- My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J.R. Ackerley edited by Francis King
Hutchinson, 217 pp, £8.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 09 147020 X
‘Women are bitches.’ It was odd and ugly of J.R. Ackerley to put it like that, since both the sentence before this terse rancour and the one after it dote upon a bitch, his dog Queenie. Much-loved Joe Ackerley was not much-loving, but he did love his dog, loved her even more than he loathed his sister Nancy. Nancy loathed them both back. She also loathed their old aunt Bunny, whom Ackerley only intermittently hated. When Ackerley took a break, he contrived a busman’s Roman holiday, since he went to stay with Siegfried Sassoon, who was fully occupied loathing his wife, as she him. ‘He was obviously very wrought up over her emotional persecution of him, and described at much length her jealous rows, resentments, emotional blackmail, etc. He was describing Nancy.’ Nancy was chagrined at not having been invited, so Ackerley gave it her straight:
‘Why on earth should he have asked you?’
‘I’m your sister.’
‘But he hates women,’ I said. ‘He’s going through torment over his own woman already. He’s a sort of hermit. He would never have had you in the house.’
Ackerley’s best and posthumous book, My Father and Myself (1968), had love and respect in it. Someone had actually surprised him. His father’s secret life – a whole other wife and children all unbeknownst to Ackerley until after his father’s death – moved him to an apprehension of a life intimate with his and yet utterly distinct from him. So the newly fashioned parallel title, My Sister and Myself, is misleading. For the previous book was about Ackerley’s father and about Ackerley and about their relation. This selection from Ackerley’s diaries is about the relation between Ackerley and his sister: about that only, since Nancy is granted no independent life. (Francis King does his best to supply her with one in his accommodating introduction.) Given that Ackerley could unquestionably write, his perverse refusal to make real the husband of Nancy, or her son, has to be evidence that it was his own flesh only that he yearned for her to be a thorn in. Oh, he deplores her treatment of her husband and her son, but only so that we – he, primarily – may the more underline her monstrous behaviour to him, Joe. ‘Horrible, horrible woman. Poisonous. Corroded with jealousy and envy.’
The misogyny is unremitting; beside it, the misanthropy is light relief. Francis King’s introduction finds convenient a turn of phrase: ‘Joe and his often misogynistic friends’, ‘Joe’s friends, many of them women-haters’. But it cannot be that Joe’s friends were at odds with him in this, or indeed were able to outdo him. When Ackerley showed E. M. Forster a letter from Nancy, Forster was horrified: ‘unfocused hatred’. Ackerley focused.
Essentially these diaries cover 13 months, from August 1948 to September 1949. A further 15 pages pounce along till 1957. (Ackerley died in 1967, Nancy in 1979.) Practically every page has a blistering or festering remark about women. It is not just that Nancy and Bunny are always despised explicitly as women, but that Ackerley incites himself to every generalising contempt. When Bunny boasts, Ackerley interrogates himself, and acquits himself as a man:
Shall I be like that when I get old, talk endlessly about myself and such successes as I have had in life, my books, my good looks when young, my successes in love? I can’t believe it. Indeed I think it is female vice. Women are naturally vain and self-centred, interested only in themselves or what other people think of them; boasting in old age is what they are all too liable to come to.
When Nancy smarts, Ackerley surreptitiously snickers: ‘I remember Nancy saying to me, “I believe you’d sacrifice us any time to the dog.” I said, “Yes, of course.” Being a woman, so vain, I suppose she thought I didn’t mean it, but I did.’ When his aunt is granted his praise (‘Bunny is very good really about such disappointments’), this is so that the praise may then with the more animus be rescinded, for the very next sentences are these: