep a story from being anything but a story….” In the end, she writes, driving a last stake through any pretense of honoring the “laws” of fiction, “no amount of ingenuity can save a story from seeming, in the end, just a story–just a piece of verbal luggage, belonging to anybody who cares to be bothered with it.”

In an interview, the poet Lisa Samuels, who edited the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Riding’s 1928 collection, Anarchism Is Not Enough, argued that Riding was challenging the very conceptual basis of fiction itself, rather like Brecht breaking the fourth wall between the play and its audience: “Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).”

If you wanted to know whether or not you would get anything out of Progress of Stories, you could actually just go straight to “Reality as Port Huntlady” and draw your conclusions from that. For me, reading it was rather like the experience of looking at a Magic Eye picture, where you can feel your visual perception of the image switching back and forth between what seems like noise and then, a moment later, becomes coherent. It was both disorienting and, in a way, almost thrilling.

Continuing on in this manner for another two hundred-plus pages, however, was a like being trapped in a gallery with nothing on the walls except Magic Eye pictures. A little bit is an exciting novelty; dozens of these pictures, one following the other relentlessly, was mind-numbing. Reviewing the 1982 edition in New York magazine, Edith Milton concluded, “All this self-consciousness makes for quite difficult reading, and, despite their formal brilliance, the stories pall.”

On the other hand, Harry Mathews–himself a veteran challenger of the conventions of fiction–considered Riding’s venture among the most ambitious in 20th century literature: “Riding’s aim in writing this carefully structured series of stories was to make articulate in the experience of her readers a knowledge of life that is both true and nonconceptual. It was as if she wanted to make the mechanisms of language, usually so approximate and reductive, accurate enough in the effect of their working to initiate the reader willy-nilly into an awareness of what she felt to be the pure, unmediated truth.”

Unfortunately, Mathews managed to express himself better than Riding herself. For her entry in the 1955 edition of Twentieth Century Authors, she wrote: “We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled–and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.” Indeed, “a total reconstituting of words’ meanings” could present a fairly insurmountable obstacle if one is trying to pursue writing as a career.

After seeing Progress of Stories mentioned as an undeservedly neglected book for decades, I was glad to finally have the chance to read it, but in the end, I was reminded of something a friend of mine once said when returning a book he’d borrowed: “It was good, but not that good.”


Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding
New York: Persea Books, 1982

The Locomotive, from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Pinera

A locomotive–the biggest in the world–advances on a very narrow embankment. It’s the biggest locomotive in the world because it has surpassed the previous model, which–until the appearance of this one that runs on a narrow embankment–used to be the biggest in the world. It’s so big that you wouldn’t even see the other one next to it because it is the biggest in the world. But it’s all rather difficult to understand. For example, in relation to the place it hasn’t yet occupied in its travels, it isn’t the biggest in the world. I mean if it’s as long as from here to here, and the volume it displaces is from there to there, as long as it hasn’t yet occupied that space, one can’t say that it’s the biggest in the world.

If it’s moving at the incredible speed with which it eats up the track, you must know that it’s the biggest in the world, because if you don’t you will be threatened by knowing that it exists, yet not knowing that it’s the biggest in the world. The same holds true when you set your eyes on it: be careful how you look at it. Perhaps you will look at it and not see it as the biggest in the world, and will become greatly disappointed and even sad. I warn you, if you remain long in your contemplation with the complete understanding that it’s the biggest in the world, be very careful, for it will grow so big that it will occupy the whole earth and beyond.

After all, what does it mean to say that it’s the biggest in the world? The world is very big, but it too is the biggest in the world. But you will tell me that before it was built the other one was the biggest in the world and that it’s in relation to this one and not to the world itself that it’s the biggest in the world. I’m not telling you that, but rather, that the one that used to be the biggest in the world was, in its turn, the biggest in a world that was also very big. All right then, you will say, are there two locomotives that are the biggest in the world and two worlds that are the biggest in the world? And what about the locomotives built before the the biggest in the world and before the biggest of the biggest in the world? And the worlds that have corresponded to those locomotives from long before the biggest in the world?

Yes, where is the world prior to the biggest locomotive in the world, and the locomotive itself that used to be the biggest before the one that is now the biggest in the world? And so too, all those that were the biggest in the world before the one that now runs on the embankment and is the biggest in the world–were they thought the biggest in the world before the biggest in the world? Do you realize that there are many factors, that the whole question is surrounded by danger, that you could sink into an eternal night, that it’s possible to repeat the words and concepts without arriving at their meaning? Do you clearly understand the perils of the adventure that lies in knowing that the locomotive advancing along the narrow embankment is the biggest in the world?

from Cold Tales, by Virgilio Pinera, translated by Mark Schafer
Hygiene, Colorado: The Eridanos Press, 1988

The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok (1941)

Cover of first US edition of 'The backbone of the Herring'“It has been said that a judge is a member of the Bar who once knew a Governor,” Curtis Bok quips in the first story in his collection of judicial stories, The Backbone of the Herring. With this opening line, the reader immediately gets a sense of Bok’s easy-going humor and self-deprecation. Although John Lukacs once described Bok’s personality as “glacial”–which it may well have been in public–as a writer, channeled through his fictional identity as “Judge Ulen” in these stories, Bok comes across as the kind of judge you’d want to have hearing your case–whether as plaintiff or defendant: conscientious, empathetic, impartial, and capable taking or making a joke once in a while.

Lukacs’ assessment might stem from Bok’s position on the highest tier of Philadelphia society. His father, Edward Bok was editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his mother, Mary Louise Curtis, brought a fortune and her husband’s access to his editorship courtesy of her father, Cyrus Curtis, who founded the Post along with a half-dozen of the other leading American magazines of the time. She herself founded the Curtis Institute of Music, considered the toughest American conservatory to get into, and somewhat shocked Philadelphia when, a widow of 67, she married the violinist and bon vivant Efrem Zimbalist (Senior). And, not to stunt the family tree, Curtis’ son, Derek grew up to become president of Harvard.

On the other hand, for a son of the Main Line, Curtis showed a remarkable capacity for choosing his own path. After a tour in the Navy during World War One, he studied law at the University of Virginia and became a member of a prestigious Philadelphia firm. He won a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1933 when he turned down the chance to run the family publishing company and, instead, kept his low-paying job as an assistant district attorney. Despite his time in the military, he was a practicing Quaker and a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.

Time magazine cover from July 1933 featuring Curtis Bok
In 1937, he became President Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the city’s primary civil and criminal court. Early on, he began keeping a notebook of his observations from the courtroom–not so much to aid in writing his opinions as to help shape his understanding of the nature of justice, and these developed into fictional sketches that he began publishing in The Shingle, the magazine of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1939. These stories are collected in The Backbone of the Herring

“These are not entirely autobiographical or fictitious, nor is Ulen,” Bok writes in his foreword. His point in recounting these stories was “that our system of justice, apart from Justice, which will remain undefined so far as I am concerned, can be made to work when applied with art and sympathy and a sly sense of humor.” Describing himself as a “mediocre lawyer with good connections,” Ulen took some time to overcome his timidity and found, somewhat to his surprise, that “when at last he had drifted to a point of rest he came rather abruptly into his full powers and began to use them with a delight.”

Although Ulen’s reflections on justice (“Justice has to do with the play of an enlightened personality within the boundaries of a system”) are a constant motif, the real interest of these stories is in Bok/Ulen’s observations of people. One defendant, a hulking laborer, is “the kind of man who puts his hands on his hips to think.” A large woman at the end of a difficult day collapses into a chair “like an exhausted avalanche.” A wife leaves her husband not because he beat her, cheated, or “was actively unkind: he simply lived as though he had been cored out and had nothing with which to respond.” Of another left man, Bok writes that, “No one thought to educate him in the art of getting on with his fellow man: this knowledge is supposed to grow on trees.”

His survey of human relations includes his own. When his friend, Henry Fielder, newly elected as Governor, offers him a post on the bench, the little dance Bok describes is something you often witness in male interactions:

Gosh, said Ulen to himself, this is serious. He was an introvert and Henry was an extrovert, and they were very shy of sentiment. The one feared a rebuff and the other was afraid of falling in a swamp. It was an impasse of language, for each of them was continually delighted by what the other did and bothered by what he said. Fielder called the thing he saw a spade. Ulen preferred to call it nothing, on the chance it might turn into something else of make a reasonable answer. The result was that when they were together they spent a great deal of time looking at their own feet and thinking what a wonderful fellow the other was in his own way.

On the other hand, Bok/Ulen is clearly operating in unfamiliar territory in those sketches where he ventures out of the courtroom, and positively lost when he tries to imagine what people do and say when he is not there. In “Artema’s Story,” about a failed romance that ultimately winds up on his docket, he expects the reader to believe that any woman would say the following to her lover: “We must lie greatly or not at all. To me this evening was a natural as walking in the city and suddenly seeing the hills. Maybe we stop being prisoners only when we don’t care whether the gates are open or shut. I may never know that with lucidity, but you will when the time comes.” Perhaps she was talking to Master Thespian. Fortunately, these potholes are few and easy to veer around.

Bok spent over twenty years in charge of the Court of Common Pleas, and wrote several well-regarded law texts, along with a few influential opinions. In his most famous, throwing out obscenity charges against a Philadelphia bookseller who was offering works by such smut-mongers as William Faulkner and James T. Farrell, he wrote that “It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books.” The worst that might happen, in Bok’s view, was that “they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”

He also wrote a sequel to The Backbone of the Herring, I, Too, Nicodemus (1946), which collected further “judicial adventures” of Judge Ulen. He also wrote two novels: Star Wormwood (1959), written as an illustration of the moral harm of the death penalty, and Maria (1962), a romance set on his beloved coast of Maine and published posthumously. Bok was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1958 and served there until his death in 1962.

The title of The Backbone of the Herring, by the way, comes from a judicial oath used on the Isle of Man centuries ago: “You swear to do justice between cause and cause as equally as the backbone of the herring doth lie midmost of the fish.” The dust jacket design is by renowned graphic designer W. A. Dwiggins, who provided Knopf with some of its best covers of the 1930s and 1940s.


The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok,br>
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941

A New Paragraph, from The Birth of a Story, by William Sansom (1972)

A manuscript page from William Sansom’s story “No Smoking on the Apron”

A new paragraph, a white breath for the eyes, is becoming more and more a necessity nowadays, with the accelerated pace of things in general and I would say certainly with readers reluctant to face too large a block of words with no relieving white space. Look at a page of Simenon, an economical writer with a fast narrative pace, and see how extremely short his paragraphs are, how seductive the whitened pages.

from The Birth of a Story, by William Sansom
London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1972

The Bank Robbery, from Tri-Quarterly Magazine 35, Winter 1976 – Minute Stories

The Bank Robbery, by Steve Schutzman

The bank robber told his story in little notes to the bank teller. He held the pistol in one hand and gave her the notes with the other. The first note said:

This is a bank holdup because money is just like time and I need more to keep on going, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off.

The teller, a young woman of about twenty-five, felt the lights which lined her streets go on for the first time in years. She kept her hands where he could see them and didn’t press any alarm buttons.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are just like love.

After she read the note, she gave it back to the gunman and said:“This note is far too abstract. I really can’t respond to it.”

The robber, a young man of about twenty-five, felt the electricity of his thoughts in his hand as he wrote the next note.

Ah money, he said to himself, you are just like love.

His next note said:

This is a bank hold up because there is only one clear rule around here and that is WHEN YOU RUN OUT OF MONEY YOU SUFFER, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off.

The young woman took the note, touching lightly the gunless hand that had written it. The touch of the gunman’s hand went immediately to her memory, growing its own life there. It became a constant light toward which she could move when she was lost. She felt that she could see everything clearly as if an unknown veil have just been lifted.

“I think I understand better now,” she said to the thief, looking first in his eyes and then at the gun. “But all this money will not get you what you really want.”

She looked at him deeply, hoping that she was becoming rich before his eyes.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are the gold that wants to spend my life.

The robber was becoming sleepy. In the gun was the weight of his dreams about this moment when it was yet to come. The gun was like the heavy eyelids of someone who wants to sleep but is not allowed.

Ah money, he said to himself, I find little bits of you leading to more of you in greater little bits. You are promising endless amounts of yourself but others are coming. They are threatening our treasure together. I cannot pick you up fast enough as you lead into the great, huge quiet that you are. Oh money, please save me, for you are desire, pure desire, that wants only itself.

The gunman could feel his intervals, the spaces in himself, piling up so he could not be sure of what he would do next. He began to write. His next note said:

Now is the film of my life, the film of my insomnia; an eerie bus ride, a trance in the night, from which I want to step down, whose light keeps me from sleeping. In the streets I will chase the windblown letter of love that will save my life. Give me the money, My Sister, so that I can run my hands through its hair. This is the unfired gun of time, so keep your hands where I can see them and don’t go pressing any alarm buttons or I’ll blow your head off with it.

Reading, the young woman felt her inner hands grabbing and holding onto this moment of her life.

Ah danger, she said to herself, you are yourself with perfect clarity. Under your lens I know what I want.

The young man and woman stared into each other’s eyes forming two paths between them. On one path his life, like little people, walked into her, and on the other hers walked into him.

“This money is love,” she said to him. “I’ll do what you want.”

She began to put money into the huge satchel he had provided.

As she emptied it of money, the bank filled with sleep. Everyone else in the bank slept the untroubled sleep of trees that would never be money. Finally she placed all the money into the bag.

The bank robber and the bank teller left together like hostages of each other. Though it was no longer necessary, he kept the gun on her, for it was becoming like a child between them.


When I was an undergrad, I loved Tri-Quarterly magazine. I probably came across it while browsing through the stacks on the Periodicals floor, and saw in a glance that it was chock full of innovative writing. You have to understand that this was at the height of the Vonnegut craze. My brother and I read all of Vonnegut’s books. He gave me Breakfast of Champions for Christmas 1973, and we even bought the supposed Kilgore Trout novel, Venus on the Half-Shell when it came out in 1975. I suspect that for a lot of young men at the time, Vonnegut was the gateway drug to experimental fiction–Ishmael Reed, Donald Barthelme, and the just-formed Fiction Collective led by Ronald Sukenick, Jonathan Baumbach, and Steve Katz.

Still under the influence of its original editor, Charles Newman, Tri-Quarterly was always worth reading. Everybody who seemed to be pushing the envelope of fiction was in it. When it came time for me to write a senior thesis for English, I took as my subject the experimental American short story, and almost all my material came from Tri-Quarterly.

So when I decided to devote 2017 to covering neglected short stories, I tried to remember some of the writers I covered. Many of them have come up from the fringe to the mainstream, or at least to the mainstream as it’s reflected in academic coverage. Even what I had considered a pretty unknown experimental story, A. B. Paulsen’s “The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality: A Diagnostic Test in Two Parts” turns out to be included in the anthology Extreme Fictions and on some college course reading lists. But I remembered in particular a Tri-Quarterly issue devoted to short short stories that seemed to have something from just about everyone active on the American experimental fiction scene–Katz, Sukenick, Baumbach, Eugene Wildman, Russell Edson, Frederic Tuten, Max Apple, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ursule Molinaro. When I got hold of a copy, however, I was surprised at the stellar level of the participation: Borges, Cortazar, Robbe-Grillet, John Hawkes, W. S. Merwin, Robert Coover, Annie Dillard, Angela Carter, and someone I’d love to see more of in English, the German fabulist H. C. Artmann.

Now, as often proves the case when one revisits enthusiasms of youth after a few decades, not everything in this collection was quite as fresh as I recalled. An unfortunate number of stories were experimental only in the sense that punctuation or spacing was played with–otherwise, they could have appeared in The Transatlantic Review, The Little Review, or transition fifty years before. An equal number were now insufferably sexist.

But a few have held up well, including this daffy romance from Steve Schutzman, which won a Pushcart Prize. Schutzman has his own website, and turns out to have published his one collection of short fiction, The History of Sleep way back in 1976. I will have to track it down.

The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel (1965)

I’m pretty sure this is the first book written by a member of the House of Lords I’ve included on this site. I came across The Cucumber King and Other Stories while looking for short story collections on the Open Library, and downloaded a copy to my tablet. I had no idea who Edwin Samuel was, and it was only when preparing this piece that I discovered that he was, in fact, better known as Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel. Not just a member of the House of Lords but an officer in the Jewish Legion in World War One who’d had Private David Ben-Gurion serving under him, and a long-time administrator of British Palestine. And he’d written four collections of short stories, starting with A Cottage in Galilee (1958) and continuing on to My Friend Musa (1963), The Cucumber King (1965), and finishing with The Man Who Liked Cats (1974).

After finishing another book on a recent flight, that I opened the file with Samuel’s book–for no better reason than that it was the next one listed–and began to read. The book opens with “The Cucumber King,” in which a fat and powerful Hollywood producer and his starlet third wife visit the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Although ostensibly on vacation, the producer has no idea how to properly relax, and so has brought along a film crew to help make a home movie to die for of their trip. Samuel clearly agrees with Blake that a lovely bird in a cage “puts all Heaven in a rage,” and manages to give the producer a just reward and leave the wife in the arms of a handsome and gentle Cambodian man.

The exotic setting and black humor of “The Cucumber King” reminded me of a number of Graham Greene’s short stories, as did a good share of the rest of Samuel’s stories. Like Greene, he clearly seems to have done his share of globe-trotting, as his settings range everywhere from Tokyo and Shanghai to the Middle East and Italy to London, Ireland, and New York City. He’s also comfortable with travel through time and space, taking us to “Israel in the Year 2000 A.D” (spoiler alert–no Internet, mobile phones, or Hamas) and the waiting room for Heaven.

Samuel’s taste in fiction tends toward the humorous, although with more than an occasional appetite for bitter irony and poetic justice. Death pops up on a regular basis and Samuel is not at all reluctant to shove one of his characters in front of an oncoming train to make his point. In “The Man Who Was Too Late,” Samuel leaves a fellow member of the House of Lords reflecting on the positive points of his death: “Perhaps it is lucky that I’ve now been run over by a taxi and killed–in my 64th year. Better than lingering on, with a small pension, but no wife or children or grandchildren.” As he wait for the angel to fetch his raiments, Lord FitzHugh ponders what to expect of Heaven:

Presumably, once I get beyond the Pearly Gates, it’ll be quite different. Rather splendid, in fact, in compensation for all that we’ve had to suffer on earth. I do wonder what Heaven will be like. The ardent believers, especially in earlier times, were quite sure they’d find a beautiful landscape, always sunny and warm —not too warm, I hope; I’ve had my fill of that in the tropics–with green lawns and shady trees, the murmur of a waterfall, soft music, good food—what a relief after that terrible cooking in East Africa. Some nice people, I hope–beautiful women, like this Angel, for example–after all those frightful Colonial wives. A few interesting men, too; not those awful Sports Club bores in Nairobi.

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in The Cucumber King. They are a fine combination of British attitudes and rituals, exotic settings, and a rich sense that God has more than a few good laughs at our expense. On the other hand, they are also more like the sort of thing you might find in Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post–if they’d published stories written by a British Jew: magazine fiction, in other words, which means a good story, a touch of novelty, but nothing too unsettling to one’s sense that whatever might be wrong with the world can be put right with a gin and tonic.


The Cucumber King and Other Stories, by Edwin Samuel
London/New York/Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1956

Official Statement by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, from One Minute Stories, by István Örkény

Thanks to a long and heated debate championed by the members of our Society, the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant has just inaugurated a new workshop dedicated to opening the newly sealed tins.

At the new workshop which is called The Can Opener, the newly canned tins of rabbit stew and fish soup are reopened, drained of liquid, and the chunks of meat and fish are reconstituted and taken back to their original habitat, where they are released.

We herewith wish to express our sincere gratitude to the management of the Rabbit Stew and Fish Soup Plant, who have at last come to understand the true meaning of humanitarianism.


Nearly sixty short short stories are told in the space of the 120-some pages of István Örkény’s One Minute Stories (and as many more in its sequel, More One Minute Stories). Some are as much as three pages long; others fewer than three sentences long.

Most of Örkény’s pieces are closer to jokes or pared-down fables than short stories. “Life Should Be So Simple,” for example, is just a six-item list:

  1. Remove fire extinguisher from bracket
  2. Open valve
  3. Approach source of fire
  4. Extinguish fire
  5. Close valve
  6. Replace extinguisher on bracket

“Official government report published in the wake of the triumph of the principles of communism” is merely the statement, “According to a recent statement by government spokesman Károly K. Károly, István Balogh, Sr., stable boy at the Bábolna State Farmers Co-operative, has just started his regular yearly vacation.” Fortunately, the publishers let us in on the joke with a footnote explaining that, “The Hungarian Communist party’s daily newspaper, Népszabadság, every year announced, Kádár János, the First Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party started his regular yearly vacation.”

A fair number of the items in One Minute Stories have a similar flavor of being the sort of joke that takes having lived in Hungary under Communist rule for a decade or two to fully appreciate. I was reminded several times of the little stories that Austrian writer Karl Kraus wrote to mock the Nazis and other forms of authoritarianism. Still, anyone with a taste for sly satirical or absurdist humor can enjoy these amuse-bouches. And, as Örkény points out in his “Handling Instructions,” “They also have the added advantage of saving us time. While the soft-boiled egg is boiling or the number you are dialing answers (provided it is not engaged, of course) you have ample time to read one of these short stories….”

You can find more selections of Örkény’s one-minute stories here, here, and on the English portion of his commemorative website here.


One Minute Stories and More One Minute Stories, by István Örkény, both translated by Judith Sollosy
Budapest, Hungary: Corvina Books, Ltd., 2001 and 2006

The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert (1971)

Cover of first US editiion of 'The Goodby People'In my post on Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book, The Slide Area, I wrote that the character sketch was his forte, and the best proof of that is The Goodby People (spelled “Goodbye” in all subsequent reissues). In it, Lambert puts all his talents into crafting three remarkable portraits: Susan Ross, a one-time model and widow of a wealthy movie producer and businessman; Gary Carson, a draft dodging golden boy making his way through the world one bed at a time; and Lora Chase, a long-faded yet legendary actress–sort of a Greta Garbo–who attracts as an unlikely follower a young, blonde, motorcycle-riding woman.

As in The Slide Area, the challenge is that these characters from the fringes of the movie world, are well-practiced in adapting themselves to the expectations of those around them and hence, somewhat at a loss to know just who they are themselves. Born in Arizona and raised in Nebraska, Susan Ross takes on the look of a sleek, beautiful woman, a sophisticate accustomed from birth to the finer things. She marries a man the opposite of her sun-leathered, taciturn father: “He had a dry disenchanted humor, a fascinating inside knowledge of shady political deals and the secrets of the Pentagon and the FBI, and that aura of joylessness which surrounds so many rich, powerful and clever people and makes them truly dangerous.”

When her husband dies, Susan has money, influence, and reputation enough to carry her in luxury to her last days. She throws enormous parties at the spectacular home she has inherited: “I saw Susan surrounded by all the sons of the millionaires, and a movie actor with long sideburns, and I think a rock group, and various girls. She sat on a high-backed chair and it looked like a throne.” Unfortunately, as a widow and not a wife, as a former model and not a model, and as a farm girl long gone from the farm, she has, as the narrator puts it, “no tribe.” Finally, she builds a stark modernist house high on a ridge above Malibu and retreats there to study self-consciousness. “It’s a perfect place, up here,” she tells the narrator when he calls to check on her. “I’ve come to realize the mind can achieve anything so long as reality doesn’t get in its way.”

The narrator–as in The Slide Area something of a stand-in for Lambert himself, only this time ready to acknowledge his homosexuality–meets Gary Carson through a friend, an aimless heir whose hobby is “sheltering young wanderers and fugitives.” A year or so later, he calls up the narrator and invites his way into the man’s bed. “I am never seduced,” he later remarks.

Gary, it becomes clear, is without prejudice when it comes to his partners. Looking through the young man’s luggage, the narrator finds a bundle of letters:

Kept neatly in their envelopes and packaged together with a rubber band, they were notes from about thirty different people, all over the last two years. He’d apparently had brief affairs with most of them; the rest made offers…. They came from a French girl at the Sorbonne, another who was a model, the male secretary of an Italian industrialist, the wife of the same industrialist, a movie actress in Rome who’d had a walk-on in a Fellini film, a girl once quite well known in Hollywood movies and now married to an English producer, from whom there was also a letter. Gary had apparently spent a month with the wife in St. Tropez and ten days with the husband in Tangier.

Gary at one point refers to himself as “A blank envelope. But, address it, and it’s just another bill, or a love letter.” After a short spell living with the narrator, enjoying the attention, fine wines, and cultural refinements, Gary moves on, disappearing for a while. “He was never quite here, was he?,” friends ask. In keeping with the times, when Gary makes contact again, he is living in the hills outside L. A., part of a small cult family gathered around a would-be Jesus going by the name “Godson.” When the narrator asks Gary whether he ever worries about being arrested for draft evasion, Gary shakes his head: “That’s the future, and it doesn’t exist.” In other words, his quest is not to find himself, but to leave his past and ties to his identity behind.

In a brief epilogue, the narrator overhears a conversation between one of his friends, a very successful screenwriter on the prowl, and a young woman who’s been stranded at his house in Malibu: “Is there anyone you should call, Frances? Anyone who’ll be wondering where you are?” “No. There’s no one in the world,” she replies. Lambert leaves the reader to wonder: are these people saying goodbye to the worlds they came from? Or have their worlds said goodbye to them? The Goodby People is itself a sad farewell to the optimism that briefly lit up the initial innocence of flower power, sexual liberation, and the swinging Sixties.


The Goodby People, by Gavin Lambert
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971

“News from the Slide Area,” from The Slide Area, by Gavin Lambert (1959)

Summer is always reluctant to go. Sometimes it makes a false departure and comes back for Christmas. For a few weeks now, signs have presaged the end. One night it rains gently. A wind from the ocean swiftly wraps a sparkling afternoon in fog. Electric storms break out over the desert at night, salvos of thunder are heard and prongs of lightning flash like exclamations in the sky. By the end of summer they are deeply tanned, yet somehow autumn creeps into their eyes. Each time they scan the ocean with is swimmers waiting for surf to ride, it seems like a last glance before saying good-bye.

While summer fades, the city still spreads and grows. Much of the growing you wouldn’t notice. You pass a truck in the night, drawing a new frame-house; there are always plenty of these, set down and lost in the general sprawling pattern. But sometimes a landmark disappears, like the old pier between Santa Monica and Venice. Replacing the shabby arcades of obsolete peep-shows and makeshift booths is a bright new pleasure-cape, clean and synthetic. Neptune’s sculpture presides over an artificial lake with colored fountains and large aerated bubbles. Walk past it while the music plays, taking the moving stairway that lifts you above tree-like chandeliers with outstretched branches of light, and step into an elevator. It doesn’t move, but in the center of it a transparent column fills up with water, to make you think you’re going beneath the sea. You find yourself in a vast dim cavity called Neptune’s Kingdom. You walk round a tank with glass walls. It represents the ocean bed, but there is no water, only an illusion created by the play of light. Stuffed barracudas and other outsize creatures spin slowly round on wires. Neptune watches from his throne. Coral, marine growths and shells, all too brightly tinted, litter the depths. Less than half a mile away from this dry electrical kingdom is the Pacific itself, pale and streaked with patches of seaweed. At this moment it is secretly swallowing up ton after ton of disinfected garbage.

For other kingdoms have been created. Beyond Venice, there used to be a desolate stretch of sand dunes and waste ground, planted here and there with oil derricks. Then came a regiment of black squat cylindrical tanks. The face of the landscape changed; factory chimneys, scaffolding, machinery, wire fences, converged upon the empty beaches. Everything feels silent, looks unattended, but inside the tanks the city’s garbage is being chemically purified, then rushed along an underground channel and poured into the ocean.

To the north, cupped in the mountains, are missile bases. KEEP OUT. Constructions point skywards from a bulldozed desert. Old newspapers and empty cans of beer lie on the ground. Higher up, new houses are being built. The view should be good.

So the refuse is purified and pumped; the missiles are loaded; the lifeguard watches from his sunny tower; stuffed fish ponderously circle a waterless cage; and, in his frame house, a man wakes up to find he has a neighbor.

fromThe Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959

The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert (1959)

“The action begins just before Christmas 1956 and ends two years later,” Gavin Lambert writes at the The Slide Area. From that, a reader could easily conclude that the book is a novel, and, indeed, Lambert refers to his stories as “sections.” I’m not sure that it makes much of a different whether one labels The Slide Area as short story collection or novel. It’s a marvellously well-written work of fiction regardless how it’s categorized.

As anyone who’s lived in Los Angeles knows, the city sits on the wrong side of a great geological fault line and its hills aren’t much more than temporarily-stabilized piles of earth and rock and have a tendency to fall away in great hunks with little notice, taking with them the big, showy, and expensive houses built along their flanks and ridges. So L. A. residents get used to seeing “Slide Area” signs, usually surrounded by scattered chunks of dirt offering hints of things to come. What goes up must come down–and afterwards, there’s room to erect yet another showcase home.

In much the same way, L. A. residents get used to see people falling from great heights while others are fighting their way up. The Slide Area is filled with such stories. There is the Countess Osterberg-Steblechi, “a great aristocratic wreck,” “a balloon blown up into roughly human shape and ready to burst.” But she has enough cash still left to entice her hangers-on to stage, in “The End of the Line,” a grand tour of the Continent that never actually takes her beyond the confines of her living room. It’s a cleverly-told tale but by far the weakest in the book, the closest Lambert ever comes to a stock magazine short story.

His forte is the character sketch. But in Lambert’s case, his characters are as shifting and unstable as ground they walk upon. They aspire to leave Nebraska or Oklahoma or Colorado behind, change their names, change their looks, lose their histories, and become what everyone else wants to be. Of Julie Forbes, a Joan Crawford/Bette Davis-like eternal star, coming into her living room as if walking onto a stage, he writes,

Her skin was golden, her figure trim and pliant as a young girl’s. She had been created a moment ago. There was no childhood, no past, nothing. I thought of a joke about the mortuaries in California: they supply human ashes to cannibals in the South Seas, who make them flesh by adding water. Instant people, like instant coffee. Julie Forbes, I decided, was an instant person. That must be her secret. Every few years she was reduced to ashes, then reconstituted in a new form. Different. Shining. Instant.

And of all Lambert’s characters, perhaps the greatest is Los Angeles itself. The Slide Area is studded with some of the best writing about L. A. ever put on paper:

Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes….

How to grasp something unfinished yet always remodelling itself, changing without a basis for change? So much visible impatience to be born, to grow, such wild tracts of space to be filled: difficult to settle in a comfortable unfinished desert. Because of the long confusing distances, the streets are empty of walking people, full of moving cars. Between where you are and where you are going to be is a no-man’s land. At night the neon signs glitter and the shop windows are lighted stages, but hardly anyone stops to look. A few people huddle at coffee stalls and hamburger bars. Those dark flat areas are parking lots, crammed solid.

The city itself is a mirror of the constant metamorphosis of inhabitants. And, of course, the combination of shape-shifting people and ever-remodelling city creates a reality that’s almost unreal. Looking down upon the city from high on one of its unstable hills, one of Lambert’s characters observes, “Looking down on the straight intersecting lines of pink and yellow and green is like finding a vast abstract painting laid out on the earth. It has nothing at all to do with living.”

