Wild Places Without a Man: H.D. and Bryher

Bryher, 1929

Towards the end of World War I, the American expatriate writer and poet Hilda Doolittle, H.D. met Annie Winifred Ellerman, known as Bryher. H.D. and Breyher became lovers and would remain intimate for the rest of H.D.’s life, supporting and sustaining each other and sharing the responsibility of parenting H.D.’s daughter Perdita.

However, theirs was not an exclusive partnership. Both took other lovers, and in 1921 Bryher entered into a marriage of convenience with the American writer and publisher Robert McAlmon. This arrangement enabled Bryher to keep her traditional family at arm’s length, and allowed McAlmon to use her wealth to set up his own press.

This excerpt, detailing the complex relationships of a circle of modernist literary figures, is from Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde by Francis Booth. Reprinted by permission.


Soon-to-be eminent poets

Robert McAlmon was a penniless writer, publisher, and art-class nude model when the poet William Carlos Williams introduced him to his very wealthy future wife, the writer and editor who named herself Bryher, after one of the British Scilly Isles. Bryher was the lifelong, on and off partner of poet and novelist known as H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), whom Williams had met along with Ezra Pound when they were all in college.

Hilda had first met Ezra Pound even before college, in 1901, when she was fifteen and a schoolgirl in a Philadelphia suburb; they met at a Halloween party. Pound was already a student at the University of Pennsylvania, as was Williams. Pound was dressed as a Tunisian prince. They got to know each other better from 1905 when Hilda went to the women’s liberal arts college Bryn Mawr, where her friend, the poet Marianne Moore also went.

However, Williams didn’t meet Moore until around 1914. Williams said that in those college days Hilda was “a bizarre beauty.” He may have been in love with her himself, but she was attracted to Ezra and they became engaged.

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Hilda Doolittle (H.D.)

More about H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
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“Ezra was the official lover, but Hilda was very coy and invited us both to come and see her. Ezra said to me, ‘are you trying to cut me out?’ I said, ‘no, I’m not thinking of any woman right now, but I like Hilda very much.’ Ezra Pound and I were not rivals, either for the girl or for the poetry. We were pals, both writing independently and respecting each other. I was impressed because he was studying literature and I wasn’t. I was learning from the page when I had a chance.”

Williams had met Pound even before he met H.D. . It was a very significant meeting for him; he was already starting to write poetry but intending to become a doctor. In a series of 1950s interviews with him, published as I Wanted to Write a Poem, he said: ‘Before meeting Ezra Pound is like B.C. and A.D.”

“I don’t recall my first meeting with him. Someone had told me there was a poet in the class. But I remember exactly how he looked. No beard, of course, then. He had a beautiful heavy head of blonde hair of which he was tremendously proud. Leonine. It was really very beautiful hair, wavy. And he had his head held high. I wasn’t impressed but I imagine the ladies were.”

H.D. wrote to Williams in 1905 that she was going to dedicate herself to “one who has been, beyond all others, torn and lonely – and ready to crucify himself yet more for the sake of helping all – I mean that I have promised to marry Ezra.” Williams got the consolation prize of being a best friend: “you are to me, Billy, nearer and dearer than many – than most.”

Hilda invited Ezra and his parents to Sunday lunch at her very conservative parents’ house. Her father was director of the Astronomical Observatory at the University and he didn’t approve of Ezra from the start, though Pound’s parents were socially acceptable – his father was assayer at the Philadelphia Mint – and they seemed to approve of Hilda.

Hilda’s cousin recalled Ezra’s first meeting with Hilda’s parents; he came with no hat over his wild mass of hair and was the first person her cousin had ever seen wearing tortoiseshell glasses. And “while ties were the absolute standard of dress for men, he wore none, but had his shirt open at the neck in true Byronic fashion … After the meal he read his poems to his adoring parents and Hilda, while the rest of us listened in confused wonderment.”

The engagement was soon over – Hilda wrote to Bill that Ezra had met someone else, but that she was “happy now as I was before – and I know that God is good.”

