Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors. Here, the life of Eliot Bliss, a prolific lesbian writer from the British Caribbean who may have had a strong influence on the work of Jean Rhys.
I don’t want to go out into the world and earn my living. I don’t want to have to say goodbye to a quiet scholar’s life, to smooth, civilized hours around a Wedgwood teapot. I want to be able to watch the evening in the sky, to dream on some far hill, to make things slowly out of patterns that I have been finding for years. I don’t want to feel cramped, jostled, frightened, herded among thousands of people; to work among the noise of machines, the incessant clamor of traffic vibrating on the nerves. I don’t want to be terrorised into a set formula of life.
These are the thoughts of Louie Burnett, the heroine of Eliot Bliss’s enchanting and lyrical first novel, Saraband (1931). After an English convent school education, Louie has her independence thrust upon her: her army officer father is dead and her mother’s upper-class Anglo-Irish family, thanks to the Great War, is no longer rich. “Perhaps you’ll pick up some nice young man, my dear,” says an uncle. But marriage isn’t on the cards. It is clear, though unspoken, that Louie is a lesbian. The female friends who move in and out of her life are irresistibly, lovingly drawn, so real they leap off the page. There’s boarding school classmate Zara, with her brilliantined ebony hair and reassuring fearlessness; aspiring actress Jonquil, a “tall boyish girl with a certain lackadaisical look about her”; artist Mark, neé Marcelle, who “gave one an extraordinary sense of vividness.” The most significant relationship Louie forms, however, is with her beautiful Parisian cousin, Tim, a talented violinist who, the reader intuits via the subtlest of hints, is also gay. Their relatives suspect a romance, but Louie’s affinity with Tim, whom she considers “marvellous and holy,” is deeper and more steadfast for being platonic.
Like all of Bliss’s work, Saraband is autobiographical, a faithful portrait of the author as a young woman. It was certainly true that Bliss refused to be “terrorized into a set formula of life,” sometimes to her own detriment. As an Eton-cropped twenty-two year old in twenties London, she rechristened herself Eliot (her given name was Eileen) after both T. S. and George. Semiestranged from her family, she also left Catholicism and, at least among friends, was open about her sexuality. She had dalliances with women including the modernist poet Anna Wickham (from whom emanated, Bliss wrote, a “tremendous electric force”), moved in the storied lesbian literary circle of Natalie Clifford Barney, and eventually settled down with the artist Patricia Allan-Burns, who remained her partner for more than fifty years. Throughout her life, Bliss wrote prolifically—novels, poetry, plays—despite almost constant financial insecurity, recurrent depression and illness, and scant success. The elderly Bliss told her literary executor, the publisher Alexandra Pringle, that her second novel, Luminous Isle (1934), had failed in part because poverty kept her from socializing. “I refused invitations because I had no clothes, and you ought to go about when you have a book out.”
Bliss’s career had begun with great promise. After almost giving up on Saraband when one publisher rejected it for being “too nice,” she was introduced to Patience Ross of the A.M. Heath literary agency. A fellow poet, Ross became Bliss’s lover, friend, and agent. A few years earlier Ross had encouraged her senior colleagues to represent Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and she now placed Saraband with Peter Davies Ltd., the eponymous publishing house run by Daphne du Maurier’s cousin. When Bliss was twenty-eight, Saraband debuted to a warm reception. In a Daily Express review, Harold Nicolson (Mr. Vita Sackville-West) praised Bliss’s “quality of reserve—the unexpected silence of feet upon fresh snow.” Another reviewer compared her to Ivy Compton-Burnett. In the U.S., where Saraband was published by William Morrow, the influential Saturday Review of Literature hailed it as “a first novel of unusual power.”
The power of Saraband comes not from plot or drama—it has little of either—but from its extraordinary impressionistic prose, which with great psychological acuity lays bare Louie’s inner turmoil while she struggles, as a poet and an “indolent dreamer,” to escape a milieu where women “almost had to have permission to exist.” Though Bliss was fond of Proust, it was primarily modernist women writers who shaped her technique, particularly Dorothy Richardson, whose pioneering literary aesthetic broke new ground. At age seventeen, Bliss started reading Richardson’s novel sequence, Pilgrimage, and thought, “My God, this is the only person who’s writing a real book.” Later, when they became acquainted, Bliss was disappointed to find in Richardson “a curious blind spot” in terms of her sympathy for people. Richardson, meanwhile, wrote to a friend that “E. B. who is a great friend of Anna Wickham, has been so to speak, running after me for years. This, for me, is a mystery, for I cannot like her. I fail, however I may try.”
Richardson’s antipathy to Bliss was unusual; most people thought her possessed of great charm and compassion. Jean Rhys, whom Bliss got to know in London in the late thirties, became her close friend. Rhys, Bliss recalled, “used to make me delightful West Indian suppers, and we used to drink an awful lot.” Sometimes Rhys would fall into a characteristic drunken rage and, writes her biographer Carole Angier, accuse her friend “of belonging to the snobs and prigs and respectable people.” Yet Bliss brushed it off. “Jean didn’t mean it,” she insisted. “She wasn’t attacking me, she was attacking the world. I’d seen it before, in other artists.”
The women’s shared roots in the British Caribbean—the disorientation of being bred by two cultures but not properly belonging to either—created a special bond. Rhys grew up in Dominica, as she depicted with poignant clarity in her 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark; Bliss was born and spent part of her childhood in Jamaica, where her father was a captain in the West India Regiment. At age nineteen, after convent school in England, she returned to the island to live with her parents for two years, an interlude that inspired her second novel Luminous Isle. In this scathing portrayal of an English military community, a claustrophobic atmosphere of racism, sexism, and class snobbery induce in the protagonist, Em Hibbert, a profound sense of alienation and rebellion. “The only thing to do,” Em decides, “was to try to extract from the spectacle all possible amusement and not to become too moved by anything.” Nevertheless, she is appalled by “the senseless grouping of people, their sexual attitudes, their endless trivial gossip … their social code with its hypocrisy and hidden indecencies.”