When I first read The Slide Area about four years ago, I dog-eared at least two dozen pages featuring this sort of striking writing, and reading it again recently, I dog-eared at least a couple dozen more. Indeed, I could easily just fill this piece with quotes from the book. Although best known for his novel, Inside Daisy Clover, which was made into an even better-known movie starring Natalie Wood, “Inside Daisy Clover”, Lambert deserves to be recognized for The Slide Area, which ranks with The Last Tycoon, The Day of the Locust, and anything Raymond Chandler ever wrote about Los Angeles.


The Slide Area: Scenes of Hollywood Life, by Gavin Lambert
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959

Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell (1957)

Cover of 'Collected Stories" by Viola MeynellViola Meynell worked hard as a writer all her adult life, publishing short stories, novels, and nonfiction to critical acclaim, steady if not exceptional sales, and the respect of her peers, helped support D. H. Lawrence in hard times and brought Moby Dick back to recognition as a classic, and helped her husband run a productive farm in Sussex. And for all that, she hasn’t got a single book in print today.

Collected Stories, which Meynell was helping to edit when she died in October 1956, offers perhaps the best introduction to her work. These 17 stories, compiled from previous collections–Young Mrs. Cruse (1925); Kissing the Rod, and Other Stories (1937); First Love and Other Stories (1947); and Louise and Other Stories (1954)–as well as several stories published in The New Yorker a year or so before her death. As an anonymous reviewer once wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “The delicate and assured talent of Viola Meynell is admirably suited to the short-story form. Dealing in qualities and emotions which it would be easy to overemphasize in a novel, she is discreetly content with the brevity suited to a fragment of the truth.”

Some of the stories are not much more than fragments. In “Compassionate Leave,” a wife works out with her husband what to write to tell their son he will have to come to tend the farm because the father has fallen and shattered his leg. “Half of a Bargain” is nothing more than a few pages of dialogue between husband and wife, along with a few glimpses into their thoughts–but enough to show us the gulf separating them:

“Oh–surely–isn’t it something you could possibly put off?”

He hesitated. If he had had anything special to do he might have put it off. It was all the infinite chances that attended him on his rounds that he could not give up–the casual encounters, the attractive bits of business cropping up at odd turns, the knack of finding the way to where there was most to be gained, which made his daily life a pleasant adventure. One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.

“One specific thing he could have given up, but not that whole wide field of possibility.” That is just the sort of fine observation one finds throughout this collection. A fellow neglected short story writer, Elizabeth Bibesco, once wrote that, “With Miss Meynell, you find yourself continually loitering over a phrase. You walk into a word as you might walk into a patch of sunlight.” As in this passage from “The Letter,” in which a pregnant farm girl being hounded by her parents to write to the man responsible walks through a morning field: “She had not walked far through the first field before each of her ankles was bound round and round with threads of moist cobweb, spun between one stalk and another. If those threads had been cords, she would have been a close prisoner, neatly caught and fastened up. But as it was she went idly through the stubble, unconscious that with each step she was bursting bonds, dragging chains, and escaping a thousand prisons.”

“This art is built straight upon reality, reality observed with such precision that perception not usually given to the physical eye seems to be involved,” Louise Bogan wrote in a review of Young Mrs. Cruse. She “notices the gestures, the inflections, the turns in manner and speech by which people betray themselves, the slight signs which Ibsen marked, from behind his unread newspaper, during long hours in cafes.” Bogan was a great fan of Meynell’s work and often recommended it to her acquaintances. “It is at first difficult to understand Bogan’s high opinion of Meynell,” Elizabeth Frank writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan: A Portrait:

… whose ordinary, middle-class characters are immersed in utterly quotidian lives. The novels are singularly free of melodrama, plottiness, and contrived effects. Not even the faintest trace of social criticism or political awareness invests the page. Yet it is just this fidelity to the domestic and insular scale of her characters’ lives that allows her to render them with great psychological keenness and extraordinary warmth and intuition.

In some stories, the lives she depicts are, in Thoreau’s words, ones of quiet desperation. In “Diminuendo,” a woman driving home with her husband through a bitter winter night finds in her thoughts a moment of happiness. “It was the kind of happiness allowed to a diminished life, the happiness of the wretchedest woman on earth.” In others, Meynell reveals comedy with the lightest touch:

The Butts were staying with the Longstaffes–very successfully too. It was not one of those plans, hearty in origin, which are wished at an end almost as soon as they have begun. The tensions which can exist when a middle-aged couple forsake their own surroundings to go visiting, and when another middle-aged couple are invaded in their Englishman’s castle, did not arise.

It might be only a small thing, but it so happened that four armchairs of absolutely equal comfort and accessibility to the fire–for it was winter–were part of the equipment of the living-room. Here no one usurped, no one was dethroned. Also there was no false delicacy about the necessity to be always on parade as hosts and guests. In those four armchairs could sit four people with four books, silent and separate, congratulating themselves that among less sensible people a futile stream of remarks might have been considered essential.

It’s ironic that Meynell’s very last stories were published in The New Yorker, for her technique and tone were consistent with what some have called The New Yorker formula: brief, spare anecdotes, really more sketches of incidents that tell the reader much about their characters while almost nothing seems to happen. Like a fine liqueur, however, in the hands of a master, even formulas can produce something consistently wonderful.


Collected Stories, by Viola Meynell
London: Max Reinhardt Limited, 1957

Many Are Called: Forty-Two Short Stories, by Edward Newhouse (1951)

Cover of 'Many Are Called'For a dozen years or so, starting in the late 1930s, Edward Newhouse was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific fiction writers, working with editor Gus Lobrano in an impressive stable that included John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and Jerome Weidman. Granville Hicks rated Newhouse “high in the ranks of contemporary short-story writers,” and a Publisher’s Weekly once wrote that, “If I were to receive in the same mail new books by the dozen best writers of fiction in America, Edward Newhouse’s would be the first I’d read.” But hardly anyone has heard of Newhouse for the simple reason that he stopped writing.

Between 1934 and 1954, Newhouse published seven books–four novels and three short story collections. Then nothing, then a few stories in The New Yorker’s in 1957, then nothing more aside from a short autobiographical piece, “Hungarians,” published in The New Yorker’s in 1965. Unlike the magazine’s legendary Joseph Mitchell, who came to work for decades without producing a single article, however, the issue in Newhouse’s case wasn’t writer’s block. He simply didn’t need the work.

Born Ede Ujhazi in Budapest in 1911, Newhouse emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1923. His father, an unemployed actor (who named his son after a famous 19th century Hungarian actor), was simply desperate to find work. Thrown into the New York City public school system without a word of English, Newhouse weathered a fair number of schoolyard fights until he established his street smarts. After a short attempt at City College, he spent the better part of a year riding the rails around the country and looking for work. In the end, he came back to New York and got a job covering sports for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and wrote a novel, You Can’t Sleep Here (1934), based on his time as a hobo. He went on to join the staff of The New Masses, an experience he later satirized in his third novel, The Hollow of the Wave (1949).

Edward Newhouse
Edward Newhouse
He had already published a second novel,
This is Your Day (1937), before placing his first story with The New Yorker in 1939, and his first collection of stories,
Anything Can Happen, appeared soon afterward in 1941. Around this time, he met and married Dorothy DeLay, a classical violinist, and became friends with another rising star at The New Yorker, John Cheever. Cheever later said that he and Newhouse shared “an inability to draw the parts of [their] lives together.”

Joining the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, Newhouse was selected to attend Officer Candidate School and quickly found his niche as a public relations man for the service. He finished up as a lieutenant colonel, writing speeches and reports for General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Corps commander and working in the same Pentagon office as James Gould Cozzens, whose diary of the experience was later published as A Time of War. Newhouse went straight back to work for The New Yorker right after separating from the Army. He published a third collection, of short stories dealing with childhood, The Iron Chain, in 1946.

Many are Called (1951) was his last collection. Thirty-nine of the stories in the book were from The New Yorker. The stories are arranged thematically. The three shortest and least interesting sections gather stories based on characters gathered around a bar (“At Jake’s”), a candy-and-cigar store (“A George’s”), and from Newhouse’s time as a hobo (“En Route”). These are more sketches than complete stories, and none rises above the level of an imitation Ring Lardner.

The book opens with “In Edgerton,” six stories set in a fictional town north of New York City, and with one of the best stories in the whole book, “My Brother’s Second Funeral.” In it, the narrator reflects on the attitudes of his home town to the burial of his brother, a war hero killed in Italy now with the local chapter of the American Legion named after him. Barely ten pages long, it somehow manages to capture so much about the ways in which American men attempt–sincerely, pretentiously, ineffectually–with life. “He was my friend, and I’ll never have another one like him,” the narrator observes. “Grown men can’t make friends, not really, not like boys. That piece of steel at Salerno killed the only man that ever knew what I was all about.”

The stories in “Waiting” could easily remind readers of Newhouse’s friend Cheever. Set in and around New York City, they are all about people poised on the edge of a transition. A man takes a bus tour of Manhattan on his last day before entering the Army. A man tries to contain his thoughts and emotions after quitting his job. A woman whose husband is serving in the Pacific decides to move back into the city after an awkward time living in suburban Westchester. In each, Newhouse displays what short story expert William Peden called “his own special kind of genius for the usual.”

The best pieces in the book, however, can be found in “The Captains Depart,” which collects stories clearly drawn from Newhouse’s own experiences on active duty. Though he spent most of his time in the Army Air Corps in the relatively comfortable position of a speechwriter and press liaison, Newhouse did accompany senior officers on numerous trips overseas, saw many different aspects of life in the Air Corps, and seems to have flown as an observer on a least a couple of combat missions.

This variety of contacts is reflected in the ten stories in “The Captains Depart.” Some are set stateside, where the safety and petty concerns of base life can still be unexpectedly disrupted by a telegram from North Africa or an accident that scatters parts of an aircraft and its crew over half of a farm. Others are scattered all over the map, from a fighter base in England to a transport field in Nigeria. “The Four Freedoms” takes place one evening in Cairo, with part of the entourage of generals and staff returning with Roosevelt from the Teheran Conference. At one point, Newhouse’s fictional counterpart, Captain Wyatt, considers the situation of the Air Corps general he works for:

The General will be descending the great staircase soon, Wyatt thought, in full consciousness of his role as the most important man in a room filled with rank. He will slap his current favorite, the new young General Jack Crane, on the shoulder, and he will play wicked uncle to April Starr and Gail Fiske. If he likes the comedian and the juggler, he will ask them if they have any relatives in the Air Forces or what they thought of the food at some A.T.C. base. With the juggler and the comedian, he’ll be Harun-al-Rashid, incognito on the streets of Baghdad, sounding out public opinion. He might confound them by asking how long they thought the war would last and why.

Like most, though by no means all, other soldiers, the General was obsessed by that question.He’ll never again attain a fraction of the power he wields. A coal miner’s son and still drawing only moderate pay, the chief was living as only the wealthiest men in the history of the world had lived. In England he had stopped at the greatest of feudal castles, elsewhere in a series of royal suites, and here among such Byzantine splendors as gold cups on the table and zippers on the mosquito net. He had at his disposal any means of transport or communication known to man. Presents and honors came to him from everywhere. And large formations of bombers went on critical missions, at tree-top
level, against targets selected by him.

Newhouse may be the only American writer of fiction to take in the global scope of the war, as well as its industrial capacity and efficiency for destruction. At the same time, however, he never loses sight of the fact that this destruction also operates as a very human scale. In “Irving,” Wyatt recalls an earnest young Jewish kid from New York who worked as a speechwriter in the Pentagon. Irving had worked himself up from being a towel boy in a Turkish bath to second lieutenant’s bars by virtue of a series of cheap mysteries featuring a Boston Brahmin detective named Sedgwick Cabot “equally at home in an opium den off the Embarcadero, at a coming-out party in the Pierre, down in a bathysphere, or aloft at the controls of a PBY.” Eager to experience combat, Irving wheedles his way into being sent to the Philippines to accompany a minor party of reporters. He talks his way onto a B-25 on a bombing mission over Formosa and is promptly killed, along with the aircraft’s whole crew. Wyatt and another speechwriter retire to a bar when the news arrives. “We covered the whole subject of Irving in some detail. All we left out was that he had been the only child of two very old people who lived behind a tailor shop.” As Granville Hicks wrote in his review of Many are Called, “These stories, with their wonderful combination of sensibility and intelligence, belong with the best writing the war has produced.”

Newhouse published less than a dozen stories after Many are Called. His last novel, The Temptation of Roger Heriott (1954), was well-received, but marked his last serious attempt at fiction. In the view of Cheever and others, Newhouse’s primary reason was simply money. He’d sold several stories to Hollywood studios and made good investments with the proceeds. By the late 1940s, Dorothy DeLay had moved from performing to working as a member of the faculty at Julliard and earned a respectable income. He took on the role of supporting spouse, and helped many of his wife’s students–who included such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg–with grant applications and business decisions. Few of them were aware that their teacher’s husband had had a successful career as a writer, and some even assumed he was somehow attached to the faculty. Newhouse stayed friends with Cheever, lunching with him regularly (although Blake Bailey reports in Cheever: A Life that he came to think of Newhouse as a bore). Dorothy kept on teaching at Juilliard up to her death in March 2002; Newhouse followed his wife just eight months later.

Many are Called is also available on the Internet Archive: link.


Many Are Called, by Edward Newhouse
New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951

The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett (1966)

Cover of 'The Girl in the Black Raincoat'

Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.

So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:

Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.

UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).

“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.


The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966

The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

Nancy Hale was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers and author of a numerous well-received novels, including the 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Women — and yet today, she’s virtually forgotten. She didn’t have a Wikipedia article until I just wrote one and her only work in print is a small sample of stories, along with several appreciative essays on her work, in the obscure university press book, Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master, published in 2012.

The only child of two artists, Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, granddaughter of the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, and great grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hale’s Boston Brahmin stock was of blue-plate quality. But she also came to maturity during the Roaring Twenties and soon after finishing school, she moved to New York City, where she quickly got a job working for Vogue magazine and, not long after that, snagged herself a handsome and well-to-do husband named Taylor Scott Hardin. She played the part of a Smart Set-er to the full, even parading down Fifth Avenue smoking a “torch of freedom” for PR pioneer Edward Bernays.

Hale went through husbands like shoes until she found the right fit with University of Virginia English professor Fredson Bowers and stayed with him for over 45 years, until her death in 1988. Hale settled easily into the life of a faculty wife in Charlottesville, and a fair number of her later short stories are set in and around the town.

If there is any unifying theme to her third collection of short stories, The Empress’s Ring (1955), it’s memory. But Hale has spent too much time in Manhattan to allow much room for the sentimental in her writing. In the story “The Place and the Time,” for example, the narrator decides to pull off the main highway while driving from Washington to Charlottesville and drive around Starkeyville, a quiet little Virginia town where his first wife had lived.

Parking across from the home of his former mother-in-law, he muses about walking up and knocking, unannounced, on the front door. He imagines several possible receptions, starting with a warm and gracious Southern welcome: “I’d say, ‘Hullo, Miss Grace. Do you remember me?’ And she’d say, ‘I reckon I remember my own son-in-law.’ I’d mention Elizabeth and she’d simply put her hand on mine.” But as he thinks a bit more, the cold truth cuts through his nostalgia:

What else could she say? Could she say, “You killed my daughter, with your neglect and your scoffin’, and your stayin’ out all night when the baby was comin’. That poor little baby, that never saw the light of day.” Could she say, “My daughter loved you, Mr. Peters, she was a lovely girl, a simple, singlehearted girl, and she gave you all her heart. And you repaid her with jeerin’, and belittlin’, and all your grand intellectual friends that she wasn’t good enough for.”

It had been a bad match from the start, and that fact is still too apparent to let him think otherwise. Guiltily, he heads back to the highway. “What the hell do I want, anyway, he asked himself. Do I imagine I want to live in Starkeyville?”

Many of the stories in The Empress’s Ring deal with adults coming into connection with memories of their childhood. Hale would go on to write two collections of her own memories of childhood–A New England Girlhood (1958) and The Life in the Studio (1969)–and it’s hard, despite the disclaimer at the start, not to believe that there is a strong autobiographical element running through this book as well.

In “Charlotte Russe,” for example, the fancy dessert–too sophisticated to serve to children–symbolizes the brilliant, unreachable world of adults that so tantalized the narrator. Any child who’s had to lie in bed and listen to a dinner party going on downstairs can relate to Hale’s recollection:

When I was in bed, I would lie still with the window open to the dark, snowy winter night, and let my feelings soar. I could faintly hear the hum of conversation in the dining room underneath me; when the door between the dining room and the kitchen was opened, a burst of laughter would float up the back stairs. The people at the dinner party were Olympian, seated around a Parnassan table loaded with the fare of gods. I could hear the footsteps of the maids, hurrying over the wooden floor of the kitchen to wait upon them. They drank from crystal goblets, their napkins were vast, satiny; they jokes were, surely, magnificent and immortal.

The connection of memories runs in both directions–putting the adult back in the child’s world and enabling the child’s perspective to illuminate the adult’s current experience, as in the case of “The Year I Had Colds”:

As I lie here, trying to get over this idiotic cold before the Hanson’s party, my mind becomes restless and inattentive if I try to read; I set up a game of patience on a tray and even then it is as though my mind’s eye were focussed on some other scene; until sometimes I give up altogether trying to distract myself and simply lie here, resting, and letting my thoughts wander about as they will in my childhood, in the time when I was kept out of school so much by colds.

The empress’s ring of the title story–a tiny gold ring given to the narrator as a girl that she was told had belonged to the Empress of Austria–represents just the kind of object that can create such a connection: “I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. I close my eyes to go to sleep at night, sometimes, and I am back at the old, disintegrated sand pile where I lost it, digging in the dirt-mixed sand with my fingernails to find my little ring.” Her mother’s scoldings over the ring’s loss are echoed in her self-admonishments as an adult for various shortcomings–not having enough matching drinking glasses, not being able to sew clothes that quite fit. But there is also still the possibility that one day another little girl will find it–a bare bit of hope to offset the sense of loss and inadequacy.

In all, The Empress’s Ring is an elegant, cool, and moving set of reflections on life, memory, connections, and disconnections that rings clear and true even over a distance of sixty years.


The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York City: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955

The Stories of James Stern (1968)

When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”

The Stories of James Stern actually represents four fifths of his output, since it collects the best stories from his earlier collections (The Heartless Land (1932); Something Wrong (1938); and The Man Who Was Loved (1952)), along with a few new ones. By the time it was published, Stern had pretty much given up writing, aside from letters to his friends.

Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.

And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.

In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.

This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.

“You bin down t’pit?”

I nod.

“Which one’s that’ bin down?”

“Number Five.”

Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”

“The Manager.”

“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”

This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:

Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….

Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:

He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.

It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”

Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”

Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”

The Stories of James Stern is also available online at the Open Library (Link).


The Stories of James Stern
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968

“The Copley-Plaza,” from The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

The next set of memories I bear of the Copley-Plaza are very different from these in mood. I must have been fourteen. I had been going to Miss Winsor’s School, out in Longwood, and I found it hard to make friends; as far as I could figure at that age, my total inability to play basketball or field hockey was the cause of my unpopularity. Some sort of instinct, right or wrong, caused me to begin stopping in at the Copley-Plaza on my way home from school, in search of a kind of comfort, in search of a kind of distraction.

For here I would sit, in the main lobby, opposite to the huge marble desk, dressed in my thick, untidy school clothes, my galoshes, with my plaid schoolbag huddled into the thronelike chair with me, and watch what seemed to me the worldly and wealthy conducting their fascinating lives at the Copley-Plaza. In from the Dartmouth Street entrance would hurry a bellboy, or two bellboys, laden down with expensive luggage, followed by a blond woman in a fur coat, or a close-shaven man in a check waistcoat, or a dark, romantic-looking lady all in black and attended by what seemed to be a governess with two or three rich, well-dressed children–important children, children with lives.

Occasionally I would get up and go down the corridor to the ladies’ room, not so much because I needed to as that there I found myself not two feet away from beautiful, expensively dressed women who talked to each other busily about their approaching engagements. I would wash my hands, taking a long time about it, and listen to some lovely girl saying, “We’re going to Paris Friday, on the Ile….” Then I would go back to my throne in the lobby to watch some more people make their entrances. All the time, the stringed orchestra would be playing waltzes, behind in the palm court–fast and sweet and queerly nostalgic. It was almost as if this were the only life I had.

From The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov (1971)

I was skeptical when I started reading the poet Howard Nemerov‘s 1971 collection, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions. It gave all the appearances of being a minor work–a writer working outside his primary form; an early volume from a small (if well-respected) press; short (barely 121 pages); a title suggesting nothing more than a hastily-applied label for a miscellany. And the first few stories are more fables than stories and more jokes than fables.

But I hung in, and with the fourth story, entered a new class of writing. Almost like a specimen brought into focus under a microscope, a wholly unfamiliar perspective came into view, minute in detail, with wildly exaggerated features. In “Bon Bons,” a lonely widow, Mrs. Melisma, decides one day to undertake an odd and original study:

Inspired, she purchased a pack offiling cards and began, as she ate away, to note down a Descriptive Catalogue of Chocolates, measuring the dimensions and identifying the surface characteristics of each chocolate, and correlating with these both the objective qualities and the subjective sensations communicated to her by the inside. A series of rather odd thoughts began to form itself and emerge from the darkness.

Her dedicated and meticulously-observed research quickly reaches an inevitable obstacle: she realizes that she does not like chocolate. And yet she carries on, driving herself to penetrate her sensations ever more deeply, opening her imagination to new associations, venturing into new realms of philosophy, and eventually, into nihilism:

She perceived, in effect, that what she ate was not chocolate at all, but only anticipation, suspense; she was eating, as much as anything, not the chocolates themselves, but only the moment between one and the next; now, what did that moment taste of?

Nothing. It tasted of nothing at all. Mrs Melisma wept.

And finally, she is overtaken by a vision of wondrous breadth and tenderness, in a passage that reminded me of that amazing scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that begins, “Near her battery one night, driving Somewhere in Kent …”:

In which she saw the jungles, and, beside the jungles, the sugar cane in fields, the plantations of nougat and almond, the herds of cows giving their milk to be turned into fondant; she saw the black men and the brown men, naked to the waist, going among the trees and through the fields where lonely white men stood with rifles; she saw the great white ships riding, she saw the mumbling stainless steel factories from whose monotonous and automated ruminations a myriad moments of chocolate filled with mysterious sweetness came forth—endless they seemed—; and she saw the candy shops, with their cloying smells and their attendants dressed like nurses in starched uniforms; and she saw by miracle in a million rooms the lonely hunger that existed for the sweetness of life, that sweat and starvation and cold-eyed greed equally and helplessly competed for; and somewhere in all this a child sat, a monstrously chubby child with open mouth, who stretched out pudgy hands before him while he blubbered for the agonizing beauty of this world.

From this point on, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions rolls through a series of imaginative and philosophical whirlwinds, each carrying off in their force other wonderful fragments of prose. “The Native in the World,” for example, opens with this stunning sentence:

The climb from sleep was difficult, a struggle up a staircase of soft pillows into which he sank again and again, drowsily defeated, from which he clumsily climbed again to a sight of the room that, seen in the equivocal wisdom of sleep, seemed to him any room, or all the rooms, in which he had ever slept, or ever been at home.

In “The Nature of the Task,” Nemerov focuses his microscope on the smallest of subjects–literally nothing more than a man in an empty room–and demonstrates how quickly close observation can verge into madness: “But where—this problem proposed itself inevitably and at once—where did simply looking divide itself from looking and thinking at once?” It’s a powerful illustration of a comment Wallace Shawn makes in “My Dinner with Andre”: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware … of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant … I think it would just blow your brains out.”

Not every story in this little book has such mind-expanding power, but a good half-dozen do, and those are certainly worth rediscovery. This was Nemerov’s second collection of short stories. His first, A Commodity of Dreams , was published in 1959 and I have ordered a copy in hopes of finding more.

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions is available online at OpenLibrary.org (link).


Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov
Boston: David R. Godine, 1971

Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green (1962)

I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.

Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.

Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:

… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….

Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”

Illustration from the cover of the Signet paperback edition of “Habeas Corpus”

You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.

Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.


Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole (1920)

I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.

At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:

Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.

But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.

Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.

One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.

Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.


The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole
London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920

Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway (1980)

Cover of Powers of the WeakI’ve written about many good books on this site over the years, but this may be the most important one, particularly now.

Even when it was first published in 1980, Elizabeth Janeways’s Powers of the Weak was labelled as a feminist tract and fairly quickly dismissed and forgotten. Which was an apt demonstration of the very phenomenon noted in the quote from Victor Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture from which Janeway took her title and which she prefaces her book:

INFERIORITY: A value-bearing category that refers to the powers of the weak, countervailing against structural power, fostering continuity, creating the sentiment of the wholeness of the total community, positing the model of an undifferentiated whole whose units are whole human beings. The powers of the weak are often assigned in hierarchic and stratified societies to females, the poor, autochthons [indigenous peoples], and outcasts.

Ironically, Powers of the Weak is actually an intensely empowering book that should inspire hope in anyone who is feeling desparate, hopeless, and voiceless.

“My aim is to understand power,” Janeway writes in her opening chapter, “that ambiguous, menacing, much-desired quality whose accepted definition seems to me unsatisfactory.” Indeed, she immediately rejects the premise that power is a quality or a property and instead defines it as “a process of human interaction”–a dynamic process that only exists in the context of a relationship. In this way, it’s analogous to potential in electricity, mechanics, or gravity–the tension created between two opposing charges, forces, or masses.

And because of this view, Janeway holds the weak accountable for their part in relationships with the power. “[W]hen the weak habitually turn their backs on power because they accept the stereotypes that undervalue them, they permit their rulers to define proper processes of governing according to the experience of the rulers alone, so that it comes to seem that only one ‘right way’ to handle power exists.”

Even in the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state. As natural “as fear must be when the weak face unbridled oppression from the state, this fear is intended. It has a political purpose–to interfere with the normal functioning of the human beings who make up the mass of the governed”–to “separate them, and sick each one in isolation and paralysis.” She cites as evidence Charlotte Beradt’s remarkable survey of the dreams recounted by ordinary Germans living under the Nazi regime, The Third Reich of Dreams: “What she found was a kind of mental lockjaw. Anxiety dreams were everywhere. In them the dreamer was invited again and again to take some action in the face of danger and could not manage to do so; did not dare to move a finger.”

Elizabeth Janeway, 1980
In response, Janeway rallies the weak to hold onto what she calls “the first and last power of the weak”: skepticism, mistrust, and dissent. “If, in the face of repression, the governed can still hold to mistrust, they will not, of course be safe; but they will preserve the inner citadel of the self and with it the capacity of judging the exterior world in terms of their own interests.” Dissent, she writes, “is the intellectual steel which strengthens the self in the face of the tyrant’s weapon of induced panic.”

This suspicion should even extend to whatever bright alternate futures might be held up to excite the action and loyalty of the weak. “I have never, myself, read a Utopia that seemed to approach even distantly the size and the vitality of the human world. The past was full of surprises; the present is astonishing (as well as frightening): who knows what the future may be?”

In fact, though Janeway holds those who consider themselves weak, oppressed, or alienated accountable for taking charge of their own lives, she would reserve some skepticism for any political construct that might be devised. In a line that ought to be engraved and put up on the wall above any thinking person’s desk, she cautions that “There is always more more reality around than we allow for; and there are always more ways to structure it than we use.”

If you’re one of those who’ve felt depressed, disenchanted, or disgusted since November 8, I highly recommend getting a copy of Powers of the Weak and let her reinvigorate your power to dissent: “The basic trust of reality that we learned in our first creative conquest of the world is our defense against the magic image of a new system presented by the tyrants.”


Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980

Anna Wickham: Poetess and Landlady

“The Poet Abroad in Her Kingdom, the Earth: She Prescribes an Oligarchy of Poets and Painters to Organise the World”

In the April 27, 1946 edition of Picture Post, a U. K. version of Life, an unusual three-page story was devoted to a poet who, even then, was two decades past her brief and limited fame. Anna Wickham struggled throughout her life against the control that men–first her father, then her husband, and finally, the male power structure of her time. Though she wrote quickly and spontaneously (her poems bear the marks far more of improvisation than careful craft) and managed to write hundreds of poems and publish three books (The Contemplative Quarry (1915); The Man With A Hammer (1916); and The Little Old House (1921)) while raising four boys and keeping house, she resented that expectations about how her time and energy should be spent and implicit contest between the domestic and the creative life.

There is no doubt that her poetry might have been more highly regarded now had she put more energy into her writing and less into her fights with the world, but then she wouldn’t have been the woman she was. In this article, Lionel Birch refers to her as a “Great She,” and she once snapped at a man threatening to eject her from an art auction, “You’d better retract, my good man. I may be a minor poet, but I’m a major woman.” One of her most stalwart supporters, Louis Untermeyer, who included some of her poems in most of his anthologies, called her “a magnificent gypsy of a woman, who always entered a room as if she had just stamped across the moors.” Rayner Heppenstall wrote that Wickham was “reputed to bite people’s heads off and try to pull other women’s breasts off.” Even the tough-minded George Orwell, a neighbor in the 1930s, considered her “ferocious looking.”

As she grew older, she became known as something of a character in Hampstead, where she ran a rough-and-tumble rooming house. She wrote more intermittently after 1930 and published less, but still did occasional readings (at which she was known to make such candid asides as, “Rubbish, but there it is.” And she tenaciously stuck to her opinions, rights, and routines throughout the war, even as houses a few feet from hers were destroyed in the Blitz, earning the respect of her neighbors and a certain local celebrity that was celebrated in the Picture Post photo essay.

In an autobiographical piece reprinted in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet (edited by R. D. Smith, Olivia Manning’s husband), Wickham once wrote, “I feel that women of my kind are a profound mistake. There have been few women poets of distinction, and, if we count only the suicides of Sappho, Lawrence Hope and Charlotte Mew, their despair rate has been very high.” Almost exactly a year after the Picture Post piece appeared, her youngest son, George, found her hanging in the kitchen in which she is shown sitting below. She was 63.

And so, to mark the end of two years devoted to the neglected works of women writers, I take the liberty to reprint the text and photos from the Picture Post article, remarkable for its time in its open-hearted recognition of Wickham’s struggles with her world.


Anna Wickham: Poetess and Landlady

Celebrated in America, appreciated in France–Anna Wickham, mistress of words that sing and words that devastate, is still without full honour in her own country.

In the living-room of Anna Wickham’s house in Hampstead hangs one of those landlady’s notices which look so familiar. But this is how it reads: “Tour bourgeoise. Anna Wickham’s Stabling for Poets, Artists, and their Executives. Creative mood respected. Meals at all hours.”

“Creative mood respected.” That is important to Anna Wickham, and you can see why, when you read a verse of one of her own poems, called, “Dedication to a Cook”:

If any ask why there’s no great She-Poet,
Let him come live with me, and he will know it.
If I’d indite an ode or mend a sonnet,
I must go choose a dish or tie a bonnet….

“She Scrutinises Her 62nd Spring”
Anna Wickham herself is a Great She, and she is a poet of a flavour which you won’t find anywere else. She wrote that verse more than twenty years ago, when she was in the process of bringing up a family, looking after her husband, running a home, and generally having her creative moods disrespected by the tyranny of the kitchen range, and the dictatorship of the darning needle.

She was born in Wimbledon in 1884, went to Australia when she was six, came back to Paris to study singing with Jean De Reszke, when she was 21, got married shortly afterwards, abandoned her singing career, started writing poetry, and came slap up against the creative total-woman’s conflict between the demands of the Dream and the demands of the Race. There then pursued her a period of frenzied sweeping-up, in her successive Hampstead homes, until her sons at last grew up and went afield.

