Queer Places:
63 Wellington Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham

Image result for irene rathbone | Rathbone, Penpal, ImageIrene Rathbone (June 11, 1892 - 1980) was an English novelist whose fiancé was killed in Iraq in 1920, just after the war had ended. She set up home in Chelsea with a group of like-minded women friends. She is now largely forgotten, though the Feminist Press has reprinted her most successful novel, We That Were Young (1932), an account of the war and its aftermath. Here, as in so much of her fiction, Irene Rathbone’s own life story is thinly disguised, and the voice is that of an adventurous and liberated woman, passionate and politically engagée.

Beatrice Irene Rathbone was born at 63 Wellington Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, on 11 June 1892, the eldest of three children of George Rathbone (1857/8–1953), brass and copper manufacturer, and his wife, Mary Robina Mathews (1867–1964). Hers was a middle-class Liverpool family. She was sent to a south of England boarding school, and in the immediate pre-war years flat-shared with a female cousin in ‘New Woman’ style in London. Acting, and women’s suffrage, absorbed her energies; she played several Shakespearean roles, and appeared in a Noël Coward play. Between 1914 and 1918 Irene threw herself into the war effort, both in France, volunteering for the YMCA, and as a VAD in London. Her beloved younger brother died in Germany in 1919. Mansfield Priestley Evans, her fiancé, survived the war, but went out to serve with the English military government in Iraq. In 1920, two whole years after the Armistice was signed – by which time it must have seemed safe to assume a happy outcome – the news came that he had been killed there in a village uprising.

Post-war, Irene lived a semi-Bohemian life in Chelsea with a group of women friends, financing herself with office work and occasional stage roles. Dorothy Wadham of PEN and the writer Storm Jameson were among her friends. Joan, her heroine in We That Were Young, leads a life that mirrored her own at that time: By night she danced, and went to studio parties up and down London, and was in all sorts of ‘swims’. There were so many people who were interesting, so many new books to be read and discussed. And there were occasional trips abroad. …But in spite of her many activities, in spite of her genuine capacity for enjoyment, if Joan had been told, by someone who knew, that tomorrow she would have to leave all this and die, she would simply have said, ‘Oh!’ At the roots of her being there lay a vast indifference. So her thirtieth birthday came and went; nobody of any significance came to agitate her heart. But among the ‘many books to be read and discussed’, one of the most talked-about of the late 1920s was Death of a Hero (1929). Born in the same year as Irene, its author, Richard Aldington, was the angry young man of his day; endowed with smouldering good looks and brilliant talent, he was a glamorous figure in the literary world. Aldington had already made a name as a poet and co-founder of the Imagist movement, but Death of a Hero made him a celebrity. Irene must have read this excoriating anti-war satire when it first came out, admired it, and then sought out his poetry, but they did not meet until two years later in 1931. When they did, her world was turned upside down.

