H.D.

This is the first post in the Literary Sisters series.  I had to start with a writer who is close to my heart – the subject of my PhD thesis and of my book H.D. and the image.   But the list is growing longer as people email and tweet me with suggestions for women writers to add to the list.  Do get in touch if there are any you’d like to see here!

 

H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) 1886-1961 

Photograph of H.D., c. 1921. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

 

Biography and background

‘I am swing-swing between worlds’ H.D. wrote in her little-known novel Her (written in 1927, first published in 1981).  This phrase sums up much about the life of H.D., who was born Hilda Doolittle in Pennsylvania in 1886 into a Moravian community.  She felt herself to be not quite American but not European either.  She had passionate relationships with men and with women. In her writing career, she moved elegantly between genres – melding poetry, prose, essay and memoir – so that her work is sometimes interesting (and difficult) combinations of these things.

Initially known for her early imagist lyrics (first published in 1912), H.D. has historically been overshadowed by her relationship with the American modernist poet Ezra Pound (she was briefly engaged to him).  The story goes that in the café of the British Museum, Pound ‘discovered’ Hilda as a poet, scribbling with a flourish ‘H.D., Imagiste’ at the bottom of one of her first poems.  But in the course of her lifetime she explored different fields, and different media, which makes her writing a challenging yet rich mix of cross disciplinary influences.

In the 1920s she was immersed in avant garde film, appearing in them as well as editing them.  In the 1930s she developed an interest in psychoanalysis, briefly attending sessions with Sigmund Freud (paid for by her wealthy partner Bryher – Winifred Ellerman). During the Second World War she became fascinated by spiritualism, frequenting séances and becoming a member of the Society for Psychic Research.

Why is she important?

H.D. was open and unapologetic about her bisexuality.  She became an icon for both the gay rights and feminist movements, when her poems, plays, letters and essays were rediscovered by feminist critics during the 1970s and 1980s. This period saw a wave of feminist literature on the gendering of Modernism,by a generation of writers who saw her as an early icon of the feminist movement.

She has been hugely influential on women poets who came after her, including Denise Levertov and Susan Howe, the Language poet.  Male poets Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley also acknowledge her influence on their work.

You might want to read…

Her .  The story of awkward and insular, Hermione Gart, who is desperate to escape the confines of her narrow New England upbringing.  This is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, which has a lot to say about identity and desire.

Helen in Egypt.  Written towards the end of her life, this is a prose poem steeped in mythology, a retelling of the Helen of Troy myth.  Challenging but worth it.

Bid Me To Live.  A fictionalised account of H.D.’s intense friendship with D. H. Lawrence, published just the year before her death.

More info

http://www.imagists.org/hd/

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/h-d

 

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At sixteen I fell in love with Virginia Woolf. I can’t say it was love at first sight. It took me a while to work her out – I found her difficult, obtuse and complicated. But once I understood where she was coming from, I was infatuated.  Mrs Dalloway is still pretty much my ‘desert island novel.’ And she has been an influence on my own work – above all, I’m interested in interior consciousness and how that drives the characters I’m writing about.

As an undergraduate, I had tutors who led me gently towards other, more obscure women writers ( apart from anything else, I was more likely to get funding!). By the time I became a postgrad student, I was diving into the murky depths of literary history to unearth work that had been neglected by generations of critics. I felt like a literary detective on a mission. For my PhD I’d intended to study the work of three writers (Dorothy Richardson, H.D., Jean Rhys). Then it narrowed down to two. Then, because there was actually so much to say, the thesis became about the career of just one: H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). What incensed me (and other female critics) so much, I think, was that she had been constantly positioned as a potential wife to another great writer, Ezra Pound (H.D. was briefly engaged to Pound, who is credited with discovering her), rather than a writer in her own right.

These days I’m a writer rather than a critic. I’ve left the academic world behind but – almost twenty years on – it still feels like a mission to celebrate the work of women writers. So much has been said about the compromises women have had to make (and still make) in order to create art. I won’t repeat that here. Suffice to say that there are some remarkable women writers – both long dead, and still living – who deserve attention. Which is why I’m launching a new blog series called ‘Literary Sisters.’* It might take the form of potted biographies, brief discussions of their work and why they’re important. Sometimes there’ll be interviews (though not with the dead ones, obviously). These posts won’t be remotely academic – just an introduction to literary women whose work I think deserves to be read.  If there are any you’d love to see on there and whose work you think is great too, I’d love to know.

*I’ll still be blogging about other random stuff. Films I’ve seen, books I’ve read, washing up, that kind of thing…

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