Sherwood Anderson (September 13, 1876 – March 8, 1941)








For a year now I have been thinking of writing a certain book. “Well, tomorrow I’ll get at it,” I’ve been saying to myself. Every night whenUnder the elevated railway, Chicago,Il I get into bed I think about the book. The people that are to be put between its covers dance before my eyes. I live in the city of Chicago and at night motor trucks go rumbling along the roadway outside my house. Not so very far away there is an elevated railroad and after twelve o’clock at night trains pass at pretty long intervals. Before it began I went to sleep during one of the quieter intervals but now that the idea of writing this book has got into me I lie awake and think.
For one thing it is hard to get the whole idea of the book fixed in the setting of the city I live in now. I wonder if you, who do not try to write books, perhaps will understand what I mean. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It is a little hard to explain. You see, it’s something like this.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           SA190

You as a reader will, some evening or some afternoon, be reading in my book and then you will grow tired of reading and put it down. You will go out of your house and into the street. The sun is shining and you meet people you know. There are certain facts of your life just the same as of mine. If you are a man, you go from your house to an office and sit at a desk where you pick up a telephone and begin to talk about some matter of business with a client or a customer of your house. If you are an honest housewife, the ice man has come or there drifts into your mind the thought that yesterday you forgot to remember some detail concerned with running your house. Little outside thoughts come and go in your mind, and it is so with me too. For example when I have written the above sentence, I wonder why I have written the words “honest housewife.” A housewife I suppose can be as dishonest as I can. What I am trying to make clear is that, as a writer, I am up against the same things that confront you, as a reader.
What I want to do is to express in my book a sense of the strangeness that has gradually, since I was a boy, been creeping more and more into my feeling about everyday life. It would all be very simple if I could write of life in an interior city of China or in an African forest. A man I know has recently told me of another man who, wanting to write a book about Parisian life and having no money to go to Paris to study the life there, went instead to the city of New Orleans. He had heard that many people livedSA237 in New Orleans whose ancestors were French. “They will have retained enough of the flavor of Parisian life for me to get the feeling,” he said to himself. The man told me that the book turned out to be very successful and that the city of Paris read with delight a translation of his work as a study of French life, and I am only sorry I can’t find as simple a way out of my own job. The whole point with me is that my wish to write this book springs from a somewhat different notion. “If I can write everything out plainly, perhaps I will myself understand better what has happened,” I say to myself and smile. During these days I spend a good deal of time smiling at nothing. It bothers people. “What are you smiling about now?” they ask, and I am up against as hard a job trying to answer as I am trying to get underway with my book.
Sometimes in the morning I sit down at my desk and begin writing, taking as my subject a scene from my own boyhood.
Very well, I am coming home from school. The town in which I was born and raised was a dreary, lonely little place in the far western section of the state of Nebraska, and I imagine myself walking along one of its streets. Sitting upon a curbing before a store is a sheep herder who has left his flock many miles away in the foothills at the base of the western mountains and has come into our town, for what purpose he himself does not seem to know. He is a bearded man without a hat and sits with his mouth slightly open, staring up and down the street. There is a half-wild uncertain look in his eyes SA181and his eyes have awakened a creepy feeling in me. I hurry away with a kind of dread of some unknown thing eating at my vital organs.  Old men are great talkers. It may be that only kids know the real terror of loneliness.
I have tried, you see, to start my book at that particular point in my own life. “If I can catch exactly the feeling of that afternoon of my boyhood, I can give the reader the key to my character,” I tell myself.
The plan won’t work. When I have written five, ten, fifteen hundred words, I stop writing and look out at my window. A man is driving a team of horses hitched to a wagon-load of coal along my street and is swearing at another man who drives a Ford. They have both stopped and are cursing each other.
The coal wagon driver’s face is black with coal dust but anger has reddened his cheeks and the red and black have produced
a dusky brown like the skin of a Negro. I have got up from my typewriter and walk up and down in my room smoking cigarettes. My fingers pick up little things on my desk and then put them down.
I am nervous like the race horses I used to be with at one period of my boyhood. Before a race and when they had been brought out onSA228 the tracks before all the people and before the race started, their legs quivered. Sometimes there was a horse got into such a state that when the race started he would do nothing. “Look at him. He can’t untrack himself,” we said.
Right now I am in that state about my book. I run to the typewriter, write for a time, and then walk nervously about. I smoke a whole package of cigarettes during the morning.
And then suddenly I have again torn up all I have written. “It won’t do,” I have told myself. In this book I am not intending to try to give you the story of my life. “What of life, any man’s life?—forked radishes running about, writing declarations of independence, telling themselves little lies, having dreams, getting puffed up now and then with what is called greatness. Life begins, runs its course and ends,” a man I once knew told me one evening, and it is true. Even as I write these words a hearse is going through my street. Two young girls, who are going off with two young men to walk I suppose in the fields where the city ends, stop laughing for a moment and look up at the hearse. It will be a moment before they forget the passing hearse and begin laughing again.
“A life is like that, it passes like that,” I say to myself as I tear up my sheets and begin again walking and smoking the cigarettes. If you think I am sad, having these thoughts about the brevity and insignificance of a life, you are mistaken. In the state I am in such things do not matter. “Certain things last,” I say to myself. “One might make things a little clear. One might even imagine a man, say a Negro, going along a SA143city street and humming a song. It catches the ear of another man who repeats it on the next day. A thin strand of song, like a tiny stream far up in some hill, begins to flow down into the wide plains. It waters the fields. It freshens the air above a hot stuffy city.”
Now I have got myself worked up into a state. I am always doing that these days. I write again and again tear up my words.
I go out of my room and walk about.
I have been with a woman I have found and who loves me. It has happened that I am a man who has not been loved by women and have all my life been awkward and a little mixed up when in their presence. Perhaps I have had too much respect for them, have wanted them too much. That may be. Anyway I am not so rattled in her presence.
She, I think, has a certain control over herself and that is helpful to me. When I am with her I keep smiling to myself and thinking, “It would be rather a joke all around if she found me out.”
When she is looking in another direction I study her a little. That she should seem to like me so much surprises me and I am sore at my own surprise. I grow humble and do not like my humbleness either. “What is she up to? She is very lovely. Why is she wasting her time with me?”
I shall remember always certain hours when I have been with her. Late on a certain Sunday afternoon I remember I sat in a chair in aSA188 room in her apartment. I sat with my hand against my cheek, leaning a little forward. I had dressed myself carefully because I was going to see her, had put on my best suit of clothes. My hair was carefully combed and my glasses carefully balanced on my rather large nose. And there I was, in her apartment in a certain city, in a chair in a rather dark corner, with my hand against my cheek, looking as solemn as an old owl. We had been walking about and had come into the house and she had gone away leaving me sitting there, as I have said. The apartment was in a part of the city where many foreign people live and from my chair I could, by turning my head a little, look down into a street filled with Italians.
It was growing dark outside and I could just see the people in the street. If I cannot remember facts about my own and other people’s lives, I can always remember every feeling that has gone through me, or that I have thought went through anyone about me. The men going along the street below the window all had dark swarthy faces and nearly all of them wore, somewhere about them, a spot of color. The younger men, who walked with a certain swagger, all had on flaming red ties. The street was dark but far down the street there was a spot where a streak of sunlight still managed to find its way in between two tall buildings and fell sharp against the face of a smaller red-brick building. It pleased my fancy to imagine the street had also put on a red necktie, perhaps because there would be lovemaking along the street before Monday morning.
SA219Anyway I sat there looking and thinking such thoughts as came to me. The women who went along the street nearly all had dark colored shawls drawn up about their faces. The road-way was filled with children whose voices made a sharp tinkling sound.
My fancy went out of my body in a way of speaking, I suppose, and I began thinking of myself as being at that moment in a city in Italy. Americans like myself who have not traveled are always doing that. I suppose the people of another nation would not understand how doing it is almost necessity in our lives, but any American will understand. The American, particularly a middle-American, sits as I was doing at that moment, dreaming you understand, and suddenly he is in Italy or in a Spanish town where a dark-looking man is riding a bony horse along a street, or he is being driven over the Russian steppes in a sled by a man whose face is all covered with whiskers. It is an idea of the Russians got from looking at cartoons in newspapers but it answers the purpose. In the distance a pack ofSA241 wolves are following the sled.A fellow I once knew told me that Americans are always up to such tricks because all of our old stories and dreams have come to us from over the sea and because we have no old stories and dreams of our own. Of that I can’t say. I am not putting myself forward as a thinker on the subject of the causes of the characteristics of the American people or any other monstrous or important matter of that kind. But anyway, there I was, sitting, as I have told you, in the Italian section of an American city and dreaming of myself being in Italy.
To be sure I wasn’t alone. Such a fellow as myself never is alone in his dreams. And as I sat having my dream, the woman with whom I had been spending the afternoon, and with whom I am no doubt what is called “in love,” passed between me and the window through which I had been looking. She had on a dress of some soft clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light. Well, she was like a young tree you might see on a hill, in a windstorm perhaps.
What I did, as you may have supposed, was to take her with me into Italy.
The woman became at once, and in my dream, a very beautiful princess in a strange land I have never visited. It may be that when I was a boy in my western town some traveler came SA140there to lecture on life in Italian cities before a club that met at the Presbyterian church and to which my mother belonged, or perhaps later I read some novel the name of which I can’t remember. And so my princess had come down to me along a path out of a green wooded hill where her castle was located. She had walked under blossoming trees in the uncertain evening light and some blossoms had fallen on her black hair. The perfume of Italian nights was in her hair. That notion came into my head. That’s what I mean.
What really happened was that she saw me sitting there lost in my dream and, coming to me, rumpled my hair and upset the glasses perched on my big nose and, having done that, went laughing out of the room.
I speak of all this because later, on that same evening, I lost all notion of the book I am now writing and sat until three in the morning writing on another book, making the woman the central figure. “It will be a story of old times, filled with moons and stars and the fragrance of half-decayed trees in an oldSA131 land,” I told myself, but when I had written many pages I tore them up too.
“Something has happened to me or I should not be filled with the idea of writing this book at all,” I told myself going to my window to look out at the night. “At a certain hour of a certain day and in a certain place, something happened that has changed the whole current of my life. “The thing to be done,” I then told myself, “is to begin writing my book by telling as clearly as I can the adventures of that certain moment.”








SA243A task one hopes to complete and yet defers because it cannot be begun is perfectly expressed by the the word the Romans thought they heard in the cry of the raven – “cras, cras,” meaning “tomorrow, tomorrow” – and which symbolises  hope as well as procrastination. This seems to aptly echo the predicament adumbrated by Sherwood Anderson in this essay “Certain Things Last”, which he wrote sometime in the twenties, and which was found among his papers and published only in 1992.

We do not know if it was ever intended for publication; indeed, we cannot even know for certain if he completed the piece. All writers feel this way at times about the things they write, because they know what a devilishly difficult job the task of writing can present. Noah’s raven, and the first to be released from the ark, (unlike his second envoy the docile dove) never returned. We may wonder what happened to it, and how it was reunited with its mate who presumably was released after the flood subsided. But reunited they must have been, on some hopeful ‘tomorrow,’ for the world veritably teems with ravens and their ilk.

Anderson’s ‘tomorrow,’ after a difficult boyhood and adolescence in the small and typically claustrophobic town of Clyde, Ohio, led to the occupation of writer. By his own account, his best known work, a compilation of 22 stories published under the title of Winesburg, Ohio, came to him all in a rush.SA142  

“…it was a late fall night and raining…I was there naked in the bed and I sprang up. I went to my typewriter and began to write. It was there, under those circumstances, myself sitting near an open window, the rain occasionally blowing in and wetting my bare back, that I did my first writing…I wrote it, as I wrote them all, complete in the one sitting…The rest of the stories in the book came out of me on succeeding evenings, and sometimes during the day while I worked in the advertising office…”

But “Some Things Last” seems to tell a different story. As the cry of the raven suggests, the exercise of writing requires the disordering of time. Anderson’s writing career commenced after a mental breakdown, shortly after which he abandoned his family. Four days after he ‘disappeared’, he was found  thirty miles away in Cleveland, having walked that distance. He never went back home.

In order to make its way into writing, the past must be recollected, relived and recreated. It must sometimes be artificially rearranged and reordered before it can be placed in front of a reader, and if that weren’t enough cause for dismay, past and present, these two parallel and simultaneously unfolding tracks must be made to seem to come seamlessly together.

SA128The task set for himself here by Anderson, that of trying to grasp at the flickering pattern cast by scattered thoughts and  then to collect them for an arrangement to set on the page, is the perennial bane and delight of the writer. I don’t know if this is a task which may be better accomplished by a woman writer; certainly women like Virginia Woolf excelled at it, but Anderson shows us how a virtue may be made of stumbling. He conveys the slipperiness of the the whole process  so vividly that even to  someone who doesn’t think much about writing, the feeling of helplessness and unease comes wholly through. The hopeless feeling of being unable to ferry a thought from the having to the expressing of it is particularly acute when the ability to do it remains lost somewhere that is not amenable to recall.  It is like floating in dark water and trying to remember how to move one’s arms and legs. I think this is in part because the language of recall is not strictly speaking ‘language’ but a kind of code conveyed in images.

“Some Things Last” is writing thrice removed: it is writing that shows how a writer writes about writing. There is self-revelation in it, but only so much. Anderson is willing to reveal that he smokes somewhat to excess, but not that he drinks, though drink he did. His death in 1941 at the age of 64 – while  he and his fourth wife Eleanor Copenhaver were on a cruise to South America – was caused by peritonitis following the accidental ingestion of a toothpick from either a martini or an hors d’ oeuvre, though I rather think it was the former  than the latter.

Whether lubricated by alcohol or  driven by digressiveness or restlessness, Anderson’s mind, resorts to narratives of flowing images,SA216 even as he anxiously attempts to impose order and structure on his wayward thoughts in order to secure an outcome. He in turn surrenders and attempts to control in order to impose a shape or a structure or even an account of something written. Indeed one cannot be certain if this piece of writing was guided to its intended conclusion, or if it simply petered out at an impasse or a cul de sac with nowhere else to go and no way to turn back. “What is the point?” we wonder. Is it only to show that the writing of a book is a difficult enterprise, and that someone  who sets him- or herself to the task must contend with endless distractions, diversions and detours on the way to getting the job done? Or is it to reveal the unruly nature of the process, how the very thoughts that must make up the content turn out to be perturbations, which as they move away from their point of origin, take one further and further away from the goal? Writers  must learn to negotiate these obstacles, for they can never quite be overcome.

It would seem that a solution to the writer’s dilemma must be found in a skillful compromise. The kind of aimless undirected dreamy musings, the fragile repositories of vivid and detailed imagery, must be permitted to go on unimpeded SA132even as some agent of the thinking self stands by to take notes. And it seems that Anderson possessed a good note-taker, since it was he who wrote “She had on a dress of some clinging stuff and her slender figure made a very lovely line across the light” and  “she was like a young tree you might see on a hill  in a windstorm perhaps…..”    

One of the chief difficulties of writing is that what is written about, the sights, smells and sensations of it, come almost always from a different time and place from when the writing takes place. They are imported from another world, which has to be recalled and recreated in the mind at the moment of writing. The writer has to recall them from when, like a traveller, he or she  had to keep track of that place in the country, that path,  and the details  observed while on it, and the objects which were chosen to bring back from the journey.  Then, as now, there were problems to be solved – what could properly  be packed – what carried – and how these things would look when placed in the writer’s parlour or on the mantel. Would they bring back the sights and smells they seemed to be imbued  with  at the first encounter? Or would they become lifeless and incongruous when removed from their proper context, when forced to inhabit an unnatural place? Should the suggestion of the princess who lives in the castle at the end of the path along the green, wooded hill, be permitted to intrude? Yes, perhaps because it seems to echo the diffident insecurity this writer felt about his woman friend. And the blossoming trees, the evening light and the flowers in her dark hair must come along too. Then of course, blackSA151 hair and Italian nights, which are shadowy counterparts of each other, must gain admittance as well. If in the next moments one ‘goes to his window to look out at the night,’ one might see, instead of the spark-sprinkled darkness of a sleeping city, “the moon and stars, and half-decayed trees in an old land.’

The thoughts and images we carry away from our inward travels seem to undergo a change when made to enter the outside world. They are like poems which resist being translated into a different language. The greatest care must be taken so that they do not become mere representations of what they truly are in their own voice and  tongue. The difference between the inner and outer life is not always bridgeable, something most writers simultaneously accept and struggle mightily against.

The task of moving words from mind to paper, of trapping moments vivid with life and fixing them on the page, can seem daunting at times. The troublesomeness and difficulty of committing to memory the elusive phenomena of fleeting suggestions of thoughts and brief flares of barely glimpsed images as they pass through the mind SA244seem at times quite hopeless, and recollecting them seems like gathering leaves blown by the wind. Time too is not durable. It warps and bends in the attempt to draw it through the lens of memory.  Are these what Anderson refers to as ‘the adventures of that certain moment?’ Are they fit to be the chosen subject of a piece of writing?  Or should they be consigned to some vague designation of questionable value, to occupy the limbo between something which used to be either sustaining or memorable but is no longer, but is now discarded and stale as an old torn photograph or a half-eaten meal left neglected to grow cold on the kitchen table? Are these some things that last? Are they?

Rebecca West (December 21 1892 – March 15 1983)

Rebecca West (December 21 1892 – March 15 1983)
















