Reading Jessica Mitford’s memoir of the critic, novelist, and poet Philip Toynbee, The Faces of Philip (1984), I stumbled across a mention of a book that turns out not only to be neglected but (at the moment) unattainable outside a couple dozen libraries: Ann Farrer’s 1966 memoir of her struggles with depression and the relatively ineffective attempts of a series of Freudian psychiatrists to help her with it, If Hopes Were Dupes, published under the pseudonym of Catherine York. A cousin of the famous Mitford sisters, Ann Farrer was known to her family as “Idden.” She became a moderately successful actress in London and married a fellow actor, David Horne, and together they ran a small theatre company in the 1940s and 1950s.
As background: Unknown to me (for I was in America at the time), Ann suffered the almost unimaginable torture of a severe nervous breakdown. Later, she wrote a book about the experience: If Hopes Were Dupes, published in July 1966. My sisters and I thought it the best book on this dire subject we had ever read. I was confident that it would be embraced by a large general readership for its intrinsic excellence, and by fellow sufferers for the light it shed on a shared malady.
These expectations did not materialize. Nancy, who thought very highly of If Hopes Were Dupes, faulted the title as too obscure. (It comes from a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough: “Tf hopes were dupes, fears may be liars.” Andrew Devonshire misheard this line as: “If hopes were dukes, peers may be liars.”) [Deborah Mitford, Andrew’s wife, wrote of the book years later, “This is by my first cousin, Ann Farrer, who wrote this sorrowful account of her nervous breakdown and total dependence on her psychoanalyst. It would send a shiver down any spine.”] She thought a title more directly describing the subject would have made for better sales. I happened to be in London a few months after Ann’s book was published. To my extreme disappointment, it seemed to have sunk without a trace.
Longing to revive it, I sent a copy to Philip, asking if he could review it in The Observer. As I had hoped, it struck an instant responsive chord; he liked it enormously, but explained that it was against The Observer policy to give a full-scale review to a book that had been out for some time [A policy shared by most book reviews and a major reason why many good books never stand a chance to be noticed–Ed.]. He would try to sneak in something under “Shorter Notices.” He wrote to Ann (28 October 1966): “I thought it extremely well done–dreadfully vivid . . . Decca tells me I was once sick on your floor. Quite enough to start anybody off on a neurosis! With best wishes, Philip.”
The Shorter Notice (The Observer, I December 1966) heaped praise: ‘She emerged from the darkness at last. Her courageous return to those appalling shadows will be read with great benefit by all lonely sufferers from mental and nervous affliction.
Of the few notices that If Hopes Were Dupes earned, not all were as positive. Sid Chaplin gave it a mixed review:
Catherine York gives a narrow, intense and often muddled account of the depression that propelled her to five psychoanalysts or psychiatrists in turn. The better part of the book is about the male consultants, to whom she ‘transferred’, for the most part with singularly distressing effects. The end is muted, but there is some hope in the full line from which the title is taken: ‘If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars’. The case history is necessarily incomplete, but it seems significant that Catherine York is a failed career woman, an unlucky actress with a hus- band evidently prospering in the same line of business. Fame is the spur, but it often draws only blood. Not only young Tolstoy could cry: ‘I felt the need to be known and loved of all the world; to name my name.’ The hope sustains a lot of us. It died in Catherine York. Yet none of the experts seemed to discern this. It caught my imagination on the raw. I have a feeling that the failed actress has the makings of a first-rate writer, once she learns to look outwards. That at least is some- thing to settle for.
Ten years later, after David Horne’s death in 1970, Farrer retired to Jordans, a Quaker hostel in Buckinghamshire. She began to write poetry, which Jessica Mitford shared with Toynbee. Toynbee and Farrer struck up a correspondence that Mitford quotes from extensively in The Faces of Philip. Among these are the following, in which Toynbee offers sober advice that every writer should take note of:
[12 August 1980:]
Believe me, dear Ann, I know those kind of feelings and have often experienced them in the past . . . In fact I have never written anything which was so much a projection of my inmost self that I regarded an attack on it as an attack on me. Nor do I believe that the process of creation is of this kind: there is always a necessary and inevitable distancing of the writer, painter etc from his work. The idea of pouring out one’s heart straight onto the paper is, I believe, a romantic illusion; and rather a dangerous one . . .
In the course of writing Pantaloon I had just such feelings of absolute rightness, glorious confidence, only to discover later that these feelings had utterly misled me. Sometimes I wrote for as much as six months as if inspired; then found that I had to scrap almost every word of what I had done and start all over again. This is one of the very hard facts about trying to write: nearly always it is a matter of hard slogging and constant revision, rather than the Muse suddenly touching one’s shoulder or receiving one’s words direct from heaven.
[15 October 1980:]
I think that when one writes burningly out of one’s own experience, still filled with the overflowing emotions of real life, one usually misses one’s aim. Who wrote about ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’? Anyway, I’m sure that in nearly all cases there has to be a real pause, a taking stock, however unconscious, a distancing . . . Then the emotions are still there all right, but they are just far enough away for one to be able to marshall them; order them about; then alter the whole emphasis of them for the sake of the poem. After all, a poem is always an artifact; indeed an artifice. Put another way, if the bleeding wounds still show then I think there is something wrong. (Except in very very rare cases).