Dream of a Past
HERmione by H.D. New Directions, 288 pages.
In an essay on H.D.—supposedly the “perfect Imagist poet”––her daughter, Perdita Schaffner, wonders what H.D. does when she’s not writing: “Was she dreaming, was she in a sense writing?” H.D. answers her: “Evolving. Searching. My past, the past, the past that never was, and making something real of it.” So, Schaffner concludes, “both; and a correlation of the two.” To dream of the past, to create it anew—a writing and rewriting of yourself: this is the objective of HERmione, finished in 1927 but not published until 1981, twenty years after H.D.’s death. Through its titular protagonist, Hermione Gart (named after the daughter of Helen and Menelaeus, but also after the Shakespearean heroine of The Winter’s Tale—mother to another Perdita), HERmione charts the germination of its protagonist’s identity as a writer and woman, focusing on two seminal relationships that would influence the rest of H.D’s working and personal life.
As Schaffner writes, it is “not an easy book.” The prose is looping, hallucinatory, pleasantly “overwrought” in the manner of youth; like memory, “it shifts and jumps, and repeats itself.” HERmione is a lyrical act of sense-making, the reverse of a time capsule—gazing backwards, at a younger self now rendered a stranger in the wistful eye of hindsight. And as Francesca Wade writes in her excellent afterword, included in New Directions’ recent reissue, the novel, as a piece of early autofiction, is H.D.’s “reckoning,” her search for “a voice” as she rails against the labels and strictures of a world that fails to understand her. I am not an imagist, nor wife, nor daughter, nor muse, HERmione asserts. I am only myself, however mutable or imperfect that self may be.
The first part of the novel sees Hermione, nicknamed Her—a move that is both anonymizing and deifying—return to her family’s home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from Bryn Mawr after flunking out of mathematics (conic sections, she clarifies). “I am Hermione Gart, a failure,” Her declares, inaugurating a tone of self-flagellation and insecurity that penetrates the rest of the book. She is splitting from herself; “nebulous,” a mix of her parents that “never fused and blended.” Frustrated by the eternal boredom of Pennsylvania and the treachery of her own mind, Her flails in the grip of what we now might call a quarter-life crisis. It’s a relatable state, even nearly a century later, to anybody who has grudgingly returned, unemployed, to their parents’ house after college. “It was summer,” H.D. writes. “She wasn’t now any good for anything.” Her scathing, often cruel observations of the people that surround her—her sister-in-law’s “very presence depreciated the house front”—reflect a deep frustration at the state of her life, a longing to be elsewhere. This is H.D. before she ever thought to “put the thing in writing”; a poet prior to her poetry.
Change comes in the form of two letters. One is from George Lowndes (an alias for Ezra Pound, to whom H.D. was once engaged), set to return from Venice, and the other from a schoolmate who invites Her to a party where she meets Fayne Rabb (the alias of Frances Gregg, a writer and journalist), with whom Her feels an immediate connection. Mirroring the binaries of her mother and father, Her is drawn in two conflicting directions, as George proposes marriage and Fayne continues to enchant her in ways she does not quite understand. Between them both, and the feelings they inspire, Her begins to grow into herself—a tentative process as exhilarating as it is terrifying. She often returns to a central mantra: “I am Her.” Elsewhere, she repeats that “people are in names, names are in people.” The frequent assertions of her own identity are curious and sometimes cautious, as if by invoking her name, she can make it more concrete. Her is still at the stage where she has no real idea of who she is or what she wants, leaning instead towards the assertions of others as instruction. It is clear that George, who alternately talks of Her as “a Greek goddess” and “a coal scuttle,” has no sense of his fiancée as anything more than an object, a convenient muse for his own poetry. He calls her work “rotten” and tells her condescendingly that “love doesn’t make good art.” Internally, H.D. refutes him: “Love is writing.” Aloud, she says nothing.
This lies in stark contrast to H.D.’s formative relationship with Fayne, who scolds her for having no “articulate self” beyond George. “The thing in you is not so small,” Fayne tells Her. “It has reason, being, dimension. It has in fact reality. It is beauty.” Later, Fayne refers to H.D.’s writing as “the thin flute holding you to eternity.” It is in the shimmering, plaintive depiction of the connection between H.D. and Fayne where HERmione is most resonant. What girl who likes girls hasn’t felt the rush of uncertainty and desire when a friendship lurches toward something more? What writer hasn’t craved to be understood as she is? George pursues her, kisses her, but it is talking with Fayne that Her recalls, blissfully, as a moment almost more erotic and fulfilling than the one that she is currently experiencing; “conversation . . . like echo in delirium.” It is the first time, perhaps, that Her has been recognized for the singular intelligence she possesses. “Outside a force wakened,” H.D. writes, comparing Her to a butterfly just emerging. “Drew Her out of Her. Call the thing Fayne Rabb.” George, Her thinks contemptuously, “would have pulled back quivering antennae.”
