Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (book #162)

8 June 2017

Cover of book - image of Warner

Claire Harman, 1989.

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, ever since hearing Harman speak (about food in literature). My book club read Lolly Willowes recently so I thought it was time to read the biography. Which is really good, particularly on Warner’s troubled, devoted relationship with Valentine Ackland (problems including Ackland’s other relationships, her lack of literary success, their imbalance in earnings, Ackland’s alcoholism and later religious faith). Also good on the houses they lived in, often inconvenient and cold. And good use of Warner’s and Ackland’s writing in the text. And I know this should be commonplace but it’s also good to see a lesbian relationship where the women, and the biographer, seem to have very little interest in what others thought about their sexuality.*

Some pieces I liked:

Ackland’s letter about bomb damage in London (she’s writing about Inverness Terrance and Mecklenburgh Square in October 1945):

completely flattened … smell of smoke and fire still hanging over the streets and pieces of the fixtures of the houses still littering the basements and gutters. Front doors ajar, and stately rooms beyond, with pit-holes down to the earth instead of floors, and small trees and jungles of dying loosestrife grown up almost to the front windows.

Ackland’s poem (included in her posthumous 1973 collection The Nature of the Moment, but mentioned by Harman in her section on 1948) “Journey from Winter”:

As days become shorter and the cold ghost of the North
leans across from the Pole to strike us, and winter appears in the sky,
it is time to consider our journey. Take down the guide,
the schedule of trains and of sailings, the smart list of ‘planes;
and here by the first fire, our comfort and warning, consider:

The ways of coming at truth, attaining creating or re-discovering,
need no special equipment of faith or unfaith;
the amateur party about to set out to-morrow
will follow one route of the three; but all run together
somewhere in country uncharted, and all reach the end.

There are no true maps of the kingdom; guides have been and returned,
but some will not venture again, while others will shepherd part-way
and still others travel as exiles working a passage home.
The natives are foreign to us and will offer no kindness,
being without interest in strangers and unable to speak our tongue.

They say the first stages are easy; civilised travel
and pleasant companions en route. But once over the frontier
there’s nothing to help you except your own wits, and the wish
to reach your objective. Once over the frontier the others
who started out with you scatter, and each one travels alone.

Guide books agree that the contry is full of silence;
no written words to be found, no signposts, no place-names, no roads,
and scarcely a living man met. All you can do
is watch for the flight of birds or study the slant of the stars
or try to decipher the hieroglyphs drawn by sheep on the hills.

You can live on the country, they say, and do better so
than to carry provisions which, under that sky, will rot.
You can travel fast or slow; there is nothing to tell you
how much further you have to journey until you arrive,
how much further before you reach –

Reach what? I do not know.
All I know is the blight of the North wind, the carrion
patience of winter hanging up there in the sky,
and the blow that is aimed from the Pole, that is aimed to destroy us.
These things, and the date of starting, are all I know.

Also this bit on love – the letter is from about 1950:

there was a sombre truth as well as a simple one in what Sylvia wrote to a friend at about the same time, imploring him not to be tormented by fantasies of losing his lover: ‘think of me,’ she said. ‘Here I am, grey as [a] badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand – except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.”

I’d like to know more about the Blitzed Libraries scheme, for which Warner and Ackland sorted books at a National Salvage Depot in 1943.

*I know that’s 4 x good in one paragraph, but it’s the right word for this book.


Review at Shiny New Books.

NY Times review of the letters of Ackland and Warner, with a link to the first chapter of the book.


Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (book #127)

20 July 2014

Frances Spalding, 1988.

