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Drawn From Life

Drawn From Life by Stella Bowen

Why are people allowed — and women encouraged — to stake their lives, careers, economic position, and hopes of happiness on love? Why did not my godfathers and godmothers in my baptism, and my copybooks at school, and my mother when she tried to explain the facts of life, all tell me, “You must stand alone”? How dare parents encourage their girls to remain in a state of receptive idleness so that they may be ready, at a moment’s notice, to follow the dictates of a love affair? […] Women are eating  their hearts out, and rotting away right and left, because love and domesticity have been inadequate to fill their lives.
Drawn From Life by Stella Bowen

‘My mother’s life spanned the years between the close of the nineteenth century and the late 1940s, a half century that began with muslin dresses, tennis parties and cricket matches in South Australia and ended with the Second World War and its aftermath in England,’ writes Stella Bowen’s daughter, Julia Loewe, in her introduction to the 1984 Virago edition of her mother’s 1940 memoir. And it feels right that she warns us how far her mother will travel — geographically and spiritually — from stuffy turn of the century Adelaide.

In 1914, at the age of twenty, Stella Bowen sailed for England to study art. She planned to stay for a year, but she spent the rest of her life in England, France and America: war-time in London, Paris in the 1920s, the south of France, America and war-time England once more in the 1930s. ‘[I]t is probably reasonable to suppose that I should have ended by marrying some serious young man and settling down for ever in Adelaide, if it had not been for my mother’s death,’ she writes.

Instead, after arriving in London she studied art with Walter Sickert and found herself partying among the literary and artistic set of the time — Ezra Pound (‘not unbeautiful’), Yeats, TS Eliot (‘with his gentle and benevolent smile and a black satin chest protector’), May Sinclair and Violet Hunt. Through Pound she was introduced to Ford Maddox Ford — ‘one of the writers whom Ezra allowed us to admire’ — with whom she lived for nearly ten years in Sussex, Paris and the South of France.

Their life together is at the heart of Drawn From Life. Their homes were a series of poverty-stricken domestic disasters, from which Ford had to be shielded to protect his writing. Wherever they lived, conditions were always domestically difficult. In Sussex they lived in a tiny cottage on a smallholding for four summers and three winters with their baby daughter, Julia. In winter the pipe that brought their water from the spring would freeze and burst, they were too poor for a library subscription and they had no telephone or wireless. London visitors like Pound and Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop (an unexpected link to Penelope Fitzgerald’s childhood), came in the summer months only. With Ford’s peace to protect, animals and a small child to care for, Bowen’s own painting came last.

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever her wanted and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

To escape another Sussex winter, the couple went to stay in Monro’s villa in Cap Ferrat in the south of France. ‘We took the night train down [from Paris] just before Christmas. In the winter of 1922-23 the rush to the Riviera was so great that for the privilege of sitting up all night in a second-class carriage, we had to book seats a fortnight in advance.’ The next few years were spent between Paris and the South. In 1920s Paris, they mixed with Hemingway, Joyce and Gertrude Stein. I heard a few times last year, in the run-up to the centenary of the First World War, how apolitical (literary? intellectual?) life was in the 1920s so it was interesting to read Bowen’s reflections confirming this.

Alas! There will never again be anything like the Paris of the nineteen-twenties in our life-time. Those were the days before international finance collapsed and the depression pulled us all into the mire — before the dictators had begun to threaten their neighbours and refugees to flee from their fatherland. It is difficult now to remember how completely we were without political preoccupations, but such was the world we lived in, and from England in 1940 it looks like a remote and unbelievable Heaven.

In 1924 Ford founded the transatlantic review, a financially draining endeavor that lasted only a year, but published portions of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in serialised form, as well as work by Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Getrude Stein and Jean Rhys. Rhys remains nameless in Drawn From Life — ‘the very pretty and gifted young woman’ Ford had fallen in love with; ‘a really tragic person’ with ‘an unpublishably sordid novel of great sensitiveness and persuasiveness’. ‘When we met her,’ writes Bowen, ‘she possessed nothing but a cardboard suit-case and the astonishing manuscript.’ Rhys would go on to give her account of the affair in Quartet.

Ford and Bowen’s relationship survived until 1928. Stella Bowen and her daughter remained in Paris until the depression forced them back to England as Bowen turned forty. Drawn From Life ends in July 1940. Bowen is living in Essex, directly under the flight path of German bombers heading for London (‘For that reason it remained comparatively cheap.’)

And now the air raids have begun. We put cotton-wool in our ears, and hope to stay asleep when the sirens howl […] The anti-aircraft goes wuff-wuff and the German planes fill the sky with a pulsating hum, like a swarm of evil bees […] Meanwhile the sun shines and the sweet-peas are out and the poppies surpass all expectation. The French beans are ready to be salted down for the winter and I am putting in savoy cabbages as I take up the peas.

Again, again, the domestic, the necessary, pulses through her life. Despite the struggle to find a stable home and a space in which to work, Bowen had continued to paint during her years with Ford. In 1944 she became the second woman to be appointed as a war artist by the Australian Government. She died of cancer in London in 1947, desperate to return to Australia, just as her career was, in many ways, taking shape at last.

Reading Drawn From Life, Stella’s voice is clear and vivid. The years that separate her life from my own seem to collapse. So much has changed, and yet her story is so recognisable. Drusilla Modjeska’s book Stravinsky’s Lunch is a double biography of Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith, another Australian artist & Bowen’s nearly exact contemporary. It’s been on my shelf — thumbed through, but not read — for the last six years. Definitely time to go there.

Drawn From Life

2 Comments

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading what you’ve had to say about Drawn From Life and I’m adding it to my reading list. I was not familiar with Stella Bowen’s writing before this evening. Thank you.

    Although Jean Rhys is best known for Wide Sargasso Sea, it is her After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie that I always find myself returning to. I don’t believe I’ve read Quartet, but I’ll be looking that one up too.

    • Sarah says

      Thanks, Denise. I love all the different new directions one book can take us in. Jean Rhys — yes, I’ve only read Wide Sargasso Sea, so thanks for recommending After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (it has such a wonderful title!). And I know that Ford’s Parade’s End has a character in it based on Stella — again, I’ve only read his most famous book, The Good Soldier…so many directions to go in!

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