In the end, H.D. broke off her relationship with Pound, and her friendship with Frances faded after the other woman confessed an attraction to Pound, only to abruptly marry another man. HERmione might be romantic, but it is not a love story. The second, shorter part of the novel sees H.D.’s avatar turn inward. “I am playing not false to George,” she realizes, “not false to Fayne. I am playing false to Her.” It all clarifies in a beautiful extended section where Her walks through an icy forest, making peace with herself and the break of her engagement. H.D. knew what lay ahead—marriage, a child, an abortion, the death of her brother, a miscarriage, a literary career—but Her does not. “I could have really written,” she thinks, “but it’s better really to give into people, be quite ordinary.” Still, a hope for greatness shines through: on that winter walk, Her thinks of Fayne and, in a flash of white light, turns from “a star invisible” to “a star shining white.” Abruptly, Her is shot through with fresh purpose. It’s a neat trick of time: as the protagonist gazes ahead to a future that would prove to be anything but ordinary, the author is looking back. The period between them was not without regret, or grief; Schaffner notes that it was forbidden to speak of Frances Gregg when she was growing up—that her very name was banned. HERmione, then, is H.D’s dream of a past where, through the shield of pseudonyms, she can relive the electric beginnings of some of the deepest connections she formed in her life.
“What will become of all these people?” Schaffner wonders of the novel’s characters. Later, toward the end of HERmione, a man remembers a woman who became a teacher. “Funny,” he says, “the way girls give up.” How could they not? In 1928, a year after HERmione was written, Radclyffe Hall was condemned for her novel The Well of Loneliness, which approvingly depicted a lesbian relationship. After a trial for obscenity, all copies of the book were ordered for destruction. Wade suggests this might account for the delayed publication of HERmione, a novel that lays bare H.D.’s bisexuality. It is difficult to imagine, now, how radical HERmione would have been in 1927, one year before Virginia Woolf’s Orlando—and years before Violette Leduc or Simone de Beauvoir.
Though H.D. made no secret of her gender, her pen name is androgynous—an act that may have made her work more appealing to those who thought of poetry and literature as a male vocation.The prevailing story around its origin is that Pound gave it to her when he snatched up her work, pronounced, “but this is poetry!” and scribbled “H.D., Imagiste” at the bottom. In the process, he simultaneously assigned her both a narrow niche and a new identity—one, of course, that could feasibly belong to a man. What the novel does so magnificently, Wade observes, is act as a “triumphant refusal” of heterosexuality that “displaces Pound’s hold on H.D.’s ‘origin story.’” It is a rejection of the mythology of H.D.; it lets Hilda Doolittle create herself.
Though I first came to know H.D. through her poetry, I have recently returned more often to her prose, for its nervous, lyrical depictions of conflict and identity. This is, I hope, something she would have approved of. She was said to have disliked the limits of “poet” and “Imagist”—what Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis have called “a cage of poetic and critical expectation.” Later, she struck up a companionship with the novelist Bryher (the pen name of Annie Winifred Ellerman), though she continued to take lovers as she liked and was in an open marriage with Richard Aldington. She was a changeable woman, Schaffner recalls, and a neurotic mother who worked constantly.
In her “long-short story” “Kora and Ka,” H.D. creates in her protagonist, John Helforth, and his lover, Kora, a portrait of two people at odds with themselves and the repressed trauma of the war that they have lived through. It’s a veiled depiction of the personal and professional conflicts that afflicted her domestic life, and a somber reckoning with her feelings about marriage and childhood. Writer and parent are two positions so diametrically opposed—one necessarily selfish, and other selfless—that when John tells Kora to “forget sometimes that you are a mother,” it seems H.D. is grappling with her own deep internal fractures. Louis L. Martz perhaps put it best: “Her poetry and her prose, like her own psyche, live at the seething junction of opposite forces.” In both her work and her life, H.D. flew in the face of convention.
Chris Kraus wrote that the “sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” It’s a phrase that comes to mind often when I read H.D.’s work. What does it mean to define yourself, and to take on the challenge and privilege of articulating your own past? To write through sex and grief and love, and in the process, requisition those experiences? In a recent issue, The Drift published a series of critical dispatches on contemporary fiction in which Christian Lorentzen notes that the younger generation is “moving largely away from straight or ironized autofiction into more epic narratives.” Elsewhere, Alexandra Kleeman concludes that “autofiction’s time as a reigning form . . . has begun to dwindle” as the literary world moves back towards the realm of imagination, erecting a distance between reader and reality. If writers—and particularly women writers—have lately retreated from autofiction, I hope it is only because self-articulation is not so difficult to come by anymore—something certainly truer of white, middle-class women. Under that lens, the most singular thing about HERmione is H.D. herself, rather than any special messages that the novel imparts, or any innovation of form. After all, if you would like to “triumphantly refuse” heterosexuality, you can probably just go to a Phoebe Bridgers concert.
Evaluations on the trendiness of autofiction aside, there’s still something cathartic about H.D.’s brand of work. It was not truth that she sought through her self-mythologization, but an authority that is still difficult to achieve. The sheer fact of women talking—especially about themselves—retains its appeal in an era where everything about your life can be laid bare for public scrutiny. As H.D. knew, the thin veil of third person can be a thrill. Dreaming up the past, remaking it, is a refusal of the bonds that try to dictate your own history to you. I once wrote a poem about how I hated writing from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t me; how I wanted a simultaneous distance and control over my speaker. It was a bad poem, but a good gesture towards trying to understand myself. “A moonless night; a cloudless sky,” the ending line read. “Her, instead of I.”