Smith provided an introduction and captions to Cats in Colour, a 1959 book of photographs of cats. She wrote “arch chatty captions, inferring human intent from the cat’s look or pose,” but wrote in the introduction

It is we who have made these little catsy-watsies so sweet, have dressed them and set up them up, in their cultivated coats and many markings, and thrown our own human love upon them and with it our own egocentricity and ambition … Really to look in an animal’s eyes is to be aware of stupidity, so blank and shining those eyes are, so cold. It is mind that lights the human eyes, but what mind have animals? We do not know, and as we do not like to know, we make up stories about them, give our own feelings and thoughts to our poor pets …

Read since I last posted:

The All You Can Dream Buffet, Barbara O’Neal
The Saxon Shore, Jessie Mothersole (which I shall blog)
Her Last Breath, Linda Castillo
Delusion in Death, J D Robb (re-read)
Seduction in Death, J D Robb (re-read)
Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain, Arthur Weigall (which I shall blog)
Catching Snowflakes, Nora Roberts (two novels, one of which was a re-read)
The Return of Rafe MacKade, Nora Roberts
Christmas Magic, Nora Roberts (two novels)
The Heir of the Castle, Scarlet Wilson

Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (book #125)

17 June 2014

The Authorised Biography
Boel Westin, trans Silvester Mazzarella
2007, 2014

An amazing book with a luxurious number of colour and black-and-white pictures. I knew nothing at all about Jansson’s life. The book was a bit puzzling at times as I knew very little about Finnish / Swedish twentieth century history or artistic movements (Jansson was the daughter of artists), but definitely worth reading.

Interesting things include how Jansson related to people, the tension between children’s and adults’, serious / playful art or writing, how her work was seen, and her urge to write and re-write, re-imagine or re-tell her past and present, including using real people and events very clearly in her work. I’ve also been reading a biography of Stevie Smith, and she also uses friends recognisably in her writing (sometimes leading to them ceasing to be friends).

The Moomins became an enormous industry, overwhelming Jansson’s ability to manage it and continue other creative work; in particular, she felt obsession (Westlin’s word) about painting, and guilt about not doing so, or not doing so well enough: “There have been so many attempts and so many failures, endless pauses and trying again. … And my feeling of guilt has increased, year by year, to a constant, compact feeling of indisposition, which has made it harder and harder for me to paint.”

She loved to build things: “This was how she described her ‘latest flight from reality’ and the details of its intricate construction (in front of a cave): ‘It is built so that the cave opens out like a inner room … its back wall is not covered but you look up to see the mountainside and patch of sky … Under the ceiling runs a primitive multicoloured thorn, with a window of plaited osiers, and outside a totem pole … Inside there’s an earth floor with flat stones and a stair up to the cave on whose white sandy floor I have strewn shells and on whose walls I am busy carving mammoths and other animals faithfully copied (from ancient discoveries). … ‘

I liked this poem by Jansson’s mother, Signe Hammarstein:

I was a clergyman’s daughter
Guide leader
Interested in
care of the sick
books and drawing
in religion an idealist

I was loved
an artist
moved to his country
survived four wars
worked hard for
the meatballs of life
gave birth to three wonderful
fantastic children
so really
the whole thing wasn’t so

Mentions a fifteenth century church mural by Albertus Pictor of Death playing chess with a knight.

Albertus Pictor: mural from Täby Church

Jansson wrote to a friend “I’m afraid that all my life I shall be an unpolitical = asocial painter, a so-called individualist depicting lemons, writing fairy tales, collecting weird objects as a hobby and detesting associations and societies.”

Something missing for me – and this may be to do with being an ignorant reader – was little sense of how Jansson came across to people, what people who knew her thought of her. It’s only in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgements that Westin, who knew her well, writes “Tove Jansson was at the same time open and secretive, intimate and distant, in a manner all her own”.

The archive and studio Jansson left sounds incredible for her biographer, containing over fifty years of work and life, and Westin implicitly returns to it in the last few words of the book in a sort of Strachey’s Victoria and the rug way, looking back to Jansson’s parents’ studio where bookshelves reached to the ceiling “and she was free to search all the way from the big art books at the bottom near the floor up to the novels and poetry … as she put it herself, ‘to find the Pictures and the Words: the things that will never end’”.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match (book #114)

28 August 2011

Wendy Moore, 2009.

What a depressing book. It’s about the life of Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne (1749 to 1800), and in particular her marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney. He deceived her into marriage and was exceptionally abusive even for the time.

