Hello to All That

Martin Seymour-Smith

  • Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895-1926 by Richard Perceval Graves
    Weidenfeld, 387 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 297 78943 0

This is the first volume of a projected three-volume ‘definitive’ biography of Robert Graves by his nephew, Richard Perceval Graves. It takes over where the author’s father, Robert’s younger brother John Graves, left off. John, who died in 1980, had been described by Robert as a ‘typically good pupil of a typically good school’ (to which he returned as teacher); he had for long contemplated the composition of a book called My Brother Robert. The outstanding virtue of his son’s first volume – which almost exhausts the private information he holds, mainly derived from the diary of the poet’s father Alfred Perceval Graves – is that it is a worthy completion of the task John Graves set himself. He would not have gone beyond 1931 and the death of Alfred Perceval. As Richard Perceval Graves remarks, John was ‘a devout Christian, a loving father, and a most honourable, unselfish man’. The difficulties begin here. This author, who has written accounts of the lives of T.E. Lawrence, Housman and the Powys brothers, closely resembles his father. But Robert Graves did not at all closely resemble his ‘typically good’ brother; nor does he resemble his ‘typically good’ son – who, although he has ‘known’ and ‘loved’ his uncle ‘since childhood’, did not know him very well at all, and was never the recipient of his confidences. Nor, for that matter, was Robert capable of speaking in the moralistic terms employed by Richard Perceval. But his family for the most part (there are exceptions) was – and is. This gives The Assault Heroic an unexpected dimension.

The publication of this book puts me in a difficult position. As the author of the first biography of Robert Graves I am, naturally, proprietory. I should therefore not appear graceless when new biographies and critical studies appear. But what if I sincerely believe that they are awful and misleading? It is fortunate, then, that this book does have a genuine value.

Those who are interested in Robert Graves will thank me only if I am candid. The late John Graves, to the idea of whose book upon him Robert Graves responded with a certain sense of depression, was put out when he heard from me that I had been commissioned to write a biography of Robert. He struggled with his own understandable proprietory feelings. Eventually he was generous to me: he sent me many extracts from his father’s diary that he thought would be useful, gave me his opinions about the influence of Laura Riding on Robert, and talked to me at length and frankly on the telephone. He behaved as a conscientious man should behave. What I got from him was mostly confirmatory of what I had got from Robert Graves himself (at a time when neither of us contemplated my writing a book about him): but John was also very useful in confirming my view of the impression made by the Riding-Graves relationship on outsiders. I put it on record that Antigua, Penny, Puce is in part a satire on John. I should now add that it is good-natured satire: Robert sincerely hated his brother the journalist Charles because he saw in him a caricature of his own worst faults (‘Am I greedy like that?’ he would ask in horror): for John he had genuine affection.

Richard Perceval Graves has been as generous to me as his father was. People had often addressed to him such remarks as, ‘I suppose it is inevitable that some day you should write about your uncle Robert,’ and the appearance of my book temporarily ‘blunted’ his ‘determination’, as he puts it. Happily this discouragement persisted only until he had read ‘the first few chapters’. Now he has been able to concede that ‘a man is entitled to his opinions,’ and has ‘drawn up’ his ‘evidence in the decent obscurity of the reference notes’. I am grateful to him for his forbearance, and recognise his difficulties – my, so to say, getting in before him, and also in the matter of what his father so intelligently told me. I was scared that so loyal a chronicler would have found me out in many an inaccuracy – but relieved to discover that he had not. Going on what Graves himself had said, I had put him at Charterhouse for seven instead of five years. I also, as he did, got the date of his confirmation wrong. Apart from that, and from a few very trifling family matters such as why did Alfred Perceval sign the pledge upon his second marriage, the differences between this author and myself are confined to matters of opinion.

