“I am my own muse, the subject I know best.” (Frida Kahlo)

Last week I wrote about Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s love letter to Vita Sackville-West. Although she was Virginia’s muse, Vita was not a voiceless entity to be moulded by the artist, but an accomplished author in her own right. This week, I thought I’d look at the work of some famous muses: Vita, and also Zelda Fitzgerald.

Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931) begins with the death of Henry, Lord Slane, former Prime Minister and Viceroy to India. Deborah, Lady Slane, who has been married for 70 years since the age of 17, seems to be bearing up remarkably well.

“Mother was a changeling, they had often said politely, in the bitter-sweet accents reserved for a family joke; but now in this emergency they found a new phrase: Mother is wonderful. It was the thing they were expected to say, so they said it, several times over, like a refrain coming periodically into their conversation and sweeping it upwards on to a higher level. Then it dropped again; became practical. Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life.”

Although she loved her husband, Lady Slane is released by his death. She did not want to be a political wife or a society hostess, or any of the other roles she had to adopt to support her husband. She had wanted to be a painter, but instead followed the Victorian ideal and got married. Her husband was happy for her to paint watercolours as a becoming hobby, but the idea of a professional artist wife was ridiculous:

“He was not to blame. He had only taken for granted the things he was entitled to take for granted, thereby ranging himself with the women and entering into the general conspiracy to defraud her of her chosen life.”

Aged 88, Lady Slane decides that the time has come to go her own way at last:

“I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it is time I had a little holiday from them. If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”

This means she will not live alternately with each of her offspring who are all fairly dreadful in their own way. Instead she will move to a small house in Hampstead with her French maid who has been with her for the whole of her marriage, and they will live quite simply. (Much to my relief, having read the horrors of the moving-between-adult-children option brilliantly portrayed in Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven)

She ends up creating a little enclave of elderly men around her. Mr Bucktrout is her eccentric, paternalistic landlord; Mr Gosheron her decorator; and Mr FitzGeorge a man who has loved her from afar for years. They are all rather strange individuals, and all in sympathy with one another.

“But at Hampstead, thanks to Mr Bucktrout and Mr Gosheron, the proper atmosphere had been at last achieved. It was modest; there were no aides-de-camp, no princes, but though modest it was warm, and affectionate, and respectful, and vigilant, and just as it should be.”

Sackville-West has plenty to say in this novel, most obviously about the limited choices available to women, especially in regard to their professional lives:

“She supposed she that was not in love with Henry, but, even if she had been in love with him, she could see therein no reason for foregoing the whole of her own separate existence. Henry was in love with her but no-one proposed he should forego his.”

In this way, it has been seen as a fictional companion to A Room of One’s Own. However, it is also an appeal for allowing for different kinds of life and for respecting inner life as much as outward achievement. Lady Slane is ostensibly doing nothing, and wonders if the contemplative life is in fact running away from things. She decides it isn’t:

“for in contemplation (and also in pursuit of the one chosen avocation which she had to renounce) she could pierce to a happier life more truly than her children who reckoned things by their results and activities”

All Passion Spent is a wonderful novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s beautifully written and has something to say, but it is never didactic. It is warm, witty, has fully-realised idiosyncratic characters and of course, Sackville-West’s sharp wit. A great read.

“For the first time in her life – no, for the first time since her marriage – she had nothing else to do. She could lie back against death and examine life. Meanwhile, the air was full of the sound of bees.”

Secondly, Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz, written in a clinic in 6 weeks following a breakdown. It’s practically impossible to read this without thinking of Zelda’s life. She and her husband F Scott Fitzgerald were seen as emblematic of generation perdu and her husband labelled her ‘the First American Flapper’. Save Me the Waltz is barely disguised autobiography as Alabama Begg marries an artist, David Knight, and the celebrated couple move around Europe after the First World War. Sound at all familiar?

The novel was dismissed by critics on its release but has been reclaimed by some scholars in recent years who argue the novel is well-written and Zelda has been overshadowed by the acclaim granted her husband. I think I fall somewhere between these two camps. I thought Save Me the Waltz was desperately overwritten:

“the swing creaks of Austin’s porch, a luminous beetle swings ferociously over the clematis, insects swarm to the golden holocaust of all hall light. Shadows brush the Southern night like heavy, impregnated mops soaking its oblivion back into the black heat whence it evolved. Melancholic moon-vines trail dark, absorbent pads over the string trellises.”

