The distant past, from The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs, by Bryher

Excerpt: the opening of Chapter I

When I was born in September, 1894, Dorothy Richardson’s Miriam was a secretary. Mallarme 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 Cover of the first U. K. edition of 'The Heart to Artemis'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.

The Heart to Artemis, by Bryher
London: Collins, 1963

5 thoughts on “The distant past, from The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoirs, by Bryher

  1. It sounds like an interesting life and thus an interesting book, for all that it is dispassionate. I like the excerpted paragraphs that you included here.

  2. Bryher is a wonderful novelist, but someone about whom it is difficult to learn very much. As you note her autobiography is strangely depersonalized. I read somewhere that a biography was underway (perhaps by a professor at USC), but I haven’t seen it published. The Roman Wall is one of the best historical novels ever written, in my view.

  3. Happy to see you writing about The Heart to Artemis by Bryher. And agree that it continues to be neglected — even after Paris Press reissued it recently, and it is in print again, at last. We also published Visa for Avalon and The Player’s Boy (with fabulous introduction by Patrick Gregory, son of Horace Gregory — who was a very close friend of Bryher’s. Susan McCabe write a thorough intro to Visa — She is the scholar from USC who you refer to. There are ateast 3 biographies in the works. Artemis is not without feeling. There is humor, pathos, love, regret. But as an historian, I think she approaches memoir as a chronicle of her time. Info she offers abt her very unusual childhood, about Paris in the twenties and thirties abt her response to WWII, and the observations she makes leading up to the war, and her participation in it — using her home in Switzerland as a holding stations for refugees escaping the Nazis… The book is packed with the events she witnessed, and her experiences. Unlike MacAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together — Bryher isn’t interested in gossip and exaggeration. But we learn abt her relationship with HD, her friendship with Stein and Toklas, Hemingway, and her deep regret about the death of Walter Benjamin. Her accounts of psychoanalysis, Freud, and the development of the psyche — all fascinating and candid. The format is unconventional, and the writing clear. Wonderful for course adoptions.

  4. It is always with such pleasant surprise that I stumble across a blog that discusses Bryher – the focus of my Post Graduate studies for more than two years. However, it is not a surprise to see yet another response to the ‘depersonalised’ aspects of her first memoir, The Heart to Artemis. It is important, I think, to remember that many factors shaped the manner in which Bryher felt she could publicly discuss her life. Questions of sexual identification, transgender – or transexual identification emerge in abundance throughout this memoir as it does in her novels Development and Two Selves and again in her historical fiction such The Player’s Boy. However, like much of Bryher’s written work, The Heart to Artemis should be read as a deeply coded text. Bryher’s relationship with her father – which she spends much time discussing in her memoir – no doubt played a large part in the way in which she could publicly live her life. While yes, she “enjoyed” such a large inheritance, this inheritance would have come at some cost to her ability to freely adopt a non-normative lifestyle. That she still managed to live such a vast and varied life, marry two extraordinary men (McAlmon and Macpherson), adopt H.D.’s daughter Perdita, live in Kenwin whilst still funding numerous amazing women (Marianne Moore, Sylvia Beach, H.D. and more) shows that there is more than what can be gleaned from a surface reading of The Heart to Artemis. I hope more readers are drawn to read between the lines of Bryher’s published memoirs – for she has provided me with hours upon hours of enjoyment, confusion, frustration and above all – a sustained passion for her life and written works.

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