On 26 November 2012, Time published this tiny obituary: “DIED Valerie Eliot, 86, who married TS Eliot in the last years of the great poet’s life; she edited an edition of his epic The Waste Land that included annotations by Ezra Pound.” Not even three dozen words to sum up the life of a woman who was infinitely more than just an editor of her famous husband’s most famous work. When they married towards the end of his life, “Eliot at last found himself ready for forgiveness. Horror, gloom, and penitence came to an end with his discovery of the unconditional love of a young woman,” writes Lyndall Gordon in TS Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1998).
In her biography of Eliot, Gordon retraces the poet’s insatiable search for perfection and his troubled relationships with the women who accompanied him on his quest: “His passion for immortality was so commanding that it allowed him to reject each of these women with a firmness that shattered their lives.” The exception was his second wife, Valerie, who despite being his junior by nearly four decades was the one who bestowed grace upon the final years of his life. Gordon’s biography emphasises the profound change Valerie’s love brought to Eliot in the light of all his previous precarious commitments.
In her biography Henry James: His Women and His Art (1998, revised edition 2012), Gordon sums up the distinguished writer’s ability to explore “the inward life: the unvoiced exchange and the drama of hidden motives … his skills, as well as a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women”. James never openly acknowledged the influence such strong, independent women as the American writer Constance Fenimore Woolson had on his writing life and his heroines, but it was immeasurable, as Gordon’s biography shows. While in Venice last year, I was reminded of a striking scene she describes in the book: Henry James helplessly trying to drown Fenimore’s black dresses in one of the lagoons a few weeks after her death. Like balloons the dresses kept surfacing.
A few years earlier, in November 2011, I visited the home of Emily Dickinson and saw the small table she most likely wrote the following words on in a letter to the editor, TW Higginson: “You think my gait ‘spasmodic’ – I am in danger – Sir – You think me ‘uncontrolled’ – I have no Tribunal” (7 June 1862). These were the words that sealed my love for Dickinson’s poetry and letters at university, but when I stood in her bedroom, looking at the precious table which had been witness to her secret life, I thought of Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (2010), my first introduction to the biographer’s work. The book arrived on my doorstep for a review and initiated an intellectual and emotional journey which has given me endless pleasures and reflections in the past four years. Since then I have read every author biography Gordon has written, and inspired by the discoveries in each of them, I have returned to many books which I have held dear for years.
Among them are Virginia Woolf’s diaries. Seeing their last page on display in New York’s Public Library in 2011, my eyes only inches away from that unbearable final sentence, “L is doing the rhododendrons …” (24 March 1941), I was moved beyond words. The experience would not have been as unforgettable if it hadn’t been deepened by the insight into Woolf’s life as presented in Gordon’s Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life (1984, revised edition 2006), where she writes about Woolf’s “recurring image” of “a voyage of discovery on the fin of a submerged form lurking in the waves”.
Another all-time favourite is Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796). The story behind the story of Wollstonecraft’s Scandinavian journey in Gordon’s Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (2005) reads like a historical thriller, involving a lost silver ship whose treasure Wollstonecraft was meant to recover for her lover, Gilbert Imlay. Wollstonecraft famously proclaimed that she was “going to be the first of a new genus”, and so she was. Fearlessly new, a pathbreaker, she was not without contradictions, but as Gordon reminds us, quoting Emerson, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
She also shows how seemingly irreconcilable pieces of a puzzle fit into a perfect picture if coaxed by a gentle hand and viewed from the right angle.
It is the woman’s perspective that dominates Gordon’s work. In her books, she repeatedly returns to the question which the literary greats she writes about constantly came up against. Gordon ends Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life (1994, revised edition 2008) with that question: “What is the nature of women? This is the overwhelming question she [Brontë] left behind, and any answer remains, as yet, uncertain – to some a shadow of obscurity, to others a shadow of promise. Pause, and pause again: how are women’s lives to be defined? That question echoes beyond her time, and beyond ours” (my emphasis).
Reading Gordon means to be enriched – by her understanding, her empathy, and the beauty with which she expresses both. In Shared Lives: Growing Up in 50s Cape Town (1992), a memoir, Gordon says of her craft: “There will be no easy truth. It will be an imaginary meeting of divided halves: the biographer and the subject, the living and the dead. There is no essential truth and no end to truth. Biographic objectivity is an illusion: that ‘Definitive Life’ favoured by publishers is but a shell. For the only approach to a living truth is, on the basis of fact, to imagine the life – which is to take it to the border of fiction.” What is hidden comes to light, what is submerged surfaces.
The people Gordon portrays in her biographies glow with their inner lives, and our appreciation of their work also catches fire.
The question about “the nature of women” is inescapable. And in her own life, Gordon has been courageous enough to face it head-on, not only through the biographies she writes, but in the confrontation with her own personal story, “for life-writing demands that we come to know ourselves through our subject”. Writing about someone else’s experience which one understands because of one’s own is occasionally easier to face than direct self-expression. We often tell stories not to drown in our truth. It is an act of bravery.
In Shared Lives, Gordon chronicles the fate of three women she grew up with. To one of them, “renewing of bonds” between people was “the essential act of life”. Yet, occasionally, it is the breaking of these ties, or rather their redefinition, that allows us to see what is most crucial about ourselves.
And thus, in her latest book, Divided Lives: Dreams of a Mother and Daughter, Gordon shines a light on another unique woman in her life, her mother, Rhoda Press, and the remarkable bond which shaped both their lives. Gordon was only two years old when, by being chosen as the keeper of her mother’s secret life, she subconsciously embarked on the path of becoming a biographer.
From early on, Gordon was invited to be her mother’s confidant. More of a sister or a close friend than a daughter, she took part in her mother’s inner world of literary pursuits and hidden passions. In Shared Lives, Gordon’s mother is referred to in her mentoring role and was delighted by the inclusion, as Gordon recalls in Divided Lives:
“I’m elated to please my mother by acting in this small way as her channel. A test, a first step if you like, towards fulfilling my childhood destiny, a pre-echo of the purpose behind the present memoir.”
The first paragraphs of Divided Lives describe her mother dressing in the morning: “All her underwear, including the silky petticoat, is purest white.” The startling image signals what is to come: intimate revelations of the body, heart, soul, and mind. Gordon’s father Harry is a kind man who cares for his wife and family, but has difficulties grasping his bride’s “poetic bend”; why reading William Wordsworth, TS Eliot or Thomas Mann is more compelling to her than being like the other Jewish women around her whose sole purpose in life is the smooth running of their households. The little Lyndall, named after Olive Schreiner’s famous protagonist of The Story of an African Farm (1883), is aware of the poems her mother keeps in her desk drawer, how her life is embedded in literature. The name Lyndall is one of many “not so buried signals” to her mother’s “secret self … partly open to detection”. The stories she shares with her daughter are “offerings of intimacy with her secret self.” Lyndall, “not winning, not brainy, but exercising an earnest intelligence”, intuitively understands the power and delight of a well-written phrase, and becomes a natural “extension” of her mother, who has no other “place to say what she thinks” except her “own room; only to a listening child”.
Little Lyndall is aware of the “attacks” Rhoda suffers and protects her mother as best she can, keeping up appearances of normality. She chronicles the burden of responsibility thrust upon one who is too young to carry it. Not all manage to lift it when they are asked to grow up way before their time, but she manages with aplomb. Gordon witnesses her mother’s struggles with loss, illness, postpartum depression, lack of recognition, and a fervent religious calling found through a secret affair with a married theologian from Israel, without fully grasping at first what is happening. It comes to her as a relief when she can at last name the illness her mother suffers from – epilepsy – to the young man who eventually becomes her husband, Siamon: “To utter that word aloud is, for me, more intimate than touch, an exposure of fears for my mother going back to the age of two and a half.”
Divided Lives captures the loneliness and curiosity of childhood as Gordon attempts to decipher the images of the adult world that she is confronted with. The search for clues to understanding the unfolding events around her trains her astute perception, a trait she will apply with scalpel-like precision to all her brilliant biographies, whether by writing about Eliot’s spirituality or Woolf’s depression, or diagnosing epilepsy as the illness Dickinson most likely concealed from the world because it was a highly stigmatised condition. It seems to be the real reason why Dickinson remained single, not lack of opportunity.
While her mother is trying to negotiate wifehood, motherhood and creativity, and attempts to break free from the shackles binding her by studying, Lyndall is “a watcher of her chrysalis”. Years later, this experience will allow Gordon to empathise with others who fulfilled similar roles to those of authors she writes about in her biographies (Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan in Eliot’s life or Minny Temple in James’s).
All the while Gordon continues the search for her own voice, with writing eventually becoming her “lifeline”, and offering her a space where she comes into her own, independent of her mother: “There is no way now that she can shake my separate life in the making. It’s time now to live and write as I feel I should, true to my own light, not hers.”
Yet there is no denying that she is her “mother’s creature”. Her young adulthood is spent trying to live up to the expectations thrust upon her. She fails to make a success of her year-long sojourn in Israel and returns to her beloved Cape, and to Siamon, who is waiting. When she becomes a wife and mother herself and follows her husband abroad, she suffers from long bouts of depression and asks Rhoda for help, but her mother’s solution, to turn to her Maker, is not for Lyndall. Experiencing postpartum depression and an unquenchable longing for the landscape which made her, she feels trapped and eventually ends up in an institution where her “wanting a life of the mind, wanting a life outside of domesticity, wanting equal partnership” is not understood. All she thirsts for is to “return to the roar of the beakers on the rocks and the gulls overhead beating their wings against the wind”, but that is not an option being offered. Instead, she undergoes electro-shock therapy. And finally receives life-saving encouragement from her husband to “find a sense of purpose equal to his own”.
With that purpose crystallising in the form of life-writing and teaching at Oxford, where the Gordons settle in the 1970s, Lyndall finds fulfilment, not as a “watcher”, but as a protagonist of her own story. Unlike her mother, she braves publication and in her biographies unearths “buried lives”. She dares to face the question: “Are we the sum of our acts, or are we our un-acted dreams?” The pursuit of an answer leads her to become one of the leading contemporary biographers of world-famous English literary figures.
Gordon’s purest strength as a life-writer is her intuition, where the reader has to bring to a work “her own unvoiced life”, to acknowledge the darkness and the roaring inside which happens to us all in the middle of the night, to listen very carefully between the lines and the dashes, to allow for the space “for a muted communication with a reader awakened to unstated experience”.
Literary history has a tendency to focus on the great deeds of renowned men. Women’s lives often end up sinking like dresses in a lagoon, pushed down by the rudders of ignorance and neglect. Lyndall Gordon’s writing inflates them with life-saving breath which allows them to float and sparkle in the sunlight of recognition.