- In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding by Deborah Baker
Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 241 12834 X
Laura Riding, so Deborah Baker tells us, first emerged into the public world of books in 1924. She was 23 years old and living in Louisville with her husband, a history professor whom she met when he was her teacher at Cornell. One of the things that had attracted Lou Gottschalk to Laura Reichenthal, as Riding had then been called, was that she knew her Marx better than the other undergraduate ladies did. Marx she had learned at the knee of her father, a New York socialist and a first-generation Jewish immigrant from Poland.
Like so many clever, ambitious women of her time, Riding had married young partly to escape her family and partly because it seemed like a good way of securing the proverbial five hundred a year and room of one’s own. But she was beginning to find that life as a campus wife only replaced one prison with another. Like the restless demon who gets caught inside a tree, her energy and ambition were desperately waiting for some more lively medium to become available to her.
When, in 1924, Riding heard that she had won the Nashville Poetry Prize, she felt like Charlie on his way to the Chocolate Factory. For the Nashville Poetry Prize represented an entrée into society, an entrée into Modernism, an entrée into Life. The prize was judged by the editorial board of the famous Fugitive magazine, one of the first places in the US to take The Waste Land seriously. The Fugitives themselves were a tight-knit and glamorous clique of young male poets, and included among their number the dashing Allen Tate, with whom Riding was already flirting through the mail. So when news of her great success came through, Riding jumped straight on a train to Nashville, there to meet with her friends-and-collaborators-to-be.
John Crowe Ransom, then a key member of the Fugitive group, tells the story of what happened next.
Undoubtedly we were rather absurd in the way we received Laura at Nashville – prim, formidable and stiff. What she came for was human companionship of the most bare-soul description; she had neither birth, subsistence, place, reputation nor friends, and was a very poor little woman indeed. She got only a rather formal welcome, though she is mistaken in assuming that we burned with suppressed libidinous desires ... We quite missed the point. She on her side did not realise that we had already established our personal relationships on satisfactory and rather final bases, and that we were open to literary relationships but not to personal. I realise there is a sort of meanness in such an admission.
Ransom added that Riding had had a peculiar accent: ‘Perhaps Polish Jew?’ Deborah Baker suggests that it may have been her self-consciousness about her accent that caused Riding, many years later, to talk about poetry as a place ‘where the fear of speaking in strange ways could be left behind’ and ‘as a way of speaking differently from the untidy speaking ways of ordinary talk’.
Within a few weeks of her Nashville meeting, Deborah Baker reports, Riding was in hospital, probably suffering from a breakdown. She emerged a month later, determined to make it as a poet, and equally determined to make the Fugitives love her. Allen Tate had already moved to New York. So Riding left her husband to follow him. She was too naive to understand, or she was too full of youthful confidence to care, that the writers she wanted to hang out with were financially supported by rich families, whereas she herself was not. Friends remember her working incredibly hard, yet getting nowhere much at all.
Towards the end of her sojourn in New York, Riding took revenge on the writers who had wronged her by publishing a satirical poem called ‘The Quids’:
The metaphysical acrobats,
The naked, immaterial quids,
Turned inside on themselves
And came out all dressed,
Each similar quid of the inward same
Each similar quid dressed in a different way –
The quids’ idea of a holiday.
‘The Quids’ was admired by Robert Graves, who wrote a letter to Riding, inviting her to visit him and his wife in London.
Riding would stay with Graves, first in London, then in Majorca, first in a ménage à trois, then as sole proprietor, for 14 years, from 1926 to 1940. London literary society did not take to her: Virginia Woolf called her ‘a shallow, egotistical, cock-crowing creature’ and ‘a damned had poet’. Riding retaliated with a string of knockabout, attention-seeking essays and reviews. Of To the Lighthouse, for example, she wrote that ‘all this delicacy of style ... is the expression of an academic but nevertheless vulgar indelicacy of thought, a sort of Royal Academy nudeness, a squeamish, fine-writing lifting of the curtains of privacy’.
To external eyes, the pattern of Riding’s life was set. She was a ruthless homewrecker; she would go on to disrupt another marriage in 1939, by dint of sending the first wife of her second husband, Schuyler Jackson, mad. She was a flagrant, bloodsucking egotist. Over the years Riding and Graves were together in Majorca, it was Graves who brought in the money, with Goodbye to All That and the Claudius books. Yet Riding always insisted that it should be her work which came first; she even forced a deal on Graves’s publishers whereby the publishers could only have Graves if they were prepared to take Riding’s very unpopular poems as well.
