Posts Tagged ‘glbt’

Katharine Lee Bates (August 12 1859 – March 28 1929)

















“There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.”

–Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

It was a beautiful morning, whose beauty could only hurt, of the first June since Joy-of-Life went away. All green paths were desolate for lack of her glad step. And the stately kennel that had been known from the first as “Sigurd’s House” stood silent, its green door closed on bare floor and cobwebbed walls. Stray cats passed it unconcerned and hoptoads took their ease on the edges of “Sigurd’s Drinking-cup” hollowed out in the adjacent rock. In an hour when the pain of living seemed wellnigh unbearable, the Angel of Healing called me up by telephone. His voice was gruff, but kindly.

“Say, you miss that old dog of yours a sight, don’t you?”

I could feel the confidential pressure of Sigurd’s golden head against my knee as I briefly assented, recognizing the speaker as the proprietor of certain collie kennels not far distant.

“He had a right good home, that dog had, and you must have got pretty well used to collie ways.”

“If you were going to ask me to buy another collie, please don’t. Sigurd is my dog–forever.”

“Well! Since you put it that way–but I’m at my wit’s end to get rid of a collie pup–a pretty little fellow, rough Scotch, sable and white, like yours–that’s scairt at his own shadow.”

“What scared him?”

“Blest if I know! His sire, Commander, and his dam, Whisper, are as nice, normal, easy-tempered dogs as you could find anywhere, and their litters take after ’em–‘cept this youngster, who sulks all day long off in some dark hole by himself and shakes if we speak to him. Nobody has mishandled the little chap so far’s I’ve ever seen or heard, but the least thing–a shout or a rattle of tools or any fool noise–throws him into such a funk that all the rest of the puppies are getting panicky and the whole caboodle is running wild. There’s no two ways about it. I’ve got to clear that born ninny out. I sold him a month ago to a lady for fifty dollars, but she brought him back in a week and said he was about as cheerful company as a tombstone. Now see here! You can have him for twenty, or for nothing, just as you feel after you’ve given him a try.”

“But I don’t want him. I shouldn’t want him if he were the best dog in the country.”

“Then I reckon I’ll have to shoot him. I could give him away, but he’s such a wretched, shivery little rascal that most any sort of folks would be too rough for him. ‘Twould be kinder to put him out of the world and done with it. He’s had seven months of it now and pretty well made up his mind that he don’t like it. I did think maybe you might be willing to give him a chance.”

I was surprised to hear my own voice saying into the telephone: “I’ll try him for a few days, if you care to bring him over.”

Yet I dreaded his coming. The friend who gave us Sigurd had offered us the past winter a very prince of puppies, the daintiest, most spirited, most winsome little collie that a free affection could ask, but Joy-of-Life and I could not make him ours. We could regard him only as a visitor in Sigurd’s haunts, and the Lady of Cedar Hill, resenting the name of Guest which we had given him, re-named him Eric and took him to her own home. Here she soon won the utter devotion of his dog-heart, which, though now no longer beating, through that ardent and faithful love “tastes of immortality.”

I was in the veranda off the study, trying to busy myself with my old toys of books and pen and paper, when the young collie was led in by a small girl, the only person at the kennels whose call he obeyed or whose companionship he welcomed. Deposited beside my chair, he promptly retreated to the utmost distance the narrow limits of his prison-house allowed, panting and quaking.

“Be good, Blazey,” the child admonished him, stroking his head with a sunburned hand from whose light caress he at once shuddered away. “I’ll come to see you by and by.”

“By and by is easily said,” the puppy made answer with incredulous eyes that first watched her out of sight and then rolled in anguish of despair from the wire screening of the porch to roof and wall.

“Is your name Blazey?” I asked him gently, but his fit of ague only grew worse as he turned his ghastly stare on me
“with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors.”
“I made further efforts at conversation while the day wore on, but that little yellow image of throbbing terror, upright in the remotest corner, would not even turn its head toward my voice. In vain I remonstrated:
“Alas, how is’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep.”
The constant tremble of the poor, scared, pitiful puppy was intensified by every train whistle and motor horn to a violent shaking. I could not flutter a leaf nor drop a pencil without causing a nervous twitch of the brown ears. Suddenly the crack of an early Fourth of July torpedo electrified him into a frenzy of fright. If it had been the fatal shot in reserve for Blazey he could not have made a madder leap nor wheeled about in more distracted circles. In one of these lunatic reels he struck against me and, gathering him close, I crooned such comfort as I had into that dizzy, quivering, pathetic face; but he tore himself loose and fled gasping back to his corner beseeching a perilous and cruel universe to let him alone. I, for one, declined:
“Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!–
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee; I’ll call thee Hamlet.”
The puppy accepted his new name, as he accepted his dinner, with lugubrious resignation and the air of saying to himself:
“Heaven hath pleas’d it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me.”
His misery was more appealing than a thousand funny gambols could have been, and the household, those of us who were left, conspired in various friendly devices to make him feel at home. The child at the kennels had taught him one sole accomplishment, that of giving his paw, and Sister Jane, in a fine spirit of sacrifice, made a point of shaking hands with him long and politely at least a dozen times a day, rushing to a faucet as soon as this hospitable rite was accomplished for a fierce scouring of her own polluted palms. Housewife Honeyvoice tempted his appetite with the most savory of puppy menus and kept up such a flow of tuneful comment while he ate that, even in his days of deepest gloom, he rarely failed to polish his dish and then thump it all about in an unscientific effort to extract gravy from tinware. Esther’s arms were now as strong as her feet were lively and, after the first week or so, he would let her pick him up like a baby and carry him about and would even be surprised, at times, into a game of romps. He needed play as much as he needed food, but he was curiously awkward at it, not merely with the usual charming clumsiness of puppies but with a blundering uncertainty in all his movements, miscalculating his jumps, lighting in a sprawling heap and often hurting himself by a lop-sided tumble.

Yet apart from these brief lapses he maintained his pose of hopeless melancholy, varied by frantic perturbations, until his new name fitted him like his new collar.
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!”
He was not, to be sure,

“The glass of fashion and the mold of form,”

for his nose, from the bench point of view, was nearly half an inch too long. But his “dejected haviour” and deep-rooted suspicion of his surroundings were Hamlet’s own. He felt himself “be-netted round with villanies” and apprehensively watched the simple ways of our family in profound despondency and distrust. The fears that haunted him kept him so hushed that we grew to believe he was actually dumb,–a defect in physical endowment that might account for many abnormalities. Now and then the rigid little figure beside me on the veranda–for gradually, day by day, he edged an inch or two nearer–would give a stir of weariness or even drop, exhausted, for a nap, but in the main
“as patient as the female dove
When that her golden couplets are disclos’d,
His silence” would “sit drooping.”
Through all the hot summer days I had to see him,
“A dull and muddy mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams,”
but as soon as we reached the cool cover of dusk, I would lift the now crouching, anxious puppy to his four feet and snap on his new leash.

His troubled eyes would well over with expostulatory questions:

“Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?”

“We’re going to walk, Little Stick-in-the-Mud. Come on!”

And thus Hamlet, “with much forcing of his disposition,” would undergo the daily constitutional, which he converted into a genuine gymnastic exercise for us both by pulling back on the leash with all his considerable strength, protesting:
“It is not, nor it cannot come to good;
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
In this ignoble fashion I would drag him along for a mile or so of the least frequented road, until he would suddenly fix his slender legs and refuse to be budged:
“Where wilt thou lead me? speak;
I’ll go no further.”
“Very well! If you insist on turning back here, you know what will happen. It will be your turn to drag me.”

To this he had always the same rejoinder:
“‘Tis true ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true.”
So Hamlet, all his soul set on getting back to the comparative security of that veranda, would fall to tugging like an infant Hercules, scrabbling me along, regardless of sidewalks, by the nearest route to safety, till I felt myself, on reaching home, more than ever a “quintessence of dust.”

When I tried him off the leash, he would, even into the autumn, run back to the kennels, though he would let no one there touch him but the gypsy-tanned child. Later, he would slip back to the Scarab, usually after dark, but be afraid to come near or ask admittance, sweeping around the house in wide, wistful circles. It took our softest coaxings to bring that palpitating puppy across the threshold and, once in, we all had to shake paws with him many times before he would believe himself welcome and sink down at my feet to sleep away his tiredness and terror. It was midsummer before I dared loose him on the campus for a free scamper, from which, hesitant, with many tremors and recoils, he came back to me in answer to my call. I thought then that the battle was won, but the next time I ventured it, and the next, he ran away. Yet before the leaves fell we had made such progress that when I fastened on his leash and invited him to go to walk,
“there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it.”
For weeks the rooms of the house were to this kennel-bred puppy no better than torture-chambers, being full of strange, sinister objects, for to Hamlet, even yet, the unknown is a menace and a dread. Brought into study or dining-room, he would “wax desperate with imagination,” throwing wild looks at ceiling and walls and then spinning about and about like an agonized top. “Upon the heat and flame” of those excitements it was hard to persuade him to “sprinkle cool patience,” but in process of time he became accustomed to rugs and furniture and even, after repeated assurances, grew to understand that Sigurd’s chair was at his service.

By mid-winter he had come to realize, with a touching relief and responsive fervor of affection, that the members of the family were his friends, but he was still thrown into a panic by the door-bell and the murderous monsters whose entrance he believed it to announce. Every arrival he regarded as an agent of Hamlet’s doom and fled precipitately to chosen places of concealment on the upper floors. Yet curiosity was strong in the little fellow, too. As I sat chatting with a caller, I would presently be aware of an excessively unobtrusive collie stealing down the stairs. Quivering all over, in awe of his own daring, he would place himself erect on the threshold with his face to the hall and very slowly, inch by inch, would “like a crab” back into the room, edging along on his haunches, steering his blind course for the further side of my chair. Still keeping his back to the stranger, he would reach up a pleading paw for me to clasp and then, regarding himself as both invisible and protected, listen keenly to learn if the conversation were by any chance about Hamlet.

He was as timorous out of doors as in, having little to do with other dogs, save with a benignant collie neighbor, old Betty, and yielding up his choicest bones without remonstrance to any impudent marauder. If I reproached him for his pacifist bearing, he would touch my hand with an apologetic tongue and look up with shamefaced eyes that admitted:
“it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver’d, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.”
It was his habit to take legs, rather than arms, “against a sea of troubles,” and when enemies loomed on the horizon he would precipitately make for home. He was by this time dog enough to be overjoyed if one of us summoned him for a walk.

“What noise? who calls on Hamlet?”

And all his belated frolic of puppyhood came out in impatient collie capers while, with our intolerable human tardiness, wraps were donned and doors thrown open. And then the leaps of ecstasy!

“Go on; I’ll follow thee.”

But he hated, and still hates, to be out in the great, dangerous world of noises, people, motors, alone by daylight. “Nay, come, let’s go together,” is his constant plea. But if no one of the household is at liberty to companion him, he prefers to wait for his exercise till “the very witching time of night,” when he plunges into the mystery of the woods or runs by moonlight along deserted roads. During his first winter, on returning from one of his nocturnal rambles, he would stand, snow-coated, without a whine or scratch, shivering at the outside door, silent even under the beating of an icy storm, until some anxious watcher caught sight of him and let him in. He had been with us over a year before he found his voice. Then, one noon, a brisk step coming up to the south porch along our private path took Hamlet by surprise. His quick, shrill protest astonished him as much as it did us and he promptly rushed to refuge under the table. But having shattered our psychopathic theories and confessed that he was no mute, he took to barking with immoderate enthusiasm that has already more than made up for lost time. Yet as with his movements, so his barking is odd,–discordant, off the pitch, “jangled out of tune.”

These tremendous bouts of barking, combined with his excitable and suspicious temperament, have given our timid collie a preposterous reputation for ferocity. Callers wise in dogs observe that even as he roars he runs away, wagging his tail, and come boldly on to the north door, while Hamlet announces and denounces them at the south:
“O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”
“A guilty thing.”
“A puff’d and reckless libertine.”
“A pestilence on him for a mad rogue!”
“What, ho! help, help, help!”
But when he has torn his “passion to tatters, to very rags,” he slips in shyly to greet the accepted caller, usually seating himself, according to his own peculiar code of etiquette, with his back to the guest, but sometimes, especially if it is a college girl “in the morn and liquid dew of youth,” he will, instead of taking his accustomed place by me, lie down at Ophelia’s feet, explaining:

“Here’s metal more attractive.”

Hamlet is a delicate subject for discipline as any sign of displeasure on the part of the few he trusts will fling him back to his puppy state of quivering misery. But for his inhospitable clamors he is occasionally shut up in the telephone closet, a custom which he considers

“More honour’d in the breach than the observance.”

Released, he bounds toward us beseeching caresses and every assurance that we have forgiven him and love him still. But he is just as ready to bark at the next arrival, though the dread word CLOSET will sometimes arrest a roar in mid-career. His sense of duty, as the guardian of the house, is inextricably intertwisted with his desire to be good.

Hamlet has, indeed, an uncharacteristic conviction of the preciousness of property. He did not learn it from me. I resent the metal that outlasts flesh and bone and am careless about locking doors since against grief and death no bolts avail; but Hamlet, had destiny put him in his proper place, would have ridden through life on top of an express wagon, zealously guarding its packages from every thievish touch. As it is, he keeps an embarrassing watch and ward on my desk and bookcases. Often a seminar student, reaching for a volume that promises to throw light on the discussion, is amazed by the leap of what had seemed to be a slumbering collie, now all alert and vigilant, gently nipping her sleeve to hold that arm of robbery back. Or in the midst of committee toils, a guileless colleague may move toward my desk to make a note. From the hall Hamlet dashes in with gleaming eyes and, as she turns in astonishment, squeezes his yellow bulk between her and that mysterious altar of my midnight devotion and firmly shoves her back. These policeman ways of his are not universally endearing and, in return, he has no faith whatever in the honesty of my associates, “arrant knaves all.” He has never put aside his dark suspicions of one who is not only generosity itself, but a socialist to boot, because on his first Christmas Eve in the Scarab she had been so kind as to act as her own Santa Claus and take away her labeled packet from the pile of tissue-papered and gay-ribboned gifts in a corner of the study. Although I had noticed that the puppy made a point of lying down before that heap, I did not realize that he, terrified and bashful as he then was, had constituted himself its custodian, till this action of hers left his soul “full of discord and dismay.” Even yet he heralds her approach with consternation:
“O shame! where is thy blush?”
“A most pernicious woman!”
“Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.”
So our dog has few friends outside his home. It is difficult to maintain with the children on the hill the pleasant fiction that their Christmas playthings come from Hamlet when it so obviously “harrows” him “with fear and wonder” to see the little recipients allowed to bear these objects away. Laddie’s mistress, ever gracious, pets and praises him, and hers is the only home in the village at which, sure of a happy welcome and delectable bits of bread and butter, he consents to call, but Jack’s mistress, catholic as her sympathies are, remembers an unlucky encounter from which her famous comrade retired, blinking queerly, the loser of a tooth. It is, of course, her theory that Hamlet feloniously reached into Jack’s mouth to snap out that treasure, while to me it seems crystal clear that Jack uprooted the venerable fang himself in an unholy effort to bite Hamlet; but now the collie is shut up whenever the terrier comes, though they manage to exchange through the windows a vituperative language not taught in our curriculum.

Hoping to extend this too limited circle of Hamlet’s friendships, we have accepted as a summer guest a cynical old parrot, who has already, in a lifetime cruelly long for a captive, known a variety of vanishing households. The tones that Poor Pol echoes, the names that he calls, insistently and vainly, in his lonesome hours, the scraps of family talk dating perhaps from five, ten, twenty years ago that his strange voice, a mockery of the human, still repeats, make him, even to us, an awesome personage, a Wandering Jew of the caged-pet generations. What does he miss, what does he remember, as he sits sweetly crooning to himself “Peek-a-boo, Pol,” and then rasps crossly out, “Wal! what is it?” and then falls to a direful groaning “Oh!” and “Ah!” over and over, more and more feebly, as if in mimicry of a death-bed, and suddenly spreads his wings, hurrahs like a boy on the Glorious Fourth and storms our ears with a whole barn-yard of cackles and cocka-doodledoos?

For the first few minutes after the arrival of Polonius, Hamlet regarded the great cage, set on top of a tall revolving bookcase, and its motionless perching inmate, whose plumage of sheeny green was diversified by under-glints of red and the pride of a golden nape, as new ornaments committed to his guardianship. Erect on his haunches, he gazed up at them with an air of earnest responsibility, but when Polonius, cocking his head and peering down on the collie with one round orange eye, crisply remarked:

“Hello! What’s that? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Hamlet went wild with amazement. After making from every side vain leaps and scrambles toward the unperturbed parrot, he tore from one of us to another, with whines and imploring gaze striving to learn what this apparition might mean
“So horridly to shake” his “disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches” of his soul.
A week has passed and I begin to fear that Hamlet’s antipathy to Polonius, “a foolish prating knave,” a “wretched, rash, intruding fool,” is too deeply rooted in drama for life to eradicate. The fault does not lie with the parrot. Though with him, as a rule, “brevity is the soul of wit,” he accosts Hamlet quite as cordially as any other member of the family, with “Hello” when the dog trots into the room and “Good-by” when he trots out. He is, indeed, so far in sympathy with Hamlet that, well-nigh to our despair, he seconds the collie’s uncivil clamor when the doorbell rings by stentorian shouts of “Fire! Fire!! FIRE!!!” We do not admit that, in general, Polonius talks only “words, words, words.” If he does, the coincidences are uncanny, for he warns “Look out” as we lift his heavy cage and pronounces “All right” as we set it safely down. I was adding a column of figures yesterday and, as I named the total, Polonius said in an approving tone: “That’s right; that’s it.” He has a mild curiosity about our doings and occasionally responds to our overtures by offering to an outstretched finger the chilly grip of his clay-colored claws,–invariably, like a well-bred bird, presenting the right foot. If Housewife Honeyvoice undertakes to scratch the parrot’s green head, Hamlet rears up against her and insists that the same ceremony be performed on his yellow one. Polonius, for his part, though too blase for jealousy, has a proper self-respect, and when he overhears us comforting our troubled collie with murmurs of “Good Hamlet! Dear Hamlet!” promptly interjects “Pretty Pol.”

But Hamlet, who is so sensitive to suffering that he will go of his own impulse to any visitor in trouble and press close, lavishing all his shy caresses in the effort to console, need not fear that Polonius will usurp his place in my affection. It is all I have to give him and I shall not fail him there. I cannot give that fearful, only half-quieted heart the security it craves from
“the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.”
There is no security on this whirring planet where pain is pain, and loss is loss, but where, for our deepest of consolation, though it involves our keenest of grief, love is always love.

“Keep me close,” pleads Hamlet, and I promise: “While I can.






Katharine Lee Bates was an ardent feminist and the author of the song “America the Beautiful.”

She attended Wellesley college and later returned to join the faculty. While on staff she met Katharine Coman and began a relationship that lasted for 25 years.
Bates and Coman’s relationship might be best described as a romantic friendship. It is not clear whether their relationship was sexual, but it was intensely loving; Bates referred to Coman as her “Joy of Life” and wrote many poems about their love.
Both women had successful careers at Wellesley college–Bates became chair of the English department, while Coman became chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college. They kept contact with other educated women who lived in couples as they did, but they did not assume roles as lesbian activists.
In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer, and Bates nursed her until Coman died in 1915. In 1922, Bates published a limited volume of poetry entitled, “Yellow Clover,” where she wrote of their relationship.
Bates remained at Wellesley until she retired in 1925. She died four years later, at the age of 70. Only a few years before her death, she wrote to a friend, “So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.
Biography by Alix North






Two Poems by Katharine Lee Bates


If You Could Come

My love, my love, if you could come once more
From your high place,
I would not question you for heavenly lore,
But, silent, take the comfort of your face.

