A Life of One's Own by Joanna Field; An Experiment in Leisure by Joanna Field - review by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

Journeys Into the Interior

A Life of One's Own

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An Experiment in Leisure

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Sometimes it seems that the real division between people has nothing to do with talent, wealth or beauty. For some people, life’s hard, and for some it’s easy; there’s not much logic attached to the division, and one half of humanity certainly doesn’t understand the pleasures and pains of the other. In A Life of One’s Own, first published in 1934, Joanna Field quotes Anne in Crome Yellow – ‘One enjoys the pleasant things, avoids the nasty ones. There’s nothing more to be said.’ She herself is of the contrary, self-analytical persuasion, and these two books, first published in the 1930s, constitute an enquiry into her own nature.

It is an earnest, honest nature, without, it seems, the sauce of arrogance or the spice of humour. Through her own diaries and doodlings, we meet the author as a young working psychologist in London. At 26, she has a sense that real life is passing her by; that important things are happening, but always in the next room. She undertakes ‘mental training schemes’ and blames her lack of willpower when they fail to bring results. She goes to conferences about the lot of the poor, and in one of her pockets carries a scrap of paper with a quotation from Virginia Woolf. And though she says that she hates ‘dowdy, arty women,’ one somehow imagines this pocket; it must belong to a garment like the Woolfian cardigan that Edith Hope wears in Hotel du Lac. A Life of One’s Own is a record of seven years’ self-observation. What are the facts of my life, she asks; what will make me happy? Even the facts, she finds, shift according to the way she observes them. Her intelligence has been trained in a way which blinkers her; it has shut her off from a world of direct sensory experience, and prevented her, quite literally, from knowing her own mind. A sort of free association in writing gives her some clues; important things are going on, but not in the next room. They are going on below the surface of her conscious mind.

Her training has equipped her to know this; but she wants to feel it for herself. She becomes a close student of her own moods, and of fleeting mental images. Sometimes, perhaps, her errant thoughts are scrutinised much too thoroughly: ‘I had begun to wonder whether my truant mind might not possess a wisdom of its own … There occurred to me the phrase “Who’s that knocking at the door?” … I suddenly noticed that while I had mentally sung the phrase to the tune of “Barnacle Bill the Sailor” I had a simultaneous picture of Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World.”’ She adds ‘Such discoveries gave me plenty to think about.’

One of the things she thinks is that her old definitions of success will not make her a happy or productive human being. She frees herself from the ‘drive after achievement’ which she inevitably associates with the masculine part of human nature; instead she cultivates a willed passivity, a renunciation of conscious effort. For a creative person, artist or scientist, this is not as unproductive as it sounds. She recalls that when Purun Bhagat in the Jungle Book gave up all his riches, and wandered the world with a begging bowl, the wild animals came to him without fear, and so, she says, ‘the ideas I needed for my work would come silently nosing into my mind after I had given up all attempts to look for them.’ This is a common experience, but all the clichés of pop psychology had to be formulated by some suffering soul, before they could be bandied about at cocktail parties.

What distinguishes Joanna Field is her wish to work things out for herself. She becomes critical of the theories of her time: ‘the psychoanalysts had always given me the feeling that they considered the unconscious mind as a sort of special preserve which no layman must tamper with … if they told you something about yourself, and you agreed, then that seemed proved, but if you denied it, it was, they said, proved all the more.’ This has seldom been put so neatly; the reader feels rather deflated to learn that she will go on to become a psychoanalyst herself. The reader will become, too, increasingly irritated by her gloomy scruples; one’s heart leaps when she is tempted by thoughts of ‘drugs, drink, noise and hilarity.’ She does not succumb. Has the diagnosis perhaps become the disease? It is a simple observation, but anyone who spends much time keeping a diary will begin to feel that experience is eluding them. And her own discoveries suggest that if she would stop asking questions, she would get some answers.

An Experiment in Leisure is a companion to the first book, and it comes with a cogent introduction by Mike Brearley – whose guru rating is much higher nowadays than his batting average used to be. He points out how much Joanna Field was ahead of her time in setting a value on the femininity of her own nature; which is to say, of course, that this second book is a ‘study in masochism.’ She asks now, what shall I do with my time? Some people, she says, are more aware of other people’s identity than of their own: ‘for them, and very often they are women, it is so fatally easy to live parasitically upon other’s happiness.’ And yet the desire to suffer is not morbid, she suggests; it is a universal desire, witnessed by religion and history. She admits to her own interest in witchcraft; it seems to speak of an abandonment to dark forces, of the wiping out of the ego. She reads The Golden Bough of course, though ‘daunted by its size’; and savours the sweetness of self-abnegation whilst attending a bullfight, or strap-hanging in the tube. Her solutions will, the foreword suggests, leave some people dissatisfied.

What is least satisfying is that she does not, in the end, own her own mind. ‘I remembered’ she says, ‘a method I had been told of by a man who had especially studied the habits of this thing called the id.’ A few years later she might perhaps have learned to meditate, and cut out the middleman; but as it is, she is delighted that her years of self-exploration have enabled her to understand Freud better. She has a stalls seat now at the Old Viennese burlesque, the vaudeville version of the human drama; though she said she wasn’t interested, and didn’t want to go there at all.

Her aim is laudable, in this second book. If we would each turn inward, she believes, and view our own images, and formulate a personal mythology, we would not be at the mercy of the myths pedalled by Hollywood, by the newspapers, or by politicians. Never too late to mend, perhaps; but while she is preoccupied with the meaning of the Adonis myth, what’s budding in the grove, circa 1937, is National Socialism.

These are the dear, dead days, before feminism, before socio-biology; each generation has to discover for itself the beast in man, not to mention the beast in wimmin. These books have an archaeological fascination. The author delves through the layers of her own mind; and in parallel we see the accretion, stratum by stratum, of some of the present century’s most influential ideas – as well as some of its most specious.

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