Ivy’s Feelings

Gabriele Annan

  • The Exile: A Life of Ivy Litvinov by John Carswell
    Faber, 216 pp, £10.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 571 13135 2

Ivy Litvinov was the English wife of Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the Thirties and Stalin’s Ambassador to Washington after the war. John Carswell is the son of Catherine Carswell, who was Ivy’s best friend until she followed her husband to Russia in 1920. In 1959, after Catherine and Litvinov were dead, Ivy got permission to visit her native land and turned up on John Carswell’s doorstep. He sounds irritated with this cumbersome human legacy, but it is nothing to his irritation with Ivy for not having made more of her opportunities in the way he would have wished – for turning her back on them, in fact. ‘She was not identified with the adventure of her life,’ he says crossly. ‘History was in an ironical mood when it provided Ivy with an itching pen and a keen eye and sent her to observe from a vantage-point some of the most extraordinary phases through which the human race has passed, and then muffled her with a passion for English literature and the primacy of her own feelings.’ All the more credit to him, then, for producing, with elegant economy, a vivid impression of this bizarre and remarkable lady. Perhaps it is his running quarrel with her that gives his book its momentum.

Ivy is a physical presence from the first pages: a strapping girl, dark, clumsy, handsome (increasingly so as she grew older), forceful and unaccommodating. She was born Ivy Low in 1889, the granddaughter of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated after the failure of Kossuth’s rebellion. Once in England he settled down as a businessman with liberal leanings. Though married to a Viennese rabbi’s daughter, he subscribed to the founding of Voysey’s Theistic Church, along with Charles Darwin, Samuel Courtauld and several Wedgwoods. History was being ironical again when it allowed two of his 11 children to be knighted ‘for services to conservative newspapers and the imperial ideal’. Ivy’s father Walter was not one of these but a close friend of H.G. Wells and ‘a kind of paradigm of the progressiveness of his time: a zealot for education, a Fabian, a sympathiser with oppressed and obliterated nationalities, among them his own’. He lived by teaching, writing, editing and translating, and died of pneumonia at the age of 30, leaving a widow and three small girls.

Ivy, the eldest, had been conceived out of wedlock. Her mother told her to be proud of that and not ashamed of her father’s having been a Jew. She herself was the daughter of a colonel in the Indian Army who was also a fully paid-up member of the Other Victorians: after his wife died leaving four children, he produced several more with the help of their governess, whom he never married. Among her other duties this lady had to try and foil the colonel’s attempts to satisfy a taste for little girls on his own daughters. It is not surprising that an aura of loucheness hangs about the widowed Mrs Low. As she appears in one of her daughter’s stories, she had false teeth and few physical assets, but was irresistibly flirtatious and sexy. Suitors arrived and she married one from the Medieval Manuscripts Department of the British Museum; this, however, did not stop her compulsive flirting. They moved to Harrow and Ivy began to hate her stepfather, Sandy Herbert, for being ordinary and to worship the memory of her father, whom she saw as an intellectual hero. She felt ‘an exile’ both with her family and at the schools they sent her to. She was a nonstop reader and determined to be a writer. Her mother laboured to fit her for the marriage market by teaching her the middle-class gentilities and feminine wiles she herself practised with pleasure and aplomb: Ivy refused to stoop to such trivial hypocrisies. When she was 17 her mother made her have all her teeth out: this seems an act of inexplicable brutality, but Carswell thinks it was done for reasons of economy. It is true that it was not unknown for working-class brides to have their teeth extracted to save their husbands money later on: but the Herberts were far from working-class.

The next thing they did was to stick Ivy into an office. The Prudential Assurance Company had just built its ecclesiastical extravaganza in Holborn and begun a policy of recruiting well-brought-up girls – or so the publicity went. Ivy described what it was really like in a story called ‘Pru Girl’, where the heroine finds herself among ‘the daughters of small tradesmen and bank clerks’: ‘They thought Eileen a mass of affectation with her unmanicured hands and her poetry books and highbrow novels’ and ‘discussed the heroines in Sweetheart Novelettes and other orange-coloured booklets that until now Eileen had never seen anywhere but in the drawer of the kitchen dresser’. Ivy, on the other hand, was having stories published in the Guardian; she was only 23 when Heinemann accepted her novel Growing Pains. She also made more contact now with her father’s family, and moved into a new circle: the Hampstead intelligentsia.