My Uncle Arthur had red hair that lay close to his head in flat, circular curls, and a pointed red beard, and his blue-green eyes were at onceRWP221 penetrating and bemused. He was the object of mingled derision and respect in our family. He was a civil servant who had early attracted attention by his brilliance; but the chief of his department, like so many English civil servants, was an author in his spare time, and when he published a history of European literature, my uncle reviewed it in the leading weekly of the day, pointing out that large as was the number of works in the less familiar languages that his chief supposed to be written in prose, though in fact they were written in verse, it was not so large as the number of such works that he supposed to be written in verse, though in fact they were written in prose. He wrote without malice, simply thinking his chief would be glad to know. My uncle never connected this review with his subsequent failure to gain a promotion that had seemed certain, or to have the day as snug as civil servants usually had it in the nineteenth century. But in the course of time his chief died, and my uncle rose to be an important official. However, he did a Cabinet Minister much the same service he had rendered his chief, and he never received the title that normally went with his post.
So he seesawed through life, and I liked his company very much when he was an old man and I was a young girl, for it was full of surprises. C-691When I asked him a question, I never  knew if his answer would show that he knew far less than I did or far more; and though he was really quite old, for he was my father’s elder by many years, he often made discoveries such as a schoolchild might make, and shared them with an enthusiasm as little adult. One day he gave me no peace till I had come with him to see the brightest field of buttercups he had ever found near London; it lay, solid gold, beside the great Jacobean mansion Ham House, by the river Thames. After we had admired it he took me to nearby Petersham Church, to see another treasure, the tomb of Captain Vancouver, who gave his name to the island; my uncle liked this tomb because he had spent some years of his boyhood in Canada and had been to Vancouver Island when it was hardly inhabited. Then we had tea in an inn garden and it happened that the girl who waited on us was called away by the landlord as she set the china on the table. His voice came from the kitchen: “Parthenope! Parthenope!” My uncle started, for no very good reason that I could see. There had been a time when many ships in the British Navy were called after characters in Greek history and mythology, male and female, and therefore many sailors’ daughters had been given the names of nymphs and goddesses and Homeric princesses and heroines of Greek tragedy. The only strange thing was that it was a long time since British ships had been christened so poetically, and most of the women who had acquired these classical names by this secondary interest were by now old or middle-aged, while our little waitress was very young. She had, as she told us when she came back, been called after a grandmother. But my uncle was plainly shaken by hearing those four syllables suddenly borne on the afternoon air. His thin handRWP230 plucked at the edge of the tablecloth, he cast down his eyes, his head began to nod and shake. He asked me if he had ever told me the story of the Admiral and his seven daughters, in a tone that suggested that he knew he had not and was still trying to make up his mind whether he wanted to tell it now. Indeed, he told me very little that day though I was to hear the whole of it before he died.
The story began at the house of my grandmother’s sister, Alice Darrell, and it could hardly have happened anywhere else. When her husband, an officer in the Indian Army, died of fever, her father-in-law had given her a house that he had recently and reluctantly inherited and could not sell because it was part of an entailed estate. He apologized for the gift, pleading justly that he could not afford to buy her another, and she accepted it bravely. But the house lay in a district that would strain anybody’s bravery. To reach it, one travelled about eight miles out of London along the main Hammersmith Road, the dullest of highways, and then turned left and found something worse. For some forgotten reason, there had sprung up at this point a Hogarthian slum, as bad as anything in the East End, which turned into a brawling hell every Saturday night. Beyond this web of filthy hovels lay flatlands covered by orchards and farmlands and market gardens, among which there had been set down three or four large houses. There was nothing to recommend the site. The Thames was C-796not far distant, and it was comprehensible enough that along its bank there had been built a line of fine houses, But at Alice Darrell’s there was no view of the river, though it lay near enough to shroud the region in mist during the winter months. It was true that the gardens had an alluvial fertility, but even they did not give the pleasure they should have done, for the slum dwellers carried out periodical raids on the strawberry beds and raspberry canes and orchards. These stranded houses had been built in Regency times and were beautiful, though disconcerting, because there was no reason why they should be there, and they were so oddly placed in relation to each other. They all opened off the same narrow road, and Aunt Alice’s house, Currivel Lodge, which was the smallest of them, lay at the end of a drive, and there faced sideways, so that its upper windows looked straight down on the garden of the much bigger house beside it, as that had been built nearer the road. This meant that my grandaunt could not sit on the pretty balcony outside her bedroom window without seeming to spy on her neighbours, so she never used it. But when my Uncle Arthur went to stay with her as a little boy, which was about a hundred years ago, nothing delighted him more than to shut himself in his bedroom and kneel on his window and do what his Aunt Alice could not bear to be suspected of doing.
Currivel Lodge should have been a dreary place for the child. There was nowhere to walk and nowhere to ride. There was no village where one could watch the blacksmith at his forge and the carpenter at his bench. In those days, nobody rowed on the Thames anywhere but at Oxford, unless they were watermen earning their living. There was little visiting, for it took a good hour to an hour and a half to drive to London, and my needy grandaunt’s horses were old crocks. Her children were all older than little Arthur. But he enjoyed his visit simply because of the hours he spent on that window seat. I know the setting of the scene on which he looked, since I often stayed in that house many years later; for of course my grandaunt’s family never left it. When the entail came toRWP332 an end and the property could have been sold, there were the Zulu Wars, and South African War, the First World War, and all meant that the occupants were too busy or too troubled to move; and they were still living there when the house was swept away in a town-planning scheme during the twenties. What Arthur in his day and I in mine looked down on was a croquet lawn framed by trees, very tall trees-so tall and strong, my uncle said with approval, that though one could not see the river, one knew that there must be one not far away. Born and reared in one of the wettest parts of Ireland, he regarded dry weather and a dry soil as the rest of us regard dry bread.
To the left of his lawn, seen through foliage, was a stone terrace overgrown with crimson and white roses. Behind the terrace rose the mellow red rectangle of a handsome Regency house with a green copper cupola rising from its roof. What my uncle saw there that was not there for me to see was a spectacle that gave him the same soft of enjoyment I was to get from the ballet  Les Sylphides. When the weather was fine, it often happened that there would come down the broad stone steps of the terrace a number of princesses out of a fairy tale, each dressed in a different pale but bright colour. Sometimes there were as few as four of these princesses; occasionally there were as many as seven. Among the colours that my uncle thought he remembered them wearing were hyacinth blue, the green of the leaves of lilies of the valley, a silvery lilac that was almost grey, a transparent red RW347that was like one’s hand when one holds it up to a strong light, primrose yellow, a watery jade green, and a gentle orange. The dresses were made of muslin, and billowed in loops and swinging circles as their wearers’ little feet carried them about in what was neither a dance nor the everyday motion of ordinary people. It was as if these lovely, creatures were all parts of a brave and sensitive and melancholy being, and were at once confiding in each other about their griefs, which were their common grief, and giving each other reassurance.
Some carried croquet mallets and went on to the lawn and started to play, while the others sat down on benches to watch them. But sooner or later the players would pause and forget to make the next stroke, move toward each other and stand in a group, resting their mallets on the ground, and presently forget them and let them fall, as the spectators rose from their seats to join them in their exchange of confidences. Though they appeared in the garden as often as three times a week, they always seemed to have as much to say to one another as if they met but once a year; and they were always grave as they talked. There was a wildness about them, it was impossible to tell what they would do next, one might suddenly break away from the others and waltz round the lawn in the almost visible arms of an invisible partner; but when they talked, they showed restraint, they did not weep, though what they said was so plainly sad, and they rarely laughed. What was true of one of them was true of all, for there seemed very little difference between them. All were golden-headed. The only one who could be told apart was the wearer of the lilac-grey dress. She was taller than the rest, and often stood aloof while they clustered together and swayed and spoke. Sometimes a woman in a black gown came down from the terrace and talked to this separate one.
The girls in the coloured dresses were the seven daughters of the Admiral who owned the house. My uncle saw him once, when he called on AliceC-2374 Darrell to discuss with her arrangements for repairing the wall between their properties: a tall and handsome man with iron-grey hat, a probing, defensive gaze, and a mouth so sternly compressed that it was a straight line across his face. The call would never have been made had there not been business to discuss. The Admiral would have no social relations with his neighbours; nobody had ever been invited to his house. Nor, had such an invitation been sent, would Aunt Alice have accepted it, for she thought he treated his daughters abominably. She could not help smiling when she told her nephew their names, for they came straight off the Navy List: Andromeda, Cassandra, Clytie, Hera, Parthenope, Arethusa, and Persephone. But that was the only time she smiled when she spoke of them, for she thought they had been treated with actual cruelty, though not in the way that might have been supposed. They were not immured in this lonely house by a father who wanted to keep them to himself; their case was the very opposite. The Admiral’s daughters were, in effect, motherless. By Aunt Alice my Uncle Arthur was told that the Admiral’s wife was an invalid and had to live in a mild climate in the West of England, but from the servants he learned that she was mad. Without a wife to soften him, the Admiral dealt with his daughters summarily by sending each of them, as she passed her seventeenth birthday, to be guided through the London season by his only sister, a wealthy woman with a house in Berkeley Square, and by giving each to the first man of reasonably respectable character who made her an offer of marriage. He would permit no delay, though his daughters, who had inheritances from a wealthy RWP321grandfather, as well as their beauty, would obviously have many suitors. These precipitate marriages were always against the brides’ inclinations, for they had, strangely enough, no desire but to go on living in their lonely home.
“They are,” Aunt Alice told her nephew, hesitating and looking troubled, “oddly young for their ages. I know they are not old, and that they have lived a great deal alone, since their mother cannot be with them. But they are really very young for what they are.” They had yielded, it was said, only to the most brutal pressure exercised by their father. It astonished my uncle that all this was spoken of as something that had happened in the past. They did not look like grown-up ladies as they wandered in the garden, yet all but two were wives, and those two were betrothed, and some of them were already mothers. Parthenope, the one with most character, the one who had charge of the house in her father’s absence, had married a North Country landowner who was reputed to be a millionaire. It was a pity that he was twice her age and had, by a dead wife, a son almost as old as she was, but a fortune is a great comfort; and none of her sisters was without some measure of that same kind of consolation. Nevertheless, their discontent could be measured by the frequency with which they returned to the house of their childhood.
The first time my uncle visited Currivel Lodge, the Admiral’s seven daughters were only a spectacle for his distant enjoyment. But one day during his second visit, a year later, his aunt asked him to deliver a note for Miss Parthenope at the house next door. Another section of the wallRW348 between the properties was in need of buttresses, and the builder had to have his orders. My uncle went up to his bedroom and smoothed his hair and washed his face, a thing he had never done before between morning and night of his own accord, and when he got to the Admiral’s house, he told the butler, falsely but without a tremor, that he had been told to give the note into Miss Parthenope’s own hands. It did not matter to him that the butler looked annoyed at hearing this: too much was at stake. He followed the butler’s offended back through several rooms full of fine furniture, which were very much like the rooms to which he was accustomed, but had a sleepy air, as if the windows were closed, though they were not. In one there were some dolls thrown down on the floor, though he had never heard that there were any children living in the house. In the last room, which opened on the stone terrace and its white and crimson roses, a woman in a black dress with a suggestion of a uniform about it was sitting at an embroidery frame. She stared at him as if RWP352he presented a greater problem than schoolboys usually do, and he recognized her as the dark figure he had seen talking with the tallest of the daughters in the garden.
She took the letter from him, and he saw that the opportunity he had seized was slipping out of his grasp, so he pretended to be younger and simpler than he was, and put on the Irish brogue, which he never used at home except when he was talking to the servants or the people on the farms, but which he had found charmed the English. “May I not go out into the garden and see the young ladies?” he asked. “I have watched them from my window, and they look so pretty.”
It worked. The woman smiled and said. “You’re from Ireland, aren’t you?” and before he could answer she exclaimed, as if defying prohibitions of which she had long been weary, “What is the harm? Yes, go out and give the note to Miss Parthenope yourself. You will know her – she is wearing grey and is the tallest.” When he got out on the terrace, he saw that all seven of the Admiral’s daughters were on the lawn, and his heart was like a turning windmill as he went down the stone steps. Then one of the croquet players caught sight of him-the one who was wearing a red dress, just nearer flame colour than flesh. She dropped her mallet and cried, “Oh, look, a little boy! A little red-haired boy!” and danced toward him, sometimes pausing and twirling right round, so that her skirts billowed out round her. Other voices took up the cry, and, cooing like pigeons, the croquet players closed in on him in a circle of unbelievable beauty. It was their complexions that he remembered in later life as the marvel that made them, among all the women he was ever to see, the nonpareils. Light lay on their skin as it lies on the petals of flowers, but it promised that it would never fade, that it would last forever, like the pearl. Yet even while he remarked their loveliness and was awed by it, he was disconcerted. They came so close, and it seemed as if they might do more than look at him and speak to him. It was as if a flock of birds had come down on him, and were fluttering and pecking about him; and they asked so many questions, in voices that chirped indefatigably and were sharper than the human note. “Who are you?” “You are Mrs  Darrell’s nephew?” “HerC-260 brother’s child or her sister’s?” “How old are you?” “What is your name?” “Why is your middle name Greatorex?” “Oh, what lovely hair he has – true Titian! And those round curls like coins!” “Have you sisters?” “Have they hair like yours?” Their little hands darted out and touched his hands, his cheeks, his shoulders, briefly but not pleasantly. His flesh rose in goose pimples, as it did when a moth’s wing brushed his face as he lay in bed in the dark. And while their feathery, restlessness poked and cheeped at him, they looked at him with eyes almost as fixed as if they were blind and could not see him at all. Their eyes were immense and very bright and shaded by lashes longer than he had ever seen; but they were so light a grey that they were as colourless as clear water running over a bed of pebbles. He was glad when the woman in the black dress called from the terrace. “Leave the boy alone!” He did not like anything about the Admiral’s daughters, now he saw them at close range. Even their dresses, which had looked beautiful from a distance, repelled him. If a lady had been sitting to a portrait painter in the character of a wood nymph, she might have worn such draperies, but it was foolish to wear them in a garden, when there was nobody to see them. “Leave the boy alone!” the woman in black called again. “He has come with a letter for Parthenope.”
C-42She had not been one of the circle. Now that the others fell back, my uncle saw her standing a little way off, biting her lip and knitting her brows, as if the scene disturbed her. There were other differences, beyond her height, that distinguished her from her sisters. While they were all that was most feminine, with tiny waists and hands, and feet, she might have been a handsome and athletic boy dressed in woman’s clothes for a school play. Only, of course, one knew quite well that she was not a boy. She stood erect, her arms hanging by her sides, smoothing back the muslin billows of her skirt, as if they were foolishness she would be glad to put behind her; and indeed, she would have looked better in Greek dress. Like her sisters, she had golden hair, but hers was a whiter gold. As my uncle and she went toward each other, she smiled, and he was glad to see that her eyes were a darker grey than her sisters’, and were quick and glancing. He told her who he was, speaking honestly, not putting on a brogue to win her, and she smiled and held out her hand. It took her a little time to read the letter, and she frowned over it and held her forefinger to her lips, and bade him tell his aunt that she would send over an answer later in the day, after she had consulted her gardeners, and then she asked him if he would care to come into the house and drink some raspberry vinegar. As she led him across the lawn to the terrace, walking with long strides, he saw that her sisters were clustered in a group, staring up at a gutter high on the house, where a rook had perched, as if the bird were a great marvel. “Should I say good-bye to the ladies?” he asked nervously, and Parthenope answered, “No, they have forgotten you already” However, one had not. The sister who wore the light-red dress ran after him, crying, “Come back soon, little boy, Nobody ever comesRWP353 into this garden except to steal our strawberries.”
Parthenope took him through the silent house, pausing in the room where the dolls lay on the floor to lift them up and shut them in a drawer, and they came to a dining room, lined with pictures of great ships at war with stormy seas. There was no raspberry vinegar on the top of the sideboard–only decanters wearing labels marked with the names of adult drinks he was allowed only at Christmas and on his birthday, and then but one glass, and he always  chose claret. So they opened the cupboard below, and sat down together on the carpet and peered into the darkness while he told her that he did not really want any but if it had gone astray he would be pleased to help her find it. But when the decanter turned up at the very back of the shelf (and they agreed that that was what always happened where one lost anything, and that there was no doubt that objects can move), they both had a glass, talking meanwhile of what they liked to eat and drink. Like him, she hated boiled mutton, and she, too, liked goose better than turkey. When he had finished and the talk had slowed down, he rose and put his glass on the sideboard, and offered her a hand to help her up from the floor, but she did not need it; and he gave a last look round the room, so that he would not forget it. He asked her, “Why is your chandelier tied up in a canvas bag? At home that only happens when the family is away.” She answered, “Our family is away,” speaking so grimly that he said, “I did not mean to ask a rude question.” She told him. “you have not asked a rude question. What I meant was that all but two of us have our own homes, and those two will be leaving here soon.” It would not have RWP354been right to say that she spoke sadly. But her tone was empty of all it had held when they had talked about how much better chicken tastes when you eat it with your fingers when you are out shooting. He remembered all the sad things he had heard his aunt say about her family, the sadder things he had heard from the servants. He said, “Why don’t you come back with me and have tea with my aunt?” She said, smiling, “She has not asked me.” And he said, “Never think of that. We are not proper English, you know; we are from Ireland, and friends come in any time…” But she thanked him, sighing, so that he knew she would really have liked to come, and said that she must go back to her sisters. As the butler held the front door open for my uncle, she gave him a friendly slap across the shoulders, as an older boy might have done.
After that, my uncle never watched the Admiral’s daughters again. If a glance told him that they were in the garden, he turned his back on the window. He had not liked those staring eyes that were colourless as water, and it troubled him that though some of them had children, none had said, “I have a boy, too, but he is much younger than you,” for mothers always said that. He remembered Parthenope so well that he could summon her to his mind when he wished, and he could not bear to see her with these women who made him feel uneasy, because he was sure that he and she felt alike, and therefore she must be in a perpetual state of unease. so when, the very day before he was to go back to Ireland, he looked out of his bedroom window and saw her alone on the lawn, he threw up the sash and called to her; but she did not hear him. She was absorbed in playing a game byRW355 herself, a game that he knew well. She was throwing a ball high into the air, then letting her arms drop by her sides, and waiting to the last, the very last moment, before stretching out a hand to catch it. It was a strange thing for a grown-up lady to be doing, but it did not distress him like the play-ground gambolling and chattering of her sisters. They had been like children as grownups like to think of them, silly and meaningless and mischievous. But she was being a child as children really are, sobered by all they have to put up with and glad to forget it in play. There was currently some danger that his own father was going to get a post in some foreign place and that the whole family would have to leave County Kerry for years and years; and when he and his brothers and sisters thought of this, they would go and, each one apart, would play this very same game that Parthenope was playing.
He did not want to raise his voice in a shout, in case he was overheard by his aunt or his mother. They would not understand that although Parthenope and he had met only once, they knew each other quite well. He got up from the window seat and went out of his room and down through the house and out into the garden. There was a ladder in the coach house, and he dragged it to the right part of the wall and propped it up and stopped it with stones, and climbed to the top and called “Miss Parthenope” When she saw him, she smiled and waved at him as if she really were glad to see him again.
“Where are your sisters” he asked cautiously.
“They have all gone away. I am going home tomorrow.”
“So am I.”
“Are you glad?”
“Papa will be there,” he said, “and my brothers and sisters, and Garrity the groom, and my pony.”
NPG Ax45626,Jack Llewelyn Davies; Michael Llewelyn Davies; Sir James Matthew ('J.M.') Barrie, Bt; Sylvia Jocelyn Llewelyn Davies,by; copied by Unknown photographer; Lizzie Caswall SmithShe asked him the names of his brothers and sisters, and how old they were, and where his home was; and he told her all these things and told her, too, that his father was always being sent all over the world, and that of late he and his brothers and sisters had heard talk that someday,, and it might be soon, he would be sent to some foreign place for so long that they would have to go with him, and they didn’t want this to happen; for though they loved him and wanted to be near him, they loved County Kerry, too. At that, she stopped smiling and nodded her head, as if to say she knew how he must feel. “But perhaps it won’t happen,” he said, “and then you must come and stay with us for the hunting.” He thought of her in a riding habit, and at that he noticed that she was wearing a dress such as his own mother might have worn – a dress of grey cloth, with a tight bodice and a stiffened skirt, ornamented with braid. He said, “How funny to see you dressed like other ladies. Don’t you usually wear that lilac-grey muslin dress?”
She shook her head. “No. My sisters and I only wear those muslin dresses when we are together here. My, sisters like them.”
“Don’t you?”” he said, for her tone had gone blank again.
“No,” she answered, “not at all.”
He was glad to hear it, but it seemed horribly unfair that she should have to wear clothes she did not like, just because her sisters did; nothing ofRW360 the sort happened in his own family. “Then don’t wear them” he said passionately. “You mustn’t wear them! Not if you don’t like them!”
“You’re making your ladder wobble,” she said, laughing at him, “and if you fall down, I can’t climb over the wall and pick you up.” She started across the lawn toward the house.
“Garrity says that you’re lost if you let yourself be put upon,” he cried after her, his brogue coming back to him, but honestly, because he spoke to Garrity as Garrity spoke to him. He would have liked to have the power to make her do what she ought to do, and save her from all this foolishness.
“Good-bye, good-bye,” she called across the growing distance. “Be a good boy, and come back to see us next year.”
“You will be here for sure?” he asked eagerly.
“Oh, yes,” she promised. “We will always be back here for some time in the summer. My sisters would rather be here than anywhere in the world.”
“But do you like it yourself” he asked angrily.
It was no use. She had run up the steps to the terrace.
My uncle did not come back the next year, because his fears were realized and his father was appointed to a post in Canada. But from his aunt’s letters to his mother he learned that even if he had returned to Currivel Lodge, he would not have seen Parthenope, for the Admiral sold the house later that year, as soon as his two remaining daughters went C-419to the altar, which they did with even greater reluctance than their elder sisters. Alice Darrell’s maid happened to be at the window one winter day and saw the two of them walking up and down the lawn, dressed in those strange, bright muslin gowns and wearing no mantles, though the river mist was thick, while they wept and wrung their hands. Aunt Alice felt that even if the Admiral had felt obliged to bundle all his daughters into matrimony, he should at least not have sold the house, which was the one place where they could meet and have a little nursery happiness again.
In the course of time, Uncle Arthur came back to Ireland, and went to Trinity College, Dublin, and passed into the English Civil Service, and was sent to London. The first time he went back to Currivel Lodge, he stood at his bedroom window and stared out at the croquet lawn of the house next door, and it looked very much like other croquet lawns. Under the trees two men and two women were sitting round a tea table, all of them presenting the kind of appearance, more common then than now, that suggests that nothing untoward happens to the human race. It occurred to him that perhaps his boyish imagination had made a story out of nothing, but Aunt Alice gave him back his version intact. The Admiral had really hectored his daughters into early and undesired marriages, with the most brutal disregard for their feelings, and the daughters had really been very strange girls, given to running about the garden in a sort of fancy dress and behaving like children – all except Parthenope, who was quite remarkable. She had made her mark in society since then. Well, so they all had, in a way. Their photographs were always in the papers, at one time, and no wonder, they were so very pretty. But that seemed over now, and, indeed, they must all be out of their twenties by now, even the youngest. Parthenope’s triumphs, however, had been more durable. It was said that Queen Victoria greatly approved of her, and she was often at Court. My uncle always thought of Parthenope when he was dressingRWP344 for any of the grander parties to which he was invited, and he soon found his way to the opera and ascertained which was her box, but she was never at the parties, and, unless she had changed out of all recognition, never in her box at Covent Garden, either. My uncle did not wish to approach her, for he was a poor young man far below her grandeur, and they belonged to different generations; at the least, she was twelve years older than he was. But he would have liked to see her again.
Soon, however, he received an intimation that that would not be possible. One morning at breakfast he unfolded his newspaper and folded it again almost immediately, having read a single paragraph, which told him that Parthenope had met a violent death. He had failed to meet her at parties and to see her in her opera box because she had been spending the winter abroad, taking care of two of her sisters who had both been the victims of prolonged illness. Originally, they had settled at Nice, but had found it too urban, and had moved to a hotel at Grasse, where they spent some weeks. Then a friend had found them a pleasant villa at Hyères, and the party had started off from Grasse in two carriages. Parthenope and her sisters and a lady’s maid had travelled in the first, and another maid and a courier had followed in the second. The second carriage had dropped far behind. Afterwards, the coachman remembered that he had been oddly delayed in leaving the inn where they had stopped for a midday meal; he had been told that a (c) Fife Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationman was looking for him with a letter for his employers, and failing to find him had gone to a house some way down the village street. The coachman sought him but there was nobody there; and on his return to his horses he discovered that a harness strap was broken, and he had to mend it before they could resume their journey. After a sharp turn in the road, he had found himself driving into a felled tree trunk, and when the courier and the maid and the coachman got out, they could see no sign of the first carriage. It was found some hours later, abandoned on a cart track running through a wood to a river. There was no trace of any of its occupants. Later that same day the maid crawled up to a farmhouse door. Before she collapsed she was able to tell the story of an attack by masked men, who had, she thought, killed the three sisters outright because they refused to tell in which trunk their jewel cases were packed. She had escaped during the struggle, and while she was running away through the woods, she had heard terrible prolonged screaming from the riverbank. As the river was in flood, there was no hope of recovering the bodies.
After my uncle had read all the accounts of the crime that appeared in the newspapers, and had listened to all he could hear from gossiping friends, there hung, framed on the wall of his mind, a romantic picture of a highway robbery, in the style of Senator Rosa, with coal-black shadows and highlights white on hands lifted in imploration, and he felt no emotion whatsoever. When he had opened The Times at breakfast, his heart had stopped. But now he felt as if he had been stopped before an outmoded and conventional picture in a private gallery by a host who valued it too highly.
