Laura (Riding) Jackson is not a poet who I have spent much time with, and after reading this book when researching her, I was amazed that the majority of references refer to her via her relationship and collaborations with Robert Graves, not as a poet herself. As the introduction to this short novel tells us, “‘Convalescent Conversations’ was published in 1936, under her pseudonym, Madeline Vara, by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, who was at the time both lover and collaborator; this was the same year in which Riding and Graves would flee Mallorca and Franco’s fascism.”
The introduction goes on to advise,
After marrying writer Schulyer B. Jackson in 1941, Riding officially changed her name to Laura (Riding) Jackson. We have decided to refer to the author as Riding not (Riding) Jackson in this edition for two reasons: first, to maintain fidelity to the text as it was originally published; secondly, to emphasise the radical break between the Riding of the 1930’s and the (Riding) Jackson who renounced most of her earlier work.
This is a novel presented as a series of philosophical discussions between two patients of a hospital, Eleanor and Adam, we do not know whey they are interred, which “opens their illnesses to interpretation as metaphor” (p vii). The conversations are interspersed with an Omniscient narrator, generally setting the scene and place or at times commenting on the periphery of characters moving in and out of Eleanor and Adam’s sphere, interrupting their conversations. Likely to have been viewed as experimental in the 1930’s, this novel at times is quite dated, a product of its times?
ADAM: Yes, it’s easy enough for Russians to be Communists, because they have absolutely no sense of property, their own or anybody else’s. It’s just a lack of any kind of ambition, and sitting about criticizing people who have ambitions as greedy and ruthless – and there are some quite decent ambitions. I once let my rooms to some Russians for six months when I had to be out of England. And when I took them over again – well, there are some things you can’t blame on the cat – and they didn’t even have a cat. (pgs 102-103)
However, the philosophical discussions between Eleanor and Adam, present a raft of existentialist musings on subjects such as religion, language and sex.
‘You don’t really think we’re being anything but silly do you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I think we’ve been as serious as tow philosophers. Didn’t Miss Kenwood say patients were fond of philosophy?’
‘You don’t really think that philosophers are serios, so you?’ asked Eleanor.
‘I’d like to know what else they are if they’re not serious. Why, it’s the only excuse they have. Take that away, and –’
‘Take that away, and they’re just talking. Like you and me. What better excuse can you ask?’
‘But there has to be an excuse for talking,’ Adam said. ‘For instance, us. The demands of common politeness.’
Eleanor seemed to regard this as an excuse for silence: was he, after all, just tiresome? It was difficult to tell with men. They weren’t naturally good talkers.
‘I don’t want to break in on any private reveries,’ said Davis, coming up later, ‘but it’s time to go back to bed. It’ll taste all the sweeter when you pick up the lost threads to-morrow.’
‘Aren’t you slightly mixing the metaphors?’ asked Adam.
‘I was never much good at keeping them separate,’ said Davis. (pgs 26-27)
The rise of Fascism and modernism is a sub-plot at play here, with numerous comments on literature, politics and current affairs being subtly drip fed throughout;
‘…It’s crime stories that have all the happy endings these days, and love stories all the tearful ones. I don’t know what’s come over the world all of a sudden.’ (p12)
Sex is also a frequent subject of conversation, between two recently introduced patients, with a backdrop of polite manners where the nurses ensure the two talking patients are placed a certain distance apart on the balcony, where polite introductions are required to promote potential romance. The liberal, and early feminist, views of Laura Riding, would surely have caused quite a stir in the 1930’s;
ADAM: But have women a secret – a real secret?
ELEANOR: Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all. (p37)
Outside of Adam and Eleanor’s conversations there are a handful of other characters, only one another patient the majority being nurses, and our narrators refer to them a number of times as being “simple-minded”.
Now, Mrs. Lyley was a simple-minded but not small-minded person. Many people are simple-minded because their interests do not extend beyond themselves; and we call this innocence, if they are not very active people, and egotism if they are. And both kinds we should say that they were small-minded. Not so with Mrs. Lyley. Her interests did extend beyond herself; but she did not have much confidence in her ability to help other people in their problems, her ideas were not very well organized and not many – the world would never call on her for advice, and if it did her answer would be that she had no head for dealing with other people’s affairs, having little enough for her own, which she always settled by making herself happy in the little world that fate had assigned to her. She saw life, that is, as a conglomeration of little worlds. And her interest in all the other little worlds besides her own was confined to a desire that the people living in them should be as happy as she was in hers. Her simple-mindedness, which was neither innocent nor egotistical, consisted in this desire that everyone should be happy. (p104)
A short work, running to 132 pages, this is an addition to the Ugly Duckling Presse ‘Lost Literature’ series and their work has brought a missing piece of the prolific Laura Riding’s writing back into print. Given Laura Riding renounced a lot of her earlier work, Wikipedia lists 38 collections in her “selected bibliography” with this book not being on that list, I am grateful to come across something of hers that is a little more obscure as it is a book that presents a number of themes and discussions that are ripe for further examination in other writings. An engaging, interesting and thought provoking book.
It was very interesting to mix with other people, just as conversation was interesting, but it wasn’t life. Life was something little, not big. (p105)
Eleanor and Adam’s conversations, are they big?