BOOK REVIEW / The muse who arrived on a broomstick: In extremis: The Life of Laura Riding - Deborah Baker: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 25

Click to follow
The Independent Online
POOR Deborah Baker. She bends over backwards to give Laura Riding her due, spreading the finest of her poetry before us in tempting swatches, defending the fairytale obscurities of her prose and tip-toeing round the Lady Macbeth aspects of her life.

But despite her doughty efforts to upgrade a female artist undoubtedly overshadowed by that Dead White European Male, Robert Graves, she has fallen foul of Laura Riding, as have other would-be biographers before her.

Like all dictators, Riding preferred hagiography. Eight children - four from Graves's first marriage, to Nancy Nicholson, and four from Schuyler Jackson's first marriage, had reason to lament that she ever rode into their lives on her broomstick. But two women, Nancy Nicholson and the first Mrs Jackson (both of whose marriages blew apart soon after her arrival) always refrained from castigating her, though at one stage Nancy begged her to go back to America and Mrs Jackson wielded an ice-pick.

In the aftermath of her more sensational scenes, Riding firmly blamed whoever it was who had refused to be manipulated. When Geoffrey Phibbs, an Irish poet, scorned her she jumped out of a window in front of him, followed by Robert Graves, who leapt from a lower window to rescue her. Lying in hospital recovering from a broken back (with Graves scribbling away at Goodbye to All That), she denounced Phibbs as a 'devil'.

More than a decade later, at the end of her alliance with Graves in Majorca, she fell for Schuyler Jackson, a farmer in Pennsylvania with literary leanings. Riding accused his wife of being a 'witch', insisted that everyone run around and destroy the woman's 'fetishes', and drove her over the edge and into an asylum. People seemed to obey her. Graves wrote a poem about 'the strong pulling of her bladed mind / Through the ever-reluctant element'. Sometimes people were not reluctant enough.

Through the web of preposterousness, there is another truth. Riding, who died in 1991, was a poet of rare talent, with Delphic shafts of wisdom and a nobility in her efforts to go against the stupid, prating Zeitgeist. But even the most pious feminist, longing to relaunch this Jewish-American Female as a misunderstood genius, would soon come up against the brick wall of Riding's megalomania.

Baker has taken sides. She is scathing about Robert Graves and tries to avoid the worst of Riding's excesses, dodging full confrontation with the famous defenestration scene, and the grand denouement when the first Mrs Jackson runs amok with the ice-pick. But by about page 100 she is obliged to admit to Riding's 'striking inability to see matters in any but her own terms'. The contrast between her tiny successes and his spectacular one (I, Claudius) left her indignant and embittered (she tore up his glowing reviews and fan letters). Baker does mention 'her almost unlimited capacity for deceiving herself when it came to imagining how men felt about her'. But confronted by the megalomania at its ripest, she drops her eyes in sisterly embarrassment.

I recently ran into a contemporary of Riding's, who, with shining eyes, related the gossip, still juicy after all these years, of how Riding jumped out of a third-floor window in Chiswick shouting 'Goodbye, chaps'. The scandal has always eclipsed a decent assessment of Riding's work. Baker has tried to play things down, but perhaps she should have waded in there, blood and all, and shown how such a brilliant woman could at the same time be not always the white goddess, but the goddess Kali.

The Riding-Graves era in Majorca in the Thirties has the quality of myth. For all its trials it was stylish and productive. He needed her severe and elegant presence to detonate the real stuff out of himself. She needed his belief and support. After the breakup, he continued to write, but with less wild success. Laura stopped altogether. Maddeningly for her, her greatest success lay in her capacity as muse.