A year or so later, Alice Darrell mentioned to him an odd story she had heard. It appeared that Parthenope had been carrying a great deal moreRWP361 jewelry than would seem necessary for a woman travelling quietly with two invalid sisters. To be sure, she had not taken all tire jewelry she possessed, but she had taken enough for the value to be estimated at fifty thousand pounds; and of this not a penny could be recovered, for it was uninsured. Her husband had left the matter for her to handle, because she had sold some old jewelry and had bought some to replace it just about the time that the policy should have been renewed, but she had failed to write the necessary letter to her lawyers till the very night before the journey to Hyères, and it was found, unposted, at the hotel in Grasse.
“Parthenope!” my uncle said. “Let an insurance policy lapse! Parthenope! I’ll not believe it.”
“That’s just what I said,” Alice Darrell exclaimed. ‘Any of the others, but not Parthenope. She had her hand on everything. Yet, of course, she may have changed. They are a queer family. There was the other one, you know – the one who disappeared. That was after the accident.
It seemed that another sister – Hera, Aunt Alice thought it was – had also suffered ill health, and had gone to France with a nurse, and one day her cloak and bonnet were found on the bank of a river. “I wish that things turned out better,” Aunt Alice remarked sadly. “They do sometimes, but not often enough.” This was the only criticism of life he had ever heard her utter, though she had had a sad life, constantly losing the people she loved, to tropical diseases or to wars against obscure tribes that lacked even the interest of enmity. What she uttered now made him realize that she had indeed thought Parthenope remarkable, and he said, smiling, ” Why, we are making ourselves quite miserable about her, though all we know for sure is that she let an insurance policy lapse.”
C-2928He did not hear of the Admiral’s daughters again until after a long space of time, during which he had many other things to think about: his career, which was alternatively advanced by his brilliance and retarded by his abstracted candour; a long affair with a married woman older than himself, some others that were briefer; and his marriage, which, like his career, and for much the same reason, was neither a success nor a failure. One day when he was reading the papers at his club, he heard two men speaking of a friend who was distressed about his mother, whose behaviour had been strange since she had been left a widow. She had rejected the dower house and gone off to the Continent to travel by herself and now refused to come back to see her family or to meet them abroad. The mother had an old Greek name, and so had a sister, who had got herself murdered for her jewels in the South of France. My uncle went on staring at his newspaper, but it was as if a door in his mind were swinging backward and forward on a broken hinge.
Many years later, when Aunt Alice was dead and my uncle was a middle-aged man, with children who were no longer children, he broke his journey home from a conference in Spain at a certain town in the southwest of France, for no other reason than that its name had always charmed him. But it proved to be a dull place, and as he sat down to breakfast at a cafe€ in the large and featureless station square, it occurred to him to ask the waiter if there were not some smaller and pleasanter place in the neighbourhood where he could spend the rest of the day and night. The waiter said that if Monsieur would take the horse-bus that started from the other side of the square in half an hour, it would take him to the village where he, the waiter, was born, and there he would find a good inn and a church that people came all the way from ParisRWP362 to see. My uncle took his advice; and because his night had been wakeful, he fell asleep almost as soon as the bus started. He woke suddenly to find that the journey had ended and he was in a village which was all that he had hoped it would be. A broad, deliberate river, winding among low wooded hills, spread its blessings at this point through a circular patch of plain, a couple of miles or so across, which was studded with farmhouses, each standing beside its deep green orchard. In the centre of this circle was a village that was no more than one long street, which looked very clean. The houses were built of stone that had been washed by the hill rains, and beside the road a brook flowed over a paved bed. There were bursts of red valerian growing from the cracks in the walls and in the yard-long bridges that crossed the brook. The street ended in a little square, where the church and the inn looked across cobblestones, shaded by pollarded limes, at the mairie and the post office. At the inn, my uncle took a room and slept for an hour or two in a bed smelling of the herbs with which the sheets had been washed. Then, as it was past RWP365noon, he went down to lunch, and ate some potato soup, a trout, some wood strawberries, and a slice of cheese. Afterwards, he asked the landlord how soon the church would be open, and was told that he could open it himself when he chose. The priest and his housekeeper were away until vespers, and had left the church keys at the inn. When he went to the church, it was a long time before he unlocked the door, for there was a beautiful tympanum in the porch, representing the Last Judgement. It was clear-cut in more than one sense. There was no doubt who was saved and who was damned: there was a beatific smile on the faces of those walking in  Paradise, which made it seem as if just there a shaft of sunlight had struck the dark stone. Also the edges of the carving, though the centuries had rubbed them down, showed a definition more positive than mere sharpness. Often my uncle played games when he was alone, and now he climbed on a wooden stool which was in the porch, and shut his eyes and felt the faces of the blessed, and pretended that he had been blind for a long time, and that the smiles of the blessed were striking into his darkness through his fingertips. When he went into the church, he found, behind an oaken door, the steps that led to the top of the tower. He climbed up through darkness that was transfixed every few steps by thin shafts of light, dancing with dust, coming through the eyelet windows, and he found that though the tower was not very high, it gave a fine view of an amphitheatre of hills, green on their lower slopes with chestnut groves, banded higher with fir woods and bare turf, and crowned with shining rock. He marked some likely paths on the nearest hills, and then dropped his eyes to the village below, and looked down into the oblong garden of a house that seemed larger than the rest. At the farther end was the usual, pedantically neat French vegetable garden; then there was a screen of espaliered fruit trees; then there was a lawn framed in trees so tall and strong that it could have been guessed from them alone that not far away there was a river. The lawn wasRWP366 set with croquet hoops, and about them were wandering four figures in bright dresses—one hyacinth blue, one primrose yellow, one jade green, one clear light red. They all had croquet mallets in their hands, but they had turned from the game, and as my uncle watched them they drew together, resting their mallets on the ground. some distance away, a woman in black, taller thin the others, stood watching them.
When one of the croquet players let her mallet fall on the grass, and used her free hands in a fluttering gesture, my uncle left the top of the tower and went down through the darkness and shafts of light and locked the church door behind him. In the corner of the square he found what might have been the chateau of the village – one of those square and solid dwellings, noble out of proportion to their size, which many provincial French architects achieved in the seventeenth century. My uncle went through an iron gateway into a paved garden and found that the broad door of the house was open. He walked into the vestibule and paused, looking up the curved staircase. The pictures were as old as the house, and two had been framed to fit the recessed panels in which they hung. The place must have been bought as it stood. On the threshold of the corridor beyond, he paused again, for it smelled of damp stone, as all the back parts of his father’s house in County Kerry did, at any time of the year but high summer. It struck him as a piece of good fortune for which he had never before been sufficiently grateful that he could go back to that house any time he pleased; he would be there again in a few weeks’ time. He passed the open door of a kitchen, where two women RWP368were rattling dishes and pans and singing softly, and came to a closed door, which he stared at for a second before he turned the handle.
He found himself in a salon that ran across the whole breadth of the house, with three French windows opening on a stone terrace overlooking the garden. As he crossed it to the steps that led down to the lawn, he came close to a bird cage on a pole, and the scarlet parrot inside broke into screams. All the women on the lawn turned and saw him, and the tall woman in black called, “Que voulez-vous, Monsieur?” She had put her hand to her heart and he was eager to reassure her, but could not think how, across that distance, to explain why he had come. So he continued to walk toward her, but could not reach her because the four others suddenly scampered toward him, crying “Go away! Go away!” Their arms flapped like bats’ wings, and their voices were cracked, but, under their white hair, their faces were unlined and their eyes were colourless as water, “Go away!” shrilled the one in light red. “We know you have come to steal our strawberries. why may we not keep our own strawberries?” But the figure in black had come forward with long strides, and told them to go on with their game, and asked again, “Que voulez-vous, Monsieur?” Her hair was grey now, and her mouth so sternly compressed that it was a straight line across her face. She reminded my uncle of a particular man – her father, the Admiral-but she was not like a man, she was still a handsome and athletic boy, though a frost had fallen on him; and still it was strange that she should look like a boy, since she was also not male at all. My uncle found that now he was face to face with her, it was just as difficult to explain to her why he had come. He said, “I came to this village by chance this morning, and after I had luncheon at the inn I went to the top of the church tower, and looked down on this garden, and recognized you all. I came to tell you that if there is anything I can do for you I will do it. I am a civil servant who has quite a respectable career,C-2038 and so I can hope that I might be efficient enough to help you if you need it.”
“That is very kind,” she said, and paused, and it was as if she were holding a shell to her ear and listening to the voice of a distant sea. “Very kind,” she repeated. “But who are you?”
“I am the nephew of your neighbour, Mrs Darrell,” said my uncle. “I brought you a letter from her, many years ago, when you were all in your garden.”
Her smile broke slowly. “I remember you,” she said. “You were a fatherly little boy. You gave me good advice from the top of a ladder. Why should you have found me here, I wonder? It can’t be that, after all, there is some meaning in the things that happen. You had better come into the house and drink some of the cherry brandy we make here. I will get the cook to come out and watch them. I never leave them alone now.”
While she went to the kitchen, my uncle sat in the salon and noted that, for all its fine furniture and all its space and light, there was a feeling that the place was dusty, the same feeling that he had noticed in the Admiral’s house long ago. It is the dust of another world, he thought with horror, and the housemaids of this world are helpless against it. It settles wherever these women live, and Parthenope must live with them.
When she came back, she was carrying a tray with a slender decanter and very tiny glasses. They sat sipping the cherry brandy in silence until she said, “I did nothing wrong.”
He looked at her in astonishment. Of course she had done nothing wrong. Wrong was what she did not do.
But she continued gravely. “When we all die, it will be found that the sum I got for the jewelry is intact. My stepson will not be a penny the worse off. Indeed, he is better off, for my husband has had my small inheritance long before it would have come to him if I had not done this.”
C-1616“I knew you would have done it honestly,” said my uncle. He hesitated. “This is very strange. You see, I knew things about you which I had no reason to know. I knew you had not been murdered.” Then my uncle had to think carefully. They were united by eternal bonds, but hardly knew each other, which was the reverse of what usually happened to men and women. But they might lapse into being strangers and nothing else if he showed disrespect to the faith by which she lived. He said only, “Also I knew that what you were doing in looking after your family was terrible.”
She answered, “Yes. How good it is to hear somebody say that it is terrible, and to be able to answer that it is. But I had to do it. I had to get my sisters away from their husbands. They were ashamed of them. They locked them up in the care of strangers. I saw their bruises.”  My uncle caught his breath, “Oh,” she said, desperately just, “the people who looked after them did not mean to be cruel. But they were strangers; they did not know the way to handle my sisters. And their husbands were not bad men, either. And even if they had been, I could not say a word against them, for they were cheated; my father cheated them. They were never told the truth about my mother. About my mother and half her family.” She raised her little glass of cherry brandy to her lips and nodded, to intimate that that was all she had to say, but words rushed out and she brought her glass down to her lap. “I am not telling the truth. Their husbands cheated, too. No, I am wrong. They did not cheat. But they failed to keep their bond. Still, there is no use talking about that.”
“What bond did your sisters’ husbands not keep?” my uncle asked.
“They married my sisters because they were beautiful, and laughed easily, and could not understand figures. They might have considered thatRWP341 women who laugh easily might scream easily, and that if figures meant nothing to them, words might mean nothing, either, and that if figures and words meant nothing to them, thoughts and feelings might mean nothing, too. But these men had the impudence to feel a horror of my sisters.”
She rose, trembling, and told him that he must have a sweet biscuit with his cherry brandy, and that she would get him some; they were in a cupboard in the corner of the room. Over her shoulder, she cried, “I cannot imagine you marrying a woman who was horrible because she was horrible, and then turning against her because she was horrible.” She went on seeing some wafers out on a plate, and he stared at the back of her head, unable to imagine what was inside it, saying to himself, “She realizes that they are horrible; there is no mitigation of her state.”
When she sat down again, she said, “But it was my father’s fault.”
“What was your father’s fault?” he asked gently, when she did not go on.
“Why, he should not have made us marry; he should not have sold our house. My sisters were happy there, and all they asked was to be allowed to go on living there, like children.”
“Your father wanted his daughters to marry so that they would have someone to look after them when he was dead,” my uncle told her.
“I could have looked after them.”
“Come now,” said my uncle, “you are not being fair. You are the same sort of person as your father. And you know quite well that if you were a man you would regard all women as incapable. You see, men of the better kind want to protect the women they love, and there is so much RWP336stupidity in the male nature and the circumstances of life are generally so confused that they end up thinking they must look after women because women cannot look after themselves. It is only very seldom that a man meets a woman so strong and wise that he cannot doubt her strength and wisdom, and realizes that his desire to protect her is really the same as his desire to gather her into his arms and partake of her glory.”
Moving slowly and precisely, he took out his card-case and was about to give her one of his cards when a thought struck him. She must have the name of his family’s house in County Kerry as well as his London address, and know that he went there at Christmas and at Easter, and in the summer, too. She would be able to find him whenever she wanted him, since such bootblack service was all he could render her.
She read the card and said in an astonished whisper, “Oh, how kind, how kind.” Then she rose and put it in a drawer in a secretaire, which she locked with a key she took from a bag swinging from the belt of her hateful black gown. “I have to lock up everything,” she said, wearily. “They mean no harm, but sometimes they get at papers and tear them up.”
“What I have written on that card is for an emergency,” said my uncle. “But what is there I can do now? I do not like the thought of you sitting here in exile, among things that mean nothing to you. Can I not send you out something English – a piece of furniture, a picture, some china or glass? If I were in your place, I would long for something that reminded me of the houses where I had spent my childhood.”
“If you were in my place, you would not,” she said. “You are very kind, but the thing that has happened to my family makes me not at all anxious to remember my childhood. We were all such pretty children. Everybody always spoke as if we were bound to be. And in those days nobody wasRWP369 frightened of Mamma – they only laughed at her, because she was such a goose. Then one thing followed another, and it became quite certain about Mamma, and then it became quite certain about the others; and now I cannot bear to think of the good times that went before. It is as if someone had known and was mocking us. But you may believe that it is wonderful for me to know that there is someone I can call on at any time. You see, I had supports, which are being taken away from me. You really have no idea how I got my sisters out here?”
My uncle shook his head. “I only read what was in the newspapers and knew it was not true.”
“But you must have guessed I had helpers,” she said. “There was the highway robbery to be arranged. All that was done by somebody who was English but had many connections in France, a man who was very fond of Arethusa.  Arethusa is the one who spoke to you in the garden; she always wears red. This man was not like her husband; when she got worse and worse, he felt no horror for her, only pity. He has always been behind me, but he was far older than we were, and he died three years ago; and since then his lawyer in Paris has been a good friend, but now he is old, too, and I must expect him to go soon, I have made all arrangements for what is to happen to my sisters after my death. They will go to a convent near here, where the nuns are really kind, and we are preparing them for it. One or other of the nuns comes here every day to see my sisters, so that they will never have to be frightened by strange faces; and I think that if my sisters go on getting worse at the same rate as at present, they will by then believe the nuns when they say that I have been obliged to go away and will come back presently. But till that time comes, I will be very glad to have someone I can ask for advice. I RWP371can see that you are to be trusted. You are like the man who loved Arethusa. My poor Arethusa! Sometimes I think,” she said absently, “that she might have been all right if it had been that man whom she had married. But no,” she cried, shaking herself awake, “none of us should have married, not even me.”
“Why should you not have married? asked my uncle. “That the others should not I understand. But why not you? There is nothing wrong with you.”
“Is there not?” she asked. “To leave my family and my home, to stage a sham highway robbery, and later to plot and lie, and lie and plot, in order to get my mad sisters to a garden I had once noted, in my travels, as something like the garden taken from them when they were young. There is an extravagance in the means my sanity took to rescue their madness that makes the one uncommonly like the other.”
“You must not think that,” my uncle told her. “Your strange life forced strangeness on your actions, but you are not strange. You were moved by love, you had seen their bruises.”
“Yes, I had seen their bruises,” she agreed. “But,” she added, hesitantly, “you are so kind that I must be honest with you. It was not only for the love of my sisters that I arranged this flight. It is also true that I could not bear my life. I was not wholly unselfish. You do not know what it is likeRWP372 to be a character in a tragedy. Something has happened which can only be explained by supposing that God hates you with merciless hatred, and nobody will admit it. The people nearest you stand round you saying that you must ignore this extraordinary event, you must – what were the words I was always hearing? – ‘keep your sense of proportion,’ ‘not brood on things.’ They do not understand that they are asking you to deny your experiences, which is to pretend that you do not exist and never have existed. And as for the people who do not love you, they laugh. Our tragedy was so ridiculous that the laughter was quite loud. There were all sorts of really funny stories about the things my mother and sisters did before they were shut up. That is another terrible thing about being a character in a tragedy; at the same time you become a character in a farce. Do not deceive yourself,” she said, looking at him kindly and sadly. “I am not a classical heroine, I am not Iphigenia or Electra or Alcestis, I am the absurd Parthenope. There is no dignity in my life. For one thing, too much has happened to me. One calamity evokes sympathy; when two calamities call for it, some still comes, but less. Three calamities are felt to be too many, and when four are reported, or five, the thing is ludicrous. God has only to strike one again and again for one to become a clown. There is nothing about me which is not comical. Even my flight with my sisters has become a joke.” She sipped at her glass. “My sisters’ husbands and their families must by now have found out where we are. I do not think my husband ever did, or he would have come to see me. But there are many little indications that the others know, and keep their knowledge secret, rather than let loose so monstrous a scandal.”
“You say your husband would have come to see you?” asked my uncle, wanting to make sure. “But that must mean he loved you.”
C-819At last the tears stood in her eyes. She said, her voice breaking, “Oh, things might have gone very well with my husband and myself, if love had been possible for me. But of course it never was.”
“How wrong you are,” said my uncle. “There could be nothing better for any man than to have you as his wife. If you did not know that, your husband should have made you understand it.”
“No, no,” she said. “The fault was not in my husband or myself. It was in love, which cannot do all that is claimed for it. Oh, I can see that it can work miracles, some miracles, but not all the miracles that are required before life can be tolerable, Listen: I love my sisters, but I dare not love them thoroughly. To love them as much as one can love would be to go to the edge of an abyss and lean over the edge, farther and farther, till one was bound to lose one’s balance and fall into the blackness of that other world where they live. That is why I never dared let my husband love me fully. I was so much afraid that I might be an abyss, and if he understood me, if we lived in each other, he would be drawn down into my darkness.”
“But there is no darkness in you,” said my uncle, “you are not an abyss, you are the solid rock.”
“Why do you think so well of me?” she wondered. “Of course, you are right to some extent – I am not the deep abyss I might be. But how could I be sure of that when I was young? Every night when I lay down in bed I examined my day for signs of folly. If I had lost my temper, if I had felt more joy than was reasonable, I was like one of a tuberculous family who has just heard herself cough. Only the years that had not then passed made me sure that I was unlike my sisters, and until I knew, I had to hold myself back. I could not let the fine man who was my husband beC-1452 tempted into my father’s fault.”
“What was your father’s fault?” asked my uncle, for the second time since he had entered that room.
Again her disapproval was absolute, her eyes were like steel. But this time she answered at once, without a moment’s hesitation: Why, he should not have loved my mother.”
“But you are talking like a child!” he exclaimed. “You cannot blame anyone for loving anyone.”
“Did you ever see him?” she asked, her eyes blank because they were filled with a distant sight. “Yes? You must have been only a boy, but surely, you say that he was remarkable. And he had a mind, he was a mathematician, he wrote a book on navigation that was thought brilliant; they asked him to lecture to the Royal Society. And one would have thought from his face that he was a giant of goodness and strength. How could such a man love such a woman as my mother? It was quite mad, the way he made us marry. How could he lean over the abyss of her mind and let himself be drawn down into that darkness?”
“Do not let your voice sink to a whisper like that,” my uncle begged her. “It – it –”
“It frightens you,” she supplied.
“But have you,” he pressed her, “no feeling for your mother?”
“Oh yes,” she said, her voice breaking. “I loved my mother very much. But when she went down into the darkness, I had to say good-bye to her or I could not have looked after my sisters.” It seemed as if she was going to weep, but she clung to her harshness and asked again, “How could my father love such a woman?”
My uncle got up and knelt in front of her chair and took her trembling hands in his. “There is no answer, so do not ask the question.”
C-1550“I must ask it,” she said. “surely it is blasphemy to admit that one can ask questions to which there are no answers. I must ask why my father leaned over the abyss of my mother’s mind and threw himself into it, and dragged down victim after victim with him – not only dragging them down but manufacturing them for that sole purpose, calling them out of nothingness simply so that they could fall and fall. How could he do it? If there is not an answer – ”
He put his hand over her lips. “He cannot have known that she was mad when he begot his children.”
Her passion had spent itself in her question. She faintly smiled as she said, “No, but I never liked the excuse that he and my sisters’ husbands made for themselves. They all said that at first they had simply thought their wives were rather silly. I could not have loved someone whom I thought rather silly. Could you?”
“It is not what I have done,” said my uncle. “May I have some more cherry brandy?”
“I am so glad you like it,” she said, suddenly happy. “But you have given me the wrong glass to fill. This is mine.”
“I knew that,” he told her. “I wanted to drink from your glass.”
“I would like to drink from yours,” she said, and for a little time they were silent. “Tell me,” she asked meekly, as if now she had put herself in his hands, “do you think it has been wrong for me to talk about what has happened to me? When I was at home they, always said it was bad to brood over it.”
“What nonsense,” said my uncle. “I am sure that it was one of the major misfortunes of Phèdre and Bérénice that they were unable to read Racine’s clear-headed discussions of their miseries.”
“You are right,” said Parthenope. “Oh, how kind Racine was to tragic people! He would not allow for a moment that they were comic. People atRWP375 those courts must have giggled behind their hands at poor Bérénice, at poor Phèdre. But he ignored them. You are kind like Racine.”
There was a tapping on the glass of the French window,, and her face went grey. “What has happened now? Oh, what has happened now?” she murmured to herself. It was the cook who had tapped, and she was looking grave. Parthenope went out and spoke with her for a minute, and then came back, and again the tears were standing in her eyes. “I thought I might ask you to stay all day with me,” she said. “I thought we might dine together. But my sisters cannot bear it that there is a stranger here. They’re are hiding in the raspberry canes, and you must have heard them screaming. Part of that noise comes from the parrot, but part from them. It sometimes takes hours to get them quiet. I cannot help it; you must go.”
He took both her hands and pressed them against his throat, and felt it swell as she muttered, “Good-bye.” But as he was going through the paved garden to the gateway he heard her call “Stop! Stop!” and she was just behind him, her skirts lifted over her ankles so that she could take her long strides. “The strangest thing,” she said, laughing. “I have not told you the name by which I am known here.” She spelled it out to him as he wrote it down in his diary, and turned back toward the house, exclaiming, “What a thing to forget” But then she swung back again, suddenly pale, and said, “But do not write to me. I am only giving you the name so that if I send you a message you will be able to answer it. But do not write to me.”
“Why not?” he asked indignantly. “Why not?”
“You must not be involved in my life,” she said. “There is a force outside the world that hates me and all my family. If you wrote to me too often it might hate you, too.”
C-2351“I would risk that,” he said, but she cried, covering her eyes, “No, no, by being courageous you are threatening my last crumb of happiness. If you stay a stranger, I may be allowed to keep what I have of you. So do as I say.”
He made a resigned gesture, and they parted once more. But as she got to her door, he called to her to stop and hurried back. “I will not send you anything that will remind you of your home,” he said, “but may I not send you a present from time to time – some stupid little thing that will not mean much but might amuse you for a minute or two?”
She hesitated but in the end nodded. “A little present, a very little present,” she conceded. “And not too often.” She smiled like the saved in the sculpture in the church, and slowly closed the door on him.
But when he was out in the square and walking toward the inn, he heard her voice crying again, “Stop! Stop!” This time she came quite close to him and said, as if she were a child ashamed to admit to a fault, “There is another thing that I would like to ask of you. You said that I might write to you if I wanted anything, and I know that you meant business things – the sort of advice men give women. But I wonder if your kindness goes beyond that; You are so very kind. I know all about most dreadful things in life, but I know nothing about death. Usually I think I will not mind leaving this world, but just now and then, if I wake up in the night, particularly in winter, when it is very cold, I am afraid that I may be frightened when I die.”
“I fear that, too, sometimes,” he said.
“It seems a pity, too, to leave this world, in spite of the dreadful things that happen in it,” she went on. “There are things that nothing can spoil –C-3061 the spring and the summer and the autumn.”
“And, indeed, the winter, too,” he said.
“Yes, the winter, too,” she said and looked up at the amphitheatre of hills round the village. “You cannot think how beautiful it is here when the snow has fallen. But, of course, death may be just what one has been waiting for; it may explain everything. But still, I may be frightened when it comes. So if I do not die suddenly, if I have warning of my death, would it be a great trouble for you to come and be with me for a little?”
“As I would like to be with you always, I would certainly want to be with you then,” he said. “And if I have notice of my death and you are free to travel, I will ask you to come to me.”
My uncle found that he did not want to go back to the inn just then, and he followed a road leading up to the foothills. There he climbed one of the paths he had remarked from the top of the church tower, and when he got to the bare rock, he sat down and looked at the village beneath him till the twilight fell. On his return to London, he painted a water-colour of the view of the valley as he recollected it, and pasted it in a book, which he kept by his bedside. From time to time, some object in the window of an antique shop or a jeweller’s would bring Parthenope to his mind, and he would send it to her, The one that pleased him as most fitting was a gold ring; in the form of two leaves, which was perhaps Saxon. She acknowledged these presents in brief letters; and it delighted him that often her solemn purpose of brevity broke down and she added an unnecessary sentence or two, telling him of something that had brightened her day – of a strayed fawn she had found in her garden, or a prodigious crop of cherries, RWP379which had made her trees quite red. But after some years these letters stopped. When he took into account how old she was, and by how many years she had been the elder, he realized that probably she had died. He told himself that at least she had enjoyed the mercy of sudden death, and presently ceased to think of her. It was as if the memory of her were too large to fit inside his head; he felt actual physical pain when he tried to recollect her. This was the time when such things as the finest buttercup field near London and the tomb of Captain Vancouver seemed to be all that mattered to him. But from the day when he heard the girl at the inn called by the name of his Parthenope, he again found it easy to think of her; and he told me about her very often during the five years that passed before his death.






Blogs by their very nature tend to be personal, so it may not be amiss for me to admit that a few months ago I suffered a reverse which thenRWP381 slipped into an ever-worsening slump, and that since then my thinking has still not recovered its accustomed level of serviceability. But this story by the redoubtable Rebecca West has gone a long way towards ameliorating that condition, though not my present inclination to cavil and inveigh.

It is the kind of old-fashioned, rambling short-story one is pleased and surprised to find being published in the New Yorker on the cusp of the ‘sixties. The story has nothing in it – not even a trace –  of anything sordid, base or dull, and none of West’s caustic wit at the forefront, for there is no need here for her to be blatant about it. Her narrative is deceptively relaxed, but finely wrought – an antique gold watch chain attached to a fine old watch that keeps perfect time.

It comes as no surprise then, that reading it was to me as a gentle restorative, and in its way a redemption. I have to curb myself in order to restrain, as one would call it, an excess of enthusiasm, as one feels when encountering after a long while an old love, or the object of a deep affection. But why should I be so powerfully affected? The simple and truthful answer is that something in me was made to resonate.
As with all periodicals, even the highly traditional New Yorker has had to change somewhat with the times, and the changes are never more apparent to me than in the current quality and tone of its fiction. I do not know whether there have been still further changes, and perhaps for the better, in recent times, but since I  have simply stopped reading the short stores, I have no way of knowing for certain if the cooked cardboard characters going about their uninteresting business have ceased to inhabit the fiction features. Perhaps it is not the New Yorker which is to blame, but the dearth of available material. Perhaps before too long I might persuade myself to summon the gumption to try reading another such offering, because I would like very much to be surprised.

C-1436Part of the problem is perhaps that in this century, short-stories have become recognisably formulaic, consistently striking the same dull note. The challenge in many instances seems to be how much can be written about little or nothing that is of any significance, and how much talent and determination can be brought to documenting a catalogue of banalities. Not that it can’t be superbly done, and Elizabeth Bowen’s October 11, 1941 piece “Everything’s Frightfully Interesting” written almost entirely in dialogue, takes triviality and vapid conversation to the level of sublimity. But Bowen isn’t around anymore is she – nor is Katherine Mansfield or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or for a matter of fact Rebecca West. Its needs must when the devil rides for the New Yorker I suppose, when there are no longer any such writers to contribute.

All writing is contrived: that is axiomatic, and the most of it more flagrantly than the small remainder. But some contrivances are so obviously, so egregiously and blatantly, fake as to resemble painted corpses, and the surrounding flowers and white satin only serve to accentuate that there is no life to be found here.  I often wonder if this kind of writing is the precursor of further corruption. Certainly it is not something which belongs above-ground, as one instinctively feels in it the incipience of decay. The New Yorker published  “Parthenope” on November 7 1959, but this story seems much older in tone, and one suspects that West might have written it several decades earlier. Then too, her characters were born in the Victorian era, and this is something we must bear in mind when we read her story. So I could, I suppose, conclude that some of my obvious delight derives from my bitterRWP383 and forlorn inner literary atavist raising its shaggy head.

In “Parthenope” we have all the potent ingredients of a Victorian story finely adapted to a later time: first love, an implacably authoritarian father, madness, victimised women, self-sacrifice, an honourable protagonist, glimpses into the workings of families, foreign travel, inter-generational relationships, and a high moral tone modulated to a contemporary range of hearing. Still, I find West’s adumbration of the original Parthenope story curious. Our Parthenope, despite her act of heroic self-sacrifice, was a married woman and not a virgin (the Greek name ‘Parthenope’ means maiden-face), and did not commit suicide for love of an adventurer. And Uncle Arthur, despite his infidelities and foreign travel, was no Odysseus. True, he seems to have been beckoned by the siren’s song, but he never stopped his ears to keep from hearing it, and I think he was ready to love as fully and authentically as he could, had he been so permitted. The Sirens’ call is a metaphor for the implacable undertow that beauty and music have on our lives. These two forces often divert us from our charted course, RWP384and we founder on them and lose our wonted bearings, but the paradox is that rather than killing us, they remove us from the deadness of what life would be without them. Perhaps it is a small but definite riff of redemption that West intended us to hear, for there is no connection in the story to Naples, where after her suicide Parthenope’s body was washed ashore between Chiatamone and Posilippo at a place originally called Parthenope by the Greeks and Neapolis by the Romans. West might have chosen to name her character after Parthenope in order to echo the themes of the divine punishment visited upon the Sirens,  their uncanny natures, as well as that of unfulfilled love, all themes which possess the elements of tragedy, but don’t quite rise to its accepted requirements.

West’s Parthenope is an intriguing character. Her androgynous appearance, stressed and carefully described by West, suggests for me a subtly lesbian flavour, much like Marion (another resourceful and loyal sister) in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. When she creates an almost saintly heroine who martyrs herself in order to take care of her weak-minded sisters (one of whom nevertheless knew about Titian, and loved light, red dresses and red hair), West departs from her unshakable conviction that self-sacrifice in women is to be deplored, or perhaps this story predated that conviction. But is it really sacrifice when it is the only choice one can make, and other choices lead only to self-betrayal?C-3915 Is West implying there is no such thing as being altruistic? Or in Parthenope is she painting for us a different kind of ‘sacrifice’ which has nothing to do with weak submission, but a strong and decisive resolve to assume responsibility for the happiness and welfare of her sisters? Certainly Parthenope showed evidence of an exceptional courage when she set aside the fear that she herself might go mad in the future, and  put into action a daring plan to rescue her sisters from the horror of the lives to which their mental disease and and unsympathetic husbands had destined them. Though Fate ran through it like an indelible blight, there seems to have been so much grace to be found in her uneasy life, and there is no doubt at all that in the last or any other judgement, Parthenope would be on the side of those redeemed. She herself is one of the things that ‘nothing can spoil’.

The ambivalent feelings reserved by his family for Uncle Arthur (‘derision and respect’) give us an important key to his character. He is brilliant but clueless, at least in regard to his relationships with his superiors in the Civil Service. He also seems to be  ineffectual, unambitious, and with the exception of the niece in the story, his family ties seem rather loose. But that may be only as it appears. Uncle Arthur’s RWP385career setbacks have hidden implications. Anyone who has been employed for any significant length of time in a State bureaucracy will soon learn that these are highly corrupt places, where those in power have gained their position through political manouevering. Superiors, even if they are not intrinsically evil, are people who manage to set themselves up in positions of authority over others, and soon themselves become the tools of moral corruption. That Uncle Arthur seems to have been oblivious to this could mean one of two things: either he might not have cared enough about the consequences of offending the vanity of his chiefs, or something in his character carried him beyond the reach of the internal culture of his profession. He seems quite simply to have been a gentle scholar who nevertheless did not desist from using his scholarship to point out the vanity and ignorance of his eminently placed superiors. To describe him as unambitious is one of the  greatest compliments it is possible for me to pay a civil servant, since in my personal experience at least, what is required in order to fulfill any professional ambitions in such an organisation or one like it, is close and vigilant engagement with a pack of highly detestable characters, and a willingness to engage with them on questionable terms. He had, I think, a greatRWP387 sense of justice and fairness,  and an instinctive honesty. It seems not to have been learned, or forced, or acquired as a desirable trait, and not adopted to please God, but an instinct for virtue. He did not turn bitter for not having reaped the rewards he might have expected  either in his career or his marriage, or for that matter, for not having managed a single successful relationship with a member of the opposite sex.

It is possible that marriage failed to give satisfaction because there was nothing there that needed saving, the impulse to save being deeply ingrained in his character. When he shuts his eyes and explores the faces of the blessed on the tympanum of the chapel, one feels it is an act  which afforded him great satisfaction and pleasure. He would have wished to save Parthenope had he been given the opportunity. She had inspired in him an instant spark of fellow-feeling, and the first flaring of indignation he felt on her behalf had never been entirely extinguished. That was his immediate impulse when he saw her again, and when he found this was not possible, he resolved to offer her whatever ancillary support it was in his power to provide. He never seems to have been able to forget Parthenope, and one wonders if he sought her echo in the older married woman with whom he had an affaire. His infidelities notwithstanding, we find in him the unmistakable evidence of a lofty nature: a deferential love, deference being the complex and evolved behaviour it always is when at its finest and not merely a trait which cannot be distinguished from weakness or inferiority.

RWP388Though his love was to find no conventional fulfillment, he found no cause to repine. Even at a difficult moment he was determined to find joy by resolving to be alive to life and natural beauty. He may have been deprived of youthful happiness, the lush beauty of Summer and Autumn, but he would claim from what remained whatever there was of love and happiness to be desired by his heart. This to me seems much more suggestive of strength than weakness.  Arthur was precocious when young and child-like when old. Does this mean he was at his core a balanced well-integrated being? Or does it suggest he was always out of synch with his chronological stage in life? At an obvious level, I think it reveals that he possessed an ability to respond to circumstances with an unexpected amplitude of feeling .

This and other aspects of West’s story lead me to the conclusion that she wrote it when still quite young. For instance, every exchange between Uncle Arthur and Parthenope when he was a young boy and an old man, is marked by a tacit discernment and intuitive grasp of what each reveals to the other. This is very much the kind of understanding young people would like their elders to have, and would wish to be seen to have themselves. To be perceived and to be taken seriously by an adult is a gift which a young child in Victorian times could not often expect to receive, and it is no wonder then that Uncle Arthur found Parthenope unforgettable.

I suspect that Uncle Arthur was never really understood by anyone else. I suspect he might have seemed remote and removed with his family, toRWP389 whom he was neither fish nor fowl, and his peers and colleagues were probably at a loss of what to make of him. He seems to have been adept at keeping his own counsel, and accustomed to keeping his ears open and his mouth shut, which is an equally useful skill in a State bureaucracy, or a club or breakfast table when one has just read a shocking bit of news about which it is important to not immediately comment. Nor does he seem to have flaunted his brilliance or erudition or worked to his advantage his astute understanding of the relationships between men and women, which is why, I suppose, he seems, despite such  obvious disappointments, to have no axe to grind in that regard.  Though by the time he meets Parthenope again, and being very much comme il faut, he knows exactly when to presume, and when not. He lets himself onto the premises unannounced, and allows himself the intimacy of drinking from Parthenope’s glass. He appears not to have outgrown his childish claim of “we are not proper English you know…” but retains intact the same delicacy about her feelings he possessed as a child. I think more than the recognition and appreciation of one lonely soul of another it is the knowledge that each was the only soul to whom the other could make itself known that forms the basis of their ‘unbreakable bond’. They have much in common, and though he is wrong RWP390about a few things about her (such as when he mistakenly assumes that she suffers from a sense of exile and misses her old home in England and wishes to to be reminded of it), he recognises her strength and beauty, and in fact sees her much better than she appears to see herself. One hopes that before he left, and  later by his continued expression of loyalty and love, he was able to convince her to recognise her strength and worth. I hope as well he might have persuaded her to find a more personal happiness for herself than she had permitted herself to have until then, though West rings down the curtain on Parthenope without permitting us the gratification of knowing that to any degree of certainty.

I suppose this might be a good place at which to stop my commentary, but many speculations still linger on in my mind. West’s classical allusion is a reflection of the punishment the Sirens incurred for challenging the Muses in a contest of singing, after which they were changed into creatures with the heads of birds and the bodies of women, which seems to imply, given a dual nature. In the case of Parthenope (the siren), the punishment was worse: her failed attempt to seduce Odysseus drove her to suicide. In giving Parthenope the face of a woman and the body of a boy, West suggest a similar duality. Along with that, West endows her with traits thought conventionally to be masculine, those of protectiveness, courage,  and resourcefulness. Uncle Arthur however bears only the vaguest  resemblance to Odysseus, and that only in the feeling we get that he is a wanderer always far from home. But there is a hidden implication here as well. The union of Odysseus and Penelope is described by Homer as comprising a perfect balance of male and female. So this is what appears to me to be at the root of Uncle Arthur’s ‘homesickness’, a fact that as a classical scholar, might not have escaped him entirely. He seems to have lacked the ability to respond competently and effectively to a situation that needed changing or improving, and simply tolerated the circumstances in which he found himselfRWP391 with what might be seen as as bland passivity, as Parthenope did not.

Parthenope’s ‘presumption’ may have been that she took it upon herself to play a masculine role, that of a guardian and protector of women. Complexities of character sometimes tend to be sorted out in pairs of opposites such as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. The reason she was not fatally punished for this is that she, like Odysseus, ‘lashed herself to the mast’ – hers the mast of the eternal vigilance she exercised over her thoughts and actions, always subjecting herself to the closest scrutiny for any sign of incipient madness. Thinking herself always to be on the very brink of that abyss, she would never permit herself to be lost in it, and so discharged her duties sedulously and assiduously like the ‘wise virgin’ she was. Vigilance was the price for avoiding perdition.

G2729Parthenope’s understanding of tragedy was entirely Greek, whereas Uncle Arthur’s, with its understanding of redress and even salvation, tends towards the Christian, and in this he does indeed resemble Racine to whom West would, as Parthenope does, compare him. But another Racinian insight (a term I just made up) is that tragedy derives from the realisation that one can do nothing to alter the more intractable forms of tragic inheritance, as well as the irresistible compulsion to reflect upon it which usually accompanies an introspective nature. I think ‘Parthenope’ also invites us to ask the question of what rises to the level of tragedy and what does not, or not quite does, and the parts played by fate and choice in our lives. Parthenope chose to forego the happiness of a continued liaison with Uncle Arthur for fear of the tragic consequences she believed might ensue if she did not withhold herself,  and he complies with her mandate with only a few small but significant exemptions. So both of them resolve their dilemmas by deciding to forgo happiness in order that in doing so tragedy might be averted.

But my own stubborn mind reverts to a third option, that of propitiation. The gods are not always implacable, and their vanity predisposes them to be susceptible to appeasement. I don’t know why at this point I was reminded of the Palinode written by Stesichoros, by which means he induced Helen (who was worshipped by the Spartans as a goddess) to retract the penalty of blindness she had imposed on him for the impudent statements he had made about her. In his palinode Stesichoros revised history:

There is no truth in that story,
You didn’t ride in the well-rowed galleys,
You didn’t reach the walls of Troy.

Though there is no mitigation for ultimate tragedy, there is some for loss, and one of them is the retention of dignity. Uncle Arthur insisted onRWP394 reframing Parthenope’s despairing characterisation of her tragedy as verging on farce to a great misfortune faced with gallantry and strength, and in doing so he restored to her a sense of her own dignity. Sometimes this perspective can only be gained by securing a view from a point above the plane of action. Uncle Arthur’s ascent to the top of the church tower permitted him to catch sight of Parthenope’s sisters playing croquet, and thus to find her again. In aiding a revisitation of her past, he helped her reexamine her father’s behaviour and her own conclusions about him in a different light, and in so doing perhaps he rewrote Parthenope’s history himself.

Another possibility is that Parthenope might well have served out her term of punishment. I wonder if this idea occurred to Uncle Arthur, though it was one he was constrained by Parthenope from pursuing. The foregoing  of the pleasure of a day spent in each other’s company was one of the final offerings laid by Parthenope on the altar of the punitive gods, but they must have known that in the preceding years Uncle Arthur too had paid a collateral price, because  both he and Parthenope had, each in his and her different way, become exiles. Although both of their exiles possessed ambiguous RWP395elements (hers because she herself wished to escape her old life, and his because he was deterred from finding as fitting a place in life with her as might have been wished), the price paid by him might have been considered to augment hers. Euripides remarked that “All women are exiles”,  but we sense in Uncle Arthur too a certain rootlessness, and what appear to be his frequent travels away from home may have been contrived in part to sharpen the pleasure of his return. He shows no indication of wanting to return to his his wife and family, though is it left unclear if he had either to return to. ‘Home’ to him meant a place and not people, but it may have been that this was an accommodation he was inclined to make, in the absence of the only person who mattered to him and with whom he might have been ‘at home’.

It did not matter to Uncle Arthur that in sharing Parthenope’s life he risked incurring God’s displeasure, but it mattered very much to her. Was her dread merely a superstition, or was she right? That one is hated by God for this, that and the other reason, is an assertion many Christians use in order to bully the people they themselves hate, but what if they are on to something? We have only to cast a single look about us in order to see everywhere the evidence of a malevolent God, and if further proof were required, we are assured that it is in His image that man was created. But one thing is certain: there are certain kinds of human love which seem as if they could put God to shame,RW398 and this was demonstrated by Parthenope, who believed that God hated her. She sent Uncle Arthur away for his own safety. In caring for her sisters she demonstrated that the sternest, most consistently enduring morality is inspired and dictated by love, for all other kinds are bound sooner or later to fail; and in refusing to let Uncle Arthur run the risk of being cursed as she was, she revealed the hidden grace of blasphemy.




Rebecca WestMore on Rebecca West


Rebecca West, Dame Commander of the British Empire and member of the French Légion d”Honneur was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, on the winter solstice December 21 1892, and died on March 15 1983 the Ides of March.
Victoria Glendinning’s biography on  Rebecca West: A Life
A fine chapter in Rosemary Dinnage’s book of some  remarkable  women  Alone, Alone
Link to the post on Rebecca West Wikipedia

Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 11 October 1542)

A couple of mornings ago, I heard an omen from a solitary jay who alighted on the plum tree outside my front door and gave five sharp bugle blasts of “mean, mean, mean, mean mean.” I remembered her when I sat down to write this post, and heard the tut-tutting of my good angel who stood behind my shoulder and corroborated the jay’s message with a low “wicked,wicked.”  I felt constrained to stop for a short space to examine my soul, and my motivations for the task I had been setting for myself, but finding nothing there to fit the description of either “mean” or “wicked”, I concluded that the words had not been meant to deter me, but referred to people now long dead and buried, about whom I had been thinking.

Ever since I read Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem “The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed” many years ago, something about it bothered me. It felt like a badly put-together puzzle, the pieces of which did not fit, and whose picture  did not make sense. I felt compelled to try and work out why I had found its meaning as well as its construction so aggravating.
I have a few steadfast beliefs about poets and poetry, one of which is that genuine poets are closet moralists, whose morals are not toTW115 be confused with the cheap variety of conventional social and religious prescriptions but rather are the expression of a deep sense of personal integrity and a devotion to honesty in all things. The other is that to be a poet is not simply to have the knack of versifying, nor is it an avocation, or in fact a vocation. It is a matter of whole-hearted dedication to a calling.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was Ambassador to Spain, Special Envoy to France, Marshall of Calais, Sheriff of Kent, Member of Parliament, and Vice-admiral Elect of the Fleet. His patron had been Thomas Cromwell, the cunning and unscrupulous advisor who had replaced Cardinal Wolsey as counsel to Henry VIII. Wyatt was a professional  diplomat who wrote poetry – or maybe I should call it verse – for the purpose of charming and seducing women. Though he had a reputation for being handsome, the portrait of him by Hans Holbein the younger, reveals a balding, pasty-complected man with close-set puffy eyes and a limp beard, who appears much older than his years (Wyatt died at the age of 39).















Here is the Wyatt sonnet I have been looking over in the last two days.

The Lover Showeth How He Is Forsaken of Such as He Sometime Enjoyed

They flee from me that sometime did me seek               TW125
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?
It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned through my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangledness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I fain would know what she hath deserved.


This sonnet leaves its most lingering impression in the potent erotic image which runs like a broken thread throughout its warp, that of a slender, beautiful, bare-footed young girl, diaphanously and negligently clad, who enters the bedchamber of a paramour to slip off her silk chemise and offer herself up to who knows what, with a kiss and a lubricious invitation.











Rendered in prose it reads something like this:
They run away from me now, who formerly pursued me, even coming to my bedroom half naked, those women who used to be so TW114submissive and tractable.  Now they have reverted to wildness, and forget the risks they took in order to ‘take bread’ from me. Now they busily look elsewhere. Thank goodness twenty times over it wasn’t always like this. One woman in particular came scantily clad in a charming negligee and slipped it off her shoulder, addressed me with an endearment, and  putting her arms around me, kissed me and asked me how I liked it. Honestly, I wasn’t just dreaming, but wide awake when this happened! But now, because of my kind forbearance everything is changed into a kind of rejection, when I have been given permission to leave, and she is free to be as capricious as she would wish. Since now I am the victim of such mistreatment, I would like to know if she has received her just deserts.

Seldom does a poem disclose its flaws so early, so thoroughly and so completely as does Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem, better known by its first line “They flee from me that sometime did me seek”, and seldom has such extravagant ineptitude and knavery as has been expressed in it been put to such a subtle purpose. The first hint comes of course with the very first word, “they”, followed by  a shamefully unworthy expression of rancour and self-pity.  From there things could only get worse.

C-4266As I see it, a dejected Tom Wyatt is bemoaning his fate at having to forego the ‘favours’ of the women he had formerly been accustomed to enjoy. Since the poem is not dated, it cannot be known for certain whether it covertly refers to Anne Boleyn, but if so, she would have been amply justified in fleeing from him. Wyatt’s patron Thomas Cromwell was Anne’s nemesis. Cromwell’s machinations in bringing trumped-up charges of adultery and incest against Anne and several others were instrumental in her being found guilty of treason. Anne was executed by decapitation. Wyatt, who was a great deal luckier, was released after a few months imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Wyatt begins his poem with the lines They flee from me that sometime did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber. The unfortunate and inept placement of the word ‘stalking’ close to ‘foot’ shows a singular disregard for the faculty of hearing. I can see how this infelicity occurred. Wyatt must have begun: “….. with stockinged foot entering my chamber.” but then he had the impulse to substitute the more suggestive and evocative “naked” for “stockinged.” So far so good. He then had the idea to change the verb to something more surreptitious; then he realized that he could change “stocking” to “stalking,”  Though why a woman would have to stalk him in his own chamber is a little difficult to imagine. He must have hesitated a bit at the word. Perhaps he thought he might suggest that, as he TW118went about his business brushing his hair, folding his clothes and putting on his nightgown,  some interloper was stepping ever closer to him even as he failed to notice what she was about.  He must have sensed that the inappropriateness of the word might be overlooked in light of the novel suggestion that he, the passive male prey, was pursued and caught by a sexually avid female.  It seems quite clear that from the word “foot” which came shod with “naked” and “stalking” had managed to create an image of predator and prey in the context of an illicit assignation, and so it seems that the single word ‘foot’ wound up  dictating the course of the entire sonnet.

Having committed himself to the ‘wild thing’ conceit, he finds himself stalled in the doldrums for a moment.  How to reverse the image of  male prey and female predator he has already established? He puts down his quill and looks idly around him; his eye falls on a dusty copy of his schoolboy Chaucer.  He picks it up, and leafing through it, stops at “The Squire’s Tale.”  He happens on the lines….
*That ‘Everything, returning to its kind,                     A127
Gladdens itself’; thus men say, as I guess;
Men love, and naturally, newfangledness,
As do these birds that men in cages feed.
For though you night and day take of them heed,
And fairly strew their cage as soft as silk,
And give them sugar, honey, bread, and milk,
Yet on the instant when the door is up,
They with their feet will spurn their feeding cup,
And to the wood will fly and worms will eat;
So are they all newfangled of their meat,
And love all novelties of their own kind:
Nor nobleness of blood may ever bind.

…and suddenly he feels the riffle of a welcome breeze pushing against his sails. He has been able to move forward by making a connection between “stalking” and “wild” with Chaucer to kindly show him how. He hopes that with the the pretty image of some wild creature picking crumbs from his outstretched hand, he has somehow painted over the previous image of himself being stalked.

