Saturday, 24 March 2018

Sassoon's Feminism

You may be thinking that this title is stretching it a bit - and you'd be right. I had originally thought of calling this post "Sassoon's Misogyny", but that didn't seem fair either. I don't want to fill this post with my personal opinions on equal opportunities (God knows I have enough to say on that subject to fill several volumes and you really would not want to hear it), but it is a hundred years since women in Britain were given the vote by a government that had misled them and delayed the process for as long as it could. So I will try and concentrate on Sassoon's own words and actions.
Having said that, I was immediately reminded - unlikely as it may seem - of some lyrics from a song in the musical Mary Poppins. You may recall that Mrs Banks was a suffragette. The lines that struck me, even as a ten-year-old, as being particularly clever, go like this:
"Though we adore men individually,
We agree that as a group they're rather stupid."
(Just as a matter of interest, Robert B. Sherman, who co-wrote the song with his brother, was a veteran of the Second World War and was permanently disabled as a result of a wound received in 1945, when he was barely twenty.)
I suppose that there are a lot of men who feel the same about women, and I think Sassoon was one of these. To illustrate this, you need do no more than consider his friendships with women like Lady Ottoline Morrell and Edith Sitwell and his admiration for the wives of some of his friends, notably Delphine Turner and Phyllis Loder. It seems obvious to me, reading his comments about the latter two, that he was envious of Walter Turner and Norman Loder for being married to such exemplary women, the kind he would have chosen for himself if he had ever intended to marry.
He did not have what people today would call a normal childhood. He grew up in a female-dominated household, and was then sent away to schools where all of his companions were boys, and Matron was an authority figure. Some of Wilfred Owen's comments on nurses suggest he felt a similar resentment towards them (I don't think this was brought about by the fact that it was a nurse who beat him into second place in an open competition run by the Poetry Review in 1918.) Thus, all their early experiences were designed to prejudice them against the female gender. Why should such women, who didn't even have the vote, be in a position to tell men what to do?
A review of Jean Moorcroft Wilson's biography of Sassoon in the Daily Mail (I know, I know!) talks of his "rampant misogyny", which I think is taking it rather too far. On the other hand, an interesting article written in 1997 by James S. Campbell and published in the journal of Johns Hopkins University draws attention to the misogyny of both Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, but comments that both men "found themselves enmeshed in constructions of gender that eventually discredit femininity as a moral force". It was the perceived passivity of the female gender in times of war that they objected to. Sassoon sums this up in his 1917 poem "Glory of Women", rather shockingly suggesting a sexual motivation for women's behaviour:
"...You listen with delight
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled."
This is not so far-fetched either. Just as some men actually enjoy being dominated, women can get a sense of excitement from men's violence towards one another . I don't know why this is, but we should acknowledge that it is the case; we can only fight our more primitive feelings if we are aware of them.
Sassoon eventually married, and, by all accounts, he quickly fell out of love with his wife Hester. He had not, in any case, ever had a long-term relationship, unless one counts Stephen Tennant, who at times treated him more like a private nursemaid than a lover. What Sassoon wanted, more than anything, was a son, and, fortunately for Hester, he got one at the first attempt. Hester - like most women who have had a baby - wasn't in a hurry to have a second, and this was perhaps the main catalyst for their estrangement.
Why did Sassoon want a son so much? Without going into detail, I have noticed, in my discussions with workmates over gender issues, that men who have daughters - particularly if they have no sons - are generally more inclined to be receptive to the idea of equal opportunities than women who have sons and no daughters. Most of us still live our lives through our children, this being what our biological instinct tells us to do. All too often, we want our children to achieve the things we didn't do, rather than just wanting their happiness. Sassoon was, I feel sure, guilty of this. He expected his son to love the outdoor pursuits he himself loved, and probably would have liked George to combine this with an enthusiasm for academic study he never had. To a certain extent, this was achieved.
However, I doubt that he ever wished for George to grow up with the same sexual orientation as his, in view of the many difficulties it had placed in his path. He would have loved to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren carrying on his name and upholding his reputation as a poet. (He wouldn't have expected his Soldier's Declaration to be such a great inspiration to later generations.)
Wilfred Owen didn't live long enough for us to be sure what kind of relationships he might have formed in later life. The jury is still out on whether he ever had a gay sexual relationship, and we can never know for certain. Perhaps, like Sassoon, he would have overcome any such feelings enough to live a conventional life, even if it were a pretence. But did he hate women? I don't think anyone could read his letters to his mother and believe he did. He confided everything to her. He told her things about his experiences that I would never have dreamed of telling my mother, and this was because he felt that she would understand. He did not think of her as an inferior species. And I think he would have approved of her being given the vote.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Twin Talents