At that point she was once more in a position to respect her own creative moods–even though it meant that the dishes were left unwashed and stockings undarned. Today, her house remains a memorial of those bud-bursting years when the rabid itch to get lyrics down on to paper would never let her alone,a nd neither would the kitchen range.

For the house–the house in these pictures–was the battlefield on which her dreams fought a war of movement against her domesticity; and there the pots and pans still hang around in gangs, at teh scene of their crime.

“The Poet in Her Kitchen, Where Soufflés Fight with Sonnets”

The poet in her kitchen, where soufflés fight against sonnets for her time and exclusive attention. Anna Wickham, one of England’s rarest, but least-publicised, lyric poets, in the nerve-centre of her Hampstead home. Many of the most fruitful hours of her life have been spent just like this: waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for a dish to cook, waiting for the unborn poem to start knocking–and hoping they aren’t all going to start happening at once. The prevailing problem, to find time for dreams as well as for domesticity.

“She Eats Her Elevenses on the Kerb”

But as soon as Anna Wickham steps outside her front door, it is a different matter. When you see her walking down the Parliament Hill, with her big Indian shopping basket clanging against her knee like a great bamboo bell, you know that there is at least one free, sovereign, woman abroad on the earth. Free to do what? Free to spend time, or to use time, or to pass time. Free to walk or stop walking. Free to break her quarter-mile journey to the shops half-way, sit down on the kerb and eat a bun. Free to proceed, with or without broomstick, on the pond, or to declaim an old poem to a child operating against the tiddlers. Free, in fact, to deal with the dream when it arrives. Free to do any of the things which may lead to the making of a new poem.

“She Investigates the Mythology of a Kite”

People stare? Of course, people stare. The huge face, corrugated by the astringency of wisdom, the goblin eyes, and the laugh of a naughty little girl–these rightly rattle the giblets of the rolled-umbrella-man in the pub. the gawper in the street, the wondering child on the Heath.

In Hampstead one is used to Free Austrians and Free Hungarians. But it is not every day that you can see a Free Elizabethan reciting a barbed lyric to herself in the middle of East Heath Road. Anna Wickham declares that she does not write poetry: she exudes it. She does not speak of writing to, for, or about, people she meets. She talks of writing it “from” them. “I imagined that poem from So-and-So,” she says.

She has written poems passionate and poems compassionate, Mistress-poetry and Mother-poetry. And, in her conversation, she is master-mistress of the phrase-that-goes-home–either the phrase that kindles, or the phrase that trounes, or the phrase that heals.

One poem explains the ruthlessness:

If I had peace to sit and sing,
Then I could make a lovely thing;
But I am stung by goads and whips,
So I build songs like iron ships.
Let it be something for my song
If it is sometimes swift and strong.

“She Returns to the Tree About Which She Wrote Her Loveliest Song”
Lastly, and because it is a question which is central to her poetry, let’s take the complaint of the Powdered and Pomaded Ones: “But why doesn’t she smarten herself up?” Let Anna Wickham, in an hitherto unpublished poem, answer:

I plant my hope,
On my Irish view of water
And my Italian attitude to soap.
I am my father’s daughter.
I bathe by spells,
At holy works,
And wash them with the Turks.
Them without sin,
I disregard my skin,
And thus I know
Old Stratfrd-atte-Bow,
The sweats and smuts and anguish of my Loard,
All saints, and sluts, before the Water Board.
Young Fancy came to wreck,
From too much washing of the Heron’s neck.

You tell me that shows that the woman has no standards? I tell you her standards are something more than steeple-high. Listen to this:

God, thou great symmetry,
Who put a biting lust in me
From whence my sorrows spring,
For all the frittered days
That I have spent in shapeless ways,
Give me one perfect things.

And that poem constitutes one out of about 200 similar reasons why I count Anna Wickham as a blessing, and why I would have you meet her.

Written by Lionel Birch. Published in Picture Post, April 27, 1946

Odd Women in the City

Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski
Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski

In her recent book, The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick aligns herself with what she calls the Odd Women, taking the phrase from George Gissing’s novel, which, in turn, took it from the perception that there was an excess of single women in England at the time, and that so many women were destined to find themselves the odd woman out, unable to find a man to marry them. Gornick, as usual, weaves a moving and thought-provoking series of reflections on love and loneliness around this theme of people who find themselves the odd person out, living alone in a world that tends to equate life in a relationship with success and happiness.

Gornick cites the example of Mary Britten Miller, who, as Isabel Bolton, published three critically celebrated novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when she was well into her sixties. As described in her 1966 book, Under Gemini, discussed here back in 2011, Miller’s great tragedy was the loss of her identical twin sister, Grace, in a swimming accident in their early teens. When she reached adulthood, Miller settled in Greenwich Village, where she lived alone until her death at 92: “She was never married, and she seems not to have had a lover anyone ever knew. What she did have was friends, some of whom described her as witty and mean, entertainingly haughty, and impressively self-educated.”

In her novel, Do I Wake or Sleep?, Bolton wrote: “Christ, how we loved our own aloneness… We were incapable of giving because there was so much within our reach to grab and snatch and gather for our own, our solitary souls.” As Gornick writes, “She sees what Freud saw–that our loneliness is anguishing and yet, inexplicably, we are loath to give it up. At no period in psychological time are we free of the contradiction: it is the conflict of conflicts.”

It struck me in reading The Odd Woman and the City that a fair amount of my two years of focusing exclusively on the work of women writers has been devoted to what Gornick would call odd women: Alice Koller, whose book An Unknown Woman: a Journey to Self-Discovery could be considered the Bible of odd womanhood; Eve Langley, who was packed off to a mental asylum when her oddness grew too much for her husband to bear; Abbie Huston Evans, whose geologic sense of time could make her 101 years seem like a jog through a very small park; Ouida, who, having wasted a fortune on a wastrel lover and other lost causes, died in neglect, surrounded only by her many dogs; Stella Bowen, who learned her lesson in love at the hands of Ford Madox Ford and, thus the wiser, devoted her remaining years to surviving and to putting her own art first. Even Dorothy Richardson, though she spent over thirty years in a rather odd sort of marriage to Alan Odle, wrote, in Pilgrimage, the magnum opus on the challenge of living one’s own life–alone more often than not.

In discussing another odd woman, the novelist Evelyn Scott, Gornick quotes a letter from Louise Bogan that I will take the liberty to reproduce in full:

Dear May:

I had a sad and rather eerie meeting, early this week, with poor old Evelyn Scott. I sad old advisedly, since she really has fallen into the dark and dank time–the time that I used to fear so much when I was in my thirties. She is old because she has failed to grow–up, in, on … So that at 62, she is not only frayed and dingy (she must have been a beauty in youth) but silly and more than a little mad. She met me only casually, years ago, with Charlotte Wilder [sister of Thornton Wilder], but now, of course, she thinks I can do something for her–so transparent, poor thing. She is not only in the physical state I once feared, but she is living in the blighted area of the West 70’s, near Broadway: that area which absorbs the queer, the old, the failures, into furnished or hotel rooms, and adds gloom to their decay. It was all there! She took me out to a grubby little tea-room around the corner, insisted on paying for the tea, and brought out, from time to time, from folds in her apparel, manuscripts that will never see print. I never was able to read her, even in her hey-day, and her poetry now is perfectly terrible. Added to all this, she is in an active state of paranoia–things and people are her enemies; she has been plotted against in Canada, Hampstead, New York and California; her manuscripts have been stolen, time and time again, etc., etc. –We should thank God, that we remain in our senses! As you know, I really fear mad people; I have some attraction for them, perhaps because talent is a kind of obverse of the medal. I must, therefore, detach myself from E. S.. I told her to send the MS to Grove Press, and that is all I can do. “But I must know the editor’s name!” she cried. “I can’t chance having my poems fall into the hands of some secretary….” O dear, O dear….

Love from your hasty
Louise

Yet Bogan herself spent her share of decades as an odd woman, in what she called the faubourg of Morningside Heights. And she could write, in a notebook quoted in her posthumous autobiography, Journey Around My Room,

When we have not come into ourselves we say, in solitude: “No one loves me; I am alone.” When we had chosen solitude, we say, “Thank God, I am alone!”

For Bogan, however, the struggle with loneliness never ended. She wondered as the spirit she saw in others her age and older:

But people keep hopeful and warm and loving right to the end–with much more to endure than I endure. –I see the old constantly, on these uptown streets–and they are not “depressed.” Their eyes are bright; they have bought themselves groceries; they gossip and laugh–with, often, crippling handicaps evident among them.

Where has this power gone, in my case?

I weep–but there’s little relief there.

How can I break these mornings?

And she found herself rising too early, as she wrote her friend Ruth Limmer less than a year before her death in 1970:

I waken at v. odd hours, having gone to sleep so early. –Remedy I: Put on light and try to read. II: Get up, and do not light a cigarette, but pour yourself a nice slug of Gordon’s Gin. This usually works ….

For Gornick, it’s living in a city that provides the only effective remedy:

It’s the voices I can’t do without. In most cities of the world the populace is planted in centuries of cobble-stoned alleys, ruined churches, architectural relics, none of which are ever dug up, only piled one on top of another. If you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another.

I think one reason the works of these odd women have so interested me is that they all, in one way or other, get to the heart of the fundamental question of what it means to be an individual. Defining oneself inherently involves separating from the things and people you are not, and there is no way to do this without risking some amount of loneliness. Which requires a certain share of courage and rarely comes without a fair share of second-guessing as well. I’m still figuring much of this out for myself, but I know that I draw more than ever on the words and experiences of women like Gornick, Koller, Bolton, and Bogan.

Christmas Trees New and Old, from The Christmas Tree, by Isabel Bolton (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Christmas Tree'

The New

Though there was all manner of evidence of the season – New York producing it, as it produced everything else, on its own colossal, mass-production scale, all outdoors and public and promiscuous, with a tree in almost every park and square, all the churches turning them out properly lighted and arrayed, the great central civic spectacle there in Rockefeller Center, the tallest Christmas tree erected on this earth, standing up in all the majesty of its broad green boughs, with those beautiful balloons floating like celestial bodies of blue and gold and silver all around it, while from below, in the skating rink, with crowds and crowds of people listening, one heard, right through the night, those deep strong voices singing the familiar hymns.

The Old

There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock – with all its layered boughs reaching out into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-colored chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh and maze of brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstasy.

There it stood, fixing her in a trance, rendering her incapable of detaching this little picture from that, or one moment from the next – kneeling or sitting down, smiling, getting up, walking round, around, the blessed instants blending, melting one into another, becoming, and even as she gazed, memory, message, meaning.

For here, under the white sheet spread out to save the carpet from candle grease and hemlock needles, were all the Christmas gifts, of every shape and size, wrapped with white or silver paper, tied with white or red or silver ribbons, embellished with holly and mistletoe and inscribed with loving dedications – ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Hilly, Merry Christmas from Uncle Theodore’; ‘John from Aunt Sally’; ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Adelaide from her father’ – and all and everybody searching to find their own particular presents – package heaped on package, and each one for somebody, with love from someone else, and all presumably from Santa Claus.


Though proclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a poet of the noblest kind who uses the compression and the polish of her fiction to focus human insight and to concentrate moral passion” and by Diana Trilling as “the best woman writer of fiction in this country today” when The Christmas Tree was first published and by Gore Vidal as “a magically alive writer” and by Doris Grumbach as “a writer of originality and great power” when it was reissued in 1997 as one of the three novels in New York Mosaic, Isabel Bolton remains a neglected writer, none of whose books have seen print this century. I featured her striking memoir of her childhood as an identical twin, Under Gemini (1966) here back in 2011, and Vivian Gornick recently recalled her as one of her prototypical New York City “odd women” in her memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.

Few facts have emerged about Mary Britton Miller, the woman who transformed herself into Isabel Bolton the novelist in her early sixties. Her parents both died within hours of each other when Mary and her sister Grace were both four, leaving them and three other siblings orphans. They were all raised by a spinster hired by their aunt, the wife of a railroad executive who prided herself on knowing best how to run other people’s lives. Ten years later, when Mary and Grace were rowing near the shore in Long Island Sound, their boat overturned and, in panic, Grace became exhausted and drowned as Mary watched, unable to help.

Mary attended the Cambridge School for Girls and then lived in Italy for a few years, probably in the company of her cousin, Marguerite Chapin, who later married Prince Roffredo Caetani and founded the influential literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. In a letter to Diana Athill, Edward Field suggested she had a child out of wedlock in Italy, but, lacking any other evidence, we can only take this as hearsay.

Then she settled in New York City, eventually buying a pre-Civil War era brownstone at 81 Barrow Street in the West Village (a property that fetched a cool $15 million when sold in 2011). As Mary Britton Miller, she published a number of books of poems for children, starting with Songs of Infancy and Menagerie (1928), and continuing on with Intrepid Bird (1934). In 1943, she told the story of her life between the death of her parents and the loss of Grace in fictional form in In the Days of Thy Youth. It was not a timely subject, however, and the book went virtually unreviewed.

By then, she had turned sixty and begun to suffer from a loss of vision that led her to dictate all her writing and to hire readers (Grumbach recalls a story that Miller fired one for hesitating when encountering the word “fuck”). For reasons that no one has yet managed to unearth, she decided to use a pseudonym for her next novel, Do I Wake or Sleep? (1946), even though the book was published by Scribners, which had published In the Days of Thy Youth. All she offered in the way of a biographical sketch for the dust jacket was, “Here it is, the book over which I have thought deeply and worked hard. What more is there to say, except perhaps to add that I have lived some time in Europe, that I was brought up in America, and that New York has been my home for many years?”

What a difference three years made. Diana Trilling opened her review in The Nation with the announcement that, “Isabel Bolton’s Do I Wake or Sleep? (Scribner’s, $2.50) is quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine.” In a feature review in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Bolton to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowen. They and other reviewers were equally effusive when The Christmas Tree was published three years later. But by the time her third book, Many Mansions, was published in 1952, the glow had faded. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a rather mannered, meditative backward look” and wrote that “Miss Bolton, whom one often feels is under the influence of Edith Wharton, never gets beyond a certain drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”

And so Miller returned to children’s poetry, with burst of publications in the late 1950s: Give a Guess (1957); All Aboard (1958); Jungle Journey (1959), written with her friend, Tobias Schneebaum (to whom she later dedicated Under Gemini); A Handful of Flowers (1959); and Listen–the Birds (1961). Though simple and straightforward, these poems reveal the same intimate awareness of childhood that seems never to have left Miller, even if she could write fiction that was compared with that of Henry James:

Where Are You Now?

Someone has just
Put out the light;
Someone has just
Told you good night

People are talking
Not far away;
You wish you could hear
Just what they say.

The window is open—
People are walking,
Voices are calling
Out in the street.

Now you are falling
And falling and falling
Into a silence
Soft as your pillow,
White as your sheet.

Yet she was fully aware that she was no longer living in the same world. In the The Christmas Tree, the lead character’s grandson is obsessed with warplanes and informs her that it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And so she felt there was good reason to ask, in a poem titled, “This Wonderful World,” “It’s a world full of growing/And changing and flowing./Who’d want to blow it/To smithereens?”

In 1966, Miller once again took up the pseudonym for a nonfictional account of her life with her sister Grace, Under Gemini–this time roughly one-fourth the length of In the Days of Thy Youth. The book received respectful reviews but was not reprinted again until 1999. And when she published her last book, The Whirligig of Time, in 1971, Kirkus Reviews felt free to remark deridingly, “… one questions whether any contemporary will wish to join Blanche Willoughby in her return through the years ‘to the heartland of her soul” and called the book’s “perfumed sensibility … just about unbearable.”

In its obituary when Miller died at the age of 91 in 1975, The New York Times recalled Miller’s statement that after Grace’s death, her own life had been “blotted out——everything became dim, unreal, artificial.” And noted that “Miss Miller never married.”

Not My Mother’s Daughter, by Genevieve Taggard, fromThose Modern Women

Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Am I the Christian gentlewoman my mother slaved to make me? No indeed. I am a poet, a wine-bibber, and radical: a non-church-goer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial. (Although I will write anonymous confessions for The Nation.) That is her story–and her second defeat. She thinks I owed her a Christian gentlewoman, for all she did for me. We quarrel. After I escaped, she snapped shut the iron trap around my brother and sister. That is their story. I do not know if they will ever be free of her. She keeps Eddie Guest on the parlor table beside the books I have written–a silent protest against me. She is not pleased.

I cannot pretend to be entirely frank in telling the story that results from this story; or to apply to it any such perspective. Let my daughter tell it later on. She will see outlines I cannot.

I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was–or as wasteful. I have made worse mistakes, which might have been more fatal than hers and yet have not been, at least for me. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry. I did not want a one-way street of a marriage, like hers. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult, who refused defeat as often as I did. Hard as it is to live with an equal, it is at least not degrading. We have starved, too; struggled as hard as ever my folks did. But the struggle has not been empty: I have no grudges. Intellectually as well as emotionally my husband had as much to give that was new and strange as I had. In marriage I learned, rather tardily, the profound truth that contradicts Jesus when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” I am a better person when I bear my own burdens. I am happiest with people who can bear their own, too. I remember my mother’s weariness and contempt for a man who could never take up her challenges. Seven years with a real person is better than her thirty with a helpless, newspaper-reading gentleman.

The pioneer woman was a dynamo–and her man nearly always ran out on her. From the bitterness in such women many of us were born. Where was her mate? Did she destroy him? Did he hate her for her strength? Was he weaker because she was strong? Where is the equilibrium, anyway? I do not know, for sure, although I spend much time wondering.

Marriage is the only profound human experience; all other human angles are its mere rehearsal. Like every one else I have wanted it. And yet having it, it is not all I want. It is more often, I think, a final experience than a way of life. But I am a poet–love and mutual living are not enough. It is better to work hard than to be married hard. If, at the beginning of middle age, we have not learned some of the perils of the soul, in this double-selved life, we are pure fools. Self-sufficiency is a myth, of course, but after thirty, if one is a serious-minded egoist (i.e., artist), it becomes more and more necessary. And I think it can be approximated.

Lucinda Matlock, in the “Spoon River Anthology,” says:

We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
Rambling over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed,
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived long enough, that is all.
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent, and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you–
It takes life to love Life.

My mother was not this woman, nor am I, but we are both some way kin to her.


From These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties, edited and with a revised introduction by Elaine Showalter
New York City: The Feminist Press, 1989

In 1926 and 1927, the progressive magazine The Nations published a series of autobiographical essays by seventeen women, including a poet (Taggard), a journalist (Sue Shelton White), a novelist (Mary Hunter Austin), an artist and children’s book author (Wanda Gag), and a psychologist (Phyllis Blanchard). Over fifty years later, Elaine Showalter collected them in These Modern Women. She also includes the analyses The Nations commissioned from three psychologists, two of them men. As one might expected, the men come off as superior and officious, while the woman (Beatrice M. Hinkle) is supportive and optimistic. If there was one thing I would have liked Showalter to correct one mistake in the book, which was leaving the last word to the second male psychologist, Joseph Collins (“On rereading these articles I fell into meditation. Which of these women should I have liked to companion?”). What a terrible way to end what is an otherwise fascinating and empowering book.

The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles (1947)

gentlebush-paul
I will admit guilt for committing an occasional theft. Once in a while, I find a book that cries out, “Please take me home with you.” These are always, naturally, neglected books. I usually find them in hotels or vacation rentals, in those little libraries of books that previous guests have left behind–perhaps in hopes that someone else would find them interesting, perhaps simply because they weren’t interesting enough to be worth carrying home.

The scene of my last crime was a small hotel in Luxembourg, a pretty forgettable place where I stayed one night while on a business trip. Taking up part of the landing on the staircase up to the rooms was a tall, narrow bookcase with a mix of French, German, and Dutch paperbacks–Dan Brown, John Grisham, and their Euro counterparts. But one book was definitely not new, not a bestseller, and in English. It was a thick, old (1955), and somewhat unusually-sized paperback (halfway between a pocket book and a trade paperback): The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles. Although clearly in English, the book’s publisher, Panther Books, had an address in Leipzig, which was in the German Democratic Republic at the time. Other Panther titles listed inside the back cover included English classics such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter, but also a few I didn’t recognize: The Volunteers, by Steve Nelson, and Goldsborough, by Stefan Heym. Nelson turned out to have been an activist, volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and member of the American Communist Party. Heym was a German writer who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler, fought for the Allies during the war, wrote and organized for left causes after the war, and moved to East Germany in the early 1950s.

A little more digging confirmed that Panther Books mutated into Seven Seas Books, which was run by Heym’s American wife, Gertrude Gelbin, and continued to publish English-language books, mostly novels and mostly on leftist subjects by such writers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Alvah Bessie, and Dorothy Hewett, as well as many of Heym’s own books and those of fellow East German writers such as Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf.

I had, of course, slipped the book into my duffel bag before checking this aspect of the book’s back story, and I started to read at home the next evening. Giles takes her title from a line from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes: “Let the gentle bush dig its root deep and spread upward to split one boulder.” Her story is set in bayou Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, among the many members of the Durels, a family in slow decline from the grand beginnings made by their grandfather, who established a large plantation before the Civil War.

The only Durel still thriving financially is Agricole, who is looked down upon by his kinsmen: “Everyone knew that Agricole’s father, the first Agricole, had not married cette femme in New Orleans until his son was at least ten years old.” This doesn’t prevent Agricole (junior) from attempting to insinuate himself (and his three children) back in the family’s good grades. And from that point forward, the story is one big race to decay: will the poor but upright Durels decline into penury before wealthy Agricole (junior) loses his last shred of decency in his pursuit of filthy lucre?

I can’t say that I stuck with the story. I quickly lost track of Durels, what with Tante Abelle, Michel, Nicole, Auguste, Alcee, Amelie, Leonie, Lizette, and a good dozen more, along with the many other characters in the neighborhood of Bayou Teche. The 500-plus dense pages of The Gentle Bush require more commitment that I had in me.

gentlebush-firstAnd Giles was looking for readers with commitment. A frequent contributor to The New Masses, she seems to have taken her inspiration from a odd duo: Karl Marx and Taylor Caldwell. Particularly Caldwell’s saga about a family of American arms manufacturers, The Dynasty of Death, The Eagles Gather, and The Final Hour. She captures the energy of a successful entrepreneur but favors the poor but honest and down-trodden, the working whites and serving blacks, who seem to shine with a uniformly stalwart glow. Even as evil triumphs, we know that ultimately the workers of the world will unite and seize control of the means of production, or something like that.

The Gentle Bush was generally well-received when it was first published–by a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company–in 1947. The chill winds of the Red Scare were picking up, but it was still possible for activist writers such as Giles, Alexander Saxton, and Cedric Belfrage to get published by the big firms. A year later, The New Masses closed its doors. Giles continued to maintain her Communist Party membership even after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, only leaving in the mid-1960s when she felt it had become irrelevant. Giles never published another book.


The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947

The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen (1936)

Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things
Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things

Cover of The Hepzibah OmnibusWhen I saw The Hepzibah Omnibus in a bookstore in London a few months ago, I began wondering, “Why do I know the name Olwen Bowen?” A quick glance at the title page cleared up the mystery: “Foreword by Clemence Dane.” Kate Macdonald and I had read and discussed Dane’s massive theatrical saga, Broome Stages, earlier this year, and though neither of us much cared for the book, I did remember a few facts from the author’s life–in particular, that she and Bowen had lived together for nearly forty years.

nb_0640Unlike Dane, who wrote fiction, drama, and nonfiction, Bowen confined herself strictly to writing for children. Although her last book, Tales from the Mabinogion, was a retelling of stories from the King Arthur legends, most of her books were set in worlds inhabited almost exclusively by animals and insects. Her titles were simple and straightforward: Runaway Rabbit; Taddy Tadpole and the Pond Folk; Dog’s Delight; A Terrier’s Tale.

The Hepzibah Omnibus collects four of her animal tales. The first two, “Hepzibah the Hen” and “Hepzibah Again,” take place in the farmyard shared ruled over by the vain Hepzibah and her friend, the equally self-absorbed pig, Gertie Grunter. Most of the Farmyard Folk stick with alliteration when in comes to names: Reginald Rat, Kathleen Cow, Cuthbert Cockerel, etc.. Each chapter is a small object lesson that usually comes as the result of some animal foible–vanity, pride, jealousy–but always ends happily. Rather like Aesop with the edges sanded down. It’s a world where even the rodents loved their most fearsome predator:

And all the Farmyard Folk were very grateful to Barny, the Barndoor Owl. They liked to hear him at night as he flew about among the barns, calling out to himself as he flew, “I see you! I see you!” just out of habit; for they knew that he was a very friendly person really and they all felt much safer when he was about.

yapThe next tale deals with Yap, a young fox with still a bit too much fellow-feeling in his heart to realize that the rabbits might not feel quite comfortable with him crashing their Rabbit Fest in a rabbit suit. In most chapters, though, he proves exceptionally adept at team-building. At different times, he joins causes with a toad, a vole, an otter, three badgers, and a hedgehog. The alliances usually seem to involve getting some kind of food, but I guess we don’t have too feel too much remorse over the sacrifice of eggs, fish, or fruit. And when it does involve something a little closer to home, it’s a roast chicken that Yap’s father, Barker Fox, steals from a circus tent, not a live one.

beetles-bwI found the last tale, “Beetles and Things,” by far the most charming, perhaps because of the illustrations by Harry Rountree (the illustrations for Hepzibah and Yap are by L. R. Brightwell). Montgomery Beetle, in particularly, looks a bit like Harry Langdon. As with the farmyard, the insects exist in a peaceful, alliterative form of coexistence, in which Septimus Spider would never dream of ensnaring Ena Earwig or Bill Blue-Bottle. The only inter-species competition in the book is over a lot of overripe plums (and, of course, that gourmand Thomas Tit gets most of those).

It’s hard to imagine that many kids would enjoy The Hepzibah Omnibus these days. Bowen wrote for children capable of dealing with compound sentences and with a wider vocabulary that the sort of 4-5 years olds who might still go for simple animal stories: “Lena Fly and Bill Blue-Bottle flew quickly away, while Cedric, Ena Earwig, and many of the others spend a cramped and uncomfortable afternoon curled up in any tiny niches and crevices they could find in the tree itself.” And, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would put Hepzibah on a par with The Wind in the Willows as a timeless classic of children’s literature. But I was happy to give up an hour or so of my time to see what Olwen Bowen was up to while her partner was busy hammering away at Broome Stages.


The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen [Davies]
London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1936

G. B. Stern’s Infinite Autobiographies

G. B. Stern, from the dust jacket of 'Benefits Forgot'“Gladys Bronwyn Stern, or G. B. Stern (17 June 1890 – 20 September 1973), born Gladys Bertha Stern in London, England, wrote many novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, biographies and literary criticism,” states the opening sentence of G. B. Stern’s Wikipedia entry. Many as in over fifty, or roughly one a year starting in 1914.

She was never, apparently, at a loss for words.

One way she managed such an impressive rate of production was that she dictated most of her books while laying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “If I wrote them myself, I know I should always be stopping to draw patterns,” she told an interviewer once. Another was that she was perhaps more open to the potential of detours than any other writer. Wherever her thoughts might wander in the course of her dictation, she was more than willing to follow:

A straight line, so I have been taught, is the shortest way between two given points. This book [Monogram, her first volume of autobiography] will probably prove to be the longest possible way between three given points: objects picked up at random from my own sitting-room; from the rubbish heap of a garden in the South of France; from anywhere. A straight line cannot enclose anything; but if you join three points, you have a triangle, and something exciting may or may not be discovered, afterwards, enclosed inside a triangle, wherever and however you happen to draw it.

So Stern was a born non-linear thinker, and her reader should not be surprised when her thoughts not only lead off the beaten path but often cross the lines between one genre and another. Her temperament was well-matched with the imaginative absurdity of the snippet of Marx Brothers dialogue that serves as the epigraph to Monogram:

Groucho: “It’s my opinion that the missing picture is hidden in the house next door.”

Chico: “But there isn’t a house next door.”

Groucho: “Then we’ll build one!”

When her publishers, Chapman and Hall, approached Stern with the idea of writing an autobiography, she chose to interpret the label liberally: “So let us try, for a change, to put our words into thoughts. Surely this should be what they call autobiography?,” she asked.

Inspired by the example of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, she determined to follow his example, in which “everything is linked to everything else.” This worked for Stern, for as she saw it,

There is hardly an object, however recently acquired, however sharply free from cobwebs and memories, that would not start an association with some incident, some person, that would lead on to another and another; honestly allowing the line of the pattern to take whatever twists and curves and backward looks, angles and zigzags and convolutions it wills; honestly; not forcing it in this direction nor in that, simply because this or that direction might make the prettier or the more rhythmical pattern.

So Stern seizes upon a little blue and white glass dragon figurine on her mantelpiece, and off she goes. In the space of the next ten pages, she leads us to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, to the fact that she had named characters Maitland in four different books but had never known anyone with that name, to a memory of associating the word “Hydrant” with magical powers until her Nannie explained what one was, to a recollection of a chalet in the Tyrols, to an account of attending the first performance of R. C. Sherriff’s war play, Journey’s End, in Berlin in the early 1920s.

And on the book rolls, taking countless twists and turns and diversions, until ending 300 pages later with a joke about Einstein’s wife. And on Stern would roll, through a further eight volumes over the course of the next twenty-four years. Although several conformed a little more closely to a pre-set structure (And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957) was a collection of sketches of famous people she had known, such as Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm, All in Good Time (1954) and The Way It Worked Out (1956) were about her conversion to Catholicism), none fully restrained her from wandering off-topic when her curiosity took over.

It’s no surprise, then, that some critics couldn’t stand this approach. Reviewing Trumpet Voluntary (1944), Albert Jay Nock wrote that Stern “… presents uninteresting personages doing most uninteresting things in extremely uninteresting circumstances. Its narrative is desultory, garrulous, inconsequential.” (Another critic wrote that Stern was “occasionally inconsequential but never trivial”).

Most reviewers struggled to capture the unique nature of these books. One called Another Part of the Forest (1941) “a desultory, enticing, and ingenious volume of recollection, comment, reverie, and imagination.” Another labeled Trumpet Voluntary “a Commonplace Book, into which the author throws quotations, favorite and otherwise, opinions on books, on authors, everyday happenings–in short, everything that comes into her head at the moment.” A third wrote that “for those who love them,” each of Stern’s autobiographies was “a river of a book, now in flood, very rarely reduced to a trickle, but with occasional excursions into idle, tree-protected pools.” In its starred review of Monogram, Kirkus Reviews provided a good description that could any of the nine books:

There is no beginning, no end; no background of birth and parentage; no chronology of events; no category of friends and acquaintances. Instead, at the end, you have a rich tapestry of a full life, a life savored, shared, enjoyed to the utmost. You pick up facts, and weave them into the pattern, with no illusion of importance as to where and when they belong. You meet as intimates — or as passing acquaintances–the people that enliven today’s literary world, artistic world, theatrical world. There is humor–and poetry–and appreciation–and keen commentary on the passing scene–and it’s grand reading from first page to last.

nb_0637

Looking across the full set, from Monogram (1936) to One is Only Human (1960), a gradual trend toward more serious, deep-rooted thoughts can be seen. Monogram is almost effervescent, still retaining the high spirits and optimism of Stern’s first great successes as a novelist, playwright, and celebrity in the 1920s. Another Part of the Forest (1941) is full of enthusiasm for Merry Olde England (and crazy new America) but mentions of mobilization, bomb shelters, and the fact that her beloved France was cut off and under occupation remind the reader that Stern was writing in wartime. the war becomes even more prominent in Trumpet Voluntary (1944), which opens with a reflection on the destruction of her flat in London:

I used to wish that something would happen, something quite harmless, naturally, to remove the Military Tailors [a shop across the road from her flat] and leave me with a wider view. How I used to wish it! … I need not even have seen it happen; one morning, pulling aside the curtains, the building opposite would not be there, and I should have my unremorseful view.

… And then one morning, the morning of October 15, 1940, to be exact, the Military Tailors drew aside their curtains, and my rooms were not there, and instead, they had a heavenly outlook; at least, they would have when the rubbish and ash and bits of gutted wall had been cleared away. It was almost the same thing, you see; the Green Djinn had got it as nearly right as could be expected from Djinns, only it had not struck me, and I am afraid did not strike me till two years later and on this afternoon of November, 1942, that the Military Tailors might also have been doing a bit of intensive wishing, and that they were better at it than myself.

In Benefits Forgot (1949), the memories of war are still fresh. Stern comes across letters written her by American and British soldiers and learns that the R.A.F. pilot who wrote her in praise of Trumpet Voluntary died while on a raid the day after he posted his letter.
All in Good Time (1954), The Way It Worked Out (1956), and, to a large extent, One is Only Human (1960), all deal with spiritual matters, tracing Stern’s long journey from being raised as a secular Jew to embracing Catholicism in her late fifties.

Throughout all the books and all their many changes of subject, one thing remains constant: Stern’s unwavering good humor. Even Albert Nock admitted that, “Chatterbox as Mrs. Stern is, commonplace as her people and their doings are, she brings them before you pervaded with the warmth and glow of an inexhaustible affection.” If her spirit of whimsy and stream-of-consciousness narrative logic can, at times, become a wee bit tiresome, Stern’s fundamental generosity and gently self-mocking tone almost always provides a restorative effect.

I have to confess that while I’ve never managed to read any of them from beginning to end, I have kept one or more of Stern’s books in my nightstand for most of the last two years and probably always will. Dip into any page of any of these books, and I guarantee that within a page or two you will have read something interesting, something amusing … and probably switched subjects at least twice along the way. Someone could probably assemble a terrific book of about 400-500 pages with the best excerpts from the lot, but I suspect it might come off a bit like a fruitcake without the cake. Till then, I highly recommend picking up any one of them (many copies are going for as little as $1.00 plus shipping) and diving in.

G. B. Stern’s “Autobiographies”


Monogram (1936)

Another Part of the Forest (1941)

Trumpet Voluntary (1944)

Benefits Forgot (1949)

A Name to Conjure With (1953)

All in Good Time (1954)

The Way It Worked Out (1956)

And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957)

One is Only Human (1960)

Four Poems by Eithne Wilkins

Spoken Through Glass

Here the big stars roll down
like tears
all down your face;
darkness that has no walls, the empty night
that fingers grope for and are lost,
is nightfall in your face.

The big stars roll,
the glittering railway-line unwinds into the constellations.

Over and under you the dark,
in you the rocking night without a foothold,
and no walls, no ceiling,

the parallels that never meet, the pulses winding out to the
stars.

Night has no end.
Light travelling from the stars is out
before you ride along it
with the black tears falling,
falling,

all fall down.

 

Passage of an August (1938)

In solitary august, like a story
he met grief’s lassie with the quartz-bright hands;
and she became his darling,
who was young, was sorry
there among the grasses blowing over pit and brands.

She walked beside him back the way he came,
into the whitening hills, and cut his throat.
Although she called him by another name,
she was no stranger, love. And none
can drive her out.

 

barbedwire

Barbed Wire (1940)

The silence, with its ragged edge of lost communication,
silence at the latter end,
is now a spiked north wind.

Last words
toss about me in the streets, waste paper
or a cigarette butt in some gutter stream
that overflows
from crumpled darkness.
“Look, I am plunged in the midst of them, a dagger
in their midst.”

and over the edge
the nightmares peer, with their tall stories
and the day’s unheard-of cry.

 

Failure

What can forgive us for
the clothes left lying and the rocking journey,
flashing poles and pylons standing into fields of air,
in flooded fields?

Something flew out of our hands,
the cup incomplete,
air of invasions and land of defeat.
There was the tree felled in another valley,
behind the flown carpet
and nothing left to remember, all to forgive.

Nothing to remember but
the windows slammed against the cold,
the helmet crushed down on the eyes.

And who, beside the darkened station lamp,
remembering, started back.


These are stark, grim poems, very much in the spirit of their time, when there was little good news and a great deal of bad, and no one knew how far away better days might be. But there is an underlying toughness and realism that reflects the attitude of a survivor, of someone who wasn’t going to give up in the face of loss. I would have included more such poems had discretion not held me back. Sadly, Eithne Wilkins never published a collection of her poems, so one has to root through the pages of long-defunct little magazines to find them.

She attended Oxford in the early 1930s, then moved to London, where she worked as a translator and reader for various publishers. Her poems began to be published in British literary journals around 1937, and in 1949, a selection of them were included in The New British Poets, a collection edited by Kenneth Rexroth and published by James Laughlin’s just-founded New Directions Press. That same year, she married the Austrian writer and translater, Ernst Kaiser. Although she worked on English translations of a number of well-regarded books, including Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, she appears to have stopped submitting her poems for publication sometime after the New Directions collection was published, and her one book, The Rose-Garden Game (1969), was a popular history about the origins of rosary beads as an accessory to Catholic worship.

from The New British Poets, edited by Kenneth Rexroth
New London, Connecticut: New Directions Press, 1949

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

This is one in a series of neglected poems from the Internet Archive.

What to Talk About, by Imogene B. Wolcott (1923)

nb_0635What proportion of your business is selling drugs?

Do you sell more drugs to keep people well or to help them recover from sickness?

What would you do if a man came into your store to purchase some bichlorid of mercury tablets?

These are a few of the questions that Imogene B. Wolcott (Mrs. Roger Wolcott, the title page advises us) proposes her reader ask a druggist. What to Talk About is a simple pocket-sized handbook full of what Mrs. Wolcott suggests are “Clever Questions” that aid in “Social, Professional, and Business Advancement.” Her theory is that the key to a successful conversation is to express interest in people: “Forget yourself and think only of the person to whom you are talking.”

And so she offers the reader nearly three hundred pages worth of questions to use in a conversation. What to Talk About is a classic of the first great era of the American self-help book, a contemporary of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, when the shortest path between a person’s problems and their solution was a straight line. Like the first pre-packaged foods, all you had to do to enjoy the banquet you craved was add water and stir.

In Mrs. Wolcott’s world, a man’s line wasn’t something he used to pick up women in bars–it was his job, and his job was his identity. The first third of her book is devoted to questions organized by jobs and professions. Of civil engineers, she proposes one ask that probe their expertise: “Why is steel used to reinforce concrete?” “Which usually offers the greater engineering difficulties: drainage or irrigation?” She offers contemporary questions: “How much progress has been made on the tunnel under the English Channel?” “What use has been made of the valuation of the railroads made by the Interstate Commerce Commission?” And she explores the civil engineer’s philosophical side: “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?”

Mrs. Wolcott’s selection of professions offers us insights into the working world of a century ago. Lumbermen and newspapermen rubbed elbows with trolley officials, steamship officials, detectives, dry goods merchants, jobbers, public office holders, and sculptors. Because it was the Roaring Twenties, she was careful to include flappers (“Why don’t you like chaperones?”), debutantes, and “Matrons (Society)”–for whom she offers the obvious question, “What do you think of the conduct of the younger generation?” (And its follow-up, “Does the fault lie with the young men of today, with the girls, or with their parents?” Me, I blame Society (Matrons)). She does not, however, provide a category for gangsters or rum-runners, so were the reader to run into Al Capone, he would have to make do with “Importers and Exporters”: “What proportion of our foreign trade is done on American bottoms?”

Mrs. Wolcott also wrote in the midst of the first great wave of American leisure time. And hence, she provides a substantial section devoted to questions based on a person’s hobby. This might be a sport (Ice Hockey, Jiu Jitsu, or Tobogganing) or an indoor occupation (Weaving, Stamps, or Painting). She was not above recognizing that some might indulge in minor vices (Billiards, Poker, or Smoking). She includes a sample of questions for the person interested in “Heredity and Eugenics” that would certainly liven up a conversation today: “Should first or second cousins marry?” “What is meant by the mutations theory?” Or, if you should run into a fan of this site, you can ask, “Which do you think is more healthful, the coarseness of the eighteenth century novel or the brutality of a school of our novelists?”

Finally, What to Talk About reminds us that there was a time when, no matter where you went, you never quite shook the dust of your home ground off your shoes. A time when people wore such labels as “Yankee,” “Dutchman,” “Irishman,” and “Philadelphian.” In fact, she suggests asking a Californian, “Do you see many Mexicans? Japanese? Chinese? Iowans?” Iowans? So it is only natural that Mrs. Wolcott ends her book with questions to ask the natives of such places as Denmark, Deauville, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and “The South” and “The West.” Most aim at confirming some stereotype about each place and its inhabitants: “Is it ture that people of Charleston dine at four o’clock in the afternoon?” “Is cheapness of labor the only factor that permits China to compete in a commercial way with the rest of the world?” “Do the majority of the women who spend the winter in Florida try to get tanned or to avoid a coat of tan?” “Is it true that one seldom sees a sunset in Pittsburgh?” “What has been done in your section of the South to combat the boll weevil?”

A few of her questions, though, would probably stump even a native nowadays:

“What is meant by the three-cent cult?” (Cleveland, Ohio)

“What has the Pan-American Conference accomplished?” (South America)

“In what regard do Philadelphians hold Edward Bok?”

“Did you see many lepers?” (Holy Land)

“Were you shown the site of Annette Kellerman’s diving activities in the preparation of her most famous moving picture?” (Anyone? Anyone? … The correct answer is Bermuda.)

A book as full of questions as this one cannot help but raise a few that reach beyond the limits of place, profession, and hobby, timeless questions we could all do well to take a moment to ponder:

“Does the fear of death become stronger or less strong as one grows older?”

“Does personality or ability count more in business?”

“At what age does a hen cease to be profitable?”

“What is the future of Palestine?”

And one many of us have asked recently:

“Why is it that so many of our Vice-Presidents have come from Indiana?”


What to Talk About: The Clever Question As an Aid to Social, Professional, and Business Advancement, by Imogene B. Wolcott
New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923

Jacques Barzun on The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow

Cover of first US edition of 'The Springs'A few weeks after my post on Anne Goodwin Winslow’s 1949 novel, The Springs, I came across the following, from American Panorama (1957), edited by Eric Larrabee, a collection of essays on the 350 books chosen by the Carnegie Corporation as “most descriptive of life in the U.S.A.”:

Mrs. Winslow’s reputation as a novelist is based on an exquisite specialization. She writes about the Southern gentry at the turn of the present century. This might well prove trivial or suffocating if it were not for the author’s astonishing power to make life pulse vigorously in the constricted places, situations, and people that she chooses. Her outlook is perhaps best expressed in the contrast between the title of one of her other novels—— A Quiet Neighborhood (1947)——and the violent events, the passions leading to murder, which inform the work.

Mrs. Winslow belongs to no school, for although some of her perceptions are akin to William Faulkner’s and her technique is in the tradition of William Dean Howells, her temperament, style, and biography set her in a world apart. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, which is to say a “border state” in the great North-and-South struggle of the past century, Mrs. Winslow married a Northern army engineer and spent many years in New England and abroad. She has returned to live in her home state and it is the distillation of her childhood memories through her traveled mind—emotions recollected in tranquillity — that she gives us in her novels and tales.

The Springs is a study of character which by its subdued atmosphere makes one think of Henry James’s The Europeans. But the “culture” in which the characters evolve is markedly different, as is the fact that Mrs. Winslow’s interest in household detail lends a peculiar vividness, almost a pathos, to the scene. It is as if, suddenly transplanted to those quiet old days we sometimes long for, we discovered their slow terror, which not even conventional happiness could allay.

Barzun’s last sentence captures the unique quality of Winslow’s writing that I probably haven’t done justice to: it’s delicate, subtle, and somewhat nostalgic, but there is an underlying potential for same anger, pain, and violence that percolates much closer to the surface in Faulkner. And if we had forgotten that this potential is apparently an ineluctable element of the American character, the events of the last year have done much to remind us.

Four Memoirs of the Aftermath of War

As a veteran, I would like to take this day as an opportunity to remember that one of the worst things about a war is the suffering that continues after its end. In the stereotypical versions of the end of World War Two in Europe one sees in America and Britain, the symbol of V-E Day was the great joyous crowd doing the Lambeth Walk in Piccadilly Circus. But on the Continent, the end of the war merely opened a time of displacement, disruption, and slow, painful reconstruction.

Four fine neglected books, all written by women, remind us of one of the greatest tragedies to follow the war in Europe — namely, the plight of the millions of prisoners, forced laborers, and refugees who were displaced from their homes and stranded in foreign countries, often without the means to return.

Aftermath, by Francesca M. Wilson (1948)

aftermathWilson, an English academic who had already worked with refugees from the First World War, Russia, and the Spanish Civil War, joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in early 1945, and was one of its first staff members to arrive in Germany to begin to deal with the enormity of the problem created with the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The first DP (Displaced Persons) camp she worked at was Feldafing in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army set up to house a trainload of Hungarian Jews one of its units found near Mühldorf , a satellite camp of Dachau. In these early days, those organizing relief quickly realized that they were dealing with people who had been subjected to a dehumanization more extreme than anything that even an experienced worker like Wilson had ever experienced:

They had the furtive look and gestures of hunted animals. By years of brutal treatment, by the murder of relatives, by the constant fear of death, all that was human had been taken away from them. We went into the dormitories where they were eating — the collected their food from the kitchen and brought it back to devour in relative privacy: nothing would persuade them to eat in communal dining-rooms. I noticed a man who was trying to eat but was too weak to finish his food. Three boys were staring at his plate. I had once seen the same look of burning yet cautious intentness on the Russian steppes. When the sick man pushed his plate away a thin arm shot out and seized the lump of meat left on it. The lad who had secured it slid out of the room, like a starving dog with a bone.

Despite the challenges of woefully inadequate supplies and staff, an oncoming winter, and a population devastated by malnutrition, disease, and depression, UNRRA and other relief organizations gradually established some degree of sanitation and comfort in the camps. But none of them was quite prepared to delete with the special challenge presented by the former residents of lands now incorporated into the Soviet Union. And their responses were not always something to be proud of:

They are now in exile because they do not wish to become Soviet citizens. Only they can decide about this. Soviet citizenship should be accepted voluntarily, and the policy not to compel their return is a right one: but the policy of leaving them to rot in DP camps is utterly wrong. Poland will not accept her former Ukrainian citizens — those who tried to go back there were turned back from her frontiers. Military authorities in Austria were trying last September to make a temporary solution. They reduced their rations, which had been kept to the 2,000 calorie level, to the 1,200 of the surrounding population, saying at the same time that all those who were physically able must pay for their board and lodging in the camps…. But unless these uprooted peoples are to be permanently absorbed in the German or Austrian economy — and this neither they nor their hosts desire — this is only a temporary solution. When all have gone home who will or can, there will still be three-quarters of a million irrepatriable DPs….

The Wild Place, by Kathryn Hulme (1952)

the_wild_placeIn 1945, Kathryn Hulme arrived as UNRRA director of the Wildflecken DP camp in northern Bavaria. Like Wilson, she encountered a desperate situation and struggled in the first months to establish conditions fit for the people in the camp. Her first impressions, she wrote “entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.” At Wildflecken, she also met Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun. The two became close friends and were to remain together as companions when they left the camp. Hulme would later fictionalize Habets’ experiences as a nun in the 1958 best-seller, The Nun’s Story. The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly award as best non-fiction book of 1953. Although not rare (AddAll.com lists over 50 copies for sale), it’s become something of a collector’s item, with prices starting at $35 and running to over $400 a copy.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg (1956)

walls_came_tumbling_downRoosenburg was a young Dutch woman imprisoned in 1944 by the Nazis as a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) inmate for her activities as a member of the Dutch Resistance organization. When the war ended, she and four other Dutch women were inmates of a prison near Waldheim in Saxony, in the Russian zone of occupation. Because one of the women was too ill to walk, they were left behind in the initial evacuation, and after turning their friend over for medical care, they had to work their way back over four hundred miles of territory that was still in chaos. It required an extraordinary amount of strength, ingenuity, and persuasiveness, and reading The Walls Came Tumbling Down serves as another illustration of the fact that a group of women is usually ten times smarter, better organized, and more practical than any equivalent group of men. Roosenburg, who worked as a journalist after the war, first wrote about these experiences in a four-part series in The New Yorker titled, “Annals of Liberation — The Journey Home.”

The Children, by Charity Blackstock (1966)

the_childrenThe Children was the only book of non-fiction published by Ursula Torday under the pen-name of Charity Blackstock that she used mostly for murder mysteries and light thrillers. In it, she recounted her five years’ work as director of a scheme organized by an association of British Jews organized to help locate and reunite family members who had survived the Holocaust. The scheme involved arranging for displaced Jewish children being kept in group homes in France to be placed — only temporarily at first — with Jewish families in England. The Children provides a vivid demonstration of the paradoxes of memory: how quickly people in France and England could forget their own troubles during the war and grow callous to the plight of children orphaned and displaced in its wake; and how long these children remained scarred and disturbed by their experiences. Even for herself, Torday admits, “This business of going back is dangerous: by doing it one virtually stands still, and tomorrow is surely more interesting than today.” And she is able, writing nearly fifteen years later, to recognize that for the children, “The Scheme, the families, the Homes, are all part of a black and stinking past, to be remembered by all of us, but to be forgotten as far as it is possible by them. Even I myself, even the best of hostesses, must be unwilling reminders of a time when they were dependent on charity, deprived children, pathetic victims.”

The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway (1969)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Buzzards'To mark the last day of what has been an ugly and troubling election campaign, let me note a fine neglected book about the toxic cocktail that results when you mix family dynamics, political ambition, and relentless media coverage: Janet Burroway’s 1969 novel, The Buzzards.

The Buzzards centers on Arizona Republican senator Alex Cofer, running for President and finding it forcing him to make uncomfortable choices between his ambition and his family.

It shouldn’t take much to guess which wins out in the end.

Cofer is, at the start, a relatively decent if clueless man, safely conservative but not unpalatably rabid, with stereotypical politician’s good looks — silver hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. His wife, Claudia, is already bitter from years of his neglect. Their elder daughter is a frustrated housewife finding her life being drained away by the demands of three kids. Orin, their son, has given up on America and take refuge in Paris. Only Evie, a teenager with all-American girl good looks — isn’t loaded down with psychological baggage, and even Evie becomes a bit of a problem when she acquires a boyfriend who’s a little … well, brown.

And as the campaign progresses, Alex finds himself becoming more strident in his statements and positions, just to put himself in contrast to his more liberal opponent: “Every man who takes an oath of office in this country, implicitly declares himself ready to use force as he deems it necessary for the preservation of a peaceful and lawful union. He declares himself ready to place in jeopardy the lives of those nearest to him in spirit….”

You can imagine how well the family bonds bear up when doused with the battery acid of months of campaigning and media coverage. Raised in Arizona, it’s not surprising that more than one of the Cofers compares the press to a flock of buzzards, constantly circling, waiting to dive down and feast on the victims.

I’ve read that The Buzzards was a finalist for the 1970 Pulitzer, but can’t confirm from the Pulitzer site. Though an interesting read in any election year and full of points ready-made to make one reflect on today’s equivalents, I found it awfully full of fictional devices for the sake of … well, because Burroway could. Multiple narrators, stump speeches, a diary, stream-of-consciousness, news reports — ample evidence that she was well qualified to write the book she’s best known for, the standard of college courses everywhere: Writing Fiction. Still, if you feel the need to remind yourself of the soul-grinding spectacle of the last umpteen months in American politics, you can do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Buzzards.


The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway
Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969

Music At Midnight, by Muriel Draper (1929)

Front cover of 'Music at Midnight'I don’t believe in golden ages. Pick anyone’s candidate for a golden age — the Athens of Socrates, the Italian Renaissance, Paris in the Twenties, Eisenhower’s America — and without much looking you will find someone — the slaves, the serfs, the blacks — for whom the time was no great party. But I do believe in golden moments — a few months or a few years when circumstances allow a few people to something uniquely marvelous and irreproducable. Music at Midnight is a memoir of one of these golden moments: two years (1912-1914) when Paul and Muriel Draper rented a house at 19 Edith Grove, Chelsea, and it became the center of the music world of London.

Paul Draper was an aspiring American tenor who came to London to study lieder with a renowned voice coach, Raimund von Zur Mühlen, bringing his socialite wife Muriel and their two sons in tow. Although Draper proved a good but not great singer, the couple quickly managed to attract many of the finest musicians living and performing in London at the time. A list of their friends and acquaintances is impressive: Igor Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Chaliapin, Rubinstein, Pierre Monteux, Pablo Casals, Eugene Goossens, Gertrude Stein, John Singer Sargent, and even Henry James were among those who spent evenings at the Draper’s. And no gathering was complete without music.

It often occurred that an artist who did not live in London would arrive for the night of the concert only, leaving London the next day. This meant that he would not arrive at Edith Grove until after the concert and its tedious artist’s-room salutations and compliments were terminated (though I never knew one who did not like them) anywhere between ten-thirty and midnight, and would not leave until it was time to catch the boat-train in the morning. He would find perhaps a movement from a Brahms violin sonata, a Beethoven trio for flute, violin, piano, a Chopin mazurka or German song cycle already in full swing and would creep into a chair or on a cushion until it was over. Then, usually hungry and a little tired from the strain of a concert, we would carry him off upstairs for food and drink. After which the really serious work of the evening would begin and continue until the skylight in the roof above us would turn from black to black-blue to blue-grey to yellow-grey and at last show clear blue sky beyond yellow sunlight, seen through blue-yellow-grey layers of smoke from burning wood, burning tobacco and burning candles. It would be six o’clock — seven o’clock — eight o’clock in the morning before we would make another visit to the dining-room, where the miracle maids after eight hours’ sleep had somehow managed to clear away the debris of Chester’s pink food and lonely parts of deserted fowl and make room for fresh coffee, scrambled eggs in an enormous chafing dish, raspberries and strawberries in big bowls. Oh! those English berries! We would breakfast, and break day by going to bed.

Their neighbors were less enthusiastic about the Draper’s musical soirées. The folks behind them once staged a protest one evening, going from window to window, “blowing policemen’s whistles, shooting off torpedoes, and filling the night air with hootings and rattles.” In response, Rubenstein and John Warner merely attacked the Bach prelude and fugue with even greater enthusiasm. “Bach is stirring enough played by two hands: by four, it is not conducive to sleep,” Muriel notes.

In one way, Music at Midnight is a bit like a snooty man’s version of People magazine — or, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, McDonald’s of the soul. It’s utterly superficial and primarily of interest for the glimpses of the great when they let down their guards. But what English major can resist an account of Henry James on the phone?

To be called to the telephone by Henry James was an experience in itself. The first time it happened I, all unaware, took up the receiver eagerly, and said, “Yes — this is Muriel.”

A voice that began to twist and turn on the other end of the wire, finally spoke.

“Would you be — er — or, rather, my dear, — er — my very dear, if I may call you so, child, would you, — not by — er — er arrangement, but would you — more — er — truthfully speaking — be — er — er NATURALLY at home — this afternoon?”

By that time I was not naturally anything at all, and could only gasp, “Yes, always, any time — yes, yes, this afternoon at five, I will, unnaturally or not, be here — yes,” and hung up.

Muriel soon discovered a trick that many a reader of James has probably been tempted to repeat:

I soon learned to talk with him and listen to him, by withdrawing the weight of my attention from his actual words and the anguished facial contortions that accompanied them, and fastening it on the stream of thought itself. I even diverted my eyes from that part of his face from which the phrases finally emerged, namely, his mouth, and directed them to a more peaceful spot between his eyes, which I imagined to be the source of tought. It proved helpful. … My effort to ignore the words and extract the meaning by a sense of weight, inflection and rhythm which emanated from him … proved an excellent modus operandi from then on….

Muriel Draper, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934
Muriel Draper, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934
Even though Carl van Vechten groused in his diary that Muriel Draper couldn’t write, Music at Midnight bubbles with what one critic called “the zeal of a child anticipating a good time,” and is filled with memorable sketches of the greats. Of the actress Eleanora Duse, for example: “She permeated the air with the ethereal assurance that she was inhabiting her body, but could leave it if she chose.” Or the intimidating Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, who “had the shape and substance of a rock, the smell and sound of vast stretches of earth and water, and breathed like the winds in the air.”

The parties at 19 Edith Grove might have carried on for years, but like most golden moments, it came to a ugly and unexpected end with the start of World War One. Caught on a tour in Germany, Paul Draper obtained passage back to America, leaving Muriel and the boys in London. She hung on, selling off bits of furniture for cash while foreign exchange with the U.S. was restricted, but by mid-1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, she decided it too risky to postpone their own return. When the cab arrived to take them to the train station, a group of friends serenaded their departure.

The Drapers divorced not long after Muriel’s return to the US. Paul Draper married a show girl in 1920 and she divorced him a few years later. He died in 1925 at the age of 38. The New York Times reported the cause as heart disease, but in truth, he drank himself to death. Muriel carried on without him, remaining active in New York social and artistic circles. Despite the fact that Van Vechten dismissed Muriel’s ability to write, he photographed her often in the 1930s. And she was a great supporter of young talent, as actress Marian Seldes recalls in this YouTube clip.

Muriel Draper and her sons Sanders  (L) and Paul, Jr. (R), in the late 1930s
Muriel Draper and her sons Sanders (L) and Paul, Jr. (R), in the late 1930s

Her son Paul Jr. became a well-known dancer, particularly for his fusion of tap and modern dance. His brother, Sanders, went to England and joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He died a hero’s death when he steered the plane he was flying, which had been severely damaged and was plummeting to the ground, and avoided crashing into a school full of children in Hornchurch, just outside London. Muriel became a proponent of Communist and socialist causes until scared off by investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee. She died in Manhattan in 1952.


Music at Midnight, by Muriel Draper
New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1929

My Father Around the House, from Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965)

Sir George Sitwell
Sir George Sitwell
My father was extremely active physically, and he had adopted, in later life, the custom of pacing the long passages at Renishaw because, he said, by cultivating such a habit one ceased to trouble if the days were wet and cold, or torrid and weighted by the heat, were drawing out or drawing in. If you paid no attention to a fact, it ceased to exist. He remembered, however, that the weather was useful as a basis for conversation (he would speak with approbation of noisy female nonentities who “kept the ball rolling,” by which he meant rattling out unceasing nonsense obliterating the passage of time, at every meal). Apart from these interludes, only the sound of his footsteps and the care for his health remained to bind him to reality. He did not believe in taking risks, however, and, though an agnostic by profession, said his prayers every night, on the chance of this being a good investment.

When pacing the passages he walked very slowly, occupying as much time as possible, in order that the house should seem even larger than it is—for he liked to think of it as very large. Occasionally (about once or twice a day) he would pause outside a door, if he could hear voices in the room beyond—not because he wanted to eavesdrop or to spy, since there was nothing he could hear that would interest him, but because he was enabled in this way to touch, for a moment, the world in which others moved, thought, acted, without being obliged to become part of it; and this made him real to himself, real in his isolation, in the separation of his identity from the world that he could yet touch at will. For this reason he would pretend to secret information from an unknown source: “We happen to know,” he would say; and when a letter arrived for my mother in a handwriting he did not know, he would enquire “How are they?” He would spread various objects belonging to himself all over the house, in the many rooms—his hat in one room, his stick in another, his spectacle case in a third—because when he came face to face once more, in the course of his wanderings, with these records of his personality, he was reminded of himself, which was pleasant, and because it enabled him to stake his claim on every room in the house as sole inhabitant. Should any other person enter one of the rooms in question, my father would follow him there, and, conveying suddenly the impression of very great age, would make it clear by his manner that he had intended to rest there and had hoped that he would not be disturbed. Then, having by this means routed the intruder and put him to flight, he would continue his walk.

When he was not pacing up and down the passages, my father spent much of his time in walking up and down outside the house, and when he did this, he would succeed in appearing like a procession of one person—he being the head, the beginning and the end.


taken_care_ofI was over halfway through Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, Taken Care Of (1965), before I realized that it was back in print, thanks to the Bloomsbory Press’ Bloomsbury Reader series, and hence, technically disqualified to be featured here. However, I couldn’t resist posting this excerpt, which follows a portrait of Sitwell’s mother etched with the same comic acid. Sitwell obviously had no sympathy with Louise Bogan’s view of looking back at one’s parents (“There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them”. She seems never to have gotten over the fact that her very handsome and self-centered parents saw their first child ‐ angular, unconforming, and decidedly eccentric in orientation — more as an odd creature than the fruit of their flesh, and in her old age gave them the same treatment, placing them under her magnifying glass like a couple of entomological specimens.

Taken Care Of is also available online through the Open Library (link).


Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell
London: Hutchinson, 1965

The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1949)

springs_anne_goodwin_winslowWhenever I think about Anne Goodwin Winslow, I tend to pair her up with Isa Glenn (whose work was discussed in my interview with Veronica Makowsky). They were both true Southern belles, daughters of wealthy and powerful men, who married Army officers, followed them to exotic assignments, and then, as widows, turned to writing (for a few years) and then faded into obscurity.

Whatever the similarity in their lives, however, their approaches to writing were strikingly different. Glenn, who settled in Manhattan after her husband’s death and started publishing in the 1920s, was usually satirical and looked back upon the South in which she grew up without an ounce of nostalgia. Winslow, on the other hand, retired to her family home, Goodwinslow, outside Memphis and portrayed the South in light strokes and subtle tones. This is not to suggest that she saw her past as a better time — simply that she was a sketcher, while Glenn was an etcher.

Winslow’s delicacy of style may be her greatest handicap in appealing with today’s reader. As I wrote in my post on her final novel, It Was Like This (1949), “Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection.” It seems like so little happens in her books that it’s easy to miss what does.

Not that there isn’t drama in her third, and best-regarded, novel, The Springs. A jealous husband arrives one night and murders the handsome local boy with whom his wife has become infatuated, leaving the body lying beside the springs of the title and calmly walked away, knowing his money and influence would keep him from any punishment. From the moment Mr. Dupree had arrived from New Orleans to deposit his wife and children at the hotel, people had smelled trouble. Stocky and arrogant, his capacity for violence was palpable, and Mrs. Dupree was quickly seen to be a stupid and foolish woman unable to admit her age.

But what I’ve just written is crude and obvious compared to how Winslow tells the story. And it isn’t even the central story in The Springs. In fact, I somewhat suspect that Winslow included the Dupree’s re-enactment of Othello to enhance the contrast between the coarse lines of their drama and the almost imperceptible filaments of the triangle that forms around Alice, the seventeen year-old girl through whose memory the story is filtered.

Mr. Mason, a man from Charleston, South Carolina sent to work in Memphis in the cotton business, falls for Alice at first sight. But though he spends hours walking and talking with her, often telling her of his family’s once-grand plantation, he feels himself encumbered by a commitment to help restore his parents to their former status in Charleston society. When Mason introduces Alice to Brian Howard, a rich and handsome young Englishman (“They really do seem to be surprisingly like they are in the books they write about themselves,” he observes), he consciously puts Brian forward as a more suitable candidate for her hand.

