Excerpt: the opening of Chapter I
When I was born in September, 1894, Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam was a secretary. MallarmÃ© had just retired and was no longer teaching English to French schoolboys. The death duties that were to obliterate most of our feudal estates had been introduced in that year’s budget while the Fram was drifting through the polar ice and would-be explorers dreamed about Bokhara, a fabulous city that was then more difficult to access than Tibet. I opened my eyes upon the end of not only the nineteenth century but of a second Puritan age. An epoch passed away while I was learning to speak and walk. Its influence remains as the start of memory and as a measuring rod for progress that even Edwardian survivors lack.
There were no motor cars, no taxis and no aeroplanes. The garden flowers were different; speech followed a more complex and leisurely patten, the houses were usually cold. The real background to these formative years, however, was the sound of hooves; the metallic thunder of the big animals drawing the carriages called landaus, the lighter trip-trop of the hansom cabs. On land, apart from a few trains, horses comprised the whole of transportation. I only realized how largely they formed a part of my earliest consciousness when I woke up in Lahore over fifty years later to listen to the passing tongas and wonder why the clatter seemed so familiar and comforting in that otherwise strange land? It took me some minutes to discover that it was because I was back in the world of the horse.
I remember reading this passage in the stacks of Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington back in the late 1970s and thinking, “I really must read this book.” It was nearly 25 years later that I got around to it.
I think the second paragraph is one of the best and most succinct descriptions of the differences between a present and a past. Overall, The Heart to Artemis is a lively and interesting memoir. As the New Yorker reviewer put it, “Never afraid to get her hands dirty, she rode donkeys in Egypt, climbed mountains in a skirt, changed the hot and messy carbons in lights on early movie sets, flew airplanes, and helped people escape from Nazi Germany.” She had drinks with Man Ray and Gertrude Stein in Paris, was psychoanalyzed by Freud, travelled to much of the civilized world at some time or other, and enjoyed many of the benefits of being an heir to one of England’s biggest fortunes.
On the other hand, as memoirs go, The Heart to Artemis is remarkably depersonalized. If Bryher were to take a Myers-Briggs test, I’m pretty sure she would prove to be an NT. We learn a great deal about her thoughts and very little about her feelings. For a life so full of experiences, it’s almost creepily dispassionate.