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Gamel Woolsey

by Emma Garman

A writer who, like her books, fought not to fade

The poet and novelist Gamel Woolsey (1895–1968) was cursed with that shadowy defining quality of the greatest artists:  the inability to coax life into satisfying her desires. Her ambitions for creative (to say nothing of romantic) fulfillment were continually, and almost comically, thwarted by fortune, and only through a bit of posthumous luck, and the efforts of friends who outlived her, do we know about the South Carolina-born writer at all. Neither of her novels was published in her lifetime, while only one volume of poetry, Middle Earth (1931), saw the light of day — a later one was rejected by T. S. Eliot at Faber & Faber, a blow that made Woolsey abandon all literary effort — and she was purposely written out of the biography of her one great love, the British author Llewelyn Powys, at the request of his widow.

The daughter of a cotton plantation owner and a society beauty half his age, Gamel (née Elizabeth) Woolsey spent an idyllic childhood in Aiken, South Carolina, a place she would always recall with nostalgia ("Where yesterdays are better than today" mourns the final line of her poem "Carolina Low Country"). Her father William Walton Woolsey was descended from a long line of influential Americans, including two Yale presidents; his sister was the bestselling author of What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge. When William Woolsey died in 1910, the family — teenage Elsa, as she was then known, her sister, brother and mother — moved to Charleston, where the bad luck that was to be Gamel's perpetual companion soon began. At the age of 17 she fell madly in love with a boy who killed himself when he realized he was gay. Meanwhile, her mother became an alcoholic (traumatizing Gamel to the extent that she herself wouldn't drink for many years), then at 20 she was diagnosed with tuberculosis and confined for a year to a sanatorium, where part of her lung was removed. She would often be troubled by recurrences of TB, especially at times of emotional strain, and the haunted, translucent appearance characteristic of "consumptives" enhanced her grave beauty, her gray eyes and dark hair.

When she was released from the sanatorium, Woolsey left South Carolina for New York. She was never to return, although many years later she revisited her Charleston adolescence in her second novel, Patterns in the Sand, a feminist exploration of a young woman's coming of age in a sexist and confining culture, set at the outbreak of World War I. Written in England in the early 1940s, the novel alas remains unpublished, the manuscript held by the University of Texas at Austin.

Woolsey's first novel, One Way of Love, fared better, but only just. In 1932, Victor Gollancz had agreed that his fledgling London press would publish this autobiographical tale of a young woman's loneliness and doomed love affairs, and production was underway. But following the successful prosecution of legendary lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, as well as a libel suit for sexual explicitness brought against one of his own press's books, Children Be Happy, Gollancz got cold feet, and decided at the last minute not to go ahead with One Way of Love. Particularly cruel was the fact that Woolsey had already corrected the page proofs which, she wrote to Powys, she had been so excited to receive. (In an ironic twist, Woolsey's elder half-brother John was the judge who was soon to deem Ulysses not obscene, and who lifted the ban on Married Love by Marie Stopes.) The novel was eventually, and heroically, rescued from the British Museum — which held one of just two copies in existence — by Virago Press for publication in 1987, 55 years after first being printed, and 18 years after its author's death.

One Way of Love follows the sorrowful adventures of Mariana Clare, like Woolsey a Southern girl, delicate in constitution and sensitive of spirit, who moves to Greenwich Village and lives in a bohemian world of impoverished writers and artists. Mariana marries a young English journalist, not because she loves him but instead because "it was so sweet to be loved, to have a companion for her body in the loneliness of the world…she would take what the world had given her, what compensation it had to offer for abandoned hopes." Mariana's name, taken from Tennyson's poem about the deserted Mariana in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, is indicative, said Woolsey's second husband Gerald Brenan, of how she saw herself at the time:  "waiting for the knight on horseback to appear, despairing of his coming and neglecting the housework." Brenan, an author and sometime Bloomsbury group member, was instrumental in getting the novel accepted by Gollancz, having found in it "a freshness of feeling and language that delighted me." When One Way of Love appeared in the late 1980s Alex Raskin, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, praised Woolsey's "lyrical style" and "imagery that is often magical."

Needless to say, as a modern reader it's hard to understand Gollancz's nervousness; Woolsey's few descriptions of sex are thoroughly abstract and poetic, although Mariana's quiet determination to find a lover who lives up to her romantic yearnings — she leaves her husband, and endures subsequent unfulfilling affairs — would have been surprising at the time, as would the descriptions of attempted contraception and an abortion she undergoes, quite casually and unfeelingly, when doctors tell her that she's too frail from tuberculosis to continue with a pregnancy:

"She could not regret the child. Essentially, she had never believed in it; as soon as she was sure she was to have a child, she had been told she could not have it. It had never existed in her mind. About the operation she felt only indifference."

Woolsey herself never had a child, and underwent probably five abortions or miscarriages. Her first pregnancy occurred when she was living in New York in her twenties and being courted by Rex Hunter, the original of Mariana's journalist. After they found out she was pregnant, Hunter did the gallant thing and married her, but like Mariana she had the pregnancy "arrested" on medical advice, soon after an April 1923 wedding at City Hall. The marriage barely lasted four years (they never officially divorced), but Woolsey continued to live in Greenwich Village where she had a room in Patchin Place, below the apartment of John Cowper Powys and Phyllis Playter — through whom she met Llewelyn Powys and fell into a bizarre love triangle from which she wouldn't emerge for several years.

The Powys brothers — John Cowper, Llewelyn and Theodore Francis — were regarded as literary royalty. Descended from an ecclesiastical dynasty, as well as from the poets John Donne and William Cowper, they grew up, like their friend Thomas Hardy, creatively inspired by the romantic Dorset countryside. Llewelyn Powys and his wife Alyse Gregory arrived in New York in November 1927 for Powys to take up a post of "visiting critic" for the New York Herald Tribune. Gregory, a pioneering feminist and former editor of Dial magazine, apparently encouraged her husband in his attraction to Woolsey, "the little poetess," almost certainly not anticipating the dramatic depths of their love, which Woolsey would later describe as having "something supernatural about it which meant that nothing could ever quench it, not even the grave."

When they met, Powys was 43, around ten years Woolsey's senior, although she routinely knocked four years off her age. A fellow consumptive, he was desperate for a child to continue his legacy, and despite her own physical weakness, Woolsey determined to give him one. Less than a year after their affair began, she nearly got her wish. Powys and Gregory were traveling in Europe in September 1928 when Woolsey sent news that she was pregnant. But a month later she was involved in a road accident and miscarried after being taken to hospital; on hearing the news, Powys suffered a relapse of tuberculosis, and then he spent the winter convalescing in Italy. The following May he and Gregory arrived back in England, where just days later Woolsey joined them in the village of East Chaldon — and was pregnant by July. Again she was advised to have an abortion, as she had succumbed to a new attack of tuberculosis. An indication of just how curious this relationship between a married couple and a mistress was:  both Powys and Gregory traveled with Woolsey to London for the termination. So far did Gregory take her feminist stance on individual freedom that, even as she was in agonies of jealousy — Powys, she said, was "the core of my being" — she insisted that he be loyal and supportive to her love rival.

Gregory's masochistic progressiveness notwithstanding, by 1930 the situation had reached an untenable stage. The three were still living in East Chaldon, Powys was utterly torn between the two women — when traveling alone he would write to Gregory that "the thought of you keeps me awake as much as the thought of Gamel" — while Gregory was in such despair as to be suicidal.

Relief arrived in the shape of Gerald Brenan, a 30-something British writer, of modestly independent means, who had come to the village with the express intention of finding a wife, following a disastrous and protracted affair with Dora Carrington (the Bloomsbury painter and wife of his friend, Ralph Partridge). When he saw Woolsey out walking, he was struck by her "freshness and beauty" and "sad, dreamy expression," and immediately decided that she fit the bill. Woolsey, though not wildly attracted to Brenan, saw her chance to escape from the anguish of life with Powys, and in her strangely passive way would acquiesce within a month to marrying Brenan (not that this was ever made official, as she was still legally married to Rex Hunter). Fully aware of her obsessive love for Powys, Brenan harbored no great illusions about their relationship, but believed that marriages "are made as well as born and I saw that if we built up ours with patience and good will we had a far chance of succeeding." Meanwhile, Woolsey said in a letter to Powys: "I am very fond of Gerald, but it has nothing to do with what I feel for you. We meet in some part of the mind where other people never come."

After this remarkably inauspicious beginning, Brenan and Woolsey stayed together until her death nearly 40 years later. They lived for most of that time in Andalucia, Spain, where Woolsey wrote a first-hand study of the Spanish civil war, Death's Other Kingdom (1939). All too typically, obstacles prevented the book from reaching a wide audience: by the time it was published by Longmans, World War II had broken out, and the preface by John Cowper Powys patronizingly misrepresented a subtle meditation on the psychological impact of war as "a tender and wistful threnody over 'Old Spain' by a daughter of the 'Old South.'" Recently, Death's Other Kingdom has gained some overdue recognition — "as a book on [the Spanish] civil war, this cannot be bettered for its sympathy and beauty," according to the London Sunday Times' review of a 2004 reissue.

Too little and much too late, of course. In her final years, a totally disillusioned Woolsey retreated further into her solitary dreams and fantasies, and ultimately gave up seeking recognition as a writer. A concerned Brenan wrote to Alyse Gregory in 1961:  "It is really Gamel's mental state that I worry about … She is too centered in her own incommunicable thoughts and feelings, and doesn't give herself enough to other people." By the time of her death from breast cancer in 1968, the tragic poet had come to believe ever more strongly in the sentiments she put in Mariana's head decades before:

"Happy — I will never be happy with anyone … In all our crazy, twisted, besotted heads there's nothing with which to make people happy. I am as bad as the rest. I am only different in knowing it. They are complacently self-satisfied in the thought that they can make anyone happy — they are sure that they are good, that they are successful. How stupid we are! And how can we help being so? Each one of us is a small bit of animated consciousness enclosed in a bone case, separated by air and space from its fellows with no way of knowing what goes on in any other mind … ."

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Articles in this Issue

The Diary, by Richard Clewes
The Passion, by Jenny Barton
Gamel Woolsey, by Emma Garman
19th-Century Columbus, Ohio, by Nick Taggart
The Fat Spy, by Susan Doll and David Morrow
Architecture, by Townsend Twainhart
Environmental Science, by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
Developmental Psychology, by Shoko Tendo
October 2007


Emma Garman: Born and bred in England, Emma Garman received a master's in literature from the University of London and a master's in creative writing from the City College of New York. She has written for Nextbook, New York and The Huffington Post, among other publications, and can be visited online at www.emmagarman.com.

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