Remembering Janet Hobhouse

Elisa Segrave

Janet Hobhouse, whom I first met in a street in Paris in 1974, was someone who inspired strong emotions. Being with her was like being on a roller-coaster, an exhilarating, intense, even frightening experience – a roller-coaster you often wanted to get off.

She was direct, sometimes to the point of insensitivity, and couldn’t understand why other people weren’t as direct as she was. ‘You’re obviously gay, aren’t you?’ she asked a supposedly heterosexual friend of my husband’s after being in the room with him for two minutes.

From the age of two she was brought up in New York in a series of rented rooms by her mother, Fran Liedloff, after Fran left Janet’s father, Henry Hobhouse, in England. (Bett, the character in The Furies based on Janet’s mother, commits the unforgivable sin of changing the baby’s diapers in the dining-room of her husband’s country house.) Because of this precarious upbringing – she was sent to boarding school at the age of five as her mother couldn’t cope – Janet had the egotism of the only child and the vulnerability of the abandoned and she didn’t like to be crossed. She always remembered people who had argued with her and sometimes never forgave them.

On the other hand, she never lost the ability to make you feel special. Even when she was ill with cancer on my last visit to her in New York in August 1990, six months before she died, she carefully arranged the table for supper in her SoHo loft with candles, French wine, which she snobbishly preferred when living in America, and delicious food that she had bullied me into buying earlier at her local delicatessen, Dean & Deluca. She introduced her favourite subject – love – and we discussed it endlessly: unrequited love, sick love, sexual love, being in love. She cross-questioned me on my own emotions and wheedled my secrets out of me. After hours of wine, whisky and black coffee, she would get your defences down: ‘Sweetie, how can I help you if you don’t tell me his name? You must tell me his name!’

Janet was affectionate and bullying, brutal yet tender, vulgar yet refined, tragic but with a tremendous life-force. She adored parties and dressing-up and was quite literally a star-fucker. In her new book, her brief affair with a famous English actor whom she describes as ‘the heart-throb’ gets a disproportionately large coverage compared with her friends, most of whom are not mentioned. Close attention is also paid to her affair with a famous New York writer. But maybe I am being unfair. When she died her book was unfinished. Some sections had not been revised and what was put in the final version was the decision of her publishers. What makes it more complicated for me is that Janet used freely to hand out copies of her work in draft to her friends when they were staying with her and ask for comments. I was disappointed not to find anything in the final version about her godmother, Panna Grady, her mother’s best friend and a friend and patron of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Janet was both disarming and bossy about showing her friends her work. When I first read the account of her arriving at boarding school with her mother, I was staying with her in Key West, in a house she had rented from Alison Lurie. When I had finished reading she asked anxiously: ‘Do you think it’s self-pitying?’ (It’s not, but it is heart-rending.) A few months later, in another rented house (East Hampton in August), she was furious with me for getting the pages of some later chapters mixed up while I was reading them.

Janet loved the fashionable, comfortable places: you would never have caught her going up the Amazon or into the jungle like her aunt Jean Liedloff, who wrote The Continuum Concept, a book about child-rearing based on her experiences with a Stone Age Indian tribe in the Venezuelan jungle, and kept an ant-eater in her flat in Primrose Hill. Having trapped you in some rented house or her own loft without giving you your own key, Janet would test you to the limits of your endurance and then be genuinely wounded if you tried to leave.

Despite her difficult character, Janet excelled at intense one-to-one friendships. This was what she understood; this closeness was what she had experienced with her mother and it was what she was used to. She once said that if a person you love commits suicide, as her mother did, you spend the rest of your life trying to find similar relationships and playing out the ending you never had with the person who died.

As a writer, too, Janet was mainly interested in her own emotions and those of the people closest to her, though she also wrote biography and criticism. She published her life of Gertrude Stein when she was only 24; The Bride Stripped Bare, her study of the female nude in art, came much later. However, she looked down on journalism and politics, considering those worlds inferior to the struggles of ‘the artist’. Janet’s ex-husband, Nick Fraser, whom she treated in the dominating, patronising, yet maternal way she treated most men – indeed, most people – was criticised by her for working on Newsweek and the Sunday Times and for co-authoring books on Eva Peron and Onassis. However, Nick, under the name Edward, or Ned, is one of the most important characters in The Furies and it is obvious she was very fond of him and regretted the breakdown of her marriage. Her narrator, Helen, says: ‘I dream about Ned, as I am to dream about him for years and years to come. In these dreams he is always angry and I am always sad.’

That summer of 1990, as we drove about East Hampton and Amagansett on our way to swim or shop, Janet would sometimes point out places she had visited with Nick. I remember her delight when we arrived at a spit of land called Louse Point and a vanload of enormous black men covered with gold chains got out. It was for this kind of robust detail that she often preferred America to England, calling us disparagingly, ‘You Brits,’ though at other times she relied heavily on the cosiness of the circle of friends she had made at Oxford.