I would not ask you if those golden spheres
In love rejoice,
If only our stained star hath sin and tears,
But fill my famished hearing with your voice.

One touch of you were worth a thousand creeds.
My wound is numb
Through toil-pressed, but all night long it bleeds
In aching dreams, and still you cannot come.

Katherine Coman

















Yellow Clover

Must I, who walk alone,
Come on it still,
This Puck of plants
The wise would do away with,
The sunshine slants
To play with,
Our wee, gold-dusty flower, the yellow clover,
Which once in parting for a time
That then seemed long,
Ere time for you was over,
We sealed our own?
Do you remember yet,
O Soul beyond the stars,
Beyond the uttermost dim bars
Of space,
Dear Soul who found the earth sweet,
Remember by love’s grace,
In dreamy hushes of heavenly song,
How suddenly we halted in our climb,
Lingering, reluctant, up that farthest hill,
Stooped for the blossoms closest to our feet,
And gave them as a token
Each to each,
In lieu of speech,
In lieu of words too grievous to be spoken,
Those little, gypsy, wondering blossoms wet
With a strange dew of tears?
So it began,
This vagabond, unvalued yellow clover,
To be our tenderest language. All the years
It lent a new zest to the summer hours,
As each of us went scheming to surprise
The other with our homely, laureate flowers,
Sonnets and odes,
Fringing our daily roads.
Can amaranth and asphodel
Bring merrier laughter to your eyes?
Oh, if the Blest, in their serene abodes,
Keep any wistful consciousness of earth,
Not grandeurs, but the childish ways of love,
Simplicities of mirth,
Must follow them above
With touches of vague homesickness that pass
Like shadows of swift birds across the grass.
How oft, beneath some foreign arch of sky,
The rover,
You or I,
For life oft sundered look from look,
And voice from voice, the transient dearth
Schooling my soul to brook
This distance that no messages may span
Would chance
Upon our wilding by a lonely well,
Or drowsy watermill,
Or swaying to the chime of convent bell,
Or where the nightingales of old romance
With tragical contraltos fill
Dim solitudes of infinite desire;
And once I joyed to meet
Our peasant gadabout
A trespasser on trim, seigniorial seat,
Twinkling a sauce eye
As potentates paced by.
Our golden cord! our soft, pursuing flame
From friendship’s altar fire!
How proudly we would pluck and tame
The dimpling clusters, mutinously gay!
How swiftly they were sent
Far, far away
On journeys wide
By sea and continent,
Green miles and blue leagues over,
From each of us to each,
That so our hearts might reach
And touch within the yellow clover,
Love’s letter to be glad about
Like sunshine when it came!
My sorrow asks no healing; it is love;
Let love then make me brave
To bear the keen hurts of
This careless summertide,
Ay, of our own poor flower,
Changed with our fatal hour,
For all its sunshine vanished when you died.
Only white cover blossoms on your grave.










Bates was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts. The daughter of a Congregational pastor, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1880 and for many years was a professor of English literature at Wellesley. She lived there with her partner Katharine Coman, who herself was a history and political economy teacher and founder of the Wellesley College Economics department. The same-sex pair lived together for twenty-five years until Coman’s death in 1915.
The first draft of America the Beautiful was hastily jotted in a notebook during the summer of 1893, which Miss Bates spent teaching English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Later she remembered,
“One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse.”
The words to her one famous poem first appeared in print in The Congregationalist, a weekly journal, for Independence Day, 1895. The poem reached a wider audience when her revised version was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript, November 19, 1904. Her final expanded version was written in 1913.
The hymn has been sung to other music, but the familiar tune that Ray Charles delivered is by Samuel A. Ward (1847-1903), written for his hymn Materna (1882).
Miss Bates was a prolific author of many volumes of poetry, travel books and children’s books. Her family home on Falmouth’s Main Street is preserved by the Falmouth Historical Society.
Katharine Lee Bates died in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on March 26, 1929.

Katharine B. and Katharine C.
While on the faculty at Wellesley College, Bates met Katharine Coman with whom she formed a “romantic friendship.” Coman served on the faculty as the chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college.
Bates and Coman lived as a couple for 25 years in what is sometimes referred to as a “Boston marriage.” In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer. Bates nursed Coman through three painful years of physical decline. Katherine Coman died in 1915.
“So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.” – K. L. Bates Lambda.net




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These love- letters  – from women such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf –  represent a legacy of our lesbian past which does not receive very much prominence. So much correspondence of this type simply does not survive, because of its private and ephemeral nature. Letters are lost, destroyed, and frequently ignored by publishers, even when the writers are famous women.

These few examples serve to show the variety and the intensity of feeling these women felt for each other. Times may change, and the hand-written love letter may go the way of the Dodo – and who knows, even the love -letter itself – but we can hope that they will not disappear entirely, and that the originals of these missives survive safely in someone’s archive.

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Willa Cather (December 7 1873 – April 24 1947)


















It often happens that one or another of my friends stops before a red chalk drawing in my study and asks me where I ever found so lovely a creature. I have never told the story of that picture to any one, and the beautiful woman on the wall, until yesterday, in all these twenty years has spoken to no one but me. Yesterday a young painter, a countryman of mine, came to consult me on a matter of business, and upon seeing my drawing of Alexandra Ebbling, straightway forgot his errand. He examined the date upon the sketch and asked me, very earnestly, if I could tell him whether the lady were still living. When I answered him, he stepped back from the picture and said slowly:
“So long ago? She must have been very young. She was happy?”
“As to that, who can say — about any one of us?” I replied. “Out of all that is supposed to make for happiness, she had very little.”
We returned to the object of his visit, but when he bade me goodbye at the door his troubled gaze again went back to the drawing, and it was only by turning sharply about that he took his eyes away from her.
I went back to my study fire, and as the rain kept away less impetuous visitors, I had a long time in which to think of Mrs. Ebbling. I even got out the little box she gave me, which I had not opened for years, and when Mrs. Hemway brought my tea I had barely time to close the lid and defeat her disapproving gaze.
My young countryman’s perplexity, as he looked at Mrs. Ebbling, had recalled to me the delight and pain she gave me when I was of his years. I sat looking at her face and trying to see it through his eyes — freshly, as I saw it first upon the deck of the Germania, twenty years ago. Was it her loveliness, I often ask myself, or her loneliness, or her simplicity, or was it merely my own youth? Was her mystery only that of the mysterious North out of which she came? I still feel that she was very different from all the beautiful and brilliant women I have known; as the night is different from the day, or as the sea is different from the land. But this is our story, as it comes back to me.
For two years I had been studying Italian and working in the capacity of clerk to the American legation at Rome, and I was going home to secure my first consular appointment. Upon boarding my steamer at Genoa, I saw my luggage into my cabin and then started for a rapid circuit of the deck. Everything promised well. The boat was thinly peopled, even for a July crossing; the decks were roomy; the day was fine; the sea was blue; I was sure of my appointment, and, best of all, I was coming back to Italy. All these things were in my mind when I stopped sharply before a chaise longue placed sidewise near the stern. Its occupant was a woman, apparently ill, who lay with her eyes closed, and in her open arm was a chubby little red-haired girl, asleep. I can still remember that first glance at Mrs. Ebbling, and how I stopped as a wheel does when the band slips. Her splendid, vigorous body lay still and relaxed under the loose folds of her clothing, her white throat and arms and red-gold hair were drenched with sunlight. Such hair as it was: wayward as some kind of gleaming seaweed that curls and undulates with the tide. A moment gave me her face; the high cheek-bones, the thin cheeks, the gentle chin, arching back to a girlish throat, and the singular loveliness of the mouth. Even then it flashed through me that the mouth gave the whole face its peculiar beauty and distinction. It was proud and sad and tender, and strangely calm. The curve of the lips could not have been cut more cleanly with the most delicate instrument, and whatever shade of feeling passed over them seemed to partake of their exquisiteness.
But I am anticipating. While I stood stupidly staring (as if, at twenty-five, I had never before beheld a beautiful woman) the whistles broke into a hoarse scream, and the deck under us began to vibrate. The woman opened her eyes, and the little girl struggled into a sitting position, rolled out of her mother’s arm, and ran to the deck rail. After putting my chair near the stern, I went forward to see the gang-plank up and did not return until we were dragging out to sea at the end of a long tow-line.
The woman in the chaise longue was still alone. She lay there all day, looking at the sea. The little girl, Carin, played noisily about the deck. Occasionally she returned and struggled up into the chair, plunged her head, round and red as a little pumpkin, against her mother’s shoulder in an impetuous embrace, and then struggled down again with a lively flourishing of arms and legs. Her mother took such opportunities to pull up the child’s socks or to smooth the fiery little braids; her beautiful hands, rather large and very white, played about the riotous little girl with a quieting tenderness. Carin chattered away in Italian and kept asking for her father, only to be told that he was busy.
When any of the ship’s officers passed, they stopped for a word with my neighbor, and I heard the first mate address her as Mrs. Ebbling. When they spoke to her, she smiled appreciatively and answered in low, faltering Italian, but I fancied that she was glad when they passed on and left her to her fixed contemplation of the sea. Her eyes seemed to drink the color of it all day long, and after every interruption they went back to it. There was a kind of pleasure in watching her satisfaction, a kind of excitement in wondering what the water made her remember or forget. She seemed not to wish to talk to any one, but I knew I should like to hear whatever she might be thinking. One could catch some hint of her thoughts, I imagined, from the shadows that came and went across her lips, like the reflection of light clouds. She had a pile of books beside her, but she did not read, and neither could I. I gave up trying at last, and watched the sea, very conscious of her presence, almost of her thoughts. When the sun dropped low and shone in her face, I rose and asked if she would like me to move her chair. She smiled and thanked me, but said the sun was good for her. Her yellow-hazel eyes followed me for a moment and then went back to the sea.
After the first bugle sounded for dinner, a heavy man in uniform came up the deck and stood beside the chaise lounge, looking down at its two occupants with a smile of satisfied possession. The breast of his trim coat was hidden by waves of soft blond beard, as long and heavy as a woman’s hair, which blew about his face in glittering profusion. He wore a large turquoise ring upon the thick hand that he rubbed good-humoredly over the little girl’s head. To her he spoke Italian, but he and his wife conversed in some Scandinavian tongue. He stood stroking his fine beard until the second bugle blew, then bent stiffly from his hips, like a soldier, and patted his wife’s hand as it lay on the arm of her chair. He hurried down the deck, taking stock of the passengers as he went, and stopped before a thin girl with frizzed hair and a lace coat, asking her a facetious question in thick English. They began to talk about Chicago and went below. Later I saw him at the head of his table in the dining room, the befrizzed Chicago lady on his left. They must have got a famous start at luncheon, for by the end of the dinner Ebbling was peeling figs for her and presenting them on the end of a fork.
The Doctor confided to me that Ebbling was the chief engineer and the dandy of the boat; but this time he would have to behave himself, for he had brought his sick wife along for the voyage. She had a bad heart valve, he added, and was in a serious way.
After dinner Ebbling disappeared, presumably to his engines, and at ten o’clock, when the stewardess came to put Mrs. Ebbling to bed, I helped her to rise from her chair, and the second mate ran up and supported her down to her cabin. About midnight I found the engineer in the card room, playing with the Doctor, an Italian naval officer, and the commodore of a Long Island yacht club. His face was even pinker than it had been at dinner, and his fine beard was full of smoke. I thought a long while about Ebbling and his wife before I went to sleep.
The next morning we tied up at Naples to take on our cargo, and I went on shore for the day. I did not, however, entirely escape the ubiquitous engineer, whom I saw lunching with the Long Island commodore at a hotel in the Santa Lucia. When I returned to the boat in the early evening, the passengers had gone down to dinner, and I found Mrs. Ebbling quite alone upon the deserted deck. I approached her and asked whether she had had a dull day. She looked up smiling and shook her head, as if her Italian had quite failed her. I saw that she was flushed with excitement, and her yellow eyes were shining like two clear topazes.
“Dull? Oh, no! I love to watch Naples from the sea, in this white heat. She has just lain there on her hillside among the vines and laughed for me all day long. I have been able to pick out many of the places I like best.”
I felt that she was really going to talk to me at last. She had turned to me frankly, as to an old acquaintance, and seemed not to be hiding from me anything of what she felt. I sat down in a glow of pleasure and excitement and asked her if she knew Naples well.
“Oh, yes! I lived there for a year after I was first married. My husband has a great many friends in Naples. But he was at sea most of the time, so I went about alone. Nothing helps one to know a city like that. I came first by sea, like this. Directly to Naples from Finmark, and I had never been South before.” Mrs. Ebbling stopped and looked over my shoulder. Then, with a quick, eager glance at me, she said abruptly: “It was like a baptism of fire. Nothing has ever been quite the same since. Imagine how this bay looked to a Finmark girl. It seemed like the overture to Italy.”
I laughed. “And then one goes up the country — song by song and wine by wine.”
Mrs. Ebbling sighed. “Ah, yes. It must be fine to follow it. I have never been away from the seaports myself. We live now in Genoa.”
The deck steward brought her tray, and I moved forward a little and stood by the rail. When I looked back, she smiled and nodded to let me know that she was not missing anything. I could feel her intentness as keenly as if she were standing beside me.
The sun had disappeared over the high ridge behind the city, and the stone pines stood black and flat against the fires of the afterglow. The lilac haze that hung over the long, lazy slopes of Vesuvius warmed with golden light, and films of blue vapor began to float down toward Baiae. The sky, the sea, and the city between them turned a shimmering violet, fading grayer as the lights began to glow like luminous pearls along the water-front, — the necklace of an irreclaimable queen. Behind me I heard a low exclamation; a slight, stifled sound, but it seemed the perfect vocalization of that weariness with which we at last let go of beauty, after we have held it until the senses are darkened. When I turned to her again, she seemed to have fallen asleep.
That night, as we were moving out to sea and the tail lights of Naples were winking across the widening stretch of black water, I helped Mrs. Ebbling to the foot of the stairway. She drew herself up from her chair with effort and leaned on me wearily. I could have carried her all night without fatigue.
“May I come and talk to you to-morrow?” I asked. She did not reply at once. “Like an old friend?” I added. She gave me her languid hand, and her mouth, set with the exertion of walking, softened altogether. “Grazie,” she murmured.
I returned to the deck and joined a group of my countrywomen, who, primed with inexhaustible information, were discussing the baseness of Renaissance art. They were intelligent and alert, and as they leaned forward in their deck chairs under the circle of light, their faces recalled to me Rembrandt’s picture of a clinical lecture. I heard them through, against my will, and then went to the stern to smoke and to see the last of the island lights. The sky had clouded over, and a soft, melancholy wind was rushing over the sea. I could not help thinking how disappointed I would be if rain should keep Mrs. Ebbling in her cabin to-morrow. My mind played constantly with her image. At one moment she was very clear and directly in front of me; the next she was far away. Whatever else I thought about, some part of my consciousness was busy with Mrs. Ebbling; hunting for her, finding her, losing her, then groping again. How was it that I was so conscious of whatever she might be feeling? that when she sat still behind me and watched the evening sky, I had had a sense of speed and change, almost of danger; and when she was tired and sighed, I had wished for night and loneliness.

Though when we are young we seldom think much about it, there is now and again a golden day when we feel a sudden, arrogant pride in our youth; in the lightness of our feet and the strength of our arms, in the warm fluid that courses so surely within us; when we are conscious of something powerful and mercurial in our breasts, which comes up wave after wave and leaves us irresponsible and free. All the next morning I felt this flow of life, which continually impelled me toward Mrs. Ebbling. After the merest greeting, however, I kept away. I found it pleasant to thwart myself, to measure myself against a current that was sure to carry me with it in the end. I was content to let her watch the sea — the sea that seemed now to have come into me, warm and soft, still and strong. I played shuffleboard with the Commodore, who was anxious to keep down his figure, and ran about the deck with the stout legs of the little pumpkin-colored Carin about my neck. It was not until the child was having her afternoon nap below that I at last came up and stood beside her mother.
“You are better to-day,” I exclaimed, looking down at her white gown. She colored unreasonably, and I laughed with a familiarity which she must have accepted as the mere foolish noise of happiness, or it would have seemed impertinent.
We talked at first of a hundred trivial things, and we watched the sea. The coast of Sardinia had lain to our port for some hours and would lie there for hours to come, now advancing in rocky promontories, now retreating behind blue bays. It was the naked south coast of the island, and though our course held very near the shore, not a village or habitation was visible; there was not even a goat-herd’s hut hidden away among the low pinkish sand hills. Pinkish sand hills and yellow head-lands; with dull-colored scrubby bushes massed about their bases and following the dried water-courses. A narrow strip of beach glistened like white paint between the purple sea and the umber rocks, and the whole island lay gleaming in the yellow sunshine and translucent air. Not a wave broke on that fringe of white sand, not the shadow of a cloud played across the bare hills. In the air about us, there was no sound but that of a vessel moving rapidly through absolutely still water. She seemed like some great sea-animal, swimming silently, her head well up. The sea before us was so rich and heavy and opaque that it might have been lapis lazuli. It was the blue of legend, simply; the color that satisfies the soul like sleep.
And it was of the sea we talked, for it was the substance of Mrs. Ebbling’s story. She seemed always to have been swept along by ocean streams, warm or cold, and to have hovered about the edge of great waters. She was born and had grown up in a little fishing town on the Arctic ocean. Her father was a doctor, a widower, who lived with his daughter and who divided his time between his books and his fishing rod. Her uncle was skipper on a coasting vessel, and with him she had made many trips along the Norwegian coast. But she was always reading and thinking about the blue seas of the South.
“There was a curious old woman in our village, Dame Ericson, who had been in Italy in her youth. She had gone to Rome to study art, and had copied a great many pictures there. She was well connected, but had little money, and as she grew older and poorer she sold her pictures one by one, until there was scarcely a well-to-do family in our district that did not own one of Dame Ericson’s paintings. But she brought home many other strange things; a little orange-tree which she cherished until the day of her death, and bits of colored marble, and sea shells and pieces of coral, and a thin flask full of water from the Mediterranean. When I was a little girl she used to show me her things and tell me about the South; about the coral fishers, and the pink islands, and the smoking mountains, and the old, underground Naples. I suppose the water in her flask was like any other, but it never seemed so to me. It looked so elastic and alive, that I used to think if one unsealed the bottle something penetrating and fruitful might leap out and work an enchantment over Finmark.”
Lars Ebbling, I learned, was one of her father’s friends. She could remember him from the time when she was a little girl and he a dashing young man who used to come home from the sea and make a stir in the village. After he got his promotion to an Atlantic liner and went South, she did not see him until the summer she was twenty, when he came home to marry her. That was five years ago. The little girl, Carin, was three. From her talk, one might have supposed that Ebbling was proprietor of the Mediterranean and its adjacent lands, and could have kept her away at his pleasure. Her own rights in him she seemed not to consider.
But we wasted very little time on Lars Ebbling. We talked, like two very young persons, of arms and men, of the sea beneath us and the shores it washed. We were carried a little beyond ourselves, for we were in the presence of the things of youth that never change; fleeing past them. To-morrow they would be gone, and no effort of will or memory could bring them back again. All about us was the sea of great adventure, and below us, caught somewhere in its gleaming meshes, were the bones of nations and navies . . . . . nations and navies that gave youth its hope and made life something more than a hunger of the bowels. The unpeopled Sardinian coast unfolded gently before us, like something left over out of a world that was gone; a place that might well have had no later news since the corn ships brought the tidings of Actium.
“I shall never go to Sardinia,” said Mrs. Ebbling. “It could not possibly be as beautiful as this.”
“Neither shall I,” I replied.
As I was going down to dinner that evening, I was stopped by Lars Ebbling, freshly brushed and scented, wearing a white uniform, and polished and glistening as one of his own engines. He smiled at me with his own kind of geniality. “You have been very kind to talk to my wife,” he explained. “It is very bad for her this trip that she speaks no English. I am indebted to you.”
I told him curtly that he was mistaken, but my acrimony made no impression upon his blandness. I felt that I should certainly strike the fellow if he stood there much longer, running his blue ring up and down his beard. I should probably have hated any man who was Mrs. Ebbling’s husband, but Ebbling made me sick.

