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Creativity and chaos

Writers with biographies to match their books

One of this year’s literary stars was an unlikely one.

Rosemary Tonks, whose novel The Bloater was published this summer, received glowing reviews and a raft of publicity: profiles in the broadsheets, a documentary on Radio 4 and so on.

But Tonks had been dead since 2014 and had disappeared from public life some 33 years prior to that. The Bloater was a reissue of a book originally published in 1968. That disappearance was a key driver of the demand to bring her back into the public domain: people were fascinated by her extraordinary backstory, understandably so.

The Tonks legend goes like this. A traumatic childhood — her father died, from malaria in Nigeria, her mother couldn’t cope, her stepfather also died — saw her shunted between boarding schools and childrens’ homes. 

After marrying at just 20 and living the colonial expat life in Karachi, Calcutta and briefly in Paris, she arrived in London in the mid-fifties and soon began to establish a reputation, principally as a poet. 

She became a face in the bohemian artistic scene of London in the sixties, adding to her burgeoning reputation with a series of novels, including The Bloater. As the decade wound up she started to struggle. Her mother died. Her marriage broke up. Eye surgery left her almost entirely blind for months. 

Tonks began to seek spiritual succour in the febrile counterculture scene of the seventies: mediums, eastern mystics and gurus, finally evangelical Christians. By 1980 she began to cut herself adrift. She sold her house, rid herself of all her possessions, cut contact with everyone she knew. She set fire to — or smashed with a hammer — her substantial collection of ceramic art.

In 1981 she was baptised in the River Jordan and changed her name, dropping Tonks. She renounced her work, burned her manuscripts, hunted down copies of her own books in shops and destroyed them, too. She moved to Bournemouth where she lived the rest of her life alone. She became known as “the poet who vanished”. 

The astonishing story of how she did so began to fuel renewed interest in her after her death. This led to a poetry collection in 2014, Bedouin of the London Evening, which makes much of her odd life story in an extended preface. This year came The Bloater. More reissues seem likely to follow on the back of the praise it has received.

Novelists and poets tend disproportionately towards extreme behaviour

There is something about a writer with a striking back story that can draw a reader in, particularly those whose lives seem to place them between genius and insanity. 

Admittedly there are also Jane Austens and Barbara Pyms, models of modest behaviour and good manners, but there does seem to be a disproportionate tendency among novelists and poets towards extreme behaviour, rash acts, grand gestures, disasters. The number affected by alcoholism would be too great to list. Suicide alone gives us Woolf, Hemingway, Primo Levi, Walter Benjamin, Hunter S Thompson.

Does this happen because they are truth seekers probing the metaphysical world into its darkest corners — or are they predisposed to mental anguish and turn to writing as a means to articulate this? I confess I don’t know. Often it seems to be the coming together of two writers that creates particular havoc, as if this meeting of minds sparked something uncontrollable — the opposite of Tonks’s complete withdrawal.

One thinks of the Canadian Elizabeth Smart. As a wealthy young aspiring novelist, she fell in love with Londoner George Barker solely on the strength of reading his poetry. When she finally met him, having lured him across the Atlantic, she became his mistress despite him being already married — then went on to live with him and often his wife too in a strange and by all accounts dysfunctional set up, intermittently, for several decades. This was chronicled in her By Grand Central Station I sat Down and Wept and in his lesser known The Dead Seagull. In an echo of the later Tonks, Smart’s horrified mother attempted to buy up copies of her daughter’s book and burn them. 

The trio later moved to the UK where, a generation before Tonks, they too became mainstays of the London bohemian scene. They were big drinkers and bigger fighters. Smart bit off part of Barker’s ear during one argument. Barker ended up fathering 15 children, four with Smart, three with first wife, most of the rest with his second, Elspeth Barker (who herself wrote the splendid account of an eccentric childhood, O Caledonia, and died earlier this year). Smart stayed on in England until her death in the eighties. 

In a near parallel to this (poet crosses the Atlantic and becomes embroiled in a toxic affair), we have what happened when Robert Graves met Laura Riding. Graves had married the painter Nancy Nicholson. The couple became involved in correspondence with the newly divorced US poet Riding and invited her to visit. Graves and Riding became strongly sexually attracted and began a torrid affair. He tried to reconcile this by creating a three-way relationship with both women. Then along came Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs who became involved with both Laura — and Nancy, too. The ménage had become à quatre. Riding became obsessed with Phibbs. When he left her to return to his wife, she jumped out of a fourth floor window. Graves jumped after her but from a lower level. She was left disabled; he was not. They limped on together for a few years before Graves seems to have lost interest. He later took up with a 17-year-old “muse” when he was nudging 60. 

Given the ongoing public fascination with all things literary and Bloomsbury, where she jumped, I have never understood why the Graves-Nicholson-Rider episode has yet to be made into a film.

Jean Rhys married a spy who led her a merry dance

One that did yield a film came out of a third instance of chaotic relationships and transatlantic liaisons. William Gresham started as a folk singer, went to fight in the civil war in Spain, came back and wrote Nightmare Alley about the lowlife world of carnivals. This became a bestseller and soon led to a film with Tyrone Power (then, decades afterwards, last year’s remake by Guillermo del Toro). Gersham also took up with a poet, Joy Davidman, marrying her but then cheating extensively and drinking even more extensively. Whilst he became an early advocate of L Ron Hubbard and Scientology, his disillusioned wife became obsessed with CS Lewis, whose Narnia series was taking off and with whom she began to correspond. Finally, Gresham left Joy to start an affair with her cousin — and she promptly moved to England to marry Lewis, as documented in the 1993 film Shadowlands. After she died, Gresham left his sons to be brought up by Lewis. By now going blind, he killed himself in a New York Hotel room. He was reportedly found with business cards in his pockets which read: “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money.”

Another wild literary scenario that led to a film was Jean Rhys’s Paris in the twenties. She had married a spy who led her a merry dance both romantically — she was his third wife of five — and peripatetically around Europe. When he was jailed for embezzlement, Rhys — a broke, unpublished writer alone — found herself mentored by successful novelist Ford Madox Ford. He soon took more than literary interest. Rhys found herself living with Ford and his wife — and sleeping with him. When her husband returned to the scene, things didn’t improve, as again this was a ménage that wouldn’t extend to four. She detailed the emotional and sexual turmoil in the novel, Quartet, developed into a Merchant Ivory film in 1981 with Isabelle Adjani, Maggie Smith and Alan Bates.

Things didn’t improve much for Rhys after both her affair and marriage broke up. Her fiction of the thirties details a life of destitution — too much booze and not enough money — as well as sometimes prostitution. Her second marriage didn’t work out. Her third — like her first — saw her husband jailed, this time for fraud. She was briefly incarcerated herself, in Holloway, for assault. It wasn’t until later in life that things calmed down for her — and things calmed down too much. Marooned in Cornwall, she complained her new home was “Bude the obscure”. 

Some of us might have preferred it to the drama. After all, for that we have books.

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