Monday, 11 April 2011

Development by Bryher

My last post was about an unpublished novel by H.D., Bryher's lifelong partner; Bryher's own novel was published in 1920, during the early years of their relationship.   Bryher was the chosen name of Winifred Ellerman (1894-1983), the daughter of an immensely wealthy shipowner; she was part of the Anglophone literary circle in Paris in the 1920s; living in Switzerland in the 1930s, her house was a staging post for Jewish refugees escaping Nazism; she saw out the war in London, editing a magazine, and until her death she continued to write historical fiction, non-fiction and memoirs.

Development is – as you might expect from the title – a Bildungsroman.  The protagonist Nancy, aged four at the opening of the novel, moves from indulged child to schoolgirl to young woman struggling to find her place in the world.  The child Nancy longs for adventure, preferably at sea: we first meet her sitting in a box, a make-believe boat, while The Swiss Family Robinson is read to her.  This nursery scene is disrupted by a real sea-story: Nancy is taken to see a ship wrecked by a storm and the daring rescue of the crew.  She will be lucky enough to have many more adventures; her family take her to Italy, Spain and North Africa, where she rides across the desert on a donkey, and Switzerland, where she tastes the freedom she longs for by running far ahead on a mountain walk.  Her imagination is stocked by tales from ancient history – she is not much of a reader of fiction – and she casts herself always in the part of an adventurous boy, regretting her sex and the constraints it imposes.  School, where she is sent at fourteen, is an appalling shock: the uniform mediocrity, the strangeness of a crowd of girls, the pointless activities all confound Nancy and her sense of self.  She survives through preserving an aloof attitude that reinforces her sense of separateness, although she does make a couple of friends: boyish Doreen, from Cornwall and fond of sailing, and kindhearted Eleanor.  More travel, being finished in Paris, even publishing her own book of verses cannot satisfy Nancy’s need for recognition and friendship; a week in the Scillies, sailing at night with the fishing fleet, only sharpens her resentment of her gender:

“Why was she born with a boy’s heart when she might not go to sea?”

One of the most interesting things about Nancy is her synasthaesia.   Words, letters and musical notes all have an ascribed colour, to the extent that music is difficult for her to listen to, being an overly complex muddle of colours.  She tries her youthful hand at art, but without the immediate success she craves; she then bends her sense of colour towards writing, exploring the literary world with a view of colour shaping her response to books.

Nancy embodies the solipsism of the child and adolescent.  As a child, disembodied voices read to her, speak to her; adults are barely named, there are occasional references to “the family”, but not to her parents as individuals.  Most of the girls at her school are a uniform mass; the teachers have names, but are just as uniform.  Out in society as a young woman, she is disappointed by the shallowness and conventionality.   Her inwardness is profound: every experience, every line read and place seen, is viewed through the prism of her own self.  This occasionally makes her irritating, although the writing of this inwardness is cleverly sustained and grows with Nancy, adjusting its focus according to her age.  The characterisation of Nancy – and she really is the only character – is consistent, with colour and depth.  However, to really enjoy this book you have to like Nancy, and I’m not really sure that I did: discontented and privileged, with no idea of her own privilege but every idea of the obstacles in her way, she is a convincing adolescent but not an attractive one. 

Development is often cited as an early lesbian work, but you have to look quite closely to detect any sense of this.  It helps to know that Bryher was influenced by Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion, and uses Ellis's definition of lesbian characteristics to inform her portrait of Nancy, such as her rejection of feminine norms, her sense of separateness, her highly developed intelligence and sensitivity to art and nature.   Development and its sequel Two Selves are available in a single-volume version, as is some of Bryher's later historical fiction.  Her memoirs - which given her long life, complicated relationships and network of friends ought to be decidedly juicy - seem unfortunately to be out of print.

No comments:

Post a Comment