A woman of intrigue

Beatrice Hastings: A Literary Life

by Stephen Gray

(Viking)

t is not often one can fully endorse the enconiums that publishers choose for their book covers, but this biography is a notable exception.

When Margaret Drabble calls Beatrice Hastings “A treasure house … researched with true scholarly passion,” she does not exaggerate. This makes it all the more ironic that The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which Drabble edited, excludes Hastings, as do all the other reference works I’ve consulted, including The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English edited by Lorna Sage.

What Stephen Gray has done in this exhaustive study is to retrieve from obscurity a distinctive literary talent and an intriguing personality remembered only — if at all — for her stormy affair with the artist Modigliani.

Gray’s first step in chapter one, entitled “The Legend”, is to separate myth, gossip — often malicious — and fictional incarnations from fact. The least flattering of these latter is what Gray calls “the meddlesome, florid and inconsequential rich widow, Mrs Harrowdean” in Mr Britling Sees it Through (1916) by HG Wells.

The portrait presented in Beatrice Hastings is far more sympathetic and, to judge by the enormous amount of research, far more accurate.

Beatrice Hastings (née Emily Alice Beatrice Haigh) was born in England in January 1879 and within a few months mother and baby set off for South Africa. She and her large family were to retain close ties with this country, although most of her writing life was spent in London and Paris.

One of the main strengths of this biography is the way in which, at every turn of fortune in Hastings’s life, Gray builds up a wonderfully evocative context. So even from the start he reminds us of key events of the period, political conditions and, most interesting of all, what was happening in the arts.

In chapter two, “Her Childhood”, for instance, we are given a rundown of important publications surrounding 1879 and the birthdates of several contemporaries with many of whom she would later have contact either as friends or enemies, collaborators or critics, and some as lovers. In this last connection Hastings was to become somewhat notorious, claiming at the age of 40 to have had the same number of affairs.

And, indeed, her love life was certainly interesting, especially if you look upon biography as a higher form of gossip, as Gray quips. Starting with two or three marriages, a seven-year liaison with New Age editor Alfred Richard Orage, her tempestuous relationship with Modigliani in Paris, a partially overlapping affair with sculptor Alfredo Pina, a few passing dalliances (with Wyndham Lewis, for example) and her most notorious passion for the very much younger French writer Raymond Radiguet.

Fascinating as this side of her life is, Hastings’s reputation as a writer is what chiefly concerns Gray. In this powerful work of retrieval he clearly demonstrates through substantial quotation that she was a fine writer whose work deserves to be saved from oblivion.

The greatest proportion of her writing was published during her 12-and-a-half-year association with the periodical, The New Age. Here she worked closely with Orage and was a leading contributor, as well as being instrumental in launching the careers of Ezra Pound and, more particularly, of Katherine Mansfield with whom she had a mercurial friendship.

The list of this prolific writer’s works cited by Gray extends more than 20 pages and includes three novels serialised in The New Age. The most autobiographical of these — Pages From an Unpublished Novel — is used extensively by Gray to illustrate or substantiate points. The difficult task of collation is aggravated by the fact that Hastings’s papers are housed in diverse, far-flung collections and that she frequently wrote under a variety of pseudonyms.

The name she favoured for her articles from Paris is Alice Morning and under this byline she published her Impressions of Paris from 1914, Peace Notes and Notes from France up to mid-1918. From the numerous extracts reproduced in Beatrice Hastings the quality of her writing is manifest, more than justifying the book’s subtitle, A Literary Life. Her courage emerges without egocentricity and her wit is ever-present. (“You can’t be not sure and sure at the same time, unless, of course, you are Shaw. Then it doesn’t matter so much.”)

Her descriptions of Paris under siege are moving and vivid, never descending to melodrama, and the writers and artists she mentions form a veritable roll-call of the talented and soon to be famous in an important period of artistic transition.

This is not a small book and not everyone will want to read it from cover to cover, but anyone interested in Modernism and the movements that immediately preceded it will find it an invaluable source of useful information. Gray has worked hard to produce a rounded picture not only of his central subject but also of the circles in which she moved in South Africa, London and Paris.

What he has achieved is an eminently readable book, packed to the brim with knowledgeable (and sometimes amusingly trivial) detail about a time of great political and artistic change, stretching from Hastings’s birth in 1879 to her death in 1943.

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