Perhaps it is no great sin to filch from Chaucer, even Shakespeare did it, (in Two Gentlemen of Verona) and from this very tale, butTW132 Wyatt is not content  simply to  borrow. He distills twelve whole lines from Chaucer, thanks to whom he is out of the doldrums, and halfway through his poem. This in turn gives him the inspiration to think about birds gone wild, and meek women who easily divest themselves of their veneer of civilisation and revert to their crude worm-eating in preference to ‘bread at his hand’. Fleeing birds and flighty women – that’s close enough. He hopes that we might have forgotten that the formerly wild woman who stalked him like an animal is now being compared to a caged bird.  No matter that Chaucer’s point was that even pampered birds prefer rough freedom to luxurious bondage, and remain ever vigilant for the chance to flee their cages. In Wyatt’s mind this idea is distorted, and the point he chooses to make is that women are ungrateful, and unmindful of the men from whom they have ‘taken bread.’

Next he lights on ‘newfangledness’ as suitable polysyllabic filler and filches that as well. Now what? Perhaps an exclamation with a TW138time-muddling indeterminate tense will do the trick: something along the lines of ‘thank goodness!’ Thus we have thanked be fortune if it had been, would it have been or should it have turned out differently, (hath means both had and has) and “Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise, Twenty times better;”.
Having already come up with the adjective of ‘naked’ for foot, and a concupiscent note having been struck, he decides to employ the details of one of his assignations. He forges ahead with…

….but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

This works well for a few lines. But once again he grinds to a halt. Where can he go from here? Obviously not to whatever actionsTW147 followed the kiss – that would make too much of a good thing – so he hastens to assure us that this incident was not the result of one of those unfortunate dreams of a shameful origin, but a real-life happening, but his demure “it was no dream” tends to give him away. His very asseveration serves to convince me that it was indeed no more than a dream, which he has chosen to enlarge into a boast. But now what? Where is he to go from here? He plugs the gap with two lines of uncertain meaning:

But all is turned through my gentleness, Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
by which he hopes he might persuade us to think of him as resigned and passive and hard-done-by. He entertains the hope that we his readers would not as yet have emerged form the fog of erotic befuddlement cast by lines 9 – 13.

Finally, he has only four lines left to finish, and he begins to wind up his sonnet. Rather unexpectedly he decides in the next two lines, to tell the  obvious truth in however confused a manner: He has been cut loose, by the ‘she’ (which used to be’ they‘) who has so unkindly chosen to go her own way. “And I have leave to go of her goodness, And she also to use newfangledness.”  But this is an untenable situation, and to be deplored – it is against nature for women to decide….

TW141He cannot resist a spurt of sarcasm and rancour and the chance to insert himself and his own agency as being the source of considerable magnanimity. “But since that I so kindely am served, I fain would know what she hath deserved.”

I read it as ironic: ‘since I am so kindly (irony for badly) served, I wonder (actually, I know) what  ought to happen to her. Since she was so unkind to me, I hope something unpleasant happened to her’.

I  think I see him smirk on the word “kindely”. Perhaps he has heard of the swordsman sent for from France to sever Anne’s neck, which also aptly fits the description of “long and small”  which he has earlier applied to a woman’s arms.

Wyatt must have felt some considerable satisfaction at having managed to shepherd his sonnet from its unpromising inception to a passably neat conclusion. He is aware of having nimbly sidestepped a potentially dangerous pitfall presented by the clumping of foot and naked and stocking and stalking, and turned them to his advantage. It was a lucky thing too, happening  in a pinch upon Chaucer’s Squire, and using two sly slippages of meaning  and confusions of tense and reversals in imagery in order to add some depth of suggestion.

He has managed to subtly smear the reputation of a woman some will identify as Anne Boleyn, whom he had previously lusted after,TW111 by craftily suggesting that he has been the recipient of her unsolicited sexual favors. He implies that she had been in some manner kept (‘taken bread’) by him. However, he can plausibly claim that the word “they” implies that no particular woman is being referred to.  Wyatt is well aware that he owes his life to the fact that he had first taken care to shield himself from his sovereign Henry VIII’s paranoid jealousy, having warned him (prior to Henry’s marriage) that Anne  Boleyn would not make a suitable wife.

It matters not whether the “she” of his sonnet was a woman wild or tame, or wild pretending to be tame, or wild then tame and then reverted to wildness. Was she even human, and not merely a passager who refused to be hooded, but drew down her nictitating membrane when she elected not to see him, and at a time when he would have preferred she had. He has kissed and told, and done a great deal better than if he had openly boasted of sexual conquests in a tavern, but done so nonetheless, with great pretense at refinement. He supposes he has enmeshed his readers in an erotically TW116charged fantasy, carefully contrived to infect their minds with an image that is  lubricious and suggestive, that he evidently wishes them to dwell on. As he laid down his pen, Wyatt may have slyly moistened his lips, contemplating the insidious way in which he had managed to enmesh his readers’ imaginations.

The absence of love, the salacious note, the whining tone, the lack of sincerity, the arrant denigration implicit in his derisive plural ‘they’ (later slyly modified to ‘she’), the inability to decide if the woman in his poem was the predator or the prey and stick to it, all bespeak shamelessness, falsity and clumsiness. Even the title sounds more like an expression of discontent over loss of privilege than either regret or a lament for lost love. At any rate, he might have thought, he has managed to write a sonnet, and that must count for something. And so, with the initial dejection he felt when he began his poem satisfactorily ameliorated, this non-poet probably put down his quill and blew out his candle for the night.




When probed for its weak spots and with the unnecessary allusion to Chaucer removed, Wyatt’s sonnet might be be made to read thus….

Wyatt somewhat redeemed.

She flees from me that sometime did me seek                 TW113
With stockinged foot entering my chamber
I have seen her gentle, tame and meek
Who now is wild, refusing to remember
That in the past she placed herself in danger
To take my hand, though now far does she range.
Heaven be thanked it was not always so
But in more pleasant times she came to me
Clad thinly in her silks in beauteous guise
Slipped her loose gown which from her shoulders fell
Clasped in her slender arms I heard her tell
Me softly whispering, as we did  kiss
Dear heart, tell me, do you like this – and this?TW117
It was no dream from which I durstn’t waken
And all that I was helpless to prevent
Being lost is lost and now I am forsaken
As she has left me here and flown away.
Now she is willful and intransigent
And so, since I have been thus cruelly served
I wonder if she found what she deserved.


*Chaucer’s original, which of course is what Wyatt would have read:

That `alle thyng, repeirynge to his kynde,                 C-5039
Gladeth hymself;’ thus seyn men, as I gesse.
Men loven of propre kynde newefangelnesse,
As briddes doon that men in cages fede.
For though thou nyght and day take of hem hede,
And strawe hir cage faire and softe as silk,
And yeve hem sugre, hony, breed and milk,
Yet right anon as that his dore is uppe
He with his feet wol spurne adoun his cuppe,
And to the wode he wole and wormes ete;
So newefangel been they of hire mete,
And loven novelries of propre kynde,
No gentillesse of blood ne may hem bynde.

Noor Inayat Khan January 4 1914 – September 14 1944

Noor Inayat Khan January 4 1914 – September 14 1944

A month ago, in a section of Bloomsbury known as Gordon Square, a modest memorial to an almost forgotten hero was unveiled by Princess Anne. The memorial was dedicated to a young woman who went by the name of Nora Baker, who was without a doubt the most unlikely spy of WWII. Her given name was Noor Inayat Khan.

At the time I began writing this post a couple of months ago, Noor Inayat Khan had already become a fixture of my imagination, but had not captured it, so to speak. Though I had completed the ‘factual’ part of the post, I feared I would not be able to put it up, because  it was clear to me that mere facts could not reveal the person they were about.

Despite all that is now known about her, this woman remained, and remains shimmeringly elusive, and all the facts used by those who admire, and indeed revere, her fail to get at the heart of who she really was. I myself had to let my post lie fallow until the thread I needed to unravel her personality gently glided into my hand.

Many of us are strangely fascinated by stories about spies. Reading about their dangerous adventures compensates us in some vicarious measure for our dull and uneventful lives. We imagine spies to be masters of intrigue and deception, seducers and seductresses of exceptional talent, who take dangerous risks, complete their missions and live to tell the tale. Spies belong to a species of people with flexible identities, elastic morals and what has been referred to by some as situational ethics, who covertly serve their governments, and do not hesitate to kill in the service of their countries.

With one qualified exception Khan was none of these things. The exception was that England was not her country. But it was the country of her adoption, and one she unswervingly served, and for which she sacrificed her life. A more idealistic person would be hard to imagine; she had been brought up in the mystical Sufi tradition and had internalised all the lofty principles of this great surviving branch of an ancient spiritual practice predating  both Islam (with which it is associated) and Christianity.

To call someone a saint is to encumber her with a whole constellation of associations which are usually tainted with religious beliefs. Yet, when a seemingly ordinary human beingmadeleine-soe-file-photo2 manages to live a life of extraordinary goodness  and unselfishness, despite extraordinary hardship and without in the least compromising that goodness, what other description can be found to serve? Khan’s whole character, from her childhood on, shimmers with a deeply human and completely unpretentious sanctity. She seems to have discharged all her self-chosen duties in a spirit of intense love and sacrifice.

In 1940 the British Government conceived of a plan of espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage to be conducted by ‘civilian personnel’ in Axis occupied countries. The scheme was enthusiastically approved by the cabinet (though not the military), and in time a group of volunteers was assembled and trained, and sent forth, in Churchill’s grandiloquent phrase, to “set Europe ablaze.” The secret organisation formed to carry out this mission was the Special Operations Executive, or the SOE, and this was the organisation which recruited Noor Inayat Khan.

The SOE was active from July 22nd 1940 to January of 1946  and numbered  around 13000 agents. By April of 1942, when Churchill tacitly agreed to admit women into the SOE, over 3,200 agents, or nearly a quarter of the total number, were women. In a statement given by Captain Selwyn Jepson, an SOE senior recruiting officer, when interviewed by the Imperial War Museum for its sound archive, he stated:“I was responsible for recruiting women for the work, in the face of a good deal of opposition, I may say, from the powers that be. In my view, women were very much better than men for the work. Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men. Men usually want a mate with them. Men don’t work alone, their lives tend to be always in company with other men. There was opposition from most quarters until it went up to Churchill, whom I had met before the war. He growled at me, Maurice Guy Buckmaster“What are you doing?” I told him and he said, “I see you are using women to do this,” and I said, “Yes, don’t you think it is a very sensible thing to do?” and he said, “Yes, good luck to you'” That was my authority!”

In an excerpt from the book They Fought Alone, by Maurice Buckmaster the chief of the SOE and published in 1959, Buckmaster states “Often I would go down together with others from headquarters and would cross-question recruits, taking on the roles of Gestapo men, in order to try and break their cover-stories. By this means the story itself would become ingrained in their minds and they themselves would gain some small idea of the rigours of interrogation. If they survived without cracking, their confidence would be greatly increased and they could face the thought of genuine German interrogation in the knowledge that they had already withstood a similar grilling successfully. These rehearsals were grim affairs and we spared the recruits nothing. They were stripped and made to stand for hours in the light of bright lamps and though, of course, we never used any physical violence on them, they certainly knew what it was to go through it by the time we had finished. If they cracked badly under the strain, it was tolerably sure that we would not send them, for it was clear that a man who caved in when questioned by H.Q. staff, in however realistic conditions, would be only too likely to wilt in the face of the Boches. A minor slip would not be held against a man, but too general a collapse most certainly would; we derived no pleasure, I need hardly say, from those occasions when our cruel jibes, our reiterated and shouted questions and our implacable persistence broke a man’s spirit, but we could console ourselves with the fact that his cracking at a rehearsal might well have saved his life –  and others  – by preventing the possibility of his doing the same thing with the enemy. We were not playing a game.

One of the SOE’s most notable recruits, Khan was born in Moscow, Russia, on the second of January 1914. She lived first in France and later in England. Although English was her motherKhan, Womens Auxiliary Airforce photo tongue, she spoke fluent French, and this was the main reason she came to the attention of and was recruited by the SOE while she was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. She had joined the WAAF under the name of Nora Baker, shortly after arriving in Britain after escaping the German invasion of France on May 10th of 1940. Khan and her family reached Falmouth on June 27th 1940. Her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American, a cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement. Her father Inayat Khan, was an Indian belonging to the Sufi sect of Islam, a sect long persecuted by mainstream Muslims. She was an accomplished musician, who, prior to the German invasion, was studying music in the Paris conservatory under Nadia Boulanger, and child psychology in the Sorbonne. When she volunteered with the WAAF she had just published a book of Buddhist stories (Jataka Katha) for children, a book which is still in print.

Khan’s life was interwoven with all manner of complexities, religious, national, ethnic, philosophical, and ethical. She was a British subject who believed in independence for India, a confirmed pacifist engaged in covert operations in WWII, and a woman in a largely male-dominated network. The SOE officers  entrusted with Khan’s training were probably quite uncomprehending of Khan’s’s pacifist philosophy.  Leo Marks recollects that the sound of a gunshot once sent her into a trance from which she took hours to emerge.  The S.O.E swept aside the ethical reservations  voiced by other military agencies, notably the  Royal Air Force,  about dropping civilian agents behind enemy lines and requiring them to carry out military operations, sabotage and the arming of underground movements. They therefore provided their agents with weapons. But Khan refused to carry a gun, because she was resolved to never take a life.The Imperial War Museum has the weapon issued to Khan, which she left behind, in accordance with her pacifist principles. The S.O.E also issued cyanide capsules to its agents, but Khan chose not to take hers with her on her mission.

British National Archives file

British National Archives file

The first three months of Khan’s training  with the SOE, included wireless operations and resistance of interrogation. She had already trained as a nurse with the Red Cross when she volunteered with WAAF on November 19th 1940. At the time of her recruitment by the SOE she had been an Assistant Section Officer in the WAAF with a salary of £300.00 per year, and it was at this time that she received her initial training as a wireless operator. Khan was one of 39 women out of a total of about 400 agents who would be dropped behind enemy lines in occupied France by the S.O.E.  Khan was given the cover name Jeanne Marie Regnier and the code name Madeleine. During her training with the S.O.E. Khan was derided for her aversion to (described as ‘fear of’) weapons. The weapons developed by the SOE for use in sabotage operations were truly ingenious and formidable, and many of them are still in use today. Agents were trained in the use of lethal weapons which included garrotes, specially designed knives, firearms and explosives. Not for the squeamish, this was real training in hands-on murder. She was also trained in methods of ‘resisting interrogation.’ Her instructions were to remain silent under interrogation for 48 hours. Killing and being killed were considerations the  300 to 400 operatives in Buckmaster’s F (French) section could not ignore, since their own casualty rates were between 30 and 40%.

Sebastian Faulks, author of Charlotte Grey, a novel about a Scotswoman who joined the French underground in WWII, was asked  in an interview whether his fictitious character was based on the real-life agent Nancy Wake. Faulks stated unequivocally that she was not. He then referred to an article he had written in the Times about Wake, who had died in 2011, in which he states “The prime requirement was the ability to speak the language. So poor was British language ability in general that even people who were hopeless at keeping secrets might be recruited if  they were bilingual. A French-speaking woman called Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian princess, was recruited despite the fact she told her handlers she could never tell a lie.” There is an interesting anecdote about Khan in the book Between Silk and Cyanide written by her SOE cryptography instructor Leo Marks, who states that “She wasA Lysander Aircraft cycling towards her ‘safe-house’ to practice transmitting when a policeman stopped her and asked what she was doing.’I’m training to be an agent,’ she said, ‘here’s my radio — want me to show it to you?’ She then removed it from its hiding place and invited him to try it.”

Despite these indications of her probable inappropriateness for the kind of mission intended for their agents, the SOE chose Khan. The remarkable fact is that ultimately she proved to be valiant and invaluable. Official records claim that Khan was one of the most gallant agents ever recruited by the S.O.E and one of only three women to be awarded the George Cross citation for ‘conspicuous courage moral and physical’ in WWII. She was also awarded the Croix de Guerre  with Gold Star by France. General Sir Colin Gubbins, who the was ‘the prime mover’ of the of SOE, said that she occupied “the principal and most dangerous post in France”.

Khan’s insertion in France as an SOE agent  took place three years after her family escaped to England in the wake of the German occupation. The drop off, which took place at very short notice June 17th 1943, was by special Westland Lysander aircraft because Khan could not be parachuted in due to the fact that  no harness could be found that would be small enough to fit her 5’3″ 108 lb. frame. In France, the BBC French Service broadcast a message from their headquarters in Bush House, to say that ‘Madeleine’ (referred to as ‘Nurse’) was about to be inserted. She was met on that full moon night at the drop-off site in Le Vieux Briollay in the Angers district of France by Flight Lieutenant Henri Déricourt RAF, code name “Gilbert”, who was a member of the French Resistance, but was also a double agent in the pay of the Gestapo. (Whether the SOE knew at that time that Déricourt was a double agent  and a traitor and had already been in contact with German Intelligence for six weeks, is uncertain, but I believe it may well be the case.)  Khans’s mission was compromised from the start due to Déricourt’s treachery. Khan was supposed to join the Prosper Network, a group of operatives headed by Francis Suttill.  SOE chief Maurice Buckmaster had been warned by Jack Agazarian, one of the  chief SOE operatives SOE agent equipmentin France, about the threat to Prosper posed by the SOE operative Henri Déricourt, a former pilot in the French Air Force. Buckmaster’s failure to heed this warning resulted in compromising the 67 drops of SOE operatives in France. In consequence, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that far more than Déricourt, it is Buckmaster himself who bears direct responsibility for the deaths of all the SOE operatives who were subsequently delivered into the hands of the Gestapo, including  Jack Agazarian and Noor Inayat Khan. Long after the war, in an interview with the writer Jean Overton Fuller, Déricout claimed that when he had given information to the Gestapo he had been acting on instructions given to him from a ‘higher authourity’ in London. It has been suggested that Déricourt had been inserted in the SOE by MI6, the British Special Intelligence Service, but it seems much more likely that Déricourt might have been acting under the orders of Buckmaster himself.

When Khan landed in France, the backup Déricourt was responsible for providing did not materialise.The next day, on Thursday June 17th, Khan arrived at the apartment of Emile Henri Garry. Carrying her wireless equipment, she next made her way to Paris on her own. She had remarkable luck: stopped by the Gestapo as she cycled with her radio, she no doubt refused to lie, but somehow allowed them to believe that  it was a cine projector. Khan was left alone to transmit information, and she remained on the run until her capture by the Gestapo five months later in November of 1943. During this time she had to carry her wireless equipment, which weighed over 32 lbs., in a suitcase. When she would get ready to transmit she had to set up her transceivers and the over 21 metres of aerial it needed to transmit.  It had been estimated that the Germans would be able to detect the source of transmissions within 30 minutes of their being sent. This placed her in extreme danger for the entire duration of her Francis Suttil (Prosper)mission. Within one week of landing behind enemy lines, almost all the members of the Prosper Network Khan had been sent to join had been arrested by the Gestapo.  The Gestapo had captured  seven other S.O.E wireless operators, and now they only had to focus on tracking the last one: Khan. Even so, she managed to elude the Gestapo sweeps for two months.  Buckmaster later claimed that he had offered Khan an escape, but, knowing that she was the only operator left and so was of vital importance to the S.O.E, she had refused. Her position was described by the S.O.E as being “the principal and most dangerous post in France.”

When Khan was finally captured by paid informants of the Gestapo sometime near the beginning of October 1943, it was not because of any lapse or carelessness on her part, but because she was betrayed.  Renée Garry, the sister of that same member of the Resistance (Émile Henri Garry) who had first harbored her, is thought to have been jealous of Khan’s role as an SOE agent. Renée Garry had applied to join the the Prosper Network, but had been refused. She then approached the Gestapo and offered to give Khan up. Renée Garry received 100,000 French Francs (£500) for her vindictive act of treachery in revealing the location of Khan’s wireless equipment to a German agent by the name of Ernst Vogt. Though Khan was caught by surprise when she arrived at the Garry residence a few metres  away from the Gestapo Headquarters, she resisted strongly and put up a fierce fight. She was  restrained only when Pierre Cartaud, who accompanied Ernst Vogt, threatened to shoot her.  Khan was then removed to the Gestapo headquarters on Avenue Foch and held captive on the fifth floor in what before the war used to be the servants’ quarters.

As far as can reliably be ascertained by sifting through various and at times contradictory accounts, Khan was  removed from the Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch in Paris and transported by train to the civilian prison in Karlsruhe, Germany. One account has her being transported with four other women to Natzweiler concentration camp and executed there. Initially, after the war, the British put the staff at the Natzweiler concentration camps on trial and charged them with the murders of Khan and four other women agents. Later the court transcript was altered to read Dachau, perhaps because  German records indicate that Khan was taken to Pforzheim camp where she was detained for over eleven months, and finally to Dachau, where she was executed. However there are no records in the Dachau prison archives which indicate that Khan was taken to Dachau. Khan is documented in the Pforzheim records under the name of Nora Baker. There, probably due to her repeated efforts to escape  from Avenue Foch, she received extraordinarily rough treatment (she was kept in chains in a cell of minute proportions  for the entire period of her imprisonment). However, it is unlikely that Khan was tortured in order to extract information – there was no reason to do that because for the ten months since her capture in November of 1943, the Gestapo already had all the records of all wireless communications  between Khan and the SOE.  The  information purported to have been extracted from her in Pforzheim was incorrect. For example, the record states she was born in London, when in fact Khan was born in Moscow. This has led to speculation that the Pforzheim records had been faked by the SOE, but I think it is rather more likely that Khan was continuing to resist by providing false information to the Germans. This latter supposition is consistent with her character as revealed by testimony from the officer who captured Khan and the rest of the operatives in Paris, and who was in charge of  interrogations at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris at the time of Khan’s apprehension, Hans  Josef Kieffer.  After the war when Kieffer was tried for war crimes by the British Military, he testified that he had been able to get nothing from Khan, that she never broke under interrogation, and did not reveal any information pertinent to her mission.

There were two versions of what ultimately befell Khan. The first was that she and three other French agents, Madeleine Damerment, Elaine Plewman and Yolande Beekman,George Cross were  executed by a gunshot to the back of the head by Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert in Dachau in September of 1944. This testimony was presented  on April 29th 1945 at the American Military Tribunal, by Rudolph Wolf, who was a prisoner in Dachau from September of 1942 until the camp was liberated on April 29th of 1945. Wolf had been paid  by the British for his uncorroborated testimony.

Another version of events  surfaced fourteen years later in 1958, when Jean Overton Fuller, who had published a biography of Khan in 1952, was contacted by a Dutchman with the initials A.F. who told Overton that he had been a prisoner in Dachau and had witnessed Khan’s execution. He stated that the English prisoner, undoubtedly Khan, had been picked out from the other prisoners and stripped and beaten until she was a bloody mess, and then shot.

The dates of the execution have been variously given as September 11th, September 12th, September 13th and September 15th of 1944. It seems most likely that the four prisoners were brought to Dachau on the morning of September 11th and executed a day or two later. Although the uncorroborated eyewitness testimony of Rudolph Wolf places the execution on the morning of September 13th, the plaque in the Dachau crematorium gives the date of the execution of the four women as September 12th.

