Wednesday, 17 September 2014

VÍDEO/ Kate Summerscale: How she discovered the story of Isabella Robinson. Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale .


Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale: review
A fascinating personal diary opens up the world of the middle classes in 1850, says Philippa Gregory, reviewing Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale.

Isabella Robinson was a Victorian wife who married for convention; a mother of three boys; a romantic; a diarist; a highly sexed woman who described herself as “an independent and constant thinker”.
“Aha,” says the blue-stocking reader (for this is she), “one of our own. This is a woman who is going to think and imagine and write herself into trouble.”
And so she does. She buys one of the new stationery products, a personal diary, and she follows the advice of the manufacturer, Letts: “Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence, conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any other eye than your own to scan them.”
In this diary, Mrs Robinson narrates the progress of her crush on a young married man; her erotic dreams of him; and the high point of their affair, in a closed carriage – “I leaned back at last in silent joy in those arms I had so often dreamed of and kissed the curls and smooth face so radiant with beauty that had dazzled my outward and inward vision.”
She wrote in the language and literary conventions of a romantic novel, with herself as a narrator-heroine. This diary created a record of her inner, secret life which could be read in so many ways: by her enraged husband as a court document to prove her adultery; by the newspaper readers for scandalised titillation; and now by Kate Summerscale as a chronicle on which to base a new book analysing reality, literary versions, and history.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace describes the affair between this lonely, passionate, intelligent woman and a younger man, from their first meeting in Edinburgh when she was a regular and welcome visitor in the house where he lived with his wife and mother-in-law to the time when, at a hydrotherapy spa run by him as the resident doctor, they walked together alone, lay on dry fern, and – as she wrote in her diary – “I shall not state what followed.”
This highly wrought account of their encounters was stolen by Mrs Robinson’s husband, a vindictive and bad-tempered man whose own moral position, as father to two illegitimate daughters, did not prevent him taking the high ground with his wife, and suing for divorce on the grounds of her adultery. He offered her own writing as the only material evidence.
Mrs Robinson’s defence was to claim that the diary was a fiction – a hallucinatory account of dreams and fantasies. Her lawyer explained that she suffered from nymphomania or erotomania, that a uterine condition had driven her mad with lust. Her private writing had to be offered up by herself as proof of her own madness. Faced with the choice of describing herself either as a sexually active woman or as insane, Mrs Robinson chose to save her reputation for chastity by sacrificing her reputation for sanity. In so doing, she cleared the reputation of the man she loved, and saved his marriage and his business.
Summerscale has rescued this extraordinary story from the archives, and set it into the context of a time when the debate about women, sexuality and marriage reached a new level of anxiety. She takes us into the heart of the sexual double standards of Victorian England, where a woman would lose her husband, children, property and reputation if adultery was proved. Meanwhile, a husband’s adultery was condoned: he could only be divorced if he was guilty of sexual or physical abuse of his wife. A conduct book of the time advised of the “inalienable right of all men to be treated with deference, and made much of in their own houses”.
Summerscale gives us a considered and complex view of Mrs Robinson’s world – Madame Bovary and Charles Darwin walk through these pages; her lover’s brother-in-law fakes his own death because of his horror of masturbation; gynaecologists avoid using a speculum for fear of their patients’ pleasure; and the divorce courts have to clear women from the public gallery because the material is so disturbing.
As one would expect from the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), Summerscale’s prize-winning analysis of a Victorian murder and its detective, the material here is handled with confident subtlety. The history goes from the individual to the individual’s world with seductive ease. Mrs Robinson is no cardboard feminist heroine in this account: Summerscale is unsparing about her heroine’s silliness, flirtatiousness and emotional neediness. The judges at the divorce court, ostensibly the very bastions of patriarchy, are thoughtful and considerate, and their even-handed ruling is described in detail.
As in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, readers are allowed to form their own opinion as to guilt and motive. This is a highly considered social history teased out from a fascinating personal document, and Summerscale takes the reader through layer upon layer of understanding as this extraordinary divorce case opens up the world of 1850 middle-class England and the women who fitted themselves into its strictures.


Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale – review
This fine cultural history uncovers an engrossing landmark divorce case
Alexandra Harris


The chief exhibits from Kate Summerscale's deservedly bestselling and prizewinning last book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, are still hanging about rather grotesquely in my mind. The mutilated body of a boy in the water closet, a sash window slightly open, a bloodstained nightdress stuffed into the boiler. Summerscale's reconstruction of the infamous murder investigation at Road Hill House was also a cross-examination of Victorian domestic life and its most disturbing secrets. Now, in Mrs Robinson's Disgrace, she uses the same techniques of historical sleuthing to reconstruct the events that brought one couple to the divorce courts in 1858. As before, she follows the clues outwards from this one case to the larger anxieties, prejudices and cover-ups that shaped it. Summerscale puts Victorian middle-class society back in the dock, and again it is both horrifying and salutary to follow the questioning from the gallery.

The chief exhibit this time is a diary. No blood, no corpse in the privy, just an ordinary Letts diary of the sort that is currently half price in Smith's. But this too is a relic of passions that could not be contained and which are exposed in the end to the scrutiny of a nation. The unfortunate diarist, Isabella Robinson, fell in love with a man who was not her husband and wrote her feelings down. That was her crime, that was her ruin, and that was all it took to cause a scandal of major proportions. Her husband, the industrialist Henry Robinson, had a range of mistresses and two illegitimate children, but no matter. For a woman the standards were different. After all, she didn't even own her diary.

The man she loved was the married doctor Edward Lane, pioneer homeopath and proprietor of an advanced hydropathy establishment in Surrey where patients were prescribed a bewildering number of different kinds of bath. Isabella spent time at Edward's spa, and in his study, but did they embark on an affair? Nothing in Edward's letters proved it – he was too careful a correspondent. Isabella, on the other hand, wrote in her diary a day-by-day narrative of her erotic longing and the dreamed-of reciprocation that began one afternoon in the Surrey countryside when Edward turned to her on the plaid picnic rug and kissed her.

In her diary Isabella was the heroine of her own romantic novel. She described the misery of her marriage to the insensitive Henry, her ennui and entrapment, the great redeeming joy of evenings spent reading poetry with Edward. She wrote out her fantasies and expressed the full force of her desire. She stopped just short of recording everything ("I rested among the dry fern. I shall not state what followed"), but she included in her diary much more than was licensed in any contemporary fiction. In France, Gustave Flaubert was at work on his great novel of adultery, Madame Bovary, but it would be banned from publication in England, deemed too repulsive and corrupting for English eyes.

Henry Robinson was one of the first to sue for divorce under the new Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a landmark act that for the first time made divorce a possibility for middle-class couples. If Mr Whicher's investigation at Road Hill was the original whodunnit, Robinson v Robinson & Lane was the "original" divorce, the ancestor of more than 100,000 divorces that took place in the UK in 2010 alone.

And what an agonising mess it was. Isabella's diary was proof of her lustfulness but it did not prove anything conclusively against Edward. Could it be used against her and not against him? The only way to save Edward's reputation (as everyone was eager to do, at Isabella's expense) was to discredit the diary as the raving of a sex-obsessed lunatic. By a skewed logic more perverse than anything Isabella could dream up, a sane woman was now reinvented as an erotomaniac driven mad by a conveniently identified uterine disease.

At every stage this "real-life" story is a skein of fictions. Coleridge and Shelley taught Isabella what a love affair might be, and how she might construct herself as its heroine. The lawyers, too, learned their lines from literature. In court they fantasised a gothic tale in which Isabella's madness poisoned a whole respectable milieu. Summerscale is a subtle interpreter of the interplay between action and literary imagination, as was clear in Mr Whicher. A large part of her fascination with the Road Hill case lay in its influence on subsequent detective fiction. If the literary connections in Mrs Robinson are less compelling (and it should be said that Isabella is not going to vie with Emma Bovary for literary immortality), they are crucial to the vivid anatomy of an 1850s mind.

Summerscale might have been more upfront about her own methods of narration in a book so concerned with reading, writing and the interpretation of documents. There are potentially significant gaps and doubts in a story she strives hard to render as a polished whole. It comes as a surprise, for example, late in the day that Summerscale has not read Isabella's diary, the fateful book having been lost or, more likely, destroyed. She has had to piece together her account from extracts published in legal reports. She has made careful use of correspondence, but how representative are the letters that survive? Foraging in the footnotes in an effort to find out, I couldn't help feeling that discussion of these matters would have left us better equipped to read Isabella and her times.

