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.

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