Monday, 21 August 2023 20:03

Class, gender and authority: the life and work of Dorothy Edwards

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Class, gender and authority: the life and work of Dorothy Edwards

Geoff Sawers introduces the life and work of Dorothy Edwards. Image above: Dorothy holding Dora Carrington's cat, credit: King's College, Cambridge, ref FCP/7/4/2/101

Born in 1902 or 1903, the Welsh writer Dorothy Edwards was of a generation of women that did not expect to marry since the respective generation of men was largely absent as a result of the Great War. Whether willingly or not, that vast majority who did not have rooms of their own had to carve out careers in a world that did not always welcome their voices. Eligible men are almost absent from her fiction; smooth bores, elderly autocrats or sickly young men predominate, and her sympathies are usually with the women who are barely allowed to speak. 

Edwards adored and identified with her free-thinking, vegetarian father, writing that it was his vocation 'always to be putting before his friends and relations ideas so progressive and daring that they were for ever being horrified and perplexed.' She met and corresponded with many leading socialists of her day, future Labour leader George Lansbury, Christian Socialist J. Stitt Wilson, and the firebrand MP Keir Hardie among them, and these tended to be the only authorities to whom she would defer. She once dreamed that she 'was married to God, & he was not much of a husband, too fatherly. We sat on a cloud & I grumbled at him for treating me as though I were very young, though it seems to me that the Ancient of Days ought to be pardoned from looking at it like that. I shall certainly be unlucky in love since even God won't do for me'. 

Entering Cardiff University just after the war ended, she formed a small, intense group with fellow students Beryl Jones and Winifred Kelly. Although Edwards was not conventionally good-looking with prominent front teeth, many people remarked her striking appearance, and her unconventional home-made clothes. Kathleen Freeman, her Greek lecturer, wrote once, 'I will never forget the way you looked Dorothy, that morning at the train [...] like a being from another world. I can't find any other way of expressing it, you seemed to just radiate light.' 

But it is possible Edwards felt like an alien too. Her father had died when she was fourteen and with her sickly and querulous mother to support once she had graduated, the pair travelled to Europe. Although Edwards taught English privately, they were unable to rent out the house in Rhiwbina, and money was tight. But abroad her social awkwardness only increased. Her hosts in Vienna were welcoming but when their guests called Edwards wrote that 'I sit in agony, suppressing my instinctive desire to be at least tolerably polite.' As often in Edwards' writing, there is a subtly important word placing here. Even in haste she was precise. Why was politeness an instinct to suppress? 

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It was the eve of the General Strike when they left for Europe and she was keen for news of home. But she already knew she meant to be a writer and, complaining that she had no books, 'I find I must swallow a certain percentage of literature per day to keep alive,' she wrote to Kelly. 'My constitution by this time requires the drug [...] I am reading Tolstoi in German [Kreutzer Sonata] for all I am worth, but it is like taking three weeks to administer the daily dose."

She was busily putting together a volume of her stories, 'inseparable from each other in the same way that the parts of a musical composition are connected'. Jones and Kelly would relay the stories to the publisher Ernest Wishart who settled on the musical title Rhapsody and asked for a novel to follow it.

She wrote to Jones a few months later from Florence, praising the later volumes of Proust (these she had to read in French) and worrying that she could not finish the novel as soon as it was asked for. A few months later she was writing from Paris, 'in disgrace & rags. You will not recognise me. I have not finished my novel...'

Jones and Kelly remained her constant sounding-board for reactions to her writing and Freeman, now a published author too, was a yardstick against whom she could measure herself:

'I thought Kathleen's novel [Martin Hanner, 1926] was very bad. Nothing like her earlier stories [...] which were very good. I found it awfully difficult to write to her, & I put my foot into things hopelessly by letting myself go about her dreadful style,’ she reported to Jones, adding, ‘She is a silly ass not to take criticism. Kelly once made me put a whole story into the waste-paper basket, & I did so with gratitude & really its grammar was faultless. And you killed my heroine.'

Edwards was still stuck with her novel (Winter Sonata) at home; she would eventually finish it some months later while staying with Jones. The stories had explored the fragility of human contact; in the novel the chill formality of class boundaries come to the fore. People often look in fiction for clues or patterns from a writer's life, but here parents are almost entirely absent; when present they are diffident. In the novel we do find a teenage girl, a talented singer with a widowed mother enraged by her teenage daughter's sexuality; possibly a burlesque portrait of herself. The novel depicts village life but the middle-class family do not see themselves as taking part in any way. They do not go to church or visit the sick, they do not socialise. The poor are just servants or entertainers to them. 

