Sunday, 23 November 2014

How Toni Morrison fostered a generation of black writers

No. 2245 Elyria Avenue in Lorain, Ohio, is a two-story frame house surrounded by look-alikes. Its small front porch is littered with the discards of former tenants: a banged-up bicycle wheel, a plastic patio chair, a garden hose. Most of its windows are boarded up. Behind the house, which is painted lettuce green, there’s a patch of weedy earth and a heap of rusting car parts. Seventy-two years ago, the novelist Toni Morrison was born here, in this small industrial town twenty-five miles west of Cleveland, which most citydwellers would consider “out there.” The air is redolent of nearby Lake Erie and new-mown grass.

From Morrison’s birthplace it’s a couple of miles to Broadway, where there’s a pizzeria, a bar with sagging seats, and a brown building that sells dingy and dilapidated secondhand furniture. This is the building Morrison imagined when she described the house of the doomed Breedlove family in her first novel, “The Bluest Eye”: “There is an abandoned store on the southeast corner of Broadway and Thirty-fifth Street in Lorain, Ohio,” she wrote. “It does not recede into its background of leaden sky, nor harmonize with the gray frame houses and black telephone poles around it. Rather, it foists itself on the eye of the passerby in a manner that is both irritating and melancholy. Visitors who drive to this tiny town wonder why it has not been torn down, while pedestrians, who are residents of the neighborhood, simply look away when they pass it.”

Love and disaster and all the other forms of human incident accumulate in Morrison’s fictional houses. In the boarding house where the heroine of Morrison’s second novel, “Sula,” lives, “there were rooms that had three doors, others that opened on the porch only and were inaccessible from any other part of the house; others that you could get to only by going through somebody’s bedroom.” This is the gothic, dreamlike structure in whose front yard Sula’s mother burns to death, “gesturing and bobbing like a sprung jack-in-the-box,” while Sula stands by watching, “not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

Morrison’s houses don’t just shelter human dramas; they have dramas of their own. “124 was spiteful,” she writes in the opening lines of “Beloved” (1987). “Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way.” Living and dead ghosts ramble through No. 124, chained to a history that claims its inhabitants. At the center of Morrison’s new novel, “Love,” is a deserted seaside hotel—a resort where, in happier times, blacks danced and socialized and swam without any white people complaining that they would contaminate the water—built by Bill Cosey, a legendary black entrepreneur, and haunted by his memory.

Morrison spends about half her time in a converted boathouse that overlooks the Hudson in Rockland County. The boathouse is a long, narrow, blue structure with white trim and large windows. A decade ago, when Morrison was in Princeton, where she teaches, it burned to the ground. Because it was a very cold winter, the water the firefighters used froze several important artifacts, including Morrison’s manuscripts. “But what they can’t save are little things that mean a lot, like your children’s report cards,” she told me, her eyes filling with tears. She shook her head and said, “Let’s not go there.”

We were in the third-floor parlor, furnished with overstuffed chairs covered in crisp gray linen, where we talked over the course of two days last summer. Sun streamed through the windows and a beautiful blue-toned abstract painting by the younger of her two sons, Slade, hung on the wall. As we chatted, Morrison wasn’t in the least distracted by the telephone ringing or the activities of her housekeeper or her secretary. She is known for her powers of concentration. When she is not writing or teaching, she likes to watch “Law & Order” and “Waking the Dead”—crime shows that offer what she described as “mild engagement with a satisfying structure of redemption.” She reads and rereads novels by Ruth Rendell and Martha Grimes.

Morrison had on a white shirt over a black leotard, black trousers, and a pair of high-heeled alligator sandals. Her long silver dreadlocks cascaded down her back and were gathered at the end by a silver clip. When she was mock-amazed by an insight, she flushed. Her light-brown eyes, with their perpetually listening or amused expression, are the eyes of a watcher—and of someone who is used to being watched. But if she is asked a question she doesn’t appreciate, a veil descends over her eyes, discontinuing the conversation. (When I tried to elicit her opinion about the novels of one of her contemporaries, she said, “I hear the movie is fab,” and turned away.) Morrison’s conversation, like her fiction, is conducted in high style. She underlines important points by making showy arabesques with her fingers in the air, and when she is amused she lets out a cry that’s followed by a fusillade of laughter.