In 1931 Richard was living in the south of France; Irene had written him fan-mail about his work. For over a year they corresponded, and finally he suggested she visit him at Le Lavandou, where he had gone to write. He booked her into a hotel not far from the villa he had taken and here, among the pines and sudden sunlit sea of the Côte d’Azur, she found herself that summer. Of course she was already in love with him, from reading his poetry, but even so she was unprepared for the coup de foudre which struck her when they eventually met: He stood in front of me, sunbeams about his head And smiled through the midst of them. I thought a god was there. Slowly she took in his appearance. Richard’s smile and rather quizzical eyebrows gave him an irresistible charm; he was wearing a sleeveless blue shirt, red-brown fishermen’s trousers and old espadrilles; his shoulders were broad and flat, his body slender, tanned and taut from swimming. This was more than a meeting of minds; Irene felt hollow with love and desire, for as they talked it appeared that he liked her too. They would write, he said, and walk, and go for drives to sleepy hill villages in his battered car. ‘We can work, swim, talk or be silent together.’ Then as the sky turned rose-colour, he strolled back with her towards the hotel; twilight was gathering. As they parted Irene could not suppress the urge she felt to raise her hand to his breast; he intercepted her gesture and held it in his – ‘Then quick and light he put a kiss on it; Turned; went.’ Was it a salutation, a gift, or a promise? Faint with emotion, Irene walked on suffused with the sweetness of that moment, sure now of her feelings, though unsure of his. It was only a fortnight, but the memories were to last her lifetime. They became lovers. The hot, jewelled days succeeded each other. The mornings she spent reading, idling or exploring the vineyards, then the hour came when she walked to the villa and in the heat of the day they both flung themselves near-naked across the bright sand and into the translucent sea, to swim and float dreamily, then bake their salty bodies on the sun-struck beach. Then back to the villa for bread, chicken, salad, fruit, dawdling over their red wine till desire overcame languor and they moved to the cool shadowed bedroom. Expert, tender, sexy, imaginative, Richard’s love-making left Irene brimful and replete with consummation: …I thank him for ever (looking back) Thank my perfect lover For the sheer beauty he brought to those hours: Tears stand in the eyes at it. Nothing tainted their idyll. Even the small discolorations – the ‘bruised blossom marks’ – she later found on her skin were to her evidence of their fierce desire for each other, and she smiled secretly to herself when she saw how he had marked her body with his passion, knowing too how fiercely she had responded. For her the happiness was entire and perfect. The battered car took them up to a mountain auberge with a sunset view where they drank vin du pays under a vine canopy and slept deeply in a huge bed. Wakened early by goat-bells, they relaxed back into warm contentment till the girl came to bring ‘Monsieur et Madame’ their coffee. Richard was rare, as Irene said, in combining a graceful body with a lively and learned mind, and so they talked on history, and literature, discussing mankind and civilisation, peace, war, philosophy, sex, power and religion. Pink roses and oleander scented their moonlit terrace as she recited poetry to him, Milton, Carew and Ronsard. Sometimes the song of the nightingales drowned their conversation and they fell silent to listen. And sometimes she cried in his arms at the beauty of it all: ‘Now, now, now I am happy.’ But it could never have lasted. Richard’s complicated love life ruled out anything beyond this temporary affair.

Not yet divorced from his first wife, he was at this time heavily involved with Brigit Patmore. He was disinclined to waste the opportunity of making love to his attractive admirer, but nothing more permanent was ever on the horizon. Richard asked Irene to stay longer, but what was such an invitation? It was not the invitation she wanted, the invitation to become Madame to his Monsieur. ‘I adore you’ was always on his lips, but never ‘I love you’: It was death in life to say no. But unless I stayed for always (And that was not asked) ‘Longer’ was impossible. He declared that he would come to see her, after the summer. He couldn’t do without seeing his friends, and libraries, and her, he said… but they were empty assurances, and he did not return to England. Finally a letter came that ended it all for her, ‘Then no more ever.’

Six years after her affair with Richard Aldington ended, Irene set out her recollections of their short idyll in a little book, Was There a Summer? (1943). By the time the book was published Richard himself had moved on; he was living in America with Nellie McCulloch, his second wife and daughter-in-law of a previous mistress, Brigit Patmore. For him the affair with Irene had been a transient pleasure, one among many. But for her it had been a sacrament; she never loved anyone else. The prose-poem Was There a Summer? is not finely written, but every line is saturated with emotion, dwelling on the detail of the relationship, draining the draught of memory to its last, blushful, bubble-beaded drop. From her park seat in misty London Irene conjures the warm south and sunburnt mirth of their Provençal interlude with thirsty nostalgia: So fade out, London trees! Fade, fur-wrapped ladies Hurrying with small reluctant dogs back down dim paths To teas in Kensington, Fade… And shine Provence! So we learn their story.

