(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

In novelistic method, in language, and in sheer sensuous richness, HERmione—a book written more than fifty years ago about events even earlier in the author’s life—demands recognition as among the most timely and timeless of books. Its author, now dead, matured with the century. Hilda Doolittle became H. D., Imagiste, at the promoting of her one-time fiancé Ezra Pound. The place was London, the year 1912. Hilda Doolittle had allowed Pound to convince her to follow him to Europe, and was in the process not so much of falling out of love with the American self-styled troubadour or of falling in love with the young British poet Richard Aldington as she was coming to grips with what Pound wanted her to be—a muse, H. D.’s biographer says, a decoration.

In a London tearoom—according to Janice S. Robinson—Pound dubbed Aldington and Doolittle Imagists, and set out to get them published in the then-new Poetry magazine in Chicago. Pound’s launching the Imagist movement, using H. D. as its prime example, was crucial to her life and important for the history of twentieth century poetry. Soon, H. D. would be Mrs. Richard Aldington, and Pound would be married to Dorothy Shakespear, a marriage that placed him at the heart of a literary circle which included William Butler Yeats, the poet he admired most in English. H. D.’s attachment to Pound would remain strong over the years, as indicated by her repeated use of him in her writing. As late as 1958, Pound’s anticipated release from St. Elizabeth’s Asylum prompted H. D. to reexamine their relationship in End to Torment (1979). Her psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud required much talk about Pound, as about other lovers, Aldington and D. H. Lawrence; H. D.’s Tribute to Freud (1956) takes its place with H. D.’s poetry and fiction, some of it still unpublished, as part of the record of how a remarkable woman took charge of her own life at a time when women did so at their peril.

HERmione may be said to be the first chapter in a feminist odyssey. The classically schooled Hilda Doolittle (no matter that Pound was her most important teacher) was prepared to see her life as myth, and, beginning in 1933, Freud helped her sort the materials. In a letter two years before her death, H. D. instructed her literary executor to destroy the manuscripts of two works written in London between 1926 and 1927. One of them was HERmione, a book which establishes that she had already begun to pattern her own myths.

In HERmione, H. D. identifies herself with William Shakespeare’s misunderstood queen in The Winter’s Tale (1610-1611) and with the Greek Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy. HERmione, as the capitalization of the feminine pronoun suggests, is about essential woman, and Hermione Gart characteristically thinks of herself as “Her,” though, at crucial moments, she confuses the “Her” which is herself with the “Her” which is Fayne Rabb. The story occurs near Philadelphia in about 1905, though H. D. compresses events for the sake of dramatic intensity.

The opening pages of HERmione reveal Hermione Gart as a young woman convinced she is a failure, for she has failed conic sections at Bryn Mawr and seems, thus, to be closed out of the scientific talk of her father and brother. She cannot bring herself to think of her brother’s self-assured, somewhat common wife Minnie as her sister and wants nothing more than to be at the beach alone with a dog of her own—something she does not have to share. She must share even the homely task of picking up the mail with the hateful Minnie, whom she thinks of as red-haired—a zinnia, that coarsest and gaudiest of flowers.

The day’s mail brings an invitation from a former classmate to come meet a woman who is as fey as she is, and it brings word that George Lowndes is coming home to “God’s own god-damned country.” The fey young woman and George Lowndes provide the book’s dramatic conflict: eventually, Her sees George as a wolf, “a wolf mask on a man’s body,” and Fayne Rabb as the looked-for sister and as a swallow, the swallow of A. C. Swinburne’s poem. “O sister my sister O singing swallow,” Hermione sighs.

As a novel, HERmione lives less in its action than in the sensibility of its protagonist, reminding one that another of H. D.’s contemporaries, James Joyce, declared unequiovocally that the quality of art depends upon the richness of the mind of its creator. The third-person point of view never deviates from its...

(The entire section is 1895 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Kirkus Reviews. XLIX, September 1, 1981, p. 1096.

Library Journal. CVI, October 15, 1981, p. 2048.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, October 9, 1981, p. 51.