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The silencing of Laura Riding

Elena Theodorakopoulos

University of Birmingham

Laura (Riding) Jackson was one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, and an influential critic in her time. She wrote extensively on what it means to live and write as a woman. But much of her ground-breaking work is overshadowed by the fact that she lived for some years with Robert Graves, and is thought of by many as the inspiration for his White Goddess. Her own challenging writing on herself and her work, and her fierce attacks on Graves and his followers bear out how severely she was affected by the myth created around her person at the expense of her work (see her literary memoir, The Person I Am, 2011). The implications for literary history of William Empson’s refusal to acknowledge his debt to Riding in Seven Types of Ambiguity have been starkly outlined in a recent article (Jacobs 2015). But Riding’s influence on Graves’s classical work, including his poetry and his novels, as well as The White Goddess, continues to be overlooked, and rather dramatically. In a recent collection of essays on Graves (Gibson 2015) Riding is mentioned a number of times, although not one title of her works features in the index. Instead, every mention of Riding from the introduction’s description of her relationship with Graves as ‘theatrical’ and ‘gothic’ to the final suggestion that Graves’s depiction of Claudius’ ‘subservient relationship with Messalina’ mirrors his relationship with Riding, plays out her popular perception as either ‘muse’ or ‘witch’ (see Friedmann 2005, on her obituaries).  It is clear that this preoccupation with Riding’s role in Graves’s life is directly responsible for the unjustifiable lack of attention paid to her own creative work, and especially to the two works of historical prose she produced while living with Graves, A Trojan Ending (1937) and The Lives of Wives (1939).

Both works engage with ancient sources, and with the idea of history and historical writing, as well as with the idea of writing and speaking as a woman. Riding had a good classical education, excelling in Latin at school and reading Classics at Cornell, and her poetry shows detailed engagement with Greek mythology. A Trojan Ending is in many ways a direct, although not acknowledged, precursor of novels such as Christa Wolf’s Kassandra (1984) and of ideas about ‘feminine writing’ articulated by feminist critics such as Luce Irigaray and Helene Cixous. But apart from one illuminating reading (in Hoberman 1997) the novel has received little critical attention in the field of classical reception studies. The Lives of Wives has fared even worse, and is almost entirely forgotten. A review by Graham Greene in the Spectator in 1939 gives a good flavour of the type of misogyny that work such as Riding’s was routinely subjected to at the time: Greene’s main criticism is that Riding is too difficult, and he makes a meal of her ‘unreadability’ which he puts down to her being ‘afraid of falsity’ in a negative way of describing Riding’s well-known focus on truth in language. Ridiculing her fierce commitment to choosing words with care, Greene paints a picture in which Riding ‘picks out her adjectives like a prim woman removing the bones from her kipper’. He then dismisses her scholarship by relegating her to schoolgirl status with the remark that ‘The shadow of the school certificate falls across the page’. It is now widely recognised that accusing women writers of wilful obscurity and over-intellectualism is a common way to marginalise them (see for instance Russ 2018).

This paper gives a proper account of these two prose works by Riding, both in the context of Graves’s historical fiction, which I think is influenced by Riding’s methodologies, and in the context of her own classicism and feminism. I hope this will help to restore Riding to her just place in the history of modernism and its approaches to the Classics.

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Feminist Re-Visionings: Twentieth-Century Women Writers and Classics

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