Various Woman

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley by Katherine Frank
    Hamish Hamilton, 333 pp, £14.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 241 12074 8
  • Marilyn by Gloria Steinem and George Barris
    Gollancz, 182 pp, £12.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 575 03945 0
  • Joe and Marilyn: A Memory of Love by Roger Kahn
    Sidgwick, 268 pp, £10.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 283 99427 4
  • I leap over the wall by Monica Baldwin and Karen Armstrong
    Hamish Hamilton, 308 pp, £4.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 241 11974 X
  • Diary of a Zen Nun: A Moving Chronicle of Living Zen by Nan Shin (Nancy Amphoux)
    Rider, 228 pp, £5.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7126 1432 X

Mary Kingsley, the traveller – not the explorer, she said, because there wasn’t anywhere she went in West Africa where Africans hadn’t been before her – was and is described as a splendid woman. I don’t know at what point the word ‘splendid’ acquired its present shade of meaning and became something that a woman would rather not be called. In the instructions for the first Schools Broadcast I wrote, in the days of crackling wireless sets in stuffy village schools, the producer called her ‘splendid’. Because of the crackle, we weren’t allowed sound-effects, certainly not the ‘thunder of the foaming, flying Ogowé River, and beyond it the pool of utter night’, of which she said that ‘if I ever have a heaven, that will be mine.’ But we presented Mary fishing for a crocodile with a home-made hook, Mary taking soundings from a canoe with her umbrella, Mary trading her white blouses, one by one, with the cannibal Fangs, Mary saved by her thick skirt when she fell into an elephant trap. ‘Mary Kingsley is a heroine English children have grown up with,’ we’re told in the introduction to A Voyager Out. ‘In the United States she has been largely unknown.’ This is all to the advantage of Katherine Frank, a lecturer from Iowa, who has produced this fine biography.

Mary Kingsley was the daughter of George Kingsley, the younger brother of Charles. The DNB gallantly falsifies the date of George’s marriage, which was only four days before Mary’s birth. His wife (thought to have been his cook) was a competent businesswoman and, unexpectedly, a good shot with a revolver. Mary learned from her the duty of charity (‘I always feel I have no right to associate with people unless there is something the matter with them’) and a strong Cockney accent, disconcerting to many. Mother and daughter were cooped up together, first in Highgate, then in Bexley Heath, and Mary turned herself into a striking example of self-help, studying geography, Latin and medicine from the books in her father’s library, and plumbing from the English Mechanic, while George roamed round the world as a gentlemanly travelling physician. In one biography after another, including the present one, George has been made the villain of the piece. But he did write home – letters of adventure to stir the blood, from the South Seas, the Rocky Mountains, Tahiti, Japan – and he did, in the end, come home, having taken up, almost seriously, the study of primitive religion. Mary was recruited into the Victorian-daughter workforce, and, to be of more use to him as a secretary, was allowed to study German. The family moved to Cambridge, where her aimless younger brother was getting an expensive education. But before she could get used to the company of university scholars, or indeed to any company at all, her mother, and then her father, fell ill and needed her constant attendance. She was not quite thirty. ‘Dead tired and feeling no one had need of me any more when my Mother and Father died within six weeks of each other in ’92 and my brother went off to the East, I went down to West Africa to die. West Africa amused me and was kind to me and was scientifically interesting and did not want to kill me just then – I am in no hurry.’ Another explanation for her voyage, which doesn’t rule out the first one, was ‘a desire to complete a great book my father left unfinished’. Katherine Frank points out that she never did this, but wrote two books of her own. Nevertheless, George’s influence shouldn’t be discounted. Although she could never have travelled as her father did, self-indulgently – she had been brought up without religion and had substituted duty for it – she knew that what drove her on was the Kingsley energy, touched with craze and possibly with a little genius. And while the ‘dark continent’ exercised, in the 1890s, a limitless appeal to the imagination, West Africa was a place where her father had never been.

Mary Kingsley (to Kipling’s astonishment) never felt fear. This was helpful even on her first venture onto a coastal steamer, when she found four dead men in her cabin and the steward incapable from delirium tremens. Her tactical grasp is shown in her decision to travel as a trader. The trade-box of fishhooks, cloth and tobacco ‘enables you to sit as an honoured guest at far-away inland village fires, to become the confidential friend of that ever powerful factor in all human societies, the old ladies, to become an associate of the fraternity of witch doctors, things that being surrounded with an expedition of armed men must prevent your doing’. Her greatest asset, however, which could hardly have been learned in Highgate or Cambridge, was her grasp of other people’s preconceptions. The difficulty here, she said, was with ‘your own mental outfit’. Unless you can become pliant, you cannot hope to enter ‘the African mind-forest’. Having done so, however, ‘the fascination of the African point of view is as sure to linger in the mind as the malaria in your body.’ ‘Fetish’ (animism) became the centre of her work, more important by far than her collection of specimen fish or her studies of labour and trade. Rightly or wrongly, she related the African mind-world, where every object, and even its shadow, was possessed of a soul, to her own pantheism. ‘It is the non-human world I belong to. My people are mangrove swamps, rivers and the sea and so on.’ (With the ‘and so on’ she protects herself.)

It was on the second journey, in 1895, that she left the coastal strip and crossed into unknown territory to trade with the cannibal villages. Katherine Frank has covered the same ground and feels the same passion for it. In describing the journeys, she has to follow Mary’s own account, because there is no better way to do it. When it comes to Mary’s considered opinions, Frank tries, not quite successfully, to avoid oversimplification. In spite of her reckless spirit, Mary was fiercely against the women’s movement. In spite of her defence of African culture, she was an imperialist. Frank speaks of ‘abiding conflicts and inner divisions’. ‘The underlying physical and sexual sanity of African experience, born of unconstrained openness and acceptance of the body’s needs’, must, she thinks, have had an overwhelming effect on this Odd Woman. I should have thought that Mary’s adaptability, and indeed her oddness, were proof against this. She had created herself, and knew herself. There is no doubt, though, of Frank’s sympathy, which verges, as sympathy often does, on exasperation when she considers the only romantic passage of Mary’s life. In 1899 she opened her heart to George Nathan of the Colonial Service, calling herself ‘that melancholy thing that will always serve and fear you’. Nothing came of it. Nathan was a confirmed bachelor, who had hoped to make use of Mary’s knowledge and influence. To him she was ‘the cheerful Miss Kingsley’.

‘I’m human,’ said Marilyn Monroe, ‘we all have our areas, but who ever admits it?’ She, too, was self-created, out of Norma Jeane Baker, proud that she had never been kept, never been discovered and had earned every cent she possessed. But she was imprisoned by her ‘magic friend’, her beauty, and saw no way of surviving without it. Whose fault was this? Gloria Steinem’s Marilyn generously tackles the problem from a feminist viewpoint or, more precisely, like the most understanding kind of schoolteacher, looking for everything favourable to say about the anxiously smiling pupil. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ask the stars to Marilyn’s funeral, ‘because they killed her’. So, too, did the Fifties, demanding ‘the humiliating stereotype of a blonde’, the dream of returning soldiers and of Men Only, something Michelangelo might have carved out of cake. We, too, are all of us to blame if we don’t see in Marilyn the frightened image of Norma Jeane, admission no 4463 at the Los Angeles orphanage.

The facts of her life are well-known, though only in a sense, as Marilyn, when bored or half-doped, would give different versions. The researchers of over forty books have had to settle for a grandmother who did or didn’t try to suffocate her; a foster-father who may have raped her; 12, 13 or 15 abortions; perhaps a long-lost son. Even after her death, which now seems to have become more interesting than her life, the claims of Robert Kennedy, the Communist Party and the Mafia are undecided. On every point Steinem is protective. Marilyn was doubly unfortunate in dying ‘before women began to be honest in public’.

The same stories appear in Joe and Marilyn, though more luridly told and more often, since Roger Kahn repeats himself frequently. Marilyn and DiMaggio married in 1954. They were ‘Mr and Mrs America’. Sightseeing buses pulled up outside their house. They stayed together for less than nine months, then it was Splitsville. Kahn’s real interest, however, turns out to be not the famous couple or even Jostlin Joe himself, but those whose business it was to write about them. What makes Kahn expand and glow is the newspaper game. Baseball, yes, but baseball as it was when it made the headlines or got recorded on the box cards which old Giuseppe DiMaggio learned to make out, although he could scarcely read English. Ah, those evenings at Toots Shor’s in the West Fifties, when the shades were drawn and the jock talk was of Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Damon Runyon (never of broads, Kahn tells us). Heroes of the book are the Life team who adopted the ‘rougher’ style of journalism in the Fifties and helped to drive the Jostler into retirement, or the reporters who tracked down Joe and Marilyn on their wedding night.