A meeting with David Garnett led to introductions to the Bloomsbury circle, but Edwards felt like a Welsh spy, writing that she had 'been talking with a killing English accent for a few days.' Losing your Welsh accent and the attitudes that it might draw was a crucial rite of passage for many Welsh people crossing the border but it was a deeply uncomfortable experience. She had been raised to speak her mind; she could not fathom the games of inclusion ‘these Englishes’ could play. They were shocked that she talked over T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Since the subject was the ancient Greeks and her degree had been in Greek and Philosophy she was entitled to feel that hers was an educated opinion. But the more she visited the thinner her welcome, and the more she felt her exclusion. She knew as soon as she left that they would be sniping at her; 'so it must be, since they do it to each other.'

Despite Edwards' comments on Garnett's 'childishness' Kelly and Jones suspected his interest in her and would only believe in its innocence once they read his letters, where he offered jokingly to adopt her as a sister. Back in Cardiff she was short of money, trying to supplement her mother's small pension with scraps of literary work. She had little temperament for teaching. Life felt barren: 'I am so poor now that I doubt if you will get a Xmas present – a packet of cigarettes for Kelly is the most I can manage. And where is the beautiful handkerchief I promised? That alas has been frustrated by the moths who have shown their taste and discernment by eating my frock,' she wrote, signing off, 'yours in desolation...' 

There is a terrible disconnect between the warmth of David Garnett's letters ('I long to see you...') and the casually dismissive way he refers to Edwards in his memoirs. To cast her as a Cinderella implied he was taking the Godmother role but someone's scorn seems to have made him ashamed of this impulse. He was a flirt and always starting affairs; perhaps he felt the need to counter a rumour he'd been doing the same with Dorothy. Either way, calling her ugly and mad is about the least courteous way to do that.

In Cardiff her mood quiet and low. 'Mother keeps on being ill. She comes in from town crying because she can't walk. I don't know what to do.'  Having become a Christian Scientist, her mother would not trust medicine. Dorothy 'had visions of inquests with me being held responsible for too much religious tolerance & not calling in a doctor.' When Kelly herself was ill for a while Edwards jokingly offered to come and nurse her, exchanging one caring situation for another. 'At least ask your mother to receive me into the family as a lady-help (emphasis being placed on the 'lady').' At twenty she had dreamed of being an Opera singer. She wanted to be useful but could not see how; 'I can still make omelettes, but I don't sing now. The music is stilled.' 

The Labour government, having struggled for two years through the Great Depression, collapsed and was swept away in a landslide defeat in October 1931; for socialists it was a bitter blow. Jones and Kelly shared Edwards' sympathies but her Bloomsbury friends were bemused by her distress. She 'collapsed at the election results and went about for days seeing a revolution, Cardiff streets filled with mud & corpses [...] I am having slight heart attacks & I am trying to nerve myself to the point of trying to find a job & pay my debts & save enough money to get into an asylum where they won't ill-treat me, because it seems more likely than not I shall go completely & permanently dippy someday.'

Ideas for new work came and went ('I am writing a story about golf & one about a mad girl & I may write one about bats') but very little seemed to be committed to paper. Her friends were seriously worried about her; rightly so. In December 1933 Wishart did offer a substantial advance on a new book. She did not accept because she felt she could not write it. David Garnett invited her for one more visit to London; this time he offered to sub her the fare 'not lending or giving but drawing from your future earnings'. He was beginning to understand her pride. Edwards went, feeling that it prevented her from murdering her mother. But then she returned home again, and in January 1934 turned instead on herself. 

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Her suicide note stated, 'I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship, and even love, without gratitude, and given nothing in return.' This is often quoted but scarcely reflects the tone of her letters to Jones and Kelly over the years. 'My adored Beryl', 'My dearest Angels,' 'My dear sweet Beryl', 'My adored Kelly', they begin. The friendship had lasted most of her life (she met Jones when she was nine).

She wanted a prophet to adore and believe in, but all her father-figures were flawed or absent. Bloomsbury had provided glamour, but it was cold and alienating; an upper-class castle that she could never inhabit. Her only real friends were miles away. What more might she have written had she lived? Her admiration of Proust is intriguing; although her writing is very different nevertheless throughout it the natural world itself seems to have a musical structure, but it is one in which her subjects do not find themselves ecstatically rapt but observe from the outside. In the end she could not any longer beat against the walls of gendered privilege and insulated ease; the world that she could never escape was her own.

Note: All quotations are from unpublished material and are courtesy of Special Collections, The University of Reading.

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Geoff Sawers

Geoff Sawers is a writer and artist. He is bored of just getting short-listed for things. Always the bridesmaid, never the sea monster.