“You know, my sister Lois was just here taking care of me,” she said. “I had a cataract removed in one eye. Suddenly, the world was so bright. And I looked at myself in the mirror and wondered, Who is that woman? When did she get to be that age? My doctor said, ‘You have been looking at yourself through the lens that they shoot Elizabeth Taylor through.’ I couldn’t stop wondering how I got to be this age.”

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Virginia Woolf: Life Itself

One could wish that the psychoanalysts would go into the question of diary-keeping. For often it is the one mysterious fact in a life otherwise as clear as the sky and as candid as the dawn. Parson Woodforde is a case in pointhis diary is the only mystery about him. For forty-three years he sat down almost daily to record what he did on Monday and what he had for dinner on Tuesday, but for whom he wrote or why he wrote it is impossible to say. He does not unburden his soul in his diary; yet it is no mere record of engagements and expenses. As for literary fame, there is no sign that he even thought of it, and, finally, though the man himself is peaceable above all things, there are little indiscretions and criticisms which would have got him into trouble and hurt the feelings of his friends had they read them. What purpose, then, did the sixty-eight little books fulfill? Perhaps it was the desire for intimacy. When James Woodforde opened one of his little manuscript books, he entered into conversation with a second James Woodforde who was not quite the same as the reverend gentleman who visited the poor and preached in the church. These two friends said much that all the world might hear; but they had a few secrets which they shared with each other only. It was a great comfort, for example, that Christmas when Nancy, Betsy, and Mr. Walker seemed to be in conspiracy against him, to exclaim in the diary, “The treatment I meet with for my Civility this Christmas is to me abominable.” The second James Woodforde sympathized and agreed. Again, when a stranger abused his hospitality, it was a relief to inform the other self who lived in the little book that he had put him to sleep in the attic story and “treated him as one that would be too free if treated kindly.” It is easy to understand why, in the quiet life of a country parish, these two bachelor friends became in time inseparable. An essential part of him would have died had he been forbidden to keep his diary. And as we readif reading is the word for itwe seem to be listening to someone who is murmuring over the events of the day to himself in the quiet space which precedes sleep. It is not writing, and, to speak the truth, it is not reading. It is slipping through half a dozen pages and strolling to the window and looking out. It is going on thinking about the Woodfordes while we watch the people in the street below. It is taking a walk and making up the life and character of James Woodforde as we make up our friends’ characters, turning over something they have said, pondering the meaning of something they have done, remembering how they looked one day when they thought themselves unobserved. It is not reading, it is ruminating.

James Woodforde, then, was one of those smoothcheeked, steady-eyed men, demure to look at, whom we can never imagine except in the prime of life. He was of an equable temper, with only such acerbities and touchinesses as are generally to be found in those who have had a love affair in their youth and remained, as they fancy, unwed because of it. The Parson’s love affair, however, was nothing very tremendous. Once, when he was a young man in Somerset, he liked to walk over to Shepton and to visit a certain “sweet tempered” Betsy White who lived there. He had a great mind “to make a bold stroke” and ask her to marry him. He went so far, indeed, as to propose marriage “when opportunity served” and Betsy was willing. But he delayed; time passed; four years passed indeed, and Betsy went to Devonshire, met a Mr. Webster who had five hundred pounds a year and married him. When James Woodforde met them in the Turnpike Road he could say little, “being shy,” but to his diary he remarkedand this, no doubt, was his private version of the affair ever after“she has proved herself to me a mere jilt.”

But he was a young man then, and as time went on we cannot help suspecting that he was glad to consider the question of “bold strokes” and marriage shelved for once and for all, so that he might settle down with his niece, Nancy, at Weston Longueville, and give himself simply and solely every day and all day to the great business of living. What else to call it we do not know. James Woodforde was nothing in particular. Life had it all her own way with him. He had no special gift; he had no oddity or infirmity. It is idle to pretend that he was a zealous priest. God in Heaven was the same to him as King George upon the thronea kindly Monarch, that is to say, whose festivals one kept by preaching a sermon on Sunday, much as one kept the royal birthday by firing a blunderbuss and drinking a toast at dinner. Should anything untoward happen, like the death of a boy who was dragged and killed by a horse, he would instantly but rather perfunctorily exclaim, “I hope to God the Poor Boy is happy” and add “We all came home singing”; just as when Justice Creed’s peacock spread its tail“and most noble it is”he would exclaim “How wonderful are Thy Ways, O God, in everything!” But there was no fanaticism, no enthusiasm, no lyric impulse about James Woodforde. In all these pages indeed, each so neatly divided into compartments and each of those again filled, as the days themselves were, so quietly and so fully, in a hand like the pacing of a well tempered nag, one can only call to mind a single poetic phrase about the transit of Venus, how “It appeared as a black patch upon a fair Lady’s face.” The words themselves are mild enough, but they hang over the undulating expanse of the Parson’s prose with the resplendence of the star itself. Less effects have been achieved with greater efforts. So, in the fen country, a barn or a tree appears twice its natural size against the surrounding flats. But what led him to this palpable excess, that summer’s night, we do not know. It cannot have been that he was drunk. He spoke out too roundly against such failings in his brother Jack to have been guilty himself. Jack drank at the Catherine Wheel. Jack came home and had the impudence to defend suicide to his old father. Jack himself drank his pint of port, but he was a man who liked his meat. When we think of the Woodfordes, uncle and niece, we think of them, as often as not, waiting with some impatience for their dinner. They gravely watch the joint set upon the table; they swiftly get their knives and forks to work upon the succulent leg or loin, and, without much comment, unless a word is passed about the gravy or the stuffing, go on eating. They munch day after day, year after year, until they have devoured herds of sheep and oxen, flocks of poultry, an odd dozen or so of swans and cygnets, bushels of apples and plums, while the pastries and the jellies crumble and squash beneath their spoons in mountains, in pyramids, in pagodas. Never was there a book so stuffed with food as this one is. To read the bill of fare, respectfully set forth almost every day, gives one a sense of repletion. It is as if one had lunched at Simpson’s daily for a week. Trout and chicken, mutton and peas, pork and apple sauceso the joints succeed each other at dinner, and there is supper, with more joints to come, all, no doubt, home grown and of the juiciest and sweetest; all cooked, often by the mistress herself, in the plainest English way, save when the dinner was at Weston Hall and Mrs. Custance, for whom James Woodforde had a chivalrous devotion, would play the “Sticcardo Pastorale” and make “very soft music indeed”; or would get out her work box and show them how neatly contrived it was, unless, indeed, Mrs. Custance were giving birth to another child upstairs, whom the Parson would baptize, and, very frequently, bury. The Parson had a deep respect for the Custances. They were all the country gentry should bea little given to the habit of keeping mistresses, perhaps, but that peccadillo could be forgiven them in view of their generosity to the poor, the kindness they showed to Nancy, and their condescension in asking the Parson to dinner when they had great people staying with them. Yet great people were not much to James’ liking. Deeply though he respected the nobility, “one must confess,” he said “that being with our equals is much more agreeable.” ....

August 27, 1927.

Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love

James Booth’s new biography of Philip Larkin is not very exciting, perhaps because Booth has the sense to leave the exciting writing to Larkin. But it is very welcome. If you believe that Larkin (1922-85) wrote some of the best English-language poems of modern times, then it has been a trial to see his questionable track record as an everyday human being get in the way of his reputation as an artist.

The obfuscation happened in a hurry, only a few short years after Larkin’s death. His pair of distinguished literary executors, Anthony Thwaite and Andrew Motion, served him faithfully with a selection of his letters (edited by Thwaite) and a biography (written by Motion). Unfortunately for Larkin’s image — which had been fairly staid until then, the poet having lived a quiet and mostly provincial life as a university librarian — it became evident that he had indulged himself in racist and sexist language. It had not occurred to the executors that they might have prefaced their respective volumes with a health warning in capital letters pointing out what should have been obvious: that Larkin talked that way only in his private life; that he believed his letters to be part of his private life, too; and that in his public life he was courteous and charming to anyone he met, of whatever gender or racial background.

Plainly they hadn’t thought it necessary. It shouldn’t have been. But there were dunces waiting, who relished the chance to diminish him. A depressing number of British literary figures averred that it was no longer necessary to read Larkin’s small body of work (he produced barely a hundred pages of poetry), and a few were dumb enough to say that it had never been any good in the first place.

This reversal of estimation was too wild to stick. There were too many people — on both sides of the Atlantic, and anywhere else English is read and spoken — who simply loved Larkin’s poems. In the last two decades that opinion has managed to reassert itself: an encouraging example of error wearing out its welcome. The chief virtue of Booth’s new book, then, is not to advance a new opinion, but to sensibly demonstrate why the original remains the opinion that matters.

Booth — a colleague of Larkin’s for 17 years at the University of Hull and literary adviser to the Philip Larkin Society — is an excellent guide to just why a Larkin poem can merit being called great. He points out its features with the proud care of a well-suited senior BMW executive taking a turn in the salesroom. Sometimes he overdoes the enthusiasm. Discussing the mighty poem “The Whitsun Weddings,” for instance, in which the narrator’s train encounters wedding party after wedding party along its journey to London — “A dozen marriages got under way” — he notes the “unmistakable sexual implication” in the imagery (“there swelled / A sense of falling”). If the sexual implication were really unmistakable it wouldn’t be worth any special notice. Speaking for myself, however, I can only say that it’s so mistakable it never occurred to me. In those last lines of the poem Larkin isn’t talking about sex, he’s talking, with incomparable eloquence, about the present day flying onward to become the future.

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Bertolt Brecht’s Marie-Antoinettism