The Italian scholar Michela A. Calderaro suggests that Luminous Isle was an influence on Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’s 1966 postcolonial masterpiece. Calderaro, whose research on Bliss has almost single-handedly saved her from oblivion, points out that not only did the two writers exchange feedback on each other’s work, but that Rhys read a revised version of Luminous Isle shortly before beginning work on Wide Sargasso Sea. The openings of both novels feature lush, sensuous, and sinister evocations of the Jamaican natural world. In Wide Sargasso Sea, the “large and beautiful” garden of Antoinette Cosway’s family has “gone wild,” with a “smell of dead flowers.” In the garden of Em’s childhood, a mango tree are “trembled violently,” the “green scented” odor of cut grass wafts on the breeze, and crickets emit their “shrill humming.” Antoinette invokes the biblical Tree of Life, while Em “would not have been surprised to see evil spirits standing there.”
But whereas Rhys spins a tale as tightly structured as it is inexorable, Luminous Isle is sprawling and untamed, with countless minor characters and a fuzzy-edged indeterminacy that reflects Em’s irresoluteness. Unfulfilled and enervated by the round of formal dinners and tea parties, by gossipy colonels’ wives keeping an eagle-eye out for flirting, and especially by her restrictive status as a woman, Em drifts into an engagement with an older man. A wife, she reflects, is like a bird in a cage. “Birds get used to their cages, and they are much safer in them than they would be fluttering about—free spirits in a dangerous, delightful world.” But her attempt to regard marriage in this “cold unfastidious spirit” is doomed to failure, not least because she loves someone else: her friend Rebekkah.
A beautiful, independent black woman who lives in the mountains, Rebekkah visits Em with gifts of flowers and her favorite fruit, star apples. Em, thrilled by Rebekkah’s presence and the “almost lover-like glow” in her eyes, tells her: “You bring me happiness.” When Em’s artist friend announces plans to paint Rebekkah, “with that delicious yellow handkerchief on her head,” Em can barely conceal her jealousy. (On Bliss’s bedroom wall hung a painting of a woman said to resemble the real-life Rebekkah, whose name, unlike others in the story, wasn’t changed.) It is hard to overstate Bliss’s boldness, as a young writer in the thirties, in so coolly writing about an interracial lesbian attraction, on top of an extended critique of white colonial culture, in a novel obviously drawn directly from her own life. Em’s “disruptive escapades,” contends the black studies scholar and author Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, are a welcome subversion of imperial order:
Thwarting the reproductive labor of elite wifehood, Em’s attraction to a black Jamaican may not be liberating for the hardworking Rebekkah; but neither is it a metaphor for colonial domination. It may just be something else. And in being something else, the desiring imagination of this white Caribbean woman may become, if not decolonizing, then anticolonial.
Bliss’s astringent take on British prejudice and hypocrisy may have contributed to Luminous Isle’s failure. Sackville-West, who helped find a publisher for the novel, initially recommended cutting some of the racist remarks spoken by Em’s mother. “Of course I was so bloody obstinate I didn’t take her advice,” said Bliss. She came to regret this: her own mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, was hurt to be portrayed so negatively. At a time when jingoistic attitudes about empire were commonplace, even those without a personal connection to the author may have found her perspective disquieting. Reviews were nonetheless admiring, although more so in the U.S. A critic for the New York Times Book Review, praising Luminous Isle as “a novel of very superior quality,” declared: “Miss Bliss convinces one that she is by temperament genuinely an artist—not a poseuse nor a prig—and that her struggles to reconcile her inner and outer life have emotional significance.”
Mystery surrounds Bliss’s subsequent books. Calderaro was intrigued to find a third novel, The Albatross, listed in Bliss’s entry in Who Was Who Among English and European Authors, 1931–1949. But this title’s only tantalizing trace is a 1935 letter and a proposed cover from T. J. Cobden-Sanderson’s press. Bliss would have been thirty-two at the time. It is unclear whether The Albatross was ever printed. After that, the world saw no new books from her. This wasn’t for lack of labor (or, as her diaries show, ambition) on Bliss’s part. On her death in 1990, she left many manuscripts, including collections of poems and two more novels that Calderaro describes as “vivid, often abrasive and unsentimental”: Hostile Country and Return to the Wilderness, both based on the author’s isolated post–World War II life in the English countryside.
The saving grace of Bliss’s later obscurity was the reissue, when she was in her eighties, of Saraband and Luminous Isle. She contacted Virago Books herself, explaining that she’d always wanted to see her work republished before she dies. “It is perhaps a publisher’s greatest pleasure to be able to fulfill such a wish,” writes Pringle in her introduction to Luminous Isle. Bliss didn’t live to see a collection of her poetry published, but in 2015 Calderaro edited and introduced Spring Evenings in Sterling Street. Bliss’s poems, like her novels, reveal an audacious imagination dedicated to blurring the lines between the intellectual, the spiritual, and the sexual. The book’s opening poem begins: “Wrap up my body in your wise thought, / That I may unlearn what I know and again be taught. / Transpose me into water and rain, / A scent on the wind or floating grain.” It is a poetics of female transcendence far more in tune with our era than Bliss’s own. Bliss’s desires are distilled perfectly in Em’s musing as, leaving Jamaica and her fiancé, she inhales the sea air from a ship’s deck: “To be sexless, creedless, classless, free. A soul swinging wide across the universe…”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications.