Bryher is a pen name. It’s taken from one of the Scilly Isles, where the novelist Annie Ellerman once went on holiday and loved it. She was a shipping heiress, and lived in Switzerland with her husband Kenneth Macpherson and her lover Hilda Doolittle (the writer H D). She was a novelist and a patron of artists in Paris in the 1920s, and died in 1983. What a woman!
Gate to the Sea (1959) is the first novel of hers that I’ve read, and I really liked it, though wished that it could have been a little less flat. It’s not two-dimensional, because the characters are thoroughly alive, but there is an absence of emotion, something unsaid and unexpressed that felt as a lack. It’s probably because the characters are all Greeks enslaved by a rival island race, and have been living under subjugation for many years, unable to speak their own language, and only able to practice their religious rites once a year.
Harmonia is the priestess, the only one in the Temple who survived the Sack of Poiseidonia, which we know as Paestum. She is watched narrowly by the new priest, and spied on by her temple woman, but she is the only one left who can perform the rites of Great Hera, and nobody wants to offend the Goddess.
Harmonia’s brother Archias is intermittently mad, because he once strayed into a sacred cave in a storm and the gods have punished him ever since for his trangression. But in between the bouts of insanity he is fierce and brave, and he escaped the Sack by saving all the last defenders in the last ship to leave. Now he has come back, because the Poiseidonian diaspora need something he left hidden to be able to set up a homeland once more. And he’s come back for his sister as well.
This is a late 1950s historical novel, written after the amazingly strong period dominated by Mary Renault, Naomi Mitchison and Geoffrey Trease. Bryher follows their lead in avoiding dateable dialogue, and ‘tushery’ that distracts from the timelessness of the stories. Gate to the Sea is very good, though not as good as Renault at her peak, and added a new name to my list of authors I want to read all of, to see what else Bryher wrote and how she did it.