As a guide to mid-Victorian cultural life, however, Summerscale is simply superb, and she sets a fine example of what cultural history can do. Isabella has her head examined by a phrenologist, so we get a miniature history of phrenology and its implications. (A large cerebellum meant excess "amativeness"; Isabella's cerebellum was very large indeed.) To understand Edward and his Moor Park spa we need to know about hydropathy, so we go on a course in alternative medicine and curative bathing (chair baths, hot air baths, wet towel baths, secretly sensuous baths).

In other hands, admittedly, this might become tiresome. But Summerscale has a knack of judging just how much we want to know. So she keeps adding strands to the web: divorce law, diary-writing, Victorian dream theory, gentlemen's advice on the advantages of erotic encounters in bumpy carriages. She knows that the settings, too, are eloquent: Henry's big white villa in Caversham where nobody is happy, the sandy soil of the Surrey hills, the precise qualities of Edward's study with its many doors, and the foul smells from the Thames that filter into a hot Westminster courtroom at the stinking centre of the British empire.

Sensing a silence or slight misunderstanding between two characters, Summerscale prods a bit, and the door flies open to a whole new set of stories. It's like watching someone going straight to the secret compartment in a many-drawered cabinet. Edward's friend and brother-in-law, George Drysdale, needn't have figured at all in Isabella's story, except that he turns out to cast a shadow across the whole affair. He faked his own death out of shame for his sexual fixations, resurrected himself, failed to cauterise his penis, and went on to write the first guide to contraception. That's the kind of obscure but astonishing life story we keep glimpsing in the background.

And we glimpse too, at a distance, famous people going about their business, like Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. When not decoding Isabella, the phrenologist is feeling George Eliot's cerebellum; Charles Dickens is leaving Boulogne just as Isabella gets there; and who should be strolling at Moor Park but Charles Darwin, so relaxed by his bath treatments that he said he "did not care one penny how any of the birds and beasts had been formed". He didn't stop caring for long, of course: he was at work that year on The Origin of Species, refining his theory of evolution even as Isabella reconciled herself to atheism and wondered what the absence of God might mean for the future of sexual relations.

At every turn Isabella's experience is contiguous with that of the people who were deciphering and shaping her world. But ultimately it is Isabella herself who stands as exhibit A in this engrossing investigation of a society casting judgment on itself and trying, with much confusion, to make up the rules.


• Alexandra Harris's Virginia Woolf is published by Thames & Hudson.

June 22, 2012 /
The Scarlet Diary / The New York Times

MRS. ROBINSON’S DISGRACE
The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
By Kate Summerscale
303 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.

On Nov. 15, 1850, 37-year-old Isabella Robinson went to a party in Edinburgh where she was introduced to Edward Lane. Later she noted in her diary that he was “handsome” and “fascinating,” the first of many entries describing her feelings for Lane, a married medical student 10 years her junior.

Isabella was herself unhappily married to Henry Robinson, a curmudgeonly businessman and civil engineer who also had a mistress and two illegitimate children. In fact, Isabella despised this “uneducated,” “selfish” and “harsh-tempered” man, who, in turn, treated her with contempt. Robinson was, she told herself, only interested in money, while she yearned for the intellectual stimulation that could be found at the home the Lanes shared with Mrs. Lane’s mother, Lady Drysdale, among their circle of literary and scientific friends.

Upon finishing his studies, Lane opened a fashionable spa for hydropathy at Moor Park in Surrey, where his patients — including Charles Darwin — underwent a fanciful range of water cures to calm their irritable nerves. Isabella visited regularly, sometimes to be treated, sometimes just as a family friend — but always, as her diary revealed, to be nearer to Lane. In those years, her journal’s pages were infused with unrequited longing for the young doctor, whose every word and gesture was weighed and judged. Isabella was downhearted when he “hardly looked at me,” ecstatic when she sat next to him at a lecture. They talked about Byron, God, hot-air balloons and Coleridge’s poems, and went on walks that left her “too much roused to sleep.”

There was much sadness in Isabella’s diary, moments when “all is dark to me,” but also descriptions of dreams “of romantic situations, and Mr. Lane.” Kate Summerscale argues, convincingly, that these pages, like a novel, could “conjure up a wished-for world, in which memories were colored with desire.” Then, in October 1854, during a visit to Moor Park, Isabella suddenly wrote of passionate kisses in the nearby woods and in Lane’s study. “Oh, God,” she declared, “I had never hoped to see this hour.” From here on, the diary was filled with even more romance and desire, though Isabella refrained from describing a sexual act — if, that is, there ever was one. On their walks, she and Lane kissed, caressed and rested on a bed of dry ferns. But, she wrote, “I shall not state what followed.”

