What Survives of Us
by Kathleen Jones
It hasn’t always been respectable for women to write for publication. The 17th century poet Anne Finch put it perfectly:
“Alas! a woman that attempts the pen
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed
The fault can by no virtue be redeemed.”
But women could write in a domestic context – diaries and letters, telling the stories of their lives as they did so, in an incredibly intimate way that wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been writing for public consumption. Most of this writing was ephemeral – letters thrown away by the recipients once read; diaries burnt by families after the death of the author. What survives depends on the wisdom of those who come afterwards – and sometimes on pure accident. Whole pages were removed from Queen Victoria’s diaries by one of her daughters, who deemed the content improper. Letters between William Wordsworth and his wife were found in the attic of a house during the process of demolition, and rescued from the builder’s bonfire by an antiquarian bookseller who just happened to be walking past.
Almost all my biographies have been inspired by a fascination with journals and letters. At seventeen, desperate to become a writer, but not knowing how, I stumbled on Katherine Mansfield’s journals in a second hand book shop, and immediately fell in love with this other young woman’s struggle to become a writer, her homesickness for the country she’d abandoned, her chaotic personal relationships and the heart-wrenching efforts she made to come to terms with a fatal illness at the age of 29. The journals led me to her short stories and to her ascerbic, funny, intimate letters. Eventually my addiction led me to write a biography, Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller.
It’s in these intimate, private papers that the real story of a life is told. Fortunately the Bloomsbury group were compulsive communicators. They all kept diaries and wrote frequent letters full of gossip, lit crit and innuendo. In writing about each other they gave the biographer the gift of a multi-faceted view of each person – you can see everyone from several different angles. Virginia Woolf’s view of Katherine Mansfield was that she was unreliable, rather vulgar (not one-of-us) but a writer to be afraid of. Bertrand Russell thought she was immensely clever ‘her conversation is better than her books’, Aldous Huxley portrayed her as a manipulative shape-shifter who changed her personality to fit the company. The painter Dorothy Brett complained that an angry Katherine could ‘cut the heart out of you like a knife’ with her words, but that Katherine was one of the people she loved most. Katherine’s lifetime companion, Ida Baker, was ordered to burn all the letters that Katherine had sent her, and Katherine watched from an upstairs window to see that the sentence was carried out. It was to Ida that she had confided the most personal details of her life, illegitimate babies, love affairs, mistaken marriages, the events that an older, more private Katherine wanted to keep secret. The loss of those letters is one of the great regrets of the biographer.
The ones that do survive reveal a vulnerable young woman, desperate to cope with illness and difficult relationships, a loving friend, but also bossy, neurotic and occasionally cruel. Most interesting are Katherine’s letters to the man she chose as a soul-mate, the damaged, emotionally unstable, John Middleton Murry. Katherine pulls no punches as their relationship staggers from crisis to crisis. She needs, and demands, to be loved passionately and – as her TB advances – cared for with thoughtful dedication, but Middleton Murry can do neither. His attempts to do so make poignant reading in his own journals and letters.
Katherine Mansfield’s private papers – the journals and letters never intended for publication – contain some of her finest writing including this meditation on death and the beauty of the world she is about to leave, written in France after a doctor’s visit.
‘And yet one has these “glimpses” before which all that one has ever written (what has one written?) all (yes, all) that one has ever read, pales …. The waves, as I drove home this afternoon – and the high foam, how it was suspended in the air before it fell …. What is it that happens in that moment of suspension? It is timeless. In that moment (what do I mean?) The whole life of the soul is contained. One is flung up – out of life – one is “held” – and then, down, bright, broken, glittering on to the rocks, tossed back – part of the ebb and flow.’
It was also journals and letters that hooked me into writing A Passionate Sisterhood, an account of the lives of the women of the Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey families – the English Lake District’s poetic triumvirate. I went to the Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage to research a piece on Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy for a radio programme and found boxes and boxes of letters and diaries – many of which were unpublished – not just Dorothy’s, but also relating to the poet’s wife Mary Wordsworth and their daughter Dora. Research found many more letters and journals in American archives relating to the Coleridge family. Put together, they told a different story to the much publicised ‘LakePoets’ idyll’. The women wrote about walking miles in the rain to collect a letter, standing in cold kitchens cooking spartan meals, wrestling with wet washing in muddy, windy gardens, the agonies of toothache, the deaths of children, the failure of love.
The personal, familial details overlooked in the literary biographies of their brothers and husbands gave a domestic context for the poets’ work that I felt was important, but it also revealed that their wives, sisters and daughters had often been gifted writers in their own right. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and letters have long been given literary recognition, but what of the journals of Mary Wordsworth? And her contributions to William’s poetry? Who knew that their daughter Dora had been a published author and talented artist? Coleridge’s daughter Sara wrote several books of her own, spent many years editing her father’s work, and also engaged in literary journalism to support her family after her husband died prematurely. She wrote an unfinished autobiography, and left behind a collection of wonderful letters.
The women’s voices came off the page very strongly, and I wanted those voices to be heard. Sara Coleridge’s letters and autobiographical fragments are elegant, scholarly, as beautifully crafted as her published work. Dora Wordsworth is more impulsive and passionate, alive to sensuous impressions and feelings. Her love letters to a young writer called Maria Jane Jewsbury are quite remarkable for their frank expression of emotion. Her account of travels in Portugal is witty and full of beautiful images, though her parents tried to persuade her not to publish it. From Dora’s mother we have a glimpse of the processes of composition in the Wordsworth household and William’s tendency to self-dramatise – a characteristic he shared with his sister Dorothy. Mary’s wry humour is apparent in her journal of a visit to Europe with her husband, who, she remarks dryly, is lying in bed ‘hurting himself with a sonnet’.
Worries are often expressed about what biographers are going to do in the future without letters and diaries. But emails, blogs and online journals (providing the technology to read them survives) are so prolific that I think future biographers might well be drowned in information. Also, from DVD and MP3 files, they will be able to see their subjects move and hear them speak, something I would have loved to have experienced. Coleridge on You Tube? Mansfield’s blog on the Bloomsbury goings on at Garsington? What I wouldn’t give!
Kathleen Jones is a biographer and poet. Her published biographies include A Glorious Fame (Bloomsbury), Learning not to be First – Christina Rossetti (OUP), A Passionate Sisterhood (Virago), Catherine Cookson (Times Warner), Margaret Forster: An Introduction (Northern Lights) and Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller (Penguin/Edinburgh University Press). Kathleen lived for ten years in the Middle East working in broadcasting, and now lives in the Lake District, where she teaches creative writing for the Open University and is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lancaster University.
Read poems from Kathleen’s recent collection, Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 (Templar Poetry, 2011).
Visit Kathleen’s website.
Visit Kathleen’s blog.