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….”
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.”
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.