A little more than a year later, in the spring of 1856, those words were enough to shatter her world. When Isabella fell ill and, delirious with fever, mumbled the names of other men, her suspicious husband read the diary. He promptly took it and their children and left her, then filed for divorce.

In her hugely enjoyable account of a sensational 1860 English murder case, “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” Summerscale demonstrated her talent for forensic investigation. Once again, in “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace,” she prods, scrutinizes and examines, employing a real-life historical episode to shed light on Victorian morality and sensibilities. This time, however, the chief evidence she presents to tell her fascinating story isn’t a corpse but a diary. Just as she used the killing of a child in her previous book to provide insight into mid-19th-century domestic life and the rise of detective novels, Summerscale now uses Isabella and Henry Robinson’s scandalous divorce case to explore such diverse subjects as the era’s romantic novels, peculiar health fads and views of marriage.

Until 1858, the union between a husband and wife could be dissolved only by an individual act of Parliament, which was extremely expensive and therefore unobtainable for all but the very rich. Yet in that year, the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes made the severing of such bonds affordable, thus bringing it to the middle class. The Robinson case was one of the first to arrive at the court.

Summerscale is graciously evenhanded in her depiction of Isabella, who, despite being vilely neglected in her marriage and treated appallingly during the trial, was also a flawed character. It’s difficult to warm to her when, for example, she fumbles around with Lane inside a carriage while her son is perched up top with the driver or when she writes about “dear little innocent Mrs. L,” sitting with her baby just after Isabella has amused herself with Mrs. Lane’s husband in the shrubbery.

The court proceedings make for disturbing but engrossing reading. The contents of Isabella’s diary were divulged to the lawyers and judges and reprinted in the newspapers. Her innermost feelings, wishes and dreams were revealed at breakfast tables across the country. And, as if her situation weren’t awful enough, her lawyers argued that she was a sex maniac who had created an imaginary erotic life. Since the diary was Henry Robinson’s only proof of his wife’s adultery, her lawyers insisted that parts of it were fictional — the product of her “uterine disease,” evidence merely of temporary insanity. Medical witnesses explained that her condition could cause sexual delusions and nymphomania. The newspapers gorged on every detail.

“Isabella’s defense,” Summerscale writes, “was far more degrading than a confession of adultery would have been.” By agreeing to her lawyers’ strategy, she sacrificed herself for Lane, whose career was at stake. If Isabella wasn’t lying, how many female patients would be willing to seek treatment at his spa? Desperate and decidedly ungallant, Lane described his reputed paramour as “a vile and crazy woman” who was “goaded on by wild hallucinations.”

The question was and is — did Isabella really have an affair with Edward Lane or was it all wishful thinking? The end of the court case is surprising, and to give it away would be an insult to Summerscale’s cleverly constructed narrative. But she stresses that one thing is clear: the diary “may not tell us, for certain, what happened in Isabella’s life, but it tells us what she wanted.”

Andrea Wulf’s latest book, ­“Chasing ­Venus: The Race to Measure the ­Heavens,” has just been published.

Kate Summerscale (born 1965) is an award-winning English writer and journalist.

Summerscale was brought up in Japan, England and Chile. After attending Bedales School (1978–1983), she took a double-first at Oxford University and an MA in journalism from Stanford University. She lives in London with her son.

She is the author of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House,based on a real-life crime committed by Constance Kent and investigated by Jack Whicher, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction 2008, and the bestselling The Queen of Whale Cay, about Joe Carstairs, 'fastest woman on water', which won a Somerset Maugham Award in 1998 and was shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread Awards for biography.

She formerly worked for The Independent and from 1995 to 1996 she wrote and edited obituaries for The Daily Telegraph. She is the former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph Her articles have appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.

She has also judged various literary competitions including the Booker Prize in 2001.

Scandalous women of the 19th century

Monday, 15 September 2014

La Redingote.

Women's redingote
The first form of the redingote was in the eighteenth century, when it was used for travel on horseback. This coat was a bulky, utilitarian garment. It would begin to evolve into a fashionable accessory in the last two decades of the eighteenth century, when women began wearing a perfectly tailored style of the redingote, which was inspired by men's fashion of the time. Italian fashion also picked it up (the redingotte), adapting it for more formal occasions.

