- 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:
But women won’t do, of course. Although I have said that Bunny was good about the sacrifice of her rabbit concoction, I mean that she was only comparatively good – compared with other women and with her behaviour on similar occasions. The trouble is they have this awful maternal instinct – a mother’s heart (Nancy said to me once, ‘Of course you can’t be expected to understand a mother’s heart.’ ‘I don’t in the least want to,’ I replied). Although she allowed me to do what I liked with my rabbit, Bunny resented it and showed it, and indulged herself to remark, ‘I see I’m no good as a caterer. I suppose I’m too old.’ Silly woman, angling for praise and apology.
Women are silly about clothes, ‘but women are women.’ They are unscrupulous: ‘Women always lie like troopers to gain their own ends.’ They are irrational: ‘but women, and Nancy in particular, have no powers of reason when they want their own way.’ They should not appear at any taxing hour of the day: ‘women should stay in bed till ten or so.’ ‘How odd women are ... I suppose that is just the woman’s way.’ ‘Jealousy. Nothing else. And all mixed up with this feminine deceit and illogicality which I hate so much.’
Clearly Sassoon was absurd to fear that Ackerley might take Hester Sassoon’s part: Ackerley
must not traffic with the enemy. Not that I had any wish to do so, constitutionally wary and critical of women, and with the Nancy troubles still upon me, it is hardly likely that a sex which has never attracted me and seemed to me an inferior and troublesome gender, should have produced a specimen in this particular situation which would have seduced my allegiance in this my 54th year.
Mr King invites us to relax about this, and adopts a genial tone such as would intimate that Ackerley was being a bit of a one, a conscious hyperbolist: ‘Joe had so often railed against her feminine (a pejorative in his vocabulary) inquisitiveness,’ ‘the extraordinary relationship between Joe and what he would call, in the tones of a sultan speaking of his often refractory harem, “my women”’. There might seem to be a certain comedy in Ackerley’s having to assure himself with ‘I must say’, as if he had not been obsessively saying it: ‘I must say I do not care for women. They simply can’t let one alone.’ But the sickness and the violence are not comic. Ackerley’s imagination distends to the darkest misogynies. ‘I see there is a correspondence between tapeworms and my sister – perhaps women generally’ – and so into a stomach-felt detailing of this monstrous parallel. Even a walk on Ackerley’s loved common stirs him to an imaginary complicity with the murdering of women:
What should I do if I came upon a murder, I sometimes ask myself as Queenie and I push our way through the vast tangles of bracken where few other people walk? The common is a likely place for murder, as it is for suicide – the angry lustful man who finds he is not, after all, to be granted the sexual relief that his pick-up has led him to expect. What should I do, I ask myself, if I suddenly smelt something nasty – as I often do – and pushing along came upon a strangled woman? I wouldn’t do anything, unless I covered it up with leaves to give the murderer a better chance of escape. I certainly wouldn’t report it. I have harboured thoughts of murder myself in my life; I could never help to denounce or catch anyone else.
You smell something very nasty. A better chance of escape, even if this means the better to kill again? Try moving the scene from London in 1948 to Yorkshire in 1980.
We are likely to be told that it is great of Ackerley to be so honest about his not minding that someone may have done a girl in. For the line on Ackerley is that he is hugely and intensely honest. ‘Unflinchingly truthful,’ says Mr King. ‘This hunger for truth-telling’ is matched by Mr King’s hunger to believe that Ackerley told nothing but the truth: ‘To the end, she retained a childlike sweetness that would make it difficult to believe the portrait that Joe draws of her in these diaries, did one not know him to have been the most scrupulously truthful of writers.’ Well, a man could be truthful, honest, and disgusting. But Ackerley doesn’t seem to me entirely honest. (I am speaking of his writing, not of his conduct: clearly a man who lies to the authorities and to his sister, after her suicide attempt, about whether he got her warning, the suicide note left in his room before the attempt, is not honest in his conduct.) Take two examples of his writerly treatment of how he treated Nancy.
It was a very cold pub, and I give it to Nancy that she was doubtful about drinking and couldn’t decide what. I said gin, but she hesitated a long time. It does produce hysteria in her, and I think she was afraid of that and didn’t want to let go. However, stupidly I fear, I pressed some gin upon her.
Fine. But thirty lines later:
Then the fireworks started. I knew that gin excited her, and shouldn’t have allowed her to have it I suppose: in the cold air she went off almost at once into hysterics.
Shouldn’t have allowed her to have it? How can he? (‘I pressed some gin upon her.’) This is dishonest, and it is dishonest writing (as against the honest recording of dishonest thinking and feeling) because it does not itself in any way scrutinise the discrepancy and become disturbed by it, but simply passes it on as if nothing had been betrayed. Indeed, the rhetoric is self-flatteringly dishonest in that it first gives Ackerley the credit of being candid about his mistake (‘However, stupidly I fear, I pressed some gin upon her’), and then allows him the credit of having good-naturedly acceded to her mistake (‘I shouldn’t have allowed her to have it I suppose’).
There is a similar self-deception, self-protection, when Ackerley is stung by Nancy’s ingratitudé.
A normal woman would have said to herself, ‘Poor old Joe with that dog and all his work, and poor old Bunny with a neuritic hand: I’ll go along and help them both.’