Biographies these days seem to resemble dumbbells, made as much for physical exercise as for spiritual or intellectual enlightenment; they could also serve as doorstops or defensive weapons against intruders as you try to read them in bed (this requires constant wrestling, even without the intruders). Modern biographers appear to think that facts are like men, created equal, and that none should be left out. I understand the temptation to leave no fact unprinted, for when one has found a fact in the archives it seems a waste of effort if it is not imparted to somebody else. We, however, should always remember what Voltaire said: that the best way to be a bore is to say everything.
There are a few individuals in history, of course, about whom we should like to know everything, down to their breakfasting habits. Chief among these, I suppose, is Adolf Hitler. We feel, unreasonably of course, that if only we knew about his breakfast oats we should be able to pluck out the heart of his evil. Otherwise, brevity is the soul of wit and perhaps even of merit.
Is Bertolt Brecht one of those few of whom we should wish to know everything? I confess that as I read this giant biography—600 pages, so closely printed that each of them is equal to one and a half normal pages—I thought of Macaulay’s review of Edward Nares’s Memoirs of the Life and Administration of the Right Honourable William Cecil Lord Burghley . . . [title truncated due to length]:
Unhappily the life of man is now threescore years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence.
There is no objective answer to the question I have posed: for it depends on one’s assessment of Brecht’s literary or historical importance. A figure can be important for good or bad reasons, of course; the latter, alas, is perhaps the more frequent. It does not follow from the fact that one does not really like Brecht’s work that one does not want to read about his life. Still, 900 ordinary pages are an awful lot, and, I suspect, beyond the need or desire of most literate people to know about their subject.1
The writer of a very long book should at least be a good prose stylist, but unfortunately Professor Parker is not such a stylist. As Sartre said of Malraux, he has a style, but it is not a good one. Professor Parker is inclined from time to time to use ugly modern British demotic locutions, whether from natural inclination or from a need to demonstrate that, despite his university chair, he is a man of the people, I do not know, but his words rarely flow and quite often stick. For example he writes:
Brecht bolstered his morale by noting several rather self-important statements about literature and drama.
The verb noting suggests that the remarks were made by someone other than Brecht, but the adjective self-important suggests that they were written by him, and one is puzzled. (The latter, one soon learns, is the correct interpretation.) Fortunately, the professor’s style improves considerably in the second half of the book—if the reader perseveres.
But he is inclined also to resort to that modern cant known as psychobabble, which is intended to give the impression of understanding in the way that political correctness is intended to give the impression of sympathy for the downtrodden. On page 102, for example, Brecht “struggled to reconcile himself to the brute fact of Wedekind’s death” and by page 105 he “would struggle in his quarrel with himself with that very egotism which was so much part of him.” There are no prizes for guessing in which struggle Brecht emerged triumphant and in which he was utterly defeated; but I suppose that, in the age of the dsm, such loose psychologizing is inevitable.
It may seem paradoxical to complain of omission in a book already so long, but it seems to me a shame that the publisher did not see fit to provide the German originals alongside the author’s translations of Brecht’s poems. The lines of those poems are generally very short, and so could have been printed side-by-side with the English without adding unduly, if at all, to the number of pages; it is striking that, where something in French is cited, it isgiven in the original. Perhaps this is an unintended testimony to the thoroughness with which the Nazis destroyed German as an international language.
Professor Parker is an unequivocal admirer of Brecht, whom he considers a transcendent genius, both as a playwright and as a poet. We can safely assume, then, that his biography is not written with any destructive intent or in any hypercritical spirit intended to diminish his hero’s reputation, which means that the portrait he gives of Brecht’s character is all the more devastating: for in all the hundreds of thousands of words, there is no account of Brecht ever having done a good, kind, generous, or unselfish, let alone a self-sacrificing, thing. The author’s research has been exhaustive as well as exhausting, and will stand for a long time as definitive. If Brecht had been a kindly man, Professor Parker surely would have uncovered the fact and emphasized it. None of us would claim to be perfect, but I doubt that there are many of us about whom so much could be written without the description of a single indisputably praiseworthy deed. Throughout his life, Brecht absorbed generosity like a sponge, but he dispensed it like a stone.
Still, he obviously had a tremendous personal charm, when he wanted or needed it. But charm detached (or alienated, to use a word he so much liked) from real feeling or concern for others is a sinister rather than an attractive quality, a mere instrument in achieving ends, whatever they might be. Mephistopheles had—or has, in his modern incarnations—charm. That is why so many charming people without such feeling or concern are also capable of the most terrifying ruthlessness. Whether they are charming or ruthless depends upon their estimate of which attitude will better get them what they want. If one can imagine a reptile with a high intelligence and a smooth tongue, that is what Brecht was: fundamentally cold-hearted.
Brecht needed his great charm to achieve his ends because, in other respects, he was physically repellent. He seldom washed and he smelled. He didn’t brush his teeth, and, consequently, many of his teeth decayed and fell out. (The author is strong on Brecht’s medical history of rheumatic fever that caused Sydenham’s chorea and heart-valve damage leading eventually to heart failure, but does not mention that in people with rheumatic heart disease, now happily almost a thing of the past, dental hygiene is essential, because poor hygiene can lead to subacute bacterial endocarditis, a debilitating and eventually fatal disease.) Not surprisingly, he suffered halitosis—or rather, others suffered it.
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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller

The tragically short life of this great writer makes a dramatic, seductive and difficult subject. At least a dozen versions already exist, including plays, memoirs, fictions and biographies. The fascination of the subject is obvious. There is the New Zealand family life, so furiously resented, yet so passionately invoked. There is the self-exile to England, the nomadic life, the complicated relationships with other women (the grotesquely self-sacrificing Ida Baker, for one), the edgy intimacies with writers such as Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence, and the confused, reckless sexual experiments and mistakes.