Though Alice seems oblivious to the maneuver, when Brian falls for her and returns the next year with his family’s approval, she accepts his proposal. Mason has gracefully exited stage right, and when he comes back later, she is somewhat perplexed, feeling that it was Mason who had failed her. To her, Mason is the poetic soul and Brian just the rugged outdoorsman, best seen with shotgun in hand and brace of pheasants hanging from his belt. The fine, the beautiful, the romantic thing to do would be to flee with Mason to his doomed plantation by the sea.

But the real story Winslow is telling in The Springs is not about passion or romance but about perspective. The perspective than transforms experience into memory.

Once when they were going through the woods and the others had gone on ahead, she and Mr. Mason stopped under the tree where they used to spend so much time talking, and it made her feel a little strange. In spite of all you could do, and no matter how happy you were, things were always slipping. You never could hold on to them; you just had something else instead.

“It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?” she said.

He had taken off his hat and stood looking up into the tree, but now he looked at her. “How can it, when you’ve never been in any long ago? That’s a place you are never going with me. I’ve told you that.”

“Do you mean you can really hold on to things — in your mind — so that you don’t feel sad about them?”

“Maybe they hold on to me.”

“This place, for instance?”

“This place. But I have had you here with everything green around you. Stand over there and let me put the colors in. Without your hat.”

She stood quite still, helping him to get the picture he wanted to keep; then he let her go and they walked on.

“You mustn’t ever worry about the past, Miss Alice,” he said. “It hardly ever lets you down. As a rule we like it better and better as we go along, or we can keep working on it until we do.”

Mason sees Alice from the distance of a man twenty years her elder. Alice recalls this time from a distance of forty years and another continent. Winslow, who was 74 when The Springs was published, had the perspective of even greater distance, and was able to show — subtly — delicately — indirectly — how each separation from experience loses something in intensity but gains something in proportion.

The Raleigh Inn
The Raleigh Inn

Winslow never suggested it, but from a few bits of information, one can determine that there was a strongly autobiographical element to The Springs. The home where she grew up, Goodwinslow, butted up against the edge of Raleigh Springs, a resort that was set up in the late 1800s to take advantage of the supposed medicinal benefits of the local natural springs, somewhat of a Deep South competitor to the Greenbrier and Saratoga. Like the Springs in Goodwin’s novel, the Raleigh Inn eventually lost its prestige and was turned into a girls’ school. Winslow kept up Goodwinslow, however, dying there in 1959, and it remains one of the fine Southern mansions gracing the outskirts of Memphis.


The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

“Jerked Heartstrings in Town,” by E. B. C. Jones (1918)

oxfordstreet

Jerked Heartstrings in Town

I have heard echoes and seen visions of you
Often of late. Once yawning at a play
A sad keen rapture suddenly pierced me through
Because one puppet moved and sighed your way;

An omnibus’conductor fixed your glance
— Intense, preoccupied — upon my fare ;
I saw your stooping shoulders, at a dance,
Lean by a doorway: but you were not there.

Down Oxford Street, in the slow shopping crowd,
Hearing your very voice, ” Ah, that’s superb ”
I turned, — a tawdry simpering little dowd
Passed by, and left me trembling on the kerb.

from Songs for sale, an anthology of recent poetry, edited by Emily Beatrix Coursolles (E. B. C.) Jones
Oxford: B. H. Blackwell; New York, Longmans, Green & Co., 1918

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

This is one in a series of neglected poems from the Internet Archive.

Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer (1980)

journey_around_my_room_boganLouise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”

Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer, a professor of English at Goucher College, after the idea was suggested by Amanda Vaill, then an editor at Viking. Limmer framed the work in rough chronological order, using text from a story Bogan published in The New Yorker in 1933 titled “Journey Around My Room” as introduction, close, and chapter prefaces. She also used the lines from one of Bogan’s poems, “Train Tune” (“Back through clouds/Back through clearing/Back through distance/Back through silence…”) as chapter titles. Finally, she pulled from the mass of papers Bogan left extracts from journals, notebooks, poems, letters, short stories, scraps of paper, essays, even recorded conversations hundreds of fragments, the tesserae from which she assembled this mosaic.

The rough and vulgar facts are not there. Without the outline of Bogan’s life that Limmer provides in her autobiography, the reader would not know when she was born, that she was briefly married, to a soldier with whom she had almost nothing in common, that she had a daughter and then left him, that she had a second marriage, to writer Raymond Holden, that also ended, that she had an affair with Theodore Roethke and an infatuation with Edmund Wilson, that she served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, that she was hospitalized several times for depression, that she spent much of her later life living alone in what she called the faubourg of Washington Heights. Bogan explained her reticence as an attempt to make sure that future researchers into her life would have to work for their pay, but the truth was simpler: her solitude was essential to both her work and her survival.

William Jay Smith, one of her few close friends, with whom she collaborated on a collection of poems for children, wrote after her death that when he used to call her up to meet for lunch, Bogan would always decline, saying she had a dentist appointment. He eventually figured out that no one could need so much dental work. As Limmer puts it, “She came first.” She once wrote, in response to a questionnaire she set for herself, that her wish was “To live without apology.” She had no desire to confess her sins and no interest in trumpeting her virtues. “The fact of the matter,” Limmer writes, “is that Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them.”

Bogan’s childhood experiences clearly did much to shape her sensibility and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Her father was a reticent man who held a series of jobs in small mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, moving the family every few years. Her mother was the catalyst of the explosions and scandals that led the family to pull up stakes. “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head,” Bogan writes, but she does remember one scene: “The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror.”

From Elizabeth Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1986), one can learn that Bogan’s mother saw herself as a great beauty and pursued men she met in the hotels and boardinghouses in which the family often stayed. She was victim to “her own vanity’s desire for praise and love.” She left her husband on at least one occasion and always considered him unworthy of her. As she grew older, her pursuits more and more ended in frustration. A certain level of resentment and impending chaos simmered throughout Bogan’s childhood. “I had no idea of ordered living.” No wonder she remembers such affection for the home in which her friend Ethel Gardner lived. “I can only express my delight and happiness with the Gardners’ way of living by saying that they had one of everything.”

Eventually Bogan’s mother surrendered her hopes of romantic escape and the family settled in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Boston. Revisiting the area as an adult, Bogan found the sense of failure overwhelming: “I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of my family’s complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me.” Yet she also recognizes that “The thing to remember, and ‘dwell on,’ is the extraordinary courage manifested by those two disparate, unawakened (if not actually lost) souls: my mother and father.” What little money they had paid for music lessons for Louise and her brother, for occasional theater tickets, for tram fares to the Girl’s Latin School, from which Louise graduated in 1915. And they survived “in this purgatory — with an open hell in close relation.”

Again, for what happened next we have to turn to Limmer’s introduction or Frank’s biography. Bogan attended Boston University for year and was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had begun to attract some attention for her writing, getting a number of poems published as a freshman. She chose instead to marry an Army corporal named Curtis Alexander and followed him when he was assigned to a post in the Panama Canal Zone. She found the life unendurable. “All we had in common was sex. Nothing to talk about. We played cards.” She took her baby, Maidie, back to Boston in May 1918. A few months later, the family was notified that Bogan’s brother Charles had been killed in a battle in the Haumont Woods in France. The news devastated Bogan’s mother, leaving her emotionally shattered for the rest of her life. About a year later, Alexander died.

Bogan took the meager widow’s pension from the Army and used the money to pay for a trip to Europe. She spent a year in Vienna studying piano, reading Tolstoy, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and writing. Then she returned to the U. S., settling in New York City, where her first collection of poems, Body of This Death (1923), was published. Her portrait appeared, along with those of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Genevieve Taggard in a Vanity Fair article, “Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of the Men.”

She began a relationship with Raymond Holden and they married in 1925. She was invited for a stay at the Yaddo Colony and published her second collection, Dark Summer (1929). On Boxing Day 1929, the house she and Holden were living in burned down, taking with it almost all of her first ten years’ work. Her relationship with Holden was troubled by her jealousy and their mutual heavy drinking, and she entered a sanitarium, complaining of depression and exhaustion. There would be more such stays in the next thirty years. She took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933 to return to Europe, this time spending the spring and summer in Italy and France.

She separated from Holden in 1934, began her affair with Roethke in 1935, and lived by writing reviews and stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. These stories, which can be found in Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005), edited by Mary Kinzie, were impressionistic but clearly autobiographical, and Bogan discussed the possibility of building a novel, to be titled Laura Daly’s Story, with an editor at Scribner’s. Limmer incorporates passages from several of the stories into Journey Around My Room.

Louise Bogan in the 1950sBy the end of the 1930s, Bogan had divorced Holden, taken up residence in the apartment in Morningside Heights that she maintained to the end of her life, and become the regular poetry editor for The New Yorker. Over the next three decades, she continued to write, if more slowly as time wore on, and kept up a steady round of engagements as a lecturer and visiting professor at colleges around the U. S.. She published three more collections, one per decade: Poems and New Poems (1941), Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (1954) and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968).

Unlike many of her peers, she avoided involvement with social causes, and one would have little idea what was going on in the outside world, as well as her own life, from reading Journey Around My Room. “What is staler than old politics?” she once wrote. “It is like walking over old furnace cinders to read what once was news of political chicanery or change.” Her foremost concern was her own work. “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre. The woman who ran away.”

Bogan felt her talent doomed her to insignificance.”‘My time will come,’ you say to yourself, but how can you know whether or not your time has not already come and gone?”:

Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, squandered out, in taking streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes — in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair — older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age.

This is not to suggest that she faded away in lonely isolation. While Journey Around My Room shows us a woman who spent a great deal of time exploring the deeper currents of her spirit, an hour reading her letters, particularly those from the Forties on, in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters makes it clear that she never lost touch with what was going on around her. She read copiously and was quick to recommend books to her friends. She went to plays and kept up with the movies, taking delight in Jules and Jim and other films that hit the New York art houses in the Fifties and Sixties. She loved an occasional indulgent dip into gossip and could toss out razor-sharp barbs when in the mood.

But she also struggled increasingly with depression and was frustrated by the necessity for — and the effects — of the the drugs she took to cope with it. “This morning I thought that the 1st pill was going to see me through; a clear, untroubled interval would show up (take over) every so often…. But soon that secondary sort of yearning hunger (which is not real hunger, but is in some way attached to the drug) began again.” She found less and less energy to write. “Any true writing … will have to be done in the afternoon.” The unpublished poems Limmer includes in the last chapter, “Back through the midnight,” however, reveal that Bogan maintained some amount of hope that this, too, would pass:

The Castle of My Heart

Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I lived for long with little joy.
For Falsest Danger, with its counterpart
Sorrow, has made this siege its long employ.

Now lift the siege, for in your bravest part
Full power exists, most eager for employ;
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I have lived for long with little joy.

Do not let Peril play its lordly part;
Show up the bad game’s bait, and its employ.
Nor, for a moment, strut as future’s toy.
Advanced, and guard your honor and my art.

Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart.

Six months before her death, she wrote her long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell:

The struggle with silence still goes on. —But I plan some secretarial help, after the holiday. If this doesn’t help, I’ll have another conference with you; and plan some strategy. Surely I can outwit this thing! I don’t want to give up just yet.

Louise Bogan died in her apartment, in the early hours of February 1970, of a heart attack.

“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier,” she once complained. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Journey Around My Room has not left my nightstand since I first read it over 18 months ago. I have discovered and written about many good books over the course of the past ten years, but I am conservative in the use of words like “great” and “masterpiece.” Journey Around My Room is a masterpiece, one of the truly great American autobiographies. Every time I open it I find something stunning in its honesty and insight.


Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer
New York: The Viking Press, 1980

The best time to write about one’s childhood, from Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan (1980)

nb_0625The best time to write about one’s childhood is in the early thirties, when the contrast between early forced passivity and later freedom is marked; and when one’s energy is in full flood. Later, not only have the juices dried up, and the energy ceased to be abundant, but the retracing of the scene of earliest youth has become a task filled with boredom and dismay. The figures that surrounded one have now turned their full face toward us; we understand them perhaps still partially, but we know them only too well. They have ceased to be background to our own terribly important selves; they have irremediably taken on the look of figures in a tragicomedy; we now look on them ironically, for we know their end, although they themselves do not yet know it. And now — in the middle fifties — we have traced and retraced their tragedy so often that, in spite of the understanding we have, it bores and offends us. There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them. This attitude comes hard and must be reached with anguish. For it one is to deal with the people in the past — of one’s past — at all, one must feel neither anger nor bitterness. We are not here to expose each other, like journalists writing gossip, or children blaming others for their own bad behavior. And open confession, for certain temperaments (certainly for my own), is not good for the soul, in any direct way. To confess is to ask for pardon; and the whole confusing process brings out too much self-pity and too many small emotions in general. For people like myself to look back is a task. It is like re-entering a trap, or a labyrinth, from which one has only too lately, and too narrowly, escaped.

from New York: The Viking Press, 1980

Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1976)

Cover of first edition of 'Personal Geography'For a writer who became associated with Maine and the Northeast and life on a small farm, Elizabeth Coatsworth managed to cover more of the rest of the world’s terrain in her first 25 years than many of her more cosmopolitan peers. And her last book, Personal Geography is aptly named, covering both great travels and years spent in the space of just a few square miles.

The book’s subtitle, “Almost an Autobiography,” is also apt. While Coatsworth manages to tell us most of the essential facts of her life, she does it by weaving together passages from her diaries and journals, going as far back as the early 1900s and running up to the time she was writing — an amalgam of things, she calls it, “Each piece a moment in my life, caught in passing.” And she recommends it be read the same way she wrote it: “in snatches — picked up and put down, and I hope picked up again.”

Coatsworth was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1893. She refers to Buffalo as “my Middle East”: “There is a Middle East in this country as surely as there is a Middle West, but it is not called by that name. It is an emotion rather than a nomenclature.” Her father owned Buffalo’s largest grain exchange and the family lived in one of the best houses in town, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. They wintered in California, traveled to Europe and Egypt, and sent Elizabeth and her sister to Buffalo’s best girl’s school and, in Elizabeth’s case, on to college at Vassar.

When her father died in 1912, her mother sold the mansion. After Elizabeth graduated from college in May 1914, they set off, with her younger sister Margaret, for Europe. They visited England, France and Holland before war broke out, but carried on regardless, moving on to Spain, Italy, Egypt and Palestine. Then they sailed to Japan and China, down to Southeast Asia, and finally back to California. Of all the countries they visited, she loved China the best: “I think my whole preference for China could be epitomized by a flaking wall near a temple, on which someone had sketched a narcissus and a line of Chinese characters. In Japan that would have been tidied up. But not in China, the lovely decrepit China of those days.”

Elizabeth’s idle itinerant life ended in 1929 when she married the writer Henry Beston. Beston had just written his best-known book, The Outermost House, which related the story of a year living in an isolated house on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. A year later, they bought Chimney Farm, near Nobleboro, Maine, which remained their home for the rest of their lives, and Coatsworth published her second book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which went on to win the Newberry Medal as the best children’s book of the 1930.

Though they together wrote nearly two dozen books at Chimney Farm, Beston and Coatsworth had fundamentally different approaches to writing. Beston would spend months planning, researching, organizing, thinking — and lining up his publishing contract. Coatsworth tended to write in a flash. “Writing was for me an addiction like drink, which I kept as much as possible out of sight.” A dedicated naturalist, Beston helped her learn to observe the life of the plants and animals in and around Damariscotta Pond, the lake alongside Chimney Farm. And she came to find outside her window sights as amazing as anything she’d seen on her world travels:

Now and then a heavy shower passes over our road eastward beyond the lake and its dark shores. The clouds will mass in a black wall there on the other side, while the sunshine strikes in the fields on this side, and every grass-blade, weed, and flower in them, to a wet and burning green. A tremulous rainbow hangs against the clouds. Looking out through your skull’s two windows you know you are seeing a beauty rare and certain to be gone in a moment. It is one of the miracles of daily life that you should see it at all. It is, surely, an enchantment more fit for the eyes of magicians than for everyday human beings ourselves.

Still, she never thought she could match Beston’s gift for observation: “I think sometimes that when Henry and I die, Henry will go knowing that he has given an exact impression of the world and life as he has seen it, but that I shall know that I have left behind me only glimpses, random remarks, things seen at a tangent.” Henry, who was five years older, died in 1968. When Coatsworth wrote Personal Geography, she had lived alone on the farm for eight years. “After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight.”

Yet she is in no hurry. “I don’t want to die because even in this narrower radius there are so many people and things still to enjoy.” And even as she acknowledges having to give up driving, her mind is still wandering far afield. She imagines the lost cities in the oases of the deserts between China, India and Russia, the icebergs off Greenland, and the hundreds of small volcanic cones in Anatolia. “None of these places have I ever seen and certainly never will see. But I do not wish to see them. They swim in my fancy, often nameless. They are a living part of my thought.”

Personal Geography belongs on many a nightstand, to be picked up and put down and picked up again.


Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene, 1976

My Mother’s Mirror, fromPersonal Geography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth

girlatmirror

The walls of my room would be covered with portraits if only I know the spell to call them forth from my mother’s mirror with its round silver frame. The first portrait would perhaps be of Mother in her wedding veil, tucking orange blossoms between the veil and soft fair hair. There would be many quick sketches of Mother later, in the first frilled shirtwaist, wearing for the first time her gold pince-nez, and then as an older woman, holding the same sweet look she had had as a girl. Father was not one to look much in mirrors, but he may have looked in this once or twice to see if the part in his hair was straight. There would be hidden here no portraits or sketches of Grandmother Coatsworth. She would, I think, never have entered her daughter-in-law’s room. A young woman has a right to some privacy, and if Mother’s was minimal, at least I am sure it was absolute.

Of course there would have been many sketches of Margaret and of me, so unlike in everything but our youth. The only carefully studied mirror-portrait of me was taken when I was ten or twelve years old.

Mother came into the room and said mildly, “You’ve looked long enough at yourself, Betty.” Or was I still “Bess” then? Anyway she was completely mistaken. I was not admiring myself. I was searching to find out who and what I was. There was no humor in the eyes that looked back at me under the arching brows, but I am sure there was humor in the thoughts back of the eyes. Like Father, I could make a joke without smiling. Like him, I could not laugh, just as I could not whistle or sing. As yet no one even guessed when I thought something was funny.

So if I knew the magic formula, all about this room there would be sketches and sometimes portraits of us all, of blue-eyed, smiling Margaret, and of sober, solemn Betty dark as a shadow. Our spirits did not know then how akin they were, how in later years the fair and the dark would merge into one complete whole, which even death would not completely destroy.

from Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press, 1976

The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, by Helene Mullins (1970)

nb_0623On the few times I get to spend in a used bookstore, I find myself increasingly depressed at how often I can tell in a glance that there’ll be little chance of finding something I haven’t seen before. Which is, obviously, something of a natural consequence of running this site for over ten years. When this happens, I give it one last shot by heading for the poetry section.

If they have one. If they don’t, it’s time to abandon all hope.

If they do, there is a better chance of finding something hitherto unknown because by God there are a lot of skinny books of poetry that have been published over the last hundred-some years. A lot of it is pretty forgettable, as a growing stack of skinny books of poetry in my “To Donate” box attests. But there’s a good share that was doomed to neglect simply because it’s from too small a press, doesn’t include anything that got pulled into an anthology, or has some hideous design or amateur artwork that screams “Stay Away!” to all but worshippers of one of the poetic muses.

Or, as in the case of Helene Mullins’ collection, The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969 (1970), so boring that it could easily be mistaken for a review draft. Except the one I found earlier this year was in immaculate shape, protected in Brodart, included an inscription by the author (“To Bob Adams with good wishes”), and sold for just $4. The Mirrored Walls came from a moderately well recognized publisher (Twayne) and included blurbs from John Hall Wheelock, Louis Untermeyer, and A. M. Sullivan, so it indicated that Mullins had made it under the mid-20th-century American poetry Big Top, if not quite into the center ring.

So who was Helene Mullins? Of the few online sources, the short bio sketch on the Yale Library page devoted to her papers (and those of her sister Marie McCall, who published a few novels) offers the most information. Born in New York City in 1899, she spent most of her life in the city. Married twice, began publishing poems in the early 1920s, including regular appearances in FPA’s (Franklin Pierce Adams) “Conning Tower” column in The New York World newspaper. Along with poetry, she wrote two novels early in her career — Paulus Fry: The History of an Esthete (1924), a quirky, elegant little jeux d’esprit in the vein of Carl Van Vechten and James Branch Cabell (“a flutterby-butterfly book,” one review called it), co-authored with her sister; and Convent Girl (1929). Convent Girl was an apparently autobiographical account of a girl’s life in a city convent boarding school for three years that was praised for its “clearness of vision” and “calm, well balanced prose, free of all flamboyant sentimentality and flashy brittleness, written frankly, and undoubtedly without prejudice.” She published four collections of poetry: Earthbound and Other Poems (1929); Balm in Gilead (1930); Streams from the Source (1938); and The Mirrored Walls. Married twice, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1935. She spent several weeks in a coma and it took her several years to recover. She lent her support to a number of liberal, human rights, and peace causes over the years, and died in 1991.

Mullins was one of the younger women poets to come to notice in the 1920s, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie reigned, but she quickly gained a solid foothold, publishing in Scribners, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. She was among the more frequent contributors of poetry to The New Yorker in its first ten years.

Irony to the Ironical

Accept from me, at least, an admiration
Not cultivated too laboriously.
Most delicate shall be the situation,
A matter of wit and wine and poetry.

You need not give me caution in exchange,
For I am self-sufficient and content.
I think that you are beautiful and strange,
And willingly I yield to sentiment.

Passionate Beyond Belief

Passionate beyond belief
Is the crisp and dying leaf.
Watch it whirl through clouds of dust,
Determined not (until it must)
To yield and be forever still.
What a brave display of will!
What a glorious, futile fight!
O gathering dark, O waiting night,
Few such do you absorb when all
The casualties of autumn fall.

I like the fact that this last little ode to death appeared alongside ads for Peek Frean biscuits, the National Horse Show, Kauffman for Riding Togs (since 1876), and Alix’ Famous Collarless Wrap from Bloomingdale’s. You can see why at least one acquaintance called her “a mix of Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” On the other hand, Mullins managed to rub Southern poet Allan Tate wrong in a big way: “I’m in favor of rejecting all verse henceforth by this piece of baggage! She’s the vulgarest, rudest wench I’ve yet graced with my presence. She also has a voice like the taste of a persimmon.”

Mullins’ basic style changed little over the years. Of her first collection, Earthbound and Other Poems, one reviewer wrote, “She is content to let the theme develop with practically no ornament; she delights in harmony but rarely employs counterpoint.” Of Balm in Gilead, another wrote that her verse “is honest, admirable, and wise”: “Constant war is being waged between her high heart and the lesson of bitter resignation she thinks we all must learn.”

A significant shift in perspective, however, can be detected in the poems found in Streams from the Source, the first collection to appear after her accident and convalescence:

She Marvels Over What They Say

It cannot last,” they said to me,
When I with Love went dancing.
“The end is always ruthlessly
And quietly advancing.”
But I knew better, being young.
And I would not endeavor
To understand a dismal tongue;
My dance would last forever.
Now that with Pain I’m lying prone,
“It cannot last,” they tell me,
And in a calm and soothing tone
Endeavor to compel me
To be assured the end will come.
But though it chafe or grieve them,
I find their comfort wearisome;
I still do not believe them.

“Her lines are no longer founded on self-pity or self-preoccupation,” wrote Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review. “It is not an austerity so much as a gathering of intellectual forces, a translation of the fanciful in terms of the philosophic.”

Her subjects also shifted to social issues: unemployment, justice, and, with the start of World War Two, the fight against totalitarianism. “Interview with a Dictator,” for example, asks “What is it to be in power, a ruler of men/To advance beyond the humble of the earth/Who strive and suffer, and fall to rise again/Begging their fellows to recognize their worth?” These would remain a major focus of her work, at least as reflected in her last collection, The Mirrored Walls. In “How Forgive the Power of Rulers,” twenty years after “Interview,” her question remains essentially the same: “How forgive the power of rulers/waging wars with borrowed breath/of entertainers who copyright/our dramas of life and death.” (You can hear Mullins reading this and other poems, along with fellow poet Henrietta Weigel on a KPFA show from 1964 on the Internet Archive (Link).

These are not, however, the poems to remember her by. They remind me a little of the Red flag-waving poems that Genevieve Taggard wrote during her New Masses phase. You do have to give credit for hanging in with her causes, though. Rounding the corner on seventy, she still managed to feel the fire of comradeship with the Flower Power generation: “We march and sing and demonstrate./We are the rebels who extol/the equal rights that cry for peace,/the liberty which keeps man whole” (from “Hippy Song”).

Instead, if there is anything to be remembered from The Mirrored Walls, it is Mullins’ poems that deal with the personal, not the social, the intimate and not the public:

My Mother’s Final Gesture

Before she left, my mother,
trying to make it easier for us,
by slow degrees erased her identity.
Shedding the meretricious ornamentations,
the perpetual hopes, the outworn new beginnings,
she covered with the tenuity of old age
her beauty, grace, the poor remains of a gaiety
hoarded against a need that might arise.
So intent was she
on divesting herself of all familiar lineaments,
she did no heed a word of what we were saying:
that we were glad she soon would be released
from the tremors of our menaced civilization,
the fears and horrors seeping through our walls.
Barely recognizable at the end,
except to us who knew her as she was,
she slipped away
with a reassuring flutter of her hands.
We watched her go toward her unknown destination,
then turned to face our own.

Dynamic of Life

Everything changes, everything passes away,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
The joys impatient to leave me I try to delay,
None of them pause, outlast my clumsy embrace.

New flowers bloom and new songs come into fashion,
The hair of my love is black and then it is gold.
I shrink from the touch of an unfamiliar passion,
I reject the strange and new, I cling to the old.

Everything changes, everything passes away,
Nothing will heed me, nothing remain in its place.
The warmth I will need tomorrow goes from me today,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.

I wouldn’t say that any of what I read in this neglected collection were great poems. But as someone about a block away from rounding the corner on sixty, whose mother is going gently into that good night, I will say that these two were tough to read without feeling a chill down my spine.


The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969, by Helene Mullins
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970

Some Sketches from The Woman’s Record, or Sketches of All Distinguished Women, by Sarah Joseph Hale (1853)

Sarah Josepha Hale, from the frontispiece to The Woman's Record

womans-record

ASTORGAS, MARCHIONESS OF

A Lady who lived in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in Spain, during the reign of Charles 11., killed with her own hands a beautiful woman, the mistress of her husband, and having prepared the heart of her victim, placed it at dinner before her husband. When he had eaten it, she rolled the head of the woman to him on the table. She then took refuge in a convent, where she became insane through rage and jealousy.

BRUN, MADAME LE

Was a French artiste or painter, who gained considerable reputation at Paris. Her paintings, historical pieces as well as portraits, were exhibited in the Louvre. Madame de Genlis speaks of the talents of Madame 1e Brun with much warmth of praise, and complains that the men sought to depreciate her paintings because she was a woman.

ERAUSO, CATALINA DE

Tns Monja Alferez, or Nun-Lieutenant. More famous women have lived than this, but a more extraordinary one has never been recorded. Her career was one of singular adventure, of wild passions, of unsparing cruelty, of heroic bravery; the few virtues which palliate her vices and savage conduct are such as are found to vindicate the dormant element in the breasts of brigands and pirates. And it is not the least singular circumstance connected with such a history, that it has been written down, detailed, and powerfully described by the heroine herself, in a style wonderfully vigorous, clear, and in pure and classic Spanish.

… It would be impossible, in this sketch, to detail her numerous homicides and fierce anger; but one may be alluded to from its consequences. Becoming enraged, at a gambling house, with a man of consequence, of Chile, she attacked him, and savagely killed him. She was obliged to take the refuge of a sanctuary; but as the friends of the murdered person were of rank and power, her retreat was carefully guarded, and after remaining there eight months, she felt the necessity of escaping into another government. The only way to effect this was by traversing the icy deserts of the Andes. “In this attempt I may find death,” said she; “by remaining here I shall certainly find it.“ At the outset she met three outlaws, who, like herself, were fugitives from justice. These banded themselves by necessity: fatigue and hunger were their first difficulties. Successively they killed their horses, when all other food was spent; but soon advancing into higher regions of the mountain, the cold became intense and biting. Still Catalina cheered on her companions, infused her own courage, and sustained their efforts to drag on, when one of them uttered a cheerful cry — help, aid dawned! Two men were standing at a little distance; the wretched creature tried to spring forward; he fell on a heap of snow. Catalina followed his indication; alas! horror and misery—the two men were unfortunate beings, dead, frozen stiff, with a ghastly look of anguish stamped on their frightful faces! Even Catalina was for an instant daunted. She turned to the man who had first seen them -— he was dead! She felt it was no time to pause, but urging on her remaining companions, sought a new impetus for exertion in her very despair. The cold became more and more bitter; still she stopped not. She saw her companions sink, one by one; she had no time to mourn them — recommending herself to the Virgin, she went on. The temperature became milder; at last she reached Tucuman, where she met with the utmost kindness and hospitality. She soon resumed her wild military life, always involving herself in quarrels.

FONTANGES. MARIE ANGELIQUE, DUCHESS 0F

Successor to Montespan in the affections of Louis XlV. “She was beautiful as an angel, but silly as a goose,” as Abbé Choisi said. She nevertheless captivated the affections of Louis XIV, who was tired of the pride and the caprice of Madame de Montespan. As soon as she discovered the passion which she had inspired, and had secured her royal conquest, she became haughty and extravagant, spending a hundred thousand crowns a month, and retorting a hundred-fold the disdain she had experienced from Madame de Montespan. She became the general dispenser of the king’s favours, and the model of fashion. One day, when she was on a hunting-party, the wind having put her head-dress in disorder, she fastened it with a riband, the knot of which falling over her forehead, this fashion spread all over Europe under her name. The king made her a duchess; but she did not long enjoy the rank, as she died when scarcely twenty years old, in the abbey of Port Royal, Paris, shortly after an accouchement.

ROSAMOND

Was the wife of Alboin of Albovinus, king of Lombardy, in the sixth century. Alboin slew her father, Gunimond, king of a neighbouring horde, in battle, and married his daughter by force. And, in order to retain a monument of his victory, he converted the skull of Gunimond into a drinking-cup, which he sent full of wine to Rosamond. In revenge, she had him assassinated.

from The Woman’s Record, available on the Internet Archive: Link.

Snake, by Kate Jennings (1997)

Cover of US edition of "Snake"Snake is a tight short novel about two people who come at their marriage from very different directions.

Everybody likes you. A good man. Decent. But disappointed. Who wouldn’t be? That wife. Those children.

Your wife. You love and cherish her. You like to watch her unobserved, through a window, across a road or a paddock, as if you were a stranger and knew nothing about her. You admire her springy hair, slow smile, muscled legs, confident bearing. If this woman were your wife, your chest would swell with pride.

She is your wife, she despises you. The coldness, the forbearing looks, the sarcastic asides, they are constant. She emasculates you with the sure blade of her contempt. The whirring of the whetstone wheel, the strident whine of steel being held to it, that is the background noise to the nightmare of your days.

Just 157 pages long with 77 chapters, some no more than a paragraph long, Snake is a novel distilled to a series of moments across a twenty-year relationship, and goes down as strong and biting as a good whiskey. Setting her story in a dry land of farms where drought and dust sometimes leech the life out of all living things, Jennings also reduces her words to lean, sinewy lines: “She chewed on the injustice of it like a dog with a piece of hide”; “Irene always said nobody could read thoughts; they were the only things that were truly your own”; “These were people so certain of their own superiority they need not remark on it; in their complacency, they resembled well-stuffed sofas.”

