I’ve found out something disturbing about Emily Holmes Coleman, which is that she wrote – and in biro – in other people’s books. She turned up once at the house of a friend, the novelist Mary Wesley, travelling with just two carrier bags of her things. Wesley mentioned that she had been reading Simone Weil, and the next morning found Coleman ‘sitting in bed wearing a fisherman’s jersey busily defacing Miss Weil’s Letter to a Priest’. It’s nice of her to make it sound as if that’s funny. ‘If you borrow Emily’s Wordsworth you will not read Wordsworth but Emily’s Wordsworth,’ Antonia White said. ‘She will fearlessly correct and alter passages. She does not read; she flings herself upon and passionately possesses a work.’ Wesley described Coleman as ‘larger than life, her enthusiasm boundless, her laughter a marvel, her appreciation and joy overwhelming, her spiritual generosity putting all else in shadow … Everything she did … was done with an energy which might be called extravagant.’ Djuna Barnes said that Coleman was ‘marvellous company slightly stunned’. In her fifties, after Coleman had converted to Catholicism, she went on a week’s silent retreat to Stanbrook Abbey and stayed on for eleven years, in a bedsit, writing reams of poetry, until her landlady evicted her. I can’t help feeling for the landlady.
Coleman was born Emily Holmes in 1899. Her father was an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut; her mother seems to have suffered from mental illness and died when she was young. Coleman went to Wellesley College and then married Loyd Ring Coleman. She gave birth to a son, John, in 1924, contracted puerperal fever, and was confined for two months as a mental patient in Rochester State Hospital. Recovered, she journeyed with her husband to Paris, where he worked in advertising. For a while Coleman wrote a society column for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, until – so her own story goes – she hit the editor over the head with a lexicon.
She took to the giddy Parisian world of expat American and British writers like a duck to water, and made friends with everyone from Emma Goldman (she worked for a while as Goldman’s secretary) to Peggy Guggenheim – as well as Edwin and Willa Muir, Ford Madox Ford and Ernest Hemingway. She crops up in everyone’s memoirs, and seems to have been very close to Guggenheim, but she wasn’t just a hanger-on, and played a significant part in getting Barnes’s Nightwood into print. She fell in love and had affairs, mostly, but not always, with men. She was good-looking in those days, a ‘traffic-stopper’, according to Wesley, ‘not strictly beautiful but unforgettable: widely spaced blue eyes, yellow hair, golden complexion, a lovely figure’. In photographs her striking features are animated and frankly confident, with no trace of the coy reserve that was in vogue.
Coleman fell for a succession of intellectual men, and seems to have sat gratifyingly at their feet while they held forth. In her diary, she gave them the names of heroes from the classics. The journalist Eric Siepmann was Antony: ‘We became much to each other, then lost much. He has genius, it will never flower … He is the most exciting man I have ever met. The most beautiful, he is beautiful, like a thunderstorm.’ John Holms, who later became Guggenheim’s lover, was Agamemnon:
I talked with Agamemnon for sixteen hours and it has shaken me to my foundations. Never did we come so close, I know his heart. He has said that I cannot write anything until I have suffered, and known the suffering that comes through passion … He said I could not go on identifying with Goethe, he said Goethe was a coward and had never lived his life.
Holms is a fascinating study in himself, one of those upper-class Englishmen who got by for an implausibly long time on their wartime military cross and the promise of their genius, though he only ever published one short story. ‘Since no one else shared his extraordinary mental capacity,’ Guggenheim said, ‘he was exceedingly bored when talking to most people.’ Barnes called his social style ‘God come down for the weekend’ and Willa Muir said she’d ‘rather die than spend another evening listening to him spout’. Holms told Coleman she couldn’t write as a whole woman because she put her writing before her child and her love, and that ‘no woman who led a happy life could write poetry.’