There is the long, intense relationship with the talented, narcissistic John Middleton Murry, which disintegrated painfully. (Once, while she was very ill in Italy and he, absent, did nothing but write to her about his sufferings, she underlined all the "I"s in his letters.) There is the death of her brother in the war, and, from that moment in 1915, the amazing flowering of the writing. And there is the agonising history of her illness, culminating in the dubious Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau, where she died, in 1923, at 34, still, to the last, crying out for a chance: "I want to work . . . I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this . . . I want to be writing . . . But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life . . . That is what I want."
An irresistible story: but then come the difficulties. Katherine kept secrets, covered her tracks, and moved house endlessly (about 10 times in 1914, for instance), leaving papers everywhere. After her death, Murry, haunted by her all through his next two catastrophic marriages, made the most of what she left behind her. Ignoring her request that he should "tear up and burn as much as possible", he edited a stream of stories, journals and letters, all heavily altered and censored – often to reflect better on himself. In the process, which one caustic observer called "boiling Katherine's bones to make soup", he kept her writing alive. He also made a lot of money out of her, and promoted a mythologised version of a martyred Saint Katherine, "sealed in porcelain", as Anthony Alpers put it.
For Alpers and other biographers, Murry's editing of Mansfield's posthumous life was both a vital source of materials and an obstruction. It wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that Mansfield scholars in New Zealand began to publish complete editions of her letters and notebooks. They had not only to unpick Murry's versions but to read Mansfield's handwriting; Margaret Scott told Kathleen Jones that she "once spent an entire week deciphering one word".
Her writing was as impenetrable as she was: romantic, excitable, sharp-edged, malicious and cold, charming and funny, lonely, proud, vulnerable, a wearer of masks. Her on-off friend, the artist Beatrice Hastings, is well quoted here: "A difficult person to know . . . very complex, very self-critical and self-centred, struggling to make herself different, to get rid of what she considered the bad parts of herself . . . terribly private and sometimes hard to approach."
How does Jones – an experienced biographer of an assortment of women writers – approach the challenge? She is steady, thorough, professional and unsensational. She is especially good on Mansfield's feeling for the landscape (and people) of New Zealand, on her financial situation (often desperate, and dependent on the allowance from her much maligned father), and on the frequent squalor of her and Murry's living conditions – yet another appalling furnished flat, "grimy and draughty and smelling of dust, tea leaves and match ends in the sink", yet another wretched hotel room: "I know I shall die in one. I shall stand in front of a crochet dressing-table cover, pick up a long invisible hairpin left by the last 'lady' and die with disgust."
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Monday, 17 November 2014

