Fresca: A Life in the Making. A Biographer's Quest for a Forgotten Bloomsbury Polymath.
Helen Southworth's project to discover the story of British-German Jewish Francesca Allinson, whose autobiographical novel, A Childhood, was published by the Hogarth Press in 1937, is a "biography-in-action." Instead of a seamless portrait and study of the ways in which the story of Fresca's life intersected with the lives and artistic endeavors of better known and, equally, forgotten contemporaries, it is "a life in the making," as the title highlights, a tale that maps out its own processes. This meta-methodology is indicated very clearly at the outset, from the subtitle to the preface and acknowledgements page, "A Tale of Research or Biography as Detection and Jigsaw" (vii). As Southworth outlines, the "biography" is structured where possible in terms of the order in which items such as books, photographs, and wills "presented themselves to me," including "leads that did not pan out, that did not produce gold, as well as, of course, those that did, and details and anecdotes that pertain only peripherally to Fresca's life story" (viii). So the reader is introduced to Southworth's virtuoso and occasionally vertiginous expose of the practices and processes of an archival researcher and biographer who works, in the footsteps of Woolf herself, on the lives of the obscure. In the absence of a single Fresca archive, Southworth takes to traditional archive and standard library research, e-mails, and interviews, as well as pursuing new resources and methods facilitated by the internet--Google Maps, Google Books, crowd sourcing, and more--to build an archive of her own. Inspired by other biographers, to "show the folds of a life" (viii), this is not only an unconventional biography about an unconventional life tragically cut short, but also about a specific period in English cultural history glimpsed through unexpected vistas that the search for Fresca recovers.
Who was Fresca, what did she write, whom did she know, and what were her connections with Bloomsbury? Included in a checklist of Bloomsbury publications, the reference to Francesca Allinson's only novel, A Childhood, sends the author on a series of textual quests through which a reading of her novel is interwoven. Clues to Fresca's childhood, the illness she struggled with all her life, her education, her life as a writer and as a musician who made significant contributions in the field of choral work, her largely unacknowledged scholarship on the music of Henry Purcell, and her keen interests in folk music, theatre and puppetry, are necessarily traced through the lives and writing of others. Their letters, poetry, autobiographies, musical dedications and compositions, and several obituaries following her suicide are tracked down, retrieved and often quoted at length. In composer Michael Tippett's autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues, Southworth finds her first story of Fresca, a complex story of shared interests--music, social justice--and unrequited love "which has a beginning, a middle and a tragic end" (2). The story of Tippett's life, his homosexuality and pacifism, and the history of some of his compositions closely connected with Fresca as further excavations reveal, his letters and papers more broadly, continue to be central sources. This is especially so following the discovery in the Tippett archive of a misidentified document that is in fact Fresca's diary. It is a revelation: "These intimate notes provide a map of Fresca's soul, a very troubled soul, and give a sense of the landscape of literary resources available to an educated, intellectually curious woman of the 1930s. The diary is a reader's diary" (207).
Fresca's reading choices, carefully identified and often quoted, included Woolf's writing, another connection with Tippett: "Woolf appears to represent a shared language, a shared passion" (6). Painstaking explorations of other significant friendships offer further insights into brief crossings with Bloomsbury and an explanation for the appearance of her only novel in the Hogarth publications list. Enid Marx, who emerges as a fascinating figure in her own right, a protegee of Paul Nash who became best known for her textile and other industrial design work as well as her book illustrations (140), has a double connection it turns out. Adrian Stephen is Marx's analyst, as well as Fresca's, for a period. The Hogarth Press considers Fresca's manuscript thanks to Marx's friendship with Alice Ritchie, "a Hogarth Press insider" (134) and sister of Trekkie Ritchie Parsons. In turn, Fresca's request that Marx illustrate her novel ensures further collaboration between Marx and the press. In search of further details, Southworth's visit to the Hogarth Press Archive at the University of Reading reveals a series of exchanges between Fresca and Leonard Woolf about the manuscript and its forthcoming publication, also pointing to a meeting between Virginia Woolf and Fresca. Disappointingly for biographer and reader, there is no record of that interview. What is fascinating here, however, and indicative of the riches of the entire project, is where attention to the conventional focuses of scholarship, Woolf, Bloomsbury, and the Hogarth Press bring to the fore alternative and hitherto unexplored groupings, the other side of a conversation.
Teasing out Fresca's complex relationship with Judy Wogan, close friend and for a time lover, reveals another productive period for Fresca in the realms of both literature and music, and mutual interests in social engagement. It also brings to light the Arts League of Service and the array of affiliated writers and artists, its council members ranging from Wyndham Lewis and T. S. Eliot to Tagore and E. McKnight Kauffer (97). Among the many striking details surfaced are Judy Wogan's association with a travelling theatre troupe allied to the Service that saw her performing in a play that Constance Markievicz and her husband took on tour. Wogan went on to establish the Grafton Theatre in London, an extraordinary avant-garde project that Southworth's explorations bring to light.
While the accumulation and careful documenting of material, the tracking of correspondence, the meeting with biographers, relatives, and friends described in depth, the handing over of letters on pavements next to Tube stations, and wild goose chases might threaten to distract a reader who wants to get on with the story, these details offer the thrill of recognition to any scholar who has undertaken this kind of research. Dilemmas--an offer of a photograph torn from an album, guilt about letters returned to a generous scholar but in a muddle, the discovery of a diary and doubts about invading the privacy of another--are also examined. And just when, at times, the tracking of minute details of Francesca's life or of her relatives and friends becomes almost overwhelming, an unexpected fact, a connection illuminated, sparks a revelation. The radical feminist and anarchist Freewoman and New Freewoman as well as the socialist New Age carried advertisements for A Book for Married Women, written by Fresca's father "early whole foods, vegetarian and natural prescriptions guru Dr Thomas Richard Allinson" (13), for example. Fresca's brother Adrian Paul Allinson, Slade School trained, occupied the margins of "the lives of several famous Slade Art School graduates, including Bloomsbury figures Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington, as well as Edward Wadsworth, Christopher [C.R.W.] Nevinson, and Stanley Spencer" (16). Author of an unpublished biography, A Painter's Pilgrimage, held, intriguingly, with the Dorothy Miller Richardson papers at the University of Tulsa (n. 11, 336), Adrian Allinson's links with Bloomsbury were more tangential than Southworth initially imagined, but his connections with other literary and aesthetic circles are equally fascinating. These circles are glimpsed early in the research project--the composers Philip Heseltine, the writers Jean Rhys and Dorothy Richardson, the artists Alan Odle (Richardson's husband) and Nina Hamnett (18-19). Adrian Allinson's "Cafe Royal" painting features, among others, Nancy Cunard, Iris Tree, and Augustus John. Adrian Allinson's connections anticipate the carefully mined details about intersections among Fresca, Bloomsbury, and other often overshadowed pacifist, experimental and avant-garde circles of the interwar and early period of the Second World War, the creative friendships and collaborations that later excavations reveal. Southworth brings to light additional literary and musical contributions, such as Fresca's book of nursery rhymes illustrated with woodcuts by Marco (Enid Marx) and, most intriguingly, an unpublished folk song monograph, a collaborative project begun with Michael Tippett, "The Irish Contribution to English Traditional Tunes." Discovering a version of the monograph in the Ralph Vaughan Williams archive, Southworth finds that the subject of the monograph proved problematic for Vaughan Williams and others who wanted to safeguard the Englishness of English traditional tunes. She finds a letter to Leonard Woolf asking whether Hogarth Press would be interested in her "highly controversial" book (273). In search of an understanding of Fresca's project, its history, and the story of its failed publication offer another unexpected angle on the cultural history of the period.
In the true spirit of archival and biographical researchers who set out with a plan and a focus but find themselves waylaid or side-tracked down unexpected avenues, readers who might be tantalized and drawn to read this work through the titular reference to Bloomsbury will discover familiar territory from new perspectives alongside entirely unexamined terrain. For researchers interested in literary, artistic, musical, pacifist, and other networks of the interwar years, this "biographer's quest" is a cornucopia. Not always an easy reading experience because layers of textual excavation and complex networks need to be navigated, the narrative is necessarily circuitous and fractured at times; it is, however, a richly rewarding one, full of surprises and illuminations.
--Kathryn Laing, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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