The redingote à la Hussar was trimmed with parallel rows of horizontal braid in the fashion of Hussars' uniforms.

The style continued to evolve through the late nineteenth century, until it took a form similar to today's redingote. The newer form is marked by a close fit at the chest and waist, a belt, and a flare toward the hem.
Men's redingote
The men's redingote was an eighteenth century or early nineteenth century long coat or greatcoat, derived from the country garment with a wide, flat collar called a frock In French, redingote is the usual term for a fitted frock coat. The form a men's redingote took could be of the tightly fitting frock coat style, or the more voluminous, loose "great coat" style, replete with overlapping capes or collars, such as a "garrick" redingote.





Thursday, 11 September 2014

Nancy Cunard



Nancy Clara Cunard (10 March 1896 – 17 March 1965) was a writer, heiress and political activist. She was born into the British upper class and devoted much of her life to fighting racism and fascism. She became a muse to some of the 20th century's most distinguished writers and artists, including Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Tristan Tzara, Ezra Pound and Louis Aragon, who were among her lovers, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Constantin Brâncuși, Langston Hughes, Man Ray, and William Carlos Williams. MI5 documents reveal that she was involved with Indian socialist leader VK Krishna Menon. In later years, she suffered from mental illness, and her physical health deteriorated. She died at age 69, weighing only 26 kilos (57 pounds), in the Hôpital Cochin, Paris.


Cunard's style informed by her devotion to the artifacts of African culture was startlingly unconventional. The large-scale jewelry she favored, crafted of wood, bone and ivory, the natural materials used by native crafts people, was provocative and controversial. The bangles she wore on both arms snaking from wrist to elbow were considered outré adornments, which provoked media attention, visually compelling subject matter for photographers of the day. She was often photographed wearing her collection, those of African inspiration and neckpieces of wooden cubes, which paid homage to the concepts of Cubism. At first considered the bohemian affectation of an eccentric heiress, the fashion world came to legitimize this style as avant-garde, dubbing it the "barbaric look." Prestigious jewelry houses such as Boucheron created their own African-inspired cuff of gold beads. Boucheron, eschewing costly gemstones, incorporated into the finished creation green malachite and a striking purple mineral, purpurite, instead. It exhibited this high-end piece at the Exposition Coloniale in 1931.
 


The Rebel Heiress
By CAROLINE WEBER


In his 1928 novel “Nadja,” André Breton cites an old French adage: “Tell me whom you haunt” — whom you befriend —“and I’ll tell you who you are.” Judged by this criterion, the English heiress Nancy Cunard, who “haunted” Breton’s Surrealists and countless other artists besides, is one of the biggest stars you’ve never heard of. T. S. Eliot put her in an early version of “The Waste Land”; Pablo Neruda celebrated her “lovely sky-blue eyes”; and Samuel Beckett praised “her spunk and verve.” All three future Nobel laureates had fraught romances with her. Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Tristan Tzara, Ezra Pound and Louis Aragon were among her lovers. She played tennis with Ernest Hemingway, received house calls from James Joyce and modeled for Constantin Brancusi. Langston Hughes called her “one of my favorite folks in the world.” William Carlos Williams, who kept a picture of her in his study, deemed her “one of the major phenomena of history.”
This pedigree surely qualifies Cunard (1896-1965) as one of the 20th century’s most celebrated muses. But in her fine work, “Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist,” Lois Gordon, a professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University, shows that Cunard refused to be defined by her glamour or, for that matter, by the riches she enjoyed as heir to the Cunard shipping fortune. This unconventional child of privilege worked as a poet, a publisher, a journalist and, above all, a tireless supporter of the disenfranchised. “I’ve always had the feeling,” she explained, “that everyone alive can [do] something that is worthwhile.” Indeed, her whole life illustrated this principle, as Gordon’s biography — the first substantial study to be published in almost 30 years — reveals.

The only child of a British baronet and an American socialite, Cunard grew up in an English castle where “the living area alone covered more ground space than, say, the New York Public Library.” But she was unhappy there. Her father, Bache, cared chiefly about hunting, fishing and horseback riding, while his wife, Maud, whose “appetite for cultural and social advancement was voracious,” focused on cultivating the era’s leading writers. Maud’s socializing bred extramarital dalliances that, to Nancy’s astonishment, Bache passively tolerated. Appalled by their “ambiguous moral values,” Cunard “grew up to despise everything her parents and their class represented.”