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bryher - the novelist

Annie Winifred Ellerman, known as Bryher
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H.D. meets Bryher

Bryher’s own first meeting with H.D. , on July 17, 1918, was seismic for both of them. Bryher had read about H.D. in Amy Lowell’s books; she had become a great admirer and knew H.D.’s collection Sea Garden of 1916 by heart. Bryher sought out her idol.

When she found her, Bryher said that Hilda had “the sea in her eyes” when she opened the door of her Cornwall, England cottage and said ‘in a voice all wind and gull notes, I have been waiting for you.’ Hilda asked Bryher if she had seen the puffins in the Scilly Isles, which are off the coast of Cornwall; Bryher asked Hilda if she would go there with her.

Bryher had arrived at the right time: H.D. was poverty-stricken, abandoned by both her husband, Richard Aldington, and her female lover, Frances Gregg. And she was pregnant, possibly with D.H. Lawrence’s child.

Nobody knows if H.D. had a physical affair with D.H. Lawrence – they both burned all their letters to each other – but they were certainly close intellectually and geographically: Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived above her in London. We know they critiqued each other’s manuscripts and often had dinner together; all the rest is speculation.


Relationships turned into fiction

H.D. fictionalized her relationship with Aldington and D.H. and Frieda Lawrence in her novel Bid Me to Live but does not resolve the issue. When Hilda met Bryher, Aldington was not unhappy: they had an open relationship – the stillborn child she had with him had put her off sex, at least with men.

He wrote to her, “damn it, Dooley I believe in women having all the lovers they want if they’re in love with them.” She told him about her new female friend and admirer and on July 28, 1918 Richard wrote to his “wild Dryad”:

“Ah, my dear, how sweet and beautiful you are. Of course I will come to you after the war and we will be ‘wild & free,’ and happy ‘in the unploughed lands no foot oppresses, The lands that are free being free of man,’ I love you, best-beloved and dearest among all the daughters of the half-gods. . . You must tell me more about this new admirer of H.D. She must be very wise since she can love your poems so much. Has she a name or is she just some belle anonyme? Is she truly of the sacred race or merely one to whom it is given to recognise the gods yet not be of them?”

Bryher was certainly not among the gods as a writer, though McAlmon did publish her. Whether or not H.D. was a goddess of writing is another matter; Pound thought she was, but then she was helping him, along with Amy Lowell, in his promotion of Imagism in poetry.

T.S. Eliot, on the other hand, certainly didn’t think so. On November 17, 1921, he wrote to Aldington: ‘I did not conceal from you that I think you overrate H.D.’s poetry. I do find it fatiguingly monotonous and lacking in the element of surprise.”


About Winifred Ellerman, aka Bryher

Bryher’s real name was Winifred Ellerman, and she was the daughter of the secretive shipping tycoon John Ellerman, at that time probably the richest Englishman who had ever lived. He had a huge mansion in Central London near to Selfridges where Winifred grew up – she hated it and called it a “stuffy mansion.”

She told Hilda that if she did not come to the Scilly Isles and live with her she would commit suicide. Hilda agreed, and Bryher nursed her through the pregnancy, this time resulting on December 13, 1919, in a daughter, Perdita – the lost one – whom the two women brought up together.

Ezra Pound turned up at the hospital in London the day before Perdita was born, carrying an ebony stick with which he pounded the floor. He said he was very happy for her, though he told her that in her black lace cap she looked like old Mrs. Grumpy. His only problem, he said, was that the child wasn’t his.

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Everybody I can think of ever - meetings that made the avant-garde

Everybody I Can Think of Ever on Amazon U.S.*
Everybody I Can Think of Ever on Amazon U.K*
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A marriage of convenience

Soon after Perdita was born, Bryher got married — to Robert McAlmon of all people. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely couple, but all was not what it seemed. They had first met when Hilda contacted her old college friend William Carlos Williams to say that she and a friend were coming to New York en route to Los Angeles, where they were thinking of setting up; would he like to drop round to their hotel for tea? Williams was working with McAlmon on Contact magazine at the time; he asked Bob if he would like to come along.