There are loads of passages like this. Fitzgerald loves a simile and she layers image upon image without them really adding anything to one another. A few pages on is this:

“The lids of her mother’s blue eyes rose in weary circumflex as her sweet hands moved in charity through the necessities of her circumstance.”

At this point I was at page 29 and wondering if I should give up. As I say, it’s difficult to read this separate from Zelda’s legend but I’m pretty sure that even if I didn’t know about her, this writing would still strike me as coming from someone with something to prove, desperate to be a Good Writer.

But I’m glad I persevered. Fitzgerald seemed to get into her stride later into the novel; similes became more coherent, the use of Big Clever Words lessened and she got on with the story and some interesting observations:

“Alabama and David were proud of themselves and the baby, consciously affecting a vague bouffant casualness about the fifty thousand dollars they spent on two years’ worth of polish for life’s baroque façade. In reality, there is no materialist like the artist, asking back from life the double and the wastage and the cost on what he puts out in emotional usury.”

Alabama decides to train as a dancer as the Knight’s marriage starts to disintegrate. It’s hard not to read it as Zelda’s take on her relationship with Scott and it’s sad:

“They had thought they were perfect and opened their hearts to inflation but not to alteration.”

Of course the main interest in reading Save Me the Waltz is that it was written by Zelda Fitzgerald, and that  it is her life with Scott thinly-disguised. Yet I think it shows unfulfilled promise. It’s not a great novel but it has excellent moments. I felt if she had only had an editor take an artistic, nuturing interest in her, someone who would advise, guide and mentor, Zelda Fitzgerald could have become the accomplished writer she so clearly wanted to be.

“Alabama swung off in imitation of some walk she had once admired. ‘But I warn you’ she said, ‘I am only really myself when I’m somebody else whom I have endowed with these wonderful qualities from my imagination.”

To end, I recently saw a repeat of a documentary where Marianne Faithfull described becoming Mick Jagger’s muse as “not a high self-esteem choice”. She survived, she’s laughing and she’s still working, even if her voice these days is a bit of an acquired taste. Take it away Marianne:

“When you’re a Jet/You’re a Jet all the way /From your first cigarette /To your last dyin’ day.” (West Side Story)

This is a loooong post – strap in people, and bring Kendal mint cake.

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These days I don’t generally socialise as part of a group (unless it’s a work do, an experience that Dante forgot to include in his descriptions of the circles of hell) but in the last week I’ve been out with two sets of friends, which was a lovely change. For this reason, in this post I thought I’d look  at writers who have famously been part of a group.

Firstly, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, which was published after his death and recalls his time as a young man in Paris during the interwar period, part of une generation perdue, or lost generation:

“’’That’s what you are. That’s what you all are,’ Miss Stein said. ‘All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.’

‘Really?’ I said.

‘You are,’ she insisted. ‘You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death…’”

Miss Stein is of course Gertrude Stein, and her literary salon attracts some of the greatest writers of the generation: F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ford Maddox Ford (a less than flattering portrait), Hilaire Belloc, James Joyce… it really is astonishing that these minds were all in the same place at the same time.

Montmartre in 1925

Montmartre in 1925

Image from here.

I can’t tell you how much I want to dislike Hemingway. He was macho, into bloodsports, treated women appallingly… but his writing just takes my breath away.  A Moveable Feast gives some insight into his craft; his drive to write what is true and to distil his writing into the sparse style he became so famous for:

“Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

He is filled with the arrogance and uncertainty of youth, completely committed to his craft:

“I’ve seen you beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.”

 “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’”

Ernest_Hemingway_Writing_at_Campsite_in_Kenya_-_NARA_-_192655

While he is sitting in cafes trying to write one true sentence, the young Hemingway comes into contact with various writers also trying to perfect their craft, including one of my favourite poets, Ezra Pound:

“Ezra was kinder and more Christian about people than I was. His own writing, when he would hit it right, was so perfect, and he was so sincere in his mistakes and so enamoured of his errors, and so kind to people, that I always thought of him as a sort of saint. He was also irascible, but so perhaps have been many saints.”

I just don’t understand how a person unfailingly described by all who knew him as being so generous, supportive and kind could also be such a massive fascist. It does make me feel a bit better about liking his poetry though. He also provides many of the episodes of comic relief in A Moveable Feast:

“I had heard complaining all my life. I found I could go on writing and that it was no worse than other noises, certainly better than Ezra learning to play the bassoon.”