History favored her rebellion, as her 1914 debut in London society coincided with the start of World War I, which for Cunard ushered in “a period of overt defiance of parental and social demands” and “artistic and sexual experimentation.” Taking her cue from Maud, Cunard assembled a “Corrupt Coterie” of artists, most of whom “sooner or later” became her paramours. In this milieu, she met Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, who were then spearheading a “literary revolution” in England. According to Cunard, this movement “changed my life,” imbuing her with a belief “in the sacred mission of art to change history.”

In 1916, Cunard impulsively married a wounded veteran, only to separate from him 20 months later. In 1921, she began a five-year affair with Pound; she soon seduced Eliot too. “Dazzled” by both men’s achievements (and even though Eliot mocked her in his verse: “But women intellectual grow dull”), she wrote three books of poetry in the 1920s. Gordon maintains that “Parallax” (1925) was “favorably compared with” “The Waste Land,” although the claim is based on a single remark by one of Cunard’s friends. In truth, her verse in no way rivals Eliot’s: “— But if I were free / I would go on, see all the northern continents / Stretch out before me under winter sunsets; / Look into the psychology / Of Iceland, and plumb the imaginations / of strange people in faraway lands.” These unimpressive lines make it hard to agree with Gordon that “Nancy anticipated the metaphysical-ontological relativism that marked much of the 20th century’s turn from traditional values to a plural secularism.”

STILL, Cunard’s stabs at poetry furthered her ties to “strange people in faraway lands” — like the avant-garde community in Paris, where she moved in 1920. Here she encountered not only Hemingway and Williams, but also the Dadaists and Surrealists, who shared her belief “in the sacred mission of art” and her “commitment to exposing the false dreams and hollow values” of the ruling class. But Cunard had her reservations. A self-described anarchist, she never embraced the Communist worldview. She also chafed at her own image as a mere siren, and “yearned for a more meaningful identity.”

In 1928, this impulse led her to found the Hours Press. Located in the Norman countryside, this small publishing house issued books by prominent authors like Aragon and Pound and by lesser-known writers like Samuel Beckett, who won an Hours contract in a contest at 23. But she was distracted when she fell in love with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz pianist who “introduced Nancy to the complex and agonizing situation of blacks in the United States.” Her eyes now opened to racial injustice, she discovered “the sense of purpose that would define the rest of her life.”


 She edited and published “Negro” (1934), an almost 900-page anthology of black history and culture and a call to “condemn racial discrimination and appreciate the ... accomplishments of a long-suffering people.” Its 150 contributors included Theodore Dreiser, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. Cunard herself wrote the preface, denouncing the “oppression” of “14 million Negroes in America.” Despite its urgent message and extensive scope (Gordon supplies generous excerpts), the press greeted the book’s publication with indifference and condescension.

The world proved even more judgmental about Cunard’s romantic ties to a black man. When she traveled to America in 1932, “she was maliciously attacked in the media” and in a barrage of hate mail. In England, her mother, now a widow, had “embarked upon a ruthless campaign” to separate her from Crowder. When Cunard failed to cooperate, Maud all but disinherited her.

Unbowed, Cunard continued her crusade, which by the mid-1930s took aim at fascism as well. She wrote dispatches for The Manchester Guardian, The Associated Negro Press, Crisis and other publications about Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and Franco’s coup in Spain. In August 1936, she moved to Spain to cover the civil war there. Presciently, she warned that “events in Spain were a prelude to another world war.” Exasperated by the international community’s failure to intervene, she used her reporting to denounce Franco’s brutality and demand help for his victims.

Cunard was especially concerned about those Spaniards who, in fleeing the fascists, landed in concentration camps across the French border. Although 80 percent of these “hundreds of thousands of refugees” were “women and babies and children and old people and cripples and wounded civilians,” rightist French officials, viewing the newcomers as Communist “scum,” offered them only “squalid, often mortal detention.” Camp inmates “had to wait five days for food and were then allotted two ounces of bread and one of rice — for a 48-hour period.” Many starved to death.

