Did he or didn’t he?

Ronald Fraser

  • The Interior Castle: A Life of Gerald Brenan by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 660 pp, £25.00, July 1992, ISBN 1 85619 137 0

Having described a significant segment of his past in South from Granada, published in 1957, Gerald Brenan went on to write two volumes of autobiography, A Life of One’s Own (1902) and Personal Record (1974). These covered his life from early childhood to his return to southern Spain in 1953 when he was nearly sixty, with a few final pages devoted to the following twenty years. Shortly before his death in 1987, a selection of the letters between him and his lifelong friend, Ralph Partridge, was also published. It seemed that there was not much more we would want or need to know about the foremost British writer on Spain this century.

Now, adding another six hundred pages to the extant eight hundred-odd on Brenan’s life, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s biography demonstrates that there are many things which Brenan, although an extremely honest autobiographer, didn’t fully reveal about himself and others. Indeed, to have done so would have gone against his principles: as a recognised literary form, he explains in die preface to A Life, autobiography requires truthfulness but makes ‘no claim to being a confession’.

On the other hand, as Brenan also knew, no biographer could take an autobiography at its face value. Perhaps therefore he suspected what lay in store after his death. ‘You can write a necrophiliac piece after I’m dead about how I look,’ he retorted when well into his eighties after Gathorne-Hardy had remarked (innocently enough) that his trousers looked as if they were about to fall down. He knew that he could be hoist on the petard of his own honesty; for over sixty years he poured out the intimate inner and underside of his life in a voluminous private correspondence. Moreover, an earlier version of Personal Record, without the cuts he had made for publication, had been salted away at the University of Texas, Austin. This material was more than enough to sustain the ‘confessional’ aspect which his own autobiographies had rejected. And, as one would expect, his biographer has made full use of it.

In two respects – one which Brenan never seriously addressed and the other which he did but without notable success – the information this biography provides is especially welcome. The first concerns his last thirty years, when he produced some of his best work; and the second, Gamel Woolsey, his wife for nearly forty years. Overshadowed by Gerald’s, Gamel’s very considerable talent is at last being recognised with the reissue of her novels by Virago; and the sympathetic picture Gathorne-Hardy gives of her will possibly lead to a further revaluation. As a poet, it was always clear that she was streets ahead of Brenan, and as a prose writer it has become clear that she was at least his equal. Here she appears as a woman aware of being enmeshed in, but simultaneously fearful of breaking free of, the patriarchal contradictions of her time and place.

Brenan never wrote fully of his last, and in some ways, best years. As a writer, he was a late starter, not publishing his first major book – The Spanish Labyrinth – until he was 50; South from Granada, his two autobiographies, St John of the Cross, Thoughts in a Dry Season and his two novels, were written between the ages of 60 and 85. In his unfailingly modest way, he made little of this achievement, and especially of the amount of work he put into his books. He wrote and rewrote endlessly: no major book took him less than five years. At the same time he continued to read as avidly as he had in his youth, and to pursue his lifelong habit of corresponding at length with his friends. His vitality was tremendous. Aged 78, he set out with his young companion, Lynda, in the smallest of small Spanish cars for a seven thousand-mile tour of Greece and the Islands, Turkey, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Except for his love of travel, nothing, least of all illness – hernia, cataracts, a broken leg – kept him for long from his work.

For a writer who is best known for his work on Spain, and for a man who loved to travel, it is a curious fact, unnoticed by his biographer, that he rarely travelled in Spain. Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza, Bilbao – you can look in vain for these cities in the indexes of his autobiographies or of this biography. Andalusia, or rather its two eastern provinces of Granada and Malaga, were his home for forty years. He lived in pueblos, never in a large town. He had only two close Spanish friends, as Gathorne-Hardy notes, though they barely figure in the biography, and there is no sustained correspondence with a Spaniard among his vast epistolary output. His main contact with Spaniards for half of his last thirty years were the servants who had accompanied him from the Alpujarra village where, after the First World War, he had settled. How then did his undoubtedly subtle ‘feel’ for Spanish life originate?

