IN THE EARLY years of a long friendship with the novelist Lettice Cooper, I used to think of her as a brisk, sensible and sympathetic aunt, indulgent to some of my follies and outspoken about others. Then there was a period when she became a favourite cousin, to whom I could always turn for help and advice. Finally, despite her being 26 years my senior, I came to regard her as a high-spirited niece, whose optimism, zest for life and radical opinions often made me feel intellectually musty and emotionally stiff-jointed.
That she had spent a long period undergoing psychoanalysis never ceased to astonish me, since I have rarely met anyone more firmly in control both of herself and her circumstances. Either her analyst was a remarkable man or she herself was possessed of remarkable powers of self-healing.
For many years, until his death, she was the devoted friend of Lionel Fielden, creator of All India Radio, friend of JR Ackerley and EM Forster, and a man with the dark, aristocratic good looks and graceful physique of some cricket-playing maharajah. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, when I was also resident in Florence, Cooper used to visit Fielden at his beautiful villa in Antella, a few miles outside the city. At a period when a homosexual, even a charming, intelligent, Rolls-Royce-owning, English one, tended to be mal vu in Florentine society, Fielden more than once referred to Cooper, in my presence but not of course in hers, as 'my cover girl'. That this was her role, I never imagined that she realised. But years later, talking to me about the relationship, she made it clear that she had never for a moment deceived herself about its nature. She had known Fielden's terms and she had been willing to accept them, such was her love and admiration for a not wholly lovable or admirable man.
From this friendship, probably the most important of her life, came what is one of her three best novels, Fenny (1953), about an English girl who, in the Thirties, goes out to Florence to be a governess in a house not unlike Fielden's, somehow survives there during the war, and then continues there after it. The book is not strictly an autobiography, since Fenny is a victim of circumstance in a way in which Cooper never allowed herself to be. But, among many echoes from Cooper's own experiences, there is one scene that has always stuck in my mind, since it is so moving. Fenny, now middle-aged and suffering from vague feelings of illness, consults a doctor. He reassures her: all that is wrong with her is the onset of the menopause. She then goes into a cafe and, sitting alone, is overcome by sadness. There is now no possibility that she will ever have a child. Lettice Cooper would have liked to have children. She would have been as near perfect a mother as is possible.
If one were to look for a title for her whole oeuvre of 20 novels, it would have to be Mrs Gaskell's 'North and South'. Born in Yorkshire but resident in London for more than 50 years, she returned again and again to the theme of the contrast between the people of her origins and those of her adoption. She was also fascinated, as in Fenny, by the contrast between the English and the Italians. The contrast in each case represented one within her own self. She had a northern forthrightness, sincerity and toughness. But she had a southern charm, wit and capacity for enjoyment.
Another theme of hers was that of fresh starts, best expressed in her The New House (1936). To start afresh was, like the breaking and resetting of a deformed limb, something painful. But it was something that must be endured for the greater mobility and straightness to follow. She would often tease me about my hatred of a change - 'I think that for you all changes are bad.' Into her nineties she believed in change, sticking to her socialist beliefs despite a growing disillusion with the Labour Party.
It was largely because of this openness to change that she got on so well with the young, enjoying their company as they enjoyed hers. At literary parties, writers tend to congregate with writers of their own generation. This was not Cooper's way. If some young writer was standing self-consciously alone in a corner, she would at once walk over, to start a conversation totally without any condescension on her side or any embarrassment on the other.
After the death of her sister, Barbara, with whom she had lived for so many years in an always hospitable flat at the top of a north London house, many of her friends feared that she would lose the will to continue. But, although obviously bereft, she was soon talking of another novel, of the future work of International PEN (she had been a notably capable and yet self-effacing President of the English Centre from 1977 to 1979), and of how to help friends or neighbours, far younger than herself, who were ill or in financial or emotional trouble.
At a PEN Congress in Stockholm, a Swedish writer remarked of Lettice Cooper: 'She is what we expect English people to be but what they so seldom are.' That is a fitting epitaph for her.
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