Snake is one of just two novels written by Kate Jennings. Moral Hazard (2002) is equally brief, with a similar structure of pithy chapters. It draws upon Jennings’ experiences of working as a corporate speechwriter to help pay for care for her husband, graphic designer Bob Cato, who developed Alzheimer’s, and now seems prescient in its depiction of the risk-heedless appetites of Wall Street that led to the crash of 2008.

Both Snake and Moral Hazard are available via OpenLibrary.org.


Snake, by Kate Jennings
Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press, 1997

All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1956)

all-the-books-of-my-lifeAll the Books of My Life came about fifty years too early for the wave of what some refer to a “bibliomemoirs” — books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, Howards End is on the Landing, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, and about a gajillion others (see Jenny Bhatt’s multi-part disquisition on the topic, which is already about a couple dozen titles out of date). Unlike these, however, it’s available free, via Project Gutenberg Canada, provided you’re willing to swear you’re not accessing the site from the U.S..

All the Books of My Life was the last of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s over fifty books, most of them novels with settings in rural England — the sort of books that Stella Gibbons parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. In scope, it puts the bibliomemoirs of the 21st century to shame: this is truly a lifetime’s account of reading, starting with the books she came to know at the foot of her nanny and ending with the religious works that came to command a larger part of her reading list as her interest in Catholicism and mysticism grew over the years. And in the titles covered, it provides a remarkable contrast with the kinds of titles one finds in recent bibliomemoirs.

I doubt, for example, that many of today’s girls would be willing to put up with the earnest Victorian morality and innocence found in the many tales by L. T. Meade that she devoured. They will not find the works of Rosa Nouchette Carey, Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey and Mrs. Philip Champion de Crespigny filling up the tables of their local lending library — particularly since lending libraries were already a thing of the past when Kaye-Smith was writing. Nor are young readers likely to come across a copy of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, let alone spend the next months reading it. Kaye-Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to follow her interests wherever they might lead, as long as they remained within the confines of the school library: “If you find anything that’s improper you can always skip it. It seems a pity not to read the book when you’re enjoying it so much.”

sheila-kaye-smithShe acknowledges that her youthful hunger for reading often led her past the point of her own understanding. “Read Thackeray later,” one of her mother’s friends advised. “You wouldn’t understand him now. You’d miss a lot.” “This was perfectly true,” she admits, “and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early.” Among these was Middlemarch: “I read it painstakingly, without skipping a word, but most of its virtues — and they are pre-eminent — were thrown away on me.” I have to say that I thought the same thing many times when I saw the college-prep reading lists our kids received: “King Lear? For a sixteen year-old? Are you kidding me?”

She admits to have struggled unsuccessfully with certain authors who were regularly recommended to her. While Austen became a lifelong love, each time she picked up something by Trollope, “I waded —- yes, that is my word —- through Trollope’s prosy style, in which his characters struggle for life like sheep in a swamp.” She also argues that a fair number of the authors whose works were considered classics in her youth have failed the test of time: “Any novelist in the second or third rank today could make rings round Maria Edgeworth; and compare Bulwer Lytton’s method of writing history with that of Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott —- it is not only changing fashion that has blurred the colours of the earlier writers. They were always dingy and no closer to what they represented than a Victorian stained-glass window.” Ironically, one could say the same thing now if comparing a book by Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott to Wolf Hall or The Seige of Krishnapur. Of the two writers whose work she stored up to tide her through the dark years of World War Two, P. G. Wodehouse’s readership stays comic and carries on; I’m not sure the same could be said for the Catholic theologian Friedrich von Hügel or his relatively light Letter to a Niece.

“In spite of all the books I have read there are so many more that I want to read and there is so much more that I want to know,” Kaye-Smith writes at the end of All the Books of My Life. Sadly, however, she did not even live to see this last of her own books in print.


All the Books of My Life: A Bibliobiography, by Sheila Kaye-Smith
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956

Railings, from Another Part of the Forest, by G. B. Stern (1941)

London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941
London park railings being dismantled for scrap metal, around 1941

A paragraph in a local paper told me a few weeks ago that orders had been given to “prune the railings” at Brighton, and use them for battleships.

A short time ago I had to drive up from Berkshire through Western London. Wherever I looked I became aware of railings, still in their rusty iron slumber, but dangerously potential; a delirium of railings planted in a frenzy most often where they could not possibly have been needed; as stoutly reinforcing a stout wall; as guarding sturdy little posts that would obviously rather have remained self-reliant; as shielding triangles of trodden grass that once were plague-pits (but this is no time to be out of date); as lining up in front of well-shuttered shops and barricading blind alleys; railings defensive and offensive; and railings content to stand in pure decoration (sic); an abundance, an orgy, an ecstasy of superfluous railings, which at a certain period in our history of architecture must have rushed down upon the city and conquered it with the same enthusiasm that great Birnam Wood once came to Dunsinane.

I have little doubt but that driving north, south or east, now that my attention was awake to railings, I should have seen them four times multiplied, striping our parks and our streets and our squares with bad-tempered vigilance. For the soul of railings is essentially rigid and narrow-minded, not to compare with benevolent cheerful wooden fencing which swirls into friendly knots and peepholes; but with the vicious snarl of barbed wire, the cruel jagged repartee of broken glass stuck upright on top of a wall.

Had we ever paused, down the peaceful years, to reflect upon the solemnity of a life guarded by railings, it might have seemed a little bit foolish. What did they fear, these nineteenth century folk, that they retired behind such preposterous regiments of iron? For though it is difficult to trace the very first man who cried “Eureka!” and leapt to his feet, inspired to design the very first railing, and triumphantly planted it, and having accomplished his life’s work, went satisfied to bed, yet most volumes of authority agree in yielding up the date 1812 for the beginning of railings in their multitudes; why this should coincide with the burning of Moscow is a matter that gives play to the most charming conjecture (or perhaps it was merely accident). What did they fear? They could not, even they, have thought that now and for ever they were adequately protected from the foe (their songs and ballads show us that enemies were always “foemen” in a Victorian world).

A proper valediction to railings could be illustrated with the picture of a disconsolate ghost in flowing whiskers and Albert watch-chain, weeping over a symbolical railing offered up to serve its country in time of war. For now, in time of war, the whole matter quite simply reverts to sanity: Is this not the very thing we are fighting for, that bars should be translated into battleships, and battleships into freedom? A London child of the past, probably also a Brighton child or a Birmingham child, always accepted railings as a matter of course, created as part of a seven-day universe; plenty of juvenile uses for railings; but chiefly for that urchin impulse to run along drawing a hoopstick across them, making sweet music. Friendly errand-boys leant their bicycles against the area railings outside your house, and then clattered with their baskets down the deep Victorian steps to deep basements copied from the Italians.

Just beyond the railings at the entrance of Kensington Gardens stood the woman with the balloons and the man with the toy windmills. Once inside, the railings did not bother you at all: you soon discovered, though they stood upright in sentinel rows along two sides of a grass enclosure, along the third they irrationally dipped to a low rail running horizontally only a foot high from the path, so that all you had to do, you and your dog, was to skip across the low boundary and go capering back to forbidden territory with perfect ease and a clear conscience. Yes, nice familiar things, railings, that made your gloves dirty, and who cared except Nannie?

Usually, in spring, when the awnings went up and the window-boxes blossomed, the railings became a freshly painted menace, vivid and sticky and very, very beautiful. “Don’t touch, child, they’re wet!” You smiled seraphically; you had already touched, and proved it for yourself.

I keep meaning to put together a post about G. B. Stern’s … well, autobiographies, to use the label that was put on them, although “commonplace book-channeled through stream-of-consciousness” is probably a more accurate one. They are both irresistible and unreadable. Irresistible because you can open them up at just about any page and alight upon a wonderful little improvisation on a topic like railings or walking sticks or taxi-cabs. Unreadable because there is really no shape or structure to these books, and at a certain point, that becomes unbearable. I’ve never managed to get through one from start to finish: I inevitably toss it aside in frustration.

At such moments, wandering along with G. B. Stern on a random walk through her memories reminds me of something John Waters once wrote of Edith Massey, one of his early amateur Baltimorean stars:

Edie and I used to do this kind of date together, but we’d drive by car, and she would drive me crazy because she would say out loud every single thing she saw. We’d be driving along and she’d say, “Car, house, lawn, pretty lady, red car, telephone pole, lawn, lawn, lawn…” I said, “Edith!!” It was just… internalization was a concept she was very unfamiliar with.

But then, a month or two later, having finished some other book, I reach for Monogram (1936), Trumpet Voluntary (1944), or Benefits Forgot and begin to think, “Maybe I should go on a drive with Edie again.” Fortunately, if you have a mind to do the same, you can start for free with Another Part of the Forest (1941), which is available on the Internet Archive.

Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham (1961)

Cover of paperback edition of "Dear Rat"I’m a great believer in the miracle of serendipity. For me, it usually takes the form of the thing that appears in my path while I’m looking for something else. In this case, it was a children’s book that fate had arranged to have misplaced in a shelf of literary fiction in a bookstore in Ellensburg, Washington. I was rapid losing interest in browsing any further, since it was obvious that the store’s stock was almost entirely made up of recent trade paperbacks, when I pulled out a rare hardback, a thin volume titled Dear Rat. I quickly twigged that it was a children’s book from the illustrations, but there was something so likable about the book’s opening lines that I had to buy it: “I am a rat. I’m tough and I’m tender. I know my way around, thanks to having been bounced off the hard surfaces of the world.”

Dear Rat is narrated by Andrew, a rat from Humpton, Wyoming who finds himself in Chartres, France, having smuggled his way onto a freighter and then hopped a train from Le Havre. He quickly runs into the worst and the best that France has to offer. The worst is a thug named Gorge, a local rat gangster whose henchmen dust up Andrew before he manages to get away.

The best is a great building that confronts him when he scurries out of the cellar where he’s gone in search of food: “My brain searches around in my head like a squirrel for a name for this great, wonderful thing. It comes up with ‘cathedral’ and then quiets down again into blank astonishment.” He’s stumbled onto the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres . Wandering inside, he is struck speechless by a statue of a lady on a pillar wearing a crown of gold studded with jewels.

The worst and the best becoming intertwined in a caper that leads Andrew to the court of King Depuis Longtemps the IV, ruler of the Paris sewers and into a romance with the King’s daughter, Angelique Rocqueville de Chenonceau de Tournevallance de Mistraille de Chauminceparcyne de Lot (which is just a big mouthful of French nonsense), or Angie for short. Andrew discovers there’s a rat (sorry) in the court in the form of the Prime Minister, who subjects him to a battle of wits–or, as Andrew puts it, “plays checkers” with him. An upstanding character and a little American ingenuity, however, and, as you might expect, the hero gets the girl.

Dear Rat was Julia Cunningham’s second book, and shared many elements with her first, The Vision of François the Fox (1960), which was also set in France and told the story of a scavenging critter who tries to become a saint after being moved by something he sees in a cathedral. Cunningham had spent a year living in France, and French themes would make their way into a number of her books.

Cunningham’s best-known book, Dorp Dead (1965), about a boy who finds himself trapped as the ward of an abusive grandfather, was one of the first modern works for children to treat a dark subject openly and deliberately, and is now considered a fore-runner of the Young Adult genre. It was reissued back in 2002 but is out of print once again.

Cunningham knew something about grim childhoods. Her father abandoned his family when Julia was six and never returned. Her mother struggled to raise two children on her own, which became even harder when the Depression hit and what was left of the family’s money was wiped out. She made her way through a series of low-paid jobs for nearly twenty years before she saved up enough for her trip to France. In the late 1950s, she moved to Santa Barbara, California, where she worked in a bookstore and continued to send manuscripts to publishers until she sold The Vision of François the Fox Houghton Mifflin.

Cunningham had considerable success as a children’s author. Burnish Me Bright (1970) was selected as a New York Times Outstanding Book for the year, The Treasure Is the Rose (1973) was a National Book Award Finalist, Come to the Edge (1977) won a Christopher Award, and Flight of the Sparrow (1980) won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. But then, in 1986, her publisher, Pantheon, dropped its children’s book line and her contract along with it. She kept writing and submitting manuscripts, but it was not until 2001, when Susan Hirschmann of Greenwillow Books brought her back in print with The Stable Rat and Other Christmas Poems. Cunningham never married, but was close friends with a fellow children’s author in Santa Barbara, Clyde Bulla, and mentored other writers in her community. Her brother John Cunningham was also a writer, mostly working in Westerns. His story, “Tin Star,” was the basis of the movie High Noon. I highly recommend reading her obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent website.

Dear Rat is available through OpenLibrary.org (link), as is Dorp Dead (link), Macaroon, Onion Journey, a lovely little Christmas fable (link), Macaroon (link), The Treasure Is the Rose (link), and several others. Although the site has a link for The Vision of François the Fox as well, it’s an error and leads to a Spanish encyclopedia from the 1800s.


Dear Rat, by Julia Cunningham
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1961

Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore (1843)

An illustration by George Cruikshank from "Modern Chivalry" by Mrs. Catherine Gore
An illustration by George Cruikshank from “Modern Chivalry” by Mrs. Catherine Gore

In Modern Chivalry, Silver Fork novelist skewers an easy target, the idle man of sufficient status in Victorian society to live “the life of those the business of whose day is digestion.” In this case, the man is Frederick Howardson, sometimes known as Howardson of Greystoke (his family estate) or Howardson of Sentinel (a race horse he briefly owned). Gore tells us in her introduction that she set out to sketch a stereotype of a “Man of No Feelings,” a consumate egoist, and she succeeds superbly.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Gore tries to characterize Howardson’s efforts to remain exactly in the mean, comfortably set with an income sufficient to keep a house in town, a reputation sufficient to earn him a place in the right clubs, and no talent exceptional enough to arouse anyone’s jealousy as a constant and courageous struggle. She compares it to the struggle of Waterton, the naturalist, who “asserts that whenever he encountered an alligator tete-a-tete in the wilderness, he used to leap on its back and ride the beast to death.” “Just so are we situated with regard to the world,” she argues:

Either we must leap upon its back, strike our spur into its panting sides, and in spite of its scaly defences compel it to obey our glowing will, or the animal will mangle us with its ferocious jaws, and pursue its way towards its refuge in the cool waters, leaving us expiring in the dust. Either the world or the individual must obtain the upper hand.

At the start of the story, Howardson has mastered the alligator. “Everybody was glad when he came, — everybody was sorry when he went.” He had not “that inconvenient appendage, a confidential friend — otherwise, an intimate enemy, who becomes the depositary of your secrets for the good of the public.” Instead, he had so many friends that none of them had any claims upon his confidence and rarely did any of them entrust him with theirs. He enjoyed, as Gore puts it, that “smooth, level, unmeaning mediocrity [that] affords a wider and sublimer view of the distant horizon.”

He even has the good fortune to have a beautiful and gracious woman of good reputation, Lady Rachel Lawrence, whose company he can enjoy as he needs of an evening, located just next door. Indeed, “her chief attraction in his eyes consisted in being a next door neighbour, who relieved him from the trouble of getting rid of his leisure hours, and ordering out his cab in rainy weather.” Being married to a Lord well-rooted to his own estate, Lady Rachel has the further advantage of presenting no risk of matrimonial entanglements.

Because Howardson’s chief quandary is that of making the absolutely perfect match. Which means a woman of substantial fortune unencumbered by a meddlesome family; a woman of admirable beauty and sophistication but not so much as to compete with him in social circles; a woman who will dote upon him whenever he needs tea and sympathy yet leave him alone for the many hours he would prefer to spend by himself or at the club; a woman of purest virtue yet sufficiently refined to ride with the changing waves of social mores. Each woman he considers has something not quite perfect about her, and so he moves on to another. In other words, he’s caught in the same dilemma as the man in Seinfeld’s “Gas — Food — Lodging” joke:

I think that for some reason when a man is driving down that freeway of love, the woman he’s with is like an exit, but he doesn’t want to get off there. He wants to keep driving. And the woman is like, “Look, gas, food, lodging, that’s our exit, that’s everything we need to be happy… Get off here, now!” But the man is focusing on sign underneath that says, “Next exit 27 miles,” and he thinks, “I can make it.”

In Howardson’s case, he ends up driving past all the exits and winds up in a sad old hotel in Paris, with “grey hair and crowsfeet within, as without; and his soul was bald with a baldness that set Macassar oil at defiance.”

Modern Chivalry is as insubstantial and irresistable as a potato chip. Howardson is one of the great egoists, a precursor of George Meredith’s The Egoist and a whole lot more fun. By the way, Modern Chivalry is attributed in American editions to William Harrison Ainsworth, but the “CFG” credited in the original English edition is most definitely Catherine F. Gore.

Modern Chivalry; or A New Orlando Furioso, by Mrs. Catherine Gore
London: John Mortimer, 1843

Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding (1954)

Cover of first US edition of "Mercury Presides"When Evelyn Waugh read Daphne Fielding’s memoir, Mercury Presides, he quipped that the book was “marred by discretion and good taste.” Considering that the author was one of the more sparkling of the Bright Young Things whose exploits and indulgences Waugh satirized in Vile Bodies and other early novels, one can understand his assessment.

There is an awful lot of material about her travels with her first husband, Henry, Viscount Weymouth (later 6th Marquess of Bath) and their efforts to prop up Longleat, the family estate that Henry’s father dumped upon him in the early 1930s. Though considered one of the stateliest of the stately homes of England, Longleat was a money pit and Henry and Daphne had to resort to ingenious measures (read, selling tickets for tours and opening up parts of the grounds for public use) to keep it up. Even then, they got the occasional complaints from their guests, such as Lord Beaverbrook’s sharply-worded letter about the dust on the windowsills and the dried-out inkwell in his room.

What there isn’t is much about Daphne’s carryings-on, which led the 5th Marquess of Bath and his Marchioness to disapprove of her marrying their son (not “steady wife” material). Before the marriage (which was first made in secret to avoid the wrath of the parents), Daphne was known as the kind of girl who liked to par-tay — which in those days usually involved lots of French champagne, driving too fast on narrow country roads (which was pretty much all the British road system in those days), and making absurd impositions on servants and other members of the working class. Ah — good times, good times. No wonder Waugh remarked that “the adult part [of the book] is rather as though Lord Montgomery were to write his life and omit to mention that he ever served in the army.”

We do, however, learn why Daphne might have been inclined to be a bit out of control. Her mother ran off with another man when Daphne was four (or, as she was told, her mother had “gone away to the sea-side”), and her father appears to have struggled to understand that Daphne and her brother Tony were not to be treated as just a couple more of his hunting dogs (his usual admonishment to his children was “Heel!”). And her mother’s father was a right charming old Victorian who used to bring prostitutes home and order them at gun-point to undress and climb in bed with his wife. No wonder that Granny McCalmont, as Daphne knew her, “was a great hater.”

In fact, Daphne had more than her share of odd pieces of fruit in her family tree. Take, for example, her uncle Shugie — Sir Hugo de Bathe, Granny McCalmont’s brother:

He was a tall, thin, sunburnt man with lean hollow cheek-bones, side-whiskers and a brushed-up moustache which particularly enthralled me. His arms were tattooed, and one of them was disfigured by a long burn scar. He accounted for this by explaining that he had once loved a princess of the South Sea islands, whose name had been tatooed in the place of honour in the middle of his forearm, but since she had been untrue to him he had held his arm in the flame of a candle and burnt her out of his flesh.

Once married to the Viscount, much of Daphne’s time and energy, up to the start of World War Two, went into having children — four sons and one daughter. She reprints a long extract from her diary about the birth of her fourth son, Valentine:

They started giving me chloroform. Nanny B. did not give it well; it was either too much or too little, and the cotton wool seemed to smother me and burn my nose, nevertheless it was balm. Roy Saunders arrived to give me the anaesthetic. I vaguely took him in; he had helped with Christopher’s birth. Whenever they let me come round the pains seemed to be crushing me and all my strength pressed down to fight them out. Roy Saunders is really a gynaecologist but gave the chloroform beautifully. How I love it — the buzzing, swimming feelings, the dreams which solve everything. I become a Jimmy-Know-All in the ether.

I came to in my own big bed, crying, and wanting to see Henry. “Lady Weymouth, you have got a beautiful little boy … a beautiful little boy … beautiful little boy ….” Another boy? I wished it was triplets, or black … or a furry little animal, different in some way … just not a boy. But the baby was there, a new person … I opened my eyes, sat up quickly and asked for the child. Unutterably sweet was the new little son shown to his mother.

When the war did come, Longleat was soon commandeered as a military camp, first by the British and then by the Americans. Daphne helped out in various ways, including running the camp switchboard at one point. The Viscount spent most of the war as a prisoner of the Germans. Aside from further mentions of trips taken and problems with Longleat, she offers little about their relationship — until, three paragraphs before the end of the book, she simply states that, “During and since the war we both developed along different lines, so divorce became inevitable.”

Of course, the fact that she had spent six months gallivanting about Crete with Alexander (Xan) Fielding, best known for his SOE exploits on the island during the war alongside Patrick Leigh Fermor, might also have had something to do with it.

But you’ll have to read the sequel, The Nearest Way Home (1970), to find out what happened after that. I suspect that a lot of Lord Montgomery’s army career is missing from it, too.


Mercury Presides, by Daphne Fielding
London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954

Ida, Countess von Hahn-Hahn

countesshahnhahnIda Maria Luise Sophie Frederica Gustave, daughter of Carl Friedrich Graf (Count) von Hahn, married her wealthy and elderly cousin Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Graf von Hahn, and thus became Ida Maria Luise Sophie Frederica Gustave, Gräfin (Countess) von Hahn-Hahn, giving all of us the pleasure of a small chuckle. The marriage was unhappy and they divorced less than three years later. She took it in mind to be a writer and proceeded to produce several books of poetry and then a string of novels “depicting, in a very aristocratical manner, the manners of high life in Germany,” according to Sarah Josepha Hale’s Woman’s Record.

And she took it in mind to become a traveller. According to Hale’s account of her life, Countess Hahn-Hahn went to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, England, Central Europe, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt over the course of roughly ten years, after which she retired to a convent to meditate, pray, and write devout books.

The only point in mentioning her here is that her collections of letters from her trips to France, Spain and the Near East were considered exceptional by the reviewers of their English translations. Of course, exceptional is a double-edged adjective: “The merits and demerits of her writing are so interwoven that it is hard to pronounce upon them without being unjust to the one or far too lenient to the other,” wrote one. Yet, “In liveliness of observation, readiness of idea, and spirited ease of expression, she is unsurpassed by any lady writer we know,” wrote another. Male readers seem to have delighted in her frank opinions, which she felt free to express with vehemence even though it seems pretty clear that she expected her correspondents to hang on to her letters so she could publish them after returning from her journeys. Her writings were held to have “an air which is not ill-described by the term insolent. Saucy is hardly strong enough. Exceedingly saucy women, however, when they happen to be pretty, witty, and well-informed, are often agreeable companions, and almost always pleasant correspondents.”

The countess was certainly capable of painting a pleasant word picture when offered the right scene. Here, for example, is life on the streets of Pesth (the eastern side of Budapest):

People do not merely walk—they sit, work, sleep, eat, and drink in the street. Almost every third house is a coffee house, with a broad verandah, around which are ranged sophas and blooming oleanders. Incredible quantities of fruit, grapes, plums, particularly melons, and heaps of water-melons, are offered for sale. Unemployed labourers lie, like lazzaroni, on the thresholds of their doors or on their wheelbarrows, enjoying the siesta. Women sit before the doors, chatting together and suckling their infants. The dark eyes, the loud, deep voices, here and there the piercing eyes, are all southern.

constantinople_street

Here she offers us the streets in Constantinople in all their anarchic glory:

If none but dogs were the inhabitants of Constantinople, you would find it sufficiently difficult to make your way through a city where heaps of dirt, rubbish, and refuse of every credible and incredible composition, obstruct you at every step, and especially barricade the corners of the streets. But dogs are not the only dwellers. Take care of yourself — here comes a train of horses, laden on each side with skins of oil — all oil without as well as within. And, oh ! take care again, for behind are a whole troop of asses, carrying tiles and planks, and all kinds of building materials. Now give way to the right for those men with baskets of coals upon their heads, and give way, too, to the left for those other men — four, six, eight at a time, staggering along with such a load of merchandise, that the pole, thick as your arm, to which it is suspended, bends beneath the weight. Meanwhile, don’t lose your head with the braying of the asses, the yelling of the dogs, the cries of the porters, or the calls of the sweetmeat and chestnut venders, but follow your dragoman, who, accustomed to all this turmoil, flies before you with winged steps, and either disappears in the crowd or vanishes round a corner.

At length you reach a cemetery. We all know how deeply the Turks respect the graves of the dead — how they visit them and never permit them to be disturbed, as we do in Europe, after any number of years. In the abstract this is very grand, and when we imagine to ourselves a beautiful cypress grove with tall white monumental stones, and green grass beneath, it presents a stately and solemn picture. Now contemplate it in the reality. The monuments are overthrown, dilapidated, or awry — several roughly paved streets intersect the space — here sheep are feeding — there donkeys are waiting — here geese are cackling — there cocks are crowing — in one part of the ground linen is drying — in another carpenters are planing — from one corner a troop of camels defile — from another a funeral procession approaches — children are playing — dogs rolling — every kind of the most unconcerned business going on.

She was vocal in her dislike for the manners of a minor member of the Ottoman nobility who travelled on the same ship with her to Constantinople: “If you had anything in your hand that attracted the pasha’s notice, an operaglass, for instance, or a telescope, he beckoned to one of his slaves, and the slave instantly took the opera-glass, or whatever it might be, out of the hand of the owner, and delivered it to his master. He examined it, tried it, and when he was tired of it, he gave it back to the slave and the latter to the owner. Some chose to consider this behaviour simple, childlike, engaging; for my part, I could only think it rude….”

Nothing so attracted her disdain, however, as the French. Her beloved papa fought alongside von Blücher at Waterloo, and she never forgave his people for raising up the upstart from Corsica. “I shall now go to France, Heaven knows what the consequence may be, for I hate France! I hate the spirit of vanity, fanfaronade, insolence and superficialness; in short, I hate the national character of the French. It is unmitigated barbarism.”

Needless to say, her letters from France are less saucy than venomous.

According to various sources, something close to a half-dozen of her collections of travel letters were translated and published in English, but today, only a couple of partial volumes can be found. Google has volume 1 of her Letters of a German countess; written during her travels in Turkey, Egypt, the Holy land, Syria, Nubia, etc., in 1843-4; the Internet Archive has volume 2; I haven’t found volume 3 yet. I haven’t found any others in the Internet Archive, but I may not be looking hard enough.

Eve Langley

peapickers

My horizon has been widened in the last few months thanks to Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works (2011), which introduced me to the wealth of interesting Australian writers beyond the ones I’d been aware of (Stead, Patrick White, Miles Franklin). Easy the most intriguing book discussed by Gleeson-White is Eve Langley’s 1942 novel, The Pea Pickers, which she describes as “a raucous romp through the Victorian countryside in praise of Australia, and a voyage through the passions of a young woman with the soul of a poet determined to live by her own elusive law.” Novelist Georgia Blain proclaims it “a wonderful book, absurd, hilariously funny, messy, anarchic; the kind of book that so rarely gets published.”

Yet Gleeson-White’s biographical sketch of Eve Langley was even more intriguing. She wrote the novel while pregnant with her third child, entered it into a competition for unpublished works by Australian and New Zealand writers and won, but was committed to a psychiatric hospital before the book was published. Released seven years later, she took to wearing men’s clothes and had her name changed legally to Oscar Wilde. She spent her last years in conditions no better than a bag lady and was found dead in her shack in 1974. A little more digging turned up a 1989 biography, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite. Drawn heavily from Langley’s own diaries and letters, it looked like an interesting read, and I sent off for a copy from a dealer in Australia.

importance of being eve langleyIn some ways, I found The Importance of Being Eve Langley even more remarkable than The Pea Pickers — even though the novel is utterly unlike any book written by a woman I’ve ever read. Langley seems never to have stopped writing, even when she was confined in the mental hospital. As Thwaite puts it, both of Langley’s two published books were taken from the “diaries, letters, poems, and jottings from her interminable stock of scribblings,” and this output flowed on to at least ten other unpublished books. Yet, as Thwaite observes early on, “It is never wise to trust absolutely in Langley’s voice.” Whether or not she was mentally ill, Langley was certainly prone to wild flights of imagination and appears to have had a relatively loose understanding of what other people would consider normal behavior.

Langley was born in at a cattle station in New South Wales in 1904. Her father was an itinerant farm worker who died when Eve was still a girl, and her mother raised Eve and her sister June while managing a small hotel in Crossover, a small town in Victoria. Although Eve’s education was incomplete, she was, as her biography Joy L. Thwaite, puts it, “a precocious and omniverous reader, a weaver of tales, a haunter of libraries.” By the time she was 20, one of her favorite amusements was to imagine herself the incarnation of some great writer she had been reading, such as John Keats or Francois Rabelais. Eve herself only half-jokingly referred to her reading as a medical treatment: “My early arnicas of Mathew Arnold, small balsams of Wide, Rabelaisian cauterizers, Shavian foments and Shakespearean liniments.”

She had also formed an extravagant passion for Gippsland, the rural area of Victoria where her mother had been raised, and in 1924, she convinced her sister June to head out with her for Gippsland in hopes of getting work picking peas. “Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever,” declares the narrator in The Pea Pickers. And, as in the book, Eve and June dressed up in men’s overalls and took to calling themselves “Steve” and “Blue.”

Eve and June Langley in their pea-picker guises as Steve and Blue
Eve and Jane Langley in their pea-picker guises as Steve and Blue
Over the next four years, Steve and Blue made annual trips to Gippsland during the growing season, traveling from farm to farm, living in tents and earning poverty wages hoeing and picking crops. For Langley, the experience seems to have been more like a personal transformation than a youthful adventure. “At some part of the journey, my hereditary Gippsland mind awoke. It was a totally different apparatus to my Dandenongian mind,” she would later write in The Pea Pickers (Dandenong being the fictional stand-in for Crossover).

Eve tried to make a go as a farmer herself, but was too likely to become diverted by her reading and writing to keep a successful crop going. In 1932, she moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where June and her mother had settled. She began getting poems published in literary magazines, but also had a disastrous affair with an Italian car salesman that resulted Eve becoming pregnant and giving the child up for adoption.

Several years later, she became infatuated with an artist named Hilary Clark. Clark was eleven years younger than her and more interested in men than women, but the two ended up marrying and Eve had three children by him over the next four years. (Their names were Bisi Arilev, Langley Rhaviley and Karl Marx.) They were separated and she was keeping the first two children in squalid conditions and pregnant with the third when she began writing The Pea Pickers. She typed it on cheap paper a friend had given her and couldn’t afford to buy a new ribbon when the text began to be illegible. Nevertheless, she finished the book and mailed it off to Sydney as an entry for the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize competition.

At Sydney publishers Angus and Robertson, a very large package containing a manuscript by “Gippsland Overlander” (the competition required all entries be submitted under pseudonyms) arrived in June 1940. As Jacqueline Kent writes in her biography of one of A&R’s most influential editors, Beatrice Davis: Backroom Girl of Modern Literature, “It was an editor’s nightmare — typed in single space on flimsy pink paper with a faded ribbon, words drifting off the edge of the page….”

