War Series Review: Bid Me to Live by H.D.

It is 1917 and Julia Ashton lives in a shuttered room in Queen’s Square, Bloomsbury. A young wife, no longer happy, she mourns the loss of her baby, and lives that war-time life of love and death as her poet husband, Rafe, comes and goes from the trenches of the First World War. In this “Other Bloomsbury”, a world of make believe, where the actors play at life and sex, Julia refuses to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, her failing marriage and her private world of pain. Then into her trance-like state breaks Frederick, the writer with the flaming beard and the driving, volcanic genius. Only when she flees the fog and fever of London to seek a new calm in the wild countryside of Cornwall, can Julia face the truth about herself, her marriage and her future with the forceful Frederick.

The blurb of this book says pretty much all I need to say about the plot of this novel. In my opinion, this synopsis gives too much away, but it’s the only one I could find for this book! It’s a bit sad how under appreciated H.D. is. I think her work is as good as Virginia Woolf’s, yet she’s largely unknown. H.D. was part of the Imagist group of writers, alongside D.H Lawrence, Richard Aldington, Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound. They moved in similar circles to Woolf, however the Imagists weren’t in the famous Bloomsbury Group, but were a group of their own.

H.D. (or Hilda Doolittle) was born in America but moved to England after she left college. She had been in a relationship with Ezra Pound, who dubbed her H.D., but they had broken apart, though remaining friends. She married the poet, Richard Aldington, who is portrayed as Rafe in this novel. In fact, a lot of the Imagist group is portrayed in this novel, as it’s a very thinly veiled autobiographical work or Roman-a-clef. Frederick is D. H. Lawrence, Vane is Cecil Gray, the eventual father of her child. All of the characters are based on the people in her life, who were impacting on her experience… even Aldington’s mistress, Dorothy Yorke, who is called Bella in Bid Me to Live.

Queen’s Square in 1812… 105 years too early but that’s the best I could find!

This is an intensely clever book, with smatterings of Greek mythology and references to art, poetry and music throughout. I recommend having at least a passing knowledge of Greek myths and classical poetry before getting into this, as it helped me a lot! I did have to Google some things so that I could get the full picture, but I learnt quite a lot during this process. It’s quite a scandalous novel, as it throws quite a bit of shade on some people portrayed. I really enjoyed some sections of this book more than others, especially the beginning. She gives one of the most emotional scenes of a soldier leaving for the trenches that I’ve ever read- it brought me to tears.

Now there was nothing but the rough khaki under her throat.

Her chin brushed buttons, her thin-clad chest felt buttons, he was holding her too tight.

She didn’t say anything. Then she said, “Go away, go away, or it will be too late”

“Too late,” he said, “it’s damn near too late- and if-“

“Don’t say it,” she said. “Don’t say anything”

“Just this,” he said, “wear this for me, one out of suits with fortune, who would give more- who would give more- but that-“

She was crying on the pillow. He didn’t see me crying. She heard the front door thud, like the front door thudded when there was a thick fog. (pg. 29-30)

It also has one of the saddest returns of a soldier that I’ve read, apart from that of The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West. I had tears in my eyes as I read it, as her struggle to accept the changes in her husband and the disintegration of their marriage carried on throughout the chapters.

You could not argue. His moods were more violent. He was not really the young officer on leave; that was not Rafe. Then if that was not Rade, well, let it be not-Rafe; the disintegrating factor was the glance; the look, the throwing aside of the uniform and the turn of the head, a stranger standing over by the book shelf, was Rafe Ashton. That is my husband, that is the man I married. The stranger became singularly strange, his language, his voice, the thing he brought into the room. Well, can you blame him? (pg. 45)

H.D and Aldington had a tempestuous writing relationship. He didn’t see much value in women’s writing, thinking that “women are incapable of the indirect method… [they are] writers belonging to the great second class” (1 Jan. 1914) H.D. targets both Aldington and Lawrence’s opinions on female authors several times in Bid Me to Live, most notably:

“You can’t light a fire unless the altar is there. You are right about man-is-man, woman-is-woman…But, Rico, I will go on and do it. I will carve my pattern on an altar because I’ve got to do it. You jeered at my making abstractions of people- graven images, you called them.” (pg. 164)

But what draws me to this book is H.D. herself. She’s a fascinating woman to look at. She travelled and lived all around Europe with her life partner, Annie Winifred Ellerman (or Bryher), for over 28 years. She lived as cousins with Bryher, who married twice for convenience. Bryher and her second husband, Kenneth, adopted H.D. and Cecil Grey’s daughter, Perdita, since Gray got cold feet during the pregnancy. She wrote poetry, studied Greek mythology and became mentally unstable. Bryher lovingly cared for her and quietly worked in the background to help her writing get recognition, even though they no longer lived together after 1946. Bryher herself is a fascinating woman- she even helped over 100 Jews escape the Nazi regime, until she had to flee them herself.

H.D. (left) and Bryher in 1930

The afterword in my edition (Virago Modern Classics) is a lovely missive written by Perdita on how she connected with this novel, finally understanding why her father was never spoken of. She seems to have had a childhood filled with love- two mothers and an adoptive father who thought the world of her. She still wished to know her father, though he was a taboo topic with H.D. and Bryher said he was a “bad man”. She did meet Gray eventually when she was older, but he never acknowledged her as his daughter. Perdita remained struck by the what if’s as she read this novel, as I did. What if H.D.’s first baby wasn’t stillborn? What if Aldington had not been unfaithful? What if Hilda’s relationship with Lawrence hadn’t quickly fizzled out? What if Gray hadn’t run away while H.D. was pregnant?

H.D and Bryher in their old age… I just love this photo.

My criticisms of the novel are relatively minor. I sometimes became confused by who she was speaking about, as she sometimes used nicknames or pet names without any previous indication as to whom that related to. Sometimes I couldn’t quite follow the text through its dream-like sequences, but I think on further re-reading (which I’ll have to do for uni) these will become slightly more easy to follow. This sort of thing is pretty common in novels like this, with an experimental style… I find it too in some of Woolf’s works as well. It takes some getting used to. There was also a fair bit of French in the beginning, but I just asked my mum what it meant or used a French dictionary… I don’t know French at all!

I also felt that the beginning of the novel was more streamlined and less confusing than the middle and end, but I think that was intentional. As Julia’s world gets shaken up, her narrative voice is shaken with it. It makes for some confusion, but I got the gist of what was going on most of the time, even if it took a couple of re-readings of paragraphs.

Another forewarning is that this book is a bit of a pain to get a hold of. To buy it on The Book Depository or Amazon, you’re looking at upwards of $95AUD, which is freaking ridiculous for a 190 page novel that should, by rights, be worth $20AUD. I managed to find it second hand on Better World Books, for the grand total of $7.50US. They don’t seem to have any copies at the moment, but better book finders than me will surely find it in a library or other second hand bookshop!

I firmly think that it’s not literary value that stops this book being well known- at least as well known as some of D.H Lawrence or Ford Madox Ford’s works. I believe that it’s because she was a female and was eclipsed by her male counterparts. It’s a sad thing, as so many other female novelists have received the same treatment. There’s fair chunks where Julia relates times where the men are talking shit about her work, and I don’t doubt for a second that she encountered this a lot in her life.

Hopefully, her work will become more widely available in the future, as it would be a perfect shame to let this book, and H.D. herself, fade into obscurity. This book was a challenging read for me, but one that really felt worthwhile. I’m looking forward to reading some of her poetry next, and have The Gift sitting here, which I finally (!) found at my uni library, in the wrong section, while I was looking for something else! Huzzah!

3.75/5 Stars

Edit: After reading this book perhaps 10 times over the course of this year, my rating has changed considerably. This book is pure and utter magic, and has transformed my life and reading mentality. The experimental prose takes a fair bit of getting used to, but once you understand (if that’s entirely possible) it, the flow and poetry of it is stunningly beautiful.

4.75/5 Stars

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