The next day I began my drawing of Mrs. Ebbling. She seemed pleased and a little puzzled when I asked her to sit for me. It occurred to me that she had always been among dull people who took her looks as a matter of course, and that she was not at all sure that she was really beautiful. I can see now her quick, confused look of pleasure. I thought very little about the drawing then, except that the making of it gave me an opportunity to study her face; to look as long as I pleased into her yellow eyes, at the noble lines of her mouth, at her splendid, vigorous hair.
“We have a yellow vine at home,” I told her, “that is very like your hair. It seems to be growing while one looks at it, and it twines and tangles about itself and throws out little tendrils in the wind.”
“Has it any name?”
“We call it love vine.”
How little a thing could disconcert her!
As for me, nothing disconcerted me. I awoke every morning with a sense of speed and joy. At night I loved to hear the swish of the water rushing by. As fast as the pistons could carry us, as fast as the water could bear us, we were going forward to something delightful; to something together. When Mrs. Ebbling told me that she and her husband would be five days in the docks in New York and then return to Genoa, I was not disturbed, for I did not believe her. I came and went, and she sat still all day, watching the water. I heard an American lady say that she watched it like one who is going to die, but even that did not frighten me: I somehow felt that she had promised me to live.
All those long blue days when I sat beside her talking about Finmark and the sea, she must have known that I loved her. I sat with my hands idle on my knees and let the tide come up in me. It carried me so swiftly that, across the narrow space of deck between us, it must have swayed her, too, a little. I had no wish to disturb or distress her. If a little, a very little of it reached her, I was satisfied. If it drew her softly, but drew her, I wanted no more. Sometimes I could see that even the light pressure of my thoughts made her paler. One still evening, after a long talk, she whispered to me, “You must go and walk now, and — don’t think about me.” She had been held too long and too closely in my thoughts, and she begged me to release her for a little while. I went out into the bow and put her far away, at the sky line, with the faintest star, and thought of her gently across the water. When I went back to her, she was asleep.
But even in those first days I had my hours of misery. Why, for instance, should she have been born in Finmark, and why should Lars Ebbling have been her only door of escape? Why should she be silently taking leave of the world at the age when I was just beginning it, having had nothing, nothing of whatever is worth while?
She never talked about taking leave of things, and yet I sometimes felt that she was counting the sunsets. One yellow afternoon, when we were gliding between the shores of Spain and Africa, she spoke of her illness for the first time. I had got some magnolias at Gibraltar, and she wore a bunch of them in her girdle and the rest lay on her lap. She held the cool leaves against her cheek and fingered the white petals. “I can never,” she remarked, “get enough of the flowers of the South. They make me breathless, just as they did at first. Because of them I should like to live a long while — almost forever.”
I leaned forward and looked at her. “We could live almost forever if we had enough courage. It’s of our lives that we die. If we had the courage to change it all, to run away to some blue coast like that over there, we could live on and on, until we were tired.”
She smiled tolerantly and looked southward through half shut eyes. “I am afraid I should never have courage enough to go behind that mountain, at least. Look at it, it looks as if it hid horrible things.”
A sea mist, blown in from the Atlantic, began to mask the impassive African coast, and above the fog, the grey mountain peak took on the angry red of the sunset. It burned sullen and threatening until the dark land drew the night about her and settled back into the sea. We watched it sink, while under us, slowly but ever increasing, we felt the throb of the Atlantic come and go, the thrill of the vast, untamed waters of that lugubrious and passionate sea. I drew Mrs. Ebbling’s wraps about her and shut the magnolias under her cloak. When I left her, she slipped me one warm, white flower.

From the Straits of Gibraltar we dropped into the abyss, and by morning we were rolling in the trough of a sea that drew us down and held us deep, shaking us gently back and forth until the timbers creaked, and then shooting us out on the crest of a swelling mountain. The water was bright and blue, but so cold that the breath of it penetrated one’s bones, as if the chill of the deep under-fathoms of the sea were being loosed upon us. There were not more than a dozen people upon the deck that morning, and Mrs. Ebbling was sheltered behind the stern, muffled in a sea jacket, with drops of moisture upon her long lashes and on her hair. When a shower of icy spray beat back over the deck rail, she took it gleefully.
“After all,” she insisted, “this is my own kind of water; the kind I was born in. This is first cousin to the Pole waters, and the sea we have left is only a kind of fairy tale. It’s like the burnt out volcanoes; its day is over. This is the real sea now, where the doings of the world go on.”
“It is not our reality, at any rate,” I answered.
“Oh, yes, it is! These are the waters that carry men to their work, and they will carry you to yours.”
I sat down and watched her hair grow more alive and iridescent in the moisture. “You are pleased to take an attitude,” I complained.
“No, I don’t love realities any more than another, but I admit them, all the same.”
“And who are you and I to define the realities?”
“Our minds define them clearly enough, yours and mine, everybody’s. Those are the lines we never cross, though we flee from the equator to the Pole. I have never really got out of Finmark, of course. I shall live and die in a fishing town on the Arctic ocean, and the blue seas and the pink islands are as much a dream as they ever were. All the same, I shall continue to dream them.”
The Gulf Stream gave us warm blue days again, but pale, like sad memories. The water had faded, and the thin, tepid sunshine made something tighten about one’s heart. The stars watched us coldly, and seemed always to be asking me what I was going to do. The advancing line on the chart, which at first had been mere foolishness, began to mean something, and the wind from the west brought disturbing fears and forebodings. I slept lightly, and all day I was restless and uncertain except when I was with Mrs. Ebbling. She quieted me as she did little Carin, and soothed me without saying anything, as she had done that evening at Naples when we watched the sunset. It seemed to me that every day her eyes grew more tender and her lips more calm. A kind of fortitude seemed to be gathering about her mouth, and I dreaded it. Yet when, in an involuntary glance, I put to her the question that tortured me, her eyes always met mine steadily, deep and gentle and full of reassurance. That I had my word at last, happened almost by accident.
On the second night out from shore there was the concert for the Sailors’ Orphanage, and Mrs. Ebbling dressed and went down to dinner for the first time, and sat on her husband’s right. I was not the only one who was glad to see her. Even the women were pleased. She wore a pale green gown, and she came up out of it regally white and gold. I was so proud that I blushed when any one spoke of her. After dinner she was standing by her deck-chair talking to her husband when people began to go below for the concert. She took up a long cloak and attempted to put it on. The wind blew the light thing about, and Ebbling chatted and smiled his public smile while she struggled with it. Suddenly his roving eye caught sight of the Chicago girl, who was having a similar difficulty with her draperies, and he pranced half the length of the deck to assist her. I had been watching from the rail, and when she was left alone I threw my cigar away and wrapped Mrs. Ebbling up roughly.
“Don’t go down,” I begged. “Stay up here. I want to talk to you.”
She hesitated a moment and looked at me thoughtfully. Then, with a sigh, she sat down. Every one hurried down to the saloon, and we were absolutely alone at last, behind the shelter of the stern, with the thick darkness all about us and a warm east wind rushing over the sea. I was too sore and angry to think. I leaned toward her, holding the arm of her chair with both hands, and began anywhere.
“You remember those two blue coasts out of Gibraltar? It shall be either one you choose, if you will come with me. I have not much money, but we shall get on somehow. There has got to be an end of this. We are neither one of us cowards, and this is humiliating, intolerable.”
She sat looking down at her hands, and I pulled her chair impatiently toward me.
“I felt,” she said at last, “that you were going to say something like this. You are sorry for me, and I don’t wish to be pitied. You think Ebbling neglects me, but you are mistaken. He has had his disappointments, too. He wants children and a gay, hospitable house, and he is tied to a sick woman who can not get on with people. He has more to complain of than I have, and yet he bears with me. I am grateful to him, and there is no more to be said.”
“Oh, isn’t there?” I cried, “and I?”
She laid her hand entreatingly upon my arm. “Ah, you! you! Don’t ask me to talk about that. You — ” Her fingers slipped down my coat sleeve to my hand and pressed it. I caught her two hands and held them, telling her I would never let them go.
“And you meant to leave me day after tomorrow, to say goodbye to me as you will to the other people on this boat? You meant to cut me adrift like this, with my heart on fire and all my life unspent in me?”
She sighed despondently. “I am willing to suffer — whatever I must suffer — to have had you,” she answered simply. “I was ill — and so lonely — and it came so quickly and quietly. Ah, don’t begrudge it to me! Do not leave me in bitterness. If I have been wrong, forgive me.” She bowed her head and pressed my fingers entreatingly. A warm tear splashed on my hand. It occurred to me that she bore my anger as she bore little Carin’s importunities, as she bore Ebbling. What a circle of pettiness she had about her! I fell back in my chair and my hands dropped at my side. I felt like a creature with its back broken. I asked her what she wished me to do.
“Don’t ask me,” she whispered. “There is nothing that we can do. I thought you knew that. You forget that — that I am too ill to begin my life over. Even if there were nothing else in the way, that would be enough. And that is what has made it all possible, our loving each other, I mean. If I were well, we couldn’t have had even this much. Don’t reproach me. Hasn’t it been at all pleasant to you to find me waiting for you every morning, to feel me thinking of you when you went to sleep? Every night I have watched the sea for you, as if it were mine and I had made it, and I have listened to the water rushing by you, full of sleep and youth and hope. And everything you had done or said during the day came back to me, and when I went to sleep it was only to feel you more. You see there was never any one else; I have never thought of any one in the dark but you.” She spoke pleadingly, and her voice had sunk so low that I could scarcely hear her.
“And yet you will do nothing,” I groaned. “You will dare nothing. You will give me nothing.”
“Don’t say that. When I leave you day after tomorrow, I shall have given you all my life. I can’t tell you how, but it is true. There is something in each of us that does not belong to the family or to society, not even to ourselves. Sometimes it is given in marriage, and sometimes it is given in love, but oftener it is never given at all. We have nothing to do with giving or withholding it. It is a wild thing that sings in us once and flies away and never comes back, and mine has flown to you. When one loves like that, it is enough, somehow. The other things can go if they must. That is why I can live without you, and die without you.”
I caught her hands and looked into her eyes that shone warm in the darkness. She shivered and whispered in a tone so different from any I ever heard from her before or afterward: “Do you grudge it to me? You are so young and strong, and you have everything before you. I shall have only a little while to want you in — and I could want you forever and not weary.” I kissed her hair, her cheeks, her lips, until her head fell forward on my shoulder and she put my face away with her soft, trembling fingers. She took my hand and held it close to her, in both her own. We sat silent, and the moments came and went, bringing us closer and closer, and the wind and water rushed by us, obliterating our tomorrows and all our yesterdays.
The next day Mrs. Ebbling kept her cabin, and I sat stupidly by her chair until dark, with the rugged little girl to keep me company, and an occasional nod from the engineer.
I saw Mrs. Ebbling again only for a few moments, when we were coming into the New York harbor. She wore a street dress and a hat, and these alone would have made her seem far away from me. She was very pale, and looked down when she spoke to me, as if she had been guilty of a wrong toward me. I have never been able to remember that interview without heartache and shame, but then I was too desperate to care about anything. I stood like a wooden post and let her approach me, let her speak to me, let her leave me. She came up to me as if it were a hard thing to do, and held out a little package, timidly, and her gloved hand shook as if she were afraid of me.
“I want to give you something,” she said. “You will not want it now, so I shall ask you to keep it until you hear from me. You gave me your address a long time ago, when you were making that drawing. Some day I shall write to you and ask you to open this. You must not come to tell me goodbye this morning, but I shall be watching you when you go ashore. Please don’t forget that.”
I took the little box mechanically and thanked her. I think my eyes must have filled, for she uttered an exclamation of pity, touched my sleeve quickly, and left me. It was one of those strange, low, musical exclamations which meant everything and nothing, like the one that had thrilled me that night at Naples, and it was the last sound I ever heard from her lips.
An hour later I went on shore, one of those who crowded over the gang-plank the moment it was lowered. But the next afternoon I wandered back to the docks and went on board the Germania. I asked for the engineer, and he came up in his shirt sleeves from the engine room. He was red and disheveled, angry and voluble; his bright eye had a hard glint, and I did not once see his masterful smile. When he heard my inquiry he became profane. Mrs. Ebbling had sailed for Bremen on the Hobenstauffen that morning at eleven o’clock. She had decided to return by the northern route and pay a visit to her father in Finmark. She was in no condition to travel alone, he said. He evidently smarted under her extravagance. But who, he asked, with a blow of his fist on the rail, could stand between a woman and her whim? She had always been a wilful girl, and she had a doting father behind her. When she set her head with the wind, there was no holding her; she ought to have married the Arctic Ocean. I think Ebbling was still talking when I walked away.
I spent that winter in New York. My consular appointment hung fire (indeed, I did not pursue it with much enthusiasm), and I had a good many idle hours in which to think of Mrs. Ebbling. She had never mentioned the name of her father’s village, and somehow I could never quite bring myself to go to the docks when Ebbling’s boat was in and ask for news of her. More than once I made up my mind definitely to go to Finmark and take my chance at finding her; the shipping people would know where Ebbling came from. But I never went. I have often wondered why. When my resolve was made and my courage high, when I could almost feel myself approaching her, suddenly everything crumbled under me, and I fell back as I had done that night when I dropped her hands, after telling her, only a moment before, that I would never let them go.
In the twilight of a wet March day, when the gutters were running black outside and the Square was liquefying under crusts of dirty snow, the housekeeper brought me a damp letter which bore a blurred foreign postmark. It was from Niels Nannestad, who wrote that it was his sad duty to inform me that his daughter, Alexandra Ebbling, had died on the second day of February, in the twenty-sixth year of her age. Complying with her request, he inclosed a letter which she had written some days before her death.
I at last brought myself to break the seal of the second letter. It read thus:
“My Friend: —
You may open now the little package I gave you. May I ask you to keep it? I gave it to you because there is no one else who would care about it in just that way. Ever since I left you I have been thinking what it would be like to live a lifetime caring and being cared for like that. It was not the life I was meant to live, and yet, in a way, I have been living it ever since I first knew you.
“Of course you understand now why I could not go with you. I would have spoiled your life for you. Besides that, I was ill — and I was too proud to give you the shadow of myself. I had much to give you, if you had come earlier. As it was, I was ashamed. Vanity sometimes saves us when nothing else will, and mine saved you. Thank you for everything. I hold this to my heart, where I once held your hand. Alexandra.”
The dusk had thickened into night long before I got up from my chair and took the little box from its place in my desk drawer. I opened it and lifted out a thick coil, cut from where her hair grew thickest and brightest. It was tied firmly at one end, and when it fell over my arm it curled and clung about my sleeve like a living thing set free. How it gleamed, how it still gleams in the firelight! It was warm and softly scented under my lips, and stirred under my breath like seaweed in the tide. This, and a withered magnolia flower, and two pink sea shells; nothing more. And it was all twenty years ago!




Willa Sibert Cather was never one of my favourite writers. Even when I had an avid interest in reading about life in the American Midwest, and life in the Nineteenth Century, as well as the work of Lesbian writers, and even when I came across the holy three in one and one in three in the person of Cather, I was never able to warm to her, because of what I perceived as her lack of forthrightness, or not to put too fine a point on it, her lack of honesty.

All that mooning around over opera singers like Olive Fremstadt (who is fictionalised in Cather’s novel  The Song of the Lark,) and her short stories about butchy young girls  – ‘Tommy the Unsentimental” which register as loud bangs and not just blips on any lesbian-detecting device today, never convinced Cather that she should stop hiding behind the cover of literary heterosexuality and male personæ. Not even her fellow writer  – and lesbian friend – Sarah Orne Jewett could persuade her to adopt a woman’s voice. To be kind, I suppose Cather didn’t have one – at least not in public. That she might have done so in private is quite likely, but we shall never know, because she burned the letters she had in her possession, destroyed her papers, and left conditions in her will that made it impossible  for anyone to quote from the letters she sent to others. To me, all this secrecy hints very strongly of a lesbian cover-up.

Cather liked to use a male voice as her authorial persona, and to be fair to her, she would not have made a very good lesbian. The reason for this is not that she didn’t hanker after women – because her whole life was one long such hankering, but because Cather always thought of herself as a man.

Gender has turned out to be a much more complicated subject today than it was even a couple of decades ago, and many confusions are likely to emerge when we attempt to sort out the confusing tangle of gender possibilities we must deal with at this particular time in our GLBT history, but suffice it to say that if I were to follow my instincts, I would place Cather close to the end of the butch continuum.

Cather was a classic butch , and no doubt about it. Her impressive physicality, her masculine dress, cropped hair, and the fact that she clearly saw women as a different sex says it all for me.  I would even go further and say that Cather clearly possessed an unreformed transgendered mentality at a time when these concepts were quite unimaginable beyond formulations such as attributing “a man’s mind” to a woman who was thought to be more intelligent  – or more male-identified – than the average.

Now that Cather has has long since exchanged the closet for the grave, and since I am not the first one to say so, I would confidently claim her for a lesbian. If she were to rise up from her country plot in New Jersey and disagree with me, I would inform her about all the other options of gender identity that she could choose from, and bring her up to date with the fact that we non-heterosexual humans are no longer agreeable to be defined by the old dualistic simplicities of her time.

But despite the homophobic opacities behind  which Cather dissimulated her writing, she hid in plain sight. There is no denying the lesbian sensibility with which her vision enlarges the characters of her women subject in her short-story “On the Gull’s Road”. The manner in which Cather describes the deepening attachment between the two lovers and the kind of helpless enthrallment they feel does not at all resemble a heterosexual choreography. The slight, almost imperceptible manner in which they hesitantly move towards each other is something I personally recognise as being undeniably lesbian.

True, Cather adopted masculine values, and the claim that is made for her, that she wrote about women patronisingly cannot be denied – but it can be understood, and even accepted. Cather wanted to seem ‘like a man’ – and this is something I am just beginning to understand and accept – not as a defection from my side of the gender fence, but something that should always have been subsumed under an enlarged definition of the vast potential for variation that exists within the female gender.

To express it in tautological terms, a woman who wants to be like a man is  above all a woman who wants to be like a man. She is not a man manqué – but a certain type of woman. Why something so obvious should have been misconstrued so badly and for so long, is a result of the gender-blindness imposed upon our vision by the  heterosocial  insistence of two sexes and two genders.