Lynn Knight’s introduction to the 1989 edition of We That Were Young reports that Irene Rathbone’s affair with Richard Aldington continued on and off until he left Brigit Patmore for his next lover, Nellie McCulloch, in 1937 – the year that Irene wrote Was There a Summer? The poetic version of her affair would seem to have been a dramatisation of events; things weren’t in reality so cut and dried. In her essay Knight hints at the messy, clandestine nature of their relationship, with Irene in the role of the ‘other woman’, snatching what time Richard could spare her from Brigit, living for his brief visits to London, and the final shock of that last letter, finishing things for ever between them. Whatever the case, Irene’s searing affair with Richard Aldington continued to possess her. It surfaces with regularity in her fiction. In October (1934) the warm south of her idyll is represented by two Frenchmen, Gilbert and Henri. Gilbert wrote novels – Jenny had read them, and loved him for them, even before she met him. Jenny and Gilbert loved tempestuously, but Gilbert left her – ‘full of promises, full of smiles’ – and never wrote to her again. Henri and Rose too have loved each other with heartbreaking passion among the perfumed, moonlit Provençal nights; she writes to him, but he never replies…

After October Irene wrote They Call It Peace (1936), in which the sensual side of her affair is achingly resurrected; here Joan and Paul’s love is consummated over a London summer of hot city pavements, ‘great still shadows in the breathless parks’, the air filled with the drugged scent of honeysuckle, and roses blowing and scattering their petals in Kew Gardens. Joan, dreamy and desirable in briefs and camisole, blooms too – ‘not [with] the bloom brought by fresh air, but that other, more subtle, brought by a physical love-life delighted in’. Paul drives her out to a riverside inn, where they swim, dine on the terrace and he makes love to her in a bedroom with a window opening on to trees. But their affair has no future; Paul is married: Now she knew that Paul had a wife, had a child, had a house. Knew it. Domesticity had smiled its smug smile at her… she had seen… a pair of toothbrushes in the bathroom… The cost had been very dear. Envy of wifehood – not of house, not of child, but just of wifehood – shook her. The female in her forlornly raged. Lynn Knight comments sparingly: ‘There were other love affairs, but Aldington remained significant…’

Irene Rathbone never married. It is probable that in 1946, when she was in her fifties, she met Richard once again. He was back in Paris. Their views know,’ she wrote to Nancy, ‘R. & I had not met, not written. Therefore my sorrow may be considered foolish. But I can’t somehow bear him not to be in this world.’ In 1964, after a visit to Nancy in the south-west of France, Irene returned home via Burgundy, where she sought out Richard’s grave. There she placed flowers on the black commemorative slab and, for a while, remembered. ‘It was very clear that she had never wavered in her love for Richard,’ wrote a friend who knew them both. If the abiding impression of Irene Rathbone’s love affair with Richard Aldington is one of waste and melancholy – of the emptiness of a barren life – then perhaps the last word on it should be given to the author herself, who, despite being deserted and betrayed, despite all the heartbroken tears and forlorn rage, rejected the pity of others, and refused to pity herself: Hear this, you tired fat-shouldered London trees, You smug furred women, And you, my other self in me who bleeds! I hold this truth, at this moment – Even if I lose or deride it later – The heaven of Happiness-in-Love once entered Is there for always. I have been blind with pain But then Blind almost with bliss too… For how many of the smug, furred, married women had ever had such a summer, or could ever have such memories? Perhaps the definition of spinster needs to stretch to accommodate women like Irene Rathbone who saw no reason to conform to the expectations of that term, who were open about their erotic needs and refused to deny them. The ‘female in her’ may have envied wifehood and coveted that symbolic wedding ring, but for her such a love needed nothing so banal to sanctify it. Blessed by sun and sex, ‘We knew, my love and I,/That this life of ours here was a sacrament…’ She had burned to that white heat. Irene Rathbone, and others like her, were pioneers, ahead of their time, and perhaps today’s general acceptance of their expanded morality is one of the reasons that the word spinster has so little relevance in the twenty-first century. Bohemianism had unlocked the door.

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