The Victory of Penelope Fitzgerald

Just before Penelope Knox went down from Oxford with a congratulatory First in 1938, she was named a “Woman of the Year” in Isis, the student paper. She wrote a few paragraphs about her university career, dwelling solely on what had gone wrong. She’d come to Oxford expecting poets and orgies, and had seen few of the one and none of the other. She said she’d taken part in “the first Spelling Bee against America,” in which Oxford had lost by four points to a team from Radcliffe and Harvard, and that she had spoken in the Union “with the result that there were only two votes for my side of the motion.”
This was the wry self-effacement of a star student. Isis readers knew that Penelope herself had shone in the bee, and that her spelling of “daguerreotype” had been “loudly applauded by both teams”; but she wasn’t going to boast about that. She finished her remarks: “I have been reading steadily for seventeen years; when I go down I want to start writing.”
There would be no biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, of course, if she hadn’t done so, and it’s part of the unusual interest of her story that the promised start was deferred by nearly forty years. She published her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, when she was fifty-eight; her first novel appeared when she was sixty. She was, as she said, “an old writer who had never been a young one.” How different it would have been if, like her close contemporaries Muriel Spark, Angus Wilson, and Anthony Burgess, she had started publishing fiction in the 1950s, if she’d moved in the shifting currents of influence and allegiance and left her mark on the literary history of those decades. But as it happened she made her debut at the age when others are going off or giving up, and after diffident beginnings rapidly emerged as an utterly distinctive talent, with no obvious debts to anybody. In America she achieved fame at the age of eighty with The Blue Flower, her finest and most demanding book, and also her last. She died, aged eighty-three, in 2000.
This triumph of late productivity is unavoidably tied to loss, the paradoxical freedoms of bereavement. Edward Burne-Jones was written immediately after her father died. Dedicated to her children, it reaches back into the cultural world of the generation before her own that she had always found so fascinating: it is a passing on of knowledge. Her first novel, The Golden Child, a “joke” as she called it, was written to amuse her gravely ill husband Desmond Fitzgerald, and is dedicated, posthumously, to him.
Everything that followed is thus the product of a near quarter-century of widowhood. And as a widow, she had at last a room of her own. Hermione Lee describes how from 1960 until her husband’s death in 1976, Fitzgerald always slept on a daybed in the sitting room, which was also where she worked. She went to bed last and got up first, the untiring if sometimes desperate motor of a family of three children and a war hero husband who had fallen to pieces on civvy street. She supported her family by teaching and continued to teach, at a posh crammer’s, until she was seventy. But after Desmond’s death she lodged with the family of one or other of her daughters, Tina and Maria, and for a period of seven years in the attic of a friend in Maida Vale, in the unprecedented liberty, and occasional loneliness, of the writer’s life.
At first there was a torrent of writing. Lee reveals that in 1977 Fitzgerald was writing five books at the same time, though three of them were to be abandoned. She produced a novel a year for four years, each drawing on a period of her early and middle life, so that there was a quick retrospective using up of personal material that in a more conventional career might have been worked through at the time. The Bookshop and Offshore found fictional form for a difficult phase in her married life, when she lived first in Southwold on the East Anglian coast, and then in a leaky barge on the Thames. Human Voices went back to her time at the BBC during the war, and At Freddie’s to the period when she taught at a children’s acting school in the early 1960s. Then came her biography of the vividly subjective poet Charlotte Mew, published in 1984, a further exploration of a world she just remembered, the other Bloomsbury, of shabby lodgings, stifled feelings, and Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, which had been a beacon of Fitzgerald’s own childhood.
Thereafter her novels were set in times and/or places she had not herself known, and sometimes involved real historical figures, as in the unforgettable visit to Antonio Gramsci in prison in Innocence. Her pace of production halved as she moved into her seventies, but is no less astonishing in view of the complex research that went into each of these last four novels: Innocence (set in Florence in the mid-1950s), The Beginning of Spring (pre-Revolutionary Russia), The Gate of Angels (1913 Cambridge), and The Blue Flower (late-eighteenth-century Germany). At the same time she came to prominence as an acute and profoundly knowledgeable reviewer and essayist.
At the age of seventy-eight, suffering from an irregular heartbeat, she tried what was clearly a novel experiment for her, “a day’s absolute laziness…. But the laziness makes me feel guilty for that is how I was brought up.” She was a Knox to the end; and proud to be one. Her second book, The Knox Brothers, is a portrait of her father and her three uncles, written with the keen wit, contained feeling, and cultured insiderliness that were to be features of her later novels. Children of an Evangelical bishop, the brothers formed a remarkable quartet (there were also two sisters, barely seen in their niece’s account).
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On Laura Stephen, family ties, and madness

“Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen,” Quentin Bell wrote in the introduction to the biography of his aunt, published in 1972. Since then scholars have combed the family’s letters, diaries, essays, memoirs, novels, and the voluminous biographies and criticism that sprang from them. Is there anything left to say about the glamorous, gifted, troubled family at the center of the Bloomsbury Group? About the shared childhood of Virginia Stephen Woolf and Vanessa Stephen Bell? As the evidence they left has been turned over and over, the missing pieces have become more obvious.


In a rare photograph of the combined Stephen clan, included in a family album in Smith College’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, the parents are in the foreground, as expected. The mother, “J.P.S” for Julia Prinsep Stephen, is hollow-eyed and swathed in shawls. She gazes off to the side. The father, “L.S.” for Leslie Stephen, slightly slumped over, looks down. Five older children jostle for position in the crowded back row behind their parents. They are all tall and handsome, and their linked arms and leaning bodies could indicate closeness or claustrophobia. They press together, neatly composed in an alternating pattern of male/female, frozen in one balanced moment. The boy labeled “Thoby” seems caught in the act of some joke, looking for his sister Vanessa’s reaction. She smiles, but the sister on the other side, labeled “Ginia” but named Adeline Virginia, does not. She seems solemn and stands slightly behind the others. Already there is the slight differentiation typical of siblings: Vanessa and Virginia. Gerald (“G de l’E” on the left) and George (on the right). The flanking siblings seem paired off quite neatly, while the youngest son, Adrian (“A.L.S.”) seems left out. His pose and gaze reveal his connection to his mother. There is room for another sibling in the space next to George, the empty corner on the upper right where there is no name. Or perhaps another child could fit into the odd open space between the parents, where the skirt of Vanessa’s dress provides a diagonal line closing the circle between the figures. The eldest daughter was named Stella: she is not in the picture because she had been given a camera and probably took this photograph. And another girl, Laura Stephen, is missing from this and every other family portrait. The year before this photograph was taken, she had been committed to the Earlswood Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles, one of the earliest psychiatric hospitals in England. I have been looking for Laura since I first heard of her. What role did she play in this literary family?