Coleman wanted passionately, however, to be a writer, and even Holms’s oracular certainty, recorded faithfully in her diary, couldn’t deter her. She had poetry and short stories in transition and New Review, cutting-edge journals for modernism, and is remembered primarily for a novel, The Shutter of Snow, published in 1930 and based on her experiences in the psychiatric hospital. In the winter months at the beginning of that year, while she awaited publication, she left her little boy with his nanny in Paris and shut herself up in a friend’s empty house in St Tropez with her reading and her work: she must have felt at a high point in her achievement, and at the beginning of a literary career. In fact she never published another book, though there’s a draft of a second novel in manuscript. In St Tropez she wrote sonnet after sonnet and began work on a dramatic poem she never finished (as well as pursuing an affair with a local teenager she calls ‘the Fisher Boy’). ‘Just now I can think of nothing but writing because I have found myself,’ she decided.
I have been thwarted for so long. When I am sufficiently sure of my genius, and when its results are worth reading, I will turn to life … I would like some poet who has not yet found himself to be able to pick up a letter of mine and get the start from it that I have got from those letters of Keats … I feel I am in the vanguard, as Chaucer was in English poetry.
Coleman never held back from judgment of other writers. ‘Goethe is I and I am he’; Hemingway ‘has not the slightest imagination’; Mrs Dalloway is ‘silly, and long-drawn-out, and purposeless’; Whitman is ‘ass-brained’; ‘I think Eliot is a very unhappy man … He wants to write great poetry, and knows how it should be done, and he cannot.’
The infatuation with a writing life, and the heady over-assurance, don’t bode well. There’s too much about being a writer – and a great writer at that – and not enough about the tortuous difficulty and sheer plod of actually writing anything. There’s also, of course, no irony: uh-oh. The University of Delaware has exhibited manuscript pages from the unfinished second novel and they look pretty awful – only partly because they’re the record of such excruciating writer’s angst and stalemate. The Tygon was apparently to be based on Coleman’s relationship with one of her more abusive lovers, Lelletto Bianchetti, who translated Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into Italian. The typewritten pages on show are crossed out almost in their entirety in smudgy ink, then written over by hand, and then that’s crossed out in pencil and rewritten again. The few sentences that remain reveal the baleful influence of D.H. Lawrence, whom Coleman never met but whose work she was inevitably drawn to (‘every expository word he writes about his beliefs makes him dear to me, in the deepest way’). Her heroine is even called Frieda Laurenzi. ‘Thinking nothing, believing nothing, she was the other half of a completed circle, a human and animal incident … Frieda Laurenzi, as a person, an individual … no longer lived and breathed. She desired nothing but his dominion over her abased self.’ Lawrence is marvellous, but his effect on other writers is usually a bad thing.
So how come The Shutter of Snow is so interesting? The toughie cool modernists in 1920s Paris were probably a better model for Coleman’s style, reining in the prolixity on display in her diaries, than a Lawrentian flow. But it’s not just that. Those two months of severe mental illness and confinement in hospital must have been an appalling experience: so stark and strange that when Coleman found a way to render the details that loomed in her confused recollection, she made something rather astonishing and moving on the page. The sheer force of the memories exacted an impressive precision and solidity in her expression. And she must have felt the electricity of her novel, as she was writing it, in both directions: channelling the truth of an extraordinary experience, and at the same time satisfying a radical modernist aesthetic, turning the sane world upside down and making out of her ‘madness’ a new literature, just as the editors of transition required it, ‘with new words, new abstractions, new hieroglyphics, new symbols, new myths’.
Here is the first paragraph:
There were two voices that were louder than the others. At night when the red light was out in the hall and there was someone sitting in a chair in front of the door clearing her throat at intervals there would be voices far down the hall mingling with sobs and shouts and the drones of those who were beginning to sleep. It was cold and she shivered under the blankets. She cried out that she was cold and the woman came in and took a blanket out and warmed it for her. Then she would be wrapped in the hot blanket very tightly and the covers tucked in over that. My feet are cold. Her throat was always hot, like old bread in the sun. Her lips stood out and were cracked and there was water gushing on the other side of the wall. There was chicken wire up over her door.
The destabilising switch from third to first person alerts us to the insecurity of the whole narrative, along with the inconsequence and incongruousness of the tumble of images that follows, the hot throat like old bread, the water gushing. We’re meant to wonder, is it gushing? Or is it her fantasy? And then there’s the chicken wire, such an awful image of imprisonment. But is there really any chicken wire? We can’t know.