This is doubly disingenuous. For one thing, Ackerley must know that he continually urges that it is normal women who are appalling in just these ungrateful ways. Whence this sudden belief that a normal woman would say the decent thing? This is the concessive rhetoric of opportunistic injustice. For Ackerley is quite explicit about one’s (not ‘my’) never finding such decency in women:
The kind of woman I should love and approve would be the woman who said at once, ‘Why don’t you give the dog your rabbit and have some bread and cheese? She may be needing a change after her endless diet of horsemeat.’ That would have accorded entirely with my own feelings, and I would love a woman who had the detachment and understanding to behave like that. But, alas, one never finds such women, and has always to defend oneself against the mother’s heart, the voluble concern for one’s ‘welfare’ – such a bore.
‘Alas’ sighs out a favourite lugubrious pleasure in Ackerley: there are twenty important moments when he has recourse to the delectably grieving archaism.
But then there is another disingenuousness. For Ackerley also knows, though he keeps this knowledge culpably and conveniently segregated from his misogyny, that men practise just the same ingratitudes. There is a strong (and unacknowledged) likeness between Ackerley’s imaginary sentence drafted for a normal woman here and the imaginary sentence which he likewise doesn’t hear Sassoon say: ‘Siegfried’s reaction wasn’t, “It’s been very nice to have you, Joe. Great thing for me. Do hope you’ll come again.” Instead, I got a muttered speech ...’ But perhaps it was Sassoon who was the honest one. Perhaps it had not been very nice to have Joe for a fortnight. Anyway it is not honest of Ackerley to avert his eyes from his own knowledge that it is not women but people who fail to say what one would like to hear on these occasions.
The objection to Ackerley’s misogyny ought not to be that all categorising and generalisings are pernicious. Any group will have group traits, and some of those traits may legitimately be deprecated or deplored. No, the objection is that Ackerley continually vitiates his own powers of observation and his own sense of justice by speaking as if women were vilely unique in constituting a group at all. A man might intelligently deplore certain things – propensities and collusions – about women, even while granting that the world and its ways have been more of men’s making than of women’s. But it is unintelligent not to acknowledge that this necessitates a consideration of what it is about men which might likewise be responsibly deplored. Ackerley is never prompted to invoke any other grouping. He never says that such and such is a male vice, or a homosexual vice, only that this is a female vice. Such is his mutilation.
The same thing happens in class terms. Mr King is equable about it: ‘Like many other homosexuals of his generation, Joe combined a sexual passion for the male working classes with a thoroughgoing contempt for them, male and female. They were lazy, dishonest, incompetent, selfish, money-grubbing ... Yet, when he wished, he could always charm them, as he could charm anyone.’ It might not be irresponsible for someone to characterise the working classes as Ackerley does: ‘Silly boring stories about himself, of course – how the working classes do love to describe and repeat their physical reactions to events,’ ‘His hair is a typical example of working-class vanity and ineptitude and propriety,’ ‘How irritating and unsatisfactory the so-called working classes are seen to be, with their irrationalities, and superstitions, and opinion-atedness, and stubbornness, and food foibles, and laziness, and selfishness, the more one knows of them.’ But it must be insensate for a writer, a man not without the professional man’s vanity and ineptitude and propriety and opinionatedness, to characterise one class only – to be so imperturbably and derangedly oblivious to the need then to attend to what the middle class or the professional class is. Literary editors of the Listener even, such as Ackerley, form a distinct sub-group, a powerful one with its own virtues and vices.
Ackerley was chagrined if his homosexuality were adduced to explain his misogyny: ‘She imagines, I expect, that my own contrary and ungentlemanly opinions on such matters are due to the fact that I am a pervert. No matter.’ But although Ackerley’s homosexuality – of which a good deal is made in these diaries – may be neither here nor there as far as the origins of his misogyny go, it is germane to his reputation and to his being strangely unassailable. The most important thing about a minor work of Ackerley’s like this one is that it will not be admitted to be odious. Once upon a time, Ackerley had been permitted these squalid and demented misogynies because the arbiters of opinion – Joe and his women-hater friends, but not only they – were in collusion with misogyny. The misogyny made the homosexuality respectable in those circles. Now, by a political twist, homosexuality is thought to make the misogyny respectable. For are not ‘gays’ an oppressed minority like women? Hence the pretence that these pages show society wronging Nancy Ackerley, when what they show is Ackerley wronging her. If Ackerley were not in these pages an explicit homosexual, he would not be finding himself so understandingly forgiven.
And Nancy? Ackerley was obdurate: ‘Nancy is not an interesting person.’ He even calls Bunny as a witness: ‘Joe, she’s the most boring woman in the whole world.’ But if Mr King is to be exactly believed, the most interesting remark in the book is hers. For the introduction says: ‘She died in a hospice in Clapham, reduced (in her own words) “to a rag and a bone and a hank of air” and yet splendidly serene.’ For if Nancy really did, original with the minimum of alteration, refashion that great line of Kipling, she did a braver thing than anything that Ackerley does in this book. She will have been admitting that she had something in common with ‘The Vampire’ (Kipling’s title) and yet at the same time dissociating herself from an identification.
A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care) ...
If Mr King has got it right (odd of him to say ‘in her own words’), Nancy’s ‘hank of air’ is one of the best renovations since what happened to ‘Brightness falls from the hair.’ It certainly has a more interesting relation to Kipling than all of Ackerley’s dog-worship has to the same poet’s ‘The Power of the Dog’:
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.