So here is Cather, hiding her lesbianism behind the flimsiest of gossamer veils – if not in plain sight. Find me a heterosexual woman who writes about other women in the way Cather does in “The Gull’s Road”, and I will show you a lesbian.

When she writes so feelingly about Alexandra Ebbling’s  beauty, her large white hands (no one but a lesbian would write so swooningly of women’s large hands) and with such a transparent lesbian sensibility about female beauty – the lesbian æsthethic is beyond denying. The tender solicitude, the elusiveness of words, the agonised sense of paralysis that prevents overt expression – these things bespeaking a gallant, butch sensibility are not to be found in any heterosexual playbook, and  the boorish Mr. Ebbling asserts it in thundering counterpoint.

Cather even devises a language not native to either of the characters – a third language – in this case Italian, for their private conversation. As they sail down the west coast of the Italian peninsula, things come to a head in the Bay of Naples – that place of calm deceptive beauty, where to be unmindful of the unthinkable past is perhaps the best way to to retain one’s sanity.

Cather’s voice in this story is that of someone who is falling steeply in love. Except for two very slight hints of a male persona, this could be read – and I myself so did – as a lesbian story. The two hints of course were the cigar smoked by the young protagonist, and Mrs. Ebblings remark “These are waters which carry men to their work and they will carry you to your”. But they are by no means overt hints. Women can , and did work as well as men, and I am certain that not a few of them smoked cigars.

The stab that goes straight to the heart however, is the terrible resolve of Mrs. Ebbling’s refusal of the offer to more or less elope with someone who was clearly the mutual love of a lifetime. Love in impossibility, was  in the past, more often than not, the lot of lesbians. It may be difficult for us at our particular moment in present history to imagine how constricted and claustrophobic life was for  most women – and for lesbians even more –  but that was the dismal fact.

It took exceptional talent or ability or wealth, and sometimes all three, for a lesbian to carve out a life for herself and/or a partner. The reasons Mrs. Ebbling gives for not running away together seem a little thin, if they were to be applied in a heterosexual context. In a lesbian context they would not apply at all, which is why this is the pivot of the story for me.

The refusal is contrived, because the true reasons could never be made clear – and could never be adequately – that is to say – convincingly explained.  If Mrs. Ebbling knew she was not long for this world – how could she have ruined a partner’s whole ‘life’? And if she was sure her time in the world was brief, was that all the more reason to spend what was left of it with one’s true love? But for a woman to run away with another woman would have taken a resolve and a sense of purpose equal to opposing the whole weight of society’s opprobrium.  It was in fact, as is described in Andrew Marvell’s exquisite poem – and I wonder if Cather had read it, because it would have been the perfect inspiration for this story.

For those who can look at pictures of Cather, and read her work, and know of her association – and 29-year – long cohabitation with Edith Lewis – and that she used the name ‘William’ and adopted masculine dress,  the claim which is made for her by some,  that Cather did not “celebrate her lesbian desire,”  beggars my imagination. Perhaps ‘celebrate’ is too unequivocal a word, but I would assert that it is more than probable  that at the very least she ‘experienced’ it and was sustained by it.

Cather's room in Red Cloud, Nebraska

As I read this story I was struck by the feeling that something needed to be set to rights, and as I write these words, I see myself doing just that –  as if I were to walk through a neglected or forgotten cemetery and straighten out an old grave-marker which may have been displaced or fallen on its face.

I don’t know if there is is any use in it, unless the marker were to have some information as might happen to be useful to a passer by, or if my own insights about Cather’s place on the lesbian gender-continuum might retain their present emphasis for me. Not that I will ever see Cather as  anything other than a lesbian, but present formulations might, fail to fit or fall away or be replaced in time by something rather more defined. I am beginning to get a glimmer, that what was seen in Cather as being “a man’s voice” may simply have been misidentification, because there was no  precedent at that time in popular culture, for which might have led to the recognition in Cather, or anyone else, of  the voice of a  butch lesbian.

But when I think of Cather choosing to imagine the setting of this love-story in a place as far away from Red Cloud Nebraska as possible, and unfolding her secret thoughts in an atmosphere of abject longing, and in such a place as offers as languid and as prolonged an intoxication upon the heart and soul as the Bay of Naples, I am inclined to let my mind rest here awhile, and do a little re-arranging of my familiar thoughts – and to make room for some stranger ones as well. Meditation on the subject of lost and impossible loves will do wonders to soften the heart.













Andrew Marvell (March 31 1621–August 16 1678)















The Definition of Love


My Love is of a birth as rare

As ’tis for object strange and high:

It was begotten by despair

Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing,

Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown

But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive

Where my extended Soul is fixt,

But Fate does Iron wedges drive,

And alwaies crouds it self betwixt.

For Fate with jealous Eye does see

Two perfect Loves; nor lets them close:

Their union would her ruine be,

And her Tyrannick pow’r depose.

And therefore her Decrees of Steel

Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,

(Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel)

Not by themselves to be embrac’d.

Unless the giddy Heaven fall,

And Earth some new Convulsion tear;

And, us to joyn, the World should all

Be cramp’d into a Planisphere.

As Lines so Loves oblique may well

Themselves in every Angle greet:

But ours so truly Paralel,

Though infinite can never meet.

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,

But Fate so enviously debarrs,

Is the Conjunction of the Mind,

And Opposition of the Stars.


By Andrew Marvell.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)
















Only with acute and ingenious effort could the proposition

be verified  that absence could be a worse ill than jealousy.


Version 1


The absent one provokes her jealous lover
to indulge by turn in sentiment and rage
To here suspect her of unseen offenses
And disregard the evidence of the senses.

Here furious madness finds its moderation
Discoursing even as delirium raves
And when she with ceaseless sighing is afflicted
No earthly force this sorrow can assuage.





Unquiet doubts whereby patience is resisted
Offer weak opposition to these woes
And agonies by which sleep is disrupted.

Disconsolate, then you here repine without her,
And in the final damage her absence on you imposes
Is much finer torment than jealousy could devise.





Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Translation Dia Tsung



Version 2


By her absence is one’s jealousy provoked
There to sentiment, and here to helpless rage
Here it presumes hidden and unseen offenses
And relives the reality of distant senses

Though perhaps one’s furious madness can be tempered
When its delirium is moderated by discourse
And without relief sigh the unrelenting sighs
That puissant sorrow nothing can oppose




Here by doubts is patience oft afflicted
There by certain pain it will arouse
Here to you grief offers its sole resistance.

And without her, inconsolable and bearing
In the end the damage wrought by absence
Will  be eclipsed by  the torment caused by jealousy.





Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Translation Dia Tsung.








El ausente, el celoso, se provoca,
aquél con sentimiento, éste con ira;
presume éste la ofensa que no mira,
y siente aquél la realidad que toca.

Éste templa, tal vez, su furia loca,
cuando el discurso en su favor delira,
y sin intermisión aquél suspira
pues nada a su dolor la fuerza apoca



Éste aflige dudoso su paciencia,
y aquél padece ciertos sus desvelos:
éste al dolor opone resistencia,

aquél, sin ella, sufre desconsuelos;
y si es pena de daño, al fin, la ausencia,
luego es mayor tormento que los celos.





Juana Inés de la Cruz.








Translating the work of a genuine poet such as  Juana Inés Asbaje is always a tremendous challenge, because of the  tightly wrought perfection of her work. Her intense play of words and ideas, and the games of disputation and logic which find their way into her poems  can at times make  the translator’s job very nearly impossible.

I chose this poem because I could not find an English translation of it anywhere, and I loved it so much that I couldn’t resist the fool-hardy temptation to attempt take a stab at it.  Even after working on two different versions I still am not entirely convinced I have done a creditable job.

I took one revisionist liberty here, in the manner of the pronouns, which the original Spanish with its gendered nouns permits me to do. I know that with this poem of  Juana Inés, both Muse and poet are female, so that, to my mind made both the jealous one and the absent one female as well. Therefore I saw no need for engaging in the practice of pronoun dissimulation which many lesbians in the past have been forced to adopt.

Juana Inés  sometimes treats playful subjects seriously, and serious subjects playfully, but one thing is always true of her poems – form and substance are both brilliantly in evidence.

Since the late ’50’s a kind of rot began to find its way into the manner in which poetry was read and written and appreciated. A kind of empty technicality came to be admired and exemplified, and a certain heartlessness as well.

The ego of the poet came to take centre stage but in a way that was indirect and  horrible to contemplate. One of the greatest anti-poets of the last century, Sylvia Plath, was a masterful exponent of this genre.  While there are few personal pronouns in her poems, the Huge ‘I’ hovers over the hopeless grandeur of bleak  and ugly landscapes  of her poems.  I sometimes wonder if her suicidal impulses  were not the result of a lifetime given to offending the Muse.

While I am obviously not an admirer of Plath – I can see the essence of her poetic predicament. Heterosexual women do not have either a natural or a genuine Muse. The male muse is poetic distortion, and very few poets are able benefit from his inspiration. If they do, they are usually homosexual males like  Jacques Prévert and  Constantine Cavafy, or  poor Gerard Manley Hopkins with his clattering rhythms and his crucified saviour – the Muse’s midsummer sacrifice.

Even the male muse of St.John of the Cross has his origins in the old Caananite songs of the sacred marriage, so ancient and well established that the Hebrew compilers of the old testament could not bring themselves to exclude  even such a purely humanistic chapter of their cultural history.

True and genuine poets are exponents of an ancient art. Their work can stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny and withstand the abrasive inquiry of the touchstone, and the corrosive kiss of Acqua regia.  While meaning may be encoded – even hidden – in their poems, diligent effort can extract it whole. The sense in a true poem is unassailable, and  it contains no false logic, no lies, or mistakes of language. The etymology of all words found in true poems is apt and apposite, and  as for its emotional content, the presence of the Muse will always be felt.

Even a poem of the intellect – which has Apollo as its patron finds Juana Inés paying tribute to the Muse by stating clearly one or another of the themes which are part of the poetic cycle. Absence – when the Muse leaves the poet in order to perform her sinister offices, and the jealously which comes in its wake  – is a genuine poetic theme.

Juana Inés is free of all the detriments and defects of false poets. Her poetic technique is impeccable, and her  brilliant intellect is always placed exactly where it belongs, at the feet, and in the service of her Muse. She is a rarity; and someone like her comes along only about once in a thousand years.

When she bends her constellation of poetic talents towards elucidating a philosophical proposition, she does so not in the dry and emotionless way of a logical proof, but with images and words and phrases which show a deep insight into matters of the heart, and of its secret ways.

Her logic here in which she weighs jealousy and absence in the balance and  concludes that absence is worse, is enormously convincing. It is better, she seems to say, to endure the pangs of jealousy – to see it for what it is  – a fabrication of the mind when the heart is troubled, rather than risk a total estrangement, when,  with the beloved’s  absence, the poet’s  heart mind and senses are painfully separated from their chosen object.

Absence then, is  hererin asserted to be the more onerous of the two evils, and the more difficult to endure.




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Sophia Parnok (August 11 1885 – August 26 1933)



















These first few poems, written when Parnok was 17 to 19 years old,  are claimed, though not explicitly, to be Burgin’s, translations, But I am listing them separately because I did not find them in her biography of Parnok, and they are sufficiently different in tone and structure that I am not convinced they are Burgin’s work.



Dedicated to N.P.P.


I’m drunk on your wild caresses,
You’ve driven me crazy for you…
Just tell me I’ve only been dreaming
So I can believe that it’s true.

No, you want to torment me forever –
Why shouldn’t you play and have fun;
And smiling, you answer, carefree,
“We won’t do again what we’ve done.”

29 August 1902





Parnok circa 1907

Dedicated to N.P.P.

Love’s gone… the tuberoses have expired,
You have become cold as ice.
To see tears, my tears, that’s your desire,
But pride will never let me cry.

In night-time silence, utterly exhausted,
Suffering and loving endlessly
I curse the day of our first meeting
And sob for what you’ve done to me.

But I won’t cry when you are with me.
So there! Insult me, beat me and torment,
Just hint that I may get a chance to see you,
And if you want to, torture me again.

The way you play upon my heartstrings,
Sometimes it seems no pity in you dwells;
But you give all of paradise’s raptures
While with your hand you push me into hell!

29 August 1902




Parnok 1922

Dedicated to N.P.P.

The colder the letters you write,
The longer the silence between them,
The harder the waiting becomes,
The more I’m tormented with love!

The more I give pain to myself,
I want not to think and I suffer,
I want to forget and remember
That marvelous smile of yours!

Your image arises before me…
It makes me recall your caresses,
It rouses the passion inside me,
And I’m more tormented with love.

25 March 1903







 Burgin’s translations.



Parnok in the late '20s


Life  is a woman. Merely by her own seductions
Intoxicated, she will stand above her victim.
The more unhappy is the soul that lies before her,
the fuller she all is with unrestrained desire,
How often her mysterious gaze has hovered over
my soul with powerful inquisitiveness,
but merely had my soul to quiver in responding  –
and silently, with unconcern, she sought the distance.












Perhaps because I wished to fall in love with being
with so much obstinate avidity,
I felt more vividly how bottomlessly
dispassion for it had come over me.
But what of now? Can I be captivated
by life in an enraptured rush I do not understand?
My soul luxuriates in boundless freedom
as if inhaling life for the first time.









Parnok at her desk 1910

Just listen, how amidst inspired dreaming
the soul will suddenly lay bare its secret curves.
Let your thought illuminate them brightly
with creation’s breath in an audacious surge.
You will see, then, how the endless distance
so easily and wondrously removes its haze,
and there upon a lofty pedestal of marble
the depth of worlds feels Beauty’s silent gaze.












I so want to reflect my whole soul in my words,
I so want to discover them in my soul’s depths,
what they say should not be accidental.
But my impulse for searching’s rebelliously weak –
I lack know-how in finding my words,
and that’s why I have made my soul subject to silence,
and  hear in the silence her ebbings and flowings –
I so want to shout out – I don’t dare to.








In mournful luxury of trees that have been gilded,

Sophia Parnok and Olga Tsuberbiller

in tiredness of branches bent without a quiver
is Autumn’s quietude. Deserted and so pale
the distance that has dimmed; and in the night the play
of stars is cold; and the discerning silence
stands guard, or so it seems, to see if some weak sobbing
will not break out, a last enfeebled groan
from fading foliage. The air, though, is made thick
with fog… and it appears that the exhausted garden
wants to sigh, but doesn’t dare; and strangely blazes
among the tree-tops, colourlessly gold,
a single ruby leaf, as if with blood engorged.











How can one write about the quiet fading,
of vivid rushes deep within one’s soul?
About how thought, far off in sunless exile,
in morbid meditation or joyless sleep
looks lifelessly inside herself, exhausted,
and slowly drowns in her own feebleness,
how can one write?
How can one write – about the golden-textured
ray thrown lazily upon the emerald waves?
The play of hues on strange and wondrous sea shells
and lightning’s whimsy , and the thought of thunderclouds.
The lovely tuberose’s drunken fever,
and the weeping willow’s lonely tears –
how can one write?








I know profoundly well –  you’ve shown me everything,

Parnok and friends

the breathing of the skies, and speech of mighty billows
and twinkling of the stars within the depths of air,
and lightning’s vivid laugh in gloomy quietude
you’ve given me with you in brilliant consonance.

So let that farewell cry, as always, sound above me!
I have a heart so  that it can be broken!
I know too well that last, that grievous moment,
when happiness can’t help but be forsaken –
but through the garden joyfully I’ll go!
So what if a new loss lies in my future,
– My heart’s so happy in its secret fever:
love summons me, and I won’t contradict her.










Oh love! You stand before me and I’m afraid of you.

Sophia Parnok and Lyudmila Erarskaya September 1918

I know inside your breast you hide a gleaming dagger,
you’ll wound my thought with it and thus renew yourself,
and give to drink with blood your living body –


























And these, Parnok’s poems to Nina Vedeneyeva, her last love.





Give me your hand, and let’s go to your sinful paradise!…

Defy all State Pension Plans of heaven,

May returned for us in wintertime,

and flowers blossomed in the greening meadow,

where in full bloom an apple tree inclined

its fragrant fans above the two of us,

and where the earth smelled sweet like you,

and butterflies made love in flight…

We’re one year older now, but what’s the difference –

old wine has also aged another year,

the fruits of ripe knowledge are far more succulent.

Hello my love! my grey-haired Eve!








Night. And its snowing

Moscow sleeps… But I…

Oh but I feel sleepless,

my love!

Oh, the night’s so stifling,

my blood wants to sing…

Listen, listen, listen!

My love:

in your pale petals glisten

silver streaks of frost.

You’re the one my song’s for,

my silver rose,

Oh Rose of December,

you shine under snow,

giving me sweet comfort

that can’t console.







It still hasn’t got any cares, it’s still young at heart,

it still hasn’t cut its first teeth, our Passion –

not vodka, not spirits, yet no longer water,

its mischievous, bubbly, melodious Asti.

You still don’t know how to pale when I come up to you,

your pupil still doesn’t become fully widened,

I know, though you think that the magic I do

exceeds what I did in Kashira or affectionate Kashin.

Oh where is that tiny, forsaken, and garden-filled town,

(perhaps on the map they don’t bother to site it?)

in some kind of sixteen-year-old excitement?

Where’s the cottage with jasmine and the welcoming night,

and curlicue arches of hop-plants above us,

and thirst which could no longer be satisfied,

and sky, and a sky more impassioned than Petrarch’s.

At the end of my last or next-to-last spring –

together the two of us dreamed crazy dreams,

I burn up my night in a savage, a beautiful fire.

Dec 26 1931 (?)







I see: you’re getting off the streetcar – utterly beloved
a breeze, and in my heart it breathes you’re – utterly beloved
I can’t tear my eyes from you because you’re – utterly beloved!
And however did you come to be so – utterly beloved?
You, she-eagle from Caucasian glaciers, where in heat it’s cold.
You, carrier of a very sweet contagion, who never has a cold.
You, beclouder of your lover’s reason with logic clear and cold.
All five senses reel from your intoxication – utterly beloved!

April 1932











And her last Poem, written less than a month before her death



“Come what may, ” you wrote, “we shall be happy…”

" A head of silver grey. And youthful features/And Dante's profile. And a wingèd gaze."

Yes, my darling, happiness has come to me in life!

Now, However, mortal weariness

overcomes my heart and shuts my eyes.

Now without rebelling or resisting,

I hear how my heart beats its retreat.

I get weaker, and the leash that tightly

bound the two of us is slackening.

Now the wind blows freely higher, higher,

everything’s in bloom and all is still –

Till we meet again, my darling! Can’t you hear me?

I’m telling you good-bye, my far-off friend!

July 1933








Chekhov, thought by many today to be a gentle humanist, seems not to have held views that were very different   those of his   ignorant homophobic countrymen; this seems clear  from his privately expressed feelings and opinions.  Burgin has this telling comment of Chekhov’s, made in a letter to his friend and publisher in 1895:

” The weather in Moscow is good, there is no cholera,  there’s also no lesbian love – Brrrr!!    Remembering those persons of whom you write me makes me nauseous as if I’d eaten a rotten sardine. Moscow doesn’t have them –  and that is marvelous.”

That Chekhov himself, infected as he was with TB, was most probably a much greater source of unpleasant and harmful contagion than any hoard of lesbians, seems not to have crossed his mind.

