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  • H.D. & Bryher, An Untold Love Story of Modernism by Susan McCabe
  • Cynthia Hogue
H.D. & Bryher, An Untold Love Story of Modernism. Susan McCabe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 400. $39.95 (hardcover).

As Susan McCabe notes at the beginning of her magisterial new biography, H.D. & Bryher, An Untold Love Story of Modernism, modernist poet H.D. (born Hilda Doolittle) and writer and humanitarian Bryher (born Winifred Ellerman) entered a "union" in which each was the other's center. McCabe calls Bryher H.D.'s "main invisible" who made H.D. "visible" (310). Without her, H.D. "might have lost her creative drive," but without H.D., who shielded Bryher from familial pressures to conform to social conventions, Bryher "might have done herself in" (311). As their "curious" story unfolds in McCabe's riveting telling, a love story emerges in terms that have only become available in the twenty-first century. H.D. was bisexual, polysexual, and Bryher nonbinary, transgender, "they." McCabe's point is that they both "consciously defied the category 'woman'" (311). New criticism and scholarship in the burgeoning field of H.D. studies, augmenting the publication of H.D.'s unpublished manuscripts and republication of Bryher's lost works, suggest the timeliness of a biography in which "this untold story reclaims the pair as unseen activists" (5).

What distinguishes McCabe's biography is its objective to portray fully the love in this modern "union," so as to make it visible—and understood—in a new light. Many details of the lives of "our couple" (as McCabe tenderly refers to them throughout the book) are familiar. They met after the Great War, after H.D. had almost died giving birth to her daughter, Perdita. Bryher swept her off to Greece to save her, after which they embarked on a future together defined by making art. Bryher's role beyond that of savior and patron, however—was she H.D.'s "companion"? "partner"?—hasn't been named (14). The obvious—their love, that story—has been hiding, like the purloined letter, in plain sight. That fact is McCabe's North Star as she wends [End Page 679] her way through the rich material record of lives lived fully and thoroughly recorded. Their lives were full of the artistic and intellectual luminaries of their day—among them, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Paul Robeson, Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and Marianne Moore, to name a few. In 1933 and 1934, H.D. was Freud's analysand in Vienna. Seeing another war on the horizon as the Nazis rose to power, Bryher put her wealth to the cause of helping Jewish refugees to flee, including the elderly Freuds and their family. To read details of the considerable trauma and its generational reverberations is harrowing, but McCabe is undaunted in the telling. Her scholarship is impeccably thorough, bringing new material to light.

In addition to being a highly regarded scholar of modernist film and poetry, McCabe is a poet. The lyricism of her elegant prose also recommends H.D. & Bryher. To illustrate, I quote a passage describing a walk H.D. took on the eve of her meeting Bryher. In July 1918, both women were in Cornwall. On the continent, the war dragged on. H.D.'s husband, Richard Aldington, having had an affair on furlough, was back on active duty in France. H.D. had come to Cornwall at the invitation of the composer, Cecil Gray, memorably sketched as having "flabby cheeks," "large ears," and "a beaked nose [that] punctuated his face" (66). Although she had no passion for him (and was spending her time translating The Bacchae), she was already pregnant. Here's McCabe's description:

Wandering along, H.D. collected cyclamen and violets, climbed rocks, watched gulls, and took the road to St. Ives, with its anemones, gorse, and chamomile, sensing the "sacramental power" of Druid priests who fashioned circular stones like those of Stonehenge. Her stride convinced her she was breaking from a sex-obsessed crowd toward "a cold healing breath" that "enclosed" her "in crystal." … She cultivated her animist gifts while walking, tied to her "every breath," "charged with meaning," the...