Jenny Turner

  • In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding by Deborah Baker
    Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 241 12834 X

Laura Riding, so Deborah Baker tells us, first emerged into the public world of books in 1924. She was 23 years old and living in Louisville with her husband, a history professor whom she met when he was her teacher at Cornell. One of the things that had attracted Lou Gottschalk to Laura Reichenthal, as Riding had then been called, was that she knew her Marx better than the other undergraduate ladies did. Marx she had learned at the knee of her father, a New York socialist and a first-generation Jewish immigrant from Poland.

Like so many clever, ambitious women of her time, Riding had married young partly to escape her family and partly because it seemed like a good way of securing the proverbial five hundred a year and room of one’s own. But she was beginning to find that life as a campus wife only replaced one prison with another. Like the restless demon who gets caught inside a tree, her energy and ambition were desperately waiting for some more lively medium to become available to her.

When, in 1924, Riding heard that she had won the Nashville Poetry Prize, she felt like Charlie on his way to the Chocolate Factory. For the Nashville Poetry Prize represented an entrée into society, an entrée into Modernism, an entrée into Life. The prize was judged by the editorial board of the famous Fugitive magazine, one of the first places in the US to take The Waste Land seriously. The Fugitives themselves were a tight-knit and glamorous clique of young male poets, and included among their number the dashing Allen Tate, with whom Riding was already flirting through the mail. So when news of her great success came through, Riding jumped straight on a train to Nashville, there to meet with her friends-and-collaborators-to-be.

John Crowe Ransom, then a key member of the Fugitive group, tells the story of what happened next.

Undoubtedly we were rather absurd in the way we received Laura at Nashville – prim, formidable and stiff. What she came for was human companionship of the most bare-soul description; she had neither birth, subsistence, place, reputation nor friends, and was a very poor little woman indeed. She got only a rather formal welcome, though she is mistaken in assuming that we burned with suppressed libidinous desires ... We quite missed the point. She on her side did not realise that we had already established our personal relationships on satisfactory and rather final bases, and that we were open to literary relationships but not to personal. I realise there is a sort of meanness in such an admission.

Ransom added that Riding had had a peculiar accent: ‘Perhaps Polish Jew?’ Deborah Baker suggests that it may have been her self-consciousness about her accent that caused Riding, many years later, to talk about poetry as a place ‘where the fear of speaking in strange ways could be left behind’ and ‘as a way of speaking differently from the untidy speaking ways of ordinary talk’.

Within a few weeks of her Nashville meeting, Deborah Baker reports, Riding was in hospital, probably suffering from a breakdown. She emerged a month later, determined to make it as a poet, and equally determined to make the Fugitives love her. Allen Tate had already moved to New York. So Riding left her husband to follow him. She was too naive to understand, or she was too full of youthful confidence to care, that the writers she wanted to hang out with were financially supported by rich families, whereas she herself was not. Friends remember her working incredibly hard, yet getting nowhere much at all.

Towards the end of her sojourn in New York, Riding took revenge on the writers who had wronged her by publishing a satirical poem called ‘The Quids’:

The metaphysical acrobats,
The naked, immaterial quids,
Turned inside on themselves
And came out all dressed,
Each similar quid of the inward same
Each similar quid dressed in a different way –
The quids’ idea of a holiday.

‘The Quids’ was admired by Robert Graves, who wrote a letter to Riding, inviting her to visit him and his wife in London.

Riding would stay with Graves, first in London, then in Majorca, first in a ménage à trois, then as sole proprietor, for 14 years, from 1926 to 1940. London literary society did not take to her: Virginia Woolf called her ‘a shallow, egotistical, cock-crowing creature’ and ‘a damned had poet’. Riding retaliated with a string of knockabout, attention-seeking essays and reviews. Of To the Lighthouse, for example, she wrote that ‘all this delicacy of style ... is the expression of an academic but nevertheless vulgar indelicacy of thought, a sort of Royal Academy nudeness, a squeamish, fine-writing lifting of the curtains of privacy’.

To external eyes, the pattern of Riding’s life was set. She was a ruthless homewrecker; she would go on to disrupt another marriage in 1939, by dint of sending the first wife of her second husband, Schuyler Jackson, mad. She was a flagrant, bloodsucking egotist. Over the years Riding and Graves were together in Majorca, it was Graves who brought in the money, with Goodbye to All That and the Claudius books. Yet Riding always insisted that it should be her work which came first; she even forced a deal on Graves’s publishers whereby the publishers could only have Graves if they were prepared to take Riding’s very unpopular poems as well.

And Riding was manipulative to the point of megalomania, a crazy paranoid who continually confused her private fantasies of world domination with external, objective fact. The most notorious proof of her madness came in 1929, when Riding leaped out of a fourth-floor window in Hammersmith, breaking her back and very nearly killing herself, causing Robert Graves to follow her out of another window. The appalled, relentless tone of a recent review of Deborah Baker’s book, written by the novelist Elspeth Barker, expresses very well how the figure of Laura Riding is, in general, seen. ‘Power-crazed and despotic, Laura raged through the first half of her life on a self-promotional binge of destruction.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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