A little more bad blogging: it’s annoying when having a job and being a slacker gets in the way of the flow of reading and response. I read Helen Thomas’ brief autobiography on President’s Day, last Monday, very much enjoying it. I managed to do a little more writing during the week, but now it’s Saturday morning and at least a few remarks on this book are overdue, even while it’s fading fast.
Which is too bad, because the book has a lot of life in it. It’s a remembered life, a work of mourning and memory. Thomas apparently wrote it as a way of dealing with her despair and grief when she learned that her husband, the poet Edward, had died in the war. The war is many miles and years away in this book, however, as Thomas tells the story of her romance and marriage to Edward, going through the tale from Edward’s arrival at her home as her father’s student, up to a direct and frank description of the birth of her first child.
As I’ve been reading around in WWI Lit and its environs, a few notes jump out as prefaces. There’s something similar in H.T.’s memoir (that’s the authorial signature on the cover and title page, H.T., and Edward is called “David” in the 1926 text) to the shell-shock amnesia in Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier. Helen Thomas goes back and remembers her own days of youthful romance with “David” a full 15-20 years before the war, creating a book and story in which the war is unimaginable and doesn’t exist. It’s an act of will that Thomas makes, as she’s dealing with her grief. So once again, Rebecca West’s little novel shows its resonance as a superb starter text for WWI Lit and As It Was is a fascinating comparison and complementary work, one which has the added gravity of both fact and loss.
The second note is about Richard Jefferies and his influence on both Edward and Helen Thomas. I’m just starting to get a bead on Jefferies and his life and work. I looked at his book The Story of My Heart: An Autobiography, and got far enough to see that it isn’t a traditional autobiography in any way. Jefferies, aside from his novels and within them, is a nature writer, and in my own frame of reference I would put him alongside Thoreau and John Muir. It makes me realize that I’m not very familiar with the British tradition and canon of nature books and essays. I know my Leslie Stephen and mountaineering literature and history, and Stephen wrote about walking, but it’s a tiny amount relative to the actual walking that he did all over England through his life. My guess is that John Ruskin is involved in British nature writing, not to forget Wordsworth and all sorts of poets. At any rate, Jefferies’ “autobiography” is about a spiritual vision and philosophical journey and the birthing of his soul. The edition I have is from 1968, and it’s a perfect 60’s meditation. I need to be in the right, easygoing mood to read through it. It’s short enough, 145 pp., and interesting in its own way, but reading 25 pp. was sufficient to get the vibe and basic approach.
The question is how Helen Thomas might be using Jefferies’ text and tone for her own enterprise. Jefferies makes an earnest effort to commune with his own soul. It seems his overarching critique of the genre of autobiography is that it attends to meaningless facts and events and details, which have no impact when one doesn’t know one’s own heart. In As It Was, Helen Thomas has lost her heart, lost her beloved, and she attempts to remember and record the essence of her experience with Edward. It’s more readable and better, in its way, for me at least, than Jefferies’ book, because her effort at memory contains a series of anchoring events, and she never gets far off the track. But there is a lot of love, devotion, and poignancy in the book, and a certain twinning of souls that Jefferies would presumably admire.
It works on another intriguing level, as well, in its frank and bohemian honesty about sexuality and relationships. If Jefferies, like Thoreau and Muir, was an inspiration for environmentalism and alternative lifestyles, we see in Edward and Helen Thomas and this book something like free love and how it worked in the 1890’s. The story could just as easily be told by a girl from a simple, literary family growing up in Berkeley or San Francisco in 1960, finding a mate and going on a journey of self-discovery together. It reminds us of how many smaller movements of alternative lifestyles there have been over the centuries, individuals spurning convention, while the primary historical narrative remains one of conservative sameness, over and over. The Edwardian world, leading up to the war, had its strong-running currents of radicalism and subversion of Victorian morality, if you can find the right perspective. Edward and Helen Thomas were innocent free-thinkers, liberated but naive, and part of the interest is to locate where they stand on the general timeline.
I’ve mentioned the way that Olive Schreiner loomed so large for Vera Brittain, who read Women and Labour in 1911, and then Roland Leighton gave her The Story of an African Farm in May 1914, and it became a bible and central text in their romance. Richard Jefferies was a similar figure for Edward Thomas. The chronology is a little complicated, and I need to work it out, but essentially Edward and Helen Thomas are the previous generation, teenagers falling in love towards the end of Victoria’s reign in the 90’s, while Brittain, like Robert Graves, was 18 in 1914. The difference here is the timing of Jefferies’ work versus Schreiner, but we get an interesting view of both of them as influential writers.
The primary issue with Helen Thomas and this memoir is women writing about war, or not writing about it as the case may be. War and premature, random death (Edward Thomas was killed, after the battle of Arras was completed, by the blast of a shell while he was lighting his pipe) prompt the creation of this text, a time capsule of young love. It’s a good model for Brittain’s more ambitious and exhaustive, novelistic and romantic story of the “lost” generation. Brittain endeavors to create a major work of literature and memory, covering a number of different epochs, movements, perspectives and themes, but at its core Testament of Youth is a story with romantic intensity not unlike what Helen Thomas creates here, a simple tale of young hearts.
It should be noted that WWI autobiography is an odd path from which to approach this book, which, of course, isn’t really WWI autobiography. Most readers–and it has never had many–would be coming from an interest in the poetry of Edward Thomas. He became an important poet in a short time, and the interruption of his career gave him a peculiar place straddling changes in poetic styles. I’ll refrain from talking more about what I don’t really know, leaving the poetry side to others. But students of his poetry will discover Jefferies as an important influence, and at the same time might find this memoir by his wife.