Like the family of which he is so able a representative, Richard Perceval is always anxious to correct his uncle’s recollections – recollections which I found, somewhat to my surprise, to be no better but no worse, either, than anyone else’s. Thus he attempts to play down Robert’s role in saving Siegfried Sassoon from a court-martial. He challenges my account. I sympathise with him: one of Robert’s many faults was his inability to minimise his part in anything which might appear creditable in the eyes of an enlightened posterity. Perhaps he was not unique in that. In this particular matter, however, Richard Perceval is biting on granite: without Graves, Sassoon would have been court-martialled. The details are far too complicated to go into: suffice it to say that where this biographer speculates, and where he can be checked, he is mistaken. He thinks a letter written by Graves to an influential person must have been sent well after 19 July 1917. I ought in my book to have given the date of this letter, which is in the Russell Archives in Canada. It is 19 July 1917. Richard Perceval has become confused through his failure to understand the circumstances under which Goodbye to All That was written. He is frantically anxious to challenge its detail, as many of Graves’s contemporaries were. He thinks that the press-cutting in which Sassoon announced his pacifism was Graves’s first news of it: understandably, because in Goodbye he does so describe it, adding an elegant touch of its fluttering from an envelope to the ground. A little elementary homework, though, soon demonstrates that Graves first knew of Sassoon’s pacifism a month earlier than the date of the cutting: when he received a typescript of the statement. But when he came to work on his autobiography – in a desperate hurry, needing cash and lots of it, not caring a damn what anyone except Laura thought of him, Laura in hospital with a smashed spine – he had only the cutting to hand, and so embellished his receipt of it in journalistic high style. Of such trivial carelessness come masterpieces – and many flops – and also come over-earnest misinterpretations. If Richard Perceval will now read Ronald Clark’s excellent biography of Bertrand Russell (who behaved ill in this affair), then he will begin to see how it is impossible to deprive his uncle Robert of the major credit for the rescue of Sassoon – who, after all, went on to further active service, and who always recognised, if at times reluctantly, his debt to Graves in that respect. Indeed, Richard Perceval’s background knowledge of both history and literature seems at times to be oddly scant, even amateurish.

The date of Robert Graves’s confirmation! What can that possibly matter? But in an age of inaccuracy, in which university teachers can commit hideous solecisms in Sunday newspapers, one can only applaud his exactitude. The cumulative effect of such errors can only be disastrous. So, while I cannot give Richard Perceval any credit for his intuitions – in contrast to his uncle, he scarcely in any case indulges them – I can acknowledge that I feel chastened by his small corrections. This brings me more closely to the real virtue of his book – or of this first instalment of it, since upon the fate of the second two I must rudely speculate.

The virtue of this account of Graves’s life from its beginnings until his first meeting with Laura Riding in January 1926 is its meticulous Victorian charm. The author has relied on the diaries of his grandfather, Alfred Perceval, to a large degree. A.P. was a minor Irish poet (and schools inspector) who resembled his son Robert rather more closely than the latter – until the very last days of his conscious life – recognised. At school Robert read Samuel Butler. Richard Perceval notes this, but he does not and cannot quite realise its consequences – nor, indeed, those of Robert’s meeting with Laura Riding in 1926. Here he is, eighty years or so after all these things happened – rebellious son breaking with family tradition, and feeling bad about his lies and prevarications – giving us the family account of what is wrong with genius Robert. For John, I remember, it was as though it had happened yesterday; his indignation about Robert’s refusal to ‘take a regular job’ was as fresh as it had been in the 1920s. Richard Perceval has inherited all that, and in his pages we do not say goodbye to it at all. He does not know what he is doing. But expressing his sense of this inheritance is what he is doing, and, in doing it, he has given us his best book to date.

