Two New Letters to Robert Neumann

Rebecca Bowler

The name of Robert Neumann crops up in Dorothy Richardson’s letters time and time again. He was known principally to her as the author of Die Macht, which she translated and which was released as Mammon in 1933. Soon after the publication (and subsequent disappearance) of Mammon, on the 18th of February 1934, Richardson wrote to Bryher recommending that she call on him: ‘I’ve just heard from Robert Neumann (Die Macht) that he arrives to-day in London for a few days. Do go and see him[ ]or talk with him over the telephone, (in English). He is altogether a delightful and charming creature and will give you the latest news from Vienna, where he knows every body’. It seems that Bryher did just that, for a couple of weeks later, Richardson writes to inform her that ‘Robert Neumann writes to me about a little lady who called on him: Mrs Bryher. “I saw her eyes & I asked her if she were a poet. But she was perhaps too shy to agree. You are all too shy in this country.”’ When trawling through the transcripts of these letters, this quoted portion from a missing Neumann letter intrigued me. They must have been writing to each other often in the 1930s. Later in March 1934, in fact, she mentions that she has heard again from Neumann, in a letter to Bryher: ‘about whose eyes of a poet he continues to rave’. There is a gap, and then in 1937 she reports that the Neumanns came to tea, and a good time was had by all.

A certain amount of searching revealed that an archive of Robert Neumann’s letters were in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, but there was no catalogue online. A very helpful librarian in the Rare Book and Manuscript department however, searched the boxes and came up with two letters from Richardson: both from 1944. The existence of these letters, more than ten years after any necessary professional correspondence must have taken place, points to an enduring friendship, albeit one with a very long gap in communication. The first letter, dated 26th October, begins with Richardson’s characteristic excuse for lapses in letter writing: ‘for years past, life has not been just one thing after another, but always several things at once, with countless preoccupations as background’. She asks, mistakenly, whether the ‘“Rolly”’ mentioned in Neumann’s letter is his son, prompting, presumably, the response that no: Rolly is the nickname he gives his wife. The son, whose schooling at a Quaker school Richardson remembers being discussed over tea in 1937, died in 1944: shortly before Neumann and Richardson resumed correspondence.

The first letter is primarily a writer’s letter to another writer. Richardson thanks Neumann for the two books he has sent her, at different times: Scene in Passing (which she loved: ‘One could get inside it & live there’), and The Inquest, his newest. She has not only engaged with the texts themselves, but with the reviews of them. She begins with a compliment as to the English of the German speaking Neumann (Scene in Passing and Inquest were Neumann’s first publications in English): ‘I find your so inclusive mastery of our strangely-mingled tongue quite amazing’. However, she has reservations as to the essential Englishness of the supposedly English characters in the later novel. The Times Literary Supplement had reviewed Inquest earlier in October and concluded that Shilling, the protagonist, was unconvincing: ‘it was a mistake to make Shilling English […] for there is very little that is English about him’.1 Richardson agrees: You have now been with us for longer than it took Renier to discover that the English are human.2 Your Shilling is amply that, but is not English. The otherwise inadequate Times Lit. reviewer is right there’.

Richardson’s second letter is different entirely. There is more news, and responses to news: she tells Neumann about the circumstances under which she and Alan lost 32 Queen’s Terrace, and is interested in Neumann’s tales of wandering in Wales. She sympathises with the sad news that Neumann’s son ‘Heini’ had passed away, but goes on to assert that in grief, the gift of ‘imaginative sympathy’ is given. The phrase ‘imaginative sympathy’ (and its partner phrase ‘vicarious living’ or ‘vicarious experience’) is a favourite of Richardson’s, and moves her to write an exposition as to the busy and stressful nature of her own life: as if she sees an opportunity for Neumann to exercise this ‘imaginative sympathy’ (which, she carefully points out, he had ‘already’). The pressures of keeping home and seeing friends, Richardson explains, leave her little time to write:

‘Nearly the whole of my time this last five years has gone to housewifery. I’ve written just half a book, several sonnets & a few short things, & the equivalent of several volumes in the form of letters. Sometimes I pine for a wife & a secretary. And then, again, I don’t. Or at least for a “servant”. And then, again, no. One might as well have a permanent guest. Even a deaf-mute makes demands, perhaps more searching than those of one differently afflicted. Friends we have, in this London-crowded area, popping in from morn till eve. [inserted above line: Delightful. But, in some cases, a time-consuming trial.]’

This section of the letter is very similar in style to one Richardson wrote to Veronica Grad in 1930 in which she exhorts ‘Vera’ to ‘Imagine the drain of domesticity’ and also the mental and physical drain caused by the need to be sociable: ‘With the complication that everybody, nearly enough, is apt to be reproachful. It staggers me. The absence in almost everybody of the imaginative faculty. […] You are not of those & you have imagination. So you will understand that a visit, even to one’s best friends, can be a tax beyond one’s strength’. It is striking that Richardson can write in almost the same way about the demands of her life fourteen years apart, and to two very different friends.

The first Neumann letter, written as a way of getting back in touch, is formal and writerly. The second is sociable and more personally revealing. It reads, tantalisingly, as though the renewed acquaintance between the two writers could be about to launch into a much closer friendship, but unfortunately, there are no more letters extant. We cannot know whether more letters were exchanged, or whether Richardson lapsed again: unable to find time to write amidst the ‘housewifery’ of her wartime life.

1. Review, Times Literary Supplement, 14 Oct 1944, p. 497. Quoted in Nicole Brunnhuber, The Faces of Janus: English-Language Fiction by German-Speaking Exiles in Great Britain, 1933-1945 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), p. 91.

2.  Gustaaf Johannes Renier wrote a book entitled The English: Are They Human? (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931).

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About cultpol

Dorothy Richardson fan.
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