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Almost Forgotten Women

At a book sale in the Fifties I bought a little orange book about Paul Valéry whose author was Theodora Bosanquet. I had never heard of Miss Bosanquet, as she seems invariably to have been called, or of Valéry, but I had, by some quirk, heard of the Hogarth Press, publisher of my little treasure. I knew that the Hogarth Press belonged to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and I assumed that any book that famous team published must be mighty smart. In this I was wrong. The Hogarth Press published its full share of duds, but Theodora Bosanquet’s Paul Valéry wasn’t one of them. It seemed to me a very writerly book: I was astonished to learn from it that the young Valéry held that “the touchstone of poetry was…the correct management of the mute ‘e.’” As a young man he allowed himself to be part of what seemed an interesting set:

He was frequently to be met at Mallarmé’s salon. He was on excellent terms with Huysmans. He often shared Degas’ curious dinner of veal and macaroni eaten without a grain of salt and followed by Dundee marmalade. He watched the painter struggle with the art of literature. One evening Valéry heard him complain to Mallarmé that he had wasted the entire day over a sonnet without achieving what he wanted. “Yet I have plenty of ideas!” he complained. To which Mallarmé characteristically replied: “But, Degas, one makes verses with words, not with ideas.”

Miss Bosanquet deals briskly with the Symbolist poets in their ongoing struggle with the music of Wagner and others:

It was the hour of the Symbolists, those groups of poets bound by a common vow to rescue for poetry some at least of the ground captured by music. Romantic music, above all the opera of Wagner, had threatened the empire of romantic poetry by proving itself to be, literally, more moving. The resources of the orchestra were being exploited to overwhelming effect, and the exploiters of language emerged enviously from concert halls, tottering from an intoxication they were incapable of inducing by their own art.

And, though quite capable of sass, she is mainly tolerant of Valéry’s dry and lofty views:

It was Valéry’s theory at the time that great men, if they are also famous, must have made the fatal mistake of dissipating their energies in creating works which could be enjoyed by their inferiors.

Paul Valéry, published in 1933, was Theodora Bosanquet’s fourth and last book. The patience with authors that she was said to exhibit during her years as literary editor of Time and Tide she had learned at the knee of a writer every bit as exacting as Paul Valéry: Henry James, whose principal amanuensis she was from 1907 until his death in 1916. “Slim, boyish” Miss Bosanquet more or less cheerfully subjected herself to the provincialities of Rye in order to work, at the Remington typewriter, sometimes seven days a week when the Master was hard at a preface or a tale. In 1924 she published, in the Hogarth Essay series, a lovely memoir called Henry James at Work, receiving, when she turned it in, this appreciative letter from her publisher, Virginia Woolf:

Dear Miss Bosanquet:

I think your essay is a great success, and I’m glad you did not keep it to tinker at, for I think you have suggested everything, and further work might well have spoilt it. As it is, you have got an immense deal into it, and made it come together perfectly as a whole…. I’m sure it ought to have a success with anyone who cared for Henry James and his work, and I think we are very lucky to get it.

It’s a short essay, filled with sharp, mainly kind, but never sycophantic observations:

He reacted with so much success against both the American accent and the English manner that he seemed only doubtfully Anglo-Saxon.

Or, as she concludes:

Towards the end of his days his horror of interfering, or seeming to interfere, with the freedom of others became so overpowering that it was a misery for him to suspect that the plans of his friends might be made with reference to himself.

Henry James almost immediately realized that he had a prize in Miss Bosanquet. She was not uncritical, thought he alliterated too much, and didn’t like it when he described “a fine purple peach.” Peaches, she felt sure, were too mellow to be purple. But what made her invaluable was that she soon recognized that the Master, with his days drawing in, feared nothing so much as interruption. She became, in a way, his barrier reef. As he began to fail, the trickiest part of her job was to hold in check the one person most likely to interrupt: the Firebird, i.e., Edith Wharton. When first sent to deal with Mrs. Wharton Miss Bosanquet thought her perfume too strong and the room too hot; but the real problem lay elsewhere:

I was rather unhappily conscious all the time we were talking that I wasn’t as much charmed as I ought to be. I could see the charm, but I couldn’t feel it….

Perhaps she never did feel it, but she made an effort, and she and Edith Wharton maintained a cautious alliance; as the Master declined Miss Bosanquet provided frequent bulletins, or at least she did until Mrs. William James arrived and took matters in hand. Mrs. William James detested Mrs. Wharton and at once set out to plug the information leak. Miss Bosanquet, to her shock, was scolded for overworking the servants; her services were less and less required, but she was twice allowed to see her old boss in his coffin. On the first visit his jaw had sagged and had to be fixed by a bandage, but that flaw was corrected. The last time she glimpsed him she thought he looked like Napoleon.

At some point during the Master’s decline Miss Bosanquet was invited to dinner and allowed to bring a pal. She brought, as James said, a lady-pal; somewhat later in life she acquired a rather important Lady-pal, the feminist and publisher Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda. Time and Tide was Lady Rhondda’s magazine and Miss Bosanquet her longtime literary editor. Let Malcolm Muggeridge describe them:

I also did quite a bit of work for Lady Rhondda’s Time & Tide; a feminist organ, largely staffed and written by women. Lady Rhondda, plump and curly, was the daughter of a coal magnate…. She and her father had been on the Lusitania when it was torpedoed in 1915, and she wrote a very good description of the adventure. It appears that she found herself in the water holding onto a spar, at the other end of which was a man likewise holding on. She says that she and this man looked at one another whereupon he unaccountably disappeared. Somehow, I understand why; working for Time & Tide was rather like holding onto a spar with Lady Rhondda on the other end…. I particularly appreciated her literary editor and friend, Theodora Bosanquet…a salty, hearty lady who wore well-cut tweed suits and good shoes with flat heels. She and Lady Rhondda shared a house in Surrey and a flat overlooking St. James’s Park; both establishments were so luxurious that they were almost uncomfortable—the cream too rich to eat, the peaches too large and soft to bite into, the beds too downy to fall asleep in.

Here’s Lady Rhondda herself, on the man at the other end of the spar:

When I came to the surface I found that I formed part of a large, round floating island of people and debris of all sorts, lying so close together that at first there was not much water noticeable in between. People, boats, hencoops, chairs, rafts boards and goodness knows what…all floating cheek by jowl. A man with a white face and yellow mustache came and held onto the end of my board. I didn’t quite like it, for I felt it was not large enough for two. Every now and then he would try to move around to my end of the board. I summoned up my strength—to speak was an effort—and told him to go back to his own end, so that we might keep the board properly balanced. He said nothing and just went meekly back. After awhile I noticed that he had disappeared. He may have gone off to a hencoop, which was floating near. I don’t know whether he had a life belt or not. Somehow I think not….

Lady Rhondda does not look either plump or curly in the E. Hoppé photograph in This Was My World, her autobiography. As a suffragette she practiced various forms of civil disobedience and was sometimes jailed. After her father’s death she tried to take a seat in the House of Lords but was rebuffed. When Virginia Woolf’s lengthy feminist book Three Guineas came out, Theodora Bosanquet grabbed her review copy and at once read excerpts from it to Lady Rhondda. Mrs. Woolf got a nice letter and expressed some relief—she had feared Lady Rhondda might be “too patriotic and citizenlike” to take her side. Lady Rhondda too wrote an essay for the Hogarth Essay series. Hers was called Leisured Women. Her book of essays, Notes on the Way, is dedicated to Theodora Bosanquet.

Before attending to Paul Valéry Theodora Bosanquet wrote a lively biography of the notoriously weepy novelist Harriet Martineau:

She cried, she said, every day, and although she made a brave resolution to pass at least one entire day without crying, she gave up the attempt in despair, after six years of rain though persevering effort.

Though both Theodora Bosanquet and Lady Rhondda did many and various good works, it seems clear now that the latter will be remembered for her deeds, the former for her words: a pamphlet on a great but fading master, a biography of a minor novelist, and a critical study of a difficult poet. (There is an early collaboration that I have not been able to find.) Leon Edel knew Theodora Bosanquet and uses her diaries to good effect in both his life of James and his edition of the letters. Lady Rhondda died in 1958, Theodora Bosanquet in 1961.

Everything that Miss Bosanquet wrote seems to me to be writerly: she’s savvy, she’s snappy, and there’s usually a touch of sass. Ezra Pound’s clothes, for example, she found to be “slightly aesthetical.” Her diary and her papers are at Harvard; how one would like to read those diaries, to have one more book by this “salty, hearty” lady who, when slim and young, had worked so hard to keep a “lonely old artist man”—Henry James—from being interrupted.

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