Partner Enid Scase, Liz Truelson, Betty Shoemaker
Woodhall, Tonbridge Rd, Shipbourne, Tonbridge TN11 9PA, UK
Choices Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 901 De La Vina St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Silvia or Sylvia Herbert Dobson (May 31, 1908 -1993) was a schoolteacher and a close friend and lover of the modernist and imagist poet Hilda Doolittle. They corresponded between between 1934 and 1951. The content of the correspondence covers topics such as Dobson's poetry and writing, astrology, travel, World War II and its aftermath, and Doolittle's mental health.
Sylvia Herbert Dobson was born on May 31st, 1908. She was a schoolteacher as well as an aspiring writer. Hilda "H.D." Doolittle was an American modernist poet and writer, known for her association with the imagist group of poets that included Ezra Pound and James Joyce. In her time, Doolittle aligned her writing with that of the avant-garde. Her work experienced a surge in interest in the 1970s during second-wave feminism, in which her poetry was recognized for its innovative feminist perspective. In 1934 Dobson discovered Hilda "H.D." Doolittle's work and wrote her a letter of admiration. Doolittle replied, inviting Dobson to come meet her in her London home. After meeting, they began a brief love affair that was, in Dobson’s words, much more important to her than it was to H.D. Though the affair quickly ended, Dobson and H.D. remained friends, visiting and corresponding frequently until H.D.’s death in 1961. Dobson kept every letter.
Before WWII, Dobson was a writer and a schoolmistress. When hostilities began, Dobson, finding no work available with the Women's Land Army, decided to turn the garden of her weekend cottage near Tonbridge over to vegetable produce. She was joined by her then partner, Enid Scase (born January 21, 1913, Birkenhead, Cheshire, died April, 2001, Surrey), a commercial artist, and later by Mrs Graham, wife of an Army officer. Besides growing vegetables, they had fruit-trees, with honey and eggs as a side-line. They served sixty customers in London, taking the produce up by car twice weekly.
In 1960, Silvia Dobson moved to California to be with a new lover, an American named Liz Truelson. Still closeted, she told her family and friends that she was going to the United States to focus on her writing. H.D. wrote her last letter to Dobson in December 1960, one day after the winter solstice. At the time, H.D. was ill: the letter was transcribed by Bryher, shakily signed by Doolittle’s own hand. She began, writing of Dobson’s move: “How wonderful to feel the turn now in the light.” H.D. concludes the first page with: “I only just realize that you have gone.” H.D. died a few months later, in September 1961. Though moving to America allowed Dobson the chance to live a freer, more open life, she thought of H.D. frequently, safeguarding the letters as talismans of their important relationship.
Betty Shoemaker (left) and Silvia Dobson in 1987
Betty Shoemaker in front of Choices Bookstore
In 1979, years after H.D.’s death, Barbara Guest interviewed Silvia Dobson for a biography of H.D, Herself Defined. Dobson “soft-peddled” her “love affair with H.D,” stressing instead their friendship. Many of H.D.’s friends and former lovers denied the poet’s bisexuality in conversations with Guest in an effort to respect the poet’s privacy. Even Bryher, H.D.’s longtime partner, denied having a romantic relationship with H.D., insisting “Hilda and I were cousins.”
Guest’s biography left Dobson dissatisfied. Though she had already planned to sell her H.D. letters to the Beinecke, in 1983, Dobson decided they would be more useful to future scholars if accompanied by “truthful” and “transparent” contextual notes. So, “after half-a-century acting as a straight person,” she set to work, turning her personal archive into A Mirror for a Star, A Star for a Mirror, which presents hundreds of letters and postcards alongside nearly four hundred pages of Dobson’s own notes. Never published or intended to be seen outside the reading room, the manuscript frankly discusses Dobson’s own lesbianism and the experience of growing up queer on the fringes of H.D’s modernist circles.
Silvia Dobson treats archiving as an act of love. Never intended for an audience beyond the Beinecke reading room, A Mirror for a Star brought Dobson no fame, acclaim, or money. She sold the correspondence and notes to Beinecke in exchange for an H.D. scholarship that, to this day, funds researchers working on women poets. The care Dobson took to make the correspondence legible to future scholars is evident in every page. Painstakingly organized, A Mirror for a Star begins with an eight-page index where Dobson describes the date and subject of all 255 letters, each hand-numbered by her. Dobson compiled A Mirror for a Star to ensure that the woman she loved could be found in Yale’s archives; Dobson described herself as a lesbian to ensure that her love would be interpreted on her own terms.
Dobson opens A Mirror for a Star with a statement of intent, describing her project for future H.D. scholars: “One of the few people left alive who knew H.D., I need to celebrate our friendship by sharing five hundred pages of letters, postcards, notes, she sent me between February, 1934 when we first met, and her death in 1961. As our relationship progressed, H.D. gave me advice, affection, ideas, encouragement, as well as reproof deflationary tirades, intolerance. She approached fifty, a difficult age. I, tyro poet, undeveloped nobody, was twenty-two years younger. At that time homosexuals, mostly in the Closet, were ridiculed, ostracized, and if male imprisoned. So I do need to insist that these letters are about Love as celebration, not as fixation. They record a humane, temperate friendship, much more important to me than it was to H.D.”
In a letter to Dobson, H.D. directly mentions homosexuality, challenging Dobson’s need to self-identify as a lesbian: she writes, “How you love is more important than WHO you love.”
Dobson spent the last years of her life active in California’s lesbian scene. From 1982 to her death in 1992, Dobson and her last partner, Betty Shoemaker’s ran their home, called “StarShadows,” as “an experiment in collective living,” inviting other lesbians to live with them and build community. They also owned a feminist bookstore, Choices, in downtown Santa Barbara.
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