When this photograph was taken in 1894, the Stephens lived in the tall, narrow townhouse where Virginia was born and Julia and Leslie would die. Virginia shared that home with fourteen other people: her father, her mother, her mother’s three children by an earlier marriage to Herbert Duckworth, her two older siblings, her younger brother, and their live-in servants. The missing daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen, was the only child of Virginia’s father by his first wife, Minnie Thackeray (daughter of the Victorian novelist William Makepeace Thackeray). After Minnie’s death and Leslie’s remarriage to the widowed Julia Duckworth, the newly combined family set up house in a leafy section of London, where the children could take daily walks in Hyde Park. Although not especially wealthy, the Stephens were part of what historian Noel Annan called “the intellectual aristocracy” of Victorian England. The house had a day nursery and a night nursery, servants’ quarters under the eaves, and a library, though no running water. Pails of water and coal scuttles were carried up and down the back stairs to fill basins and light fires. The back windows looking out over a small garden were covered in ivy, making the interiors dark. A heavy velvet curtain separated the dining room from the servant’s pantry and the work done there.

The first place to look for Laura, in Virginia’s voluminous memoirs, diaries, and letters, turns up only a few tantalizing details. Virginia mentioned her rarely and curtly, nor did her siblings leave much of a record of Laura’s existence. In the most detailed account, included in one of her informal reminiscences from around 1922, Virginia describes “Thackeray’s grand-daughter, a vacant-eyed girl whose idiocy was becoming daily more obvious, who could hardly read, who would throw scissors into the fire, who was tongue-tied and stammered and yet had to appear at table with the rest of us.” Virginia makes the difference between them clear: Laura was not, in fact, one of “us,” as the family portrait confirmed. Laura’s pedigree may have been impressive, but she lacked the qualities Virginia thought essential—literacy, self-control, and interiority. The wording is self-consciously literary: the parallel clauses repeating “who,” “who,” “who;” the accumulating climax of “ands;” the emphatic opposition between the framing words “Thackeray’s daughter” and “us.” As at the dinner table, Laura was present where she should have been absent. In a letter from 1934 Virginia reflected on deaths in her family and repeated her husband’s conclusion: “Leonard says Laura is the one we could have spared.”

Leslie Stephen resisted placing Laura with “idiots,” but that was how Virginia described her. Hilary Newman, the scholar who published the Bloomsbury Heritage’s account of Laura’s life, notes that the Victorians distinguished between imbeciles, idiots, and lunatics, with “imbecile” marking the mildest form of congenital mental deficiency. These terms were shifting, though, and national laws like the Lunacy Act of 1845 and the Idiots Act of 1886 struggled to define them. Laura was admitted to Earlswood as an “imbecile” but was labeled a “lunatic” in the census of 1901, which suggests worsening symptoms. In an oft-quoted diary entry from 1915, Virginia wrote about seeing a group of “imbeciles” file past her in Kensington Gardens. She was appalled by their hideous grins and wild stares, details which evoke Laura’s vacant eyes. “They should certainly be killed,” she concluded. It is easy to imagine that Virginia’s antipathy to the mentally ill sprang from awareness of her own mental fragility (indeed, in 1915 she suffered another breakdown) and anxiety about sharing any part of Laura’s fate—mad, exiled from home, abandoned by family, without reason, self control, or independence. After all, Virginia shared tragic elements of Laura’s story: she too suffered from a lifelong struggle with mental illness; she too suffered devastating losses, like her mother’s sudden death when Virginia was thirteen. And she too struggled with the weight of her father’s high expectations for his children, even though she would end up meeting them more than any of her siblings. A large Victorian family like the Stephens’ demonstrated Herbert Spencer’s controversial phrase “the survival of the fittest.” In the jostle for love and attention that is visible in the family portrait, some won and some lost.

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