When I flew over to New York for Janet’s funeral in February 1991 I was stuck for seven hours on the runway at Gatwick while they were de-icing our plane. During that time and the subsequent seven hours of the actual flight I was able to re-read Janet’s second and third novels, Dancing in the Dark and November. As I re-read November, the story of a man who has separated from his wife in America and comes to England to try to recover, I was appalled at the sadness. Why had I not noticed this when I first read the novel nine years earlier? As with all of Janet’s novels, the new one most of all, it is very autobiographical. I remembered Janet herself during the period in London it describes, leading a glamorous life – this was the time of her affair with ‘the heartthrob’ actor – going to parties, wearing smart black clothes from New York, jackets with wide shoulders, very much in demand, very attractive with her dramatic looks, wiry black hair, white skin, dark eyes. The character in the novel, Anne, partly based on herself, describing her grief after the death of her first husband, says: ‘But I remained under in my underworld. Nothing in this life had remotely the power that darkness had.’ The book was written shortly after Janet’s mother’s suicide. She never recovered from it.

The Furies is in my opinion the most powerful of the books she has written. The others, although extremely polished, have a guarded, brittle tone compared with it. In them Janet makes a pretence of having individual protagonists, though really you feel it is always she herself who is speaking, mulling over her own life in different voices. As far as I know, Janet never admitted she was dying, either to herself or to her friends, but The Furies reads like a last testament in its nakedly confessional tone. I was appalled by the terrible sorrow and loneliness it describes. But after reading it I felt I understood Janet better, and I admired her courage, not least in being able to describe the kind of grief that most people shy away from because it’s too painful.

Janet’s relationship with her mother was the most important thing in her life, unfortunately for her, as her mother was so unstable. I remember her once asking me about the feelings I had had as a small child towards my own mother. She was puzzled that I had never experienced the same thing she had – the longing to be with her mother all the time and at the same time the conviction that she was the most important thing in her mother’s life. In The Furies she describes going to see the film Bambi with her mother. ‘Nothing can be worse than such a devastation,’ she says of the death of Bambi’s mother, ‘we both knew that. Men can make you cry but men don’t matter compared to this kind of thing. This is the real love, the real connection.’

All of Janet’s childhood was punctuated by her intense love for her mother, her awareness of how much her mother needed her, and her realisation that her mother was inadequate. She constantly had anxieties that a child shouldn’t have. Even her mother’s beauty was a liability: ‘She’s alone in New York, beauty doesn’t help, it’s just another thing to take care of, another imperilled part of her.’ Later, her mother’s effect on men is brilliantly captured as ‘the panicked swimming of wounded fish to sharks’.

When one reads The Furies it’s easy to understand Janet’s more infuriating characteristics and even find them touching. The way she played her friends off against each other, telling one person what another had done for her (‘David brought me a bottle of champagne and kept his taxi waiting’), I now see as the neediness of a greedy child who didn’t have enough childhood and who was longing for her own father to love her. (Janet re-met her father at the age of 16 on a self-arranged trip to England.) Her bravado and her dislike of anything she considered second-rate – she once declared: ‘I can’t travel on the subway. There’s too much human tragedy there!’ – is easily forgiven when you read about her opening a cupboard and pretending to a little schoolfriend that it was a bedroom because she was ashamed that she and her mother lived in just one room. At the same time, she was a brilliant emotional blackmailer who made you feel she had suffered more than you had, so that you often felt guilty and obeyed her unreasonable demands.

In December 1989, a month before she discovered she had a recurrence of cancer, I arrived to stay in the rented house in Key West. I had offered to contribute towards the rent but she had magnanimously refused my offer. However, the night before I arrived three hundred dollars of hers had been stolen, plus a watch, the only gift that her last boyfriend, a young painter, had given her before he left her a few weeks earlier. My first morning Janet dragged me round all the Key West jewellers looking for the stolen watch, then into a shoe-shop, where I found myself buying her three pairs of shoes on my American Express card in lieu of the rent she had previously refused. Afterwards she asked: ‘Are you angry?’ ‘I’m not now but I may be later,’ I replied.

Janet caused the same waves and frictions after her death that she had caused in life. She did not leave any will or last wishes. There were arguments about her memorial services both in England and in New York. Some of her Jewish friends didn’t want her to have the service in an Episcopalian Church as her mother was Jewish. A woman rang from California begging me to try and persuade one of the organisers, whom she had once argued with at a dinner party of Janet’s, to keep the service for Friday as she had a knee injury and couldn’t change her upgraded ticket. The vicar at her burial in Connecticut – Janet was buried next to her mother – said he’d never known such confusion over a funeral.