Sunday, 29 January 2017

Unexpected Connections

I had been looking for a snappy title for this blog post, something more meaningful than "unexpected connections", even though that was what it was going to be about. So I googled the phrase and found it unexpectedly popular. There have been quite a number of conferences with that title, although I admit that the first search result to catch my eye was "it seems men's underwear and champagne can tell you a lot about the economy". Perhaps it caught so many other people's eyes that it rapidly rose to the top of the search results.
However, I am not going to write about either men's underwear or champagne; if that disappoints you, you only have to google to find something more interesting to read. No, I am going to talk briefly about the biography of Ted Hughes I'm reading and how it has led me down many different paths of enquiry.
To be honest, I have never been a huge fan of Ted Hughes. In my teens, I read Al Alvarez's book, The Savage God, a study of suicide, which came out in 1972. I confess that the subject of suicide then fascinated me, although at that point I had not personally known anyone who had later killed themselves. (In time, I would.) Alvarez's book used the story of Sylvia Plath - a close friend of his - to illustrate certain facts about the phenomenon of suicide and the motivation that can bring it about. As a result of publishing it, he fell out, more or less permanently, with Ted Hughes, who blamed him for exposing the couple's private lives to the general public.
In a 2000 edition of Desert Island Discs, Alvarez told Sue Lawley that he still felt he had failed Sylvia Plath. He admitted that, despite having suffered from clinical depression himself, he "didn't know what it was when I was in it", and was therefore unable to make the right responses when he saw the danger signs in Plath's behaviour. There are several connections that lead from Sylvia Plath to Siegfried Sassoon - who himself suffered from depression on many occasions, particularly after his experiences in the First World War.
To return to Ted Hughes, however, the biography contains several mentions of The Lamb, a famous and historic public house in Bloomsbury which the SSF and WOA visit every spring (and will again on 11th March 2017) for an enjoyable joint meeting. I've written about it on many previous occasions, so I will say only that it was, at one time, a meeting-place for Hughes, Plath and their many literary friends. It is quite close to where the Poetry Bookshop, the establishment founded by Harold Monro in 1913, once stood - another place much frequented by names such as Wilfred Owen and Wilfrid Gibson. Also not far away is Queen Square, where the hospital once known as the "National Hospital for Diseases of the Nervous System" still stands. Founded in 1859, it was the location for Lewis Yealland's now notorious treatments of shell-shocked soldiers during the First World War; Yealland does not emerge well from the pages of Pat Barker's Regeneration - and quite right too.
Once again, connections are leading me away from my starting-point. Reading the biography of Hughes has not exactly endeared him to me, though I don't share the popular feminist view that he was directly responsible for the suicides of two women who had loved him. What startled me was the discovery that I had recently met one of Sylvia Plath's greatest friends, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, who had been described to me as "the wife of Alan Sillitoe". I should, of course, have known better. Fainlight and her late husband, in addition to being friends of Plath and Hughes, had lived for some years in Mallorca, where they became acquainted with - who else but Robert Graves? How these famous writers gravitate towards one another! And thus another Sassoon connection landed in my lap.
But the biography hadn't finished throwing surprises at me, oh no. It had not escaped my notice that the writer Emma Tennant died recently, but it was rather a surprise to learn that she had been one of Ted Hughes' many romantic partners; her 1999 account of their affair, Burnt Diaries, had passed me by. (Another one for the reading list!) I had also forgotten, until I read her obituary, that she was a niece of Stephen Tennant, the daughter of his elder brother, Christopher, who inherited the title of Baron Glenconner in 1920, his eldest brother, "Bim", having been killed in action in 1916.
The trail of unexpected connections thus leads, for those who choose to follow that path, to a churchyard in Mells, Somerset, which many of you will have visited. The manor house next door was the home of Herbert Asquith, prime minister of the United Kingdom during the years 1908-1916. In 1894, Asquith married, as his second wife, Margot Tennant, the sister of the 1st Baron Glenconner and thus a great-aunt of Emma Tennant. This remarkable woman and her husband became friends of Sassoon's during the war and remained so for many years. Yet it was not they who introduced Siegfried to Margot's nephew Stephen, with whom he would have one of the most enduring relationships of his life. They met through the his literary friends, the Sitwells; and that is quite another story.

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