Ivy’s aunt Edith was a doctor and a socialist. Like other progressive ladies she had had an affair with H.G. Wells, and her first husband had been another socialist doctor, Leslie Haden Guest, who later became a Labour MP. Her second husband, David Eder, also a doctor, ‘was one of the first English medical men to fall under the influence of Freud’ and to disseminate his ideas. A Zionist of the mild kind, he envisaged a Jewish State as part of the British Empire. The Eders’ house was ‘a meeting place for believers in many causes – Fabianism, welfare medicine, women’s rights and Zionism’. Among them were Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, A.R. Orage and Chaim Weizmann. Ivy adopted David Eder as a substitute father, but found something slightly comical about vegetarian Edith and her friends in their djibbahs: ‘Their flat heels and the straight folds of their garments proclaimed them intelligent, just as much as their steady eyes and the uncompromising folds of their lips, so perhaps it is wrong to say they had no style, it just wasn’t a very accomplished style.’ Ivy had an eye for fashion and the information it conveys. When going to stay with the D.H. Lawrences in Italy (the invitation was the result of a fan letter), she wore a specially borrowed ‘tailor-made’ with an embroidered shirt: ‘Lawrence was from the people himself,’ she remarked, ‘and however neatly and nicely his sisters dressed, the one thing they would never have had at that time was peasant embroidery. That was the monopoly of the intelligentsia.’

The fan letter to Lawrence had not been Ivy’s first success in that line: she had already written one to the young novelist Viola Meynell suggesting a five o’clock rendez-vous outside the Pru: from among ‘four or five hundred damsels’ pouring out ‘you will know me because I don’t wear spectacles.’ This meeting opened up another new world. The Meynells lived in the country and ‘were literary, even to the extent of having a resident poet of their own in Francis Thompson ... Their intensity – for they were very intense – was aesthetic, not, like the Eders’, progressive. The Meynells were Roman Catholics and very, very English.’ One of the pleasures Carswell’s book affords is glimpses into relatively unfamiliar intellectual milieus of the period which compare with Bloomsbury as Southern Turkey compares with the Costa Brava.

Ivy’s next milieu was the Russian revolutionary colony: ‘only hindsight gives coherence to their medley of opinions and character, seeking to affix labels of orthodoxy and dissidence to the inhabitants of seedy lodgings on the fringes of Bloomsbury and Camden Town as if they had been the diplomats and office-holders they later became.’ It was through the Eders that Ivy met Maxim Litvinov, whose lodgings were in Mornington Crescent – a seedy address if ever there was one. He was 13 years older than Ivy, gregarious and jolly, but lonely. The son of a small Jewish banker in Bialystok, his first career had been as a regular soldier in the Russian Army. In 1898, he left the Army and joined the Russian Social Democratic Party at the time of its first congress – along with Lenin himself. Three years later, he was arrested for disseminating socialist literature. He organised a classic prison escape ‘which established his qualifications as a revolutionary’. Once out of Russia, he followed Lenin across Europe and caught up with him in the Reading Room of the British Museum. In spite of the venue, he was not an intellectual but an organiser and fixer: he managed and distributed illicit publications and handled hot Russian money to fund the revolution. Ivy did occasional typing for him, and soon they were bicycling ‘all over the Home Counties ... he took her to the cinema, which she had always thought was “low” but he adored.’ When he proposed to her in the Express Dairy in Heath Street she accepted. That was in February 1916.

Thirteen months later Ivy gave birth to a son and Lenin arrived at the Finland Station. It was the signal for the revolutionary exiles to return home ‘like salmon battling upstream’. Litvinov, however, was ordered to remain in England to represent the new regime. He and Ivy managed to fit in ‘a walking tour in the Forest of Dean carrying the infant Misha in a bag strapped to their backs’ before Litvinov was expelled in retaliation for Bruce Lockhart’s expulsion from Russia.

Ivy had just given birth to a daughter when he left, and she did not see him again until two years later when he was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the newly independent Baltic States and she joined him in Tallinn. In 1921, he became Deputy Commissar for Foreign Affairs under Chicherin, and the Litvinovs moved to a grand Moscow flat ‘all gilt and plush’, with a nanny for the children but no heating or water. ‘Without being aware of it, the rebellious girl from England was becoming part of a new governing class in process of formation, and she found Moscow very puzzling. She had vaguely supposed (so she records) that “ideas” would be everything in the new country, and that “things” would hardly count, “because everyone would have what they wanted without superfluities”, but “when I walked about the streets of Moscow peering into the ground-floor windows I saw things huggermuggering in all the corners and realised that they had never been so important.” ’ How can one complain, after that coup d’oeil, that Ivy was wasted as an observer? On the contrary, in everything she wrote – diaries, letters, fiction – she told what being there was like, even if she gave no account of politics: ‘the more she saw of the Soviet Union the less interested in its politics she became. She was a being without reverence (except for literary figures) and she regarded men of power, authority and doctrine with a kind of withering cynicism.’ What she cared about was writing.

