Bryher (the writer, not the island)

Annie Winifred Ellerman (1894-1983) was a novelist, a literary patron, an heiress, and the devoted lover of the modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H D). She took the name Bryher to disassociate herself from femininity, one asumes, borrowing the name from one of her favourite Scilly Isles. She married her close friend Kenneth Macpherson, who was also H D’s lover, and later they adopted H D’s daughter Perdita. Previously Bryher had married a young American to enable him to come to Europe, and to encourage her family to back off and stop nagging her to come home or get married. (This marriage was annulled in 1927.) There is an excellent diagram attempting to map their respective relationships in avant garde Europe here.

Bryher avoided being seduced by Ezra Pound by simply being unresponsive and staring him down when he moved in for a kiss. She didn’t like parties and decided – once she was living in Paris in the 1920s – that she would simply prefer not to drink. The fact that, some forty years later, she carefully recorded her friends chanting ‘Bryher is boring … boring … boring’ as they subsided onto the floor in drunken stupors, suggests that she didn’t much like being the boring one, but that it was one of the few badges of contrarian honour she could claim, in a contested field. She did heroic work at the beginning of the Second World War in helping over 100 refugees escape Nazi persecution into Switzerland. On moving to London she and H D supervised (and Bryher funded) the literary magazine Life and Letters. She began writing historical novels in the 1950s, though she had previously published more modernist work in the 1920s.

I knew about her life from reading her memoirs The Heart to Artemis (1963), and Days of Mars (1972). I know about her as a writer from reading three or four of her later novels. None were romps. All were a little bit of a plod, and most were told from the perspective of a male protagonist. They weren’t really what I expected from a modernist lesbian, but I should have: in The Heart to Artemis Byher consistently refers to herself as a boy, albeit wearing the hated dresses and pinafores that a Victorian girl was forced into.

Her historical novels The Coin of Carthage (1963) and Ruan (1960) are good, well-written, packed with proper historical detail, but they are somehow effortful, and they shouldn’t be. The former is about two traders working between the Roman and Carthaginian Empires, over thirty or more years, but their stories are disjointed and truncated, merely symbolic vehicles for the progress of the political distrust between the empires. She’s very good at creating a world by using plants and what they will do to you, and focusing on the discomfort of heat and cold if you don’t have the right footwear. This novel’s plot is straightforward, but told in hops. We jump a few years at a time, which means expositional catchup, and then I wondered what the point of the characters AS characters was, if we don’t see how they change, catching them only at single moments. What happens to them as individuals is, I think, supposed to mirror contemporary politics.

In Ruan a sixth-century Cornish boy rebels against being trained to become the next family druid, and goes to sea, but this plot is like a series of tangents, constantly wandering off from what you think will happen. Ruan, the lead protagonist, is annoying for his faffing about and naivety, and his cousin Lydd, the nearest thing to a villain, is the most effective and vital person in the book, expertly ensuring that Ruan will be continually forced off track and made to do something else, thus improving his life chances. But because Lydd is amoral, selfish and cunning, he can’t be given any praise for continually moving the plot along. What has gone wrong? The one woman in the plot is nameless, and exists only as a tempting sexual partner: this I did not expect from a feminist author, but lesbian does not always, it would seem, equate to feminist.

An earlier novel, The Gate to the Sea (1958), does focus on a female character, a priestess living among dispossessed refugees in an Athenian police state. The mood and tone of this novel won me over, as Bryher is very good at writing despair amid tranquillity, and the setting and story are so curious, for a non-Classicist, that they grip where the narration plods.

Bryher’s London wartime memoir The Days of Mars is very good indeed, probably the best of her works that I’ve found, but (my inner lit crit is squawking petulantly here) it’s still not perfect. Her compulsion for pomposity manages to take over, probably because she was writing at a distance, in the early 1970s, when she was very sure of her career and her status. Her post-war novel of London under bombardment, Beowulf (1948), is, again, almost very good, but not quite. Her voice does the damage for me. If she would just forget herself, and write the story, I would be satisfied. (Picky, picky; I know.)

The early sections of her memoir The Heart to Artemis by contrast, simply zip along, and are enthralling. Bryher was an only child until she was fifteen, and her parents were rich, intelligent and cultured. Her father, Sir John Ellerman, was a self-made man, an accountant and a phenomenally successful businessman, at his death apparently the richest man in England and a baronet. In Bryher’s childhood the family lived abroad a lot, and I didn’t consider why this might have been necessary, until Wikipedia told me that her father didn’t marry her mother until 1908, when Bryher would have been fourteen, and had been abruptly sent to boarding-school, which she hated. (Due to her mother’s pregnancy with Bryher’s brother?) But before boarding school, there were an erratic series of governesses, and years of fabulously interesting travel in Egypt and North Africa, where Bryher learned Arabic and had the kind of adventures that her devoted reading of G A Henty’s Victorian adventure fiction had prepared her for.

In this kind of writing Bryher is unself-conscious and so good. But once she starts to write about herself in a self-constructing way, she becomes pompous. Her unaffected childhood recollections are a terrific adventure, and bear rereading once one knows about her parents’ decidedly unconventional arrangements, to peer into the gaps and listen more closely to Bryher’s reticences. She is very good at being reticent. So much is not said, unaddressed, avoided, skirted around, and calmly ignored in this memoir, but these are the parts that are so much more interesting to us now, than her internal ruminations on Self and Art.

 

4 thoughts on “Bryher (the writer, not the island)

  1. I have been inspired by your post to buy a second-hand copy of The Heart to Artemis. In the 1960s I worked for a merchant shipping company and used to use Ellerman Line boats when they were part of ACT. Bryher’s father was reputed to be the richest man in England.

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  2. When I saw your link I had just finished the chapter on Bryher in Diana Souhami’s new book ‘No Modernism without Lesbians’. Over the years I have found out quite a lot about Bryher and her connections (hence the diagram) but to date I haven’t read anything by her, so thanks for this fascinating introduction to her work.

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  3. I have now finished “The Heart to Artemis” and agree absolutely with your judgement. I would go even further and suggest that her memories up to eleven were played continuously in a loop in her head for the whole of her life. This phenomenon is often associated with an extended retention of an eidetic memory, which, if prolonged beyond babyhood usually disappears around 11 or 12.

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