It’s never specified why Marthe Gail has been hospitalised, but we know she’s in the Women’s Psychopathic Ward and that there’s a baby, who may or may not have died – probably not, because Marthe’s husband, Christopher, brings her a little twist of baby hair. Everything comes to Marthe not through her understanding but through the unmediated chaos of her experience: the textures and colours of objects, the talk and the shrieking and shouting, the pushing and shoving and manhandling, the weather outside the windows. The patients are sewn into strips of cloth if they misbehave; they’re allowed hot baths, but tied up in the cloths and under a canvas sheet, with their heads above water so they can’t drown themselves, though Marthe tries. ‘Why what do you care if we drown? I dont said Ryerson, its just that Id lose my job.’ On one of Christopher’s visits Marthe starts a fight, which ends up involving several nurses and patients. Christopher pinions Marthe against the wall; she knocks his glasses off. At some point he pays for her to have a Marcel wave, but she dunks her head deliberately to ruin it.
Interactions between the patients and with the nursing staff are sometimes comradely (‘You must pray for me darlin Im bloated’), often rivalrous or aggressive. Friends might sit quietly sorting rags together. ‘The long ones for the post offices said Mary, and the middle ones here. Those are for the nuns. Shes crazy said Luella.’ (Luella can see the Book of Judgment: ‘I know everything thats going to happen to everybody here.’) Marthe throws crackers at the others; when Mrs Glope steals Marthe’s nightdress Marthe steals a photograph Mrs Glope has of her son – ‘the greatest ornithologist in the state of New York’ – and hides it under her mattress. At times the patients can seem like nothing more than a bunch of unruly schoolgirls. (‘You had better go to your room Mrs Gail and stay there. She marched out, her ribbon bobbing, her posterior indicating the desk. Annabel laughed quietly.’) Readers may sympathise with Miss Wright when she’s trying to get the patients to go to sleep while Marthe is singing lullabies to her slipper and blowing in someone’s ear.
In spite of the mayhem and the levelling effect of hospitalisation, patients determinedly reproduce class distinctions from the world outside, some clinging to their gentility. ‘I am so glad to see you my dear your face is so refined’; or ‘please remember that I come from well bred people.’ And they’re all, patients and staff alike, obsessed with climbing or descending through the hierarchies of the different wards, the Main Building or the East Wing or the West Side, upstairs or down, depending on how ‘good’ they’ve been. Marthe gloats over discovering her enemy’s secret. ‘O were you in East Hall Mrs Glope? cried Marthe, I didn’t know you were. I was not said Mrs Glope, Miss Wade, I was not.’ The Strong Room is the lowest of the low, where the bed is bolted to the floor so you can’t throw it and there’s force-feeding.
Nowadays we’re inclined to read any account of psychiatric care as a protest, centred on social injustice and flaws in the system, perhaps particularly in relation to women. The modernist interest in mental illness was rather differently inflected, and The Shutter of Snow is intended, I think, less as an indictment of the cruelty of Marthe’s treatment, and more as a record of the challenge ‘madness’ throws up to conventional categories of experience, and its transformation of perception. If there’s protest, it’s against the limitations of ‘normality’. There is critique of the cruelty, of course, in passing. The restraints in particular are distressing, though perhaps necessary in some form, in the absence of sedatives – there seem to be no pharmaceuticals on offer here, and some of these women really are trying to hurt themselves or one another. Conditions at the hospital aren’t appalling: the staffing ratios are surely generous for a state institution (someone sitting outside your room to give you a warmed blanket if you’re cold). The ward staff aren’t all awful and Marthe likes the doctors, because they’re educated like her. The novel isn’t aimed at pathos; what it has is more like a manic dry wit, an exuberant energy. In a confrontation with Annabel, a Jewish patient, Mrs Glope accuses her: ‘You crucified the Lord.’ ‘It was fun,’ Annabel says.
The Shutter of Snow isn’t without its problems. Madness, written down, can read as tediously as other people’s dreams. We can’t know the truth status of anything we’re told: it’s exhausting to read a whole world by way of a chronically unreliable narrator without any corroborating alternative perspective. When Marthe describes Miss Wade, one of the attendants, as a ‘fat smug inefficient little fool’, what are we to think? Should we take it from Marthe? But a moment ago Marthe thought she was God – so perhaps Miss Wade is really a kindly old soul. A very steely writer may be able to establish a firm enough actual world in fiction, even filtered through the instability of his subject (I’m thinking of Alex Pheby’s 2015 novel Playthings, for instance, based on Daniel Paul Schreber’s experiences of schizophrenia). Coleman, however, isn’t that steely a writer.
