Showing posts with label bloomsbury. Show all posts
Showing posts with label bloomsbury. Show all posts

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Elizabeth Bowen by Victoria Glendinning

Most people who have read any of Elizabeth Bowen's remarkable work will concur with Victoria Glendinning's assertion, in her Foreword, that Bowen is a "major writer; her name should appear in any responsible list of the ten most important fiction writers in English on this side of the Atlantic in this century.  She is to be spoken of in the same breath as Virginia Woolf".  Glendinning sets out to trace the origins of this literary greatness and to explore the woman behind the text.  Bowen's childhood was intermittently idyllic, but blighted by her father's mental illness and the early death of her mother.  An only child but well-supplied with cousins, she grew up to be gregarious and sociable; a short spell at a very serious-sounding girls' school seems to have drawn out a sense of duty from Elizabeth's roots in Anglo-Irish gentry.   Elizabeth grew up to be hard-working, good fun, generous and - for the most part - well-behaved.  She was married for thirty years to Alan Cameron, a career administrator, who supported her writing and tolerated her various indiscretions.  It probably helped that Elizabeth was reserved; she could create intimacy very quickly with strangers, but generally without revealing much of her own interior life.  Her writing, which arose when she realised she had no talent for fine art, drew on her own life and relationships, but transformed them, taking possibilities further, exploring tracks passed by in the real world. 

 This was Glendinning's second book, and her first biography of a celebrated writer; published in 1977, only four years after Bowen died, it necessarily glides carefully over some of the details of her personal life, presumably to avoid offence to people still living.  I've heard Victoria Glendinning tell of how she tends to fall in love with her subjects, and Bowen certainly receives a great deal of generous sympathy and admiration.  Other biographers might perhaps have made more of her failings, but Glendinning is prepared to understand and accept them, particularly those failings that contributed to her work.  This generous understanding is also extensive in her later biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Leonard Woolf.  In this book, however, I got the feeling that, like her subject, Glendinning was holding back.  This might be due to her evident enthusiasm for Bowen's work, to the date of publication, or because the archival Elizabeth was as charming and delightful as her real-life counterpart.

Glendinning is very good on Elizabeth's relationship to Ireland, to her Anglo-Irish background, and also on her position and relation to English literary society.  There is a thorough consideration of all her major works, and of the themes that underpin them; given her other, ancillary work such as teaching and lecturing, Bowen's output was fairly prodigious, especially in view of the quality of her writing.  The chapter on literary wartime London is also fascinating, and I enjoyed the post-war chapters in which Bowen's literary position is secured, and she can encourage the young, travel, contribute to political work, and find time to persuade her American publisher to offer Muriel Spark's books in the US, which gives us all an additional reason to be grateful to her.  This book made me like and admire Elizabeth Bowen the person, an admiration to set alongside the one I already have for her writing.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Who Was Sophie? by Celia Robertson

Celia Robertson has written a memoir of her maternal grandmother, known in her final years as Sophie Curly, but who started life as Joan Adeney Easdale in 1913. Joan published three volumes of poetry when she was a young woman; her work was published by the Hogarth Press and received positive critical attention. By the time Celia was growing up, her grandmother was a drunken, mad bogeywoman kept at bay through legal process; a solicitor dealt with correspondence between Sophie and Celia's mother Jane. When Celia was seventeen, Jane decided to take her to meet her grandmother for the first time; the squalor of her flat, and its bizarre arrangements for catching burglars, were frightening, but the physical reality of Sophie, a tiny and frail old woman, counteracted the images of Sophie as an insane and monstrous creature. Celia continued to visit Sophie regularly after that; following Sophie's death, she was inspired to write the book, to piece together the journey that took Joan/Sophie from young poet to a bag lady haunting the rougher pubs of 1980s Nottingham.

"Poignant" is the word from the TLS review chosen for the front cover, and the poignancy of this book is undisputed and powerful. Joan's descent into madness, her treatment at Holloway Sanatorium, the loss of her children (and their loss of her), and the poverty, violence and squalor of her final years are terribly sad. Celia Robertson's obvious affection for her grandmother, and kindly, loving attention to the story of her life, mitigates this sadness and exposes the value of Sophie's story even at the points where she is, apparently, at rock bottom. Joan is told repeatedly by psychiatrists that she should give up her writing and devote herself to domestic duties. She does, but Joan is a hopeless housekeeper, clumsy, forgetful and unable to budget at all; domestic work for her is no cure. Virginia Woolf appears several times in the narrative, and the story of Woolf's illness is an obvious parallel with Joan's, pointing up an underlying theme of the book: choices for women artists, in the first half of the twentieth century, were limited and often dangerous.

Celia Robertson is overt and frank about the gaps in Sophie's story, the things that can be known and learned about her, and the things that must be guessed at or assumed. This book seems to me to be a brave undertaking, to try to understand the truth of a chaotic life of such a close relative. Who knows what she might have found? What she did find can be disturbing enough. She is also clear that this is her story of Sophie, that other Sophies exist, and could be narrated, by those that knew and loved her. It is Robertson's approach to the narrative, as well as the twists of Sophie's story, that contribute to a richly enjoyable and consuming book.