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…

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