Litvinov’s career from 1920 until his death in 1951 is summarised by the chapter heading ‘Switchback’. He was either in, out or on the slide. In the Twenties, during the period of the peace treaties and Russia’s entry into the League of Nations, he was in. In 1930 he crowned his career by succeeding Chicherin as Foreign Commissar. In 1934, the Stalinist terror began: one by one Litvinov’s friends, colleagues and appointees were shot. He himself, a pro-Western Jew, was naturally sacked in 1938, at the time of the Stalin-Hitler Pact. The family began to wait for the midnight knock. In 1941, he was stripped of his membership of the Central Committee: as Stalin was leaving the room after the meeting Litvinov asked him: ‘Does this mean you consider me an enemy of the people?’ Stalin said no, and both Litvinov and Ivy were convinced that he owed his life to the question he had asked. Six months later, a pro-Western attitude became an asset again, and Litvinov was in once more, this time as Ambassador in Washington. Ivy enjoyed being an unconventional ambassadress. In 1943, they were recalled – out again – because Litvinov’s ideas for post-war co-operation with the Western Allies were unacceptable to the Kremlin. He disapproved of Stalin’s policy at Yalta, and his influence quickly slipped away. In 1945 he was dismissed – out for good this time. Once more the Litvinovs listened for the footsteps on the stairs. When Maxim died in his bed in 1951, Ivy’s first words to her daughter were: ‘They didn’t get him!’ His last words to her had been: ‘Englishwoman, go home!’

Ivy had been a staunch wife but not a faithful one. In Berlin on her way to the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1927, she discovered something ‘beginning with an “o” ’, and after that she slept ‘with anyone who wants me to’. When Litvinov retaliated by having an affair with a young girl who lived with them, Ivy transplanted herself to Sverdlovsk where she taught Basic English. She stayed in the Urals from 1935 to 1938 and returned to stand by Litvinov when he was dismissed. The fact that all her thoughts had had to be bottled up ... worked on Ivy’s natural egotism to form a carapace of truly remarkable toughness. Her experience of a totalitarian society made her strive never to merge, always to be herself; but as a result something of the toughness of that society communicated itself to her personality, and was adopted as a protective shield behind which the “real Ivy” could continue her perpetual study of her childhood and youth, “slugging away” at “the book I’ve got to write” but which was never written.’ Still, her love for her children and grandchildren never atrophied. As for the Soviet regime, ‘she felt sorry for and helped its individual victims ... She held the compromisers and placemen ... in particular contempt. But she was not the person ever to make a general condemnation of what she had never generally supported.’

With her husband’s death Ivy lost her privileges and discovered how to live like an ordinary Soviet citizen. She became ‘something of a wanderer in Russia’ and spent ‘months at a time in country and seaside towns’. She lost interest in men and became a fully-fledged lesbian, which did not prevent her from turning into a proper Russian babushka. Her stories about children and the photographs of her with her grandchildren suggest that she had a lot of talent for the role; and she made sure of passing on her heritage – her knowledge of Richardson, Fielding, Jane Austen, Trollope and Henry James. Apart from Henry Green, Graham Greene and Adrian Bell, it seems that she hadn’t much use for contemporary authors. She was addicted to Scrabble and ‘Words from a word’, which she played with herself on the backs of the eternally revised sheets of her manuscripts. In 1972 she left Russia for good and settled in a large dilapidated flat in Hove, where she died five years later. She was not alone: her widowed daughter had joined her, and her grandchildren, too, had emigrated to the West.

In 1971, a collection of her stories, She knew she was right, had been published in America. The first four, based on her unhappy childhood and adolescence, emit whiffs of Katherine Mansfield. Most of the rest are set in Russia and had appeared in the New Yorker during the Sixties. They are unique in their subject-matter, dry and cool yet impregnated with the atmosphere of their settings: the damp Moscow woods with the summer dachas smothered in neglected creepers; or the almost deserted Black Sea beaches unexpectedly hot and voluptuous under the spring sun as the grisly workers’ holiday hotels grudgingly receive their first guests. Most of them are women who, though they have never known privacy, are lonely: they develop a solidarity compounded of understood hostility, compassion and complicity. Colette might have recognised it as ‘l’amer bonheur de se sentir pareilles, infimes, oubliés’. Some of the stories are told through the consciousness of a very old woman living hazily on the edge of her family, isolated by her failing senses. This relatively unexplored experience is conveyed with hallucinatory conviction.

To compare Ivy Litvinov with Colette may seem absurd: but although one of them purrs and the other growls, they speak the same language of female awareness. Perhaps Ivy would have come out better if a woman had written her biography: but at least this one stimulates a wish to see her work published (or republished), letters and diaries as well as fiction. True, she was neither an Akhmatova nor a Nadezhda Mandelstam, but she did fulfil her intention: ‘For many years I was obsessed with the idea that God had sent me to Russia for the purpose of being the only English subject in the Soviet Union who could write. By writing I mean doing it so that people wanted to read it all the time they were reading it.’