Stella Bowen’s autobiography, written in 1940, recommended by way of Neglected Books, starts off with her as a child in Australia, then grinding out some meager existence in London, but soon I was swept up in tales of one of my favorite places in time— 1920s Paris. Bowen provides compelling evidence of a woman artist taking a backseat to her artist husband. She achingly wishes that she could have focused on her own work, but instead threw her energies into keeping Ford Madox Ford safely churning away his work, undisturbed by the thought of any of their domestic penuries, needing absolute silence for his creation. She also hires the services of a maid, and later governess-type, to watch over her daughter Julie so that she can still gallivant around with Ford, throwing parties and only meeting up with their daughter on the weekends.
The book really gets going once she meets Ford in 1918. He’s a tired, war-weary writer who merely wants to live in a cottage in the country, raise pigs and have a child. She marries him, gives him a daughter (with a difficult birth that she refrains from any details of). With Ford much older than she was, Stella “did not realize to what extent he would be putting his clock back, whilst I put mine forward.” They hid out in Sussex in a shabby farmhouse that leaked and was cold to fulfill Ford’s dreamy country life. Apparently visitors were dismayed to find themselves eating at late hours, “they found the dinner-hour an ever-retreating mirage and their hunger an increasing passion… even a greedy girl like Margaret Cole said she would have preferred a snack at seven-thirty to a banquet at eleven o’clock.”
We begin to see the weariness:
Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realize that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time- it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.
Any artist knows, that after a good bout of work one is both too tired and too excited to be of any use to anyone. To be obliged to tackle other people’s problems, or merely to cook their meals, the moment one lays down pen or brush, is intolerably hard. What one wants, on the contrary, is for other people to occupy themselves with one’s own moods and requirements; to lie on a sofa and listen to music, and have things brought to one on a tray! That is why a man writer or painter always manages to get some woman to look after him and make his life easy, and since female devotion, in England anyhow, is a glut on the market, this is not difficult. A professional woman, however, seldom gets this cushioning unless she can pay money for it.
Once they finally break free of the soggy English countryside, they spend a few weeks in Paris before heading further south. Stella begins to realize the benefits of a delicious climate: “Climate is one of the few things in life that really matter. Other things, friends, fame, or fortune, may elude or disappoint you, but a good climate never lets you down.”
Leaving her husband and child for a few weeks, she manages to squeeze off some alone time to visit the frescos and museums of Florence: “… this taste of freedom would alone have been sufficient to reawaken all my old excitement about painting.” While there, she pronounces resolute opinions about painting that she later blushes over:
It shocks me now to remember how narrow was my view at that time. But a narrow view, for a painter, has its advantages. It concentrates his effort and his enthusiasm.
Really digging into the local artists in Italy, she realizes that people who paint in a convention have an advantage: “Any convention or ritual has the advantage of being able to produce results beyond the scope of one man starting from scratch; it is as though the starter gets given a life by train over the first part of his journey and is thus able to penetrate further than if he had had to walk all the way.” This not having to invent the wheel every time is beneficial to writers as well.
After meandering around the south of France for months, they end up in Paris again, and Stella gives up her freedom to watch their daughter while they save money on child care. “I had to stay at home to mind Julie while Ford went to the cafe in the evenings.” This sentence breaks my heart.
Ford takes the money that they made from selling the English cottage and starts the Transatlantic Review (some of this money coming from her selling her Australian capital… the magazine will only last a year and will end in financial failure). This creates a maelstrom of interest, people coming out of the woodwork:
People who have lately escaped from something that has been cramping them for a long time, whether war, or wage-slavery, or an embittered marriage, are the best company in the world. They are reaching out feelers in every direction to find new subjects for self-expression. They are gloriously egotistical and at the same time madly interested in their surroundings.