Today when out and proud lesbians are eager to claim their lesbianism as a matter of personal identity, and take this vital right for granted, it is difficult to discern whether Parnok felt her lesbianism to be a matter of disposition or identity. To some of us that might matter hugely, but to others of us what matters most is that she never for a moment disowned  her experiences as a woman who loved other women, and she gave her heart and her soul a voice.

She could, I suppose have curbed her exuberance in matters of love and affection,  or for that, her anguish in matters of personal loss and pain, but she did not.  She used her voice and her talents to express her love without dissimulation or deceit. She dared to speak and to express the thoughts and words and ideas her society determined were better left unsaid and unexpressed and it is remarkable that nearly 80 years after her death  of Grave’s disease at the age of 47, her work still speaks for her. Her poems are fresh and vibrant, and full of force and  a kind of blazing tenderness.

I have chosen here, just as a matter of personal inclination, to include a handful of Parnok’s poems written by her between 1903 and 1905, when she was a teenager,  some which were written when in her thirties, and  finally some written in the last year or so of her life.

Alas, I cannot determine whether the early poems  are complete,  or just fragments. They are  Burgin’s translations, excerpted from her biography of Parnok. Nevertheless, they are easily recognisable as the tender first blossoms of an ardent young heart, and are precious for that reason alone, if for nothing else.

The other poems appearing here, written in mid-and late -life (late that is for Parnok who only lived to be 48 years old) exactly reflect the assurance of mature womanhood, and then the terrible poignancy of a woman who sees clearly, in the same glance,  both the intensity of her love, and her approaching death.





Some Personal thoughts…..


There are some minds that possess a harmonic echo with ones own –  not because the two are alike, but because the sound of one picks up and converts into sound the hidden frequencies of the other. It is something which happens in an instant – like a bullet whistling past one’s ear – or love at first sight, and that is what I felt when I first heard the poetry of Sophia Parnok.

I found an enormous feeling of ‘heart’ in her poems – and always love – not just love in an abstract sense, but the sense of a love which for want of a better word I have to call cultural – by which I mean my own culture – which is the culture of lesbian writing.

The matrix in which Parnok’s poems are rooted is personal and expressive of the twinings and weavings that go into our own individual histories of how in our own lives such  matters as relationships, dilemmas, difficulties, enmeshments etc are encountered, traversed and resolved.

People in the mainstream probably take this for granted – heterosexual men for certain, and to a lesser extend heterosexual women – because theirs is the dominant culture, and they swim in it like fish, barely having to notice the element.

This does not hold at all true for those of us who feel the strangeness and alienness of the mainstream world and all the assumptions which go unexamined and slide frictionlessly by mainstream people on the whole but fly against us  aliens like the showers of grit in a sandstorm.

Encountering Parnok was for me like encountering an island in mid-ocean, one that was spare and beautiful, and which took its expansive beauty for granted, without a fuss. Its many features – jagged cliffs, clear rock-lined pools, dark thickets of unbroken shade, its trees, it coast-line and  sunlit beaches, all seemed familiar to me – even though they were completely new.

I wish Parnok had had a life filled with happiness, and the blessing of sound health, but she didn’t have either.  Moreover she lived in a world that was in the throes of rapid change – Russia transformed itself from a monarchy to a communist republic in the second decade of her life, and that transformation and upheaval has its reflection in  her own struggles.

Her lack of a settled life –   careers,  relationships and  homes, were always in a state of unsettled flux –  gave her poetry a restless feel, but paradoxically a restlessness with roots. The roots of course were the sense of a constant and unappeasable hunger for love and for living, and for the endless and inexhaustible loveliness of the natural world, which are all the markings of the Muse poet.

I find it impossible not to love the person who gave us this poetry – this enormous gift of place and of context which simply overrides place and time, to embrace me in the senses of soul-enlivening familiarity that comes from feeling myself standing in my own world – my own universe of sentiment, with all the features of the landscape and all the fixtures of its interior places familiar and recognisable.

To read Parnok banishes my feelings of existential homesickness – and that is why I place her in the company of the saints I feel watching over me – and over all of us, who need that place which was at first only within the hearts and minds of women like her, but is now expanded to be a place which we can enter, and be at home with them and ourselves..

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Ismat Chugtai (August 1915 – October 24 1991)

There is a reason for this departure from my usual practice of leaving my commentary for the last. It is because of the disturbing and disconcerting nature of this story.
When I found myself wanting to select Ismat Chugtai’s  short story ‘The Quilt’, I asked myself why I would want to include such a post in this very gay- and lesbian-positive blog. The answer came immediately:  because of its cultural significance, and because in its own way it made visible an aspect of life ‘behind the veil’ so to speak.  Readers of this blog are aware that they cannot expect a steady diet of anything in particular, and once in a while they are bound to find a hot pepper or a sour pickle to surprise and delight – but also perhaps to vex and annoy!

In choosing this story I felt rather as a lawyer would who was putting a hostile witness on the stand.  What such a witness may reveal in response to questioning might be damaging to one’s case, but despite that risk she must heard. She has vital information on account  of where she has stood in relation to one’s client, and or to the state.  Human relationships, more often than not, do not conform to our ideas of what is proper, or edifying or even acceptable, and they range over the whole continuum from lovely to terrible.  I have my own idea of where ‘The Quilt’ fits on this scale, which is somewhere between disturbing and awful.  The ‘awful’ has since been ameliorated, since it was an impression and an opinion formed on the basis of the first translation I read.

The  first translation I came across by M. Asadud, and which I rejected in favour of another far better, was a malicious distortion of Chugtai’s pioneering short story. It had a strong misogynistic bias, and created an atmosphere of aversion and disgust for the story’s setting. I was surprised when I later read the version by Syeda Hameed, to find the poison of Asadud’s malice and derision entirely absent. Hameed’s translation, despite its editorial lapses, had a warmth and a supportive understanding of how the young narrator’s observations and responses unfolded. It made me aware in the most indelible fashion of how a translator with an axe to grind can take the ambiguities, nuances and uncertainties informing an original work and decisively slant them to impose his or her own personal and cultural perspectives and prejudices.

Even more surprising to me was not just that Asadud’s distasteful and unsympathetic translation was not discarded out of hand, but that it was used in the Indian Women’s  magazine ‘Manushi’ . Manushi – a word which means Woman – or even something closer to female human, since Manusha in Sanskrit means both ‘man’ and ‘human’. I would have expected to find here a translation which was if not feminist in its perspective, then at least one which was humanistic. Instead I found Asadud’s translation so egregiously tainted that at first it poluted the entire story for me. It was only after I read Hameed’s translation, and then a third collaborative work of Hameed and Tahira Naqvi  that I heard the sly but humanistic voice of the precocious child narrator emerge, and the strident ugliness of Asadud’s  unabashed, aversive infiltrations abate.

In ‘The Quilt’ Chugtai has chosen an eight-year -old child as her narrator, and she has placed her story in the world of Colonial India which existed before partition, that is, when India and Pakistan – and Bangladesh – were all part of the same country. The world of Begum Jan (Lady Darling) was probably swept away with the disasters of that ‘partition’  – a bloodless word for the largest mass migration of people in modern times, and perhaps of all time, and one in which hundreds and thousands of people lost their homes and their lives.  This first disaster was followed by others, chiefly the gradual and unstoppable process of Islamisation which destroyed any semblance of a civil state. When Chugtai published her story in 1941, it was banned by the State Government. Chugtai did not belly-up, and fought the charges, and won her lawsuit.  Chugtai’s feisty nature (an attribute of the little girl in her story) prompted her to fight to receive an education – something which in Muslim cultures is still denied to too many girls  – and to go on to become the first Muslim woman in Colonial  India to receive a Bachelor’s Degree. For this she endured the indignity of having to attend her lectures while hidden behind a curtain.

This is how Chugtai described the manner in which she received her higher education, when she and six other female students had to sit behind a curtain at the back of the class:

“If we could get what we wanted by sitting in purdah we would sit in purdah. We were interested in studying. If they had told us to wear burqas, we would have agreed.”

Here is what she has to say about the obscenity trial that was the original response to her  story:

“There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that“Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of search a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ashiqs (lovers) is obscene.” “Which word is obscene,” the lawyer said. “Collecting,” or “ashiqs”?

And about her response to a friends reproof about her having written such a story:

Using a mild manner and a tone of entreaty, I said, ‘Aslam Sahib, in reality no one ever told me that writing on the subject I deal with in “Lihaaf” is a sin, nor did I ever read anywhere that I shouldn’t write about this . . . disease . . . or tendency. Perhaps my mind is not the brush of Abdur Rahman Chughtai but only a cheap camera instead. Whenever it sees something, it releases the shutter on its own and the pen in my hand becomes helpless. My mind tempts my pen, and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.”

Chugtai also offered this seemingly mild, but in fact pointed defense in extenuation of the tendency of her writerly eye to take in a culturally unbiased views of reality :

“Perhaps my mind is not the brush of Abdur Rahman Chughtai but only a cheap camera instead. Whenever it sees something, it releases the shutter on its own and the pen in my hand becomes helpless. My mind tempts my pen, and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.”

And this is Chugtai’s rather disingenuous comment about the subject matter of the quilt:

 “In ‘Lihaaf’ I wrote about an eight-year-old’s view of lesbianism. They were discussions I had heard, though I did not know what the words meant. I knew what two men could do but not two women. A case was filed against this story in Lahore. Apparently, the people had understood it, although I hadn’t!”

My reading of this short-story is that Chugtai used the child’s point of view in order to preemptively deflect any accusations that could potentially have been leveled at her as an adult woman writing a somewhat socially subversive short story with veiled lesbian content.  The child is very precocious, and it seems to me that from the backward glance of her adult perspective, she has made a careful calculation about which of her ‘childish’ observations to report. Her disclosures about her own combative nature suggest to me that she is using a certain sleight of hand to covertly state that she  (rather than the Begum) is the one who has chosen to revolt against the strictures placed on her as a little girl by her family  – and it must be concluded by society as well.

The Begum’s sexuality, at least in Asadud’s translation, but to a far lesser degree in Hameed’s and Naqvi’s,  is unsympathetically presented as something unwholesome: as something decidedly  distorted and deviant.We are made to feel squeamish by the Begum’s lack of hesitation in using the child’s ‘innocent’ request to touch her in order to gratify her needs and desires. We are made even more uneasy if we ask ourselves exactly how ‘innocent’ the child’s motivation really is. The adult writer’s framing of the Begum’s behaviour  as a decidedly bizarre compulsion permits her to be slyly voyeuristic while at the same time avoiding any guilt by association.

To me this story is not at all about lesbianism as it is about the forms that  women’s sexual and affectional imperatives will assume in the absence of a freely chosen  expression. The deviancy here is not a social construct – meaning a deviation from either marital fidelity or heterosexuality – but a deviation from the values we tend to cherish in the assumed currency of love between lovers. Why are we left feeling that these are merely sexual acts, and not acts of love? It is not merely because of the acid tongue of the child narrator.

The Begum’s compulsive need  for sensuality in general , and human touch in particular, emerges as a pathology. I think we are meant to infer that it is the direct result of the Nawab’s neglect, and his blatantly insensitive provocation in indulging his own sexual proclivities in the face of the Begum’s deprivation. Chugtai has brilliantly walked on the edge of a razor in order to make a boldly critical statement about the condition of women in her society.  As women both the Begum and Rabbu are restricted in their options, and the Begum’s sensual needs and Rabbo’s pecuniary ones intersect under somewhat questionable cover of ‘The Quilt.’

It is clear we cannot expect a child’s point of view  to provide us with the shading and nuances of such a relationship as exists between the two women as sensed and felt from the inside out – at least in emotional terms, – but since the child can only observe, and not really assess, there is a ruthless and venomous undertone that intrudes in the absence of empathy.

The Begum in the absence of chosen diversions succumbs to the demands of her nature by surrendering herself to a compulsive and seemingly, to us, an over-indulgent sensuality.  In Asadud’s translation, the unflattering and overtly grotesque image of the Begum presented to us as obese, oily and prurient, is very carefully calculated to only speak of the ‘unspeakable’ in the horrifying imagery of a child’s nightmare, and the symbol of the smothering quilt. It is something which is noted and acknowledged in this translation, but without Asadud’s malicious emphasis.

The Begum’s circumstances appear to be  singularly against her. Her husband is a pederast, oblivious to her as a human being, and she can find no consolation in any of the pursuits available to her, since poetry and novels only intensify and exacerbate her discontent. She appears to have no peers, no friends, and she has no children, and as the child notes, there is not even a pet animal in the house. Even Rabbu does not appear to be a sympathetic ally. No one loves the Begum for her own sake.

The reason I hesitate to see this story in the context of lesbian desire is because it clearly does not lend itself to such an interpretation.  It seems clear to me that the consolation offered by Rabbu was not even quite that – but a sexual exigency desperately resorted to in the absence of marital satisfaction. Chugtai’s  story reminds me very much of the  American Writer Jane Bowles’s account of her affair with a Moroccan woman who was her household help. There is the same immiscibility of feeling – the same sense of distaste when one feels the presence of falsity and opportunism tainting human interactions and human relationships.  It is impossible not to feel some degree of aversion at what appears to be social, cultural and personal distortion.

Over time this practice seems to have become a habitual fixation, and the sexual acts engaged in with Rabbu seem not to have been interactions with another woman – or even another person – desired and appreciated for the human contact they afforded. They seem rather to have been a convenient outlet for  a free floating concupiscence – a mere indulgence of the begum’s sexual imperatives, rather in the manner of what for most men would be a financial transaction with a sex-worker.

Had the relationship with Rabbu had been fulfilling – had there been a ‘relationship’ in the first place – perhaps the Begum would have ceased to have been neurotic and volatile in her behaviour.  As it is she appears to be perilously close to having an emotional breakdown.

The larger picture here is, of course, the plight of women who are compelled to live their lives trapped in the prison of Muslim law and culture. These laws are immeasurably harmful and detrimental to the lives of women, who are deprived of their civil rights, their autonomy and self-determination in the name of religion, which is really a virulent form of patriarchy practiced in the name of God.  In this sense, ‘The Quilt’ must be seen to be Chugtai’s indictment of the society she lived in, with its false moralities and pietisms and its unremitting efforts to smother in the cradle any and all evidence of female personhood.  While it is perhaps true that Chugtai referred to lesbianism as a ‘tendency’ and a ‘disease’, she must not be blamed for this, Western society with its more serious pretentions to enlightenment  was eagerly asserting the same lies. Pioneers, particularly women pioneers in misogynistic societies,  must be seen and evaluated within the context of their times. They may appear to be less forthcoming, less unequivocal in their indictments of the moral , social and religious climate within which they are compelled to live.

Women are the chief victims of religious social and cultural injustice, and until the institutions which oppress them are either destroyed or dismantled, they will continue to be the victims of male exploitation. Nearly three generations – 70 years have passed since Chugtai wrote her story of ‘The Quilt’.  Have things changed for the better for the women who live under the oppression of Islamic law and culture?  Only yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend with a picture of a group marriage in Gaza. What could be surprising about a group marriage other than the size of the group – 450 plus couples?

Only that the grooms were adult males, and the brides were between 9 and 12 years old. This of course is the least of it. The more egregious violations of women’s rights and of their persons under the oppressive weight of such male-dominated cultures are too horrible to bear a mention.

That Chugtai rejected the values of her society with respect to their devaluation and oppression of women is clear beyond any doubt. She fought for her right to receive an education, and she asserted her right to her art and discipline as a writer. Before she died, she left instructions for her body to be cremated – in direct contravention of Muslim funeral rites and customs. Chugtai was a rebel to the very end.

Her writing is still banned today, in Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.





In the depth of winter whenever I snuggle into my quilt, its shadow on the wall seems to sway like an elephant. My mind begins a mad race into the dark crevasses of the past; memories come flooding in.

Begging your pardon, I am not about to relate a romantic incident surrounding my own quilt—I do not believe there is much romance associated with it. The blanket, though considerably less comfortable, is preferable because it does not cast such terrifying shadows, quivering on the wall!

This happened when I was a small girl. All day long I fought tooth and nail with my brothers and their friends. Sometimes I wondered why the hell I was so quarrelsome. At my age my older sisters had been busy collecting admirers; all I could think of was fisticuffs with every known and unknown girl or boy I ran into!

For this reason my mother decided to deposit me with an ‘adopted’ sister of hers when she left for Agra. She was well aware that there was no one in that sister’s house, not even a pet animal, with whom I could engage in my favorite occupation! I guess my punishment was well deserved. So Mother left me with Begum Jan, the same Begum Jan whose quilt is imprinted on my memory like a blacksmith’s brand.

This was the lady who had been married off to Nawab Sahib for a very good reason, courtesy her poor but loving parents. Although much past his prime, Nawab Sahib was noblesse oblige. No one had ever seen a dancing girl or prostitute in his home. He had the distinction of not only performing the Haj himself, but of being the patron of several poor people who had undertaken the pilgrimage through his good offices.

Nawab Sahib had a strange hobby. People are known to have irksome interests like breeding pigeons and arranging cockfights. Nawab Sahib kept himself aloof from these disgusting sports; all he liked to do was keep an open house for students; young, fair and slim-waisted boys, whose expenses were borne entirely by him. After marrying Begum Jan, he deposited her in the house with all his other possessions and promptly forgot about her! The young, delicate Begum began to wilt with loneliness.

Who knows when Begum Jan started living? Did her life begin when she made the mistake of being born, or when she entered the house as the Nawab’s new bride, climbed the elaborate four-poster bed and started counting her days? Or did it begin from the time she realized that the household revolved around the boy-students, and that all the delicacies produced in the kitchen were meant solely for their palates? From the chinks in the drawing-room doors, Begum Jan glimpsed their slim waists, fair ankles and gossamer shirts and felt she had been raked over coals!

Perhaps it all started when she gave up on magic, necromancy, seances and whatnot. You cannot draw blood from a stone. Not an inch did the Nawab budge. Broken-hearted, Begum Jan turned towards education. Not much to be gained here either! Romantic novels and sentimental poetry proved even more depressing. Sleepless nights became a daily routine. Begun Jan slowly let go and consequently, became a picture of melancholy and despair.

She felt like stuffing all her fine clothes into the stove. One dresses up to impress people. Now, neither did the Nawab Sahib find a spare moment from his preoccupation with the gossamer shirts, nor did he allow her to venture outside the home. Her relatives, however, made it a habit to pay her frequent visits which often lasted for months, while she remained prisoner of the house.

Seeing these relatives on a roman holiday made her blood boil. They happily indulged themselves with the goodies produced in the kitchen and licked the clarified butter off their greedy fingers. In her household they equipped themselves for their winter needs. But, despite renewing the cotton filling in her quilt each year, Begum Jan continued to shiver, night after night. Each time she turned over, the quilt assumed ferocious shapes which appeared like shadowy monsters on the wall. She lay in terror; not one of the shadows carried any promise of life. What the hell was life worth anyway? Why live? But Begum Jan was destined to live, and once she started living, did she ever!

Rabbo came to her rescue just as she was starting to go under. Suddenly her emaciated body began to fill out. Her cheeks became rosy; beauty, as it were, glowed through every pore! It was a special oil massage that brought about the change in Begum Jan. Begging your pardon, you will not find the recipe for this oil in the most exclusive or expensive magazine!