Henri_DéricourtTo learn the truth of all this, it would surely be useful and informative to examine the H.S.9 reports (personnel files) in the British National Archives The BNA states: This series contains personnel files of SOE agents and staff. The files may contain papers dealing with the service records of individuals, including medical reports, appraisals of performance and suitability for particular roles, as well as passport-style photographs of the subject and reports of their activities. The contents in any individual’s file can vary considerably however, and some files only contain a very brief note indicating that an individual was considered for service in SOE, but rejected. Some papers in many of the files are damaged or mutilated to some extent: many have been partly burnt; some names have been removed by being cut out from papers at some time in the past. The files also include papers in many different languages, according to the work performed by the individual concerned. Some extracts continue to be retained by the Department under section 3(4) of the Public Records Act and there are dummy sheets in place to indicate where this has happened. Many files contain passport-style photographs of the agents.

I came across various claims stating that Khan’s file is reported to have been declassified, but when I searched for her H.S 9 report I found that the access conditions were described as “subject to closure for periods of up to 85 years”,  and an opening date of January 2025 had been appended. The H.S 9/836  file was designated as a “closed or retained document,” and it was additionally stated that “This document is closed and cannot be viewed or re-opened as a digital or printed copy.”  It would have been possible for me to submit a paid request for information contained in Khan’s SOE files, which would then have been subjected to a review by the appropriate government agencies, but  given all these already admitted restrictions there was little to suggest either that the decision would fall in my favor or that, should permission be granted, there would be anything of substantial interest and value revealed. Under such uncertainty it seemed to me pointless to submit a request –  particularly since it now seemed, at least to me, reasonable to assume that the SOE had something to hide.

One scenario this otherwise hard to understand secrecy suggests is that  the SOE was completely incompetent. But there is  a more sinister possibility: that the sacrifice of KhanFreidrich Wilhelm  Ruppert was in full accord with intentions of the SOE.

Khan’s story has to be examined in the light of the plans the Allies, and more particularly the British, were making for the future D-Day invasion of France. For obvious reasons these plans had to be kept unassailably secret, and the location of the planned invasion had to be carefully guarded if the allied assault was not to be met with stiff German resistance. Great pains were taken to throw Hitler off the scent, and induce him to deploy his heavily armoured panzer divisions on the Seine to the North-East of Pas-de-Calais where they would be the least helpful to him and where they would be least capable of  inflicting damage on the allies.

One of the most reliable ways for the Allies to assure that the Germans were confused and misled would have been through disinformation. With telephone lines being cut in advance of the D-Day plans, one of the only reliable means left for achieving this disinformation would have been to have available someone such as Khan–someone inept and expendable who, when she was inevitably captured, would have naturally left the Germans  assuming that they were the beneficiaries of a stroke of good luck in being able to eavesdrop on the  communications  between the British and their covert agents in France.  This would have taken long range planning – this fortuitous placement of someone who would seem (to the Germans)  to compromise the lines of communication of the SOE.

There are many seemingly unrelated facts about Khan’s mission which do not lead to any clear conclusion by themselves, but which taken together point in the direction of  a cynical – if not sinister – plan–a plan on the part of the very organization she risked (and lost) her life to serve: the SOE. Here are some of those provocative facts:

Hans Josef Kieffer1.That Khan was selected for her mission is surprising, given the SOE’s extremely derogatory views about her temperament and her unsuitability for the task to which she was being assigned. One evaluation of Khan said she was“Not over-burdened with brains, but has worked hard and shown keenness apart from the security part of the course. She has an unstable and temperamental personality, and it is very doubtful whether she is really suited to work in the field.

2.That she was given instructions to carefully keep with her all her communications was another glaring inconsistency. No self-respecting spy agency on earth would require an agent to retain copies of highly incriminating documents, particularly if the possession of such documents not only would make the spy agency transparent and vulnerable to the enemy, but also would place the spy at risk of torture and execution.

3.The SOE ignored the warnings of one of its own agents in France, Jack Agazarian, regarding suspicions about Henri Déricourt

4.The chief of the SOE, Maurice Buckmaster, repeatedly ignored the the vital fact that the communications received from France and thought to be Khan’s did not contain the bluff security codes which would have proved that they were sent by an SOE agent and not someone outside the agency . The absence of bluff codes was a clear and unequivocal indication that the wireless transmissions the SOE were receiving did not come from Khan.

5. On October 2nd 1943, French Resistance agent Sonia Olschanesky  cabled the SOE: “Madeleine had serious accident and in hospital need to confirm on contact if genuine or Gestapo will try to find more information.”  Buckmaster chose to ignore this message.

6. Neither the nature nor the specific information – or disinformation –  sent back to France, ostensibly to the  SOE agents but in reality to the Gestapo, has ever beenRenèe Garry disclosed.

7. The eyewitness accounts of Khan’s ultimate fate were never corroborated, and such hearsay accounts as we have contradict each other in material detail.

8. The SOE files on Khan have never been completely declassified, and I suspect they never will be, because the information they contain will doubtless completely undermine the confidence of future agents regarding the trustworthiness of their commanding officers and the commitment of those officers to safeguarding the lives of  non-uniformed agents in the field.

The facts suggest that the SOE had a reason for wanting Khan to remain in German hands. Could it be that the SOE intended that with Khan, her code books, her wireless equipment and records of all prior clandestine communications in the hands of the Gestapo, they (the SOE) would be perfectly situated to feed disinformation to the Germans?  Churchill  had begun planning for the allied invasion of France as early as May of 1942. The invasion took place in June of 1944, and  between the time of inserting these agents, and the time of the invasion, the SOE could have hoped to have passed an enormous amount of disinformation on to the Germans. This expedient would have proved extremely helpful to the allies. It would also have served as cover for the planned invasion. If indeed it was employed, this strategy was, as croix-de-guerrethe Allied victory attests, successful. But one wonders at the extent to which the SOE was capable of making decisions dependent on a cynical and reprehensible willingness to deceive and sacrifice their own agents.

While these may seem to be  merely my own speculations, they are supported in part by the failure of the British Government to declassify Khan’s files. The only information that has trickled out piecemeal and that has been put forward by former agents, supports the SOE version of the Khan mission, a version which seems to be cunningly contrived to serve as a cover for  either one of the most spectacular failures in the history of spying, or else a cynical attempt to disguise the fact that the SOE sent its most vulnerable recruits as expendable bait in order to trap the Nazis into committing the kinds of intelligence errors that would lead to them lose the war. That the officers in charge were never reprimanded or disciplined, let alone tried for their  gross negligence and incompetence, and that this was permitted to continue unchecked is one of the unexplained mysteries of WWII, unless this was not a case of incompetence, but rather of design.  If so, in this, it must be admitted, the British effort was a marked success. But the price paid for that success remains  at best questionable, and at worst unforgivable. For there is a vast difference between making the choice to sacrifice oneself for one’s country, and being sacrificed by one’s superiours. The former we may laud; the latter we must, as honourable and ethical beings, condemn.





WAAF memorial













Renée Garry, who betrayed Noor Inayat Khan to the Gestapo for the sum of £500 and led them directly to her, was acquitted for ‘lack of evidence’. She defended herself on the grounds that  the British authorities had awarded her a testimonial.  She was also acquitted of  the crime of betraying her brother (who was executed by the Germans in Buchenwald in 1944), on grounds of insufficient evidence.

Hans Josef Kieffer, SS Oberbersturmbanführer, was tried and found guilty of war crimes in the British Military Court in Wuppertal. He was interrogated by Vera Atkins. He was executed in Hameln prison on June 26th 1947.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ruppert, the sadistic officer in charge of executing condemned prisoners in Dachau, was tried by the American Occupying forces and executed on May 29th 1946.

Henri Déricourt of the French Resistance was arrested by the French Authourities. Despite evidence provided by the Abwehr and the Gestapo during his trial that he had betrayed his SOE colleagues in the Prosper and other networks and provided information which had led to their arrests and subsequent executions, he was acquitted.noor4

Sarah Waters

The best novels are carefully and elaborately constructed deceptions, which reveal a detailed, expansive and consistent version of the truth. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is such a book and one of the finest and most bitter novels of this century.  The artful blending of distinct narratives which describe the unravelling of a society that Petronius accomplished with so much heart in The Satyricon, might compare with Waters’ account of London during and  shortly after the Blitz, but Waters has none of Petronius’s picaresque cheerfulness and humour: unlike the fragmented Satyricon, the bridges between the narrative segments of this novel are subtle but sturdy and by this device are brought across the small bits of information which tend to enhance and shade the separate narratives in what might otherwise be too loosely connected.

The first time I finished reading The Night Watch I didn’t close it: instead I went back to the very first page and began reading it all over again. It is this unforgettable first page which has stuck with me all these years. The most remarkably memorable works enter us in a way which deftly bypasses our critical faculties. This is magic at its best. Without this singular element, books are bad, or unimpressive, or merely good: we might stand on solid ground and see the characters going about their business on a visible surface, but we do not feel the curve of the earth or the forces beneath their feet, the hidden strata, the underground streams and certainly not the tectonic plates. In the months after I read this book, I attempted several times to analyse it, but every time I began, I found I couldn’t go on. I could never find the clarity I needed to sort out its elements in a way that made sense. With my second reading, I had the chronology down, and recognised the hints and prefigurings of one section hidden in another. But a third reading was required before I was finally able to put my finger on the key that had eluded me before. The sense within it defied me until I had read the book two more times.

Waters’ bag of writerly tricks includes an inordinate profligacy of sensuous detail, a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and the casual perfection of her writing itself. Everything is fresh, right down to the coruscating horror of war-ravaged London. Waters’ movable structure, in reverse chronology and with its segments of overlapping narratives, pivots on a single axis like a live insect spinning on its pin even as it is fixed to the wax board, but the careful skirting of that impairment, the loss of memory, compels us to sleuth for context. When Kay tells her friend Micky “I’ve got lost in the rubble… couldn’t get over it” we might conclude that she is remembering the break with her lover Helen. But the forfeiture of memory is a serious casualty in The Night Watch. It means the excision of an interior space which gives people substance, and it makes for a sense of deep disquiet. We all become dedicated drunks when we dream every night. We go places and do things which are shameful, startling, frightening, embarrassing or ill-advised, and when we wake up we don’t remember them, but nonetheless we feel them, and some residue of the world we inhabited while we slept remains. It can be conjured up in the way we recall an old tune we haven’t heard in years, or the way in which a touch can set off a physical memory. This absence more than anything else amplifies the emptiness in and around Kay. It cuts a swath through her personality, because we are prevented from seeing inside her, even to the extent of having a tissue of a dream. Kay’s life is not so much a life as an afterlife: we stay in the present, we move forwards into a past, which we then have to extrapolate and insert into the puzzle, but there is nowhere that the pieces are permitted to rest in their proper place and in this  respect, The Night Watch resists a satisfactory disambiguation.

Kay Langrish, one of the characters in the dyads and triads around which The Night Watch takes shape, and significantly the one with whom Waters begins her book, stands out for me as the main character in this novel. She is at its heart and soul. Her story demands more attention than all the rest.The other segments of the book seem to be present in a supporting role but Kay is the vanishing point that gives the whole novel its sense of perspective. The distant secondariness of the other dyads were for me like the names one sees skimming by after the movie has ended. We feel they should not be ignored, that we ought to read them if only to recognise the hard work and talent and dedication that helped make the movie possible, but nevertheless they seldom command our attention: we just don’t care that much. I did not feel compelled by the other two narratives.  I recognised that they supported the novel in important ways, but they lacked suspense, and I could find no inducement to focus on them very much. I did care about the Kay/Helen/Julia story. It caught my attention and held it with the kind of buzzing insistence of a headache which demands the pressure of hands in order to suppress its throbbing compulsion.

When we find her at the beginning of the book, Kay is a ruin. Our eyes skim over the carefully faceted details of her little upstairs-room – no books, clothes hanging on a wire, darned socks, cold-water bathroom down the hall, a sour smelling bed – all instantly register as amounting to appalling conditions and decidedly at odds with our instinctive sense of who this character is. We feel the instant disconnect suggested by Waters, with something we cannot really place. We know Kay was not always like this, that she was not always accustomed to squalor and apparent, self-imposed impoverishment.

The third September after the war – September of 1948 – finds Kay unable to adjust to a post-war existence. She no longer wears her uniform and a tin hat, no longer drives an ambulance, no longer has a purpose in life. Old-maidish Mr. Mundy, a character in another segment, rather unflattering refers to Kay as ‘Colonel Barker’, but for Mr. Mundy’s young gay protégée Duncan, ‘the bold cut of her hair, her mannish clothes, her sharp, distinguished-looking profile’ makes him think ‘she might once have been a lady pilot, a sergeant in the WAAF’. She looked to him ‘like a handsome young man.’ It is a profound irony that the littered externalisation of Kay’s dreariness and fatigue lies inescapably reflected all around her. She herself is out of step, out of sequence. She prefers to watch the second part of a movie before the first: she engages in a tawdry grope and kiss with a tipsy girl in a cinema restroom: she seems to try to pick up strangers on her walks, and on an occasion buys a blond girl a drink in a bar. All this is so far removed from the way she was before, when she would have spurned such crumbs as these out of hand when she was intact, and more than equal to the challenge of driving an ambulance through the pitch-dark streets during the black-out. Then she had been able to face danger and horror, as when she and her friend Micky extricated the body of a woman who had been tossed by an explosion and impaled on a railing. She stamped out the stray fires caused by incendiary bombs and braved the bombs themselves to rescue strangers. Her senses were fully alive to the significance of the things she saw in the ruins – the glimpse of a box decorated with painted shells seen in the rubble – most likely a child’s handwork project – a small jawbone still embedded with the eruptions of its first new teeth – and no doubt she took in the hidden shape of the unseen world beneath its chaotic surface, and always  managed to respond to tragedy and exigency in the right way at the right time with the gift of her ever fully present self.

One’s ear picks up the faint crepitations of Kay’s former life from which the present is a fall from grace. We know something terrible has already happened. We sense a past of strength, and of refinement even, and we feel as if we are watching the impeccable cuff of a shirt being dipped in grime. Something has happen to Kay which is so devastating, so fell, that she has been plunged into an interiority which has detached  her completely from the outside world, even as she compulsively moves around in it and minutely observes it. Life has taken on a tinge of unreality, that seems to make everything in it go on at a distance. Nothing extends beyond the mere band of murky light that her own dullness seems to exude within the small, blear circumference surrounding her. We may rush to call it depression, but this bland and dismissive word does not begin to encompass or even describe the horror of Kay’s existence. Her ability to be a part of life, or to interact with it, disappears, while her compulsion to observe persists in the most acute manner possible. Whatever has happened to her has created a kind of insuperable severance from life and the living.

What was the distortion in Kay’s vision that caused her to idealise her lover Helen? Did Kay see potential lovers as being either virgins or whores? She was a woman of the world: the liaison, casually referred to, with a high-class prostitute who gave Kay her flat attests to a certain lack of squeamishness with regard to dissolute women, and certainly her witty comment about “the deep peace of the marital bed” compared to “the hurly-burly of the sapphic chaise lounge” shows, if nothing else, a deep sense of irony with respect to relationships. It could not be that Kay had a masculinist view of female virtue. I gave this question a great deal of thought. I wondered if Kay was in fact aware of Helen’s moral and other inadequacies: if indeed she may have picked Helen in an effort to force a happy ending out of unpromising material, in order to prove to herself that it could be done – that one could pull a pure young girl out of the ruins of the world, and that she, Kay, even as a social outsider, could aspire to and achieve a conventional domestic happiness regardless of the odds. This streak of utter conventionality in Kay’s make-up is one of the things I found naggingly inconsistent about her character. It would seem that Kay may not have loved what Helen was, but rather what she represented. It was not perception but something else, perhaps resembling recognition. The image of something already known and conceptualised in the mind is projected upon something that seems like it, or close enough. But it seems that the seeds of Kay’s dissolution were already planted in the distant past. Helen’s defection simply gave them the nourishment they needed in order to flourish with an unimpeded vigour and malignity. Kay seems to sense this when she says “We never seem to love the people we ought to, I can’t think why.”

At first it seemed to me that Kay provided the only evidence of love, and was the only one capable of it, and of devotion and constancy and marital probity. But I cannot avoid the suggestion of a darker motivation in Kay’s choice of Helen might not have been the awareness of her own superiority. She was upper-class, she was older, she owned the flat, she may even have had access to her family’s wealth. She was certainly better situated than Helen, and in this respect the relationship between her and Helen could never have been that of equals. I wonder if Helen fell in love with Julia, Kay’s former girlfriend, because of an unconscious desire for some sort of parity between herself and Kay: there could have been for her a twisted logic in making a sexual conquest of Julia, who Helen thought had rejected Kay, and thereby securing a position for herself in winning something she thought Kay had wanted and lost. Of course Helen was wrong about everything. Julia used Helen as a pawn: Julia was under no illusion about Helen. She did not think Helen was particularly interesting, or intelligent or even beautiful. The love-triangle is operatic in the way a version of Otello would be, where Otello is an English public-school educated lesbian of impeccable probity, the villainous Desdemona a bargain-basement Greta Garbo from Worthing, and Iago an elegantly aristocratic writer of lurid detective novels, who is in fact in love with Otello and could only say of Desdemona that she ‘resembled a lovely onion.’

Julia Standing and Helen Giniver are a couple entangled in a thorny and contentious relationship which appears at times to be unravelling. Helen works in what might be called a Pleistocene version of a modern dating agency, and Julia works with her architect father to assess bomb damage in buildings which have not been completely destroyed and are still standing. She does this mostly on her own, and displays an astonishing sang froid about the real dangers she confronts when she enters these unstable structures, which may collapse at any moment. Helen is a middle class girl and Julia is unmistakably upper-class: her grubby working clothes gainsay it, but her speech, despite the occasional affectation of slangy locutions, clearly affirms it. Helen is attracted by Julia’s natural hauteur and elegant beauty, but also by something hidden but sensed, about Julia’s past relationship, only mentioned in passing, with Kay.

At some point the secret that Waters almost conceals within the Helen/Kay/Julia triangle and which makes it so dynamic begins to emerge. I had become distracted by the intensity of Helen’s affair with Julia, begun within three weeks of their meeting. My eye was fixed on Helen because her emotions  were in such active ferment. There was a past in which Kay adored Helen: when she was almost tediously uxorious, in which she treated this chipped ceramic mug of a woman as if she were a perfect Sèvres tea-cup, and with never the slightest remonstration. Kay precisely fitted the role of the devoted ‘husband’ of an unsympathetic wife. She loved Helen, but her emotions seem to have reached a point of equilibrium. But in this past there is a triangle – Kay loves Helen loves Julia, whereas Julia who seems at worst cold and unloving, or at best simply removed, loved Kay.

Waters does not permit her readers to probe Julia’s inner workings as she does to a limited degree with Kay and rather more so with Helen. But Julia is the key. Hidden from me at first was that Julia and not Helen, was at the apex of the triangle. Julia and Kay have much in common – their handsome good looks, their social class, but more than any thing in either the social or cultural antecedents they have in common, they share a fundamental likeness of something resembling an existential orientation, even a condition. Though Kay strives mightily to reject and extinguish such a realisation under the illusion of security provided by her relationship with Helen, both Kay and Julia are fundamentally solitary creatures who each carry an unfathomable loneliness within themselves, and for such a sense of isolation there could be no possible remedy.  Even Helen notices “what is it about Julia? Why is she always alone?”

Kay and Julia are both women with vaulted interiors, each in her own way utterly inconsolable. Julia knows this about herself – but Kay believes she might be consoled.  Julia, despite her apparent flintiness and her cool exterior, has also failed to adapt to her losses in the ways that she would wish. She is just as much a victim of disappointed love as Kay.  Julia emerges as a character with not much feeling, without much ability or desire either to love or be loved or to connect.  But what Waters hides in plain sight, is that an open secret is fully present in that upwelling of  infinite sadness which we are allowed to glimpse when Julia’s tells Helen that she was in love with Kay for years. The sense of ruefulness, and  chagrin, even bitterness,  which surfaces in that moment when Julia tells Helen it was Kay who ended their relationship, more than suggests that Julia is still in love with Kay. This is the point at which my question about what Julia could possibly have seen in Helen begins to be answered. Julia admits to Helen that she (Julia) began her pursuit of Helen in order to see what Kay saw in Helen. But it was more than that.

The obvious explanation here, is that Julia wanted to get back at Kay for Kay’s rejection, but it seems rather that she wanted to reach Kay by a sort of proxy. How difficult to accept that ‘misaffection’ (but not disaffection – Kay’s very intelligent and subtle distinction.) Helen was the closest Julia could get to Kay, and rather than being pleased to give Kay some of her own back, it seems more likely that Julia was deeply conflicted. She must have known, even as her involvement with Helen deepened, that she had permitted impulse to lead her into a situation not of her choosing or desiring, with a woman she did not and could not ever love. In seeking to be free of Kay and taking up with Helen,  Julia appears to have renounced the received standards of behaviour of her class as well as its tacit protocols, but she is never quite free of them, as evidenced by her shocked disapproval of Helen’s lapses from propriety, as when Helen eavesdrops on the sordid conversations of the squabbling tenants in the basement apartment below them. Kay might have been able to overlook or even transcend the difference in class and upbringing between herself and Helen, but Julia, despite her best efforts, never could.

Julia gave Helen plenty of cause for jealous suspicions about Julia’s involvement with other women, or rather with another woman, Ursula Waring, and Helen is ripe for suspicion. She has permitted her voyeuristic imagination to range over the intimacies engaged in by Kay and Julia, and perhaps she will do the same with Julia and Ursula if and when her suspicions are confirmed. It could be that Helen might have fared better with someone to knock her about and give her the excuse she needed to vent her suppressed plume of volcanic emotions. Instead she cannot prevent herself from grinding away at Julia, whose enthusiasm for their affair seems to diminish by marked degrees. Julia is withheld and hesitant – this plays well to Helen’s insecurity and her need. Helen seems to be the kind of woman who will always be the inferior in any relationship, and perhaps the origin of her splenetic rages lie in an occluded awareness of this fact. Helen’s authenticity as a character seems to come from her deficits, her youth, her class, and the inner demons of jealousy and insecurity and possessiveness that consume and torment her. There is nothing inconsistent about Helen. She is entirely of a piece. Helen has an instinct for survival. In her second miraculously narrow escape in two years, when the flat where she and Kay live is bombed,  she was spending the night with Julia, and her life is saved as a result of her infidelity. What are we to make of the kernel that might be hidden within that shell?

The  troubling complexity and contrariness of human relations and human desire, their insubstantiality, and brevity, their inherent susceptibility to blight, the unresolvable nature of attraction and repulsion, of hunger and satisfaction, are all found within the bounds of this  sardonic, ironic, and indeed tragic triangle. The bitter truth about relationships is that the one who wants the least comes off best. In a sense Julia is as wounded as Kay. She is certainly as lonely and as isolated. But she has come to terms with her predicament. She has a self-awareness about her suffering, whereas Kay just suffers. Julia’s accommodation of chaos and disorder, her personal slovenliness, the disorder of her flat, all suggest that in her way she had given up long before Kay. She had succumbed in the same way Kay would later on, to the loss of love. In Kay’s case  love was ventured and lost, in Julia’s case, ventured but never gained. Julia cannot forget hat near miss, that relationship that just might have been: the only time she speaks of love plausibly and convincingly is in when she speaks of Kay. Julia’s wartime job repeats the symmetry of her own interior isolation found reflected in the ghosts of shattered buildings where she spends her days. To have arrived at a place after having endured our way to the end of all our disappointments and find nothing there, that might be as close to hell as it gets.