Here’s a summary of his treatment of her and her first escape, from the Guardian review:

Her second husband’s relentless physical and mental cruelty left Mary a changed woman. Beating her behind closed doors, he controlled her obsessively in public: she could not dress, eat, or converse without his permission, and was reduced to borrowing stockings from her servants. Jessé Foot, Stoney’s two-faced friend and biographer, described her altered state with uncharacteristic poignancy. Convulsive sideways movements of her lower jaw mirrored Mary’s mental anguish. She was half-deaf from blows, and could barely speak. Redemption came in the figure of a female servant. Stoney’s staff usually ended up his spies, pimps or concubines, but Mary Morgan was different. After seeking legal advice, she recruited a small band of colleagues prepared to help their mistress escape. The support the countess received from retainers, tenants and colliers is stirring – many suffered in the fall-out from the failed marriage. Her loyal gardener tended her beloved plants and hothouses to the bitter end, secretly sending her the occasional consolatory pineapple.

Having escaped from her immediate danger, however, she then had no access to her money or to her children; and in fact was abducted by her husband again before being found and released.

Several of the reviews call it inspiring in that Mary Bowes did finally escape, manage to get a divorce and her fortune and her children back. But her experiences seem to have shortened her life and unsurprisingly left her with extreme anxiety.

Here’s a bit about her ex-husband’s abusive activities whilst in prison:

The teenage daughter of a fellow prisoner, who happened to own a considerable estate, Mary or “Polly” Sutton had caught Bowes’s eye when she visited her father. Applying his customary seduction technique, he charmed his prey with flattery and presents. When Polly fell ill with a fever, he sent Foot to tend her; the surgeon found her ‘feeding a pigeon with split peas out of her mouth’ and described her as ‘a girl of perfect symmetry, fair, lively, and innocent’. Making no attempt to preserve Polly’s innocence by warning her of her admirer’s depravity, Foot observed silently as Bowes duly seduced the girl and brought her to live with him in jail. If his treatment of Mary had made Bowes notorious, his most pitiful victim must surely have been young Polly whose voice would never be heard. Hiring a room for her, to which Bowes alone had a key, he kept Polly confined day and night; she was, effectively, the prisoner of a prisoner. In her lonely cell, she bore Bowes five children, all of whom shared her confinement. Never permitted to attend the dinners Bowes threw for fellow inmates, she lived the life of a recluse. Occasionally Foot caught a glimpse of her, when Bowes called him to treat one of the children, but found it impossible to speak to her since ‘Bowes was always present, hurried the visit as much as possible, locked the door, and took the key in his pocket’. Polly, who would remain with Bowes for the rest of his life, effectively became his third wife and was treated accordingly – subject to extreme domestic violence and blatant infidelity.

There’s an interesting blog review here.

Charlotte Mew and her Friends (book #97)

26 February 2011

Penelope Fitzgerald, 1984.

Mew’s father’s jollifications in the years after his marriage. They lived at Doughty Street, round the corner from Coram’s Fields. “His idea of an evening out was a smoking concert, or Jolly, at the R.I.B.A. … Sometimes he crossed the street to the Foundlings’ Home in Coram’s Fields to talk to the orphans, and see them eat their dinners.”

May Sinclair “‘came to dinner sometimes [wrote the novelist I.A.R. Wylie] and talked mainly about cats'”.

The Poetry Bookshop (1913-26) “was on the ground floor of a dilapidated eighteenth-century house, with only one cold-water tap for the whole building. However, as you came through the swing door you felt the warmth of a coal fire burning at the other end of the room. There was a dog stretched out there and a cat, which sometimes sprang about the shelves, apparently deliberately, knocking down piles of books. The furniture had been made by the Fabian master-carpenter Romney Green, and was exceptionally solid, the curtains were of sacking, and there were cushions in “jolly” colours. Across the walls rhyme sheets were displayed in rows, a penny plain, twopence coloured, and bought mostly for children.”

Georgian poetry:

It was true that these little volumes, even when they were by the newer poets, were often not very demanding. John Drinkwater, for example, in Poems of Love and Earth (1912) thanks God for
(1) sleep;
(2) clear day through the little leaded panes;
(3) shining well water;
(4) warm golden light;
(5) rain and wind (apparently at the same time as (2));
(6) swallows;
(7) wallflowers, tulips, primroses and ‘crowded orchard boughs’;
(8) good bread;
(9) honey-comb;
(10) brown-shelled eggs;
(11) kind-faced women with shapely mothering arms;
(12) tall strong-thewed young men;
(13) an old man bent above his scythe;
(14) the great glad earth and ‘Heaven’s trackless ways’.
There was a great deal of this kind of thing at the lower and easier end of the repertoire, where eggs were always brown, the women always kind, and the earth always glad. But the poetry was meant to give pleasure and it was, after all, the last body of English poetry to be actually read, by ordinary people, for pleasure.

Her life was affected by family mental illness – a brother and a sister both died “insane”, and she and a surviving sister agreed not to marry in case they passed on madness – by caring for her elderly mother, by her lesbianism (mostly unacted on apart from a farcial and humilating episode with May Sinclair), by poverty and guilt. It is difficult not to think that her life would have been happier if she’d been born a hundred years later.

On the Asylum Road

Theirs is the house whose windows – every pane –
Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass:
Sometimes you come upon them in the lane,
The saddest crowd that you will ever pass.

But still we merry town or village folk
Throw to their scattered stare a kindly grin,
And think no shame to stop and crack a joke
With the incarnate wages of man’s sin.

None but ourselves in our long gallery we meet,
The moor-hen stepping from her reeds with dainty feet,
The hare-bell bowing on its stem,
Dance not with us; their pulses beat
To fainter music; nor do we to them
Make their life sweet.

The gayest crowd that they will ever pass
Are we to brother-shadows in the lane:
Our windows, too, are clouded glass
To them, yes, every pane.

Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (book #57)

7 April 2009

Jenny Uglow, 2006.

As thoughtful, dense and reaching out as Uglow usually is.

Uglow quotes Bewick in his memoirs on how the artist ought to live:

Ought if possible to have his dwelling in the country where he could follow his business undisturbed, surrounded by pleasing rural scenery & the fresh air and as ‘all work & no play, makes Jack a dull Boy,’ he ought not to sit at it, too long at a time, but to unbend his mind with some variety of employment – for which purpose, it is desireable [sic], that Artists, with their little Cots, should also each have a Garden attached in which they might find both exercise & amusement – and only occasionally visit the City or the smokey Town & that chiefly for the purpose of meetings with their Brother Artists.

Here are two of the many prints with which the book is sprinkled.



The latter is copperplate by Bewick’s son Robert, c 1812, from Bewick’s drawing. Uglow doesn’t say, but I think this must have been an invitation card or ball-card – Bewick’s workshop did a great deal of commercial work of this kind. I like the chap on the right with his leg poised in air.

Shakespeare (book #9)

12 January 2008

Bill Bryson, 2007. A fast-moving and sceptical biography of Shakespeare. Some good bits:

“Of the approximately three thousand plays thought to have been staged in London from about the time of Shakespeare’s birth to the closure of the theatres by the Puritans in a coup of joylessness in 1642, 80% are known only by title.”

On St Paul’s: “Inside, the cathedral was an infinitely noisier and more public place than we find today. Carpenters, bookbinders, scriveners, lawyers, hauliers and others all plied their trades within its echoing vastness, even during services. Drunks and vagrants used it a place of repose; some relieved themselves in corners. Little boys played ball games in the aisles until chased away. Other people made small fires to keep warm.”

“In 1918 a schoolmaster from Gateshead, in north-east England, with the inescapably noteworthy name of J. Thomas Looney, put the finishing touches to his life’s work, a book called Shakespeare Identified, in which he proved to his own satisfaction that the actual author of Shakespeare was the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere. It took him two years to find a publisher willing to publish the book under his own name. Looney steadfastly refused to adopt a pseudonym, arguing, perhaps a touch desperately, that his name had nothing to do with insanity and was in fact pronounced loney. (Interesting, Looney ws not alone in having a mirthful surname. As Samuel Schoenbaum once noted with clear pleasure, other prominent anti_stratfordians of the time included Sherwood E. Silliman and George M. Battey.)