Yet the readers quickly recognized that this was a novel of unique energy, language, and imagery. Langley’s descriptions of the Gippsland countryside, the sunrises and sunsets, the smells on the breeze were of exceptional intensity. At the same time, the headstrong personalities of Steve and Blue, never quite blending with those of the other farm workers, made for some wonderful absurd human comedy — as in this scene, when Steve and Macca, the man for whom she’s formed an overwhelming passion, go to bed for the first time.

We tiptoed into the hut and lay decorously on the bed. Excited by the events of the night, I tossed beside him and could not sleep. I wished to talk of verse and cry out passages of the Aeneid all night. He began to breathe with a monotonous regularity, slowly and evenly, opposing my short passionate breath. His calm animal sound maddened me, at last. I could not bear it. I appeared to be breathing my life away, two to his one. Then he snored faintly. Enough! I struck him sharply.

“Go home! I cannot sleep. If you won’t talk to me of the Aeneid, go home!”

Sitting up on the straw mattress, his figure black against the wirenetting window and the bilious clayey light of the moon, he said cruelly, “Steve, you’re a little cow!”

“Then, O, to be in India where they worship them,” said I. “There I could eat milk tins in the very streets, and wear a hat on my horns and who would dare to cry me nay?”

“I’m going home. It must be nearly daybreak.”

Not all the judges were as impressed, however, and in the end, the prize for 1940 was split three ways between The Pea Pickers, Kylie Tennant’s novel, The Battlers, and a biography of an early governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times, by M. H. Ellis. Angus and Robertson took the rights to publish Langley’s novel, but a great deal of editing was required to get the material into publishable shape. They also sold the U. S. rights to by Dutton, which didn’t publish it until 1945, as Not Yet the Moon.

Before the book was released in Australia, however, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Public Trustee Office in Auckland, stating that Eve Langley, a “married woman, a mentally defective person” had been committed to the Auckland Mental Hospital by her husband. Both Langley and her husband appear to have had extreme paranoid reactions to the possibility of Japanese attack on New Zealand and took their children out on a small sailboat they owned, looking for places their might hide. During one stormy night, Langley spilled boiling water on at least one of the children and all three were taken into custody by a nurse who knew the family. Her husband became concerned about her stability, particularly because he was expected to be called up for service, and he arranged for her to be committed for observation. Langley would spend the next seven years in the hospital, and during that time, A&R heard nothing from her.

Then, in 1950, June 1950, she was released in custody of her sister June, who secured her a position in the book binding shop of the Auckland Public Library. A&R editor Davis wrote expressing her happiness at receiving the news and inquired if Langley had been able to do any writing during her confinement. A year later, Langley replied that her new book, White Topee, was progressing well, and she sent it to the publisher in 1953.

In her report on the book, A&R editor Nan McDonald wrote, “This novel, pruned and condensed, would certainly be worth publishing. It is written with Eve Langley’s characteristic brilliance and originality and no one else could have written it. But I am afraid that no amount of editing will be able to make it as good as The Pea Pickers.” White Topee (I link here to AddAll.com, since the only copy currently on Amazon goes for over $3,500!) was eventually published in 1954.

It did not repeat the success of The Pea Pickers. Reviews were few and unenthusiastic: “Not so much a novel as a marvelous oddity,” wrote one reviewer. Like The Pea Pickers, it drew heavily on the Gippsland experience and on all the materials Langley had written about it over the years. Even before White Topee was published, however, Langley sent A&R another manuscript, Wild Australia.

This time, the A&R editors found it hard to be be charitable. One called the book “dazzlingly irrational.” “Many pages were devoted to Eve’s account, as Oscar Wilde, of a trip she and her lover Lord Alfred Douglas made to Cairo so that Eve/Oscar could be operated on to become female.” When Nan McDonald wrote to say that A&R would be returning the manuscript, Eve wrote back in panic, “Nan McDonald, DEAR Nan McDonald I AM OSCAR WILDE AND YOU’RE KILLING ME… And I hate being Oscar Wilde because NO ONE WANTS OSCAR WILDE… Dear Nan, please reconsider your most awful decision and don’t send that book. O I know what death is now….”

Nevertheless, she proceeded to send yet another manuscript, Bancroft House, to A&R and a year later, another titled Somewhere East of Suez. She continued to believe that her work was something the publisher would be thrilled to receive. It was clear from her correspondence, however, that Eve was spiraling out of control:

I am just going to pack up the latest book “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest,” and send it over to you. It’s all about my life over on the North Shore in Auckland and full of rich warm glowing material from a journal kept in those days of marriage to an artist husband and a batch of children as well…. you will get “The Land of the Long White Cloud” soon. Then comes “Demeter of Dublin Street”, followed by “The Colossus of Rhodes Street”, then “The Old Mill”…. then after this one comes “Remote, Apart” to be followed by “Portrait of the Artist at Chelsea” and then “The Saunterers” and “Beautiful Isles of the Sea” and lastly “Apollyon Regius”…. Two books come in between, introducing to you “The Land of the Long White Cloud” and these are “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian” … so that’s eight to come, no nine with “Golden Wattle Warriors”, no eleven with “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian”.

“This is IMPOSSIBLE,” one A&R reader wrote. Nan McDonald quipped in one report that “seven full-length works are too much Eve Langley for anyone to take in a few months without indigestion.” Beatrice Davis tried, however, to let Langley down gently, writing, “Heaven knows when we shall be able to publish all these so attractively titled novels.”

eve langley with topeeIn 1960, Eve moved back to Australia. She bought a house — barely more than a shack — near Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Langley referred to it as “Iona Lympus,” and began planning a trip to Greece, where she hoped to commune with the spirits of Homer and other ancient Greeks. By now, she had taken to wearing men’s clothes all the time. One of her closest acquaintances and most loyal supporters during this time, Hal Porter describes a typical Langley outfit:

… dressed in a navy-blue chalk-stripe double=breasted suit a la [Australian prime minister Robert] Menzies, and what I call a publican’s cardigan, one of those maroon and fawn things, and a tie with stripes across it. She had quite small feet in boots, they must have been schoolboy’s shoes she bought. Over this she had flung a very long fur coat, ankle-sweeping, quite an opulent one, made of black cat or some strange material. And topping all this, a white topee.

Davis helped Eve apply for a pension as an invalid, which provided pretty much the only income she had. She had a few poems published, but, as Thwaite puts it, “was living for the most part on fish and chips, cakes, muscatel and Penfolds wine.” In September 1965, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Australian ambassador to Greece reporting that Langley had been found penniless in Athens and inquiring if she had any means of support. Eve had convinced herself that she could work picking grapes for a Greek winery and somehow managed to pay for a berth on a freighter to Athens. She enjoyed the trip tremendously, but was also, based on her journals from the time, hallucinating wildly, seeing a various times Nazi warships and ancient Greek and Egyptian vessels out in the sea around her. She lost most of her luggage after disembarking in Piraeus, and within a few weeks was surviving by scavenging food from back alleys.

Davis and other friends managed to collect and send her several hundred pounds, but the embassy put her on a plane back to Sydney in December. Back home, she continued to decline into fantasies. She thought she could transform her shack into a Greek temple. She was convinced that German soldiers were moving through the woods around her. She treated her colds and aches with home-made remedies involving treacle, kerosene and eucalyptus bark. Yet she managed to arrange a trip to New Zealand to visit her daughter in 1968, although her eccentricities soon pushed filial piety past the breaking point. An old friend who saw her during the visit recalled her “as someone living quite outside reality.”

When Eve returned to her house in Katoomba, it had been ransacked, though little of value had been taken. Eve was convinced an elderly neighbor was the culprit, however, and she smashed the woman’s door with a golf club. She began to carry on conversations with an imaginary companion named “Albi.” She collected little dolls, dressed them up, and sent photographs of them to her daughter. And the whole time she continued to record everything meticulously in her diary — which is how we know so much about her last years.

In 1974, a social worker was sent to check on Langley after a neighbor noticed that her mailbox was filling up. She found Langley’s body on the floor of her shack, beginning to decompose, her face partly gnawed by rats. The coroner estimated her time of death as a month earlier. Among her papers was found a notebook whose last entry was dated a few months before her death:

Dear god of the planet Mars, how
we wonder
how you are!

Your dear girl weeps
but I feel sleepy and
soon will sleep.

Steve Langley, Igh, Infelia Dido, of thought

The Importance of Being Eve Langley came out fifteen years after Eve’s death, but it seems to have been a little ahead of its time and has never been reissued. However, as acceptance of cross-dressing, transgender, and “fluidly gendered” people has grown, interest in Eve’s life and work has begun to grown. The Pea Pickers is now well-established as an Australian classic, even making it to #5 on a list of candidates for the Great Australian Novel. And several plays have been written to celebrate her unique life and character. Margi Brown Ash, an Australian therapist and actress, has performed a one-woman show, “Eve,” in several countries. Ash refers to Eve as “the character I keep returning to again and again … for she is the voice of the invisible female artist of the Australian landscape.”


The Pea Pickers, by Eve Langley
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1942

The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite
Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1989

Dorothy Richardson Answers 10 Questions from The Little Review

Cover of last issue of The Little ReviewIn The Little Review Anthology, the editor, Margaret Anderson, wrote:

In 1929, in Paris, I decided that the time had come to end The Little Review. Our mission was accomplished; contemporary art had “arrived”; for a hundred years, perhaps, the literary world would product only: repetition.

I didn’t want the Little Review to die a conventional death, so I discarded all the material that had been amassed for a Last Number and decided, instead, to ask the artists of the world what they were thinking and feeling about their lives and work. We drew up a questionnaire — ten simple but essential questions — and sent it out to all our contributors.

Those who responded included Richard Aldington, Ernest Hemingway, Marianne Moore, Jean Cocteau, Janet Flanner, and Joseph Stella. Others took the attitude of Djuna Barnes, who wrote, “I am sorry but the list of questions does not interest me to answer. Nor have I that respect for the public.”

Dorothy Richardson, however, provided a set of answers that, as might be expected, reflected her doggedly insistent individuality:

1. What should you most like to do, to know, to be? (In case you are not satisfied).

To build a cottage on a cliff.
How to be perfectly in two places at once.
Member of a world-association for broadcasting the goings-on of metaphors.

2. What wouldn’t you change places with any other human being?

Because I can’t separate future from present.

3. What do you look forward to?

Can’t separate future from present.

4. What do you fear most from the future?

Can’t separate future from present.

5. What has been the happiest moment of your life? The unhappiest? (If you care to tell).

A recurring moment. Another recurring moment.

6. What do you consider your weakest characteristic? Your strongest? What do you like most about yourself? Dislike most?

Lack of concentration. Ability to concentrate. A certain changelessness. Superficiality.

7. What things do you really like? Dislike? (Nature, people, ideas, objects, etc. Answer in a phrase or a page, as you will).

Dancing, an English valley in mid-May an hour before sunset, sun behind seer. Seagulls high in sunlight. Shafts of light. Most people under the age of three. Beautiful women. Ugly ones. Such hippo-hided men as guess they are half-truths. Most Irishmen. Synthesis.

Line engravings. Gothic. Daumier. Sisley. Blake. Brzeska. Alan Odle. Rossetti. Dumas pere. Balzac. Jane Austen. Hugo. Andre Gide. Wilde. The books Osbert Sitwell will write, and After [Before] the Bombardment. The plays Noel Coward will write between forty-five and sixty.

Poetry of Buddha, Jesus, Paul, Francis, Quaker Fathers, Hebrews. Keats. Alfred Lawn Tennyson. T. W. H. Crosland. Jean [Gene] Stratton Porter. Wassermann. Proust. Smuts of South Africa. H. D., Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Madox Roberts.

The cinema. Cafes. Any street. Any garden. Mornings. Sundays. Brown bread and Cornish butter. Soap. The cinema. Onions. Split greengages. Cigars. Berkshire bacon. The cinema. Munich Lager. Conversation. Dry champagne. Planter’s punch. Gilbert and Sullivan. Bach. Antheil. Bach. Wagner. Beethoven. Beethoven. Beethoven. Bach. Bach. The cinema. Quaker meetings.

Villas. Flats. Bungalows. Lapdogs. Diamonds. The sight of a moist-ended cigarette, of anyone lighting a cigarette in instead of above a flame, of anyone tapping off ash before it is ready to fall. Archness. White china and glass-ware. Satin. Plus-fours. Marcel waves. Trousers. Sinuosity. Aquilinity. Dogmatic eccentricity. North London. Burne Jones. Sound and Colour in cinema. The idea that everything has an evolutionary history.

8. What is your attitude toward art today?

Regret on behalf of literature in so far as it allows the conjectures of science to stand for thought and of “art” in so far as it is slick, clever, facile and self-conscious.

9. What is your world view? (Are you a reasonable being in a reasonable scheme?)

That humanity is the irreducible minimum of life, and affirms it by denying the existence anywhere in “life” of anything corresponding to what it finds in itself.

10. Why do you go on living?

Because I only just begin to see how to begin to be fit to live.

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer (1989)

Cover of first paperback edition of "Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This"Books on jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, and other styles of popular music are, for me, the closest written equivalent to potato chips. I have to be careful taking one down from the shelf, because there is a high risk I will get nothing else accomplished until I finished it. And it’s worse now with the Internet, since just about any tune mentioned, no matter how obscure, can be located and downloaded in seconds, so reading slips all too easily into listening and, suddenly, who knows where the time goes? At least in the old pre-Net days, all you could do was write down the record title and hope that some day in the distant future you might have the luck to find a copy in some used record store.

So when I got a copy of Val Wilmer’s terrific autobiography, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, I saw a lost weekend coming. She got her first taste of jazz via an early teen boyfriend and a copy of Rudi Blesch’s pioneering study of jazz, Shining Trumpets (1949), and the rest is history. Over the course of the last 60 years, she has listened to, photographed, interviewed, wrote about, partied with, and gotten to know most of the major figures, and many more of the minor ones, in pop music. You can get a good sample of her talent for sizing up musicians as performers, artists, personalities, and human beings in The Guardian’s archive of obits she’s written (and you can get a small sample of her work as a photographer here, here, and here).

But there’s some serious starch in Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. As Wilmer’s eyes and ears were opened up by her exposure to a variety of styles — including African, West Indian, and Jamaican pop years before it hit white audiences — her understanding of the social, economic, and gender dimensions of the music and the musicians also grew deeper and more sophisticated. She quickly learned a few lessons as a young and single white woman spending hours in the company of musicians, mostly black and uniformly male:

Many feminists believe there to be an unspoken bond between males, the understanding that all women belong to all men. Where the white woman and the Black man are concerned, this understanding of the woman as shared possession, breaks down under the white man’s gaze — unless the woman can be shown to be a “prostitute.” If she wasn’t, back in the 1960s, then in my experience the white men on the scene made sure she’d be treated like one. This was the penalty to pay for associating with Black men and breaking down the order of things white men had established. No woman was allowed to exist in her own right as an autonomous individual, if she was there, it had to be for the benefit of some man. As a result, hotel porters, bus drivers, stage doormen — real “jobsworth” to a man — became a thorn in my side when it came to moving around with musicians. If the thought of sex had never crossed anyone’s mind, these people certainly put it there.

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This is really much more than a book about music, though it’s exceptional on that level. But Wilmer’s life is something of a distillation of much that was of importance in the 1960s and 1970s. The growing recognition of race as a political factor, of the rise of civil rights. The increasing influence of American culture in British life. The changing British economy (Wilmer collaborated on a never-published oral history of coal mining). And the sexual revolution.

“It is how we are treated as women, rather than as individuals, what happens to us because we are women, that dictates the direction of our lives,” she declares in the book’s introduction. “To us the personal is political, whether we like it or not.” In her case, it was not only a matter of being witness to the rise of the woman’s movement: she took an active part, helping to organize the first “Take Back the Night” events in London.

And her understanding of her own sexuality grew, as she came to recognize her preference for women. She describes experiencing a thrill when Althea Gibson was kissed by an opponent after a match at Wimbledon and the shock of seeing lesbian couples openly embracing and dancing in Paris nightclubs. In the mid-1960s in London, however, lesbians had to seek the safety of forming private clubs — which even then were occasionally subjected to vice squad raids. Yet the act of going to one of these clubs was also a matter of asserting a gay woman’s rights:

… because what we were doing by walking through that door was declaring ourselves — what some would call “coming out” — there was about the whole exercise a sense of terrible excitement. It revolved around bravado and ritual. Getting ready to go there was a ritual, the crease in the trousers, the eyes made-up just so Parking the car was a ritual, as near to the club as possible to avoid the voyeurs and the challenge of passers-by. Gaining entry meant mustering bravado. And for what? To spend time in a place where you could, supposedly, be yourself.

Val Wilmer's mother and drummer Herbie Lovelle, 1959
Val Wilmer’s mother and drummer Herbie Lovelle, 1959
Wilmer acknowledges the large and positive role her mother played in her life. Her father died when she was still young, and her mother raised two children on her own, taking in boarders to get by. Despite a most conventional English middle class upbringing, her mother was remarkably open to both her daughter’s interests and the string of musicians — almost all of them black, male, and from other countries — that Val brought home for tea. Her hospitality became legendary among jazz performers visiting London. Harry Carney, Duke Ellington’s great baritone sax player, sent her Christmas cards every year. “Randy Weston stayed at our house and talked Africa and Nationalism, she cooked him bacon and eggs; the Liberian Ambassador invited her to his parties and she drank champagne.”

And though her mother never quite understood her daughter’s sexuality — “Well, not for women, dear” — she was open to just about anyone Val associated with: “I always knew I could bring my friends home to a warm welcome. Without such a love behind me, I doubt whether I could have even coped with the stresses of trying to be myself in an essentially homophobic society.” The only things she wouldn’t tolerate were slovenliness and mistreatment of her daughter. Other parents could learn from her example.

“People often write autobiographies as if they had no mother, no children, as if sexual love had passed them by,” Wilmer writes at the start of Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. “This not one of those.”

Amen.


Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer
London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1989

On Broome Stages by Clemence Dane: A Conversation with Kate Macdonald

A few months ago, Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and I had a long dialogue on the subject of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which both of us had — coincidentally — just read and written about. That pleasant experience led to suggestions of other books to read and discuss, and we settled on Clemence Dane’s Broome Stages a 700-page saga that follows a family of English actors from the mid-18th century to the 1920s. I’d read very enthusiastic reviews several years ago and thought it might be a long, rich, and entertaining read.

Cover of first UK edition of "Broome Stages"Kate: When you suggested this novel I was keen because I enjoy reading novels about the theatre, and have long had Clemence Dane on my radar as an author I ought to know more about. I hadn’t realised that she wrote novels as well as plays (over 30 plays and 16 novels, and the Wikipedia entry suggests that she was also a painter and a sculptor). Now that I’ve read this novel (which is more like three or four), I’d rate her at the same level as J. B. Priestley: highly competent, excellent with character and dialogue, but not convincing as a literary stylist. She is a quintessential English middlebrow author, I think, but (in this novel) doesn’t give more than an absorbing family saga with lots of domestic drama. She’s vague about historical detail (especially shaky in the early, Regency part), but I think that’s because she’s writing as a playwright. All her characters are actors and her sets are stage sets. So much dialogue, and characters that draw the audience’s attention by being outrageous, or by saying arresting things. I found almost all them objectionable: selfish, obsessive, unkind, bullying and unreasonable, which is probably what makes them good dramatic subjects.

Brad: I’d have to concur with your assessment. Let’s face it, this novel is an order of magnitude lower than Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, which we last discussed.

I was primarily interested in reading it because the reviews (both UK and US) when Broome Stages first came out were gushingly enthusiastic: “No lover of good fiction or of the theatre can afford to leave Broome Stages unread,” and that sort of thing. The Saturday Review (US) reprinted a long excerpt from it and the universal assessment seemed to be that it was a big, rich book studded with memorable characters large and small, and irresistibly readable. Personally, I found it all too resistable to read, at least in the first third or so.

In those early chapters, Dane uses a rather arch style that attempts, I guess, to mimic the tone of a Fielding but comes off (now, at least) stale and irritating. And I found it quite difficult to form a sustainable sense of many of the main characters. A sum of mannerisms and vices usually isn’t enough to turn a character from a name to a persona. The style, at least, grows a little more limpid as the story nears (Dane’s) present day, but the characters–well, I would certainly fail if you gave me a test of matching Broome names with their respective generations and actions now, a month-plus after reading it.

It did pick up momentum–a bit–but I felt that Dane didn’t some much end the story as stop it: as if she just ran out of ideas. There was one intriguing element toward the end. There is a fairly pointed hint at one point that youngest of the last Broome generation, John, is engaged in homosexual relationships at boarding school and then another, even more obvious, that he has a male partner–which his mother simple takes in stride, happy that her son is happy. Dane herself was gay and involved in a long-term relationship with a writer of children’s books, Olwen Bowen, so it might have been a way of asserting as normal and unexceptional something that was, at the time, considered acceptable only if covert.

Priestley is a good comparison. I thought of a huge best-seller in America around the same time–Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which was a 1,000-plus page historical novel intended to invoke the spirit of Sir Walter Scott and maybe even Tolstoy, but which is now considered more as a curiosity than a work of any serious literary merit. Such doorstop wonders seem to pop up every generation.

Clemence Dane, 1934
Clemence Dane, 1934
Kate: Looking at my notes I see that from the last generation of the Broomes it’s Richard who is gay, Henry dies in the war, Gerry is a lazy waster, and John is a mercurial playwright destined for greatness and to be the next Broome of the stage. But I need the notes to remember, you’re right about the personalitiesthemselves being forgettable. Hilaret, Lettice, Elinor, and Domina are the only named women characters I can recall. There was also Lionel’s illegitimate daughter who married into a Viennese Jewish family in the 1880s (very G. B. Stern, that), went to Brazil and brought forth another daughter who ended up in England to help Elinor elope scandalously with Lewis. Dane could absolutely create dramatic and entertaining storylines, but I agree, character definition was not her strong point.

Considering (now that you mention it) that Dane was herself gay, and presumably interested in women and their relationships, its odd that she create hordes of male characters, but only five women across three centuries of Broome breeding. They are all dominant, but stand out like illustrations of ‘the female condition in this century’ rather than working participants in the plot.

The staginess of the novel is quite attractive. I can visualise it working as a film or a TV series in the style of Dallas or Dynasty, endless sweepings on and off in big hats after huge rows and passionate arguments between men and women, and men who don’t behave as men are supposed to behave. The characters’ obsession with the continuance of the Broome legacy is typical of that genre. And, of course, after writing that I go to IMDB to check, and yes! It was made as a TV mini-series in 1966, starring many actors who don’t now have photographs by their names so they’re no longer working, or remembered. Only one series, though, and no pictures from it floating around on Google.

Brad: I think you hit the nail on the head: the staginess of this novel of the stage may weaken its merit as a work of literature but make it perfect material for adaptation to the screen. There have been plenty of great movies made from bad novels and bad movies made from great novels. And just think how a good screenwriter and a cast of expert scenery-chewing actors could turn the nastiness of many of the Broome characters into delicious viewing. Some of the best television of the last 10-15 years has been based on the ability to seduce viewers into sympathizing with some very bad people (Tony Soprano, Walter White, Francis Urquhart/Underwood). And 1966 is fifty years ago–more than enough time to justify a remake.

Shall we contact the BBC? Surely pitching a concept to some show-biz types is on one of our bucket lists.

Kate: The 1966 miniseries began with the Lewis Whybrow elopement and used up the remainder of the novel, which I think was wise. I can’t think of a TV series that crosses so many historical periods as this book does. The Pallisers, The Forsyte Saga, The Onedin Line, Poldark, all the British TV series of the 1970s that my mum was addicted to, and I took one look at, uncomprehending: they’re intense family sagas set in a discrete period, following the life of one individual and perhaps of their offspring as well. Perhaps that’s why Broome Stages is ultimately disappointing. Dane isn’t interested in people, she’s interested in creating a sweep of history, the rise and fall of a dynasty over centuries rather than generations. She loses the human focus, which is why her characters are unsatisfying. They have their moments of concentrated attention at crisis points, but years and decades go by in the turning of a page, which isn’t how one tells a story about people’s daily struggles.

Brad: True: any adaptation would have to focus on one period, at least in the case of Broome Stages. There have been a few examples of series that were able to successfully span several different time frames, but they required more narrative ingenuity than was demonstrated by Dane. As others have pointed out, she structured the generations and personalities of Broome Stages on the Plantagenets–which might be helpful for a reader familiar with that slice of English history but was utterly useless to a colonial such as I. In fact, one could hold up Broome Stages as a good illustration of why writing a novel around an arbitrary structure will rarely produce a work of the same merit as one building upon a strong story or interesting characters.

Which pretty much exhausts what I have to say about Broome Stages. I was hoping for better, but I’m afraid I will have to place it into my “Justly Neglected” file.

Kate: I never realised until I started reading up on the book afterwards that the Plantagnets were her framework. So that worked well, obviously ….. as you say, an arbitrary structure with more than a touch of staginess to it. So, goodbye Broome Stages. If I come across any other Clemence Dane novels I’ll read ’em, but I’m not expecting wonders.


Broome Stages, by Clemence Dane
London: Heinemann, 1931

Blindness, from The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska (1994)

John Hull
John Hull

John Hull, an Australian theologian living in England, went blind in his forties. Black, black blind from detached retinas. His book describing the profound disorientation of self in blindness was the first I took up on my return to reading. It took some time to finish so closely did it echo my fears: the fear of the loss of self, of being cast from God’s light. The journey he recounts is as much of the passage of the soul through darkness as of the daily reality which came with a blindness so complete that he knew that he faced the sun only by the sensation of heat on his face. Even food, unseen, lost its appeal. He was no longer hungry. Life as well as sight dimmed within him.

While he struggled with the real limitations of a life without sight, treading his way with cautious steps to avoid the sudden slide when the ground slopes, or the path diverges, or obstacles block the way, he struggled also with the archetype of blindness within which he felt himself enclosed. At first the meanings he could give to the dark were as closed and as isolated as the world he inhabited even in the midst of a loving family. And indeed it is true that in many cultures, and certainly in ours, blindness has been crudely associated with a condition of unrelatedness: of being cast out, along, ignorant and confused. Because blindness disrupts the distinction between the known and the not-known that is regulated for the rest of us by sight, it represents, he says, dissolution, the borderline between being and not being. An alternative to death; as good as death.

Immersed in this archetype, unable to deny, or refuse it, yet not accepting it either, a glimmer of light flickered, a small beacon which took the form of a paradox, which as a theologian John Hull was quick to grasp, thought as a blind man slow to understand. For of course there is a paradox. For God, that transcendent being, as the blind psalmist sings, darkness and light are both alike to thee. It is for us with our dualistic either/or thinking that one is cast from the other, that one is held in opposition to the other. But a greater reality, and one we resist in our fearfulness and limitation, is that of light in darkness, and, more to the point, that of darkness in light. None of those who dwell so noisily in the realm of light wish to consider that light might contain its own darkness. And there is little in our culture to help those who inhabit the darkness grope their way to light.

Cover of first edition of "The Orchard"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Drusilla Modjeska notes that, in her struggle to write the story of Australian painter Stella Bowen, she gave up at one point and, instead, wrote the “novel” The Orchard. I put novel in quotes because there are many essay-like passages, including a number related to Stella Bowen, that appear to be much more the thoughts of the author than of the nameless narrator in whose voice the story is told.

Modjeska attempted to weave her story around the old folk tale of “The Handless Maiden” (or “The Girl without Hands” or “The Girl with Silver Hands”). In the tale, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands in a bargain with the devil, and, many years later, her hands are restored through the love of the king who marries her. I say attempted because it’s only told at the end and, as far as I could tell, offered little to illuminate the story. The fictional element of the book is about several Australian women, united through their acquaintance with Effie, a woman in her eighties who has always pursued a very self-directed life, mostly tending to a garden seen by her friends as a haven.

Though I wasn’t persuaded by the fiction in the book, I found the narrator/Modjeska’s asides consistently interesting, and I read the book in one sitting, on a flight from Brussels to Dulles last month. Even if the novel per se wasn’t successful as such, it seems to have allowed her to work through thoughts that came together in the subsequent Stravinsky’s Lunch. Such as:

We live in a culture that daily encourages us to find our identity in that reflection of another, to experience ourselves as most real when we are in love. We live in a culture that encourages us to see ourselves as others see us. To become an object in the regard of others means that other become objects to us; and so too do we to ourselves. No wonder we are all in pursuit of control: to make sure that object is ours.

Considering that this was written before the Web exploded and social media and selfies became labels, there is a certain amount of prescience in this. Although I might argue that today, we are encouraged to think we are most real when we get a requisite number of “Likes” (in whatever form they might actually take).

[By the way, the Macmillan Australia hardcover edition I read has to have one of the most pleasant formats I’ve read in years. 7.5″ high by 4.5″ wide, it’s larger than a traditional paperback and smaller than a typical trade paperback or hardback, typeset in 11/13 Bembo. I would be happy to have a few hundred others like it — a perfect size for a myopic guy like me to travel with.]


The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska
Sydney: Macmillan Australia, 1994

Paperbacks from the Montana Valley Bookstore

Exterior - Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, Montana

A visit to the Montana Valley Bookstore in Alberton, Montana, has been one of my rituals during our annual stay in Missoula, but this year events put books and many other things on hold. I did, however, snatch about 45 minutes in the store, just before closing, on my way back from a hospital in Spokane, and harvested about a dozen books from their basement paperback stash. Old paperbacks hold a special place in my heart, perhaps because they were the first books I bought when I started haunting used bookstores back in the mid-1970s. And one of the reasons I love the Montana Valley Bookstore is that it’s one of the ever-dwindling number of used bookstores that still has a substantial holding of paperbacks from the decades before trade paperbacks took over.

With only a short time to spare, I focused on looking for interesting titles by women writers. It’s harder and harder to surprise me — but not impossible, and easily the biggest surprise was the two thick Dell paperbacks by Arona McHugh.

Arona McHugh - Banner with a Strange Device and The Seacoast of Bohemia

If I’ve ever seen either of these books, I’ve forgotten. But from a material standpoint alone, I recognized a substantial piece of work when I saw it, and, of course, bought them both. Taken together, A Banner with a Strange Device and The Seacoast of Bohemia tell the stories of a collection of young men and women in post-World War Two Boston. Running over 1300 pages, the two books put Marguerite Young’s Miss Mackintosh, My Darling and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest to shame in the Great American Doorstop Novel Race. Whether the same can be said about their literary merits is something I cannot yet say. The New Yorker’s brief review offered the faint praise that “Mrs. McHugh’s rough, able-bodied style carries her at full speed through almost six hundred pages, in which she describes the manners, looks, and varying sexual capacities and appetites of a group of young Boston people during the years immediately following the Second World War.” Writing in The New York Times, Haskel Frankel was a little less polite, saying that Banner should have been titled, “The Sun Also Rises on King Kong and Lady Chatterley.” Exactly one year later, Seacoast and Frankel again was the Times man on the scene. He surmised that the two books were, in fact, one novel roughly hewn in two by a publisher afraid to launch a single monolith into bookshops, and credited McHugh as “a natural-born storyteller, one of that rare type who can write about rocks and reduce the reader to a jelly.” On the other hand, he also concluded that “Enough is enough and 1,259 pages of painful youth in Boston is too much.” So perhaps I will not be assaulting Mount McHugh anytime soon.

