Carole Angier

The awkward squad | 16 October 2004

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Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women

Rosemary Dinnage

New York Review of Books, pp. 296, £

The introduction to Alone! Alone! is very good. It’s modest and candid, and everything Rosemary Din- nage says about book-reviewing is spot on (e.g. ‘If it’s about misery, send it to Dinnage’ — funny, I thought that was me.) Especially this: ‘It’s sometimes like writing a diary, or a running commentary of evolving ideas.’ That’s exactly how it feels, if you review a lot — and not even very rapidly evolving ideas, in my case; my current obsessions probably repeat themselves in every review. Hence Dinnage’s idea for this book: to collect those of her reviews that hung together as a ‘running commentary’ on one of her favourite miseries, ‘outsider women’: women who, by choice or nature, ‘stood outside the boundaries of the ordinary’, and, as her title proclaims, alone.

All this was attractive, and I embarked eagerly. Part I, ‘Solitaries’ (but wouldn’t they all be solitaries?) held me. ‘Gwen John’ was as much about Augustus as Gwen, but Augustus is good copy, and I didn’t mind. ‘Stevie Smith’ and ‘Barbara Pym’ were very good; I felt Dinnage had a special sympathy for these beady-eyed, stoical, very English old maids. ‘Simone Weil’ was good too, an economic portrait of that impossibly strenuous, wildly unworldly saint; so Dinnage’s sympathies were wide, I thought, and moved on more eagerly still.

But now I hit a snag. The last solitary is a six-year-old girl called Nadia, who was profoundly autistic but drew like an angel. Nadia wasn’t a woman, but she was certainly alone, and let’s not be pedantic. But the problem was that this review (of a book published in 1977, so we’re going back a bit) was not about Nadia’s aloneness, or even about Nadia; it was about artistic representation and its relation to intelligence. It didn’t seem connected to any ‘evolving idea’, but hauled in from the bottom of Dinnage’s great-aunt’s trunk (where, she tells us, she kept all her copies) to fill out Part I. Well, never mind, Part II is waiting.

But in Part II (‘Partners and Muses’) the trouble deepened, and in Parts III (‘Seers’) and IV (‘Exotics’) it deepened still more. There was nothing remotely outsider-like, and very little of interest either, about Dinnage’s accounts of Clementine Churchill, or Ottoline Morrell, or Enid Blyton, all of whom were in their different ways entirely establishment figures. The review of Dora Russell’s autobiography was about Bertie; the account of Janacek’s and Pirandello’s ferne Geliebte was about Janacek and Pirandello. The pieces on witches and prostitutes were pure sociology, very worthy in their way but nothing to do with ‘the inner world of outsider women’; nor was the piece about the visionary novels of Patrick White, who was not even a woman. It was not until Parts V (‘Reinventors’) and VI (‘Trapped’), with great, isolated women like Isak Dinesen, Rebecca West, Alice James and Katherine Mansfield, that I was back in the book that Dinnage and her publishers promised.

Well, so what? Many people collect their literary criticism: in recent years, for instance, John Updike and Claire Tomalin. But Rosemary Dinnage is no Updike or Tomalin. She is capable of a memorable line — about Clemmie Churchill’s famous destruction of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband, ‘Perhaps she needed, too, to have one great, tremendous battering and slashing.’ But she is also capable of a pretentious or banal one (‘And who, really, was Nadia?’; ‘the youngsters you see on the London Underground draped with chains … are probably sweet kids really.’)

These reviews are not good enough to be collected for themselves, and Dinnage’s instinct to suggest that they add up to more than the sum of their parts is a sound one. But it is not true: they add up to less. The biographies she reviewed very often showed that the roots of their subjects’ torments and achievements lay in their unhappy childhoods — cold mothers (Mansfield, Marie Stopes), deserting fathers (Stevie Smith, Enid Blyton), early bereavements (Gwen John, Bertrand Russell, Mme Blavatsky.) But the interest and value of this lie in the individual detail; boiled down and repeated it becomes reductive. In fact I’ve always disliked most biography reviews, which simply repeat the story in this reductive way. Since the best part of Alone! Alone! turns out to be largely a collection of such reviews, I’m probably the wrong person to review it. Sorry.