His reading of the history and literature of Spain was surely the major source. Seeking a ‘national character’, he saw patterns of behaviour stretching across the centuries. And as long as Spain remained a predominantly poor agrarian country, his reading – allied with direct observation – gave him a deep knowledge of the Spanish condition. But there was also empathy with that condition: from his ‘interior castle’ he projected some of his own values onto those of his adopted countryman, not least the conviction that poverty was necessary to live life intensely. A romantic at heart, he controlled an excess of feeling with a classical mind, though it is not surprising that of all Spanish history it was the 18th century and its enlightened reformers he found the least congenial.

The golden years of his seventies and early eighties, when Lynda, a former art student, brought him joy and emotional stability, and the advent of democracy brought him rediscovery and fame in Spain, came to an end for reasons which Gathorne-Hardy fully describes. There followed the tragi-comedy of his return to Britain, more accurately to a residential home in Pinner, Middlesex. When the Spanish media got wind of it, they unleashed a campaign alleging that he had been thrown out of his home and virtually sent to die alone in an old people’s home. The strength of Spanish family feeling, Brenan’s fame and the immediate assumption of a sinister plot, proved an explosive mix. Before long, the Spanish authorities intervened and offered to provide everything needed to enable him to continue living in his Alhaurin home. It was one of those magnificent Spanish gestures which, in better times, he would have related to some historic instance of the national character.

Gathorne-Hardy knew Brenan for over thirty years, but for the sake of ‘objectivity’ decided that he should keep his relationship out of the biography until its end, when he played ‘a small but necessary part’. In my view objectivity would be better served if we saw the author and subject of the biography as a whole. Such interaction can be revealing as when, for example, at the book’s end its beginning is described. Brenan, now 91, ‘sad, very lonely, but completely resigned ... waiting for death’, is asked by Gathorne-Hardy whether he would mind if he wrote his life.

‘No,’ said Gerald alter a pause. ‘I suppose if anyone, I’d rather you. But it’s not up to me, it’s up to you.’ Another pause, ‘Anyone can write my life,’ Pause. I wished I hadn’t bothered him. ‘It would have to be someone who knew me.’

  ‘I know you a bit.’
  ‘Yes, you know me very well.’

After lunch, Gathorne-Hardy got out contracts for him to sign: ‘very slowly, like a dying spider just moving ink-dipped legs, he tried to write Gerald Brenan. Only the “Ger” was discernible.’

The outcome of that agreement is a ‘confessional’ portrait of the sort Brenan rejected in his autobiographies. Developing the metaphor of an ‘interior castle’, it suggests that, as a result of childhood and school experiences, Brenan withdrew deeply into himself. Once in his castle, which provided ‘both a sense of defence and of a place from which to launch an attack’, his longing to reveal himself, in his writing, was made difficult by an equally strong fear of self-revelation.

This is not a new concept – something very similar was seen by Winnicott as constituting the basic psychological make-up of all artists – but that doesn’t make it any less plausible. What, then, were the childhood experiences that led to the construction of this ‘interior castle’? In the first place, an excessively close relationship with a mother who for her own unconscious reasons probably needed him too much, and a distant, awesome father, afflicted with deafness. The early loss of a nanny, an intermediate figure, contributed also. But above all, the brutality he encountered first at prep school and later at public school. Gathorne-Hardy argues that it was most likely at school that began ‘the sexual inhibitions and difficulties which were to distort his character and whose effects were to ramify out into his life and writing’. And these ‘difficulties’? Impotence, voyeurism, strong incestuous passions, love of young women, guilt about masturbation, a strongly repressed schoolboy homosexuality, the belief at 15 that his father had castrated him when he was circumcised at six, desertion of the marital bed at the age of 50, guilt about his impotence, masochism ... The burden of so many sexual problems should make us all the more sympathetic to the sufferer and those he made suffer because of them. These were the hidden wounds of a writer whose work and friendship were important to so many, among them myself. We know now, if we didn’t before, what it cost him to be the man and the writer he was.

The question to be asked of this biography is not whether these charges are true – most are confessed to in the correspondence which Gathorne-Hardy has diligently combed – but about the use that is made of them. A narrative with an occasional analytical excursion, The Interior Castle is a year-by-year account of its subject’s life. This strictly chronological form, combined with the probing of its subject’s early sexual problems, results in repetitive sexual questioning. Having fairly early on identified impotence as the major problem, Gathorne-Hardy subjects each of Brenan’s many subsequent ‘affairs’ to the question – did he make love to her? Brenan might say he did, but he probably didn’t, but if he had ... Intended or not, the effect is voyeuristic – a curious echo of one of its subject’s own problems. And this effect is heightened by the author’s repeated use of his subject’s own ambiguous terminology: in Brenan’s Edwardian English ‘making love to’ could mean anything from flirting to sexual intercourse, and he hid behind this ambiguity. Gathorne-Hardy doesn’t define his use of the expression either. One is simply left to assume that, since he is concerned to demonstrate Brenan’s impotence, ‘making love to’ means penetrative sex; anything less is a failure. The refusal to say so openly, however, makes for a collusive inexplicitness between author and subject.

There is no reason, even in a narrative account like this, for the author not to be explicit. Indeed, he produces the evidence himself for at least one sexual practice – cunnilingus – that Brenan used in order to deal with impotence, an impotence that was by no means total. But since the author is concerned with penetrative sex, he ignores his subject’s capability of ‘making love to’ – i.e. sexually satisfying – a woman without penetration. And why, since these matters loom so large, are we given no account of Gerald’s younger brother Blair, who died before him? Comparison of the two brothers’ sexual and intellectual development might have cast some additional light on Gerald. (That something also happened to Blair is evident from one brief mention in the biography where he is seen living in a ménage à trois with his wife’s lover.)

These matters might have been dealt with more explicitly, less tediously and finally more rewardingly, by a thematic approach. The same can be said of the Dora Carrington-Brenan relationship about which Gathorne-Hardy has nothing significantly new to say, in what is by my reckoning the fourth account of the affair to be published. And a thematic rendering would have spared the reader one small irritant: the endless list, as year rolls on year, of British illustres inconnus who surface in Brenan’s later life and whose identity and importance we are assumed to know as though we were all members of the same coterie. Rather than this annual rendering, a critical biography of the sort Brenan Was skilled at would have been an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of the man and the writer. But of course such a biography wouldn’t have been able to return endlessly to the problem, ‘did he or didn’t he?’

The evidence that his sexual problems influenced Brenan’s writing seems finally pretty slender; more convincing is the idea that the interior castle determined what he was able and not able to write. Though he produced a lot of poetry and at least one good novel, A Holiday by the Sea, Brenan’s lifelong ambition to be a poet and novelist was never satisfactorily fulfilled. He wrote best about the reality he experienced first hand or through his reading. And this is explicable: for if, as a child, he felt his own reality threatened, and came to fear revealing himself, then the accompanying need for self-revelation took the form of writing of the reality he felt was indisputably his own.

In the light of Brenan’s path-breaking history of modern Spain, it is sad to note that his biographer slips up on some elementary facts of the same historical period. Franco a major in 1936! The Falange no longer identified as a Fascist movement! A socialist leader, Indalecio Prieto, a minister in the pre-war Popular Front Government which contained no socialists! What would the master have thought? But one error in the blurb would have no doubt delighted him. He is credited there with having reached ‘deep in Siberia’ on his flight from England as an 18-year-old. That he walked the 1500 miles to Serbia was achievement enough.

This biography would have benefited from Brenan’s own painstaking writing and rewriting. Yet to have brought it off at all – especially in the face of Brenan’s autobiographies – is no mean achievement: and for those who want the whole life, warts and all, it is going to be essential reading. But those long appreciative of Brenan’s thought and his sober style may well prefer to stay with the ‘fantasies and evasions’, the distortions of truth, convinced that they served Gerald to distil more important truths.