Amy Licence: historian of the lives of Medieval, Tudor and early modern women; nineteenth and early twentieth century art, history, literature and culture; writer of literary ficton.
Wednesday 4 September 2013
Sydney and Violet Schiff: A new biography of a marginal modern marriage.
“Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S.
Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis”
by Nan A. Talese (3 Sep 2013)
RRP £17.99 0385534094
“Modernism” is a generous umbrella, covering a
breadth of groups, individuals and media. The big names of the art and literary
worlds have received much critical attention in recent years but less well
appreciated have been its patrons and facilitators, the hosts, friends and
supporters who provided the glue between disparate artists. Stephen Klaidman’s
new biography of Sydney and Violet Schiff highlights an interesting couple, who
made their own contribution to literary circles of the 1920s.
Relatively overlooked until now, the Schiffs appear
on the surface to be a conventional middle class couple, based in London and
the South of France. However, their correspondence and friendships included figures such
as Picasso, D.H.Lawrence, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley. Klaidman has written a fascinating book, using the Schiffs to
reflect light on their more famous friends and has tried hard to
rehabilitate their reputation as a literary couple. However, their own output is rarely read today and for the reader, one Schiff consistently emerges as rather more
radiant and engaging then the other. Klaidman's style leaves little doubt where his sympathies lie, backhandedly
apologising for Sydney’s clumsiness and giving the impression that the husband overshadowed his wife’s talents. This book highlights Violet’s own
wasted potential as much as her gift for friendship, or what Willa Muir
described as her genius for womanhood.
After establishing the circumstances under which the
Schiffs met and married, Klaidman’s book really takes off when he examines
their friendships in the early 1920s. Surviving letters from this period allow
another window into the existing biographies of figures such as Katherine
Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot and stress the personal
affection in which they held the Schiffs as a couple. Most interesting though,
are the detailed letters that they sent and received from the reclusive Marcel
Proust during the last part of his life. A vivid picture of Proust emerges,
ensconced in his Parisian flat reading the final proofs of À la Recherche de Temps Perdu, wrapped in furs and sending his chauffeur
to the Ritz for cold beers. This is perhaps the most satisfying section of the
book, with the epistolary friendship developing in the reclusive writer’s dying
years; I did feel though, that Klaidman did not quite convince me why Proust
would select the Schiffs as his confidants during this time. Perhaps this was
down to the nature of the friendship, as the trio only met in person on a
handful of occasions and a portion of the letters are missing. Otherwise, Klaidman does a good job with the remaining evidence, presenting the highs and lows of their association.
Violet by Wyndham Lewis
Proust and Sydney Schiff had a common connection in
their shared craft. Writing under the
pseudonym Stephen Hudson, Sydney produced a number of novels, which have not
survived the test of time as well as those of his friend.Klaidman presents his works as collaborations
with Violet, whom Proust certainly found to be the more sympathetic and gifted critic.
The extent to which she contributed to Sydney’s work is unclear and Klaidman is
convinced by her qualities as a critical and incisive reader of her husband
and friends’ work. Some even suspected her of authoring Hudson’s work but it is
frustrating that little evidence survives about the extent of her involvement
and whether the process of composition was shared. She
comes across as the more engaging of the pair, with her intellect, empathy and
musical gifts being appreciated among her friends but never finding fruition in wider
circles. The book certainly left me with an appetite to discover more about Violet,
almost regretting that she did not put pen to paper independently of Sydney.
The prominence of Wyndham Lewis in the book’s title
is a little misleading, as he plays an equal or lesser part in the narrative
than figures like Eliot and Proust. The reader is left in little doubt that
this is down to the author’s own personal preference, as although Lewis’s
behaviour and views do emerge as “excrutiatingly irascible” even when considered
objectively, Klaidman goes much further and describes his work as “monstrous,
ramblshackle… blunderbuss,” pretentious, irrelevant, banal, plotless, prejudice, mean-spirited, humourless,
self-serving and enveloping the reader like quicksand.” This forceful opinion
is a little distracting and appears to emerge from Lewis’s perceived
ingratitude for the Schiff’s material support, when a less colourful
condemnation may have been less obtrusive.
Largely, this was a satisfying read, which sheds a useful
and interesting insight on modernist circles. It was well-paced and full of the interesting details and anecdotes that remain in the mind. In certain places, the book could
have supported more background material, such as when it came to Violet’s early
life and the position of Jews in inter-war London. Also, particular passages
ended abruptly, like the death of Katherine Mansfield and incarcertation of
Vivienne Eliot but this was perhaps an indication that the author had been
successful making these characters interesting. The Modernist furrow has been
well ploughed by biographers but until now, the Schiffs have languished in the margins.
This may well be because in terms of literary output they are, in fact,
marginal figures, but this book brings their role as valued mentors and friends
into the light in an anecdotal and enjoyable way.