A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
You wait for ages for a biography of Storm Jameson, and then two come along, more or less at once. Jennifer Birkett’s Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life came out in 2009, and Elizabeth Maslen’s Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson came out in 2014. (Disclosure: although Elizabeth Maslen is a member of the Board of a book series I edit, I’ve only met her once. I don’t know Jennifer Birkett.) I’ve read both books, and am exhausted by their intensity and detail. I’m also mildly depressed by the vision of earnest workaholicism that seems to have been Margaret Storm Jameson’s life.
Such a torrent of work and daily domestic drudgery appeared to leave no room for a sense of humour, so I was glad to find that she had written a book with the very promising title of Lady Susan and Life: An Indiscretion (1923). Birkett mentions this by briefly squeezing it into the end of a chapter, whereas Maslen took the trouble to read the original comic sketches from which the book was assembled, and talks about them in the context of Jameson’s struggles for money and light relief in her life at the time. This exemplifies one of the differences in their approaches as biographers. The other difference is scope. Birkett’s biography has an unusual francophone slant, writing Jameson’s life through the perspective of how she felt about French thought and politics, rather as if Jane Austen’s career had been written about solely through her views about dancing. (She enjoyed it, she used it in her novels, she was knowledgeable about it, but it really does not justify being the focus of a biography). Maslen’s biography, on the other hand, sits on the desk like a monograph by the Recording Angel. If it’s not in Maslen, does it matter?
Storm Jameson, who lived from 1891 to 1986, was a British professional writer, a novelist, journalist, essayist, campaigner and leader of the international pressure group PEN. She poured her life and political passions into her fiction. She published 48 novels, several under pseudonyms; 42 short stories; 9 plays (either her own writing, or adaptations by others from her fiction); 3 volumes of translation from Guy de Maupassant; and wrote or edited 16 further books. In addition, Maslen’s biography lists 6 and half pages of her articles and book chapters. Jameson was a feminist and scholar, and seems to have been a formidable friend. In her private life she made disastrous choices about love and money, and was too often bullied by domineering personalities: her mother, and both her husbands. Life in the Writings is an exhaustive biography, since it contains simply everything that can be collected or retrieved that Jameson ever published, and has to be the last word on her life.
The common reader will most probably know about Storm Jameson from her reprinted novels by Virago: Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935) and None Turn Back (1936). I’ve only read a few others, and am now appalled at the additional reading I will have to get through to make a reasonable attempt at understanding her work. Of those that I have read, I found The Hidden River (1955) the most powerful (and wrote a podcast about it). It’s a terrific page-turner of a novel, with a plot based on the Greek classical tragedies about Orestes and Electra, set in wartime and post-war France under Nazi Occupation. It is brittle and vicious like broken glass, and twists on an unbearable human tragedy, so I was not at all surprised to see from Maslen that it was a huge popular success, was the Book of the Month choice for 1955, and was adapted into a play for the American market two years later, though turned into an anodyne fillet of the original towering masterpiece. Jameson was apparently wracked with guilt about The Hidden River, since she felt, according to Maslen’s research, that she had sacrificed art to commerce, and the needs of the story to the demands of the market. This makes her a classic case of British middlebrow angst: when a writer will not accept the acclaim of the public and the fact, and income, from high sales, international sales at that, as enough reason for writing a book. Jameson’s fight to maintain her own standards in writing, and to resist settling for what others would like her to write, was the big theme of her life.
Jennifer Birkett, Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Elizabeth Maslen, Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson (North Western University Press, 2014)
Kate posts several posts weekly on katemacdonald.net, about books, publishing, and occasional musical enthusiasms, with lots of photos.