Bryher turned out to be a very good thing financially, not only for McAlmon, but for many of his friends. Sylvia Beach, the owner of the legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company, regularly exchanged letters with her and with H.D; she spoke to Hilda as to a friend, but when she wrote to Bryher she wrote in gratitude, as to a patron. There are several letters extant where Sylvia thanks Bryher for saving her from financial ruin. Many years later, on Bryher’s fiftieth birthday Beach wrote to her:

“It was in one of the earliest days of ‘Shakespeare and Company’ that you came into my bookshop and my life, dear Bryher, and that we became a Protectorate of yours. We might have had the words: ‘By Special Appointment to Bryher’ painted above the door.”

When he first met her, McAlmon didn’t know – or said he didn’t know – that Bryher’s family was fabulously wealthy; he seemed to be genuinely attracted to her physically. He knew she wasn’t just another poor poet, though:

“Her family name meant little to me. However, I knew she was connected with great wealth.” At least that was the story that McAlmon, Williams, and others told. Morley Callaghan, a friend and former reporter colleague of Ernest Hemingway believed it; or at least he didn’t believe in looking a gift horse in the mouth: after the divorce McAlmon was left quite wealthy and was known as McAlimony.

“It had been a very nice thing for him to marry a rich girl and get a handsome divorce settlement, but I had always believed his story that he hadn’t been aware it was to be a marriage in name only; he had insisted he was willing to be interested in women. And with the money, what did he do? Spend it all on himself? No, he became a publisher, he spent the money on other people he believed in.”

But McAlmon wasn’t telling the truth, certainly not the whole truth. Kay Boyle, in her edited version of McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, prints a letter that he sent to Williams at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey.

“Then you’d better know this, Bill. I didn’t tell you in New York because I thought it wasn’t mine to tell. But Bryher doesn’t mind … The marriage is legal only, unromantic, and strictly an agreement. Bryher could not travel, and be away from home, unmarried. It was difficult being in Greece and other wild places without a man. She thought I understood her mind, as I do somewhat and faced me with the proposition. Some other things I shan’t mention I knew without realising. Well, you see I took on the proposition.”

It was a good proposition, for both of them: McAlmon got access to lots of money and a trip to Europe where he could meet James Joyce; Bryher got both a publisher and a husband as a cloak for her relationship with H.D.

He was presumably not the kind of husband her parents would have wanted: a penniless writer taking his clothes off for a living, but he was probably preferable to a lesbian lover in the eyes of them and the public. This wasn’t cosmopolitan, liberated Paris, this was conservative London and New York.

They were married in New York on February 14, 1921, Valentine’s Day – Williams and his wife Flossie, Marianne Moore, and the painter Marsden Hartley were at the supper afterward. They set off for Europe immediately, sharing the bridal suite, for which Sir John Ellerman had paid. H.D went with them.


Perdita’s last word

It wasn’t entirely a happy family though: McAlmon was a serial womanizer and needed conquests; he once even tried to kiss Sylvia Beach’s formidable partner Adrienne Monnier and got his lip bitten for the effort. And though he didn’t so much mind Hilda he barely tolerated Perdita, whom he called “Hilda Doolittle’s infant. It had black hair and eyes, and utterly blithe disregard in disposition and at the time looked like a Japanese Empress in miniature.” Note his charming use of the word “it” rather than “her.”

In return, many years later, Perdita (Schaffner as she became) wrote about McAlmon in her afterword to a 1984 republication of Bid Me to Live:

“Bryher’s husband Robert McAlmon turned up from time to time. from Paris. He never stayed long. It was a marriage of convenience; no reason why it shouldn’t work as well as any other, but it didn’t. He and Bryher fought constantly. Realizing that something was awry, I never looked on him as a father, even though Bryher was my second mother.”

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.

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