When I saw Begum Jan she was in her early forties. She sat reclining on the couch, a figure of dignity and grandeur. Rabbo sat against her back, massaging her waist. A purple shawl was thrown over her legs. The very picture of royalty, a real Maharani! How I loved her looks. I wanted to sit by her side for hours, adoring her like a humble devotee. Her complexion was fair, without a trace of ruddiness. Her black hair was always drenched in oil. I had never seen her parting crooked, nor a single hair out of place. Her eyes were black, and carefully plucked eyebrows stretched over them like a couple of perfect bows! Her eyes were slightly taut, eyelids heavy and eyelashes thick. The most amazing and attractive part of her face were her lips. Usually dyed in lipstick, her upper lip had a distinct line of down. Her temples were covered with long hair. Sometimes her face became transformed before my adoring gaze, as if it were the face of young boy.

Her skin was fair and moist, and looked like it had been stretched over her frame and tightly stitched up. Whenever she exposed her ankles for a massage, I stole a glance at their rounded smoothness. She was tall, and appeared taller because of the ample flesh on her person. Her hands were large and moist, her waist smooth. Rabbo used to sit by her side and scratch her back for hours together—it was almost as if getting scratched was for her the fulfillment of life’s essential need. In a way, more important than the basic necessities required for staying alive.

Rabbo had no other household duties. Perched on the four-poster bed, she was always massaging Begum Jan’s head, feet or some other part of her anatomy. Someone other than Begum Jan receiving such a quantity of human touching, what would the consequences be? Speaking for myself, I can say that if someone touched me continuously like this, I would certainly rot.

As if this daily massage ritual were not enough, on the days she bathed this ritual extended to two hours! Scented oils and unguents were massaged into her shining skin; imagining the friction caused by this prolonged rubbing made me slightly sick. The braziers were lit behind closed doors and then the procedure started. Usually Rabbo was the only one allowed inside the sanctum. Other servants, muttering their disapproval, handed over various necessities at the closed door.

The fact of the matter was that Begum Jan was afflicted with a perpetual itch. Numerous oils and lotions had been tried, but the itch was there to stay. Hakims and doctors stated: It is nothing, the skin is clear. But if the disease is located beneath the skin, it’s a different matter. These doctors are mad! Rabbo used to say with a meaningful smile while gazing dreamily at Begum Jan. “May your enemies be afflicted with skin disease! It is your hot blood that causes all the trouble!”

Rabbo! She was as black as Begum Jan was white, like burnt iron ore! Her face was lightly marked with smallpox, her body solidly packed; small dextrous hands, a tight little paunch and full lips slightly swollen, which were always moist. Those puffy hands were as quick as lightning, now at her waist, now her lips, now kneading her thighs and dashing towards her ankles. Whenever I sat down with Begum Jan, my eyes were riveted to those roving hands.

Winter or summer, Begum Jan always wore kurtas of Hyderabadi jalli karga. I recall her dark skirts and billowing white kurtas. With the fan gently rotating on the ceiling, Begum always covered herself with a soft wrap. She was fond of winter. I too liked the winter season at her house. She moved very little. Reclining on the carpet, she spent her days having her back massaged, chewing on dry fruit. Other household servants were envious of Rabbo. The witch! She ate, sat, and even slept with Begum Jan! Rabbo and Begum Jan—the topic inevitably cropped up in every gathering. Whenever anyone mentioned their names, the group burst into loud guffaws. Who knows what jokes were made at their expense? But one thing was certain—the poor lady never met a single soul. All her time was taken up with the treatment of her unfortunate itch.

I have already said I was very young at the time and quite enamoured of Begum Jan. She, too, was fond of me. When mother decided to go to Agra she had to leave me with somebody. She knew that, left alone, I would fight continuously with my brothers, or wander around aimlessly. I was happy to be left with Begum Jan for one week, and Begum Jan was equally pleased to have me. After all, she was Ammi’s adopted sister!

The question arose of where I was to sleep. The obvious place was Begum Jan’s room; accordingly, a small bed was placed alongside the huge four-poster. Until ten or eleven that night we played Chance and talked; then I went to bed. When I fell asleep Rabbo was scratching her back. “Filthy wench”, I muttered before turning over. At night I awoke with a start. It was pitch dark. Begum Jan’s quilt was shaking vigorously, as if an elephant was struggling beneath it.

“Begum Jan”, my voice was barely audible. The elephant subsided.

“What is it? Go to sleep”. Begum Jan’s voice seemed to come from afar.

“I’m scared”. I sounded like a petrified mouse.

“Go to sleep. Nothing to be afraid of. Recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi”.

“Okay!” I quickly began the Ayat. But each time I reached Yalamu Mabain I got stuck. This was strange. I knew the entire Ayat!

“May I come to you, Begum Jan?”

“No child, go to sleep”. The voice was curt. Then I heard whispers. Oh God! Who was this other person? Now I was terrified.

“Begum Jan, is there a thief here?”

“Go to sleep, child; there is no thief”. This was Rabbo’s voice. I sank into my quilt and tried to sleep.

In the morning I could not even remember the sinister scene that had been enacted at night. I have always been the superstitious one in my family. Night fears, sleep-talking, sleep-walking were regular occurrences during my childhood. People often said that I seemed to be haunted by evil spirits. Consequently I blotted out the incident from memory as easily as I dealt with all my imaginary fears. Besides, the quilt seemed such an innocent part of the bed.

The next night when I woke up, a quarrel between Begum Jan and Rabbo was being settled on the bed itself. I could not make out what conclusion was reached, but I heard Rabbo sobbing. Then there were sounds of a cat lapping in the saucer. To hell with it, I thought and went off to sleep!

Today Rabbo has gone off to visit her son. He was a quarrelsome lad. Begum Jan had done a lot to help him settle down in life; she had bought him a shop, arranged a job in the village, but to no avail. She even managed to have him stay with Nawab Sahib. Here he was treated well, a new wardrobe was ordered for him, but ungrateful wretch that he was, he ran away for no good reason and never returned, not even to see Rabbo. She therefore had to arrange to meet him at a relative’s house. Begum Jan would never have allowed it, but poor Rabbo was helpless and had to go.

All day Begum Jan was restless. Her joints hurt like hell, but she could not bear anyone’s touch. Not a morsel did she eat; all day long she moped in bed.

“Shall I scratch you, Begum Jan?” I asked eagerly while dealing out the deck of cards. Begum Jan looked at me carefully.

“Really, shall I?” I put the cards aside and began scratching, while Begum Jan lay quietly, giving in to my ministrations. Rabbo was due back the next day, but she never turned up. Begum Jan became irritable. She drank so much tea that her head started throbbing.

Once again I started on her back. What a smooth slab of a back! I scratched her softly, happy to be of some assistance;

“Scratch harder, open the straps”, Begum Jan spoke. “There, below the shoulder. Ooh, wonderful!” She sighed as if with immense relief.

“This way”, Begum Jan indicated, although she could very well scratch that part herself. But she preferred my touch. How proud I was!

“Here, oh, oh, how you tickle”, she laughed. I was talking and scratching at the same time.

“Tomorrow I will send you to the market. What do you want? A sleeping-walking doll?”

“Not a doll, Begum Jan! Do you think I am a child? You know I am…”

“Yes… an old crow. Is that what you are?” She laughed.

“Okay then, buy a babua. Dress it up yourself, I’ll give you as many bits and pieces as you want. Okay?” She turned over.

“Okay”, I answered.

“Here”. She was guiding my hand wherever she felt the itch. With my mind on the babua, I was scratching mechanically, unthinkingly. She continued talking. “Listen, you don’t have enough clothes. Tomorrow I will ask the tailor to make you a new frock. Your mother has left some material with me”.

“I don’t want that cheap red material. It looks tacky”. I was talking nonsense while my hand roved the entire territory. I did not realize it but by now Begum Jan was flat on her back! Oh God! I quickly withdrew my hand.

“Silly girl, don’t you see where you’re scratching? You have dislocated my ribs”. Begum Jan was smiling mischievously. I was red with embarrassment.

“Come, lie down with me”. She laid me at her side with my head on her arm. “How thin you are… and, let’s see, your ribs”, she started counting.

“No”, I protested weakly.

“I won’t eat you up! What a tight sweater”, she said. “Not even a warm vest?” I began to get very restless.

“How many ribs?” The topic was changed.

“Nine on one side, ten on the other”. I thought of my school hygiene. Very confused thinking.

“Let’s see”, she moved my hand. “One, two, three…”

I wanted to run away from her, but she held me closer. I struggled to get away. Begum Jan started laughing.

To this day whenever I think of what she looked like at that moment, I get nervous. Her eyelids became heavy, her upper lip darkened and, despite the cold, her nose and eyes were covered with tiny beads of perspiration. Her hands were stiff and cold, but soft as if the skin had been peeled. She had thrown off her shawl and in the karga kurta, her body shone like a ball of dough. Her heavy gold kurta buttons were open, swinging to one side.

The dusk had plunged her room into a claustrophobic blackness, and I felt gripped by an unknown terror. Begum Jan’s deep dark eyes focused on me! I started crying. She was clutching me like a clay doll. I started feeling nauseated against her warm body. She seemed possessed. What could I do? I was neither able to cry nor scream! In a while she became limp. Her face turned pale and frightening, she started taking deep breaths. I figured she was about to die, so I ran outside.

Thank God Rabbo came back at night. I was scared enough to pull the sheet over my head, but sleep evaded me as usual. I lay awake for hours.

How I wished Ammi would return. Begum Jan had become such a terrifying entity that I spent my days in the company of household servants. I was too scared to step into her bedroom. What could I have said to anyone? That I was afraid of Begum Jan? Begum Jan, who loved me so dearly?

Today there was another tiff between Begum Jan and Rabbo. I was dead scared of their quarrels, because they signalled the beginning of my misfortunes! Begum Jan immediately thought about me. What was I doing wandering around in the cold? I would surely die of pneumonia!

“Child, you will have my head shaven in public. If something happens to you, how will I face your mother?” Begum Jan admonished me as she washed up in the water basin. The tea tray was lying on the table.

“Pour some tea and give me a cup”. She dried her hands and face.

“Let me get out of these clothes”.

While she changed, I drank tea. During her body massage, she kept summoning me for small errands. I carried things to her with utmost reluctance, always looking the other way. At the slightest opportunity I ran back to my perch, drinking my tea, my back turned to Begum Jan.

“Ammi!” My heart cried in anguish. “How could you punish me so severely for fighting with my brothers?” Mother disliked my mixing with the boys, as if they were man-eaters who would swallow her beloved daughter in one gulp! After all who were these ferocious males? None other than my own brothers and their puny little friends. Mother believed in a strict prison sentence for females; life behind seven padlocks! Begum Jan’s “patronage”, however, proved more terrifying than the fear of the world’s worst goondas! If I had had the courage I would have run out on to the street. But helpless as I was, I continued to sit in that very spot with my heart in my mouth.

After an elaborate ritual of dressing up and scenting her body with warm attars and perfumes, Begum Jan turned her arduous heat on me.

“I want to go home!” I said in response to all her suggestions. More tears.

“Come to me”, she waxed. “I will take you shopping”.

But I had only one answer. All the toys and sweets in the world kept piling up against my one and only refrain, “I want to go home!”

“Your brothers will beat you up, you witch!” She smacked me affectionately.

“Sure, let them”, I said to myself annoyed and exasperated.

“Raw mangoes are sour, Begum Jan”, malicious little Rabbo expressed her views.

Then Begum Jan had her famous fit. The gold necklace she was about to place around my neck, was broken to bits. Gossamer net scarf was shredded mercilessly. Hair, which were never out of place, were tousled with loud exclamations of “Oh! Oh! Oh!” She started shouting and convulsing. I ran outside. After much ado and ministration, Begum Jan regained consciousness. When I tiptoed into the bedroom Rabbo, propped against her body, was kneading her limbs.

“Take off your shoes, she whispered”. Mouse-like I crept into my quilt.

Later that night, Begum Jan’s quilt was, once again, swinging like an elephant. “Allah”, I was barely able to squeak. The elephant-in-the quilt jumped and then sat down. I did not say a word. Once again, the elephant started convulsing. Now I was really confused. I decided, no matter what, tonight I would flip the switch on the bedside lamp. The elephant started fluttering once again, as if about to squat. Smack, gush, slobber—someone was enjoying a feast. Suddenly I understood what was going on!

Begum Jan had not eaten a thing all day and Rabbo, the witch, was a known glutton. They were polishing off some goodies under the quilt, for sure. Flaring my nostrils, I huffed and puffed hoping for a whiff of the feast. But the air was laden with attar, henna, sandalwood; hot fragrances, no food.

Once again the quilt started billowing. I tried to lie still, but it was now assuming such weird shapes that I could not contain myself. It seemed as if a frog was growing inside it and would suddenly spring on me.

“Ammi!” I spoke with courage, but no one heard me. The quilt, meanwhile, had entered my brain and started growing. Quietly creeping to the other side of the bed I swung my legs over and sat up . In the dark I groped for the switch. The elephant somersaulted beneath the quilt and dug in. During the somersault, its corner was lifted one foot above the bed.

Allah! I dove headlong into my sheets!!

What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never tell anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.

Ammi:          Mummy
Kurta:          An Indian tunic worn by both men and women.
Goondah:     A robber
Attar:           Perfumes made from essential oils
Nawab:        Minor Nobility
Babua:         A doll dressed in male clothing

Lakh:           A hundred thousand


Lihaaf in Nagari script


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Hector Hugo Munro, a.k.a 'Saki' (December 18 1870 – November 13 1916)














“Have  you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?” asked Egbert.

“No,” said Janetta, with a note of tired defiance in her voice; “I’ve written eleven letters to-day expressing surprise and gratitude for sundry unmerited gifts, but I haven’t written to the Froplinsons.”

“Some one will have to write to them,” said Egbert.

“I don’t dispute the necessity, but I don’t think the some one should be me,” said Janetta. “I wouldn’t mind writing a letter of angry recrimination or heartless satire to some suitable recipient; in fact, I should rather enjoy it, but I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters to-day and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness: really, you can’t expect me to sit down to another. There is such a thing as writing oneself out.”

“I’ve written nearly as many,” said Egbert, “and I’ve had my usual business correspondence to get through, too. Besides, I don’t know what it was that the Froplinsons sent us.”

“A William the Conqueror calendar,” said Janetta, “with a quotation of one of his great thoughts for every day in the year.”

“Impossible,” said Egbert; “he didn’t have three hundred and sixty-five thoughts in the whole of his life, or, if he did, he kept them to himself. He was a man of action, not of introspection.”

“Well, it was William Wordsworth, then,” said Janetta; “I know William came into it somewhere.”

“That sounds more probable,” said Egbert; “well, let’s collaborate on this letter of thanks and get it done. I’ll dictate, and you can scribble it down. ‘Dear Mrs. Froplinson – thank you and your husband so much for the very pretty calendar you sent us. It was very good of you to think of us.’ ”

“You can’t possibly say that,” said Janetta, laying down her pen.

“It’s what I always do say, and what every one says to me,” protested Egbert.

“We sent them something on the twenty-second,” said Janetta, “so they simply HAD to think of us. There was no getting away from it.”

“What did we send them?” asked Egbert gloomily.

“Bridge-markers,” said Janetta, “in a cardboard case, with some inanity about ‘digging for fortune with a royal spade’ emblazoned on the cover. The moment I saw it in the shop I said to myself ‘Froplinsons’ and to the attendant ‘How much?’ When he said ‘Ninepence,’ I gave him their address, jabbed our card in, paid tenpence or elevenpence to cover the postage, and thanked heaven. With less sincerity and infinitely more trouble they eventually thanked me.”

“The Froplinsons don’t play bridge,” said Egbert.

“One is not supposed to notice social deformities of that sort,” said Janetta; “it wouldn’t be polite. Besides, what trouble did they take to find out whether we read Wordsworth with gladness? For all they knew or cared we might be frantically embedded in the belief that all poetry begins and ends with John Masefield, and it might infuriate or depress us to have a daily sample of Wordsworthian products flung at us.”

“Well, let’s get on with the letter of thanks,” said Egbert.

“Proceed,” said Janetta.

” ‘How clever of you to guess that Wordsworth is our favourite poet,’ ” dictated Egbert.

Again Janetta laid down her pen.

“Do you realise what that means?” she asked; “a Wordsworth booklet next Christmas, and another calendar the Christmas after, with the same problem of having to write suitable letters of thankfulness. No, the best thing to do is to drop all further allusion to the calendar and switch off on to some other topic.”

“But what other topic?”

“Oh, something like this: ‘What do you think of the New Year Honours List? A friend of ours made such a clever remark when he read it.’ Then you can stick in any remark that comes into your head; it needn’t be clever. The Froplinsons won’t know whether it is or isn’t.”

“We don’t even know on which side they are in politics,” objected Egbert; “and anyhow you can’t suddenly dismiss the subject of the calendar. Surely there must be some intelligent remark that can be made about it.”

“Well, we can’t think of one,” said Janetta wearily; “the fact is, we’ve both written ourselves out. Heavens! I’ve just remembered Mrs. Stephen Ludberry. I haven’t thanked her for what she sent.”

“What did she send?”

“I forget; I think it was a calendar.”

There was a long silence, the forlorn silence of those who are bereft of hope and have almost ceased to care.

Presently Egbert started from his seat with an air of resolution. The light of battle was in his eyes.

“Let me come to the writing-table,” he exclaimed.

“Gladly,” said Janetta. “Are you going to write to Mrs. Ludberry or the Froplinsons?”

“To neither,” said Egbert, drawing a stack of notepaper towards him; “I’m going to write to the editor of every enlightened and influential newspaper in the Kingdom, I’m going to suggest that there should be a sort of epistolary Truce of God during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. From the twenty-fourth of December to the third or fourth of January it shall be considered an offense against good sense and good feeling to write or expect any letter or communication that does not deal with the necessary events of the moment. Answers to invitations, arrangements about trains, renewal of club subscriptions, and, of course, all the ordinary everyday affairs of business, sickness, engaging new cooks, and so forth, these will be dealt with in the usual manner as something inevitable, a legitimate part of our daily life. But all the devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season, these should be swept away to give the season a chance of being really festive, a time of untroubled, unpunctuated peace and good will.”

“But you would have to make some acknowledgment of presents received,” objected Janetta; “otherwise people would never know whether they had arrived safely.”

“Of course, I have thought of that,” said Egbert; “every present that was sent off would be accompanied by a ticket bearing the date of dispatch and the signature of the sender, and some conventional hieroglyphic to show that it was intended to be a Christmas or New Year gift; there would be a counterfoil with space for the recipient’s name and the date of arrival, and all you would have to do would be to sign and date the counterfoil, add a conventional hieroglyphic indicating heartfelt thanks and gratified surprise, put the thing into an envelope and post it.”

“It sounds delightfully simple,” said Janetta wistfully, “but people would consider it too cut-and- dried, too perfunctory.”

“It is not a bit more perfunctory than the present system,” said Egbert; “I have only the same conventional language of gratitude at my disposal with which to thank dear old Colonel Chuttle for his perfectly delicious Stilton, which we shall devour to the last morsel, and the Froplinsons for their calendar, which we shall never look at. Colonel Chuttle knows that we are grateful for the Stilton, without having to be told so, and the Froplinsons know that we are bored with their calendar, whatever we may say to the contrary, just as we know that they are bored with the bridge-markers in spite of their written assurance that they thanked us for our charming little gift. What is more, the Colonel knows that even if we had taken a sudden aversion to Stilton or been forbidden it by the doctor, we should still have written a letter of hearty thanks around it. So you see the present system of acknowledgment is just as perfunctory and conventional as the counterfoil business would be, only ten times more tiresome and brain-racking.”

