- Graham R.: Rosamund Marriott Watson, Woman of Letters
In Graham R.: Rosamund Marriott Watson, Woman of Letters, Linda K. Hughes has given us a biography of one of the most intriguing people of the fin de siècle. Tomson was a deft and ambitious poet, who used her virtuosic command of language for an unusually moody, sensitive, and erudite range of subjects. She was also an innovative prose stylist and magazine editor, with a social circle including such notables as Oscar Wilde, W. E. Henley, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, and Thomas Hardy. As one friend wrote, she was “beautiful, reminiscent of Rossetti in her tall willowy slimness, with her long neck like a column and her great halo of black hair and her big brown eyes, appealing, confinding [sic], beseeching” (p. 85). No wonder that influential critic Andrew Lang called her, “a new Muse, and more like a Muse than most” (pp. 63–64). Yet her poetic fame was rivaled by her personal scandal. She twice divorced and eloped, with four children by three different men, and lived with her last partner outside wedlock. Tomson’s unconventional erotic life may fascinate modern readers but it destroyed her career, as Hughes shows in her account of this tragic and memorable story.
As Hughes comments, one reason Tomson “seems so modern is her unstable identity” (p. xiii). Born Rosamund Ball, she married George Francis Armytage in 1884 and respelled her first name, therefore publishing her first poems as Rosamond Armytage or R. Armytage. But as the marriage disintegrated, she eloped with artist Arthur Tomson in 1886 (leaving her two daughters as well as her husband) and renamed herself Graham R. Tomson. Divorcing Armytage and marrying Tomson, Graham R. Tomson enjoyed great success for several years. But in 1894 Tomson left her husband and son, eloping with journalist H. B. Marriott Watson, and—in a disastrous decision—she changed her pseudonym once again, becoming Rosamund Marriott Watson. Giving up the name-recognition and social credentials of Graham R. Tomson proved devastating, and for the last seventeen years of her life, she struggled with poverty, isolation, domestic work, and illness. The name changes also publicized her scandalous relationships and made them integral parts of her poetic publications. Her multiple names make it frustratingly difficult for modern scholars to track Tomson through period documents, as I can personally attest, and Hughes’s achievement in locating so much material is quite simply extraordinary. Hughes is also alert to the ways that the multiplicity of [End Page 287] names baffles any attempt to capture a stable identity. Was R. Armytage really, in any sense, the same person as Rosamund Marriott Watson? How much of herself remained when she had only her own R.?
If I have talked about Tomson’s relationships before her poetry, it is symptomatic of the way those affiliations shape any attempt to understand her life. But Tomson was a supremely technically skilled poet who specialized in celebrations of urban modernity, eerie folk-like ballads, and wistful evocations of fading love and time. Hughes is a superb reader of Tomson’s poetry, and it is a pleasure to follow her informed and appreciative guidance. On “Chimaera,” for instance, Hughes unspools the various meanings of the title, pointing out how it evokes decadence, a perverse imagination, and lesbian desire, but how it also “expressed the speaker’s unending desire for mystery, for the unknown” (p. 115). In a reading of “The Last Fairy” as brilliant as it is brief, Hughes notices that “rather than a nostalgic ballad . . . it was the sole free-verse poem in Graham R.’s volume, an unexpected pairing of traditional lore and modernist technique that underscored the fairy’s inability to chime with others (as in rhyme) and the creature’s entrapment in modernity” (p. 140).
Hughes has done all possible (and probably some impossible) research. She is extremely skilled at weaving together disparate documents to speculate about Tomson’s state of mind in cases where we have no evidence. For instance...