They meet Gertrude Stein, “the studio was large and light and warm, the deep-sprung chairs shabby and comfortable, and it felt, then, like a friendly place. We first met GS through Hemingway with whom she had not yet quarreled.” Later Stein sends Stella a copy of As a Wife With a Cow but Stella thanked her without reading the book, failing to recognize an incident in the book regarding Stella’s daughter Julie. “I had never read a word she wrote,” Stella almost proudly proclaims. “You would have said that she was just a dear old Auntie with a taste for plain speech. But, of course, she was nothing of the sort. She was a very great careerist, skilfully stage-managed by Alice Toklas.”
Running out of money in Paris, they look to cheaper lodgings in Toulon: “I fell in love with Toulon at first sight.” She sees basic life unfolding in a very French way, reveals the state of bliss, “the birthright that belongs especially to France…” in the interest people have in selecting a simple loaf of bread from a bakery.
In Paris, she “sat at hundreds of cafe tables with Ford, listening to talk about literature and ‘le mot juste.’ In Toulon, I was able to listen, at last, to talk about painting.” She hangs out with Juan Gris, Othon Friez, Francis Carco. “Beside these giants I was miserably conscious that my notions about painting were extremely embryonic… I have always been late with everything I have learned and everything I have become.”
She has a terrific rant about marriage:
It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back a good deal. You begin longing for a satisfactory emotional life even before you are grown-up, and this occupies an unreasonable amount of your thoughts and energies. When at last the emotional event comes, you put into it everything you have got. Afterwards you begin to grow up and to see more of the sky than can be filled by one person, but if by then you have given your life into that person’s keeping, you will have become bound and entwined in every detail of your being, and will have developed simply into a specialist in ministering to his own particular needs. Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to his kind of specialization, but society, and your won affections, and the fear of loneliness that beset us all, may keep you at it. And you will very likely find that it suits you well enough. But beware; unlike other specialists, you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service. Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job. By the time you are forty, you will probably have got your children through babyhood and provided your husband with all the emotional excitement he is going to get out of being in love with you. Teachers will step in to educate your children, and sirens to educate your husband, whose own career will be just beginning to expand. There remains the housekeeping, your social life, and possible a profound friendship with your spouse, but this is definitely less than what you have been accustomed to. Can you make a life of it?
No. If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of yoru own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, and abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far! Otherwise, emerging from a love-affair into the position of a middle-aged housekeeper, you may suffer the most desperate sensations of constriction and futility which your situation will give you little chance to surmount.
On the fragility of the male ego as artist:
It was easy enough for me to escape Ford’s feelings of humiliation at being poor and anxious and insecure, for I had never had a position to keep up, nor a reputation at stake; nor had I bound up my thoughts and feelings into publicly-printed books and offered them in the marketplace… Masculine vanity is one of the biggest motive forces in the world, and if it suffers deflation, the result is often a moral collapse.
After seeing Natalie Barney dancing with her husband, Ford, to get a party started, Stella echoes what I believe, “there will never again be anything like the Paris of the nineteen-twenties in our lifetime. Those were the days before international finance collapsed and the depression pulled us all into the mire.” Diaghilieff and his ubiquitous ballet is of course mentioned in the Paris chapters.
On what to do about all the “superfluous” women, “only the girl who was trained for a job and has never stopped working has the privilege of continuing to work when she’s mature.”
Finally, she extricates herself from the marriage with Ford, as his eye inevitably roves and roves and roves. “Falling out of love is as delicate and important business, and as necessary to the attainment of wisdom as the reverse experience.”Later, “I think that the exhilaration of falling out of love is not sufficiently extolled. The escape from the atmosphere of a stuffy room into the fresh night air, with the sky as the limit. The feeling of freedom, of integrity, of being a blissfully unimportant item in an impersonal world… it is a true re-birth.”
But while Ford greedily devoured texts, his relationships were not that important to him. “They loomed very large in his own view, but they were not intrinsically important. I don’t think it matters much from whom the artist gets his nourishment, or his shelter, as long as he gets it.”
So they bust up, and Stella heads to America to paint some commissioned portraits. Peggy Guggenheim loans her the money for her ship ticket. She’s wildly successful in the U.S. for six months and then heads back, clutching her coins. Unfortunately, Europe is not as kind. Eventually she slinks off to England, and she miserates about that until the end of the book.