There’s a related problem. In her efforts to render Marthe’s destabilised awareness, it sometimes feels as if Coleman is resorting to a trick of style, a self-consciously poetic craziness. There’s a limit to how much free association one sentence can take. ‘Flight of white snakes in dizziest mountain springs, and over all the breath of frozen snow … From the windows, high and darkened by the sacks of brown despair, poured down upon their drooling mouths a mist, heavy with wind-conceived duress.’ What are these visions meant to represent? Did the unstable Marthe think those very words, ‘wind-conceived duress’? If she didn’t think them, it’s hard to imagine how she could have had an experience of wind-conceived duress without the words. And a reader may stop trusting this style as adequate to any experience of instability, and start thinking it’s just for show, a post-hoc contrivance, a striking literary effect.
But mostly this is a pretty amazing book. Reviews at the time were mixed and sales weren’t great – but then such a novel was always aimed at an avant-garde. Winifred Holtby and Harold Nicolson liked it, and the American reviewer who rather deliciously complained that a ‘gentleman reader cannot fairly be expected to work up a professional interest in a woman who picked up threads and ate them’ was surely precisely the bourgeois whom modernism wanted to antagonise. His response to the novel isn’t much wider of the mark than some more sympathetic recent readings of it – for instance, in one journal, as ‘an embodied politics bent on resisting the threats posed to women’s sexual and political autonomy by the nationalist and neo-natalist rhetoric associated with the rise of fascism’.
It’s interesting that although Coleman knew everyone who was anyone, and read voraciously, there’s no mention in her diaries of Jean Rhys. Their paths ought to have crossed in literary Paris, and in some sense The Shutter of Snow is aimed at Rhys’s paranoid terrain: the broken dependent women, their alienated, subtly intuitive femininity, their crassly stolid and un-self-knowing men. Rhys’s fictions always seem to me a kind of anomaly: it’s rare for writing to be pitched at such unbalanced extremity and yet feel so superbly and beautifully right. There are Rhys-like moments in The Shutter of Snow, but the whole doesn’t achieve anything like her poised, exquisite intelligence. Perhaps Coleman at her best is more knockabout funny – though there’s much humour in Rhys’s darkness too.
When Coleman divorced her first husband and moved to England, she kept up her connection with the set around Guggenheim and Holms at Hayford Hall on Dartmoor. Torquay, seen on her way to visit them, ‘was a wretched common resort … the people were English and looked funny … dreadful people bathing,’ but if she was a snob, that was par for the course among the modernists – thinking differently from everyone else in those days usually had a class component. On one memorable occasion at Hayford Hall her hosts found Coleman’s diaries and insisted that she read them out loud. ‘They sat and roared, and screamed, and howled with laughter, they doubled up and shrieked, until I was worn and Peggy had to go to the lavatory, because it made her bowels work … I was much piqued by their interest, but I laughed so hard myself that I didn’t get much chance to reflect on whether it was really good.’ It’s difficult to be sure, from Coleman’s account, how much they were laughing with her and how much at her (they particularly enjoyed ‘Goethe is I and I am he’), or how comfortable she felt with the exposure. After Holms died – aged 37, under anaesthetic for a minor operation but probably because his drinking by then was catastrophic – Coleman wrote him long poems and claimed to be channelling his spirit from the afterlife.
She returned to America to look after her father in his last years, embarked on a common-law marriage to a rancher in Arizona and then left him when she found Catholicism, which replaced writing at the centre of her life and enterprise. Over time, no doubt, the charming scattiness of the young beauty morphed into the endearing enough dottiness of middle and old age, with its accompanying carrier bags. She ended her days in a Catholic Worker Farm in New York State – in ‘Holy Poverty’, as Wesley said – and died at 75. It’s good to know that she wasn’t embittered by her stalled writing career – that she found God, and he satisfied her.
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