“Your plan would certainly bring the ideal of a Happy Christmas a step nearer realisation,” said Janetta.

“There are exceptions, of course,” said Egbert, “people who really try to infuse a breath of reality into their letters of acknowledgment. Aunt Susan, for instance, who writes: ‘Thank you very much for the ham; not such a good flavour as the one you sent last year, which itself was not a particularly good one. Hams are not what they used to be.’ It would be a pity to be deprived of her Christmas comments, but that loss would be swallowed up in the general gain.”

“Meanwhile,” said Janetta, “what am I to say to the Froplinsons?”






















Who would have thought a topic as sterile as the writing of a  thank-you note could have occasioned such a bit of effusively brilliant frippery as this offering from H.H Munro – a.k.a Saki?
The English upper-classe of a few generations was  quite unsurpassed at a species of mildly derisive self -deprecating humour, which despite its understated tone, had, and still retains that subversive ability to make one, like it or not, dissolve in unrestrainable and almost hysterical laughter, -‘Tobermory’  – (perhaps it will be reserved for a later post) by this same authour comes to mind.
This story exactly explains the reason I continue to  love such polished exponents of this genre as P.G. Wodehouse, and always will. There is something quite remarkable and unique to English culture, which permits – and even encourages –  a simultaneous display of preening and sniggering.  I bet you won’t find anything to equal it amongst  either the French or Germans.
Americans, no matter how much they would like to, don’t have an upper class it is doubtful they ever did – (sorry Mr. James and Mrs. Wharton), because steel barons and railroad men, and even the pretensions of the founding fathers do not cut the mustard here.  Unless one is so terribly undiscerning as to mistake money for class, which I am happy to say is next to impossible to do even for the least discerning among us, Donald Trump and Warren Buffet also fail to crash the gate.
But even if we had an ‘upper-class’, it would only be found among the routs (gaggles, or murders – you  are welcome to choose the appropriate collective noun of your choice) of pinch-mouthed Republicans who have shares in the sorts of companies that reap their profits from anti-social enterprises such as genetically modified foods and stock market shenanigans.  Precious little scope for comedy there I’m afraid, and anyone prospecting for a laugh in that direction is sure to come up a cropper.
So to give us the hoi-polloi, Horace’s common crowd an unrestricted a sly inside-look at the slightly dithery formalities and unbreakable tribal rituals a certain class was constrained to religiously observe, we must resort to the likes of Mr. H. H. Munro.
Thank-you notes written with fountain pens, and stamps which had to be licked and pasted on brown envelopes ….  Oh where have they all gone? The rueful answer must be ‘The way of all flesh’.
But I would be forever and unforgivably remiss if I prevented the intrusion of a very serious note amidst  all this levity.  ‘Saki’ – Hector Hugo Munro –  was in my opinion a war hero. Munro died when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet in Beaumont-Hamel France. His last words were said to be “Put that bloody cigarette out”.  He  had volunteered at age 43 at the beginning of WW1 to join the British Srmy Royal Fusiliers  as a low-ranking soldier, when he could have so easily and honourably refrained from doing so. He was well beyond conscription age, and had contracted Malaria (in those days a debilitating and incurable disease) while serving in the police force in Burma. What was more, he was volunteering to uphold the interests of a nation which could have if it had so wished, prosecute and  jail him for simply living his life as who and what he was. Hector Hugo Munro was a gay man.  We would never have guessed that – would we!  and as such, he lived at a time when being one was in effect a criminal offense.  The  prosecution and trial and sentencing of Oscar Wilde  19 years before, when Munro was a young man of 25 could not have been forgotten.
The horrible scandal and the ruination of Oscar Wilde’s life must have also been fresh in the mind of Munro’s sister Ethel when she destroyed most of his papers after his death. I am sure she meant well, and was no doubt anxious to get rid of ‘incriminating evidence’ which had the real potential to sully her brother’s name and reputation, even after he had so gallantly given his life for his country.
While we can laugh at the innocent falsehoods and pretensions of a society anxious to uphold  a self-preserving  – and relatively harmless sense of propriety, we cannot be amused when that  hypocrisy takes on a punitive cast, and leads to the persecution of people who depart from sexual norms which are priggishly upheld in public ( though who could guess at the degree to which they were violated in private by that same ‘moral majority’) by its mainstream practitioners.
We must regret and deplore the enormous and incalculable amount of material expunged and  lost to our own history as gays and lesbians, through the acts of well meaning – and perhaps  not so well meaning people, and material which was destroyed even by gays and lesbians themselves because of the need for secrecy and dissimulation.
Those pages and chapters and entire books of or our past are lost forever, but we must never forget that they existed.




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Marijane Meaker May 27 1927













































I came across Marijane Meaker’s book Carol in a Thousand Cities by accident  in 1972, when I was 19 and living in Ceylon.  I remember that it sucked the air out of my lungs to find out that there was a world far away in the West where exotic beings called lesbians actually existed in numbers — and as a social group. Of course it was not their exoticism that stunned me, but their familiarity to me — and their separate existence as a coherent phenomenon — a  social entity — a possibility  of being alive and living in “real” life — as  with a band of angels and  in a heaven on earth.

It took several more years — more than three decades —  before I was to run into  Meaker again, and found myself launched once more on the fascinating journey  exploring so called lesbian pulps. Marijane Meaker, a.k.a Ann Aldrich a.k.a Vin Packer a.k.a M.E. Kerr (Meaker) was a pioneer of lesbian fiction, and she is still wonderfully alive and kicking, as is the illustrious Ann Bannon.  By then, Meaker’s world no longer represented for me a heaven on earth, but something even greater — an earthy life in which earthly aspirations were possible for lesbians.

I started out by reading Meaker’s ‘Highsmith’ , the fantastic memoir of  her  ’50’s love affair with Patricia Highsmith.  That led inexorably to ‘We Too Must Love,’  ‘Spring Fire’ (published under the name Vin Packer) and a blissful re-read of  ‘Carol in a Thousand Cities’ a line taken verbatim from the last paragraphs of Highsmith’s famous lesbian love story(and the first one said to have a happy ending), ‘The Price of Salt’.

In Highsmith I found for the first time in a long time a book I could not put down. In it Meaker writes with warm sentiment and without sentimentality, about her love affair with Patricia Highsmith. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Meaker’s prose that so immediately evokes the flavour of the ‘fifties. I see rising up before my eyes the photographs of George Marks and Chaloner Woods, — women in Massey suits and print dresses  and summer coats,  and I hear the romantic, evocative  music of Jeri Southern,  Chris Connor,  Jo Stafford….

Despite the stark repressiveness of that time in U. S History of highly neuroticised social oppression,  (it was the era of  McCarthyism, the cold war, and psychoanalysis and sexism) — and who knows, perhaps exactly because of it — there was a social cohesiveness in the gay and lesbian world now long since disappeared.  For me It only appears now in the fiction of the day. This was the world which provided the necessary back-drop for the kind of chance meetings which are now a part of our lesbian history. It was the era of lesbian bars where women went to meet each other, drink, socialise, catch up with the world, and fall in love. L’s was such a bar, and it was where Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time, and had there not been  such a place, they would probably not have met at all.  But meet they did, in that hidden world of the fascinating denizens of the ‘fifties New York,  lesbians in secret enclaves which survived and thrived despite the tensions and dramas of an era in American history filled with paranoia and social anxiety.

It surprised me to learn that Meaker’s Highsmith was affectionate and publicly demonstrative of her affection — something extremely rare in that hetero-totalitarian time. It would seem that Highsmith’s particular brand of internalised homophobia was a writerly and intellectual construct, and it never flooded the banks of their internal reservoir into the territory of  her love affairs  and relationships. Meaker says Highsmith ” would hold girls’ hands in the street, the supermarket, in restaurants.”

For me the saddest part of this relationship is of course its failure as a friendship when the two met again in the ‘eighties, a failure I think was not at all inevitable, but for Highsmith’s  incomprehensible inner compulsion which made her unable to desist from repeatedly expressing her racist and anti-semitic feelings and views. This in the end caused Meaker to shut down emotionally with her, and it forestalled any possibility of emotional re-connection or a renewal of their former love.

Though it is impossible to make conjectures or claims on behalf of the subconscious — one’s own  or another’s – it might be that Highsmith may have chosen this tactic in order to avoid the pain of an inevitable separation with Meaker. Meaker is quite explicit about her disagreements with Highsmith, but somehow, their breakup is strangely inexplicable. Meaker does not hesitate to make herself the object of her own irony. She was reactive and volatile while Highsmith was reserved and restrained and conciliatory. One has to admire Meaker for her forthrightness  — she is honest and unsparing of herself in revealing what she herself said and did in order to precipitate the end of their affair. The two of them seem to have been each other’s only loves, and the loss of that love had devastating consequences for Highsmith.

One cannot evade the feeling that Highsmith’s virulence in this regard is overdone, and that she expressed these unsavoury views in order to elicit a specific response  — perhaps something as small as a nominal agreement. It may have been a gambit to test the degree to which she was loved and accepted — not just for her goodness and virtues, but despite her faults and flaws — but it was a response that never came from Meaker. Perhaps if Meaker had realised there was no point in trying either to make Highsmith reform or to repudiate her view, there might have been a different ending to the story of their relationship. After all, these were views which were not aired in her writing, and they were for the most part private, and not followed-up by violent actions.  No one was harmed by them. Put them into the mouth of a Nazi, or a member of the K.K.K or an Islamist, and their power to devastate would be incalculable, but coming from the mouth of a mild-mannered old lesbian writer, who is furthermore much given to drinking, they seem more dismissive than dangerous. Highsmith was to become an old crank, but one gets the sense that there was a great mind and a responsive heart beneath the distant and forbidding manner

Highsmith was brought up a Southerner and a Texan, and her unexamined racism may have been felt by her to be a part of her which stood for her Southern identity.  Her racism never extended beyond words,  (she had friendships and affairs with Jewish women, and Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia Jefferies were close friends) and her fulminations were never virulent. In fact they were so manifestly pointless that one wishes they could have simply been ignored. Instead and regrettably they made a renewed relationships with Meaker impossible.

The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s  biography of Highsmith shows her to be a racist anti-semitic miserly monster with no real feelings for anyone but herself, but –despite acknowledging and being distressed by Highsmith’s anti-semiticism, Meaker portrays her as loving and sensitive, with the emotional restraint under duress that can never be acquired and that  can only either be inherent, or the result of good breeding. I cannot reconcile the image of Highsmith as a psychopath, presented by Joan Schenkar, with Meake’s portrayal of this fabulous dark-haired butch with her W29 L34 Levis with their sharp creases and her crisply ironed white shirts.  This is a woman who was charming, romantic, affectionate, who at the last moment cancelled her plans to leave the country because she regretted having to cancel a dinner date  she had planned with Meaker to celebrate their two month anniversary. Meaker describes  a getaway in the summer of ’59 after Highsmith had given her a gold wedding band (bought in an antique store) in acknowledgement of their relationship, when “there were blissful days ahead in Fair Harbor: making love, sunbathing, reading, walking along the shore. cooking dinner for each other, and lingering into the night having drinks and listening to music” and at other times (when a late visit to Janet Flanner, then 67,  and her lover Natalia Murray at Fair Harbour did not result in the expected invitation to stay overnight) sleeping in each other’s arms in the rain on the beach.

In an act of selflessness and love, Meaker had given up her wonderful little apartment in Manhattan, and the life she had carefully constructed there  in order to move together to a property in Bucks County Pa, on the Delaware canal. This was where their relationship took root, and grew, and finally came undone. And that is were I find the core of this book to lie. The real sub-text is a documentation of the fleetingness of love relationships even when love itself is strong.

Perhaps the more significance a personal love has in life, the more viable are the seeds of its own destruction, and the more inevitable the final disaster.

There is a poem by Robert Graves which speaks of a month in mid-summer and the course of poetic love-

The demon who throughout our late estrangement,
Followed with malice in my footsteps, often
Making as to stumble . . .
We both know well he was the same demon,
Arch-enemy of rule and calculation,
Who lives for our love, being created from it….

There is something I refer to as ‘The Heathcliff Factor’, when the wellspring of love is choked and thwarted on one who needs love even more than she or he wants it, there is a reflexive destructiveness and a hardening of the self that is the frequent result of buried pain. A sort of malignancy shoots out of the depths like some poisonous plume, which only a stable and reliable love can hold in check. When that love is gone, it erupts and moves across the surface of life like a pyroclastic  flow, scorching and killing everything before it.

When one recalls love in one’s later years, only the best  — and the worst — can elicit the effort of recounting, and Highsmith, this beautifully written and stylishly evoked chronicle of self-revelation of the love of a lifetime, bears this out.  It is sobering and saddening precisely because of how skillfully and irresistibly the past is made to make its way to the present, and to a tacit conclusion about the nature of love. Meaker and Highsmith seem to me to have been, in the end, each others’ ‘one and only’.  And yet, though love went on surviving, the relationship could not.  Told from Meaker’s point of view, she always feared that Highsmith would yield to the temptation to have affairs with other women. Though there was nothing untrustworthy about Highsmith (Meaker mentions only one dishonest act of Highsmith’s, the appropriation of a roll of film, which after all contained her own image), she succumbed to the temptation to snoop in Highsmith’s papers, interfere with her mail, and stalk her suspected lover.  In fact, It is Meaker who stepped out on her  live- in lover when she first met Highsmith. She kept the affair secret until she left New York to move with Highsmith to Pennsylvania The course of true love runs by default: like water it is ruled by gravity, and seeks its lowest level, It is willed into turbulence and in the absence of movement it reverts to inertia. In the case of Highsmith and Meaker, it was something between the two that put an end to their association.

Highsmith possessed an unerring sense of her own integrity which led her to reject received wisdom and received values, particularly of the sort that Meaker subscribed to, in the area of  the kinds of psychological analysis of homosexuality that Meaker (at least in her fiction) appeared to uphold. Highsmith was sure-footed and confident about her own sexual orientation and practices  — a true butch —  whereas Meaker was ambivalent about sexual ‘norms’, and was a Freudian apologist of sorts.  She bowed under her publisher’s pressure to end her lesbian novels badly (for the lesbians involved) whereas Highsmith contrived herself a way out of a similar stricture. Though both women were paranoid about being ‘outed’ (and who, being mindful of their times, could blame them?) Highsmith’s personal reticence and secrecy unsettled Meaker and drover her to  succumb to her own insecurities and to violations of Highsmith’s privacy.

Even allowing for the self-preserving evasion endemic to every biography, one cannot but be impressed with Meaker’s clarity, and her slightly mocking tone of self-deprecation. There is a wryness here that stands as a guarantor that not too much sweetener has been added to cover the bitter taste of old memories of loss and of love gone awry.  One feels that this was a loss that was irrecoverable to both women, and the sound of ‘if only’ seems to echo in the wind. This is a book I will always be glad I read. In Meaker’s book, Highsmith is presented sympathetically and respectfully. This is by no means the prurient tell-all revelation filled with gratuitously graphic details of love-lives.  The intensity and fire which existed between the two women is clearly and sparsely communicated, which in itself is a remarkable achievement.  It is not as complete as Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow and not as bitter as Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss. Highsmith. It is in a sense the most personal and kind of Highsmith’s biographies.








This is the song which was on the jukebox at L’s when Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time –

“You Better Go Now” by Jeri Southern








This is an entry from one of Highsmith’s private journals. It shows a very different aspect of her being, completely unlike her  guarded and rebarbative public persona. This is the Highsmith, I think, with whom Meaker fell in love, and who fell in love with her in return.

“Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one’s arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment (not being controlled by its logical mechanism) that stifles the breath, bringing tears. One dreams of dancing with her, in public, of a stolen kiss more freely given and taken than any heretofore, in public. One is utterly crushed with the thought– which had become reality now, here – that one is for eternity an imprisoned soul in one’s present body…One knows then too,. and perhaps this is no small portion of the sadness, that life with any man is no life at all. For the soul, with its infallible truth and rightness, its logic derived from perfect purity, cries for her one love, her!”

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Katherine Mansfield











I can never forget the Thistle Hotel. I can never forget that strange winter night.

I had asked her to dine with me, and then go to the Opera. My room was opposite hers. She said she would come but – could I lace up her evening bodice, it was hooks at the back. Very well.

It was still daylight when I knocked at her door and entered. In her petticoat bodice and a full silk petticoat she was washing, sponging her face and neck. She said she was finished and I might sit on the bed and wait for her. So I looked round at the dreary room. The one filthy window faced the street. She could see the choked dust-grimed window of a wash-house opposite. For furniture the room contained a low bed, draped with revolting, yellow, vine-patterned curtains, a chair, a wardrobe with a piece of cracked mirror attached, a washstand. But the wallpaper hurt me physically. It hung in tattered strips from the wall. In its less discoloured and faded patches, I could trace the pattern of roses – buds and flowers – and the frieze was a conventional design of birds, of what genus the good God alone knows.

And this was where she lived. I watched her curiously. She was pulling on long, thin stockings, and saying ‘damn’ when she could not find her suspenders. And I felt within me a certainty that nothing beautiful could ever happen in that room, and for her I felt contempt, a little tolerance, a very little pity.

A dull, grey light hovered over everything; it seemed to accentuate the thin tawdriness of her clothes, the squalor of her life, she, too, looked dull and grey and tired. And I sat on the bed, and thought ‘Come, this Old Age. I have forgotten passion. I have been left behind in the beautiful golden procession of Youth. Now I am seeing life in the dressing room of the theatre.’

So we dined somewhere and went to the Opera. It was late, when we came out into the crowded night street, late and cold. She gathered up her long skirts. Silently we walked back to the Thistle Hotel, down the white pathway fringed with beautiful golden lilies, up the amethyst shadowed staircase.

Was Youth dead? … Was Youth dead?

She told me as we walked along the corridor to her room that she was glad the night had come. I did not ask why. I was glad, too. It seemed a secret between us. So I went with her into her room to undo those troublesome hooks. She lit a little candle on an enamel bracket. The light filled the room with darkness. Like a sleepy child she slipped out of her frock and then, suddenly, turned to me and flung her arms round my neck. Every bird upon the bulging frieze broke into song. Every rose upon the tattered paper budded and formed into blossom. Yes, even the green vine upon the bed curtains wreathed itself into strange chaplets and garlands, twined round us in a leafy embrace, held us with a thousand clinging tendrils.

And Youth was not dead.


Images from the movie Room in Rome directed by Julio Medem.



It is hard to believe that Mansfield wrote this astonishingly precocious and sophisticated little story in 1907, at the unbelievably young age of 19!  One has to overlook the few and very small mis-steps it contains, because under the powerful spell of this seamlessly compelling narrative, they tend to go unnoticed. It is impossible to stop the succession of potent and insistent images that seem to spring up with each line – and each interiorised and avidly described moment.

The perfectly captured blandness and world-weariness, and the sense of tedium and nothing-much expected, would hardly be questioned in someone several years older – and it emphatically attests to Mansfield’s  ability to inject an alter ego into a ‘mise en scène’  and persona of  her own devising, within which she evokes a time and place and condition which is utterly removed from what one could expect to be that of an ordinary, sheltered, bourgeois, turn-of-the century colonial girl of such tender years.