In addition to exposing this situation in the international press, Cunard established a shelter where “hot meals were prepared daily for as many as 3,000 to 4,000 people.” She also walked as many as 40 miles to visit the camps. By 1939, these efforts took a toll on her already fragile health and she returned to Paris to convalesce, though not before giving refugees the clothes off her back, “having felt I must leave everything possible to the bombed-out people of Barcelona.” Not long afterward, still unwell, “she stood on the streets of Paris with a sheet spread at her feet, asking for contributions ‘for the starving children in Spain.’ ”

The heiress turned beggar: the image is striking, and Gordon, who avoids sentimentality throughout, judiciously allows it to stand on its own. Similarly, when recounting Cunard’s involvement with an English pro-Resistance group during World War II, Gordon quotes without comment Cunard’s avowed preference for working “six night shifts in a row,” past the point “when ears and eyes give out” and “the spine turns to rubber.” “ ‘Sleep? Warmth? Food? No!,’ ” friends characterized her as saying. “ ‘Somewhere someone was suffering.’ ” Even after the war, she continued her self - abnegating regimen, concluding “that I should own absolutely NOTHING,” and devoting her meager resources to “many crusades.”

Admirable though it was, Cunard’s selflessness contained, according to her intimates, a manic undercurrent that became worse with age. Yet even as she relates Cunard’s decline into severe mental illness (exacerbated by excessive drinking), Gordon does not editorialize. “One night in Frascati, Italy,” she writes, Cunard “emerged drunk and bull-like from a cafe with a cigarette inserted in each nostril and began pelting dogs with tomatoes.” While the unruffled tone of such pronouncements may reflect the author’s refusal to judge (or romanticize) her subject, they also suggest a hesitancy to acknowledge the full extent of Cunard’s appetite for self-destruction.

And self-destruct she did. In 1960, after some drunken scuffles with London authorities, she was declared insane and placed in a mental hospital. In her paranoia, she blamed Spain, the C.I.A. and the British Foreign Office for her confinement. After her release, a destitute Cunard spent five years drinking heavily, eating almost nothing and ranting against bigots (“How I should like to machine-gun the evil whites” ) and fascists (“Damn Spain and all its doings”). In March 1965, just after her 69th birthday, she went on an extended alcoholic binge in Paris. Friends saw with alarm that she “had lost her reason” and looked “thinner than a Buchenwald corpse,” but she eluded them, only to resurface when the police found her unconscious in the streets. She could not remember her own name, and died two days later. Restrained to the end, Gordon quotes Neruda’s plainspoken eulogy: “Her body had wasted away in a long battle against injustice in the world. Her reward was a life that had become progressively lonelier, and a god forsaken death.” But perhaps an even more suitable epitaph comes from Cunard herself: “All that remains is a furious sense of indignation.” Indignation that, however harrowing, the reader cannot help but share.

Caroline Weber, whose most recent book is “Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution,” is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.




L'Atlantique Noir est à l'honneur du Musée du Quai Branly du 4 Mars au 18 Mai 2014, à travers une exposition mettant en avant le pamphlet Negro Anthology, publié par Nancy Cunard en 1934. Cette exposition propose de revenir sur l'icône anticonformiste de ce mouvement philosophique, Nancy Cunard, autour de photographies de Man Ray, Louis Aragon et des documents de cette femme poète.

Le Musée du Quai Branly revient sur le combat de Nancy Cunard avec l'exposition Atlantique Noir visible du 4 Mars au 18 Mai 2014 : autour de cette femme engagée contre le colonialisme et le racisme, de nombreux surréalistes tant européens qu'américains vont s'allier dans un mouvement artistique et littéraire, et réaliser l'un des plus grands pamphlets contre le racisme, Negro Anthology.

L'exposition visible dans la Mezzanine Est du musée présente des documents d'époque, mais aussi des extraits de Negro Anthology, cette publication de 855 pages éditée en 1934 par maison d’édition The
Hours Press, créée par Nancy Cunard : on découvre alors un pamphlet semblable à une grande enquête documentaire, qui rend compte des analyses de militants, journalistes, artistes, universitaires, africains-américains, antillais, africains, de photographies et même de partitions musicales.

Ainsi, le Musée du Quai Branly salue le combat de Nancy Cunard, qui créa la maison d'édition The Hours Press en 1928 pour donner la parole à des militants tels Pablo Neruda ou Georges Padmore, en exposant des photographies de cette icône prises par les plus grands, Man Ray, Barbara Ker-Seymer, Curtis Moffat...

L'Atlantique Noir de Nancy Cunard, l'exposition au Musée du Quai Branly
Du 4 Mars au 18 Mai 2014,