The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: A Biography

Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: A Biography. By Elizabeth Maslen. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014. 560 pp. $40.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Ashlie Sponenberg, University of Massachusetts - Lowell

The British novelist, polemicist, and activist Storm Jameson (1891–1986) is a difficult author to research due to the lack of a centrally collected archive of her personal writings. Jameson periodically destroyed her papers, most famously in a 1940 purge of letters, diaries, and political books after realizing that, as person blacklisted by the Nazis, she “mustn’t leave anything behind, any letter or paper, that could compromise [family] or any friends or any of our exiles” should Germany invade (Jameson 477). The two-volume autobiography that she published in 1969–70, Journey from the North, contained reconstructed past conversations that, while colorful and evocative, cannot have been accurately recalled in the absence of such primary sources. The limitations of Jameson’s memoir, combined with the loss of a singular archive, account for a significant biographical gap. Elizabeth Maslen’s new book, Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson, fills this void admirably, developing the chronological framework provided in Journey with nuanced historical contextualization, close readings of novels and stories, and painstaking archival reconstruction. Maslen’s study also tracks the varied responses that Jameson’s novels, critical studies, polemical texts, and writing for the popular press drew from contemporaries. Maslen’s biography thus provides some theories that explain how a writer who deserved to occupy “so sure and high a place among living novelists” as St. John Adcock wrote in 1929, could later be neglected by literary historians (Maslen 90).

As a life story, Maslen’s book is dizzying, and aptly so. Chapter titles (“Marriage and War,” “The Role of the Novel as Hitler Comes to Power,” “Munich, and Margaret’s Commitment to the PEN”) structure Jameson’s life in simultaneously private, political, and literary terms, reflecting Jameson’s own attitudes regarding the interdependence of art and activism. With these interests foregrounded, Maslen illustrates the mix of demands that existed for Jameson on a daily basis, drawing upon printed evidence wherever possible and working around the destroyed archive. Maslen’s discussions of 1921 (51–55), for example, track Jameson’s early correspondence with the Knopf publishing family and her promotion of one of Bryher’s (Annie Winifred Ellerman) manuscripts. During the same year, Jameson also spent time in Naomi Royde-Smith’s London literary salon and, after being elected to the Society of Authors, corresponded with John Galsworthy on the issue of the Ireland. She wrote articles, reviews, and a research study for birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. She learned how to drive, and she filed for divorce. While all this was happening, she completed her novel The Clash and sent it to publishers. Maslen’s analysis indicates that the novel was controversial: 

Instead of addressing the wide-ranging poverty and starvation in Europe, the West sent troops to Russia to aid the former imperial forces against the new Communist regime, while the French were keen for reprisals against Germany and its allies. [Jameson] was one of those who saw the heartlessness of these priorities. (55)

As a result of this stance, Jameson’s American publishers “insisted that…there should be a foreword asserting that she meant the book to increase understanding between the nations, accepting differences in a positive spirit” (55). While some of these details are mentioned in Journey, Maslen reconstructs a more reliable version of 1921 using a fuller, unpublished manuscript version of Journey. She also finds needed documentation in Jameson’s correspondence with John Galsworthy, Blanche Knopf, and the publisher Michael Sadlier; in a pamphlet by Christabel Pankhurst; in an article of Jameson’s in New Commonwealth; and in the manuscript and published versions of The Clash, along with her publishing contract for that novel. These sources provide concrete evidence for some of the events that, in Jameson’s memoir, were explained through unreliable, remembered dialogue.

In its final chapters, the biography also exceeds the memoir with thorough close readings of Jameson’s later works, those that have received far less attention from scholars. Maslen’s examination of book reviews, newspaper articles, and private letters depict Jameson’s reputation and changing fortunes in the neglected postwar phase of her career. Jameson was invited to write the introduction to the first English edition of The Diary of Anne Frank in 1954 (346) and, in 1978, was nominated for a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a national award of chivalry), which she “politely declined,” (472), details that suggest she enjoyed continued relevance. Maslen’s research demonstrates that some of the later novels, however, increasingly drew reviews that “even when respectful, were largely uncomprehending” (345, of Before the Crossing) or that “disparaged[, … if] not ignored” Jameson’s consistent “awareness of Europe, insightful though it was” (353, of Black Laurel). Maslen’s analyses of these later books benefit from historical hindsight that challenge instances in which Jameson’s “fiction was frequently maligned by contemporary critics (particularly after World War Two) who did not appreciate her insights into crises of their age and her astuteness about European concerns” (5). Maslen helpfully assesses literary critics’ need to pigeonhole Jameson as a backwards-looking realist, a view that was inadequate for assessing a body of work that evolved in response to history, helping us see that Jameson’s critics often misunderstood “someone with an ear for the voices of her time and the capacity to capture them” (5). Here, Maslen’s attention to the postwar phase of Jameson’s career provides a new and necessary assessment of Jameson as “a modern Cassandra, [who told] the truth honestly, lucidly, even when many chose not to listen” (481).

The value that Maslen’s book holds for future Jameson research also deserves recognition. The extensive bibliography alone (a fifteen page list of works authored by Jameson) is an invaluable new tool. From this comprehensive and original list of primary sources, many new examinations of Jameson’s work are possible. Future studies of the novel serializations that Maslen located in popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post could improve our understanding of Jameson’s reputation and readership. Because of Maslen’s scholarship, new collections may also be easier to craft; an edition of the short stories that Maslen tracked down in international periodicals ranging from Harper’s Magazine and Atlantic Monthly to Good Housekeeping could provide new insights, as would a selection of Jameson letters from the archives of Vera Brittain, Arthur Koestler, Czesław Miłosz, George Orwell, H. G. Wells, and Rebecca West that feature in Maslen’s notes. Maslen generously suggests that her readers have “as much right to shape possible answers” as she does regarding new directions in Jameson scholarship, but those future projects will now be richer—and easier to achieve—thanks to the fuller record of archival resources that Maslen’s research produced (6).

Work Cited

Jameson, Margaret Storm. Journey from the North: Autobiography of Storm Jameson. Vol. II. New York, Harper & Row: 1970.

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