Hemingway and his first wife were poverty-stricken in this period, and one of the places that offers succour is the now-famous English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company under the auspices of Sylvia Beach:

“On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter , tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.”

From within this perfect bookshop, Sylvia lends Hemingway and Hadley money and books, and helps create the man who would write this about F Scott Fitzgerald:

F_Scott_Fitzgerald_and_wife_Zelda_September_1921

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and he could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”

If that passage doesn’t want to make you weep at the tragic beauty of it all, then I don’t know if we can be friends.  Damn you Hemingway, you’ve made me love you just like all those other women who should have kept well away.  Thank goodness we didn’t meet when you looked like this:

ernest-hemingway1

Or things could have got messy. (Seriously, who looks like that in a passport photo? I look like I’m out on day-release in mine).

Woody Allen explored the attraction of this group of writers in Midnight in Paris. I liked the film, but even a friend who loathed it admitted Corey Stoll did a great job as Hemingway:

“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, not the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.”

Secondly, The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf, who was part of the Bloomsbury group, and in his second (final) novel portrays his wife, Virginia.  He is also in the privileged position of being one of the few male authors published by Persephone Books, and their lovely edition of this novel includes an endpaper print by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister.

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Image from here

Harry Davis moves with his family into the stultifying suburban society of Richstead (Richmond/Hampstead) where he is introduced to the Garlands and their four daughters, who do nothing all day because that is all they are expected to do:

 “Harry felt the dull sense of depression creeping over him again. ‘It’s so bad,’ he said, ‘to be comfortable. That’s why you want to go on forever in the same place.’

‘But I like being comfortable,’ said Ethel decisively. ‘I don’t think it’s bad at all.’

Harry remained silent; he couldn’t think of anything more to say. Gwen watched his rather heavy face. She could not make him out; she was not sure whether she liked him or hated him at first sight. He seemed to be exceedingly ill-mannered, she thought.”

Harry is an artist, and wants so much more.  He meets the intellectual, free-thinking Camilla (seen as representing Virginia) and falls in love.  While I think reading the novel for biographical ‘clues’ misses the point and would prevent enjoying the novel fully, it’s not difficult to imagine Virginia agreeing with some of Camilla’s sentiments:

“’There’s so much from marriage from which I recoil. It seems to shut women up and out. I won’t be tied by the pettiness and the conventionalities of life. There must be some way out. One must live one’s own life’”

The difficulty is, most of the characters are too vacuous, lazy and pretentious to tread their own path. They’re not terrible people, but the Bloomsbury set seem to sit around all day trying to be clever, while the suburban set obsess over flowers. Apparently some found Camilla-as-Virginia offensive, but if that was what Woolf was doing, Leonard-as-Harry fares little better, too weak to ever seize the life he imagines, lacking the courage of his own convictions:

“He turned over, and lay flat, burying his face in the grass. Harry felt as if he himself were turning into stone. He just managed to say:

‘You think her absolutely cold?’

‘She’s a woman and a virgin: isn’t that enough?…What they want is to be desired – that’s all. And when they get that from some poor devil with a straight back and a clean face, they think they are in love with him, and he marries, to be disappointed.”

If all this sounds terribly tedious, it isn’t.  Woolf satirises early twentieth-century society and shows how it denies sexuality and oppresses men and women, but especially women.  It could be a bleak novel – none of the characters really know what they want or how to break free – but I think we’re not meant to take them as seriously as they take themselves. While it’s not a broad comedic novel, The Wise Virgins has plenty of humour in it:

“This gentleman was undoubtedly a clergyman; his red nose and the causes of it had made it difficult for him to be a minister of Christ for any long time in one place…his life had its advantages, he used to affirm in his more secular moments, because he never had to write a new sermon; one congregation after another listened to the same four which had escaped the wear and tear of wandering with their author up and down England.”

The Wise Virgins is about a denial of desires both individual and collective, and how damaging it can be. The Bloomsbury group in real-life were much more sexually liberated, and while I’m not sure the result was damage-limitation, it did result in some beautiful art:

Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant

Vanessa Bell painted by Duncan Grant

Image from here

You made it to the end of this post! Thanks for reading, and here is your reward: