26 July 2006


Paris Press has been bringing out books by Bryher, a writer who was in danger of disappearing beneath the shadow of her partner, the poet H.D., but Bryher's own work deserves and rewards attention.

I've just turned in a review of The Player's Boy and The Heart to Artemis: A Writer's Memoirs to Rain Taxi for their next issue, but there were a few things I didn't have space to say, and wanted to add here.

The Player's Boy is a historical novel about a theatrical apprentice in England from 1605-1626, and while it's worth reading (and more substantial, I thought, than the first Paris Press reprint of Bryher's work, Visa For Avalon), it's minor in comparison to The Heart to Artemis, which is one of the most compelling memoirs I've read. The notable thing about Heart to Artemis is that it is most interesting in the sections that seem least likely to be interesting -- while the portraits of various notable Modernists are well written, Bryher's insistence on avoiding anything that could be perceived as gossip renders them a bit lifeless and fragmentary, but the first half of the book, which is devoted to her childhood, is extraordinary. Again and again she compares life in the late-Victorian and early-Edwardian eras to life later. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, and she spent most of her childhood traveling throughout Europe, so the experiences she relates are fascinating, and she writes about them in a clear, sharp, matter-of-fact language.

Bryher's style of writing is often aphoristic, but not in an affected way (although her punctuation is often not what we'd consider standard), and I found myself making notes throughout The Heart to Artemis so that I could find passages quickly later. There was far too much for me to quote in my Rain Taxi review, and so here are some passages I hated to leave out:
I am inclined to think now that much of the best writing of late Victorian times went into children's literature. It is a myth to suppose that the nineteenth-century child felt particularly secure, the stories were mostly in the Zola tradition and stressed suffering, poverty and the evils of drink. I had one extraordinary volume largely taken up with an account of a small boy's struggles not to compete with his drunken father in emptying tankards of porter. A Bible teacher saved him, of course. There were also grim accounts of disaster through a father's death leaving the family without funds when dogs and posessessions had to be sold and the children scattered to "poor relations" among harsh and unforgiving aunts. Such a fate was usually ascribed to the indulgence of the parents. They had given the family a pony or a trip to the seaside instead of saving every penny against a possible "rainy day." ... Virtue might be rewarded on the final page but it was a point of honour to endure countless tribulations first. Fortunately, it was the righteous who died. The sinners were left to go on battling against temptation. Death was presented factually and boldly, my mother protested mildly when Ruth gave me Little Dot, or the Grave-digger's Daughter one Christmas but I read it all the same. ... Whenever I hear now of conferences to determine the vocabulary used in books for children and of the care taken not to upset their delicate imaginations, I can understand why they prefer their horror comics to literature. Our age treated us properly. The world was a harsh place and the sooner we learned the difference between good and evil the better. Ludicrous as some of the stories were, they spoke of realities and this was healthy. (14-15)

Each period has its own characteristics and what I feared and hated in the nineteenth century were its irrational conventions. Alas, as I have written elsewhere, to be sensitive to an environment as an artist has to be, is also a disadvantage. The future generation, busy with its own conflicts, will live on our victories and be contemptuous of our defeats. (31)

The classics are for childhood and old age, middle life belongs to contemporary experience. (44)

Nobody ever gets over their first camel. (67)

To write of things was to become part of them. It was to see before the beginning and after the end. I almost screamed against the pain of the moment that from its very intensity could not last. (128)

Our opponents forget that alliterative poetry was the basis of English literature and that the ability to hear and use the slight pause or silence between parts of a line or the portions of a sentence is one of the writer's important tasks. (182)

I have a profound contempt for the writer who speaks of making his work intelligible to the masses, he is not serving them but betraying their trust. Our job is to feel the movement of time as its direction is about to change and there can be no reward but the vision itself. It is natural that we should be both disliked and ignored. (182-183)

Neon lighting has standardized the sky. It is the red of metals whether we are in Knightsbridge or Fifth Avenue. (187)

Perhaps great art is always the flower of some deeply felt rebellion. (199)

I grabbed a book of American poetry, if I were going to be killed it should be while I was reading about the New World. (201)

We reacted against the sadistic denials of the age by a heightened consciousness of nature and of art -- places where our enemies could not reach us. (210)

I do not know if it was due to my Eastern experiences or because I had been spared any furtive allusions in childhood but sex to me then was entirely a matter for science and I grasped immediately that birth control was far more important to women than votes. Nobody had the right to force a woman to have a child, I argued, it must be her choice as a matter of moral principle. (228)

The mistake that we made was that though we owed our survival to rebellion, we did not realise that it was not the concepts themselves but the way that mankind had used them that was false. Our incessant mockery of loyalty, duty and honour deprived the next generation of its proper roots and they did not have our apprenticeship of danger to steady them. Yet remember that nothing was left to us of the codes to which our youth had been sacrificed and that we gave our century a sense of honesty (England went into the second war without illusions) and an inquisitiveness of mind. We swept away some good together with much evil but always with such exuberance tht compared with us the thirties seem a dull and spiritless age. (242-243)

I read some of the magazines of the period over again recently and it is Gertrude [Stein's] work that now seems the most alive. (250)

Perhaps a small hunk of a particular material is given to every artist and the measure of his success or failure is how he uses it. (253)

Suddenly I realised to my horror that it was a vicarage garden party in reverse. These rebels were no more free from the conventions that they had fastened upon themselves than a group of old ladies gossiping over their knitting. (264)

I warned the English privately and also in print [about the Nazis]. They called me a warmonger and jeered at me for my pains. It did not help me when I stood among the ruins of blitzed London to know that my forebodings had come true. I remain ashamed of the majority of my fellow citizens and convinced that apathy is the greatest sin in life. ... Most of us, wherever we live, must share the guilt of having done nothing at all. (326)


  1. Matthew, this is really good stuff. And how wonderful to learn of somebody I'd never heard of.

  2. Nobody ever gets over their first camel.

    That is a marvelous line.

  3. As a kid, I saw SF and historical novels as being much the same - stories of strange and exotic worlds. Bryher's novels were quiet and matter of fact. Less exciting but more believable. In a Player's Boy the playwright is Fletcher and the play is Philaster, In Colin Macinnes' (a writer I keep expecting to see revived)boy player nove 'Three Years To Play' by comparison it's Shakespeare and the boy not only acts in but inspires the writing of As You Like It.

    Rick Bowes.

  4. I'm curious about the source of the assumption in your first sentence. It may be the case that Bryher was a household name for decades in the UK (perhaps you can tell me whether that is so; I do know that some of her novels were published in the 1960s), but many of us in the US came to hear of Bryher & her work largely because of the critical re-emergence of H.D. in the early 1980s. A spate of feminist scholarship about H.D. & other modernist women writers & poets as well as New Directions' publication of _HERmione_ in 1981 helped bring Bryher onto the radar of US feminist scholars & readers.

    At any rate, I'd be interested to hear a story about Bryher's visibility during the years in which H.D. & other modernist women writers fell out of critical favor.

    1. As a scholar currently working on a thesis on Bryher's life and written works, I am in total agreement with Matthew Cheney's observation. It has now been 6 years since the above review was written and in this time how many biographies / books dedicated to Bryher have been published? None. Susan McCabe is currently working on a biography and a few other biographies / collections of letters are apparently in the pipelines, nonetheless, Bryher still very much remains in the "shadow" of her partner, H.D.

      To be fair, she did chose, to a certain extent, to remain in the background. However, her work as a "servitor" of the arts (Bryher, The Days of Mars), meant that so many Modernist women and male writers were able to publish their works. Among the list, H.D. (ofcourse, there's plenty to read on that topi: Annette Debo, "The American H.D.," search for Lawrence Rainey, Susan Stanford Friedman's works on H.D. etc), Marianne Moore, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Dorothy Richardson. Through her financial support of first husband Robert McAlmon, Bryher effectively published James Joyce's "Ulysses," and the list can go on forever.

      She was also involved with the film "Borderline" as well as the publication of the Pool Group, a critical journal dedicated to cinema. She owned "Life and Letters Today," a very successful literary journal, during WWII.

      The problem with Bryher is that all of her letters, financial documents, etc etc remain at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, thus without the "digging" involved in finding out about her life - she still remains overlooked. She is a fascinating literary and historical figure who continues to demand my attention, at any rate.

  5. It's an assumption based on a bunch of things, though certainly it's a relative statement and depends on one's perspective (and probably age -- for instance, most of Bryher's work has been out of print during my lifetime, while H.D.'s work and life have been present in my mind at least since college). I vaguely remembered Bryher's name from reading (without depth) about H.D., but hadn't read a word of her writing before picking up Visa for Avalon in March, and hadn't really remembered that she, too, was a writer. Then, out of curiosity, I asked various well-read friends about her, and the general response was something to the effect of, "Oh, Bryher, you mean H.D.'s partner?" Also, some of the ancillary material in the Paris Press editions conveyed this impression to me, though that may be because I was ready to receive such an impression rather than that it was an intended one. I

    Apparently, there are some biographies of Bryher in the works, which should prove fascinating.

  6. does anyone have any opinion about bryher's "fourteenth of october"?