In Which Laura Riding Was As Unbelievable In Day As Early Dawn

This is the first in a series.

An Indicated Other

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Some people do not read poems because it embarrasses them to try to be as serious as the reading of poems demands.

After an affair with the poet Allen Tate, Laura Riding had made all the enemies in New York that she could stomach. Tate himself called her both “frighteningly intense” and “all right from the neck down.” She moved to England at the age of twenty-five to avoid all these people.

“At the close of 1925,” she wrote later, “after a period of uncertainty, I went abroad to live. I had found my American fellow-poets more concerned with making individualistic play upon the composition-habitudes of poetic tradition than with what concerned me: how to strike a personal accent in poetry that would be at once an authentic truth-compulsion, of universal force.”

Born Laura Reichenthal, the only writing she carried with her would become her first manuscript, The Close Chaplet.

Robert Graves had been appointed, thanks to T.E. Lawrence, Professor of English Literature at the Royal Egyptian University in Cairo. He took Riding with his wife Nancy and their children to this new campus, housed in an unattractive area of the city and built industrially by a Belgian company.

Graves’ marriage was already in trouble before Laura Riding ever set sail. She was thought of by Graves’ family and friends as a nanny, and at first, Graves noted more than once, “things were wonderful.” The man of the family benefited from Riding’s presence in all ways sexual and intellectual; the woman of the house found Laura a wonderful confidant who told her that men were idiots, none moreso than her husband. The children finally had the attention they required from three semi-doting adults.

Riding got along better with Nancy Graves than with her children. Nancy even loved the following lines, penned by her “intelligent nanny”:

Mothering innocents to monsters
Not of fertility but fascination
In women.

They left because Graves was broke, a hospital had mistreated his son and caused the boy to lose hearing in one ear, and everyone hated Cairo. In order to solve the most easily fixable of these problems, T.E. Lawrence sent his friend a copy of his latest unpublished book, instructing him to sell it after reading.

In Riding he had met someone important, and having no other feasible role for her to enter in his life, he started to worship her. The two started writing together once the family moved to Islip. In Notting Hill Nancy agreed to an arrangement that would give her an Islip home all to herself and the children, and leave Graves and Riding to work peacefully in Notting Hill. Nancy was no innocent wallflower. She considered this development evidence of her “dis-marriage,” and she could think of no person more likely to reform her husband than Laura Riding.

Graves’ family eventually received news of the real situation, and were incensed when they learned that he would be spending Christmas with Riding alone in Vienna. They called the Jewish-American woman their son/brother was in love with “a German poet” and went to Austria to chaperone the affair. In order to ameliorate the situation, Robert Graves wrote to his father, who was to write in his own diary that he received “a really wonderful letter from Robert about the strange Trinity of friendship and love between him, Nancy and Laura”!

If his romantic life was in good order, Graves still had major money problems. He installed his wife more cheaply on a houseboat called the Ringrose, where she was acutely uncomfortable. Riding was the key in making everything all right. Her enthusiasm for work pushed them all forward, and if anyone was now the man of the house, it was Laura.

It was T.E. Lawrence, however, who saved the Trinity again. This time, he encouraged a London publisher to come out with a hagiography of him, entitled Lawrence and the Arabs, suitable for young boys. For the job Graves received £500, no small sum.

Things could not go on like this forever, and Laura sometimes chafed at gossip about her controlling nature and impact on Graves. The two started a press in order to expedite the publication of their own writing, and whenever her role in things was diminished by Graves’ misogynist buddies, she lashed out. Later she would write

I am an indicated other.
Witness this common presence
Intelligible to the common mind.

One of Graves’ friends would call Riding “a disagreeably self-centered person with a hard discontented face.” Others were even less charitable. If his associates outwardly expressed any of this disatisfaction with his mistress, he would quickly excommunicate them. Robert Graves loved Laura passionately, but something was not quite right. He wrote, “I knew something absolutely frightful was going to happen, even though everything was fine at the time. I just knew.”

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. Tune in for the second part of the Laura Riding story on Thursday.

Grace

This posture and this manner suit
Not that I have an ease in them
But that I have horror
And so stand well upright –
Lest, should I sit and, flesh-conversing, eat,
I choke upon a piece of my tongue-meat.

“Save Me” – Royksopp (mp3)

“I Had This Thing” – Royksopp (mp3)

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