I had been struggling for something to write about when I happened upon a BBC programme, first shown some years ago, on iPlayer. For those of you who don't know, the list of programmes is not entirely restricted to what was shown in the last few weeks. There is a whole archive, where you can sometimes pick up little gems you missed first time around.
"A harmonious combination of two talents" was how one of the participants described the work done by Augustus John and James Dickson Innes, two Welsh painters who were the subject of a documentary called "The Mountain That Had To Be Painted". I knew a little about both of them, but I had no knowledge of Arenig Fawr, a mountain (actually a big hill) in Snowdonia where they settled for two years to take up a progressive style of landscape painting, under the influence of the Post-Impressionist movement, led by European painters such as Henri Matisse.
As the programme progressed, I began to notice parallels with the friendship of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. There was nothing similar about their lifestyles. John and Innes consorted with gypsies, drank heavily and shared (female) lovers. They were alleged to have stabbed themselves and mingled their blood in the back of a London cab. And yet...
Augustus John was eight years older than Siegfried Sassoon, and died six years before him. His mother, like Sassoon's, was an artist, but it was she, not his father, who died when Augustus was a small child. After hitting his head on a rock at the age of twenty, John embarked on an illustrious, often controversial career. He was 32 in 1910, when he began working with James Dickson Innes, whom he met through the "Camden Town Group" of progressive artists.
Innes was 23 in 1910, when he discovered the landscapes around Arenig Fawr. He felt it was ideal for his purposes as an artist, and was keen to take Augustus John there too. John, convinced of its suitability as a subject, joined Innes there to paint the mountain and surrounding countryside repeatedly over a two-year period. This makes me think of Innes as more of a Graves character than an Owen, someone who was ready to be a leader, rather than a follower, of his older acquaintance. He had the unconventionality of a Graves rather than the inhibitions of an Owen.
The two were later joined by a one-legged Australian artist, Derwent Lees, who married one of Augustus John's former models and was permanently committed to a mental institution by 1918. "He did paint rather well," said a patron, Lady Howard de Walden, "but was as mad as a hatter."
At the end of his torrid affair with Euphemia Lamb (whom Duncan Grant once called "the white haired whore"), James Dickson Innes is said to have buried her letters in a silver casket on the peak of the mountain. I cannot quite imagine Sassoon or Owen going to such lengths to memorialise a failed love affair; Robert Graves (who was daft enough to jump out of a window after Laura Riding), perhaps. Subsequent efforts to find the casket were abandoned after a Flying Fortress with an eight-man crew crashed on the summit in 1943; some of the wreckage is allegedly still there.
The story does not end there. Innes was consumptive. Advised by doctors to give up drinking, he took no notice. Just like a First World War junior officer, he knew the risks of his chosen path, and embraced them. Having made no attempt to clean up his lifestyle, he received one last visit from Euphemia and his friend Augustus John before dying in a nursing home in Kent in August 1914, just as his name was becoming known. He was 27 years old. Unlike Wilfred Owen, his reputation faded quickly after his death, though many of his landscapes can still be seen in major galleries such as the Tate and the National Museum in Cardiff.
Augustus John later became a war artist, producing, among other things, an unfinished mural called "The Canadians Opposite Lens", which was eventually put on display at Ottawa's Canadian War Museum in 2011..He continued to paint portraits, some of people Sassoon knew personally, such as Ronald Firbank, Madame Suggia and Lady Ottoline, not to mention poets like W H Davies and Dylan Thomas. He even took a few trips to Max Gate during the 1920s, to paint the elderly Thomas Hardy. He died in 1961, aged 83, a grumpy old man (according to his granddaughter) and a legend in his own lifetime.
The cottage the two artists rented near Arenig Fawr was demolished in the 1960s. In case you want to see what inspired them, the mountain is still there.