Monday, 28 March 2011

Paint It Today by H.D.

A review of this slim volume will help make sure March doesn't go by without a single post.  H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961) is best known for her modernist poetry, but she also wrote a number of novels. Three of these, Asphodel, HER and Paint It Today are autobiographical works, not published in her lifetime, which function as romans à clef about her complicated emotional life.  H.D.'s  first love and her poetic muse was Frances Gregg; in her early twenties she was engaged to Ezra Pound; she was married for a few years to the writer Richard Aldington; and eventually settled into a long partnership with the writer Winifred Ellerman, known as Bryher. This relationship was not uneventful - Bryher herself was married twice, once to one of H.D.'s lovers - but they brought up H.D.'s daughter together.

Paint It Today is an unfinished work that examines H.D.'s relationship with Frances Gregg (Josepha in the text), a compelling and enthralling but ultimately harmful experience, and the beginnings of her relationship with Bryher (Althea).  As you might expect, it is written in a dense, poetic style, full of classical allusions and references.  The narrative shifts between the third person and the first person, with the protagonist, Midget, sometimes taking up the narrative voice, usually as if from a great temporal distance, to depict Midget's struggle to establish and comprehend her identity:

Myself who was an unformed sort of nebulous personality shall have no name.  You might have called me Midget if you were very stupid, but I was not Midget.  Midget was an intense star.  Midget was a reality.  Midget had broken from all humanity, had fought and won, was a flaming banner.

That quotation is fairly typical of the style, which is full of metaphor and lyrical reference and based on a careful, rhythmic construction which makes it very pleasurable to read.  Colours and flowers recur in the text, always freighted with symbolic meaning, and bringing a very visual quality to the prose.  Occasionally there are passages that would probably have been revised, and the narrative ends with a note that the next section is to start there.  Admirers of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein are likely to enjoy H.D.'s fiction; it is also of interest as an early representation of lesbianism, which is why I came to read it.