Vol. 5 No. 6 · 1 April 1983
SIR: I have been sent, by a friend, a copy of the composite review by Paul Delany (LRB, 3 February) of the book on Graves, and of the Selected Letters published relatedly to that, and of my book of early stories in a new edition, Progress of Stories; and I have considered writing something for the interest of your readers on the actual tendentious disposition underlying your reviewer’s effort to display more critical decency in regard to the subject of myself than other reviewers have displayed. No one writing of myself as he wrote in his comments on the two books centred on Graves could with critical decency merge with them comments of a literarily appropriate order on this single book of mine. The false relevance he creates between the perversions of fact concerning myself that both the other books have poured into reading circulation adds something new to the record of recently ugly British reviewer behaviour – with the opportunities for indulgence in the vanities of easy prejudice offered by those books.
Laura (Riding) Jackson
Vol. 5 No. 15 · 18 August 1983
SIR: The reviews of Martin Seymour-Smith’s book on Robert Graves have all been characterised by a show of studious acquaintance with the work and personal and literary career of Robert Graves that is at odds with the actual distaste for the man and his activities that has prevailed in the general society of writing men of English-language literary orientation. All the reviews of the Graves biography that I have seen speak out of the climate of that society: but, in most, the indurated distaste is smothered in a satisfaction of role-playing as critical forgivers of Graves, as having had a streak of poetic virtue in him justifying the forgetting, in the end, of all the vulgar, personally and literarily specious, rest.
None have been able to resist the bonanza trove of archival material, gilded by Graves to an appearance of historic genuineness, access to which Martin Seymour-Smith makes available with the flattering generosity of the seemingly disinterested scholar: the book enables all to make themselves authorities on the subject of Robert Graves – with the added attraction of enabling them to make themselves authorities on me, and shift the burden of their distaste for Graves to the subject of myself. Paul Delany, who reviewed the Seymour-Smith biography, along with the trailer of selected Graves letters, edited by Paul O’Prey, and, as relevant to these two books, a new edition of my Progress of Stories, in the London Review of Books (LRB, 3 February), tries for the impossible of taking advantage of the men’s-room parlance fostered by Seymour-Smith’s treatment of the subject of myself while leaving himself some room for reservations of fairness towards me and a not entire sell-out of his dignity as one in whom distaste for Graves has had some flourishing existence in past time.
Where reviewers have evinced some nervous uneasiness in their treating of the subject of Graves, they have tended to tie themselves into knots of elaboration on Seymour-Smith’s scandalising depictions of me, yet finding no ease in this simplification of the workings of critical conscience. Mr Delany’s dealing with Graves and myself is awkwardly ambiguous, critically, with a sagging unbalancedness towards the psychological and pornographic banal. It exhibits a disgruntled helplessness of dependence on Seymour-Smith’s lurid depictions of my personal conduct and intellectual predispositions, and dependence on Seymour-Smith’s dependence on the vast hoard built up by Graves of documentary material – the appropriated, the wilfully concocted, the plannedly genuine – in steady anticipation of the eventual literary prominence, the big name of his crude Teutonic vision of victory over the fate of being his not greatly distinguished self.
But did any reviewer have to make do with Graves’s obviously deranged purpose of self-aggrandisement in his management of the literary and personal and archival representations of himself which are the structural substance of Seymour-Smith’s story of the life and works of Robert Graves? Or make do with the obviously deranged purpose of Seymour-Smith, in his centring this story upon myself with a defamatory viciousness not explicable as mere biographer’s dutifulness – sympathetic focusing on an obsessive resentment in Graves towards me, for having terminated an association that had yielded him a character of intellectual and moral seriousness beyond the norms of his native disposition and sensibility? Graves’s handling of the subject of myself of post-association time was malicious, but slyly so, ‘polite’, as Seymour-Smith has himself described it, concerned with covering a trail of thieveries and falsifications with all possible credit to himself. No: reviewers had a grand opportunity, in the offering of all this story stuff and its attendant chaotically juggled-about documentation, of refusing the gaff. They muffed it, every one. They were afraid of being left out of the fun. The joke is on them; and it is all irredeemable nastiness.
