One for Uncle

John Bayley

  • Robert Graves: The Years with Laura 1926-1940 by Richard Perceval Graves
    Weidenfeld, 380 pp, £25.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 297 79672 0

A bolt-eyed, blue-shirted, shock headed hatless man ... ‘Mrs Woolf? ... I’m Graves.’ He appeared to have been rushing through the air at sixty miles an hour and to have alighted temporarily ... The poor boy is all emphasis, protestation and pose. He has a crude likeness to Shelley, save that his nose is a switchback and his lines blurred ... The usual self-consciousness of young men, especially as he threw in, gratuitously, the information that he descends from Dean, Rector, Bishop, Von Ranke etc etc, only in order to say that he despises them. I tried, perhaps, to curry favour, as my weakness is. L was adamant. Then we were offered a ticket for the Cup Tie, to see which Graves has come to London after six years. No, I don’t think he’ll write great poetry: but what will you?

His mother was indeed a Von Ranke; his Anglo-Irish father famous in his time for many things – including the authorship of an immensely popular song, ‘Here’s a good health to you Father O’Flynn’ – but above all for being upright and honourable, a great gentleman of the old school. The eldest son inherited the mysterious gift of producing an instant best-seller; Molly, one of the daughters by a previous marriage, became a famous water-diviner. When the treacherous Robert produced Goodbye to all that, the long-suffering father, who had supported and encouraged the son for many years and received in return nothing but patronage and contempt, riposted at the age of 84 with his own autobiography, To return to all that. Alas, this spirited gesture merely revealed the impotence of age, the powers irrevocably lost to the killer progeny. The son’s book was a runaway success, the father’s remaindered.

Not many famous writers can be read in terms of their immediate ancestry: Graves is an exception. Powerful wires were in some way crossed or the terminals wrongly connected: the result, an assortment of literary skills bordering on genius, but so heterogeneous that they get blurred, as in Virginia Woolf’s description. Her impression of Graves in 1925 is not quoted by his nephew, who has now brought out the second volume of a totally absorbing biography, but his plain, sensible, even-tenored, shrewd account of the most famous member of a big, effective clan bears out pretty well the sense implicit in her lightning sketch. Richard Perceval is the son of John, Robert’s youngest brother, who was also snubbed, patronised and cold-shouldered. Richard Perceval has written excellent studies, admirably researched, of A.E. Housman and of the Powys brothers, but now is the time to strike a blow for father and get revenge on uncle. I don’t suppose for a moment that any such intention was in Richard Perceval’s honourable mind, but in a sense he only has to tell the story, making use of the family archives and private letters, for the revenge to be a tolerably complete one.

The story is Graves’s long affair – 1926 to 1939 – with Laura Riding, and his eventual dismissal, or escape. No doubt it was both, yet it seems likely that if this extraordinary woman, a Circe in modern dress, had not set about enchanting a new Odysseus, a brilliant American called Schuyler Jackson, Graves might have remained indefinitely in her thrall. She had, of course, a whole stable of obedient creatures who submitted to her powerful charms, but Jackson turned out to be a different sort of admirer altogether. Not a masochist but a sadist, he collaborated with Riding in her ritual destruction of his own wife Kit – a ceremony carried out in the sinister environs of a New England farmhouse with the other disciples in submissive attendance – but then asserted himself even before their marriage as her equal, even as the dominant partner. Jackson, not Graves, was the hero of the saga, taming the goddess who had denounced his own wife as a witch, and reducing her, at least temporarily, to a meekly spousal role.

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