(Commentary)

Staggered by flu, I did not have the energy to add any comments to my post of George’s New Year letter to William Rothenstein; but I will offer a few points now.

William Rothenstein is an extremely interesting figure. He was a prolific portraitist, but in my view uneven. Kittie, who was a trained painter, disliked Rothenstein’s portrait of George so much that, although it was exhibited in Chicago in 1912, it disappeared for over a hundred years after. Quite coincidentally, I was reading Matthew Dennison’s Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West yesterday and noticed Harold Nicolson said of Rothenstein’s portrait of his wife: ‘Vita was a beautiful woman and this is an ugly one.’

Similarly, Rothenstein was incredibly generous with his money to numerous struggling artists, but they repaid him with little gratitude or friendship. In the case of Augustus John and some others they repaid him with disgustingly anti-Semitic insults behind his back. It is, I believe, a tribute to Joseph Conrad’s and George Calderon’s integrity and cosmopolitanism that they never treated Rothenstein other than as a real friend whose sociability, cultural inquisitiveness and philanthrophy they valued.

After George’s letters to his parents (107), to Kittie (95), and to Grant Richards (30), more have survived to Rothenstein (17) than to any others of George’s friends. They cover the years 1903-15 and are exceptionally useful as sources about George’s first play, his anti-suffragism, his activity during the 1912 London Dock Strike, and the last seven months of his life. As Rothenstein recounted in his memoirs, when he lived in Hampstead he and George used to share early-morning walks on the Heath in which they talked about everything under the sun. It was Rothenstein who got George onto the steamer in a state of nervous collapse in 1906, for his recuperative voyage to Tahiti. Having done so, Rothenstein wrote to Kittie: ‘It was very hard for me to leave him […]. I love him very much, and I pray he may come back as strong and robust as he was of old.’

Calderon’s letters to Rothenstein are low on verbal exhibitionism. As with this one, they tend to ‘tell it how it is’ and their mood is one of relaxed, confident divulgence.

At first, the idea that Kittie ‘sets an exaggerated value on my company’ sounds outrageous: he had been away from home for three months and nearly been killed by a German sniper! Could he really not see how much she needed him back, and preferably for good? (As I have said many times, she was completely without family of her own in England now, and even her best friends were far from Hampstead.)

It might, just conceivably, be an objective assessment and Kittie was genuinely becoming over-dependent on him. On the other hand, in the third paragraph from the end he seems fully to appreciate his responsibility towards her. It was not just her un-wellness (pernicious anaemia, menopause?): she had been ‘through an anxious and wearing time, exerting her beyond her powers’. That, surely, was the truth. Kittie was a very bubbly, vibrant little Anglo-Irish person (her ‘titter’ was said to be infectious to her dying day), but she was religious, she was feminine to the tips of her fingers, and she had devoted the best part of her life to her relationship with George, both as his partner and his literary agent. She could not really accept this ‘man’s world’ of ‘soldiering’, or George’s determination to get himself killed in action at the age of 46.

Yet here he is, telling Rothenstein about ‘laying plans’ for the ‘continuation’ of his ‘campaign’ to get a commission in the Army. This certainly seems to confirm Percy Lubbock’s statement that Calderon loved nothing so much as the challenge of finding a way through ‘impossible’ obstacles. It was a game for him, but deadly earnest for Kittie.

When Calderon tells Rothenstein in the last paragraph of this letter that by the end of the war he won’t have any money to pay for the ticket to visit him in Gloucestershire, he is referring to the fact that his love-affair with the Army is depriving him of the ability to earn anything from new writing, translating, or journalism. Apart from his army pay, his only source of income now was royalties from his translations of Il’ia Tolstoi’s memoirs and two of Chekhov’s plays, and cheap editions of his own plays The Fountain and The Little Stone House.

Next entry: Phantom Flies in Amber

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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2 Responses to (Commentary)

  1. Clare Hopkins says:

    Happy New Year Patrick! Sorry to hear you have been laid low by flu.
    I was interested in your two possible explanations for George’s statement that he could not visit William Rothenstein because of Kittie. Either that – after almost losing him in battle – she had become emotionally dependent on having him safe at home beside her. Or that – given her ongoing poor health – he felt too responsible for her welfare to leave her even for a visit to Gloucestershire.
    But surely there is a third, simpler, explanation. Is not George just bringing out his wife as a polite excuse because he does not actually want to stay with William Rothenstein at all? Using his impeccable Edwardian manners he gushes, ‘I treasure your invitation to come and stay with you: a thing I should like to do of all things’ — but then brings out a cast-iron reason why he can’t come. No chivalrous gentleman could object to a husband staying at home to care for his wife. George ends his letter with a promise – to visit at ‘a more peaceful time’ – that is so vague as to be meaningless.
    Does this mean that George is exaggerating Kittie’s fragile mental and/or physical state? Are there other possible reasons why he didn’t want to visit his old friend? I have no idea… How glad I am that I am not a biographer – what a difficult business it is!

    • My dear Clare, it’s lovely to hear from you again, and I wish you and yours a very happy New Year!

      As always, this is a very fine comment; and much appreciated. Thank you. My immediate reaction was: ‘Oh goodness, yes, Patrick, you are suffering from biographer’s tunnel vision again (or the flu), you can no longer see the wood for trees, always go for the simpler/more obvious explanation!’ For, indeed, your explanation is the more direct one, and your analysis of his ‘impeccable Edwardian manners’ syndrome faultless.

      Yes, certainly, he did not want to go to Iles Farm, Far Oakridge, in deepest Gloucestershire, either with or without Kittie… I’m sure you’re right.

      But I wouldn’t want followers to think this was because he didn’t like the place, or had turned against the Rothenstein family. In April 1914 George wrote Alice Rothenstein a long, ecstatic letter (definitely not just ‘Edwardian gush’) after staying with them. In November 1914 Rothenstein wrote George two long letters, which I couldn’t quote on the blog as they are not out of copyright, from which it’s clear that their personal relations are as close as ever. Kittie was also a tremendous fan of Will and Alice.

      I think probably, on balance, George’s description of Kittie’s need for him at home and her medical fragility, is true. However, I think your comment about his fob-off promise to visit ‘at a more peaceful time’ is also bang on. I don’t think he thought how that phrasing might sound to Rothenstein, because his mind was so completely focussed on the ‘immediate task’ — getting through the medical, receiving a commission, and going to the most dangerous part of the Front he could find…

      This explanation produces what I now realise would be a typical Calderon paradox. He wanted to cherish Kittie and support her, so he couldn’t leave her to go to Gloucestershire, yet he was actually using every minute he was at home to get back into the Army and leave her! This is unfortunately what soon happened, and as I hope to convey over the next few weeks his and Kittie’s closest friends felt he shouldn’t be doing it; that he was ignoring the effect it was having on Kittie.

      Well, writing biography may at times be like ‘chewing barbed wire’ as Churchill described the Western Front, but how pleasant it is when, with finesse, your commentators make it more digestible for you!

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