Maude Hitchins - Honey on the Moon

The name Maude Hutchins struck a vaguely familiar note, which is why I picked up Honey on the Moon, but only after a quick search did I see it was because NYRB Classics reissued her novel of a girl’s coming of age, Victorine, with an introduction by Terry Castle. Hutchins spent 27 years in an unhappy marriage with Robert Maynard Hutchins, who played a large role in elevating the University of Chicago to a level equal with the Ivy League. But after their divorce, as Castle puts it, “the defection of the boy wonder that seems to have changed her, almost overnight, from dabbler in the avant-garde to serious writer.” Thumbing through the book, I gathered it’s the story of a young bride who begins to suspect that her older husband married her for her resemblance to — and value as a cover for his interest in — a younger man. Kirkus Reviews called it a “screaming spoof on the New Wave films, the anti-novel, and those drugstore bestsellers of purple passions.” Another reviewer wrote that Hutchins wrote for “the kind of reader who will assume her complexity from her carefully selected simplicities.” This one sounds worth placing in the to-read pile.

Elizabeth Jenkins - Brightness
I knew exactly who Elizabeth Jenkins was when I spotted this copy of her 1963 novel, Brightness. Jenkins, who may hold the longevity record for writers, having passed in 2010 at the age of 104, is best known for her novel of marital tension, The Tortoise and the Hare. When that book was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, Hillary Mantel wrote that it was “as smooth and seductive as a bowl of cream,” and that Jenkins “seems to know a good deal about how women think and how their lives are arranged; what women collude in, what they fear.” Which is interesting, considering that Jenkins herself never married. Brightness is about the relationship between two very different mothers (and their no-so-different sons) in a small English village — the sort of situation that lead immediately to comparisons with Jane Austen. One reviewer called it “a fine novel — rather on the side of the angels, but without a smidgen of candied inspirational guff” and quoted the excellent line, “If you’ve only come across suffering that could be cured by psychiatry, you’ve done pretty well so far.”

Vera Randall - The Inner Room

The Inner Room purports to be a novel, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a linked set of short stories. It tells the individual stories of five women committed to an asylum for a variety of conditions ranging from post-partum depression to alcoholism. One of the stories was originally published in The New Yorker. Although, in an early NY Review of Books issue, Martha Cameron wrote that the book was “affecting and yet somehow fraudulent,” Randal appears to have based the work on first-hand observations, as he went on to publish a second novel (story collection?) on essentially the same topic, You Get Used to a Place.

Anne Bernays - The New York Ride
The New York Ride was the second of Anne Bernays’ ten novels, an account of the growing up and growing apart of two friends — first on a tour of Italy, swapping away ever-hovering Italian men, then in New York City as they navigate through the “floating crap game” artists, poets and poseurs in the Village, and finally in their married lives, when one’s apparent bi-polar disorder (two decades before it was routinely diagnosed) starts to rip things apart. One reviewer wrote that it was “fueled by a wit, intelligence and perception that make it a pleasure to read.”

Iris Dornfeld - Jeeney Ray

“Several cuts above Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” declares a quote from a Sacramento Bee review. This was enough to pick Jeeney Ray as a subject for further research. What I did find out was that Iris Dornfeld was another woman who was better known as Mrs. Someone Else — in her case, Mrs. Carey McWilliams, whose husband was editor of The Nation magazine and journalist who first came to fame for his work exposing the brutal conditions of farm workers in California. Jeeney Ray earned respectable reviews from the few major national papers and magazines to review it. In The Saturday Review, Aileen Pippett wrote, “Every memorable novel has its distinctive tone. This one sings. Yet the characters are mostly brutal, ignorant, or depraved, their language is coarse and their actions are in keeping. Nature pleaseth, in Northern California, but man is frequently vile. Against a murky background Jeeney Ray herself shines like a star.” Jeeney Ray is considered mentally handicapped by most everyone in her town, but her grandmother has a greater trust in her senses. After many hardships and misunderstandings, Jeeney Ray is correctly diagnosed as spastic — not that a diagnosis alone make for a happy ending. Interestingly, Dornfeld’s only other novel, Boy Gravely, dealt with a protagonist who didn’t understand he was suffering from epilepsy. Dornfeld had grown up in the same area Jeeney Ray is set in, from what she called “a family of singers, storytellers, bible-reciters, make-believers, and downright liars.”

Based on what 45 minutes produced, I look forward to having more time to browse when I return next year.

Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska (1999)

The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
“Let us begin with two sisters dressed for a ball,” Drusilla Modjeska writes in her introduction to Stravinsky’s Lunch. “Whenever I look at this painting — which, as it is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is quite often — I think they are waiting for the century to begin…. You can see from their faces that they are not the girls who went to balls in nineteenth-century novels; and you can see from their clothes that there is nothing of the modern woman about them.”

Cover of first US edition of "Stravinsky's Lunch"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska looks at how two near-contemporaries of the two women in the painting (the painter’s sisters), Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith — both Australians, both painters — took on the century they encountered and carved out lives and careers very different from the conventions of the Victorian world in which they were raised. Modjeska refers to the book as “a koan in my own practice as a woman and writer.” The choice of the term is apt, as Stravinsky’s Lunch is a book that raises many questions and finds few definitive answers to them.

Such as the story of Stravinsky’s lunch, which Modjeska first heard over a restaurant meal with other writers and artists. It’s not really a story, so much as the fact that when the composer Igor Stravinsky was working on a composition, he insisted that his family eat lunch in silence. “All artists are selfish,” wrote Robert Craft in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972), “they must be, to get their work done. And they sacrifice the people around them.” for Modjeska, Stravinsky’s selfishness raises larger questions: “What are we prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.”

Stella Bowen offers an example of a woman who, at first, sacrificed herself willingly on the altars of love and art. She happily entered into a relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, taking on the many domestic burdens of their rustic, near-penniless existence, in return for the sake of his love and his company: “… to have the run of a mind of that calibre … was a privilege for which I am still trying to say ‘thank you,'” she wrote in her memoir, Drawn from Life. But she also sacrificed her own development as an artist, as tending to Ford’s needs left her with little time and energy for her own work:

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

When, after one too many affairs with other women on Ford’s part, Bowen broke off their relationship, he failed to understand what all the fuss was about. As Modjeska puts it, he didn’t realize “that the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place — her courage, her intelligence, her engagement with life — were precisely those that would take her away from him.” And that courage and intelligence were also what allowed her to produce her best work when she herself was free to focus. Yet, as is clear from Drawn from Life, Bowen never looked upon her time with Ford with regret, certainly not when she thought of their daughter. “Was Love the one, in the end, that she chose?” Or did she even chose one or the other? “Is choosing what she did?”

When I first read the story of Grace Cossington Smith that makes up the second half of Stravinsky’s Lunch, I was quite disappointed. There was none of the drama of Stella Bowen’s life. “No husbands. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris…. In the prejudices of her time, she was, simply, a spinster.” Smith spent most of her life in the same house with her parents and two of her three sisters. Most days, she painted scenes and people she saw around her in Sydney and the nearby country and seaside, working in a small studio her father had built at the back of their yard. She was over sixty before she was accepted as a serious artist of her own generation, over seventy when she was finally recognized as one of the greatest Australian painters of her century.

"Trees," by Grace Cossington Smith (1926)

Much of Smith’s story is a matter of producing painting after painting, moving first towards a striking mix of realism and abstraction, as illustrated by her 1926 painting, Trees. Smith said she was trying to paint all sides of a tree at once. When it appeared in her first solo show, one newspaper critic condemned it as a “freak.” Modjeska sees the work as revealing Smith’s keen eye for the dual nature of her Australian world: “For this was a young woman who understood both the settled pleasures of a garden with its bloom of peach, and the hectic tangle of branch and leaf, the mysterious possibilities that lay beyond, in bush and gully.”

As she grew older, Smith turned from subjects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge to her immediate surroundings, painting the rooms in her family home — always with at least one window or door opening out into the world, but always from the perspective of someone on the inside. She experimented with color, settling on yellow as her primary tone, offset with blue (which is why it’s surprising that Modjeska doesn’t quote the opening phrase from Drawn from Life: “The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country”).

Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
But there is another story, which Modjeska brings out. Of Smith’s three sisters, one married early and another took on a lifetime profession as a nurse. But her sister Madge stayed at home and cared for their parents and Grace, and after their parents died, for Grace alone. It was Madge who cooked the meals and saw that the rooms were cleaned and laundry washed and ironed. Modjeska reprints a photo of Grace, Madge, and their father from 1919. It’s one of those family photos that, though accidentally and perhaps misleadingly, seems to betray a secret. “There is Grace with her strong, intelligent face lifted to the sun. Madge’s lowered head is shrouded in misery so intense it seems to burn the paper their images are printed on…. You can tell at a glance that there’d be no question of Grace taking over the kitchen.”

So, despite forging a career in art that was very much of her own shaping, deliberately enforcing her isolation so that she could focus on her work — focus to the point that her paintings from her last decades all depict scenes less than a few yards from her own home — Smith did, in her own way, insist on a form of Stravinsky’s lunch. No wonder that when Madge accompanied Grace on a trip to England in 1949, she found a widower in need of a wife and married him, leaving Grace to return to Australia alone.

Yet Modjeska admits that her attitude toward the story of Stravinsky’s lunch changed in the course of writing the book, and, in particular because of Smith’s example. The nature of the book as a koan is revealed in her realization that the story “not only buys into a way of thinking that would separate art from life, with art striding above and beyond, transcending the ordinary and humble, but it sets life against art, or art against life.” Smith never involved herself in artistic movements and stayed rooted to the home and family she knew. And as her energies diminished with age, she focused on the things she saw immediately around her: her bed, her table, her windows, her mirror.

Some reviewers objected to Modjeska’s interjection of herself, of her own reflections, into her accounts of the lives and careers of Bowen and Smith. But Stravinsky’s Lunch is not really a work of biography as much as an exercise in understanding — and as much Modjeska’s self-understanding as her understanding of the two women she portrays. In 1999, perhaps it was just slightly too early for critics to be comfortable with a work that did not fit neatly into the boundaries of one particular genre, but I think we are seeing now a proliferation of books that sweep across genre boundaries with never a second thought. I hope today’s readers will be ready to seek out a copy of Stravinsky’s Lunch and enjoy it as thoroughly as I did.


Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999

Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen (1941)

Cover of first edition of "Drawn from Life"I came to Stella Bowen’s memoir, Drawn from Life (1941), through Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful book, Stravinsky’s Lunch (which I’ll discuss in a separate post). Born in Adelaide, Australia, Bowen met the writer Ford Madox Ford while studying art in London and they lived together from 1919 to 1927. Modjeska devotes the first half of her book to an account of how Bowen struggled to establish herself as an artist while simultaneously dealing with domestic demands — first of Ford and later as a single mother raising their daughter, Julie — and quotes liberally from Drawn from Life. It only took a few excerpts to convince me that I had to read more.

“The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country,” opens Drawn from Life, with a rhapsody about the landscape of Australia — which, ironically, she left at the age of 18 and never returned to. Though her father died when she was just three, her childhood, as she recounts it, was entirely conventional: “We were, in fact, a suburb of England.” Her mother was a staunch Victorian, pure and true in her principles, and Bowen acknowledges it “a privilege to be associated with anyone whose life is a simple and perfect demonstration of all that they believe.” Her mother did, however, bend a little, allowing Stella to take classes at an art school run by a pioneering woman painter, Rose McPherson.

When her mother died in early 1914 and Stella and her brother were left with an annuity of two hundred pounds a year, Stella seized an opportunity to accompany a friend’s family on a journey to England. In London, she studied painting under Walter Sickert, who drove the importance of seeing the unique visual features of any subject. “He taught one to trust one’s faithful eyes, and to open them wide. I had never before been required to look at things so minutely, and having looked, to record them with so little fuss.”

She also met a number of influential figures, starting with the poet Ezra Pound, and in early 1918, at one of Pound’s parties, she was introduced to Ford Madox Ford. They experienced an instant rapport. Bowen found him “quite simply the most enthralling person I had ever met.” He quickly began confiding in her about all his troubles, including his inability to divorce his wife and to disentangle himself from his lover, the writer Violet Hunt. Soon he was telling her that “he wished to place his person, his fortune, his future in my hands.” He was tired of the world and just wanted “to dig potatoes and raise pigs and never write another book.”

Within a year, after Ford’s discharge from the Army, they were moving into a tumble-down cottage in Sussex. It had a hole in the roof, continuously damp, and surrounded by mud whenever it rained, but they loved their hideaway. They bought some chickens and pigs and planted a garden. Not long after, Bowen became pregnant.

Although Ford had vowed to give up writing, it didn’t take long for them to realize they couldn’t survive without the income. He set to work on articles and a novel, eventually published in 1923 as The Marsden Case. Soon the rhythm of the house became set by Ford’s work:

He would retire upstairs to write, and leave me to wrestle with the dinner. At eight I would say, “are you ready to eat?” and he would reply, “in a minute.” At eight-thirty I would say, “It is eight-thirty, darling,” and he would reply, “Oh, give me another twenty minutes,” and I would return to the kitchen and concoct something extra — another vegetable, or a savoury. At nine I’d say, “what about it?” and he’d tell me to put the meal on the table. At nine-thirty I would suggest putting it back on the fire, to re-heat. “What!” he’d cry, “dinner on the table all this time? Why ever didn’t you tell me?” Well, we’d eat perhaps at ten, with enormous appetite, and discuss the progress of his book and of my cooking.

“We enjoyed ourselves,” Bowen writes, but the preservation of Ford’s “working conditions” meant that she had to take over most of the domestic chores and all of the responsibility for managing their affairs. “I must manage to keep all worries from him, which was difficult. It meant that I must not let him know how overdrawn we were at the bank, nor how big the bill from the corn mills had become, nor how badly we needed a paraffin tank.” It was not enough for Bowen to keep the pig from wandering off to the next farm or take care of all the cooking and cleaning and feeding while in the last months of her pregnancy. “If ever a man needed a fairy godmother, he did,” she eventually concluded. And meanwhile, her painting “had, of course, been hopelessly interfered with by the whole shape of my life….”

Stella Bowen: Self Portrait, 1928
Stella Bowen: Self Portrait, 1928
A major theme in Drawn from Life is the near-impossibility of a woman working as an artist when all her time, attention, and energy is devoted to caring for a man pursuing his own career. “I was learning the technique of a quite different role: that of consort to another and more important artist.” Bowen’s blunt eloquence makes this a pioneering work of feminism, on the order of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” And still quite relevant, as the following quote from Jenny Offill’s recent novel, Dept. of Speculation: “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

Eventually, both Ford and Bowen came to resent the drudgery of rural life, and in 1922, they sold the cottage and, with daughter Julie in hand, headed for France. Their friend, the poet Harold Monro, had offered them the use of his tiny villa perched on a hilltop outside the town of Villefranche. Although the house was barely better furnished than their cottage, they relished the warmth of the Mediterranean weather, and Ford began working on Some Do Not …, the first volume of Parade’s End. The next spring, Ezra Pound’s wife Dorothy invited Bowen to join her on a tour of Tuscany, and the precise and flattened perspectives of Giotto’s murals strongly influenced her subsequent work.

They moved to Paris in September 1924, and were soon at the heart of the thriving expatriate scene. Ford’s brother, Oliver Hueffer, convinced him to take on the job of editing a new magazine he was establishing called the transatlantic review. Although the review failed after just one year, what a year that was. Ford has a marvelous gift for spotting good writing and collected pieces from Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and H. D., although with the first excerpts from James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” (Finnegans Wake). He also published the work of a fragile and destitute writer from the West Indies named Jean Rhys — and began an affair with her.

Though circumspect about the affair, the memory of it drives her to her most strident tones. She lumps Rhys in with a larger group of bohemians she refers to as “Wild Ones”: “It was quite all right to be dirty, drunk, a pervert or a thief or a whore, provided that you had a lively and an honest mind, and the courage of your instincts.” The affair was brief, however, and Ford and Bowen agreed to stay together in another rough villa outside Toulon for the winter of 1925-6.

Here, the Spanish painter Juan Gris encouraged Bowen to put her painting ahead of the matters of tending after Ford, and she managed to produce a number of vibrant landscapes. It was becoming clearer, however, that she could not continue to struggle with two competing demands, particularly not after being betrayed. When a French painter remarked that her work still seemed very immature, she thought in exasperation, “It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back at great deal.” She refers to homemaking as a “specialization”: “Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to his kind of specialization, but society, and your own affections, and the fear of loneliness that besets us all, may keep you at it…. But beware: unlike other specialists, you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service. Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job.”

They made one last move back to Paris, and enjoyed something of a productive truce period. They placed their daughter in the care of a French woman outside the city and rented a space in Montparnasse where Bowen was able to set up a studio and the two worked during the week, visiting Julie on the weekends. But even with her own work space, Bowen found Ford constantly sending her out on errands: “I wish you’d go and sound so-and-so about such-and-such. I don’t want to do it myself, but it should be quite easy for you.”

Ford spent much of the next two winters in the United States, and Bowen was able to focus on her own work without distraction for the first time. Upon his return from his second trip to the U.S., however, Ford informed her that he had taken up with another woman painter, Janice Biala. That was enough for Bowen. She began action to take full custody of Julie and told the girl that Ford would no longer live with them. “I imagined that facing Paris without Ford was going to be full of difficulties,” she writes. Instead, “There were none. I felt chilly and forlorn at one moment and like a million dollars the next.”

Unfortunately, that feeling soon faded as Bowen confronted the practical obstacles of an increasingly unfavorable exchange rate and a crashing real estate market. Desperate for ways to bring in some much-needed cash, she took an opportunity raised by her American friend, Ramon Guthrie, and sailed for the U.S. where she could get portrait commissions and make several thousand dollars in the course of a few months. Though it helped her out of her financial straits, the visit to America makes for easily the weakest chapter in the book, one filled mostly with unremarkable observations about American life and culture.

By the time Bowen returned to Paris, it was clear that she could not afford to keep living in France, and she and Julie moved back to England, settling in London. With the onset of the Depression, work was almost impossible to get and the two struggled through some lean years. And Bowen found herself temperamentally out of place: “I dare say I have never known how to communicate with people in the English idiom.” In Paris or New York, she could manage to carry on conversations, tossing the ball back and forth with others. In London, however, the conversational ball “crashes to the ground where it lies looking like a suet pudding under the cold and silent eyes of the company. Agony!”

After a few years, she managed to make some headway. “I developed a technique for doing portrait sketches in two or three days and got a good many orders.” Julie studied set design at the London Theatre School and Bowen found a quiet cottage to her tastes in Green End, a hamlet in the Norfolk countryside east of London. Janice Biala contacted them saying that Ford was dying and Julie traveled to Honfleur, France to see her father one last time. It was June 1939.

Drawn from Life closes as summer 1940 nears. Though military encampments are being set up around Green End and the possibility of evacuation is being whispered about, for Bown, “Mostly I feel this is my last ditch.” Earlier, she wrote, “Four times in my life I have gone away with two suitcases, leaving all behind me, never to return,” but she was ready to “stay put and take what comes.”

Three group portraits painted for the Australian War Memorial by Stella Bowen
Three group portraits painted for the Australian War Memorial by Stella Bowen

Though written on the promise of popular interest in her relationship with Ford, Drawn from Life earned Bowen little more than her advance, and she struggled to keep things going until late 1943, when she was commissioned to paint for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. She produced several dozen canvas over the next two years, including several group portraits of Australian bomber crews that evoke the murals of Giotto that she’d seen in Italy with Dorothy Pound. Before the war ended, however, she had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and, after a short remission, she died in October 1947 at her home in Green End.

Drawn from Life deserves to be recognized as a minor classic. It’s a fiercely feminist text, one that echoes the messages of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech, “The Solitude of Self,” and anticipates The Feminine Mystique and other works of decades later:

If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of your own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, and abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far! Otherwise, emerging from a love-affair into the position of a middle-aged housekeeper, you may suffer the most desperate sensations of constriction and futility which your situation will give you little chance to survive.

At present, there appear to be around thirty copies available for sale, with prices starting at over $20 and ending at over $2,000, according to a search on AddAll.com. First published in the UK in 1941, when a paper shortage ruled out the possibility of any immediate reissue, it’s been republished several times (in 1976 by George Mann, a small regional UK press, in 1984 by Virago, and in 1999 by Picador in Australia), but none of these were large quantity runs and (I’d like to think), it’s a book that, once bought, people tend to hang onto.


Drawn from Life: Reminiscences, by Stella Bowen
London: Collins Publishers, 1941

Teetgen’s Teas, from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage

teegenstea

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:

Chapter VII

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.

teetgensmatchboxIn 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’s ADAM 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.

My Literary Life, by Mrs. Elizabeth Lynn Linton (1899)

Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
Eliza Lynn Linton, scanning the horizons for another victim
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

Fun Facts from A World of Wonders, edited by Albany Poyntz (Catherine Gore) (1845)

Sketch in the Gelderland ship's journal, 1601

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

Gems from the Internet Archives: Women’s Autobiographies

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.

modelingmylife

Modeling My Life, by Janet Scudder (1926)

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: An Autobiography, by Mary Casals (1930)

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.

Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Louise Baker, playing tennis (press photo from 1955)
Out on a Limb, by Louise Baker (1946)

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).

Journey Down a Blind Alley, by Mary Borden (1946)

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.

lilliansmithjourney

The Journey, by Lillian Smith (1956)

“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 Chapell, 1959
Dickey Chapell, 1959
What’s a Woman Doing Here?, by Dickey Chapelle (1962)

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.

A Room of Your Own, from The World of Charmian Clift

nightattheopera

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.”

from The World of Charmian Clift by Charmian Clift
Sydney, Australia: Ure Smith, 1973

Men of Capital, by Catherine Gore (1846)

A portrait of Catherine Gore
A portrait of Catherine Gore
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’s Pelham , 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.”

An officer in the Life Guards regiment, 1837
An officer in the Life Guards regiment, 1837
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

The World of Charmian Clift (1970)

Cover of Fontana Paperbacks edition of 'The World of Charmian Clift'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.

George Johnston and Charmian Clift, soon after marrying in 1947
George Johnston and Charmian Clift, soon after marrying in 1947
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.”

George Johnston and Charmian Clift and their children, shortly before leaving Hydra
George Johnston and Charmian Clift and their children, shortly before leaving Hydra
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.

Clift and Johnston with their children in 1969, shortly before Clift's suicide
Clift and Johnston with their children in 1969, shortly before Clift’s suicide

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.

In 2002, Suzanne Chick published Searching for Charmian: The Daughter Charmian Clift Gave Away Discovers the Mother She Never Knew. Working with newly opened adoption files, Chick discovered that her birth mother was none other than Clift, who apparently became pregnant at 19 and gave up the baby for adoption. Chick’s book is written in the form of parallel biographies, and though she harbored an unavoidable resentment toward Clift, her writing is fluid and remarkably empathetic. This was followed by several other books about Clift and Johnston, including Susan Johnson’s fictionalization, The Broken Book (2006) and Nadia Wheatley’s superb biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2014).

Several of Clift’s books, including a collection of her essays, are available in Kindle format from Amazon Australia. Aside from these, however, her other works are all out of print.


The World of Charmian Clift
Sydney, Australia: Ure Smith, 1970

Carobeth Laird, First Published at Age 80

Portraits of Carobeth Laird from a Parade Magazine profile
Portraits of Carobeth Laird from a 1975 Parade Magazine profile

“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.

encounterswithanangrygodHer 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.

limboCarobeth 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.

On Pilgrimage: a Dialogue with Kate Macdonald

couplereadingAbout 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.

First UK edition of The Tunnel
First UK edition of The Tunnel
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.

holborn

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.

First UK edition of Backwater
First UK edition of Backwater
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.

regentstreepostcard

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.

Dorothy Richardson
Dorothy Richardson
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.

An Interview with Veronica Makowsky about Isa Glenn

Isa Glenn, 1925
Isa Glenn, 1925
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.

southerncharmMy 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.

eastofedenGlenn was something of a Southern belle, being the daughter of a one-time mayor of Atlanta and the wife of an Army general. Why do you think she ended up writing novels that were satirical about the culture she grew up in?

I can only answer with speculation based on her fiction and some published interviews since I have not been able to find more than a few of her letters nor a diary or journal. The small collection of her papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library is a good source for her published work, but reveals little about her as a person.

From her fiction, I would speculate that she observed that various cultures, for all their good points, tended to fossilize and become absurd and constricting as they failed to adapt to changing times. She examines many such cultures in her works, to cite a few examples from her novels: Southern culture in Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930); army culture in Heat (1926, her first published novel) and Transport (1929); white colonial culture in Heat, Little Pitchers (1927), and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age (1933); trendy literary New Yorkers in the late 1920s and early 1930s in East of Eden (1932); or the claustrophobic culture of Washington DC’s old families in The Little Candle’s Beam (1935, her last published novel).

Although these works can be considered somewhat satirical, there is also a respect for the strength of the perpetuators of these fossilized cultures who are often formidable older women such as the title character’s mother A Short History of Julia; the central consciousness and mother of two daughters in Southern Charm; the “Old New York” mother-in-law of the woman torn to death between marriage and her writing in East of Eden; and the lioness-like mother and leader of the Washington “cave dwellers” in The Little Candle’s Beam. I believe these ideas about calcified cultures may have been developed through her interest her interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of attaining a higher consciousness and full human potential, which she pursued through her acquaintance and correspondence with Gurdjieff’s expounder, A. R. Orage (1873-1934) from the late 1920s through the early 1930s, another intriguing aspect of Glenn’s writing and life that calls for more information and reflection.

A number of her novels are set in the Philippines and Far East, where she lived for some years while her husband was in the Army. How would you describe her view of relationships between Filipinos and the Westerners?

In her depictions of such relationships in Heat and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, Glenn was ahead of her time and yet not what we today would see as completely “politically correct,” so we need to assess her work in the context of her day, unblinded by our “presentism.” She skewered the devastating effects of American colonization on the local culture and the local environment as she characterized the arrogance and blindness of the colonizers. At the same time, perhaps because she was often conveying the sentiments of her white American characters, she often portrayed Filipinos, Malays, Chinese, and other “Orientals” as both strange and menacing. Her novels give her more balanced portraits, but many of her short stories (published in prominent and popular magazines of her day) seem to cater to prevailing titillating stereotypes of inscrutably treacherous “Orientals.”

I asked Dr. Makowsky a number of other questions about Glenn’s work and career, but she confessed to having run into one of the challenges in researching the work of a long-forgotten writer, which is the lack of reliable sources and large holes in the remaining documentation.

These are excellent questions, but, as of yet, I have not located materials that will satisfactorily answer them. This points to a major difficulty in reviving interest in Glenn’s work, a sort of vicious circle in that we lack the information about her that would help revive interest in her work and her work is out-of-print so it is difficult to revive interest in her as a literary figure.

What we know of her biography suggests a woman with a playful, witty character which led her to a number of remarkable and fascinating experiences: Southern belle; student in the atelier of her cousin painter James McNeill Whistler; army wife all over the globe, particularly in the Philippines in a time of rebellion against the colonizers; single (widowed) mother of a son; her self-reinvention as an author when she was well into middle age (her forties and fifties) including becoming a prominent part of the 1920s literary scene in New York. All these aspects are beguiling lines of inquiry whose results would greatly lead to a revival of interest in her work, but I currently lack the kind of detailed information about the author’s life and views that can be found in correspondence by, with, and about her; family documents and memorabilia; a diary or journal if she kept any; and various other personal effects and documents; as well as memories, oral or written, of those who knew her.

I have been piecing together what I can from public records (birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records), ships’ passenger lists, papers largely relating to her publications at Yale’s Beinecke library (including notes toward a novel, According to MacTavish, which, as far as I know, may never have been completed or published), mentions in newspapers in literary sections and in gossip or society columns, army records, and published interviews with her. Everything that I find suggests a fascinating woman with a fascinating life that requires more facts and, especially, more of her own voice speaking about her experiences.

Her son, John Bayard Schindel, published his own novel, Golden Pilgrimage, which was based on his childhood experiences on Army posts, and then never published again. Can you tell us what happened to him after that?

goldenpilgrimageIsa 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.

“To a Poet Yet Unborn,” from Collected Poems, by Abbie Huston Evans

leap

To a Poet Yet Unborn

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.

from Collected Poems, by Abbie Huston Evans
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970

Abbie Huston Evans, Poet

Abbie Huston Evans, around 1961
Abbie Huston Evans, around 1961
Asked to name that book published in the last quarter of a century that she believed to have been the most undeservedly neglected for an American Scholar feature on “Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years,”, Louise Bogan, in one of her last letters, nominated “the poetry of Abbie Huston Evans.” Chances are few of The American Scholar’s readers recognized Evan’s name. Chances are even fewer of today’s readers would.

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,
Begot me.

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.

Cover of first US edition of 'Fact of Crystal'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.

Cover of 'Collected Poems' by Abbie Huston EvansAnd 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.

A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert (1963)

Covers of first US and UK editions
Covers of first US and UK editions

“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.

Joyce Elbert
Joyce Elbert

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.

Well, I was looking for something quite unlike Pilgrimage — and on that one count, I can say A Martini on the Other Table succeeded.


A Martini on the Other Table, by Joyce Elbert
New York: Bantam Books, 1963

Gomer Pyle, from Talking into the Typewriter: Selected Letters (1973-1983), by Christina Stead

christinasteadgomer

 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Ettore Rolla
18th April 1975

… 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….

From Talking into the Typewriter: Selected Letters (1973-1983), by Christina Stead
Fymble, NSW, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1992

Village Life Through a Villager’s Eyes, from March Moonlight, by Dorothy Richardson

village

… 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

March Moonlight, 13th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1967)

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

Dimple Hill, 12th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1938)

1938 Knopf edition of Pilgrimage
1938 Knopf edition of Pilgrimage
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 1907 photograph of Windmill Hill, near Herstmonceaux, East Sussex
A 1907 photograph of Windmill Hill, near Herstmonceux, East Sussex

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, 11th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1935)

Cover of UK first edition of Clear Horizon
Cover of UK first edition of Clear Horizon
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

“West End Life,” from Revolving Lights, by Dorothy Richardson

westendstreet

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.
Campaigners,
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

Dawn’s Left Hand, 10th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson

Dorothy Richardson in 1932, about a year after Dawn's Left Hand was published
Dorothy Richardson in 1932, about a year after Dawn’s Left Hand was published
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

Oberland, 9th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1927)

First UK edition of Oberland
First UK edition of Oberland
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.

1906 Panoramic postcard from Adelboden
1906 Panoramic postcard from Adelboden

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.

adelboden_posters

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.

News item about 1928 Femina Prix Anglais
News item about 1928 Femina Prix Anglais
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’s Gallion’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

The Trap, 8th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1925)

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.'”

First edition of The Ambassadors: "the title, set within the golden lines of an upright oblong in letters of gold upon the red cover..."
First edition of The Ambassadors: “the title, set within the golden lines of an upright oblong in letters of gold upon the red cover…”
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, 7th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1923)

First UK edition of Revolving Lights
First UK edition of Revolving Lights
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.”

Spade House, the real-life counterpart of Bonnycliff in Revolving Lights
Spade House, the real-life counterpart of Bonnycliff in Revolving Lights

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, 6th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1921)

Cover of first UK edition of Deadlock
Cover of first UK edition of Deadlock
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:

edwardianwomanwriting

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 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, 5th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1919)

Cover of first US edition of Interim
Cover of first US edition of Interim
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.

Sorry, but when I read this, what flashed through my mind was, “Gidget Goes to Rome.”

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, 4th Chapter of Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (1919)

First UK edition of The Tunnel
First UK edition of The Tunnel
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.

The waiting room of the dental surgery at 140 Harley Street
The waiting room of the dental surgery at 140 Harley Street

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.

Dr. John Henry Badcock, taken from George Thomson's 'Notes of Pilgrimage'
Dr. John Henry Badcock
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.

miriamhendersonslondon

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 Richardso