Depending on one’s perspective, A Prison, A Paradise is one remarkable book or two remarkable books in one cover. The first half, “The Summer Birdcage,” is the diary of a woman caught up in a mad, bad love triangle that nearly destroyed two of the three principals; the second, “The Tilted Spiral,” the diary of a woman consumed in a quest for a spiritual love that could overcome her earthly concerns. The first book competes with Alison Waley’s A Half of Two Lives, discussed here last year, as an account of a passion pursued about twenty exits past all reason; the second has been compared with Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. And together, they tell the story of a woman who, as Kathleen Raine put it in her introduction, “followed the unfashionable vocation of living her thoughts.”
In A Prison, A Paradise, the names have been changed to protect the guilty. “Loran Hurnscot,” an anagram of “Sloth and Rancour” — which she saw as her principal sins — was Ethelwynne (Gay) Stewart McDowall, who was known Gay Taylor after she married Harold Midgeley Taylor (referred to as Hubert Tindal in the book), an idealistic and tubercular aesthete whose failed enterprises included the Golden Cockerel Press, which became one of the premier British art presses after it was bought by Robert Gibbings in 1924. In Taylor’s largely untrained hands, however, it was strictly an amateur affair. A. E. Coppard later wrote of the Golden Cockerel edition of his first collection of stories, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me that, “the type was poor, the paper bad, the leaves fell out, the cover collapsed….”
Coppard (referred to as Barney) was also, as it happened, the third corner of the triangle. Barely capable of taking care of themselves, Gay and Harold convinced themselves that they shared enough interests to justify getting married. As Loran/Gay put it in her Afterword to “The Summer Birdcage,” “I married n the eighth proposition of Euclid.” Unable to perform as a sexual partner, Harold encouraged Gay to take Coppard as a lover. Then, when she did, he became insanely jealous … while also becoming increasingly dependent upon her as his illness grew worse. Gay fell madly in love with Coppard, running off to sleep with him in the fields, to dance naked in the rain, and to generally rub salt into Hubert/Harold’s wounds. To compound problems, Coppard (already married) was a philanderer.
Within a year of starting the affair, Loran/Gay was writing, “I live with him [Coppard] in superficial happiness, but with a grief of heart, a loss of self-respect, that doesn’t end.” She began to see that the only way to keep Coppard’s interest was to constantly keep him wondering: “He loves me best when he is loved least.” “There’s something sub-human about Barny … that will eventually destroy our relation.” At the same time, she was “deeply convinced” that Hu/Harold “only wants me near him so as to have something weaker than himself to bully.” Still, all three remained entwined in their own miserable, self-destructive web until finally Loran/Gay found herself abandoned by both men. Harold died, leaving her just £50, and Coppard carried on with other women. Looking back on the affair, Loran/Gay would conclude that “the central sin was that no one loved anyone.”
Volume Two, “The Tilted Spiral,” picks up over a decade later. Loran/Gay is barely surviving, living in cheap flats in London and taking whatever work came to hand. Having given up on romantic love, she is desperately seeking salvation if unclear on how to find it. She went to endless lectures by P. D. Ouspensky. She studied Buddhism. She studied Swedenbourg. She read Thomas Merton. She scoured astrological charts, and developed an intricate system by which to record her moods:
Towards the end of the war I started to keep a mood chart, just to see whether I was turning into a melancholy gloomy character: I classified the mental states by colours, of which there were ten divisions, based on the spectrum but ending in dark blue and black. It was kept in a book of squared paper, and I put down my “temperature” as T. B. cases do, twice a day. Perhaps, as I have often held, the observed thing changes. But to my surprise the general level was far higher than I’d supposed; there were weeks and even months that could be called happy and equable; the descents were rare and rapidly recovered from. I kept it for two or three years and then laid it aside.
Much of this part the book is a record of Loran/Gay’s encounters with different belief systems, in each of which she initially finds something attractive and satisfying, only to grow disenchanted — often more with the personalities involved (Ouspensky) or the dogmatic constraints (“even the cloister is now like the Civil Service,” she writes of one Christian retreat). Yet she also managed to find joy. While living in a particularly dingy rooming house, at one point, she wrote that, “Almost immediately, heavenly bliss flooded me, and even in my wretched room, the Beloved was there. The flow of divine love was almost overwhelming, and tears of adoration and sorrow stood in my eyes.”
In the end, Loran/Gay came to believe that the only spiritual guide she could truly trust was herself. “There has always been a fastidiousness in Loran Hurnscot that rejects all that rings false in human behavior, or in religious cant,” Raine remarks in her introduction, and the days recorded in “The Tilted Spiral” had as many moments of disgust and disillusionment as they did of serenity.
“You must understand,” Loran/Gay once said to Raine, “all I have is my life.” And A Prison, A Paradise ranks with Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman as an account of a woman following Polonius’ injunction, “To thine own self be true,” to such an extent that friendships, creature comforts, and the conventions of society could all be sacrificed in the interest of self-discovery. And yet, it’s also sensual, acerbic, and even, on occasion, funny, as in this encounter with a census-taker:
“Let me see — are you a housewife?” “No, I am not a housewife.”
“Well, are you employed?” “No, I am not employed.”
“Self-employed, perhaps?” “No, at present I am not self-employed.”
“Well, then, you must be unemployed.” “No, I’m not unemployed either.”
He began to look sweaty and anxious. “I’ve got to put you down as something,” he said.
“Haven’t you any other categories,” I suggested.
“Then put me down as incapacitated,” I said firmly. “I’ve been looking for that word for years.”
Elizabeth Russell Taylor tells more of the story of Loran Hurnscot/Gay Taylor in this London Magazine piece from May 2014. A Prison, A Paradise was also #319 in the lot of books from Marilyn Monroe’s library that was auctioned off by Christies in 1999. Gay Taylor died of pancreatic cancer in 1970.