And Riding was manipulative to the point of megalomania, a crazy paranoid who continually confused her private fantasies of world domination with external, objective fact. The most notorious proof of her madness came in 1929, when Riding leaped out of a fourth-floor window in Hammersmith, breaking her back and very nearly killing herself, causing Robert Graves to follow her out of another window. The appalled, relentless tone of a recent review of Deborah Baker’s book, written by the novelist Elspeth Barker, expresses very well how the figure of Laura Riding is, in general, seen. ‘Power-crazed and despotic, Laura raged through the first half of her life on a self-promotional binge of destruction.’
Vol. 16 No. 7 · 7 April 1994
I was at the party when Laura Riding jumped out of the window (LRB, 10 March). It was a party of big names in the Arts and I was escaping from one of the top portrait painters. I would have liked to be seen for ever young and lovely, but if it meant going to bed with him – no. Then there was a wild row going on and Laura Riding jumped out of the window and Robert Graves jumped after her, but sensibly ran downstairs so that it was an easy jump. I disliked Laura so much that I would have preferred her to have been bashed to bits, but not at a party.
During the winter of 1937-8 my wife and I shared a Surrey house with the two refugees from Majorca. Laura was in the habit of pronouncing: ‘Bodies have had their day.’ Now that she and Graves no longer shared a bed this was a useful stick to beat him with. Two years later, in America, she issues from a bedroom (in which she and Schuyler Jackson have spent 48 hours together with the door locked) to announce to the inmates of Nimrod’s Rise: ‘Schuyler and I do.’ Mythology? No, fact. No wonder Riding was allergic to biography! At Ewhurst, I am reminded, Laura tried to persuade my wife to give up sharing her husband’s bed; but Alix politely told Laura to mind her own business. Alix and I knew nothing at this time of the crazy three-life and four-life passages that had led to Riding’s attempted suicide – a crime in those days, for which she might well have been deported, had not Graves got his friend Sir Edward Marsh to persuade the Home Office not to prosecute.
Riding quarrelled with all her major contributors to Epilogue: John Cullen, Jacob Bronowski, Norman Cameron, James Reeves, Alan Hodge and myself, and finally with Graves – who lost heavily on the Epilogue enterprise. According to Jenny Turner, this ‘mythology’ can best be viewed as a ‘set of stories which do quite a bit to illuminate the culture in which they were formed’. Alternatively, one might judge: Laura Riding was congenitally incapable of conducting herself as a poet among poets. Norman Cameron, for example, gave up building himself a house in Deya when he realised to his ‘horror’ that Riding was promoting a competition for her affections between himself and Graves. Norman was incorruptible. He handed her the house, and 10,000 pesetas to complete it, as the price of his escape. His superb poem, entitled ‘The Wanton’s Death’, commemorates the episode. The poem stands on its own feet, of course; but its reference to Riding adds a spice to its conclusion:
Her relics rot on the sea-wasted foreshore,
Half-wooed, half-spurned by the land-tainted spindrift.
Riding the novelist was a failure. At Ewhurst the subject of I, Claudius was taboo, though Riding was quite content to live off the proceeds. Her novel, A Trojan Ending, written in jealousy with the aim of putting Graves’s literary success in the shade, was a flop. Riding the poet was all Jenny Turner says of her.
After his dismissal in 1940, Graves (having supported Riding and her writings for 13 years) gallantly announced that she had ‘wiped the slate clean’. At his death, Riding wrote to the Times of ‘this figure of outsize proportions who, intensely in his later decades, treated literature as his own private theatre of the transcendental grotesque … the lie his method of truth’.
The abusive letters Riding wrote to me from Wabasso, between 1940 and her death in 1991, have been placed in an Exeter University archive, pending the expiry of her copyright. They should one day make interesting reading in the matter of the contribution to 20th-century culture of this formidable but very wicked woman.
Vol. 16 No. 9 · 12 May 1994
Naomi Mitchison remembers having been present at a party in the spring of 1929, during which Laura Riding made her famous leap from – if we include the basement – the third-floor rear window of the maisonette which she shared with Robert Graves in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith (Letters, 7 April). But there was no party on that occasion. Only Graves, his wife Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Taylor (formerly Phibbs) were present. Voluminous correspondence between these three with each other and with Laura Riding shows a concurrence of opinion on this point, at least.
