Carole Angier

A Committed Poet

Anna Wickham: A Poet's Daring Life


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ON A  Spring day in 1913 Annn Wickham stood in her Hampstead garden and yelled her poem ‘Nervous Prostration’ at her husband, Patrick Hepburn:

I married a man of the Croydon class

When I was twenty-two.

And I vex him, and he bores me

Till we don’t know what to do!

And as I sit in his ordered house,

I feel I nlust sob or shriek,

To force a man of the Croydon class

To live, or to love, or to speak!

Soon after he had her committed to a private asylum, citing her belief in herself as a poet and her idea that he didn’t understand her as evidence of madness. 117 the asylum a doctor asked her to repeat ‘Nervous Prostration’ to him, and was so impressed he brought her pen and paper and told her to go on writing. After four months she left with eighty new poems, Illany of which she published in her second collection, Tlzc Mail Witli n Harrlrric~r, in l9 l h. Tllc, Mnrr With o Hnrrrrric,r included the title poem (‘My Dear was a mason/ And I was his stone’) and, buried on page 30 of 96 (still ‘perhaps not deep enough for Patrick’s tastes’, as Jemlifer ~aughaJno nes says), ‘~ervousP rostration’.

This is one of the great iconic stories in the history of women’s writing, which inany will have heard even if they only vagu;ly know ~nliaW ickhamk name, and have never read her poetry. 1 hope this book will change that. She wrote too much too fast to be a great poet, but she wrote a few great poerns, and many good ones. ‘I may be a minor poet,’ she said, ‘but I’m a n~ajor woman.’ I wish I’d been there to cheer.

In fact I should declare an interest. Many years ago I wanted to write a Life of Anna Wickham myself. I was just finishing a biography of Jean Rhys, and was struck by the many parallels between them. Anna was an upstart colonial as well (she spent much of her childhood and youth in Australia), she too had been an actress, she too escaped (briefly) to Paris in the 1920s; above all, she too carried a burden of powerless fury which she shaped into direct and dangerous art. In the end I gave up the tdea, not wanting to be typecast Wickham: minor as the biographer of literary viragos. But I’m glad someone else has done it. Anna Wickham: A Poet’s Daring Li$e is not felicitously written (it is fill of repetitions, and of expressions like ‘son Jim’, or even ‘son Jim Hepburn’, as though we might have forgotten). But it draws a powerful picture of Anna Wickham’s life all the same.

That picture is more complicated, naturally, than the iconic myth of the male monster tossing the despised artist into his oubliette, like Mr Rochester locking his mad wife in the attic. Anna Wickham, nCe Edith Alice Mary Harper, brought a fair inheritance of smouldering frustration into her marriage, as the daughter of a vaguely intellectual father and a wildly energetic, egotistic, self-dramatising mother, who variously ran off to Australia, read palms and sold insurance, and who tried to kill herself three times, leaving her young daughter to find her.

When Patrick had Anna committed her mother sided with him – though whether because Anna was crazier than we think, or her mother wickeder, Jennifer Vaughan Jones doesn’t say. Patrick himself was certainly a dreadful old stick, ‘a stickler for correctness’, obsessed with facts and science (he was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society), who talked only to teach and never listened. He was also lonely, melancholy, and driven to the point of self-destruction, which he eventually achieved in 1929, falling on a lone mountain walk and drowning in a stream. After her rackety upbringing, Anna had first been drawn to him for his conventional solidity; he in turn was attracted, as Vaughan Jones describes it, by her intellect and difference. They got what they wanted, and then were trapped in it, Patrick as much as Anna. One of her best poems (written, spookily, years before Patrick’s death) is ‘The Homecoming’, in which a wife rediscovers ‘the gallant man I had loved’ only when his broken body is brought home from a mountain. ‘0 wives come lend me your weeping,’ Anna wrote, ‘I have not enough of tears, / For he is dead who was sleeping / These ten accursed years.’

There is no doubt that Anna Wickham spent most of her marriage in a torment which she turned into poetry. But some of that torment she passed on to others (as Jean Rhys &d as well): behaving as outrageously as she could to Patrick, and passionately but erratically to her three sons, eventually leaving the youngest to find her hanged body, as her mother had hquently (though less successfdy) left her. When she ran away to Paris she fell in love with the famous lesbian salonniere Natalie Barney, so poet, major woman violently that Barney ended up t$ng to ‘civilise’ her as well. And although she is best known – quite rightly – for her poems of female oppression, she was in fact remarkably successfd from the start, publishing her poetry from 1911, and living a fill literary and artistic life fi-om the moment she returned from the asylum.

All in all I would say (though Jennifer Vaughan Jones doesn’t) that in the long battle between Anna Wickham and Patrick Hepburn, Anna won. But she deserved to. They were both awful, and both brave, but his lness and bravery were closed in and cold, while hers were generous and open. She was a major woman. Read her. ‘

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