Literary Mayhem

Literary Mayhem

The well-known scholar Mark Jacobs has devoted nearly sixty years to defending the reputation of Laura (Riding) Jackson and promoting her work. His knowledge of her work, and of scholarship in connection with it, are without parallel. He has worked tirelessly with others interested in her work, giving generous support and encouragement to many. This book, in three sections, the letters, a memoir and the essay that provides the book with its title, gives us welcome fresh perspectives on Laura Jackson’s extraordinary life and work.

At its core the story this book has to tell is a shocking one. As a rule, we can expect integrity of our writers and scholars, however much personal animosity there may be. In the case of Laura (Riding) Jackson, for reasons which are sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure, her reputation has been undermined and damaged by some extraordinary behaviour by Robert Graves and some of his followers. Jacobs marshals the evidence; perhaps the most staggering and symbolic single revelation comes out of a little noticed piece of research by Margaret Konkol, who discovered that, before selling his manuscripts of draft poems to academic institutions, Graves had carefully erased the annotations and suggestions made by Laura Riding (as she then was) and then rewritten them as his own.

Personal Letters, 1971-1980

The author’s letters to Mark Jacobs provide a window into an important decade. After decades of relative silence following the publication of her Collected Poems in 1938, the publication of Selected Poems in 1970 and the book version of The Telling in 1972 marked the revival of her poetry and her re-emergence as a writer of searching and eloquent prose.

In the early 1970s Jacobs was studying Laura Riding’s poetry for a doctorate, under G.S. Fraser. His work on this, and on a joint essay with Alan J. Clark exposing the misrepresentation of her work, forms what we might  call the ‘business’ background to the correspondence here. The essay with Clark, published in 1981 under the title ‘A Question of Bias’ has been revised and expanded as ‘Literary Mayhem’ for this book.

In his introduction to the letters Jacobs highlights the significance and importance of letters to their author. Letters were the basis of at least three of her major works, Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (1930), a well-received compilation called Everybody’s Letters (1933), and The World and Ourselves (1938). In private correspondence her letters were a way of testing the ground, mind-to-mind, as Jacobs describes it, of one mind speaking to another with an intense and urgent seriousness of purpose.

As we might have expected, then, Laura (Riding) Jackson’s letters are instinct with intensity of scrutiny, acuity of intellect and delicate scrupulosity. But there is also great, sometimes overwhelming strength of feeling. She starts off guardedly, but feelings of love develop and are expressed, for Jacobs and for others of her correspondents. This is her most precious currency; but she is so alive to slights and failings of every kind, that those feelings of love may flicker and change, as they do with several people mentioned, sometimes to re-emerge as strongly as before. The wounds from her mistreatment by Graves and his supporters after he and she split up in 1940 are evident and her violent reaction to a malicious account of the time when she fell in love with her husband Schuyler, is described here.

Memoir—A Journey to Wabasso in 1978

Jacobs’ warm and candid memoir of a visit to the author in her home in Florida, first published in 2016 in Jack Blackmore’s The Unthronged Oracle, has been revised and expanded for this book, and it complements the story told by the letters. The memoir, like the previously unpublished photograph on the cover, shows the author as rarely seen before, serious of course, but full of life and fun. It reminds one of the comment made by Honor Wyatt, a friend from the Deya period, bewildered by the animus against Laura Riding, and the hostile descriptions of her: “But she was such fun!”

Her voice, her enunciation, her laughter, her relations with neighbours and friends, her physical presence and appearance are all vividly evoked, as is the ‘cracker’ house in which she lived without electricity, now moved to a new site but preserved for posterity by the Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation near Vero Beach in Florida.

The Essay—Literary Mayhem

The newly revised essay follows publication in English in 2015 of Jacob’s equally powerful and detailed ‘Contemporary Misogyny: Laura Riding, William Empson and the Critics’. That essay exposed the blatant and mendacious refusal of Empson, and others following him, to recognise Laura Riding as the first named author (and in practice the lead author) of A Survey of Modernist Poetry, the essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 which was so influential on modern literary critical practice. She was written out of her rightful place in literary history.

‘Literary Mayhem’ follows this up with an account of how most accounts of Graves’ poetry, despite his dependence on her, declared by him openly at the time and even occasionally subsequently, try to minimise the impact of her upon his poetry and his work in general. However, Michael Kirkham, who had published the first full-length study of Graves’ poetry, subsequently discovered and demonstrated the dependence of that poetry on Riding’s thought, and concluded that she, not Graves, was the major poet. Jacobs goes further, arguing that even after the partnership, which ran from 1926 to 1940, had been dissolved Graves continued to use Riding as unacknowledged source material for his own career, pointing to his publication of her critical work as his own, for example, and developing her ideas from ‘The Word, “Woman”’ and ‘The Idea of God’ into The White Goddess.

This forthright essay exposes the poisonous misrepresentation of Laura (Riding) Jackson as a person and as a writer by Graves and his followers, and takes a significant step towards a just recognition of her large contribution, hugely under estimated, to twentieth century writing.

Jack Blackmore, February 2024