But Mrs Mitchison’s recollection may be based on one of the frequent Hammersmith gatherings at which nobody present would have been greatly surprised if Miss Riding or anybody else had chosen to jump out of a window. A young guest at Norman Cameron’s studio-party in December 1928 gave her mother an account of Graves rolling and shrieking on the floor, Laura declaring she was going to have hysterics, Len Lye flourishing banana skins at new arrivals and the party ending in chaos when they all ran out to watch a factory burning down. A leap, on such a night, would not have seemed much out of the order of things and it may even be that Miss Riding did execute some small spring without sustaining injuries. But the celebrated leap occurred in less festive circumstances.
Jenny Turner (LRB, 10 March) follows the interpretation of Laura Riding’s ‘The Quids’ given in Deborah Baker’s biography of the poet. She describes ‘The Quids’ as a ‘satirical poem’ flung at the heads of the Fugitive group as a revenge on their patronising behaviour. It’s nothing of the sort. It’s a poem about thing-ishness, pictured prettily as ‘quids’, as things alive, which are shown against a backcloth of another thing, called a ‘Monoton’, from which the quids issue, or derive. The Monoton may be thought of as a kind of Origin, or ‘God’, or the so-called Big Bang of science, or whatever. The quids, emerging into life, gaily wander away from the Monoton on what they think of as a ‘holiday’, an eternal adventure, eventually to end up as us, or Us – ‘naked, immaterial’, of ‘the inward same’, but ‘dressed in a different way’. The poem poses a very serious question in a deceptively light-hearted manner (in keeping with the quid’s silly gaiety): are we all rushing towards something, or are we, actually, running away from something, something from which we cannot escape? If critics get it so wrong with this, what else do they get wrong? Don’t they bother to think, scratch their heads, check a dictionary, call up their basic Latin?
So much for ‘interpreting’ the poems. What of the life-facts, the alleged ‘biography’? The ‘jump’ from the Hammersmith flat window, say? Laura Riding gave a good explanation of that incident in her book, Experts Are Puzzled (1930), and in Poems: A Joking Word (1930), which Baker and the others again fail to understand, preferring their own lurid speculation. There were four people in that room, none of whom has made public what happened, except Laura Riding in these two books; and her account has not been denied by any of the other three. And what about ‘forcing Kit Jackson into a straitjacket and winning Schuyler Jackson for herself’, as Jenny Turner, following Baker, has it? That story was put into currency in 1977 by Thomas Matthews, who, in 1977, in Under the Influence, admitted: ‘No one was at home except Julie and David Reeves. They were waiting for me, to tell me what had happened … Kit had been taken to hospital.’ The rest is his speculation, a gaudy, cheap reconstruction of events, written with much toadying up to Robert Graves and the benefit of fifty years’ hindsight, which all the biographers draw on and embellish, adding knowing touches of their own. Strange that the one person, by Matthews’s own account, who should have felt bitter, even enraged, over Laura Riding, Kit Jackson herself, said no word against her, and even spoke protectively about her.
Including Baker, there have been three attempts to account for the poems of Laura Riding, each one a schluck, along the lines of ‘interpretation’ of ‘The Quids’. The frustration of these three in trying to understand the poems, and failing, is matched by that of other commentators, particularly Robert Graves’s biographers: since they can’t make sense of the poems, while suspecting, correctly, that they make perfect sense if only they could grasp it, they decide that they’ll pretend to know all about the life.
The truth is, you can’t know anything about the life until you know something about the poems. Was Laura Riding the mesmerically ‘powerful’ figure she’s made out to be? Oh yes! But not for the reasons offered. The poems, the work, is what throbs with certainty. Laura (Riding) Jackson believed what she was doing, all of her life. There was no cut-off point at or around 1940: she continued, explored further, what she learnt up to 1940. She was her work, or her work was her: she makes no distinction between the two. And people who worked with her, Robert Graves but one, recognised her 100 per cent seriousness and paid full tribute, even if not understanding, quite, what she was doing, and then leant heavily on her work for ‘inspiration’ (which meant stealing it, in the case of Auden and Graves, and several others later).
Vol. 16 No. 10 · 26 May 1994
Mark Jacobs (Letters, 12 May) casts doubt on Tom Matthews’s account of what took place at Nimrod’s Rise in 1940, when Riding exchanged, overnight as it were, her view (often heard during the five months I shared a Surrey house with her and Graves in 1937-8) that ‘bodies have had their day’ for her publicly announced ‘Schuyler and I do.’ There were other witnesses, however – David Reeves, with whom I was at Stowe and Cambridge, Alan and Beryl Hodge, as well as Graves himself – all of whom could have corroborated Tom Matthews’s story. What makes Mark Jacobs think he knows better than all these observers on the spot?
And why, indeed, should he wish to white-wash these disgraceful and well documented events? From bad conscience, I suspect. At university Jacobs wrote a dissertation about Riding’s poetry for his degree. His professor, George Fraser, introduced him to me thinking I might help. A lively correspondence ensued, and Mark and his charming young wife visited me in the Lake District. Then suddenly his letters stopped, without explanation. What happened, as George later told me, was that Riding, when she heard that Jacobs was consulting me, threatened to withdraw her co-operation. Rather than ditch his degree Jacobs wisely chose to break off relations with me, as Riding demanded.
Mark Jacobs is evidently well up in Riding’s poetry, but this does not entitle him to lecture either Deborah Baker or Jenny Turner about their views on Laura Riding’s behaviour at Nimrod’s Rise, where she dismissed the man who had supported her and her writings for 13 years. Evidently some of Riding’s aggressive and domineering attitudes have rubbed off on Jacobs himself.
Vol. 16 No. 12 · 23 June 1994
Might I, as the only one of Robert Graves’s biographers or prospective biographers who knew him intimately, be permitted to add a few corrections and comments to what has been written?
First, Harry Kemp (Letters, 26 May), who accuses Laura Riding of wickedness and apostasy, was only ever a minor and peripheral figure in the Graves entourage. As far as I know, he never went to Mallorca, before or after 1936. He was originally to have appeared with Alan Hodge, Norman Cameron and Graves in the wartime collection Work in Hand, but this did not happen. Graves, however, was upset only at the exclusion of James Reeves. It may be relevant that Harry Kemp has just had to apologise, under legal pressure, for libelling another writer over matters connected with Riding. James Reeves, with whom he claims close friendship, wrote thus: ‘Let the world know how much my friendship meant / To the quack writer whom I hated most.’
Mark Jacobs (Letters, 12 May) is like the incompetent cabalist who knew the secret truth about everything but could not tell anyone else. His writings upon Riding’s poetry are incomprehensible – and less successful than his famous visit to her in Wabasso. He would do well to look at the philosophy of Leibniz when commenting on Laura Riding’s poem ‘The Quids’: she studied it, even if he has not. He is also quite wrong to imply that Graves never talked about the circumstances surrounding Laura Riding’s attempted suicide: he did, in great detail, on several occasions, both to me and to others. He also wrote a very long letter about it. However, Jacobs’s own correspondence with Graves was another failure.
Of course Miranda Seymour (Letters, 12 May) is right when she says that there was no party going on, in the early morning of 23 April 1929, at St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, when Laura Riding jumped. But the young guest who gave her mother an account of what she believed was a wild party at Norman Cameron’s flat in December 1928 was out of her depth: Norman Cameron used to say how funny Graves and Riding were at acting out various fashionable Twenties antics, and I remember his ‘screaming on the floor’ (but silently, as he was playing at charades). I do hope people will now concentrate upon what is important about the association between Graves and Riding, and not upon this tedious kind of tabloid tattle.
Graves and Riding used affectionately to refer to Naomi Mitchison (Letters, 7 April) as a ‘goose’.
Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex
Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994
As tutor to Beryl Graves’s children in postwar Deya, Martin Seymour-Smith (Letters, 23 June) was not well-placed to know what happened at Stowe in the late Twenties. Nor at Cambridge thereafter. Nor at Reeves family tennis parties at Amersham in the early Thirties. Intimacy with Robert Graves should have told him that Reeves, when visiting Deya in summer 1935, took ten of Harry Kemp’s poems to show to Laura Riding. These were published in Epilogue (Spring 1937). It should also have told him that Kemp visited Graves in Deya in the mid-Fifties.
On 10 June an 11-foot sculpture was erected in the headmaster of Stowe’s garden. It commemorates James Reeves, but its donor, Harry Kemp, could not attend since he was in hospital. The Reeves quotation was used out of context to refer to Kemp.