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Introduction to the Letters

 

    Laura (Riding) Jackson had an abiding interest in letters. It was her way of squaring up to the world as a person might when stepping out of doors to a fresh day. Her letters are never ‘literary’ (written for pompous effect), not even her public ones – those published in journals and newspapers. They convey the sense of herself as her personal self, plus a little more.

Letters are the most anarchic activity tolerated as ungovernable in civilised experience. True, they are timed to arrive at such an hour; but the farcical regularity of the post only emphasises the power that letters have over our sanity of time and place. An unopened letter in the hand is a game with accident. …

A letter…must be composed in leisure. Its wrongness must have the authoritative formality of an unpremeditated crime. A letter written under stress because its astonished author could not help writing it is an act of insanity. The mails are full of helpless insanity, yes. But the “something about” letters comes from a calculated perversity, not from naïve passion. The truest letters are obviously those written in a sophisticated awareness of the nature of a letter and with a sophisticated will to exploit it.

These quotations come from her editorial postscript in her book Everybody’s Letters published in 1933, a collection of letters from people she knew grouped according to whether they were true letters or false letters, or whether they were composed from the sense of catching up with news or whether they were spuriously literary, or innocent or written with guile. She was, quite possibly, the last of the great letter writers, in the sense, at any rate, that her letters are central to her life, her work, her relations with others, and, of course, until someone takes up with letters where she left off. Further, her work, with the exception of her poems, can be seen as a distillation of her letters: letters figure largely in her books, whether as ‘A Letter of Abdication’ in Experts Are Puzzled (1930) and in several other places in that book, or in The World And Ourselves (1938), written in response to sixty-five invited letters. The three volumes of Epilogue (1935-1937) are based on the correspondence between her and its contributors in both the literal sense and in actual letters, as in the essay ‘From a Private Correspondence on Reality: Laura Riding and Robert Graves’ in Volume III. Similar things might be said of her later, post-1940 work. Many a passage, paragraph or sentence in her letters is the starting-place of a chapter or essay or thought that readers will later find in her books. ‘I might use that somewhere,’ she would say, marking out a passage in a letter, and in subsequent work, such as Under The Mind’s Watch, part of the letter would appear or even a complete page. The Telling (1972), one of her most important books after 1940, might be read as a letter to her readers, a 'personal evangel,' as she describes it there. It might well be said her letter-writing was part of her method of working and thinking, but above all things it was personal: as a correspondent, you were either with her, or you were not. That is, she chose her correspondents carefully as those with whom she could work on an equal footing. Trust was essential.

    Which brings us to the other important aspect of her letters: they are always personal. Even when writing a ‘Letter to the editor’ of newspapers or journals, when responding to a review in which she might be the subject or mentioned as having a bearing on the matter in hand, it is close-up and personal. For her, the editor is a person, one responsible for what appears in his or her publication, and if she thought what appeared was demonstrably wrong in her regard, she would challenge it; and at times, if she received no response or acknowledgement, she would take up the matter with the proprietors if necessary and complain to them that the paper or journal was failing in its responsibilities. To editors, this frequently seemed to resound with ego and vanity, but her rationale was: who was best to know the nature of her work than she (especially since it is widely acknowledged that her work is ‘difficult’ to read), or who best to know the ins and outs of her life, whom she lived with, what happened and why? Only she could give a first-hand account, and if reviewers or others chose not to believe her, that was their affair, though at the peril of another letter sent on its way, and if necessary another.

    Everything Laura (Riding) Jackson wrote or did was personal, from her earliest work to her latest, and that fact provides one of the essential keys to her work. Early in their relationship she advised Robert Graves to throw away everything he had learned via conventional education and upbringing and to begin again with nothing but himself, his human self. This is what she was doing in her first collection of poems, The Close Chaplet, in 1926, and this was what astonished him. No poet has thrown away the mere critical conventionalities of composing poems as this collection does. There is no deference there to criticism, a principle which would be at the heart of their book A Survey Of Modernist Poetry in 1927, which is blatantly anti-criticism; and, more importantly, in the book on which this is based, Contemporaries And Snobs, which was written by her at the same time, the central theme of which is ‘self-reliance’ and simple human ‘commonsense’, and where the genuine poet is seen as in ‘single-handed conflict’ with the Zeitgeist. What mattered to her, whether as poet, writer or simple, human personal self, was that everything was personal.

    A selection of transcribed letters may be seen here. These will be added to in due course.

 

 

 
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