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