What we have here is the first-hand account of a wayward genius from the viewpoint of one who ‘loves’ him – ‘loves’ in that somewhat distant, uncarnal, strictly family sense – but cannot possibly even begin to understand him. It is priceless and invaluable. I can only wish that I had had it to refer to when I was giving my own account. Richard Perceval’s integrity is absolute, his application exemplary, his own assault at this late date far more heroic than that of his uncle, from whose early rejected poem he quotes that phrase for his title. So although I have to say that this book does seem to me to be awful and misleading as an account of the processes of mind of Robert Graves between his birth and 1926, I can also say that it is a perfect family record: something that I should have thought, until I read it, impossible of achievement at this over-sophisticated instant in history. Readers who want to know what Graves grew out of and away from will find it laid out here in an astonishingly pure form.

Richard Perceval acknowledges the help of Laura Riding (now styled Ms Laura Riding Jackson). He will, he promises us, show how Ms Jackson rescued Graves from his shell shock and made him ‘whole’ again. This seriously worries me for the success of his enterprise in its entirety. There is no doubt at all that Laura Riding did help Graves to become ‘whole’ again, even if one must point out that those who change, change by virtue of their own efforts, whatever the influences upon them. But, as I was at pains to point out in my own book – much to her annoyance – she was exactly what he desired, and had desired for many years. She exists in his work from at least 1920, and perhaps even before that. Such ‘miracles’, as Graves liked to describe her advent, are not unusual: people, not as original as they like to think (that applies, too, to Ms Jackson), do change partners, only to discover that they have attracted the same sort of person ... Laura was for Robert the perfection of his first wife, Nancy Nicolson: she told him what to do, but she had a vastly superior intellect and much more confidence in herself. She seemed prophetic, and she did not resist the role of prophet.

Laura was also scrupulous in the matter of Robert’s family relationships. He only, as he was frequently at pains to point out, went to bed with Laura ‘because Nancy told me to’. Laura saw to it as well that he appeared to be scrupulous towards his grieving parents. But simultaneously, antinomian as she was, she told him that their views ‘about life’ – and those of T.E. Lawrence and all his other friends, too – were ridiculous, rubbish, wrong, misguided. She knew what was wrong with everyone. She knew everything except what she would concede she did not know (some trifling detail about the universe). She still does. She wrote astonishing poems, although many find their absoluteness of knowledge and their chaste diction a bar to response. She translated such commonplace matters as her wanting another man – Phibbs – for herself, and not being able to have him because he chose to go off with Nancy instead, into cosmic terms: he was ‘the devil’ and her suicide attempt was an experiment with living. Graves accepted all of this and wanted to say ‘goodbye to all that’: to the gross little details of history like dining out or being famous or ambitious (‘who’s in, who’s out?’). But he could not quite manage it. He remained ‘ordinary’, human, robust, in a manner which she – for all her sporadic radiance – could not quite achieve. Of his experience of making love to this extraordinary woman he reluctantly recorded, with the ghastly pun on his own name, ‘the grave’s narrowness though not its peace’. He was himself extraordinary, offputting and eccentric. Yet eventually his poems appealed to us more than hers did. Yes, she did understand the workings of the universe, and the burden of this knowledge she did bear: ‘nor is it written that you may not grieve.’

She did because he thought she did. Yet this woman could never have existed as a serious entity – this woman who could engage, with her incompetent lover G. Phibbs, on a work to define the whole scope of human knowledge – had Graves not fiercely guarded her from ridicule. That is precisely the scope of his influence upon her: that, and the money and the power to appeal to the public which she did not have.

There is indeed a hideous narrowness in her. It is located somewhere within her inability to recognise that others, however misguided they may be, possess a sense of their own identity: that this causes them to resist her instructions as to how spiritually to proceed. However unpopular Graves may be for some of his nastinesses and meannesses, he is much valued for the warmth of his heart in his poetry. As his friends know, he possessed that quality in life, too – and that of candour. So ‘Certain Mercies’ is the title of one of the poems he wrote while he was in bondage to her. She ‘allowed’ that poem, and knew what it was about. Poor Robert! And when she got rid of him, after subjecting him to ten years of chastity on the grounds that ‘bodies have had their day,’ and with the sudden bright announcement made at breakfast-time to the effect that Robert’s rival, Schuyler Jackson, and she had revived bodies (‘Schuyler and I do!’), when that happened to him, he felt much, muttered much, behaved not very well or badly – and went gratefully to a new and natural love, to be denounced and damned for it, of course, by Laura and her more satisfactory consort. He got over it within two years, although the experience scarred him. She has never got over it: the experience is even now an open wound. She has obsessively accused him of exploitation of her, use of her ideas (as if those ideas were actually owned by her – the Lord is a jealous Lord), and even of theft of notebooks left behind in 1936 in their joint Mallorcan home. The notebooks were in fact destroyed unread by Graves within a few weeks of his return in 1946. This was the man who was able to tell me, when I was going up to Oxford, ‘Now you can start a Laura Riding revival,’ and who would read her poems aloud, to those who would listen, with admiration as astonished as it had been twenty years before.

But how shall Richard Perceval proceed in his account of Graves’s life from 1926? He has acknowledged the assistance of Laura Riding, and has even corrected – so he believes – my version of Graves’s first meeting with her. As so often, he fails to understand that much of my information comes from Graves himself although in this instance it is supported by written evidence from William Nicolson, who was present at that meeting, and to whom Graves, seeing his guest, whispered: ‘For God’s sake what am I going to do?’ Ms Jackson now insists that Nicolson was ‘courteous’ to her. Of course. That does not alter what his opinion of her was, and nor in turn is that a discredit to her. As I have written, Graves himself soon changed his mind. The matter quite often came up in conversation between us, under the rubric of ‘first impressions’ and their reliability or otherwise.

Richard Perceval has ‘known’ and ‘loved’ his uncle since childhood. Whatever that means, he means it. Now that he has almost run out of family material, on what information is he to proceed? He had none from his subject, and he can hardly be seen to rely upon anything I say. Will he therefore rely upon Ms Jackson? If he does that, he must soon cease to love his uncle, for Ms Jackson, although capable for a while of compromising with his apparently dutiful approach, cannot encourage it. Graves was not cold in the ground when she wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement of such ferocity and jealous hatred that it almost burned up the page. It could scarcely have appeared in Graves’s lifetime. (Perhaps the editor wanted to make a point about someone.)

What does Richard Perceval think about that letter? Are the recollections of its writer to be relied upon? Will he ask me for whatever evidence I hold? Whatever be the quality of his understanding of his uncle, Richard Perceval is very clearly an honest and meticulous man. Will he quarrel when he finds himself in disagreement with Ms Jackson? (Some have.) Or will his account be, faute de mieux, in effect Ms Jackson’s retrospective ‘corrections’ (as she likes to style them) of ‘literary history’? Certainly she will be the first to offer to supply him with intimate details of Graves’s life after she said goodbye to him for ever in 1939. Could he accept that, or is his idea of knowledge less mystical? How will he account for the tragedy of her obsession, define the original relationship?

After 1926, Graves drifted away from his family. John paid a short visit to Mallorca in the early 1930s – a visit of which he gave me useful details, all of them scrupulous but few not shrewdly critical of Laura Riding. Graves used to see his mother from time to time until her death in the 1950s. But in the main his family saw nothing of him and knew less. He used to say, ‘Blood is thicker than water and much nastier,’ a remark which I fear his nephew might fail fully to appreciate. His diary runs out in 1939. The papers held by various university libraries in America do not contain enough sources for a biography – or, insofar as they do, they reflect my own researches, which were mostly conducted as a check on Graves’s own recollections, passed to me, for the most part, not as a future biographer but as a friend. Most of Graves’s closest friends are dead or uninterviewable. Yet there is room for another account of Graves, from an angle quite different from mine. I think it will have to employ my account, however much it may criticise or even deplore it. I would indeed be glad to assist Richard Perceval. Meanwhile, whatever he may do in its successors, he has in this volume given us a rare glimpse of the errant black sheep who makes good. It is the more enchanting in that its author regards it as something altogether more objective.