In the summer of 1941 Monica Baldwin left the convent where she had been living in the strictest possible enclosure since 1914. ‘I felt like an explorer,’ she wrote, ‘on the verge of setting out.’ Her I leap over the wall (1949) was an attempt to come to terms with her experience. Evidently it had to be a book of contrasts and shock, but not quite the expected ones. There was and is no obstacle to leaving a convent. ‘As soon as the customary formalities were ended, the doors were opened and I simply walked out.’ Her dowry, under canon law, was returned to her. She was free. The last thing she wanted to do was to condemn the Order she had left. On the contrary, she wanted to explain the power of the religious life to readers who might know nothing about it. All the difficult obedience, all the grotesque discomfort, are related to their object, spiritual tranquillity – only for others, not for her, and she had spent the last 18 years in admitting this to herself. This meant that she came back to the world too old for childbirth, and on the verge of being too old to adapt. The London of 1941 now seems cosy rather than alarming, so many tears having been jerked by trainsful of airmen, Music while you work, dear old Lyons. Monica Baldwin most convincingly shows how it struck her after her double seclusion in time and space: no peace, no deference, no ‘leisured classes’, no gold coins, no horse traffic. But it was worse than alarming: it was, she came to feel, hostile. ‘Trample the world beneath your feet – as I did, when I stepped, rather disdainfully, into my convent – and it will take it out of you when – and if – you have the temerity to return.’ She had, fortunately, well-placed relations. Per deum meum transilio murum is the motto of the Baldwin family. When she went down to the country Uncle Stan was there to meet her. Through friends and relatives she got a series of older woman’s wartime jobs. She could not stay in any of them. Following what she awkwardly (and she knows how awkward it is) calls an Inner Urge, she retreated step by step to a cliff-edge cottage in Cornwall, ‘the realm of gramarye’ – a Cottage in the Clouds. In the introduction to this paperback edition Karen Armstrong suggests that she is ‘substituting one religion for another, pagan glamour for religion’.

Karen Armstrong, who was once a nun herself, also says that I leap over the wall is telling us ‘not to read Nuns’ Stories for kicks’. Nancy Amphoux (Nan Shin) didn’t (for the same reason) want to call her book Diary of a Zen Nun. It might be better described as a memorial to her late Master, the bodhisattva Taisen Deshimaru, if that didn’t imply what Zen rejects, a discontinuity between present and past. Nan Shin spent most of each year at the Master’s dojo in Alsace, the Zendondien (La Gendronnière), where the community practises Soto Zen, the gradual way of illumination through zazen, seated meditation. A point of rejection came for her when she heard the Master’s voice, out of a long silence: ‘Pain can be good.’ ‘And I hated the voice, said to myself, Goddammit, it is masochism, fascism, no matter what he says. There is something sick about all this! I drove home through the night very hard and fast and angrily, went to bed and got up next morning and went to work and came home and said, at dinner that night: “I’m going to ask to be ordained.”’

With a cheerful sisterliness which recalls Gloria Steinem, she describes her nun’s routine – ‘put on underpants, wool T-shirt, cardigan, white kimono, black kolomo, spectacles on chain, stuff cigarettes into kimono sleeve along with sutras.’ Her daily duties included organisation and administration and clearing the bar of drunken Zen bums, leftovers from the Sixties. The Master refused to close the bar. ‘Embrace all aspects of life, all contradictions, create, go forward, go beyond.’ And Nan Shin’s book is in fact written on this principle, in alternating snatches and fragments. Almost casually she begins to describe her experience with cancer, hysterectomy and chemotherapy. Here her irritation with the hospital and hatred of the anaesthetist are reassuring, being familiar in some form or other to most of us. But Nan Shin knows that the practical question put to religious experience is: how does it work in the face of pain and death? Answering questions, however, like making choices, is not in the spirit of Soto Zen. All that the courageous Nan Shin can say is that it’s usual in life to struggle for what you want. ‘In the case of the dojo, what you get, for wanting, is nothing. That is the only human adventure, the great freedom.’

I’m not qualified to estimate the gains and losses of these four women. One thing that strikes me, and surely it’s not an unimportant point, is a resemblance of tone. When Monica Baldwin collapses ‘I felt,’ she says, ‘my knees beginning to wobble, while the surrounding landscape gave rather alarming indications of being about to disappear from sight.’ When Nan Shin’s gynaecologist tells her that he has to operate, and that if it all has to come out he isn’t going to wake her up to ask permission, ‘I said I trusted him and to carry on up the Khyber, and we shook hands as though we had just completed a highly satisfactory real estate transaction.’ ‘I’m a joke,’ said Marilyn Monroe, ‘an expensive joke, but still a joke.’ Mary Kingsley announced herself when she emerged from the bush as ‘it’s Only Me,’ and referred to her Travels as ‘the Log of a Light-hearted Lunatic’. To one of her Gold Coast friends she said that the best part of her was ‘all this doubt and mistrust, and melancholy and heartache. I put on my armour (coruscating wit) when I go out to battle.’ But this, as an explanation, is not enough. The jokey self-deprecation is a defence, perhaps even a form of generosity; the readers are left free to think they’re at a comedy. But why must women go on coruscating, and will there ever be any end to their apologies?