Mansfield would only live another 16 years after this little opus – she died when she was just 34 years old –  but before that she changed forever the way our minds grasp and follow the slender thread of extraordinary ordinariness through the progress of a story.

The Thistle Inn circa 1843

The Thistle Inn, on lower Mulgrave Street,  in Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’  was a real location, situated close to Wellington Harbour in New Zealand

Here is the link to the site  of Ishtar Films that features clips from two short movies – one by Kate Chopin, ‘The Story of an Hour’, and another, ‘The Thistle Hotel’.

‘The Thistle Hotel is based on Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’


And here is a little  poem by Arthur Symons published in 1921 called …………’Leves Amores’!  I don’t know what to make of the coincidence – Did Mansfield somehow read Symon’s poem before 1907? Or was Symonds  somehow able to read Mansfield’s story and take it for his inspiration?

There is no record (that I could find) of the two ever having met. Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’ was found among the papers of her former Oxford schoolmate Vere Bartrick Baker, and published in 1988  in the appendix of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mansfield  A Secret Life.

I don’t know if I shall ever find the solution to this little mystery,  but if someone else does, I would like to know it!

Leves Amores

The Thistle Inn in 1951

Your kisses, and the way you curl,

Delicious and distracting girl,

Into one’s arms, and round about,

Inextricably in and out,

Twining luxuriously, as twine

The clasping tangles of the vine;

So loving to be loved, so gay

And greedy for our holiday;

Strong to embrace and long to kiss,

And strenuous for the sharper bliss,

A little tossing sea of sighs,

.......and today

Till the slow calm seal up your eyes.

And then how prettily you sleep!

You nestle close and let me keep

My straying fingers in the nest

Of your warm comfortable breast;

And as I dream, lying awake,

Of sleep well wasted for your sake,

I feel the very pulse and heat

Of your young life-blood beat, and beat

With mine; and you are mine; my sweet!

Arthur Symons (1865-1945)

Katherine Mansfield

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Katherine Mansfield circa 1913

















It should surprise no one that Virginia Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield of her writing “You seem to me to go so straightly and directly – all clear as glass – refined, spiritual…“, and that after Mansfield’s death at the age of thirty-four in 1923 Woolf wrote in her diary that Mansfield’s was “The only writing I have ever been jealous of.”

Mansfield’s writing is indeed worthy of attracting the invidious attention of a literary luminary  of Woolf’s calibre.  Mansfield originated and developed the style that is now referred to as ‘Modernist’  It was a complete and radical change from all that had gone before, and both she and Woolf broke away entirely from  the heavily upholstered mannerisms of Edwardian writing to develop and refine a genre that indelibly shaped something that we recognise today in the heart and structure of the contemporary novel. It is difficult to even imagine that the lives of Woolf and Mansfield overlapped that of Henry James, (who died in 1916 and whom Woolf met as a child) when we compare the long-winded, top-heavy, unstable sentences of his prose with the light but mordant intensity of Woolf’s and Mansfield’s fictional touch. James’ solemn style is like walking through a labyrinth whereas Mansfield’s and Woolf’s are like chasing fireflies in a meadow.

Today we read novels without ever finding it unnatural that the narrative does not progress as a solid structure that is built from the foundations up. Our reading minds are now thoroughly accustomed to finding ourselves  being informed moment-to-moment, as we follow a sequence of unfolding moments, and we unresistingly allow ourselves to absorb the deepening sense of what a story reveals in the fragments the writer chooses to deploy and employ.  By these often subtle means is  our perception itself altered, and the ordinary mundaneness of reality is quite swept away, such that we seem to be seeing the world through  the perspective of strange and unaccustomed eyes.

Dorothy Richardson

Dorothy Richardson, whose story “Pointed Roofs”  was published in 1915, was the first English writer to pioneer the then strange writing technique we now know so familiarly as ‘Stream of Consciousness’ but which Richardson

referred to as “Interior Monologues”. It is an enduring shame that Richardson, (who lived an unrelievedly impecunious life and died much the same way in 1957) never received her proper due for

the innovation that Woolf and Mansfied so famously exploited and perfected.  In my view, Mansfield’s and Woolf’s finessed deployment of Richardson’s early invention, their brilliantly improvised non-linearity and their adamant refusal to tell rather than show, is a very female characteristic of female writerly perception.  It is a perception that seizes upon the story as an artifact of intuited wholeness,  and then presents it impressionistically to the reader in its carefully sorted out selection of constituent moments. Last but not least, it is quite blessedly free of the ponderous intrusions of male authorial voice.

Woolf, who was six years older, admired Mansfield’s “fierce” dedication, and when Hogarth Press was established, it was Mansfield’s work (“The Aloe”) they first solicited. Mansfield and Woolf first met around nineteen- seventeen, and on that occasion, the literary blue-blood Woolf looked askance at the colonial (New Zealander) Mansfield who was the daughter of a banker, and Woolf professed herself as being“A little shocked at her commonness at first sight. However, when this diminishes, she is so intelligent and inscrutable that she repays friendship.” Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, was to say of Mansfield, “By nature I think, she was gay, cynical, amoral, ribald, witty. When we first knew her, she was extraordinarily amusing. I don’t think anyone has ever made me laugh more than she did in those days

Virginia Woolf

And what a boon to the world this friendship of ardent rivals has been! It was a friendship of mutually high regard and admiration, each for the literary virtuosity of the other. If their association had not been attenuated by Mansfield’s ill-health (consumption), which necessitated her living in a milder climate, followed by her tragic and untimely death in 1923, the world might have seen the skills of both writers exploding in a shower of brilliant sparks to illuminate a literary form advanced to a degree we can now only imagine. It seems certain that Mansfield’s style of writing influenced Woolf’s  most famous  – and luminous – novels, beginning with Jacob’s Room in 1922 , Mrs. Dalloway 1925 and To the Lighthouse 1927.

Certainly the two spurred each other to develop and refine their art. Mansfield confessed to Woolf that “You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work. There will never be another.” She wrote to Woolf saying, ” My God I love to think of you, Virginia, as my friend. Don’t cry me an ardent creature or say, with your head a little on one side, smiling as though you knew some enchanting secret: ‘Well Katherine, we shall see’…  But pray consider how rare it is to find some one with the same passion for writing that you have, who desires to be scrupulously truthful with you –  and to give you the freedom of the city without any reserves at all.”

After Mansfield’s death in 1923, Woolf declared “I have a feeling that I shall think of her at intervals all through life.”  Woolf also said  rather ruefully that there was “no point in writing anymore…. Katherine won’t read it. Katherine’s my rival no longer.” And eight years later in 1931, Woolf was still dreaming of her.  Somewhat earlier she had told her sister Vanessa Bell her (Woolf”s) “jealousy …. is only a film on the surface beneath which is nothing but pure generosity”.

“Bliss” published in 1920, is one among Mansfield’s most famous short-stories. It takes place over a very short space of time –  the passage of a single evening – and is told from the perspective of a young woman. I sometimes wonder if Woolf may have not have got the idea of the compressed time-frame she used in Mrs. Dalloway from this story, as well as perhaps from Mansfield’s other enduring literary gem “The Garden Party,”  both of which unfold between a morning and evening.

My guess about the enduring popularity of “Bliss” is not just that it represents a high-water-mark of modernist writing, nor that its young subject is a softly glowing little jewel displayed to her best advantage in a the perfect psychological setting, though both these facts are beyond dispute; my guess is that it is because, everyone who reads this story instantly recognises and vicariously experiences Mansfield’s detailed and highly accurate description of  the giddily exhilarating experience we refer to as ‘falling in love’.

A poet like Robert Graves may write  “Love is universal migraine/A bright stain on the vision/ Blotting out reason/… Listening for a knock,/Waiting for a sign/ For the touch of her fingers/ In a Darkened room/ For a searching look…. ” * But the whole charming process is just as susceptible to a somewhat more clinical analysis, an analysis that echoes perfectly and uncannily the details in “Bliss” of Bertha’s coup de foudre.

Mansfield ( top left) and her siblings.

Some time around 1977, the psychologist  Dorothy Tennov coined the term ‘limerence’ to refer to the highly particularised  constellation of ‘symptoms’ associated with what we describe in the vernacular as  falling in love. In 1979 she wrote and published a book based on her research entitled Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love.  The term ‘limerence’ is used to describe  ‘an involuntary state of mind which seems to result from a romantic attraction to another person…. acute longing for reciprocation…. unsettling shyness in the limerent object’s presence….  intensified through adversity, obstacles, or distance…. acute sensitivity to any act, thought, or condition (in the limerant) that can be interpreted favorably…. a tendency to devise, fabricate, or invent reasonable explanations for why neutral actions are a sign of hidden passion in the limerent object….(having) a general intensity of feeling that leaves other concerns in the background…. tending to emphasize what is admirable in the limerent object and to avoid any negative or problematic attributes….during the height of limerence (having)  thoughts of the limerent object (that) are at once persistent, involuntary and intrusive…. (when)  all events, associations, stimuli, and experiences return thoughts to the limerent object with unnerving consistency… a more intrusive thinking pattern… this thinking pattern is an expectant and often joyous period with the initial focusing on the limerent object’s admirable qualities… crystalisation…. (when), under appropriate conditions of hope and uncertainty, the limerence intensifies further….with evidence of reciprocation (real or imagined)… a state of extreme pleasure, even euphoria, is enjoyed. thoughts are mainly occupied with considering and reconsidering what is attractive in the limerent object, replaying whatever events may have thus far transpired with the limerent object, and appreciating personal qualities perceived as possibly having sparked interest in the limerent object….and at peak crystallization, almost all waking thoughts revolve around the limerent object’ and so on.

Bertha’s shimmering stream of ardent and exited thoughts at the intoxicating prospect of having within her reach in the beautiful and enigmatic Pearl the thing she so desperately and urgently longs for, catches exactly the slightly manic admixture of acute hope and fear and anticipatory dread-tinged euphoria of limerence.  Tennov’s research suggests that the period of limerence can last up to three years, but in “Bliss” Bertha’s supernova ignites and explodes in a matter of days. Mansfield’s  fast-paced, almost breathless speed of narration adds to this story its aura of hectic excited urgency.

Of course in her short-story “Bliss” Mansfield does not restrict herself to a single concern, but ranges over the whole constellation of complex social and personal matters as well. Her writing shimmers and dazzles us with her ironic pitch-perfect command of the affected dialogue of the arty set thirty-year-old Bertha (the same age as Mansfield

when she published the story) has invited to dine. Bertha’s relationship with her husband Harry is dealt with obliquely and revealingly in a few deft strokes, as is Harry’s flippantly sardonic character. We absorb the details of Bertha’s domestic situation: the relationship she has with her baby’s bossy

Ida Baker

Nanny whose predominant tone with Bertha is one of asperity. We know Bertha chafes with the sense of ‘untouchedness’ and claustrophobia that her body “has been shut up like a rare, rare fiddle.”

We sense the urgency that she feels – of an unplayed instrument – an unsung song.  We get the feel of the  interior of her house, and her sudden invitation of its chilliness, and the familiar beauty of  her household objects: the easy carelessness with which she instantly enlivens a room by merely flinging the cushions around and  the studied care with which she arranges the fruit on the table. We sense the freighted manner in which her sense of beauty deepens and sharpens as the day goes on, and we are infected by her barely-contained anticipation of the evenings’ promise, and the interminable build-up to something which now feels like a powerful under-current pulling her into the depths away from the dull and predictable shoreline. She expects it will be vivid and new and yet in some way also culminal. We can almost glimpse the glitter in her eyes and the dilation of her pupils….

Lillian Faderman in her book Chloe plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present  refers to Mansfield’s subtle treatment of lesbianism, and reveals that despite her marriages to men and her several affairs with them, Mansfield had several relationships with women. Faderman has deftly sorted through much of the biographical material now available on Mansfield to reveal several facts about her erotic life and her relationships with women, which were for many years  kept hidden or glossed over. Faderman in her introduction to “Bliss” reveals that Mansfield, like many women of that era, (Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen,

Mansfield’s and Murry’s ‘wedding’ photograph’ with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda von Richthofen.

Daphne Du Maurier,Vita Sackville West, Hilda Doolittle and others) was highly ambivalent about her sexuality.  Faderman points out the not so very surprising fact that Mansfield wrote “Bliss” while still trailing behind her the vague entanglements of her marriage with Middleton Murry, even as she was living in France with Ida Baker who  selflessly and faithfully loved and cared for Mansfield throughout her adult life.

Mansfield’s  sapphic attachments began in boarding school, when she fell vibrantly and confusingly in love with a Maori Princess. When she was eighteen, and about to become engaged to a musician by the

Edith Bendall

name of Arnold Trowell, she fell in love with a woman, Edie Bendall.  Faderman quotes from Mansfield’s diary: “Caesar (Trowell) is losing hold of me. Edie is waiting for me. I shall slip into her arms, They are safest. Do you love me?” And  “Last night I spent in her arms – and to-night I hate her – which , being interpreted, means that I adore her: that I cannot lie in my bed and not feel the magic of her body: which means that sex means as nothing to me. I feel more powerfully  all those so-termed sexual impulses with her than I have felt with any man. She enthralls, enslaves me – and her personal self – her body absolute – is my worship. I feel that to lie with my head on her breast is to feel that life can hold….   In my life – so much Love in imagination; in reality 18 barren years – never pure spontaneous affectionate impulse. Adonis was – dare I seek in the heart of me – nothing but a pose. And now she comes – and pillowed against her, clinging to her hands, her face against mine, I am a child, a woman, and more than half a man.”







John Middleton Murry

Mansfield’s self-torment over her refusal – or inability –  to heed and respect, or even simply to come to terms with the valid importunities and demands of her sexual orientation and sexuality, continued to plague her for the rest of her life.

Through a strange coincidence, Hogarth press, which was owned and run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and which first published Mansfield’s  short story “The Aloe” (later re-named “Prelude”) was the first publisher (beginning in 1921) of Freud’s work in English. Freud’s vociferations about female sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, (now emphatically dismissed as specious and misguided) were then beginning to gain serious currency in the intellectual circles of the day. It seems to me to be more than just a little likely that when Freud’s poisonous theories were permitted to leach and seep from the toxic containment of his private speculations into the collective mind of unsuspecting English society, they may have steeped the susceptible soil of Mansfield’s thinking. If so, she was one of the earliest of the hundreds upon thousands of casualties of what I refer to as the Freudian inquisition. It might be interesting to speculate about how much of Mansfield’s sexual self-rejection had its roots in Freud’s pernicious theorising. It is clear that Mansfield was aware at a very early age of the divisions within herself.  At the end of Mansfiled’s short story
“The Aloe”/ “Prelude”,  there is a striking and unforgettable paragraph where one of the characters, Beryl, becomes aware that the reason for the central hollowness of her life is that she is compelled to inhabit her ‘false’ (social/external) self, while her ‘real’ self remains hidden and suppressed.

George Bowden

Mansfield’s first marriage in 1909 was to  George Bowden, a singing teacher eleven years her senior – which is perhaps one of the briefest marriages on record, since it endured for less than day. Ida Baker accompanied her to the registry where the marriage took place. On the evening of the wedding, she ran straight back to Baker who had been her lover since 1903 when they first met at Queen’s College Oxford and Mansfield said to Baker “Let’s be friends.”

In 1918 when she was about thirty years old  Mansfield embarked upon her second marital disaster, her marriage to John Middleton Murry whom she had known since 1911. It was a marriage in which the two spend more time apart than together. She expressed her views about the two of them this way: “We are both abnormal. I have too much vitality and you have not enough.”  It is difficult to imagine why Mansfield married the feckless and ineffectual Murray, who gave her neither the emotional support she wanted nor the financial support she needed throughout her difficult illness and her unremitting search for a suitable home in a climate that her fragile health could tolerate, nor could Murry’s tight-fisted parsimony and his numerous affairs have done Mansfield any good. Her wedding photograph shows her standing between her fellow consumptive the writer D.H. Lawrence (who would later refer to her as “a loathsome reptile”) and his wife Frieda Richthofen, with whom  Middleton Murry would later have an affair. Murry stands on the far left next to Frieda. Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Mansfield  A Secret Life  plausibly suggests that it was probably in 1913, while she and Murry lived briefly with Lawrence and his wife Frieda in Cornwall, that Mansfield probably contracted the disease that would kill her ten years later.

The staircase at the Priory at Fontainbleau

Baker’s and Mansfield’s relationship continued apace after her sporadic marriage with Middleton Murry during which she tried various arrangements to divide herself between the two. One of those arrangements was for her to have lived half the year with Middleton Murry and the other half with Baker. Mansfield’s health was not sufficiently robust to permit her exposure to the inclemencies  of the English climate, so she and Baker continued living together in France. Baker nursed Mansfield during much of her final illness despite Mansfield’s less than admirable treatment of her to whom she said “I am simply unworthy of friendship as I am. I take advantage of you – demand perfection of you – crush you – And the devil of it is that even though that is true as I write it I want to laugh.” Before Mansfield died she wrote to Baker “Try and believe and keep on believing without signs from me that I do love you and want you for my wife.”

During the previous three months, beginning on October 18th 1922, Mansfield had been living at the Priory at Fontainbleau (presided over by G.I. Gurdjieff). It was here that she died of a haemorrhage following a coughing fit on the staircase on her way to bed at 10:30 at night on January the 9th. She was thirty-four, years old, and she had been suffering since 1913 from the tuberculosis which finally finished her off.  Mansfield was buried on January 11th in the cemetery at Fontainbleau in Avon France. When Middleton Murry forgot to pay for the funeral, her remains were disinterred and subsequently moved by the authourities to a pauper’s (some say a communal) grave. When Mansfield’s father Harold Beauchamp learned of this indignity in 1929, he had her grave moved to its present location in the main cemetery.

Mansfield’s  favourite quotation which she had chosen for the title page of Bliss and Other Stories  was from Shakespeare’s Henry IV part one – “… out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower safety.”  It was said to be the epitaph on her gravestones, but photographs of the grave stone show no such inscription.  Mansfield’s last words were “I love the rain.  I want the feeling of it on my face.” We can still marvel – and find much to admire in the fact that she did her most prolific writing despite being in the grip of a fatal illness, in the final years of her life.

*Robert Graves  ‘Signs of Love’

This gloomy ending to Mansfield’s life prompts me to insert, as a sort of ameliorating amendment, some photographs I might suppose to have been extracted from Bertha’s album, and which might serve to reassure us that she did not make the same mistakes as Mansfield, and that she went on to have the kind of future presaged by the blossoms of her lovely little pear tree.

From The Album:

Bertha, a few months before her marriage to Harry

The week before the engagement

The afternoon of the party…

Pearl aged 18 posing for a fashion photograph

Pearl: Publicity Shot.

Mr. and Mrs. Norman Knight at their wedding

Bertha in her mid-thirties

Bertha’s girlfriend Vivian Demmer.

Bertha in her late thirties, in a portrait commissioned by Viv

Bertha’s younger sister Coleen, who introduced her to Vivian

Those vexing pear blossoms….

Pearl in her early forties.

Coleen’s Dutch girlfriend Annelise

Bertha dressed up for a night at ‘Le Monocle’

Bertha’s and Coleen’s friend Deirdre de Vos

Andrea Hunter Deirdre’s girlfriend

The Norman Knights on a bridge night with Harry and Pearl

Little B and her dog Bluey

Viv’s dog Handy

Bertha’s dog Honey

Colleen and Annelises’ dog Virgie

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