One of the things that I love most of all about reading memoirs, journals and letters (of literary figures, especially, because they tend to read so much, but of anybody really) is taking note of what the writer is reading. This was particularly interesting in reading Journey with My Selves because Dorothy Livesay was reading a lot of the writers that I, too, am interested in. Even though she was reading them in the 1920s and 1930s.
In her formative reading years, DL was most heavily influenced by her father. “All my love of knowledge came from books. In this sense my father had not failed me. Indeed, he was probably the only parent in the city of Toronto in the twenties who combined a passion for Henry James with a passion for women novelists: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte (rather than Emily), Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield.” (92)
As an adolescent she was reading: “the short stories, novels and plays of Shaw, Chekov, and Ibsen; Shakespeare’s songs and sonnets; Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell and the Georgian poets (Walter de la Mare, Humbert Wolfe, and Edward Thomas, her favourite)” among other things. But, she writes, “[t]hen we discovered the women: Elinor Wylie, Katherine Mansfield, Emily Dickinson.”
In the section of her memoir in which she writes about Gina, her best girlfriend when young and for many years afterwards, DL addresses her directly, as if writing a letter to her, and she quotes an earlier letter between them, from 1930, that “lovingly describes the women writers we shared…” which included H.D.’s Hedylus, Gertrude Stein, Elinor Wylie, Katherine Mansfield, and Amy Lowell. (73) [Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield: I feel the need to pull her Collected Stories off my shelf now for a re-read!]
In her attempt to understand Gina’s burgeoning lesbian relationship, DL turned to Radclyffe Hall: “In any case, The Well of Loneliness was the book, yet it did not help me to accept your new role. This caused a rift.” (71) But even though a book didn’t hold the answer she was looking for in that instance, she continued to put her faith in literature. “It was then Duncan told me that his favourite novel was Diana of the Crossways by George Meredith. This convinced me that he was a supporter of women’s rights and of women artists, just as my father had been.” 154 How many times have I done the same thing, taken a book about which I feel passionate and transferred that enthusiasm onto someone else who has read and adored it in a similar way. As unreliable as it may be, taking measurements of people with a read-o-meter is an old habit of mine.
I know, I know: it’s like she flipped through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue before she wrote her memoir! So it’s hard, too, then, not to take a reading from the read-o-meter and pronounce DL a kindred spirit (to borrow L.M. Montgomery’s terminology). DL borrows the term as well, in speaking of Gina — “I had an audience, a kindred spirit, to use L.M. Montgomery’s revered phrase: Gina, the beautiful, wild tomboy, who led me down paths my mother knew nothing about.” (91) — and so we have another author in common.
Really, though, I don’t think she and I would have been kindred spirits, but certainly I found a lot to relate to in this memoir, which one might not have guessed with all the superficial differences between us. It was inspiring enough to get me to travel to the end-of-the-line on the TTC (well, nearly, one stop away, where a public library houses most of her poetry collections on open shelves) and I spent the better part of a Saturday browsing her verse. Well, part of the inspiration was the Women Unbound Reading Challenge and part was Dorothy Livesay herself.
Note: Part I of my writing about this Journey is here, if you’re curious…
Anyone else finally getting around to getting acquainted with a writer whose work has sat “too long unread” on their bookshelves?