In Extremis – Reviews

Financial Times
Lurid life of a literary witch
Anthony Curtis / November 6 1993

For 16 years between the wars Robert Graves and Laura Riding were a literary double-act. If you wanted one — and it tended to be Robert — you had perforce to take on the other. They were never married but lived together in exile in Deya, Mallorca, until the Spanish Civil War broke out They held court there, dominating a group of friends and followers, laying down the law on poetical matters. Their circle included the poet Norman Cameron; T.S. Matthews, later editor of Time magazine and his wife Julie; Alan Hodge, a poet in his youth, later an assistant to Brendan Bracken and editor of History Today, and another poet, one whose art matured, James Reeves.

It was Laura who called the tune. Unlike Frieda Lawrence she competed strongly with her man in the area of work, manipulating his judgment as well as that of other colleagues. When Michael Roberts compiled his anthology The Faber Book of Modern Verse (in which as much space is devoted to Laura as to Auden), hers was a hidden hand shaping the introduction. When W.B. Yeats compiled the Oxford Book of Modern Verse she tried to twist his arm to include young Reeves as part of a package of Robert’s poetry and her own, Yeats politely resisted this demand and refused her invitation to stay at Deya. He at least remained unscathed by Laura.

But those in the immediate circle who put up any sustained resistance discovered that retribution followed. Her most notorious gesture was in 1929 when Graves, his then wife, Nancy (Nicholson), an Irish writer Geoffrey Phibbs and Laura, were all living in a flat in Chiswick in which free love on Shelleyan lines was the order of the day. Laura was piqued at the resistance of Phibbs and — to cut a very tangled story short — she jumped out” of an upper window, followed by Robert out of a lower one. Phibbs ran from the house screaming. Nancy (who was soon to quit Robert and leave the field clear for Laura) eventually composed herself and telephoned for an ambulance.

The episode, tailor-made for Alan Ayckbourn, has been described several times. Until two years ago, when Laura died aged 90, any reference to it in print would trigger a violent reaction from her, in the form of long incomprehensible screeds threatening legal action. Martin Seymour-Smith, who wrote a biography of Robert Graves in 1982, was deluged with Lauragrams over many months. He came to the sensible conclusion that the events leading up to the jump were “not really explicable”.

Deborah Baker in what is the first biography of Laura (another by Elizabeth Friedmann, the “authorised” version, is in preparation) has no satisfactory explanation to offer either. but she does give a full account of all the participants, even those on the sidelines like Norah. Phibbs’s wife, who was having a fling with David “Bunny” Garnett. Whereas Seymour-Smith described Laura as “a witch”, Baker extends every inch of biographer’s empathy she can to present her as a woman worthy of our admiration.

It is an uphill struggle, made more so by the opacity of much of Laura’s poetry. Some of the hitherto unpublished early work, recently discovered, may change the picture, but the mature work totally lacks the sweetness and charm of Robert’s. It is grimly intellectual. Nor is her prose less dense, smacking of Gertrude Stein without the wit. But Laura was an influential critic. Her (and Graves’s) analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnet 129, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame … ” in A Survey of Modernist Poetry was a significant moment in literary criticism and is reputed to have set the young Empson off on his quest in search of poetic ambiguity.

Clearly Laura possessed remarkable powers of analysis. They were combined with an iron will that she used to deconstruct and reconstruct her own personality several times. She was born Laura Reichenthal in 1901 to immigrant Polish New York Jews. Nathan, her father, was a Marxist who worked,for The Call, a Jewish English-language newspaper.

Laura worked hard to get to Cornell University in her teens, where she met her first husband, the, history professor Louis Gottschalk. It was as Mrs Gottschalk, the young faculty wife, recently arrived in Louisville, Tennessee, that she scored her first literary success, a poem in the avant-garde magazine, The Fugitive. That brought her into contact with the likes of Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, the self-styled Fugitive poets. Love affairs with them saw the break up of her marriage. Laura now styled herself Laura Riding.

Laura remained Laura Riding until 1939 when a second traumatic episode occurred leading to the collapse of her relationship with Graves. They were living in a farm belonging to Kit and Schuyler Brinckerhoff Jackson in New Hope, Pennsylvania with their hosts’ children and the Matthews. The model for this episode is not so much Ayckbourn as Daphne du Maurier at her most spine-chilling. Laura proceeded to take complete control of the household forcing Kit into a nervous breakdown, and insisting after Kit had Left for hospital treatment that her presence be ritually exorcised. No master of terror aiming at a tale of purest feminine evil could do better than Baker’s cold recital of the facts.

Graves fades out of Laura’s life at this point to be replaced by Schuyler Jackson whom she married. Laura now becomes Laura (Riding) Jackson. She renounces poetry and much time is spent on a Dictionary of Exact Meanings to be compiled ‘ in collaboration with her husband, a mediocrity and dilettante. It was never to be finished though they lived off the publishers’ advances for several years. Later still after Jackson’s death, Laura entered her final phase as a litigiously-minded literary widow living in retirement at Wabasso on the east cost of Florida, fending off all potential biographers and researchers, a Miss Havisham of modernism. The process of her rehabilitation as a neglected modernist as well as a precursor of modem feminism has got off to an earnest illuminating start with this book.