‘Depressed by the world but better in ourselves’.

Letters-LM

In a letter of 3 November 1961, Louis MacNeice wrote to Allen Tate and his wife Isabella: ‘We get more & more depressed by the world but better in ourselves.’[1]

(I could write that to any number of people right now: so half of it is optimistic, no?)

MacNeice had recently moved to a half-time contract with the BBC. He’d begun an affair with Mary Wimbush the previous year and, shortly after he and Mary were involved in a car crash that autumn, MacNeice asked his wife Hedli for a divorce. She refused, supposedly on the advice of ‘their mutual friend’, Allen Tate, who had told Hedli that his wife wouldn’t give him a divorce for five years and he was ‘so grateful to her!’[2]

Tate divorced Isabella Gardiner in 1966 and married Helen Heinz, who survived him (he died in 1979); MacNeice died in 1963. So Tate’s extensive experience of marriage and divorce in late 1961 derived from his relationship with the novelist Caroline Gordon. They married in May 1925, divorced in 1945, remarried the next year and finally divorced again in 1959.

caroline-gordon

(Caroline Gordon via http://porterbriggs.com/)

Gordon’s early mentor was Ford Madox Ford, whom she worked for as secretary in New York in the mid-1920s and remained friends with, in Paris, Provence and Tennessee, for the rest of his life. ‘A few days later Ford heaved a sigh and asked me if I had done any writing. I told him that I had started a novel but that I was going to have to throw it away. He heaved another sigh and said, “You had better let me see it.” I brought him the manuscript a few days later. He read the manuscript through, then said: “Why has nobody told me about this? What were you going to say next?” I recited the sentence. He said, “That is a beautiful sentence. I will write it down.” This procedure was repeated several times. It ended with Ford taking my dictation for three weeks. The result was a novel called Penhally.’[3] Or, as she wrote to her friend Sally Wood, a little nearer to the time: ‘Ford took me by the scruff of the neck about three weeks before I left, set me down in his apartment every morning at eleven o’clock and forced me to dictate at least five thousand words, not all in one morning, of my novel to him. If I complained that it was hard to work with everything so hurried and Christmas presents to buy he observed “You have no passion for your art. It is unfortunate” in such a sinister way that I would reel forth sentences in a sort of panic. Never did I see such a passion for the novel as that man has.’[4]

Ford-Gordon-Biala-Tate

Caroline Gordon; Janice Biala; Ford Madox Ford; Allen Tate: Summer 1937, via Cornell University Library: https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:550910

Gordon would publish eight more novels, as well as several volumes of short stories and criticism, including A Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford, based on a lecture she gave at the University of California, Davis, in which, recalling her first reading of Ford’s 1913 historical romance, The Young Lovell, she remarked: ‘I have since come to feel that this novel, which is almost unobtainable and has been read by comparatively few people, is the key to Ford’s life work.’[5]

Gordon_Coll_Stories

I find this, in my current reading: ‘We impose connections in a futile attempt to find meaning in a maelstrom of possibilities.’[6]

True enough. Last word for MacNeice, then: with such an embarrassment of riches to choose from, try this, which I only came across the other day and have a liking for, ‘Prologue (to The Character of Ireland)’:

‘Facts have their place of course but should learn to keep it. The feel
Of a body is more than body. That we met
Her, not her, is a chance; that we were born
Here, not there, is a chance but a chance we took
And would not have it otherwise.’[7]

 

 

References

[1] Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 687.

[2] Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 457.

[3] ‘Caroline Gordon’, in Sondra Stang, editor, The Presence of Ford Madox Ford (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 200; see also Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999).

[4] Sally Wood, editor, The Southern Mandarins: Letters of Caroline Gordon to Sally Wood, 1924-1937 (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1984), 51.

[5] Caroline Gordon, The Good Soldier: A Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford (Davis: University of California Library, 1963), 19.

[6] Iain Sinclair, The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City (London: Oneworld, 2017), 18.

[7] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber, 2007), 781.
 

 

 

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