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They Came, They Wrote, They Conquered : VIOLET; The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers and Friends--Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham and Henry James By Barbara Belford (Simon & Schuster: $21.95; 324 pp.; 0-617-74351-7)

October 07, 1990|Nancy Mairs | Mairs' latest book is a collection of essays, "Carnal Acts" (HarperCollins). and

Violet Hunt, born in 1862 in the north of England, grew up among Victorian notables such as John Ruskin, Andrew Lang and Robert Browning. Her father, the respected watercolorist Alfred Hunt, and her mother, Margaret Hunt, the author of a dozen or so of the three-decker novels popular until late in the 19th Century, moved with their three small daughters to London when Violet was 4.

At 17, she engaged in a prolonged flirtation with the young Oscar Wilde, her "sole ethereal love, pure and above reproach, the last of her consummated adolescent dreams." Thereafter, she dedicated her emotional life to one decidedly unethereal (and inappropriate) love after another, among them painter George Boughton, diplomat and publisher Oswald Crawfurd and writers H. G. Wells, W. Somerset Maugham and Ford Madox Ford.

Like her mother, Violet earned not merely a reputation as a literary hostess but also a living through her writing. Before her death at age 79, she had published "poetry . . . and seventeen novels . . . two collections of stories, her memoirs of the Ford years and the biography of Lizzie Siddal, in addition to six collaborations . . . two book translations, and numerous critical articles and short stories that appeared in London newspapers and magazines"; none of her work remains in print. Among her literary friends, she numbered, in addition to her lovers, such diverse figures as Henry James, D. H. Lawrence and Radclyffe Hall.

A life so long, reasonably prosperous and variously populated should not, on the face of it, seem dreary; but alas, as Barbara Belford presents it in "Violet," it holds little charm. Part of the problem may lie in the character herself. Considered "a great beauty, with deepset smoldering brown eyes under heavy-hooded lids . . . auburn hair . . . pale, magnolia skin," Violet inherited her mother's "sharp, witty tongue." But although occasionally the comments Belford draws from her diaries and letters are droll ("I always do ask for what I want--of a man and especially of a man with reddish hair") none reveals a rapier wit.

Moreover, the details of her life demonstrate a genius for sustaining unhappy liaisons, which dominate Belford's account. With Crawfurd, who infected her with syphilis, she shared the capacity for "fueling desire, particularly at keeping jealousy--that great aphrodisiac--alive during a seven-year affair that was rooted more in remorse than love."

Her subsequent relationship with Ford lasted a decade, all but a year of which apparently was mired in even greater suspicion, lies, recrimination, spying and finally outright loathing. Nonetheless, so addicted was she to the adulation of men that "she never stopped trying to make new conquests, even in her sixties." At the close of her life, scrawny, irritable, syphilitic, her mind further muddled by age and alcohol, she cut anything but the "pretty figure" she had hoped.

Still, subjects need not be paragons to elicit fine studies of their lives. Neither Sylvia Plath nor D. H. Lawrence was a particularly winsome creature, but both their biographers display a fascination and an engagement that Belford hasn't been able to muster up. Perhaps, as a professor of journalism at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, she construed her task as more reportorial than responsive; but without some enthusiasm, whether positive or negative, a biographer has trouble sustaining her own and thus her readers' energy.

Belford's research is thorough, her writing fluent, but only occasionally does a comment sparkle with insight or humor, as when, of Gaudier's marble head of Ezra Pound, ensconced for years on Violet's lawn, she remarks dryly, "Having a marble phallus in the front yard did little to enhance Violet's respectability."

Nor has Belford found a successful strategy for interpreting her material coherently. Her stabs at feminist analysis, for instance, tend to take the form of platitudes like "In deciding to be a 'new woman,' in rejecting wifely and motherly conduct, Violet found herself part of a pernicious dualism that viewed woman as either virgin or whore." Her limited understanding of feminism leads her into some real howlers: "Always a feminist in her thinking, (Violet) now acted like one and joined the Women's Social and Political Union. . . . The marches, arrests and confrontations filled a lonely, loverless life and provided drama." London's militant suffragists, beaten, imprisoned and force-fed, might have been more than a little startled to think that their cause would one day be construed as a dramatic diversion for the lovelorn.

The book's protracted subtitle may reflect its central flaw: Here is a woman whose appeal seems to lie solely in the company she kept. And according to Belford, Violet already has appeared as "a bewitching but minor character in biographies of Wilde, Ford, Maugham, Wells, James, Pound and Lawrence."

Those flittings might have sufficed.

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