H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism by Susan McCabe

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Review by Rob Spence

2022 is a significant year in modernist studies: it marks the publication centenary of two of the definitive examples of literary modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both of those works have attracted huge critical coverage over the years, and have continued to do so in this anniversary year. Together with Virginia Woolf, James and Eliot form a kind of literary triarchy of Anglophone modernism that seems to show no signs of receding nearly sixty years after the death of the most long-lived of them, Eliot.

All this attention on the big three has tended to obscure the critical response to some other major proponents of literary modernism: Wyndham Lewis, for example, or May Sinclair are names that spring to mind. The short-lived Imagist poetic movement, which briefly included Ezra Pound, also gave a platform to the American poet Hilda Doolittle, to whom Pound was briefly engaged. She published her poems as H.D., lending a certain mystique to her literary persona. In 1918, she met English novelist Annie Winifred Ellerman, and it is their relationship that forms the subject of Susan McCabe’s groundbreaking double biography.

That relationship was, as we say now, complicated. H.D. had moved to England, partly at Pound’s urging, and had married the English poet Richard Aldington, another of the Imagist crowd. At the time of her meeting with Ellerman (who later adopted the name Bryher after the small island within the Isles of Scilly), H.D. had separated from her husband, and was pregnant with a child fathered by the composer Cecil Gray. Bryher, who was a lesbian, formed a relationship with the bisexual  H.D., and organised care for the daughter, Perdita. 

McCabe’s book explores the complexities of the relationship in the light of prevailing attitudes of the day, using archive material and letters that highlight the struggles the two women had to navigate the treacherous waters of conservative society. Both their families wished them to lead more conventional lives. Bryher, whose father was a shipping magnate known as the richest man in England, was illegitimate: her parents only married when she was a teenager. Still, her riches enabled her to be a patroness of avant-garde art, and she was a significant figure in the literary salons of Paris in the twenties. H.D.’s middle-class American upbringing led to study at the liberal arts college of Bryn Mawr, which she left after three terms, and subsequent rebellion against her parents. 

At the heart of the book is McCabe’s very detailed account of the life they jointly led for three decades, documenting the highs and lows of an ongoing passion that nevertheless found room for other lovers of both sexes. McCabe makes a convincing case for Bryher as what we might now term “gender-fluid” and shows how both writers explored their sexuality and other taboo subjects through their writing. The book is meticulously researched, and contains many fascinating photographs of the protagonists, illustrating their tangled lives. The detail is often startling – for example, the curious ménage-a-trois that the two women formed with Scottish novelist Kenneth Macpherson, a bisexual man who married Bryher and was also H.D.’s lover. Away from the merry-go-round of relationships, the book also explores H.D.’s encounter with psychoanalysis (she met Freud) and Bryher’s role in aiding the rescue of many persecuted Jews from the Nazi regime.

The figures of Bryher and H.D. have for too long existed mainly as footnotes in literary history. In this centenary year, then, this book makes an important contribution to the literature of modernism, bringing to the forefront a love story founded in boundless creativity, adding much to our understanding of the diverse and complex web of relationships that constituted such a vital artistic movement.

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk. You can also find him on Twitter @spencro

Susan McCabe, H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2022). 978-0190621223, 400pp., hardback.

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