Helen’s wide masochistic streak, and Julia’s coolness and detachment, her  terse refusal to engage in Helen’s choleric manipulations, and the natural lack of polarity of their within-gender dynamic, spells disaster from start to finish. There can be no natural chemistry here, and the fact that Julia has any reaction at all to Helen is due, I think, in large part to the element introduced by Helen in her function as a thread connecting Julia to Kay. Helen’s insecurity will not permit her to accept love where it is given, but to desire it only where it it withheld or absent. Julia’s engagement with Helen is characterised by a sense of aloofness and detachment. She does not need Helen’s love, and resents Helen’s clingy possessiveness, her tendency to behave like a shrew. It struck me immediately that Helen Giniver’s name carried the ominous echo of two of the most renowned adulteresses in literature. At first, Helen appeared to me to be at the apex of the Kay/Helen/Julia love-triangle. The knot holding that particular entanglement in place was Helen’s masochism, and Julia’s almost icy reserve and unreachability, her apparent imperviousness, her refusal to engage in Helen’s tantrums. The fact that there is any reaction at all is due to the element introduced by Kay. The troubling complexity and contrariness of human relations and human desire, their insubstantiality, and brevity, their inherent susceptibility to blight, the unresolvable nature of attraction and repulsion, of hunger and satisfaction, are all found within the bounds of this  sardonic, ironic, and indeed tragic triangle.

Julia tells Helen“Kay wants a wife, you see…. She wants a wife – someone good, I mean someone kind, untarnished. Someone to keep things in order for her, things in place.…. And elsewhere. “Kay wants a wife: she always has…… one must be the wife with Kay or nothing.”
Julia’s tragedy is that she does not in the least resemble a wife, and could never be one in the conventional sense. Perhaps this is the reason for her bitterness. Julia is correct when she characterises Kay as ‘a gentleman’, and it is this quality which makes Helen so ‘other’ to her, creating the sexual polarity, as well as the incomprehension which is at the base of a certain kind of lesbian relationship. Kay’s particular mix of gender chemistry puts her at the opposite end of the lesbian continuum from Helen, and far enough from Julia to spark an attraction, whereas for Julia there does not appear to be a similar dynamic with Helen.  There is for some of us a peculiar and potent chemistry of the upper-class British butch lesbian of a certain era: that marvellous admixture of gender indeterminacy and incorruptible propriety that is personified in Kay. There is an superiority in that which Julia would undoubtedly be able to appreciate, and it is very likely to have been at the root of her attraction to Kay. Julia admits to Helen that she had loved Kay. She does not appear to have loved anyone else. Julia and Kay would have suited each other perfectly, but for that little glitch – an insufficiency of the polarity required by Kay: and all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.

The accidental attractants we call chemistry which lead to couplings are just fuses that connect to the bomb, and when we light the match we have to not let ourselves know what we are doing. And so we wonder how Kay might have tolerated Helen’s capriciousness, her lack of refinement. Was it sufficient that Helen’s merely corresponding to Kay’s image of what a wife could be, would seem like  it might have sufficed? Did the rescue from the rubble create a script which played straight to the heart of Kay’s sense of knight-errantry? That Julia has forsaken the contextual associations of her class, more than anything else, makes her seem to have rejected her inherited moorings. It seems she has rejected them because she was rejected by Kay. I don’t know if Americans relate very well to this understated but very unshakable code of behaviour and character, and in fact ethics. Kay’s self-deprecating nobility, her conspicuous bravery, her untainted sense of honour, her gallantry towards women, her inexhaustible generosity, so heretical in the the face of fervent belief in mere survival, is what makes her so admirable. This constellation of traits is all the more remarkable because of her extreme emotional fragility.

Kay’s loss of Helen does not adequately explain the depth and extent of her grief and devastation, her sense of unbelievable desolation and how completely undone she is: the unrelenting and insuperable sense of doom and brokenness beyond all fixing that clings to her like a shadow. Helen is really no great shakes. She is too wounded and insecure herself to do anyone any good. She is driven to hide her attraction to women, and is paranoid about public displays of affection. She is unstable and shallow and immature. Even so, for Kay, such a ‘wife’ as Helen was might well have provided the perfect antidote for her insubstantiality. Women like Kay need such an anchor to keep them from drifting off into the vast uncharted expanses of their lonely interior oceans. The world becomes for them a featureless place, except for its patches of shifting darkness, and there is no torment quite like being trapped in such an existence. Though her values were far from bourgeois, her domestic expectations were beautifully conventional. Perhaps the absence of family in her life may have something to do with this. What was needed for the healing of Kay’s wounds was a stable, untroubled domesticity, but some irony of fate makes of her a ‘Samson Agonistes’ with perfect public school politesse.

The world of the London Blitz and the black-out was a world of almost primordial darkness, a world without street-signs, and of obliterated landmarks. Its inhabitants were cut loose from their accustomed moorings in the past ‘normalcy’, and order was something which had to be imposed by acts of will and ingenuity. This material darkness has its counterpart in another which can extend into the soul as insidiously as an invading mould. While Kay is intrepid in the manner in which she faces the outer darkness, she seems to have avoided a descent into her own inner darkness. Kay gives definition to an existential version of our fear of the dark: it is not a monster lurking under the bed or a vampire who comes flying in at night through a window that has carelessly been left open. These fears in us may be faced with an effort of reason and commonsense, but it is not quite as easy to dismiss the  abysmal fear of the unrelievable isolation to be found when one confronts the truth about the human condition. The unforgettable lines with which Dante began The Inferno exactly describe Kay’s predicament: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost. Oh how to speak of it, it was a thing so severe, that savage wood, and strong and harsh, the thought of it renews my fear, so bitter did it seem that death could scarce be more.”

The purpose and courage with which both Kay and Julia responded to the high degree of danger in their jobs, suggests they were at once resisting and succumbing to the same cause with a similar effect. Danger gives them a kind of focus, and each of them faces a different but equally significant encounter with devastation in the performance of her duties. It is an enormous irony that the Kay/Julia relationship did not work out, because they are a match in depth, and both of them are much deeper than Helen could ever be. They possess a more complex capacity for life experience and for confronting and adapting to its exigencies with a touch of graceful irony. But they belong to a class of women who are not whole in themselves. Though the absence of love clearly outlined its negative space in Julia’s life, she was able to face and accept it, whereas Kay attempted to fill the space imperfectly. It seems ironic that  Julia, who speaks with apparent dismissiveness about Kay being a ‘sentimentalist’ and a ‘gentleman’, could have been in love with her, but then, Julia always seemed able to downplay her emotions and take her medicine straight.

So little about why anyone falls in love is visible to anyone else on the outside of the experience. The real causes and effects, and reasons, all unfold on the inside. When Kay, on one of her nightly ambulance runs, rescues Helen out of the rubble of a recently fallen bomb, the biggest shock is finding that she is still alive, and miraculously unhurt. This is probably the moment when Kay begins to fall in love. Why this could be we may infer, but never know for certain. We sense this is a moment in life when what happens in the material world imprints itself on us in such a way as to alter the inner mechanism of perception. The moment when Kay finds the still-living and improbably intact Helen partially encased in a tomb of crumbled brick and plaster, might be just such a moment when the element of shock and joy wipes the mind clean of present awareness and replaces it with something enormously new and strange, and the rescuer and the rescued emerge from the immediate past in a mutual silence and reenter the world together. There was another Helen, who was born from an egg,  whose adulterous love brought ruin to all around her. But Kay was probably not thinking about that.

There is in Helen, for all her ability to go after what she wants, something of “a second-former swooning over a prefect”, a degree of immaturity, of heedlessness and impulsivity. She is so gripped by her passion for Julia that she cannot deduce on the basis of their characters, what might have transpired to end the relationship between Kay and Julia. The clues are all there in Kay’s nature, and Julia’s repeated mentions about Kay’s insistence of having a ‘wife’ and Julia’s repeated demonstrations that she would not fit that role. This should have made Helen pause and give the matter some thought. But Helen’s desire was really an insatiable hunger to devour the hidden parts which Julia might have previously ceded to Kay: parts which were given but refused. Helen wanted what she could never have. When it came down to it, Kay’s gallantry and refinement played just as badly to Helen’s romantic needs as did Julia’s glamour, which came packaged together with her aloof indifference.

These three women are, in different ways, incomprehensible  to each other, but any woman she loves it seems, will always be an unsolved mystery to Kay. This weakness, this inability to understand the way in which, as well as whom, she loves, is always likely to come between her and her happiness.  The reason for this disconnect becomes slightly more clear when we set aside our identification of Kay as a woman and lesbian when in fact, more than either of these designations of gender, she more accurately conforms to an older and now dismissed concept – Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness definition of the invert. Kay, (who by my calculation was born in 1910) would have been 18 when Hall’s book was published. She might have seen herself  as a sort of Steven Gordon, a person at odds with the world, and one who could not be made to fit in it. That was a perception that may have undergone some modification in the danger and uncertainty of the Blitz, but which could not be altered at a more fundamental level.

The fascination we have with novels about broken and damaged people comes from being shown in a vivid and inescapable way the specific parts of the human machine which have broken down and ceased to function because they have been smashed against the unyielding surface of the world. Through such novels, and in the reflection of their characters, we are able to take a tentative scalpel to our own psyches and check our own working and non-working parts, in an attempt  to either reassure or terrify ourselves with questions about our own soundness – or the lack of it. Such novels are themselves like incendiary bombs, burning directly downwards as if with the able collusion of gravity, through time, unstoppably and with a sinister purpose.

The mood in which I read The Night Watch had been set when my ear caught and held a subtle note of weariness in its lucid, beautifully ordinary language, innocent of all rhetorical flourishes and artifice. It is of course the weariness of wartime, the unrelenting and insuperable sense of doom and  brokenness, beyond all fixing, the nightly danger posed by bombs and fires and collapsing buildings, the cheerless, inedible food, the vitiated air, the predominant shabbiness of everything, the scarcity or even absence of hot water. Language itself must be pruned where there is no excess energy to be squandered. An economy of words takes hold when economy prevails in all else. But Waters’ economy is deceptive, and it deceived me, and its perfect balance, so poised between skillfully arranged complexity and intuition, defeated the part of my brain dedicated to critical analysis and caused it to recede and disappear. I was forced to surrender to the sense that I was playing blind-man’s buff in an unlit room. This, I think, is due to the unique fashion in which time is represented in this novel, and not just that the arrow is flying backwards. Waters’ inclination is to reveal without confiding, and to delineate detail by vivid detail, such as the small but ominous symbols which signal a seismic shift. On Helen’s birthday,Kay takes enormous care over the presents: an extravagant and exquisite pair of pearl-coloured satin pyjamas bought on the black-market, an orange carefully pricked over with ‘Happy Birthday’, coffee…. but while Helen rather uneasily accepts these tokens of love, she rebuffs all Kay’s gestures of tender affection. Helen’s irritability, the absence of warmth, her aversion to Kay’s touch, all signal the retreat and withdrawal of love. It is reminiscent of  a scene in an old movie version of Dracula, when a crack appears and rapidly spreads on the surface of the castle courtyard. It presages the presence of the vampire, and one cannot interpret it as anything but a sign of impending disaster.

The withholding of information is a device vital to carrying a plot forward. It creates suspense, and gives the reader an active role in solving a riddle. But when a novel proceeds in an opposite trajectory to the arrow of time, how can a writer create suspense with the ending already revealed on the very first page? Waters does it from the first instant, by counting on the reader’s inexperience with such a reversal, and his or her failure to grasp its significance. We enter the novel stumbling in a moment of blindness and it takes a while to begin to get oriented. I felt I was forced by Waters to care deeply about Kay in this instant of disorientation and confusion, but along with that confusion was implanted the desire to dispel and resolve it.

Waters maintained her unique purpose of temporal distortion by not permitting her characters to recall their pasts. It is not that they had amnesia, but they could not dwell on what had brought them to the present. They could  stand at the river side and gaze at the opposite bank, they had to avert their gaze from the bridge, nor could they walk across it. But The Night Watch is itself a backward glance though the characters are never permitted to recall and remember. Kay, like Orpheus, walks through the underworld with the faint echo of footsteps in her wake, but when she emerges it is not into sunlight, but into unutterable bleakness. Because the narrative recedes in time, each segment of the present is as clearly crystallised in its place as an egg in aspic. The implications of this literary device are not noticeable at first, but its consequence, the absence of past memory in the minds of the characters, creates a sense of inexplicable unease. The past is there, but it is locked fast in the future. That in itself creates a sense of helpless imbalance in the mind of the reader, which taken together with the immediate, preternaturally detailed ordinariness of the narrative, persistently denies a handhold or a foothold on its surface. Readers often sense it when information is being  gratuitously withheld, but even though Waters had tied one hand behind her back when she made the rules, it was worth it, because it worked.

Distortions in the sequencing of time are inherently confusing to a reader. A still more subtle way in which Waters manipulates time, is the accretion of detail itself – one simply does not catch that much detail in a state of normal awareness. This device distorts the perception of time by altering the speed at which time travels to something resembling slow-motion. But fortunately for us, the ‘past’  of the narrative is always consistently present in some form or another. We cannot reclaim the past in order to fill in the gaps Waters is compelled to create in the story, but neither are we exactly removed from it, because its hold on us is  never entirely absent: it never leaves us entirely alone with the present: its intrusions never cease. It did occur to me that the remedy might be to read the book backwards, or to tear it into its segments and separate the pages within each segment and rearrange them in a different order, but I was prevented by a powerful taboo in me having to do with the destruction of books.

In a sense, The Night Watch is a study of unwholesome relationships and decadence lurking beneath the smudgy ordinariness anxious to disguise and deny it. The absence of love is starkly delineated throughout. The mass of sensuous detail relentlessly adumbrates and underscores the feeling of decay both within and without the characters. Still there are almost Zen-like moments, as when a flash of irrepressible beauty intrudes and Waters’ prose simply takes flight. The fox encountered by Julia and Helen on a walk through the bombed-out streets at night, when “they watched it dart, as quick and fluid as racing water” and the distant sound of a band “swelling and sinking on impalpable gusts of air, like washing on a line”, evoke by a few deft, suggestive strokes an almost unearthly beauty. In the immediacy of this writing, our nostrils are filled with the odour of burning feathers, when a pigeon, its wings on fire flies through the darkness in the aftermath of a bomb, a rabbit-meat sandwich is described as being ‘sweet’, we almost see the aged ruin of a ninety-year-old woman in a yellow nightgown, sleeping in her bed in her bomb-damaged house, and  the school girl joke I remember about the top hat and the bra (still in currency when I was in First Form.) But occasionally and unexpectedly, the detail seems false, as when the voice of the woman in the basement apartment resembles ‘gnat-like whining’ as it insinuates itself through the floor. Do gnats really whine, or are they are a quiet race of creatures who go about their gnat-like business in total silence? And did people in war time Britain say “wow”? Did they ‘press’ rather than ‘iron’ their clothes?

Both World Wars, but more dramatically the second, caused the collapse in England of the old social contact between men and women. The lull of 22 years which lasted  between the first and second wars, was still a time during which the frayed fabric of the old social order refused to give way completely. A few strong threads of former entrenched restrictions on the freedom of women to act, to be independent and autonomous, continued to hold. But both wars afforded unexpected new opportunities to women of a certain metal and calibre. During both wars, lesbians took to the new conditions with immense alacrity and purpose, and chaos itself became the climate in which these freedoms were enthusiastically embraced by women who carried their latent heroism within them like a recessive gene. Chaos and danger were exactly the conditions they needed to come into their own.

The Night Watch has an earlier ancestor in a short story entitled “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”, written by Radclyffe Hall about two weeks before The Well of Loneliness. Hall has always (somewhat unjustly in my view) been derided  by her literary peers – or at least contemporaries –  such as Virginia Woolf, for her  flights of undisciplined and sentimental excesses, but her significance for me is not related to her writing, but to her successful effort to end lesbian invisibility. Her highly-charged, and yes, overwrought short story is about a woman who was the head of a French ambulance service in WWI. After the armistice, Miss Ogilvy’s unit is demobilised, her world dismantled, and her place within it effaced with a total and irreversible finality. The Red Cross Ambulance Brigade in Calais, France, and the vehicles she so competently ‘manned’, are lost to her forever. There will be no longer any scope for her bravery and gallantry. The qualities she so conspicuously possessed as the natural inheritance of her specific gender, as well as her sacrifice, are forgotten when she comes back to England alone and without a purpose to her life. She was used, and discarded when she was no longer needed, and  in the aftermath of this rejection her mind unravels in its effort to reestablish itself in a way which would accommodate its intrinsic wholeness. In order to find herself, the ‘invert’ Miss Ogilvy has to bypass recorded history and all traces of civilisation to enter a time in prehistory and  recreate her shattered psyche as a man in the Neolithic era, but even there, she cannot imagine that a durable happiness could be within her grasp.

In my mind, crop-headed Miss Ogilvy is in a very real sense Kay Langrish’s lesbian ancestor, and their post-war lives seem to me to be echoes of each other. Like Miss Ogilvy’s in WWI. Kay’s deracinated existence in a shattered and exhausted post-war London is merely the encompassing reverberation of her far greater psychic devastation. And a similar devastation to what appears in Radclyffe Hall’s short story lies at the heart of The Night Watch. The inescapable dreariness of life to which Kay gives herself over in resignation and  mute surrender seems very much like the conditions faced by Miss. Ogilvy in the loss of  a world in which she had temporarily fit. These two things together, the loss of that world, and the meaning it gave to a life,  in their perfect synchronicity amplified the wave of ruin to such a degree that nothing else could be audible above their sound.

It is a great tribute to Waters’ skill that her narrative ellipses tend to go unnoticed in the spell cast by the plethora of atmospheric detail. We are never shown how Kay’s break up with Helen unfolded, though we may deduce that the denouement took place on the night a bomb hit Kay’s flat in Pym’s Yard. Waters sets the scene and  glosses over the details, and we get only the briefest glimpse of Kay and Julia unexpectedly appearing together out of the darkness. When Kay’s relief that Helen has survived the bomb blast  had slightly subsided, and she recovered herself  sufficiently in order for her rational mind to reassert itself, we may suppose that she realised the reason for Helen’s escape was that she was away from her own home, and had spent the night with Julia. The happy ending is sometimes just a heightened irony in disguise, a fine coat which may easily be turned inside-out to reveal its shredded lining. One moment we share Kay’s desolation at the thought of Helen being killed when their flat was hit by a bomb, and next we share her sigh of relief at the sight of Helen returning to her home with Julia. A few pages later we are back at the beginning, with Kay as she sees Helen for the first time, trapped in the rubble in the aftermath of a bomb and so we come full circle with the beginning and the end of an affair. Waters teases and disconcerts by waving in front of us an ending of the novel, which for a moment we confuse with the ending of her story, but no sooner have we read it than we realise this is only the beginning of what was to be a tragic ending. It strikes us like the bombs Kay’s friend Micky tells us landed in a cemetery and burst open the graves, shattering the coffins.

The manner in which Waters creates a ghostly echo of her novel in a reader’s mind is something which has a durable power to fascinate me. Meaningful stories for me are those that don’t just end at a literary stopping point which sometimes seems both inevitable and arbitrary, but then keep on going. They can move backwards and forwards in time, into our present thoughts, but also into the echoes that already existed before the book was read. The stories proceed in an out-of-sync disjunction like a solid universe emerging out of the ineffable and in time transforming into a swarm of massless photons which rush headlong into darkness. We are compelled as readers to inhabit the strange space of the writer’s mind and submit to its its inexplicable laws.  It is this contract that leads us by the hand and compels us to live lives which are not ours, but which nonetheless resound with a startling echo, so that they may as well be ours.

In delving into the manner in which Waters constructed her novel, I remembered that one of my very favourite books, ever since I read it decades ago, has been Edward Abbots’s Flatland.Though I didn’t know it at the time, it taught me to think in a completely different way. The way in which a book represents itself to me has always been at the foundation of how I perceive it, understand it and remember it. Abbot’s superbly written gem, a treatise on dimensions and how we perceive them, has come to deeply inform my understanding of what I read. Life happens in three dimensions, four if you count time, though this, being a temporal dimension, is quite different from the other three, which are spatial. Books, which are not strictly speaking life, have to represent the dimensions of life in a way which admits that hidden dimension. We learned as children how this could be done with three dimensional object such as a cube. A cube has parallel sides and perpendicular angles, but when we represent a cube in two dimensions, its missing dimension can be revealed, but only if we use additional angles besides right angles. We have to off-set opposite surfaces by drawing two overlapping squares, and then joining their corners in ways that do not exist in the original cube. The additional ‘dimension’, time, which gives an object its reference in ‘reality’, is really a very secret player, and one which has to be handled carefully and creatively if life, which is the object we are attempting to pin down in a novel, is to be convincingly conveyed. The cube drawn on a sheet of paper overrides our knowledge about what cubes really  are, but nonetheless it leads us to correctly identify an image as a cube with a missing dimension. Without the ‘false’ angles we are unable to see the cube. The illusion must be created in accordance with the rules of perception, and this requires a brilliant imagination.  In order to make use of the referential nature of time in her narrative without actually unravelling it, Waters has to make a casualty of memory. When done correctly in a novel or a story, the hidden and absent dimensions of life erupt on the page. Luckily for us, we are able to manipulate time in this way as well. And time is often the key to the way in which the characters in a novel make their secret way off the page and into our minds.

Another thought that lingered after I read The Night Watch was to wonder why lesbian writers don’t write more lesbian novels. Waters has paid her dues, so to speak, with two well-written and unabashedly concupiscent lesbian novels, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and flirted with a character of ‘lesbian sensibility’ in Affinity Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet most probably had lesbians rushing book-store counters in droves, but with The Night Watch Waters made her unfaltering way into the middle of main stream fiction. The Night Watch may or may not be a lesbian novel, but the lesbian content in it was the centrepiece for me, and I rather think it was intended as such. I will not hold it against Waters if she never creates another lesbian character. I think I understand why lesbian writers don’t go on writing lesbian books: perhaps they get tired of the subject, or perhaps it exhausts itself for them, or perhaps they feel they might not want to go on writing the same book under a different cover. What I don’t understand is how heterosexual writers go on writing heterosexual books without ever seeming to run out of  heterosexual material or tiring of heterosexual themes and subjects. Is this because a largely heterosexual reading public demands, and will pay for, an endless stream of fiction to which they can ‘relate’ and which caters to their particular literary needs? Or is it perhaps because there are more heterosexuals who want to read about other heterosexuals than there are either lesbians and gays or heterosexuals who want to read about homosexuals?  It is a vexing question and one without an immediate answer.

In the almost-historical past, the publishers of lesbian novels required that stories about lesbians end in disaster. The scripts demanded that lesbian characters had to see the error of their ways and acknowledge the superiority of heterosexual relationships, go mad, lose the girl, commit suicide or be murdered. No matter how sophisticated a reader was, and no matter how well she understood the reasons why this had to be so either from a literary or censorship requirement, the residue of hopelessness tended to linger. There were of course a few notable exceptions. I congratulate the late, great Jane Rule for her focus on lesbian subject matter. We need the Jane Rules of the world, and it is our misfortune that there could only ever be one of her. I don’t fault Patricia Highsmith for her one-off, The Price of Salt, the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, because it was a huge landmark for its time, (1952) and will continue always to be regarded as such. But I do wish there were more well-written lesbian novels by writers who are capable of taking on the subject truthfully and competently. I wish I could find more novels in which lesbians are primary and not secondary characters, and which do not end in the way the tradition has required of them for so many years. Waters has done it before, and one hopes perhaps she might do it again.

I don’t like much to think of psychology outside the reliable framework of a literary or operatic context, and as I got to the end of my own erratic progress through this rambling analysis, it suddenly came to me that Kay was, above all, a Faustian figure, but only as in Berlioz’s opera La Damnation de Faust and not as in Goethe’s original. Berlioz, I think, is more hopeful and optimistic, and if one wishes for a psychological connection, his work could well be seen as a prefiguring of Jung. Kay’s entrance at the beginning of the novel echoes the Faustian predicament, the alienation from the world, the failed search, the moment of despair, and of being on the verge of disintegration. The recapitulation of the events leading to this moment in Kay’s life, her dedicated search for fulfillment and the contract required in order to achieve it, runs parallel to Faust’s journey. Alas, the first Marguarete was false, and the true Marguarete is nowhere in sight, but where we find Faust and Mephistopheles she cannot be far off, and is fated to appear. What is now needed to set the inevitable in motion is merely the sound of the Easter Bells. We fervently hope that one day soon, when Kay is standing at her window, or when she is on one of her solitary walks through the city, or just watching a movie in the darkness of a cinema, she will hear them ring out loudly, clearly and unmistakably.

Eileen Mary (Didi) Nearne (March 15th 1921 – September 2nd 2010)


















It was my initial idea to precede a commentary on Sarah Water’s remarkable novel The Night Watch with a true story of a WW2 hero, because

Eileen Nearne’s Finishing Report

the post war life of  Water’s character Kay connects in my mind with this true story, but I subsequently decided I could not properly begin an article or an essay or indeed any piece of writing with a digression. Instead, I decided this post could stand on its own merits, to be followed later by another on The Night Watch.

This post is about the life of a remarkable woman. Her name was Eileen Nearne.

I obtained the digital facsimiles of her S.O.E Finishing Report and other documents  shown here from The British National Archives.

This story, like The Night Watch, began in a backwards chronological direction when the neighbors of an 89 year old woman who had been living in a flat in Torquay became concerned about her welfare and alerted the authorities on September 15th 2010.

The woman, Eileen Nearne, was found dead the same day, though her body was supposed to have remained undiscovered for an unspecified length of time before that, perhaps as long as two weeks. The cause of death was determined to be ‘natural causes’ – the particular cause which precipitated the fatality being deemed ‘a heart attack’.

Nearne had never married, and she had no friends or family. She had lived in her Torquay flat for two decades, during which time she  had been intractably reclusive. When the occasion arose of disposing of her remains, the authorities found that they had to  step in, because Nearne had no living relatives, and therefore no one  who could be found to foot the cost of a funeral.

I suppose it was in the course of this pecuniarily inspired investigation that  the facts about Nearne’s remarkable past were uncovered.

When council workers found obsolete French currency, old correspondence and military medals among her effects, it was determined that Nearne was a decorated war hero, who had served her country as a radio operator the U.K. Special Operations Executive during WW2, in occupied France. In 1944, at the perilously tender age of 23, the fluently bilingual Nearne had worked as a wireless operator under the nom de guerre of Mademoiselle du Tort, and the code name ‘Rose’.  She also used the names of Jacqueline Duterte (coincidentally her older sister’s name was Jacqueline) and ‘Alice Wood.’

The S.O.E  parachute-dropped  Nearne behind enemy lines in France on March 2nd 1944.  Soon thereafter she was captured by the Gestapo, but managed to convince them she was an ordinary shop-girl. She was found out and arrested again four months later, on August 15th 1944, when her transmitter was detected by the Gestapo. The Gestapo then tortured Nearne in order to extract information about her mission.

A report made by  the BBC after Nearne’s death states that she “survived in silence  the full revolting treatment of the baignoire” (probably a practice that resembles what we know of today as  ‘water-boarding’) in the torture chambers of the Gestapo on the Rue des Saussaies.

Nearne was then sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp and from there to a forced-labour camp in Silesia where she was again tortured. Here her head was shaved, and she was threatened with shooting for refusal to follow work orders. The sheer beastliness of the Germans has been extensively documented in innumerable other instances, but suffice it to say that camp life was barely survivable. The prisoners were forcibly subjected to 12 hour work-days on a diet of acorn coffee, turnip soup, and a little dried bread, and were expected to work until they died of exhaustion.

On April 13th 1945, Nearne, while on a forced night march from Ravensbrück, managed to escape with two other French girls who were her fellow prisoners and members of a camp work gang. The trio hid in the forest, and made it all the way to Leipzig, a distance of 213 km, before being arrested by the S.S.  Once again, Nearne, an accomplished linguist, managed to talk herself and her fellow escapees out of potentially deadly situation by convincing the Germans that she and her friends  were ordinary Frenchwomen who had lost their papers. They managed to reach Leipzig where a priest hid the unconscious Nearne in a bell tower until the Germans had been defeated.

Nearne (described by some as Anglo-Spanish but elsewhere as the youngest of four children of an English father and French mother),moved to France in 1923 when she was two years old, and this might explain how her British origins came to be nearly undetectable.

Nearne and her family fled through Spain in 1942 on the way back to England two years after the war in France began. Her two older siblings, her sister Jacqueline who was the oldest and her brother Francis, were also S.O.E operatives. There was another brother Frederick, about whom nothing is known.

After the war was over the Nearne sisters (there is no further mention of Francis) returned to England by way of Portugal and Gibraltar. It is an irony that Nearne was at first ‘identified’ by American Intelligence as a Nazi Collaborator! An American interrogator stated  “Subject creates a very unbalanced impression. She often is unable to answer the simplest questions, as though she was impersonating someone else. Her account of what happened to her after her landing in Orleans is held to be invented. It is recommended that Subject be put at the disposal of the British Authourities for further investigation and disposition.” But doubts were set aside when London confirmed Nearne’s statements.

Nearne was awarded an M.B.E on the14th of February 1946 by George VI for ‘services in France during the enemy occupation.’ The sisters lived in London until Jacqueline’s death in 1982. Eileen moved to Torquay in 1990. She had been devastated by the death of her sister, and was said to have ‘suffered psychological problems resulting from her wartime service’ – but more properly as a result of being tortured by the Germans.

What are we to make of this amazing story? Nearne’s heroic past was discovered only because among her possessions were found several medals (one of them the French Croix de Guerre with Palm which was awarded to her on the 16th of January 1946), old devalued French currency and some French correspondence. There was talk of the medals being buried with her – but we are not told what eventually became of them. The currency was no doubt discarded, and ‘documents relating to the war’ were was claimed by MI5.

This leaves the fascinating question about the nature of the French correspondence. What could those letters have been about? Who was the other correspondent? Did MI5 take them as well?  It has been claimed that some of the information regarding Nearne’s wartime experience is still classified.

It is likely that there may have been many heterosexual women who were war heroes, who never married and lived in lonely seclusion with no friends or family, but in my personal (and I admit, possibly biased) calculus, Eileen Nearne was probably a lesbian, and if she wasn’t, she may as well have been.

There are many considerations that lead to this conclusion, based in large part on Nearne’s reclusiveness. If she was indeed a lesbian, she would have had several compelling reasons to remain incognito, the most significant to me being that the British Government did not prove to be particularly grateful for even the most exceptional services rendered to them by its non-heterosexual and non-male citizens.

The harassment suffered by Alan Turing, (the man who cracked the Enigma Code,) which culminated in his suspicious ‘suicide’ – or probably  murder –  is a testament to the fact that the British Government did not feel obliged to honour the service and sacrifice of its gay subjects, even if their service was critical in winning the war. It did not matter to the British government that the war would certainly have been prolonged, if not lost, without Turing’s code-cracking genius. He was charged and convicted of  gross indecency for a private consensual homosexual act, and subsequently forced to take synthetic estrogen for the period of one year.  His mysterious death by ingestion or inhalation of cyanide about a year after he had served his ‘sentence’, when he was said to be in good spirits, suggests that he was murdered by his former employers in the British Secret Service, who after the war was over, may have concluded he was disposable.

Nearne’s habit of enforced secrecy – vitally essential to her  wartime survival – may have been a hard one to break. But she may have wisely decided that as a lesbian, her post-war survival and possibly her pension, might have depended on her continuing to keep below the radar.  Secrecy might indeed have become a life-and-death imperative, for her, not only in war-time, but afterwards, for a this different reason. It may have been impossible for her to overcome what might have grown to be a pathological reticence.

What was considered criminal and what was not, in those days, as now, was fairly arbitrary. During and after WW2, the British committed many shameful acts in order to protect members of the aristocracy who were enthusiastically pro-Nazi. One should not forget that Edward VII and his wife Wallis Warfield were keen admirers of Hitler. British wartime Nazi sympathizers included Admiral Sir Barry Domvile, head of the the British naval intelligence, who was a friend of Goebbels and Himmler. Domvile, who was in favor of an alliance with Germany, was detained by the British government at the beginning of the war, but many others remained in power, and retained their positions of influence, and were never disciplined either for their actions or for their views.

This pro-Nazism may not have seemed criminal in those days, but lesbianism, while not explicitly criminalized, received the treatment more suitable to criminal activity. Given the atmosphere of intense homosexual repression in that time, Nearne might have come to the conclusion that secrecy was the price she had to pay for her survival.

One can get a very vivid impression of this era from lesbian pulps of the ‘Fifties – conditions that are almost impossible to imagine for those who have not lived through them: Being gay was considered evil, sinful, pathological and criminal. Any intelligent lesbian might well have felt that God, the state, the medical/psychological establishment, society and family together were colluding to extinguish her life.

While it is true that the gallant example offered by Nearne’s older siblings alone might have been sufficient inducement to her to join the S.O.E, if Nearne was a lesbian, this might have been all the more reason that she was receptive to the S.O.E.’s recruitment efforts. She probably decided that the only useful thing to do with her life (if other ‘normal’ and ‘human’ choices were denied her), would have been to throw caution and all else to the winds and risk everything in order to find a niche and a purpose in life, regardless of the dangers involved.

But the Ravensbrück experience may have depleted her of whatever emotional strength she had left at the end of her ordeal. While living with her sister Jacqueline, Nearne is said to have painted violent pictures in an effort to exorcise her horrific wartime experiences at the hands of the Germans. She must have yearned desperately for peace; hence the quiet –  almost silent – remainder of her life.

Nearne was grossly underestimated by her S.O.E recruiters, and her character, and abilities were described by them in vividly derisive terms, as shown in the document at the top of this page. One wonders now how these recruiters, whose reports of Nearne were so  cruelly scathing – and so wrong –  might themselves have fared if subjected to the tortures Nearne suffered at the hands of the Gestapo and the S.S.  Nearne, after all, was a woman who received distinguished awards for her “cool efficiency, perseverance and willingness to undergo any risk.”

When the news about Nearn’s death made its way into the media, and it was made public that what lay in store for her body was either a cremation or what was known as  a council funeral (in other words a pauper’s grave), Torquay citizens were indignant and outraged. Offers of money to cover the cost of a funeral service and a decent burial for Nearne poured in. A local funeral service offered to defray the expenses for the obsequies.

The government, however,  made no such offers, though the British Royal Legion (or the Royal British Legion, the Daily Mail article from which I gleaned my first bits of information has it both ways) magnanimously offered  – rather than a genuine acknowledgment of of services – to to place a flag on her coffin, which might have been in any case the minimum required gesture owed to someone who served her country. The funeral was scheduled to be held  on September 21st, three weeks after Nearne’s death.

Nearne’s neighbors had no idea whatsoever about her spectacular wartime record. They had not the slightest notion that they were living next to a war hero.

The Daily Mail quoted Nearne’s neighbor Steven Cook as saying “She was very reclusive: I was very surprised at the extent of her heroism. You would never have thought it, as she never spoke of it. I just want everyone to know what she had done in her past.”

An unnamed neighbor describes Nearne as being a contributor to animal charities, who sat outside her flat with her ginger cat, and read the newspaper. The neighbor states that Nearne never talked about herself but only about the cat! I am sure she would have wanted a good home to be have been found for the animal, but I have not been able to find any mention of him.

Another interviewee,  Jane Roberts of Oxford, made the poignant statement “How sad, and how dreadful that a woman who served her country with such courage should have died alone.”

An article in the New York Times states:

Friends said that she withdrew into herself and shunned all opportunities to earn celebrity from her wartime experiences. In 1993, she returned to Ravensbruck for a visit, but otherwise she cherished her anonymity. As she told a television interviewer several years before she died: “It was a life in the shadows, but I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret. I could be lonely. I could be independent. But I wasn’t bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it.”

The Daily Mail article, which was the first to report Nearne’s death, was probably written by an inexperienced stringer, who nevertheless seems to have done a very creditable job. However, it contained several statements that simply did not add up.

The article stated that:

The funeral director has offered to not only pay for the service but to move it to a larger church to accommodate the members of the public who wish to attend.

…The lack of any next of kin means that Torbay council will now pay for the funeral next week.

The Torbay council had been contacted by various organizations offering to pay the funeral expenses.

The public was informed that their donations were no longer needed.

We (the Torquay Council) are liaising with the Royal British Legion regarding a protocol for the service so Ms Nearne can be laid to rest with the dignity and respect she deserves.

The daring British Second World War spy who died alone in her flat earlier this moth will receive an all-expenses paid funeral following public outcry that she was to be cremated unmourned.

(…A  spokesman) added that the funeral will be arranged by the authority (MI5) who will claim the money back from her estate.

The original funeral was due to be held on September 21st but a new date will now be found.

The funeral service will be held at Drake’s Chapel in Hele Road, Torquay, on September 21st at 11 am.

But finally The Torbay & District Funeral Service of Torquay footed the bill for Nearne’s funeral, which was held  as scheduled on September 21st 2010 at Our Lady Help of Christians and St Denis Roman Catholic Church, Torquay.

In accordance with her wishes, (apparently made known by Nearne to a niece who lived in Italy) Nearne was cremated rather than buried, and her ashes were scattered at sea.

Delmira Agustini (October 24, 1886 – July 6, 1914)
















El Nudo

Su idilio fue una larga sonrisa a cuatro labios…
En el regazo cálido de rubia primavera
Amáronse talmente que entre sus dedos sabios
Palpitó la divina forma de la Quimera.



En los palacios fúlgidos de las tardes en calma
Hablábanse un lenguaje sentido como un lloro,
Y se besaban hondo hasta morderse el alma!…
Las horas deshojáronse como flores de oro,



Y el Destino interpuso sus dos manos heladas…
Ah! los cuerpos cedieron, mas las almas trenzadas
Son el más intrincado nudo que nunca fue…
En lucha con sus locos enredos sobrehumanos
Las Furias de la vida se rompieron las manos
Y fatigó sus dedos supremos Ananké…




Delmira Agustini

Los cantos de la mañana, 1910














The Knot

Their idyll was a smile of four lips…                     
In the warm lap of blond spring
They loved such that between their wise fingers
the divine form of Chimera trembled.





In the glimmering palaces of quiet afternoons
They spoke in a language heartfelt as weeping,
And they kissed each other deeply, biting the soul!
The hours fluttered away like petals of gold,


Then Fate interposed its two icy hands…
Ah! the bodies yielded, but tangled souls
Are the most intricate knot that never unfolds…
In strife with its mad superhuman entanglements,
Life’s Furies rent their coupled hands
And wearied your powerful fingers, Ananké*…




*Ananke: Goddess of Unalterable Necessity

Translation Valerie Martínez













Al Claro de Luna

La luna es pálida y triste, la luna es exangüe y yerta.    
La media luna figúraseme un suave perfil de muerta…
Yo que prefiero a la insigne palidez encarecida
De todas las perlas árabes, la rosa recién abierta,



En un rincón del terruño con el color de la vida,
Adoro esa luna pálida, adoro esa faz de muerta!
Y en el altar de las noches, como una flor encendida
Y ebria de extraños perfumes, mi alma la inciensa rendida.




Yo sé de labios marchitos en la blasfemia y el vino,
Que besan tras de la orgia sus huellas en el camino;
Locos que mueren besando su imagen en lagos yertos…
Porque ella es luz de inocencia, porque a esa luz misteriosa
Alumbran las cosas blancas, se ponen blancas las cosas,
Y hasta las almas más negras toman clarores inciertos!




Delmira Agustini 
El libro blanco, 1907













In the Light of the Moon

The moon is pallid and sad, the moon is bloodless and cold.
I imagine the half-moon as a profile of the dead…
And beyond the renowned and praised pallor
Of Arab pearls, I prefer the rose in recent bud.



In a corner of this land with the colors of earth,
I adore this pale moon, I adore this death mask!
And at the altar of the night, like a flower inflamed,
Inebriated by strange perfumes, my soul resigns.




I know of lips withered with blasphemy and wine;
After an orgy they kiss her trace in the lane.
Insane ones who die kissing her image in lakes…
Because she is light of innocence, because white things
Illuminate her mysterious light, things taking on white,
And even the blackest souls become uncertainly bright.




Translation Valerie Martínez















Alfonsina Storni (May 29, 1892 – October 25, 1938)















Palabras a Delmira Agustini

Estás muerta y tu cuerpo, bajo uruguayo manto,
Descansa de su fuego, se limpia de su llama.
Sólo desde tus libros tu roja lengua llama
Como cuando vivías, al amor y al encanto.



Hoy, si un alma de tantas, sentenciosa y oscura,
Con palabras pesadas va a sangrarte el oído,
Encogida en tu pobre cajoncito roído
No puedes contestarle desde tu sepultura.




Pero sobre tu pecho, para siempre deshecho,
Comprensivo vigila, todavía, mi pecho,
Y, si ofendida lloras por tus cuencas abiertas,



Tus lágrimas heladas, con mano tan liviana
Que más que mano amiga parece mano hermana,
Te enjugo dulcemente las tristes cuencas muertas.

Alfonsina Storni











Words to Delmira Augustini

You are dead and your body under an Uruguayan mantle
Rests from its fire, cleansed of its soul
Since now solely from your books does your red tongue call
As when you lived, to love, and to enchant.




If today, a soul among the many judgmental and dark
Comes to bleed your ear with ponderous words
Huddled in your poor crumbling little casket
You cannot answer it, from your grave.



But upon your breast, undone forever                  
My breast ever keeps tender vigil
And if offended your empty sockets should weep
Your frozen tears such a delicate hand.
A hand more than that of a friend, but the hand of a sweetheart*
Will wipe them sweetly away from the sad dead hollows.




*The word hermana used here indicates a relationship deeper than friends but not quite that of lovers.

Translation Dia Tsung











Alfonsina y el mar

Por la blanda arena que lame el mar
su pequeña huella no vuelve más,
un sendero solo de pena y silencio
llegó hasta el agua profunda,
un sendero solo de penas mudas
llegó hasta la espuma.





Sabe Dios qué angustia te acompañó
qué dolores viejos calló tu voz,
para recostarte arrullada en el canto
de las caracolas marinas
la canción que canta,
en el fondo oscuro del mar, la caracola.





Te vas Alfonsina con tu soledad

qué poemas nuevos fuiste a buscar,
una voz antigua de viento y de sal,
te requiebra el alma y la está llevando,
y te vas hacia allá como en sueños,
dormida Alfonsina, vestida de mar.

Cinco sirenitas te llevarán
por caminos de algas y de coral,
y fosforescentes caballos marinos
harán una ronda a tu lado,
y los habitantes del agua
van a jugar pronto a tu lado.



Bájame la lámpara un poco más
déjame que duerma, nodriza en paz,
y si llama él no le digas que estoy
dile que Alfonsina no vuelve
y si llama él no le digas nunca que estoy,
di que me he ido.







Te vas Alfonsina con tu soledad              
qué poemas nuevos fuiste a buscar,
una voz antigua de viento y de sal
que requiebra el alma y la está llevando,
y te vas hacia allá, como en sueños,
dormida Alfonsina, vestida de mar.





Félix Luna lyrics

Ariel Ramírez music

Ariel Ramírez (4 September 1921 – 18 February 2010)











Félix Luna (September 30, 1925 – November 5, 2009)







Alfonsina and the Sea

To the soft sand which is lapped by the sea
your little footprint return no more,
only  a path, a trail of pain and silence
reaching  up to the deep water,
only a path of silent torment
reaching up to the foam.


God knows what anguish accompanied you
What ancient suffering silenced  your voice,
to lean back, lulled in the song
of the  seashells
the song which they sing
on the deep darkness of the sea, the conch.



You went, Alfonsina with your solitude
To find what new poems are left to be found,
An ancient voice of the wind and the salt,
to shatter your soul and convey you,
and you go yonder as in dreams,
Alfonsina asleep, adorned with the sea.





Five little sirens will bear you
on paths of algæ and coral
and phosphorescent sea horses
encircle  your side,
and the inhabitants of the water
soon come to sport beside you





Lower the lamp for me, slightly
Let me sleep, o nurse, in peace
and if he calls, tell him I’m not here
tell him Alfonsina will not return
And if he calls, tell him nothing about me
simply say I have gone away.



You went, Alfonsina with your solitude
To find what new poems are left to be found,
An ancient voice of the wind and the salt,
to shatter your soul and convey you,
and you go yonder as in dreams,
Alfonsina asleep, adorned with the sea.






Translation Dia Tsung














Alfonsina y el mar, sung by Mercedes Sosa






These ripples of remembrance and commemoration, are tributes which spread out from the life of Delmira Agustini, an Uruguayan poet of Italian descent, who was murdered by her husband Enrique Reyes, a month after she had divorced him. Agustini had been married to Reyes for a month when the divorce was granted.

Agustini was emphatically a modern poet, who asserted her female voice in a time and place when women were not supposed to publicly assert either themselves or their work.  Her poems were powerful, personal and lyrical, and brought her both fame and notoriety. Fortunately many of her poems, together with English translations, can be found on the web,  and they are well worth finding and reading.  This is a list of her published work.

1907: El libro blanco
1910: Cantos de la mañana
1913: Los cálices vacíos, pórtico de Rubén Darío
1924: Obras completas “Complete Works”: Volume 1, El rosario de Eros; Volume 2: Los astros del abismo, posthumously published, Montevideo, Uruguay: Máximo García
1944: Poesías, prologue by Luisa Luisi Motevideo, Claudio García & Co.
1971: Poesías completas, prólogue and notes by Manuel Alvar, Barcelona: Editorial Labor

Alfonsina Storni, an Argentinian writer and poet of Italian descent, commited suicide by walking into the sea (the Mar del Plata) in 1938, a year after the suicide of her close friend and fellow writer, the Uruguayan/Argentinan (both countries claim him) Horacio Quiroga. She had been suffering from breast cancer. There are many articles on her work and life to be found on the web. This is a link to the Britannica thumbnail listed under her name.


Félix Luna is listed in Wikipedia as “a prominent Argentine writer, lyricist and historian.” Luna was born on September 30th 1925, Happy Birthday five hours from now Mr. Luna.

I don’t know how coincidences occur, but when I decided to post a couple of poems by Delmira Agustini today, I was led to a tribute to her written by Alfonsina Storni. From there I was led to the poem dedicated to Storni written by Félix Luna. I then found the poem had been set to music by Ariel Ramírez, and found the beautiful version of the song sung by Mercedes Sosa.