Here and there in his review-article, Mr Delany indicated possession of discretion enough to want not to fall prey, entirely, to the prevarications about himself that Graves wove into the story of himself which he put together for public consumption, or to the gross imposition of Seymour-Smith in presenting himself as authoritative guide for a most intimate exploration and tour of the lives of both Graves and myself. There is abundant evidence in Seymour-Smith’s book (and in the trailer of selected letters, with its connecting links of patently pseudo-authoritative narrative exposition) of over-eager effort to make it easier for readers to swallow the great mess whole than to pick and choose, or withdraw in suspicion or outright disgust. The burden need not have fallen upon me of illuminating the false nature of the Graves-Seymour-Smith partnership in literary history-making. There is no glow of truth in anything issuing from it. Nothing could make a reviewer treat the venture as a basis for knowledge and judgment of the persons portrayed in it except the attraction of the publicity spotlight attending it. Probity of taste, and scrupulosity of critical and scholarly standards, are faded virtues in the canons of literary morality – these are times of a new worldly literary realism. For all his wistful leaning to nicety, Mr Delany has not felt he could afford to swim against the currents of the Seymour-Smith and Graves representations, or range outside the pool of the publicity spotlight of their unhealthy storytelling collaboration.
While Mr Delany writes like a man distraught with consciousness of a right and a wrong between which to choose, in his report of the Seymour-Smith book and its letters-trailer, he writes also with the dismal unction of not being above joining in the manly indecencies of chat about myself with borrowed knowing air, and of soft, indulgent slapping of Graves on his back of venerable rascality in the role of poet-piety, maintained to his decrepit last of service to the idea of a Muse that was a reflection of his essential unmanliness. The, Delany review begins with a citing of Graves’s 70th-birthday gift to himself of the lie ‘I always aimed at writing more or less as I do.’ Graves’s course is strewn with lies about himself for the benefit of the reputation he continually laboured to construct for the future view of him – and the ever-coveted present view of him as a man with a future.
‘If he had been more of a poseur,’ Mr Delany has written, ‘his road would have been smoother.’ Mr Delany becomes something of a poseur himself, in his crediting Graves with the picturesque complexity of an exalted poetic self-confidence paired with a bohemian everyday turbulence. Out of self-respect this reviewer mocks the respect he pays to the lies of the legend Graves made of himself: ‘Graves always knew what was owed to Mammon’; Graves had a temperament ‘at odds with common sense and the ideal of “integrity” ’. But this reviewer is careful not to go too far in adverse commentary on either Graves or Seymour-Smith (or on O’Prey’s performance): the self-respecting literary man must not forget what is owed to Mammon, or fear too much the schizoid position of being at odds with the ideal of integrity.
That Seymour-Smith executes, in his book, a mission of his own of all-out vindictive defamation of me, distinct from Graves’s plotting to cover the dishonesties he committed against our comradeship with ever greater and greater ones, ought to be perfectly plain to the moral intelligence of all readers of the book. But there is no arguing with evidence of failure to exercise such discriminatory powers, from one or another cause. I must provide the history of the position Seymour-Smith adopted of narrator for events and circumstances, equipped with wizard witness-presence to them, in which I was centrally or intimately involved – years and years comprised in the span of his narrator offices, although there never occurred a personal meeting between him and myself. The only encounter we had was within the limits of a correspondence of not long duration, initiated by him as someone unknown to me, over twenty years after the beginning of his attachment to Graves – that is, in the mid-sixties. He wanted to free himself from this attachment, and make my work his literary cause, confiding deep unhappiness in comprehension arrived at of Graves’s having awful elements in his moral interior – and regret that he had turned to Graves in the first place, and not to myself. I gave his petition patient consideration. I found reason to judge his project not comfortably acceptable by me. Thence-forth there began to figure signs of resentment in his public references to me; his attachment to Graves settled into a permanence (although for a period another had the name of authorised biographer).
I shall try from the vantage of my peculiarly authoritative position with respect to the misinformation and misrepresentation purveyed by Mr Delany as friendly collaborator with Seymour-Smith and Robert Graves, in their not identical story-shaping and story-telling interests, to touch on features of his review-article that betray his special interest in all this collaborative story-shaping and story-telling. The idea of Graves with which he, as psychoanalytical literary reporter, drapes the scene of his review is a protective device for giving a complex appearance to a subject the actual unobscure simplicity of which calls for unhesitatingly, unmincingly simple characterisation. This ruse of avoiding forthright identification of the Graves wiles of nature, and his scheming literary mentality, has exhausted the ingenuity of Mr Delany: he leaves himself with elementarily low-grade judgment-recourses for the appraisal of my nature and moral and intellectual constitution. Other reviewers have reduced themselves to this condition of coarse dealing with the subject of myself, amidst much finesse of dialectic delicacy in dealing with that of Robert Graves – following not only the lead of Seymour-Smith’s differing treatments of Graves and myself, but the lure of fellow-male feeling in their professionally heightened sense of masculine identity.
Mr Delany is to me one of the sorriest examples of reviewer surrender to what seems best for everyone in the business. At every move to put honour first he panics and reaches for the deadly mouthings of the parlance of the male leer. At the heart of his article he offers as a complete review of the new edition of my Progress of Stories a little paragraph that is a transcendentally prurient achievement of union with the leering mind of Graves behind the display of a self-sacrificial honest countenance. Stealing some brief snatches from here and there in the book-text, he shapes them into a self-made portrait of myself to fit me as author and person into the character of ‘ “Queen Famine”, in Graves’s deadly phrase’ – who consumed ‘both her courtiers and her own gifts’. The phrase provides a title for Mr Delany’s article – ‘Queen Famine’s Courtier’. This splashes a gushing sound of men’s room resounding flush over the 3000-word discharge of what is essentially nastiness about Laura Riding used to save the reviewing day from nastiness about Robert Graves.
Mr Delany’s representation of him as involved in persistent quarrels with his friends and fellow writers ‘even before the flagrant scandals of 1929’ is melodramatic swill, to excite vision of a personality of heroic proportions albeit given to erraticisms more banal than quixotic. The actuality is that, up to what the falsification and distortion of circumstances and happenings of 1929 perpetrated by Seymour-Smith out of virulent rage against me allows Mr Delany (out of his opportunistically adopted animus towards me) to refer to as ‘flagrant scandals’, Robert Graves was favoured with, and enjoyed the benefits of, a quite serene adult existence. His marriage to Nancy Nicholson – maligned by Seymour-Smith (with the help of later-life ugly insinuations of Graves’s) in order to excite sympathy for his dramatic portraiture of Graves (a loveless construction) – provided him with a home background of sensible country life, sophisticated to a degree suitable to their temperaments as persons of cultivated interests. The cultivated in her had a natural base. Graves was, in his basic instincts, a lout. Contrary to the smearing characterisation of her as ‘man-hating’, she did her brave and cheerful best to tidy up the lout into a man. She made their home a place of good company for them and their children and their friends.
There were friends, despite Graves’s affected indifference to sociality, masking fear of exposure to probing judgment. And more friends, after my becoming their friend. ‘What have you done to Robert?’ said one old friend of theirs. He seemed remade into a pleasant person, to her. My own kindly, trusting openness with people, with much else natively mine, became a model for Graves, to apply for his own uses. Mr Delany mentions my Americanness and my Jewishness. Perhaps these both have considerable part in what T.S. Matthews, whom Seymour-Smith pretends to despise while drawing freely on his book of slanderous depiction of myself and my late husband, before turning traitor to us both, wrote to me he had said of me to someone who asked him what I was ‘like’. ‘A nice person,’ Matthews said he had said, ‘very good at bringing people into the conversation.’
Seymour-Smith has invested his all of self-confidence in his hold upon an archival miscellany of dubious substantiability in much of its chaotically varied content, and cannot but be haunted by a nervous awareness that the record of his discrepant attitudes to me and my work, and of his correspondence with me, which had serious confidential features, could not be counted out as a potential menace to his security; imagination of me as living in a state of decrepitude and isolation from the world of literary event may have been a relief to the unchasable nightmare of his practical and moral position.
As to the letter from Gertrude Stein to Graves printed by O’Prey, referred to by Mr Delany, in which she vents animus against me as an intellectual Shylock: this is of some interest as belonging to a patch of intercourse between her and Graves that took place years beyond the time when I brought him into the conversation of a friendship sprung between her and myself. The new forced relations between them, centred here in Graves’s having sent her a copy of his King Jesus, exhibit the bluffer element in their personalities. I know by chance that, for his part in this correspondence episode, Graves had lyingly represented himself to her as a victim of material ill-treatment by me (he who had all the Majorcan property for his proprietary own, after the war years, from my offer of it to him of 1940, accepted by him with manifestation of due gratitude). In response to her response of sympathetic condemnation of me, he played the moral nobleman, averring that he deserved whatever had been meted out to him by me, and crowing with bluffer humility that he had been learning from me all the while. Between Gertrude Stein and myself there had been only a fond bringing of her by me into the conversation I conducted in the late Twenties with my intellectual contemporaries to the limit of my human capacity for trust, and an adoption by her of me as a figure of innocence whom it was comforting to have for friend in the suspicion-laden atmosphere of the world of literature and the arts of those years.
There was no least quarrel between Gertrude Stein and myself. Simply, in what she wrote to me after the late 1929 move to Majorca as a work-place for myself and Robert Graves (never, while I gave my good faith of presence and comradely love to making it that, did it acquire the vulgar scent of some place of theatric exile that Graves’s returned presence there, from the late Forties onward, exuded into it), I found myself confronted with postures that could not escape detection as those of personality-play, in the island’s beautiful sobriety of physical disposition and its human sobriety of homely civil calm. I indicated to her that I was not comfortable with how she wrote to me. My motive was not to offend but to desist from countenancing a communication-trend of a less than true ring. Graves had no part in this. The silence that fell between Gertrude Stein and myself had no significance of a rupture between her and Graves – what relations there had been between them were incidental to hers and mine. Their correspondence-relations of later time were, to the extent of their existence, based on a shallow mutuality of discorrespondent animus towards myself.
I will limit myself to a single additional item delivered by Mr Delany with shameless pretence of a right to speak as responsibly informed. This is a description of me as ‘becoming sexually infatuated with other men, in 1929 and 1939’, with comment on Graves’s ‘childlike complaisance’ towards a brute power of mine resting on my ‘ability to exploit Graves’s long-standing idée fixe about sex’. Graves had no idée fixe about anything; he was under the necessity, in his assumed position of superior mind by force of poetic inspiration, of constantly garnering ideas within grabbable reach for his store of wisdom-wares. My relationship with him was one of ministration to what I took for spiritually intense concern with truth (but was an ambition at the service of a congenital addiction to lying). As to the two other relationships of mine cited with the privileged intrusiveness of contemporary liberated male-tongued indecency: they were based on extraordinary sensibility of mind of the other person, in each case. The first of these proved to be an ignis fatuus that dissolved itself in its manifestation. The second proved to be a true mate to my mind: I suffered no deceptions, in this relationship.
Laura (Riding) Jackson
Martin Seymour-Smith writes: I do not mind what Ms Jackson says about me, but I must point out certain inaccuracies in her account, which I found rather hard to follow. First, her version of our encounter is false; however, as she relies on letters she believes to have been written by me, she may be excused on the grounds that she cannot know the true nature of their provenance. Secondly, none of the evidence I used is in any way ‘tainted’: her description of Robert Graves’s ‘archive’ is fanciful in the extreme. Thirdly, Robert Graves never said a word in criticism of his first wife to me: but I suggest Laura Jackson reread her own published remarks on Nancy Nicholson. I relied on the evidence of others. However, I should like to take this opportunity of saying that I now have good reason to believe that my portrait of Schuyler Jackson, Ms Jackson’s second husband, was not altogether fair or accurate, even though there is certainly truth in it. This will be corrected in any future edition of the book. For certain of my remarks about him I apologise unreservedly to her. Lastly, it ought to be remembered that at one time Laura Riding loved, or said she loved, Robert Graves. Both have an enormous debt to each other. Why should one so dedicated and knowledgeable about the workings of the universe itself be so concerned with affairs so long past? Graves never conducted any campaign against her, and she has been misinformed about what he told Gertrude Stein about her. She would best serve the truth to which she says she is so devoted if she would forgive him for whatever she feels he did for her: support her, help to educate her, defend her ferociously against anyone who criticised her. This would strike a happy note, and I am sure that everyone would be relieved and pleased at such a gesture.
Paul Delany writes: To my review of Robert Graves: His Life and Works Laura (Riding) Jackson has responded with a review of Robert Graves’s life. I did my job as well as I could, but could hardly expect to equal the authority and passion with which she has done hers. I am grateful for the backhanded compliments.