Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Supposed Romans à Clef

A strained association, but Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon occurred to me 

Shop window in Alexandria, VA, AD 2006

Visiting a friend who had been my roommate in college and then a friend, though usually by mail, ever since, I took the occasion to look over this justly famous old city, Alexandria, where she had settled.  This true bow window is evidently the ornament of a dress shop (which was closed at the time I passed it).  Well, we have nothing in Baton Rouge (or for  that matter in Berkeley) to match the main street of Alexandria, so even in a light rain I was delighted to explore it.  Still using a camera that took small-capacity cards, I did not take enough pictures to write a blog post on it, and you can go to Wikipedia now, anyway.  It did amuse me to let the window display recall Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, a century earlier, and for a decade now I have wanted to use this favorite photo in this blog (so please indulge me, since I had wracked my brain for something, of my own, not copyright, to head this post).
If someone could not help experiencing everything in old Alexandria turned into famous modern paintings and probably scarier things, too, along with uncontrollable streams of meanings alien to them, that would be manic paranoia.  On the other hand, this is a composition with scantily clad  plaster models, coping with a window difficult to use for a display to the street, that does vaguely recall the Demoiselles.  That resemblance would not excuse supposing that the shop's owner had deliberately borrowed their narrow pyramidal arrangement from Picasso's painting, as if, perhaps, he or she acknowledged that the bare shoulders were suggestive here in a window looking onto the street (as Picasso ironically intended by the "demoiselles" of the painting's title).  Such a supposition is what I'm complaining of.
Let me first beg your pardon for letting two days intervene before completing this post.  

Most literary authors draw on their own inner lives and also on their own friends and families. Some, preeminently Virginia Woolf, have left us diaries that discuss their own works as they were published, as if, one might think, having begun as a literary reviewer, the habit of reviewing her own work was preordained (though, of course, there's more to it than that).  Besides, eventually she wrote memoir-essays and volumes of letters.  I have always found them integral to her oeuvre.  On the other hand, except for Quentin Bell's, I have put less stock in the biographies.  I have come to regard, as many others do, Mrs. Dalloway as her greatest novel, but I took this occasion to re-read Jacob's Room and Between the Acts, too; the latter being perhaps my favorite, no matter how I judge it (why judge it, in fact?).

The point is that the stream of consciousness of Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway can only be drawn on her own experience.  It is unlike any other such account.  For, though today we have many studies and memories of bi-polar experience, their authors are either less gifted or more reticent or consciously scientific.  When I was young and first read my way through Virginia Woolf, I could hardly bear to re-read Mrs. Dalloway.  All the characters in that novel are memorable, but all the rest of them were copable for a young Berkeleyan in the arts.  Thus, it is fair to say, I have come to Septimus from a literary point of view for the first time: what Woolf did was to give its own voice to a unique person's manic experience.  It is impossible for me to imagine what it must have cost her, not least in exhaustive revision of the text.  But this is not the place for a non-specialist venture.  The point is that Virginia Woolf did draw endlessly on her own life in creating the lives in her fiction, and not only in the high play of Orlando.  It is agreed, for example, that Jacob's Room remembers her brother Thoby.

But (and this is the point of confusion), Ethel Smyth, the composer, was the longterm friend of Virginia and Leonard Woolf as well as of E. F. Benson, where in the whole Dodo trilogy she plays an important rôle as Dodo's friend, Edith.  And Benson, much as I adore his writing, was happy to incorporate Ethel, whole hog, in the Dodo trilogy.  Of course there are exaggerations,  just as there would be in the Mapp and Lucia books, but anyone at the time would, and did, recognize Ethel Smyth in Dodo's friend.  So did she, and she is recorded as richly enjoying it.  But Virginia Woolf did not incorporate real persons in her novels in that way.  Clarissa's being in love with Sally Seton is not comparable, though it is an important motif.
In any case, Margot Asquith did NOT accept identity with Benson's Dodo.  Yes, Benson knew everybody, the Asquiths included, and yes, he did range through his whole acquaintanceship throughout his career.  But he knew, as I said, "everyone", and nothing is to be gained for the reader by worrying over who Dodo "really" was.  As a reader, I rather resent being asked to keep considering Margot Asquith.  I admit, I have not read her biography, but the biographies of persons in society, not to mention those close to the royal family, do not impress me as being either deep or subtle, and only if the biographies of persons in society were esteemed as literature would I want to read them.  If they sat for Cecil Beaton, and were the subjects of his best photographs, I'd be interested in how he photographed them.  I don't especially relish bell peppers, but I love Edward Weston's photographic studies of them.  What makes so much of E. F. Benson great reading is that (unlike Mr. Fellowes) he is writing of his own experience at the time: his account of the Armistice in London is given to Dodo, but it is his own, and I can't remember reading another as good.  On the other hand, he has made a unique woman, Dodo, in novels ranging from her youth in the 1890s to the end of World War I, doubtless from his acquaintance with real women (yes, of the same social class as Margot Asquith), just as Rye gave him the material for Mapp and Lucia, just as his David Blaize novels are drawn from school memories (and, yes, in part of his own, not least the daydream and dream memories of the pre-school child in David Blaize and the Blue Door which are far too specific and exact to be anything but his own).
So here I am again urging the pleasure of reading E. F. Benson on everyone.  Of course, not only is he a full generation older than Virginia Woolf, and he is easy reading of the highest kind if ever there was any, but the case of Ethel Smyth, whom the Woolfs wrote about privately and discreetly (though quite frankly, not regarding her as a great composer) perfectly exemplifies the sheer stupidity of spilling ink to prove that a work of fiction is a roman à clef.
Speaking of stupidity, was it really necessary for me to write a post about this?  Only, why do the persons who write for Wikipedia bother with such stuff?