Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Biographies of Three Women Writers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Biographies of Three Women Writers

Article excerpt

The lives of three diverse women writers, all born in the early years of this century, are explored at full length for the first time in three recent biographies. All are highly intriguing subjects, but the treatment they receive is uneven.

IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE OF LAURA RIDING, by Deborah Baker (Grove Press, 478 pp., $30). A brilliant and original poet who renounced poetry and who was also a wildly erratic woman, Laura Riding (1901-1991) may well be one of the most baffling figures of modern literature. The daughter of first-generation immigrants, Riding was the beneficiary of New York's then-great public school system. Her early poems impressed the group of Southern writers known as the "Fugitives," but before long, she left America and her first husband for an association with the English writer Robert Graves and his wife.

Graves and Riding had a tempestuous love affair: Rumor had it that she was his inspiration for the cunning, monstrous Livia in "I, Claudius" and for his concept of "The White Goddess." In 1940, following the publication of her "Collected Poems," her break with Graves, and marriage to Schuyler Jackson, Riding stopped writing poetry, declaring that the temptation to achieve verbal beauty and dramatic effects at the expense of accurate meaning made it incompatible with her deeper commitment to telling the truth. She and her husband spent years on a futile attempt to compile a completely accurate dictionary.

Unfortunately, the most conspicuous product of Riding's last years was an outpouring of convoluted letters-to-the-editor in which she settled old scores, claimed credit for ideas allegedly stolen from her, and endlessly "clarified" her position in a manner that was ever more confusing.

It is a pity that the first major biography of Riding will likely add to this confusion. First-time biographer Deborah Baker has a genuine feel for her subject and for the genius amid the megalomania. But she tells the story in such disorganized fashion - jumping ahead, then backing up to explain, losing the threads of chronology and logic alike - that it's nearly impossible to follow. So the best introduction to Riding is still Riding herself.

Several of her core works have been issued by Persea Books, including "First Awakenings: The Early Poems of Laura Riding," "Selected Poems: In Five Sets," and "The Word `Woman' and Other Related Writings. …

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