I have occupied this idle, empty winter with writing a story. It has been written to please myself, without thought of my own vanity or modesty, without regard for other people's feelings, without considering whether I shock or hurt the living, without scrupling to speak of the dead.
The world, I know, is changing. I am not indifferent to the revolution that has caught us in its mighty skirts, to the enormity of the flood that is threatening to submerge us. But what could I do? In the welter of the surrounding storm, I have taken refuge for a moment on this little raft, constructed with the salvage of my memory. I have tried to steer it into that calm haven of art in which I still believe. I have tried to avoid some of the rocks and sandbanks that guard its entrance.
This account of what happened to me during a year that I spent at school in France seems to me to fall into the shape of a story-a short, simple one, with two or three characters and a very few episodes. It is informed with a single motive, tends to a single end, moves quickly and undeviatingly to a final catastrophe. Its truth has been filtered, transposed, and, maybe, superficially altered, as is inevitably the case with all autobiographies. I have condensed into a few score of pages the history of a whole year when life was, if not at its fullest, at any rate at its most poignant-that year when every vital experience was the first, or, if you Freudians object, the year when I first became conscious of myself, of love and pleasure, of death and pain, and when every reaction to them was as unexpected, as amazing, as involuntary as the experience itself.
I know the difficulties that surround such an enterprise. I know, for instance, how careful the adjustment must be before the necessary, dry skeleton of fact can be clothed with the warm, round, living flesh of youth, with colour and movement. I know, on the one hand, that the creature may become lean and hard, emotion withering from its bony structure, or, on the other, for want of that structure, it may lose its strength and purity and collapse into the amorphous deliquescence of sentimentality.
How should I hope to succeed in such an attempt? Why should I resist the desire to make it?
Love has always been the chief business of my life, the only thing I have thought-no, felt-supremely worth while, and I don't pretend that this experience was not succeeded by others. But at that time, I was innocent, with the innocence of ignorance. I didn't know what was happening to me. I didn't know what had happened to anybody. I was without consciousness, that is to say, more utterly absorbed than was ever possible again. For after that first time there was always part of me standing aside, comparing, analysing, objecting: "Is this real? Is this sincere?" All the world of my predecessors was there before me, taking, as it were, the bread out of my mouth. Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets. Shakespeare or Donne or Heine had the exact phrase for it. Comforting, perhaps, but enraging too. Nothing ever seemed spontaneously my own. As the blood dripped from the wound, there was always part of me to watch with a smile and a sneer: "Literature! Mere literature! Nothing to make a fuss about!" And then I would add, "But so Mercutio jested as he died!"
And there were not only the poets to poison the sources or emotion, there were the psychologists, the physiologists, the psycho-analysts, the Prousts and the Freuds. It was deeply interesting, this withdrawal of oneself from the scene of action, this lying in ambush, waiting and watching for the prowling beasts, the nocturnal vermin, to come creeping out of their lairs, to recognize this one and that, to give it its name, to be acquainted with its habits-but what was left of oneself after this relinquishing of one's property? Wasn't one a mere field where these irresponsible animals carried on their antics at their own free will? Irritation, disgust, cynicism and scepticism are bred of such thoughts-the poisonous antidotes of the poison of passion. But the poison that works in a girl of sixteen-at any rate in the romantic, sentimental girl I then was-has no such antidote, and no previous inoculation mitigates the severity of the disease. Virgin soil, she takes it as the South Sea islanders took measles-a matter of life and death.
How should I have known indeed, what was the matter with me? There was no instruction anywhere. The poets, it is true (for even then I frequented the poets), had a way of talking sometimes which seemed strangely to illuminate the situation. But this, I thought, must be an illusion or an accident. What could these grown-up men and women with their mutual love-affairs have in common with a little girl like me? My case was so different, so unheard of. Really no one had ever heard of such a thing, except as a joke. Yes, people used to make joking allusions to "school-girl crushes." But I knew well enough that my "crush" was not a joke. And yet I had an uneasy feeling that, if not a joke, it was something to be ashamed of, something to hide desperately. This, I suppose, was not so much a matter of reflection (I did not think my passion was reprehensible, I was far too ignorant for that) as of instinct-a deep-rooted instinct, which all my life has kept me from any form of unveiling, which has forbidden me many of the purest physical pleasures and all literary expression. How can one bathe without undressing, or write without laying bare one's soul?
But now, after many years, the urgency of confession is upon me. Let me indulge it. Let me make my offering on the altar of-absence. The eyes that would have understood are closed. And besides, it is not my soul but that of a far away little girl of sixteen.
One more oblation to the gods! May they grant me not to have profaned a rare and beautiful memory!
My reserve, my recoil from all exhibitionism, was no doubt also a matter of heredity and upbringing. Which of us at home ever alluded to feelings or ever attempted to express them? But I don't doubt we had them as strong as other people. We were a Victorian household, and, in spite of an almost militant agnosticism, attached without the smallest tinge of scepticism or hypocrisy to the ideals of the time: duty, work, abnegation, a stern repression of what was called self-indulgence, a horror and a terror of lapsing from the current code. My father, who was a man of science and passed his time in investigating with heroic patience and the strictest independence of judgment one or two of the laws of nature, would not have dreamt for a moment of submitting the laws of ethics to the same scrutiny. My mother, from whom all her children inherited an ardent love of letters, and who read me aloud Tom Jones when I was fifteen (not that I understood one-tenth of it, utterly unenlightened as I was to the physical side of human nature) and who knew most of the Elizabethans more or less by heart, had the most singular faculty of keeping experience at bay. It was her abounding vitality, I think, that made her enjoy the blood and savagery of those outrageous authors. But she admired them from behind a wall of principle and morality which kept her absolutely safe from coming into any dangerous contact with their violence. And her own vitality, no doubt, never troubled her. Married at eighteen, and the mother of thirteen children, she was, I imagine, completely unaware of her senses. For a person who was so plunged in literature she was strangely devoid of psychology and strangely unconscious of persons. She never had a notion of what any of us children were doing or thinking, and intrigues of the most obvious and violent nature might be, and indeed often were, carried on under her very nose without her having the smallest suspicion of them. Her love of poetry was part no doubt of her sensibility to music. It was because of his sound that she reluctantly forgave Milton his abominable doctrines and learnt Paradise Lost by heart. But I think her chief passion in life was public affairs. Allied by birth and marriage to the aristocracy of Anglo-Indian families, the daughter and wife of great administrators, a profound interest in the craft of statesmanship was inherited in her blood and fostered by all the circumstances of her life.
I am trying to explain that though my home was very rich in intellectual influences of many sorts, there was in it a curious, an almost anomalous lack-an insufficient sense, that is-of humanity and art. With all her love of literature and music and painting, with all her vivid intelligence, my mother, I think, never felt them otherwise than with her mind. She was perhaps incapable of the mystical illumination. To speak on a lower plane, she surrounded herself with ugly objects; her furniture, her pictures, her clothes, were chosen, not without care but without taste; she was incapable of discriminating food or wine. Though we lived in the solid comfort which befitted our exact station in life, the sensual element was totally lacking from our upbringing. I remember becoming aware of this by comparing my mother with her only sister, our aunt E., who had none of my mother's mental capacity, but who was sensitive to art to the very finger-tips of her beautiful hands, and successfully created about herself an atmosphere of "ordre et beaut, luxe, calme et volupt." No; it was not only the unavoidable confusion and restrictions imposed upon a family of ten children which made our home so different. It was something much more fundamental than that.
But those missing elements which I think my childhood instinctively craved for were not to be given to me until a good deal later-until perhaps too late-when their assimilation was not possible without a profound upheaval and perhaps a permanent intoxication of my whole being.
When I was about thirteen, my mother sent me to a boarding-school which had a considerable reputation at the time and happened to be situated near to where we lived, in a London suburb which still preserved the charm of Georgian houses, spacious gardens, spreading cedar-trees, and flowering bushes. This school was kept by an eminent lady belonging to the Wesleyan persuasion. Before sending me there, my mother honourably explained our atheistical views and asked Miss Stock to give her word not to attempt to convert me. She did so and conscientiously kept it. She never spoke of religion to me personally, but I lived in a stifling atmosphere of it. I had the oppressive feeling of being an outcast, a pariah; I felt the astonishment and reprobation of my three bedroom companions when I heroically got into bed without first kneeling down by my bedside and saying or pretending to say my prayers. I was liable during my first term or two to be asked by an elder girl at any turn of a garden path whether I didn't love Jesus, which embarrassed me horribly. I assisted at prayers, at Bible classes. I went to chapel twice a day on Sundays. I heard incessant talk about our Saviour's blood, the dreadful necessity of saving one's soul, the frightful abysses into which one might fall at any moment if one didn't fly to hide oneself in the Rock of Ages. These people seemed to be beset on every side by "temptations"; they lived in continual terror of falling into "sin." Sin? What was sin? Evidently there loomed in the dark background a mysterious horror from which pure-minded girls must turn away their thoughts, but there were dangers enough near at hand which made it necessary to walk with extreme wariness-pitfalls, which one could hardly avoid without the help of God. I had to do without that, but I was very wary and naturally conscientious. Even so, one never could tell. There was the dreadful crime of "acting a lie," so hard to discern, so easy to commit. If you said you had read a book and had not looked out the meaning of every word you did not understand, there you were! A special Bible-class was convened, you were publicly told that you were "half mentally, morally and spiritually dead," and your companions were asked to pray for you. This did not happen to me personally, but such episodes made me violently indignant and extremely nervous. I should have disliked being held up to public reprobation. I should have still more disliked being expelled, and I lived in a state of continual terror. The fact that after a year or two I found a friend did not diminish my terrors-on the contrary-but it helped me to endure them. We discovered-how did we discover-after what innumerable feelers and cautious explorations of the ground, did we discover, that we were both "agnostics"? Lucy, moreover, had the credit of having become one on her own initiative. Ah! what a heavenly relief! Here was someone who rebelled like oneself, who read Shelley in secret too, who understood when one said Prometheus was greater than Christ. And then still more boldly, we ventured further; we talked of still more dangerous subjects-of love, of marriage. Should we love? Should we marry? Our heroes? Our ideals? And that extraordinary, alluring, forbidden mystery that we sensed lying at the back of all grown-up minds, what was it? We knew dimly we should never understand anything till we understood that. But oh! how innocent, how ignorant we were! How undirected, how misdirected our curiosity! How far from discovering the right track, of even suspecting its existence! But even so, we knew that our conversations were extremely perilous, to be indulged in only with the utmost precautions. We felt like two conspirators and trembled with terror if a mistress came upon us unexpectedly. Had she overheard us? Surely she had overheard us. We could see it in her face. Our consciences were loaded with guilt. If a special Bible class was convened, we went to it with knocking knees and frightful apprehensions.
Copyright © 2020 by Dorothy Strachey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.