Posted by: zhiv | February 18, 2011

Graves and Brittain: Autobiography follow-ups

I like to remember how one of the best things, for me, about reading books is the way it creates the ability to read about them. It’s easy to lose sight of this when the books themselves are good and absorbing, and the primary reading is the main chance and should be savored. But I’m a big fan of biography and literary history, and the stories behind and around books are often just as interesting to me. It’s funny that I can lose sight of this when the reading is going well. New books create their own new pastures, locations for more idle grazing.

Autobiography, as it turns out, can be especially interesting in this regard. I think of myself as more of a biography than an autobiography guy, by the way. Not sure exactly why, and I have nothing against autobiography, but I suppose, thinking about it, that I put a higher value on the craft of writing a great book about some one else’s life. But perhaps that’s just because I put The Life of Johnson on a special pedestal, and work my way outwards from there. And “working outwards” means valuing the lesser genre of the neglected canon of literary biography, and having a related appreciation for contemporary literary biography. With all that as something of a focus and general plan, and a pretty solid approach to literary history I suppose, I never thought too much about autobiography and what it means and what works and what doesn’t I haven’t even thought about what autobiographies I’ve read, and which ones might be worth reading. Gotta get on that right away.

But I stumbled into reading WWI autobiographies, along with other WWI Lit that had never been on my radar before, and it has been really fun, while raising some interesting questions at the same time. I’m pretty much done with a strong first phase, and ready to move into the next. The next book on my list is Siegfried Sassoon’s “Memoirs of George Sherston,” though I can’t promise I’ll make it past his first volume, “The Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man,” which appears to be a full-fledged WWI Lit classic. Don’t have a copy of it yet, so I’ve been floundering around. The other WWI autobiography of note (on my list), more obscure, is that of Helen Thomas, the wife of the poet Edward Thomas.

And that’s where things get a bit closer, at least as far as my own little litblog world goes. I should mention, going in, that my original blog guru (OBG), Dorothy, gave me inspiration here, as she just wrote about the autobiography topic with regard to Janet Maslin’s review of Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband and marriage. But my roundabout note here involves the inestimable Amateur Reader, who happened to write about Richard Jeffries this week. Jeffries is a Late Victorian I’ve Never Heard Of, which can always be fun. But I had seen his name earlier in the week. And it turns out that Edward Thomas was deeply influenced by Jeffries and wrote a book about him. More importantly, Helen Thomas was using Richard Jeffries’ autobiography, “The Story of My Heart,” as a model for her own work. Add it to the list.

Probably a good time to get around to the point. I was typing up my Robert Graves post, after reading the book at Christmastime and writing about it in mid-to-late January. Graves seems to be telling us everything in his book, and nothing at the same time. The story of his postwar wedding and marriage doesn’t quite add up. He seems to write frankly about chaste and romantic homosexuality at Charterhouse, his celibacy during the war, and his postwar wedding and marriage to a feminist free-thinker, Nancy Nicholson. But even as he does so he leaves a lot of work for a biographer, plenty of background and details to be filled in. The big thing, though, is a hint at the end about his marriage breaking up and him being accused of attempted murder. He doesn’t really talk about any of that, and just uses it to show that he’s done with England, leaving everything and every one behind.

I saw a couple of Robert Graves biographies at the bookstore a couple of weeks ago, before I started thinking about this. One of them was about the years covered in Goodbye to All That. I wasn’t in the mood to spend money and, like I said, I wasn’t thinking about this, but now I need to rush back this weekend and grab them. (Somehow I think they’ll still be there.) When I was doing my typing wikipedia filled in the gap, but it just made me want to know more. It gives you the basic story of Graves and Laura Riding, but there aren’t a lot of details.

Laura Riding is yet another writer who is making me want to do some poetry reading these days. I’ve managed to resist diving into the WWI poets for the most part, just doing some random sampling. Owen, Sassoon and now Edward Thomas are looming rather large, and there’s Graves too. Riding is an American modernist poet. Apparently she and Graves met when his marriage was going stale, or their affair caused it to do so. Like I said, his wife was a freethinker, and it was the 20s after all. The truth is I don’t know anything about it. She went to Egypt with Graves and his family, where he had a teaching job. When they came back to England she tried to kill herself, which must be where the attempted murder charge comes in: “the whole affair caused a famous literary scandal.” One I didn’t know about, and one that Graves leaves out of his autobiography. When Graves went to Mallorca he wasn’t saying goodbye to Laura Riding–he was running away with her.

Goodbye to All That was calculated to be a bestseller (along with his book on T.E. Lawrence), and it gave Graves some financial independence. The scandal may have pushed it over the top. He and Riding set up a letterpress in Mallorca, not unlike Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and they published poetry, along with an important critical survey of modernist poetry. In doing so–wikipedia tells me–Graves laid the seeds for William Empson and the New Criticism. So it could be cool to get the story on all of this. The truly intriguing part is that here have been two or three books, including a novel, about Graves and Riding and their stormy relationship.

And there’s something going on with Vera Brittain and her autobiography too. I remember notes from the introduction, which I should look at again, about a conflict with her husband about his portrayal at the end of the book, the long resolution I wrote about in the post I typed up right after getting to Graves. And I got a very quick (too rare–c’mon people, don’t make Dorothy do it all by herself; but I know, it’s my fault, another part of bad blogging) comment from a reader, telling me to read the Vera Brittain biography by Mark Bostridge, in order “to find out what REALLY happened.” Sounds intriguing.



  1. Dad- poetry is an option, not an obligation to “resist”

    PS-a little credit would be appreciated here.

  2. I had no idea about – well, many things here – but about that Graves history, the connection with Empson and so on. What a strange path.

    I’ll warn you that Richard Jefferies has a strangely spelled last name, one I still get wrong sometimes.

  3. I love your first paragraph. I hadn’t thought before about the way reading about books requires having done a whole lot of primary reading first (seems obvious now, but I still needed it pointed out to me!). Graves doesn’t talk about the accusation of attempted murder! I’m beginning to think lots and lots of autobiographies have interesting stories behind them that we need the biographies to fill in completely.

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