Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tempestuous Testament

Tempestuous Petticoat, Clare Leighton's memoir of her mother, Marie Connor Leighton

Recently I read Testament of Youth for the first time in many years, Vera Brittain's powerful evocation of the effects World War I on her generation. She often mentions Olive Schreiner as a writer who shaped her thinking, so I also had a browse into Schreiner's Story of an African Farm and Women and Labour, in an attempt to understand the young Vera's mindset, but their appeal was lost on me. Testament, however, is such eloquent, yes, testimony, of the thinking and experience of a generation, as only retrospective thoughts written in the writer's maturity, incorporating her own young notes, could be. I've read Vera's early diary, and it's banal and naive, reminding me of an unpublished diary of the period that I read by Lois Austen-Leigh (who became a detective story writer in the 1930s), a teenage debutante before World War I who wrote a diary much like Vera's. Reading both diaries gave insight into what a middle class young girl's life was like then, seeming to us today as unimaginably sheltered, childish, privileged and frivolous. Yet Vera's Testament of Youth is (among other things) a commentary on this pre-war innocent mind (as Jane Austen said, "as unformed as the female mind at seventeen usually is"), and what became of that summery pre-war experience.

It's commonplace to say that it was this very idealism and lack of knowledge of life, are reasons why that generation went so willingly to war. Vera Brittain depicts her world so well, that it does help you understand people of that place and time as perhaps never before. Yet, In spite of admiring this work, I have to confess that I have never liked Vera Brittain. It's hard to say why exactly; I don't blame her for having no sense of humor, under the circumstances, but it's hard to relate to her and Roland's earnest conversations about things like the Afterlife.

Roland Leighton, 1914

I do love her portrait of Buxton, the suffocatingly provincial town she came from. It's interesting to try to trace this stifling snobbishness and narrowness and find something similar in Jane Austen's experience a century previously, but I just can't. Buxton isn't Highbury. Nor is it Chawton or Bath. Jane Austen's villages were just as confined and hermetically sealed, and brimming with snobs. So it must be Austen's own mind, laughing at it all instead of doing a slow burn like Vera. But again, this may be because Austen accepted the narrowness of her world, a provincial woman's world, without much question: things were as they were, questions had not really been raised, except perhaps like outre revolutionaries like Mary Wollstonecraft. In Vera's day the world was changing, and there were many people who were a good deal more enlightened than her stultifying, narrow-minded parents. She longed to be out of Buxton, in the more enlightened world. Austen does not seem to have ever had any such longing (she resisted meeting the literati), but then her family were not to be compared with the Brittains, being vastly more intelligent and tolerant. Austen found no one to satirize in her writings who was anything like the Brittains - but she was writing before the Victorian era, not after. That was what made the provincials in Brittain's world so rigid and conventional. Austen seems almost to celebrate the conventions of society, the order that was necessary for civility. She takes the established mode for granted because there was no possibility of anything else, yet, and seems to imply that conventional manners and ways are necessary for life to run properly, sanely, as things should be. She shows covertly things that need change - such as the lot of the dependant spinster. The young Vera Brittain, by contrast, rails with fury in a way that would be unthinkable in Jane Austen's day. Women were starting to go to universities (though they were not granted degrees yet), but her parents didn't believe females needed such an education, though they sent her brother to university. Where Jane Austen took this sort of thing as part of the world order, Vera knew there were women already at university, and that it was a fight in progress that could and would be won.

Clare Leighton

I followed reading Vera Brittain's book with the tangentially related Tempestuous Petticoat by the artist Clare Leighton (1899-1989), and they form a most fascinating and enlightening contrast. Clare Leighton was the sister of Roland Leighton, Vera's lost wartime fiance, and this book is a portrait of her mother, whom Vera mentions meeting and grieving with in Testament. Both books treat of the same era and some of the same people, but to read them back to back is to explore vast differences in character and society. Where Vera is a serious, soulful modern young bluestocking, her character scarred by her wartime experiences, Marie Conner Leighton (1864?-1941) is about the most fanciful, exasperating Edwardian I've ever encountered in fact or fiction, almost like an E.F. Benson caricature. Simultaneously raffish and snobbish, she sits in her paradisical home in the richly beautiful, secluded, flowery bower of St. John's Wood, alongside neighbors who are great artists and great courtesans. She is so class bound in her pronouncements, she won't allow her children to set foot in nearby Maida Vale, considering contamination from the mediocre to be worse than being exposed to smallpox. She scribbles at her Daily Mail romantic serials day and night, carelessly stuffing bills and sandwiches in with her manuscripts, and has her children scratch her back with her run-down quill pens. The back cover calls her "a dual personality, an Edwardian and a Bohemian...illogical, vain, superstitious, opinionated and self-satisfied." You do wonder at the contradiction with her doing all this incessant work while supposedly simultaneously daily entertaining her three adoring, cartoonish lovers, while keeping her kind, deaf husband bent to the grindstone writing Westerns and boys' stories. It's a horrifyingly but deliciously priceless portrait, but takes on much more resonance if you've read Testament of Youth. In that book, perhaps surprisingly, Vera adores Marie on the few occasions when they meet, and they share their love of Roland. Yet the reader feels a dreadful certainty that, beyond a shadow of doubt, if Roland had survived and married Vera, the relationship between her and her mother-in-law would have made World War I run on for at least another generation.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

The title comes from a Robert Herrick poem, "Delight in Disorder." Here it is:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
A cuff neglected, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat:
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema in his studio in St. John's Wood, the upper end of Marie and Robert Leighton's bohemian world (1880s)

Marie is quite the exasperating monster, and very much a product of her time. Here are some quotes from her:

"It's all nonsense - this morning sickness and such. Leave that to the women with no work to do."

"You'll always find that it's the lower classes who rush to pay their bills the moment they arrive."

(Speaking of would-be bohemians) "They are trying to learn the secret of our magic. But they'll never manage it. You see, they aren't real. They don't work."

She was an ardent Suffragette but strangely didn't care if she had the vote. "Why should I want a vote? As it is, I hold the power to control the votes of six - no, eight - men. All of these men will vote as I want them to, to please me, for they think of me as a woman; but directly I get the franchise my power will be taken from me."

(On a fellow novelist) "Ninety-two novels he has written, and if you were to boil the whole lot down into one book you might manage to make something just worth reading while you were waiting at a station for your train on a rainy day. But then, I am always forgetting that most people in the world can only understand trivial books."

"History is something to be created rather than remembered."

(She preferred to have admirers visit one at a time because) "I feel like a lighthouse that is trying to throw its beam on everybody at the same moment. It is most exhausting."

"The really worth-while women are those who feel most at home in rich furs."

"...a lower middle class place, such as Switzerland"

"it is safer any day to leave your children in the company of a rake than to place them for half an hour in the care of a vicar's wife."

"If you cover yourself with jewelry it's as good as proclaiming to the world that you know you are not beautiful."

"A distinguished woman, with a dream, needs a large hat."

And I've saved the worst for last:

"Much as I loathe mice, I'd rather have them in the house than keep such a common thing as a cat. A cat is almost as impoverishing to the general atmosphere of an establishment as a baby's napkins hanging in the garden."

Can you imagine this as Vera Brittain's mother-in-law? Heavens! Yet both women were extremely ambitious writers, with strong elements of vanity in their make-up. And Vera quotes Marie in a very different vein, saying shrewdly, "Why does she want to go to Oxford?  It's no use to a writer - except of treatises." Perhaps they did briefly bond as professional writers, though this book sheds light on the romantic unreality of Vera's relationship with Roland: she does not seem to know anything about the world from which he came.

Clare Leighton, about the time she emigrated to the U.S. (1939)

The book's ending is oddly troubling, disappointing. Clare is superb as long as she is describing her mother's grandiose eccentricities in her heyday. But she obviously feels very uncomfortable and has no idea how to handle Roland's death and the hard times that followed - for after the war the lavishness was at an end, Marie went bankrupt, and her life became rather pathetic. A realistic treatment would have been best, but Clare was clearly not able to come to grips with the subject matter at all, when it turned tragic. Interestingly, even though Roland and Vera Brittain were engaged, Vera is never once mentioned, though Clare does mention Roland's conversation to Catholicism, which they learned about after his death.

Lily Elsie, Marie's idol
in The Merry Widow (1907)

I wish I could find a picture of Marie Connor Leighton, but apparently she had a characteristically superstitious terror of being photographed.  But there are scatterings of her many books to be hunted out, and some of Clare Leighton's fine woodcuts can be found reproduced online.

Dressing the Bride, woodcut by Clare Leighton (1940)

Oh my. I've just read Marie's The Boy of My Heart (1916) online. It's the book she wrote after Roland's death, and is over the top beyond even the heights of Edwardian sentimentality, but it is rather revealing as to what she thought of Vera. Apparently she never was able to perceive anybody other than though a romantic novel haze. Here are quotes:

"But is he wholly mine? Is there there somebody else who wants him even though he is hardly more than a boy? There floats before my eyes the vision of a girl: a small, delicate-faced creature with amethystine eyes, who is dreaming dreams that have got him for their centre. What a forcing power for sex this war has been, and is!"

Vera Brittain

"If he has sent Vera The Story of an African Farm, then she can't be the ordinary sort of girl. She can't be of the great army of girls who play games and are always taking bodily exercise, yet never by any chance do anything more useful than arrange cut flowers. She must be a personality - one of the few girls that can think and are not afraid to do it; one of the few who know what real romance is, and who, because they know this, will be able to marry as often as they like, no matter how small the number of marriageable men may be, while other women stand around and gasp for a husband in vain. And if she is this - then he is not only and wholly mine as he was just a few weeks ago. He will never be wholly mine any more."

Later, Marie asks her son coyly, "Do you think you will ever be as fond of her as you are of me?" And she quotes him as answering: "What are you talking about, Big Yeogh Wough? [his stupendous pet name for her] I'm only a boy yet and not likely to get fond of any woman, except in a comradely way. [He is then twenty and a commissioned lieutenant, but we can hardly blame him for being disingenuous.] You know when the time comes for me to love a woman and think of marrying her, I'd like to find one like you, if I could. But I'm not likely to be able to do that. Yet, whether the woman be Vera or anybody else, there won't be any question of whether I love you or her the better. You and I have lived so much in each other's life we are like one person, and the woman I love will have to have you for a lover as well as me, while she'll have to love you if she wants me."

Marie describes her first meeting with Vera, at which Roland and his sister Clare (always called The Bystander) were also present: "Not one of us breathed a word as to what we had really come there for - namely, to examine each other and see how we liked each other; but the verdict was an all-round satisfactory one, and in the end we all got into a taxicab together, and Miss Vera [Brittain] sat on my knee. "How tiny you are!" I said playfully.

Later there's a stunningly melodramatic scene where Vera puts out her arms imploringly and tells Marie how she loves her son, but will give him up if she says so, and Marie takes her into her arms and holds her to her heart for a very, very, very long time.
Vera Brittain as a VAD nurse in 1914

Woodcut by Clare Leighton



StuckInABook said...

I drove past Buxton the other day... if I'd have known its connection, I'd have driven into it!

Lovely post, Diana.

Judy said...

LOVE Marie's naughty comments. I gather from the context that you feel her outrageousness was sincere and meant to be instructive. But I can't help imagining a Saki story in which a relatively sympathetic character voices such sentiments.

Diana Birchall said...

Judy, well that's the thing...Marie *is* a Saki story, or maybe Lady Catherine de Bourgh crossed with Colette!

Anonymous said...


Diana Birchall said...

Ellen had trouble leaving her comment, so I'm putting it up for her:

There's a real disjunction between Clare, her work and this mother, Marie Conner. It can exist in one person too, e.g., Vita Sackville-West, the woodcuts for whose _Land and Garden_ very in the same pseudo-medieval spirit as Leighton's. Another women artist-writer who came from the upper class lived through WW1, made pictures and left a memoir is Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938). Here's a typical picture by her:

Werekin also does these frigheningly anonymous picture of people about desperately hard work where we don't see their faces at all.

Just look at that Snow Shovelling:

How does Clare come from this apparently ditzy superficial Marie Conner?

Well, in Woolf too we find this dual trajectory of fearful insight and compassion in her work and yet in her life and letters ugly snobbery and malice too (Alison Light's book comes in here).


Anonymous said...

People throw stones only at trees with fruit on them.............................................................

Anonymous said...


Barbara said...

May I repeat my comment from our group, Diana? this is what I wrote :
"Loved your description of the book and the quotations from it, Diana. First I'll
check my library for a copy and if not then it will have to go on my list. I
wonder whether it has ever been suggested to Nichola Beauman (of Persephone Books). I have a Clare Leighton
print from that lovely book and print shop near York Minster, if you know it. A
friend bought it for me as a gift but I had to choose. It's called 'The Pub'. I
think prints are 10 a penny so is not worth very much in monetary terms but that
friend moves back to her home area in South Wales next month having lived in
Horsforth for nearly 40 years so I shall treasure the print even more". Thanks again for the blog, Diana, Barbara

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

傻氣的人喜歡給心 雖然每次都被笑了卻得到了別人的心..................................................................

Anonymous said...

問聲好~~ 祝福您的blog愈來愈熱鬧!............................................................

Cassette88 said...

The more I hear about Jane Austen in passing, the more compelled I am to investigate. I have a feeling that it will be one of those, "Why did I put this off for so long, Pride and Prejudice is amazing..." or at least that's what I'm hoping.

The awareness you credit her with in this post has intrigued me.

Susan Ashbrook said...

I'm coming late to this party, but I'm curious about the photo identified as Clare Leighton in 1939. It doesn't look anything like other pictures of her. Where did it come from?

I have loved CL's prints and books for a long time and enjoyed your post.