Authors: Anna Kavan
The mother of ‘Anna’ in this novel dies in childbirth, and she is brought up by her father and a governess in a remote Pyrenean village. When she is thirteen her father shoots himself and she is adopted by a rich, beautiful and ruthless aunt who sends her to boarding school. She forms friendships at the school but her freedom is abruptly curtailed when the aunt forces her into a loveless marriage. She comes to detest her husband and his bourgeois family but cannot break away and finds herself marooned with him in Burma where the story climaxes.
An early work from Anna Kavan – published originally under the name Helen Ferguson –
Let Me Alone
strongly evokes life in Britain and its colonies from the early years of the century through the period following the First World War. More straightforward than her more famous later novels,
Let Me Alone
is nevertheless fascinating for its hint of the personal stresses that were to inform many of her uncompromising storylines.
ANNA KAVAN, née Helen Woods, was born in Cannes in 1901 and spent her childhood in Europe, the USA and Great Britain. Her life was haunted by her rich, glamorous mother, beside whom her father remains an indistinct figure. Twice married and divorced, she began writing while living with her first husband in Burma and was initially published under her married name of Helen Ferguson. Her early writing consisted of somewhat eccentric ‘Home Counties’ novels, but everything changed after her second marriage collapsed. In the wake of this, she suffered the first of many nervous breakdowns and was confined to a clinic in Switzerland. She emerged from her incarceration with a new name, Anna Kavan, the protagonist of her 1930 novel
Let Me Alone
, as well as an outwardly different persona and a new literary style. She suffered periodic bouts of mental illness and long-term drug addiction – she had become addicted to heroin in the 1920s and continued to use it throughout her life – and these facets of her life feature prominently in her work. She destroyed almost all of her personal correspondence and most of her diaries, therefore ensuring that she achieved her ambition to become ‘one of the world’s best-kept secrets’. She died in 1968 of heart failure, soon after the publication of her most celebrated work, the novel
found an apt title for this novel, first published in 1930 under the name of Helen Ferguson.
Let Me Alone
is an account, from childhood, of isolation in a woman and of her compulsive retreat from any association, especially marriage, that might impinge upon the strange, austere loneliness and solitude she both wanted and mortally dreaded: a schizophrenic condition. She marries – the wrong man inevitably – with predictably disastrous consequences.
This 1930 novel brings to mind today’s Women’s Liberation movement, with its demands for independence of mind and spirit for women. ‘She wanted to go through life alone, in her own independent, detached fashion,’ the heroine meditates, before marrying. ‘The idea of being bound up with another person in such a relationship as marriage was hateful to her.’ After the marriage, she is reading a Life of Luther when ‘… from the midst of the printed page, there suddenly sprang out at her these words: “Here I stand; I can no other,” a great enlightenment came to her, a sudden illumination. In a moment everything was made plain to her…. How easy and simple to face life from the single basis of her own undeniable individuality. She was what she was: herself. No need for compromise or apology or modification or defence.’
All very well if one is content with isolation and able to encrust oneself with a satisfactory crab’s shell. The heroine of
Let Me Alone
makes her efforts to be absorbed in other people. But the three men in her life fail her – her father, her husband and the hesitant, would-be lover, Findlay. She falters towards lesbianism; one of the best scenes in the novel
describes her hopeless return to the erstwhile devoted girl, Sidney, and Sidney’s acutely perceptive rejection of her.
A Brontë influence seems to pervade the early part of this novel: the sombre father might have been imagined by Charlotte or Emily. Later, more than a hint of the D. H. Lawrence of
Women in Love
pervades its language, with obsessional repetitions of certain key words. In the finely written last part, the identity of the future Anna Kavan emerges clearly, especially in the hallucinatory power of the great rainstorm in Burma, coinciding with the final collapse of the ill-starred marriage.
The name Helen Ferguson, used for the earlier novels, was to be discarded, and the author began to use that of Anna Kavan (the married name of the protagonist of
Let Me Alone)
for the later books by which she is better known. As I have related in my Introduction to her posthumous collection of stories,
Julia and the Bazooka
(Peter Owen, 1970), she adopted the latter name by deed poll, following two retreats to mental hospitals, after which she changed not only her name and mode of living but also, somewhat remarkably, her personal appearance. Her vitality remained unimpaired; even her daily recourse to heroin – for some thirty years – as an escape from her conflicts, did not bring drastic physical damage until her last year or so. There had been two failed marriages. She lived until she was 67, and did not cease writing novels and short stories. She achieved the isolation and independence she wanted, but not an impervious shell.
, the father of Anna-Marie, was a peculiar man. He belonged to the technical hierarchy of gentlemen. That is to say that he had received a lengthy and expensive education from which all utilitarian subjects had been carefully excluded; that he had been born into a class of people who spoke, ate, dressed and usually thought in the same prescribed manner, who were dominated by certain fixed ideas – chief among them being the conviction of their own intrinsic superiority – and who considered most activities, physical or intellectual, not only undesirable but disgusting.
But James was disquietingly untrue to type. He would not hunt with the pack: in fact, he would not hunt at all. He had ‘ideas.’
‘He’s picked them up at Cambridge,’ said his father, making excuses for his son’s damning departure from the gentlemanly intellectual norm. ‘He’ll grow out of them.’
Not that anyone knew what James’s ideas really were. He never spoke of them. Indeed, he had very little to say on any subject. He was a silent young man.
His father, who was proud of him, proud of his intellectual record at the university (though secretly a little disappointed that it was not a sporting one) tried to draw him out. But James would not be drawn. He was always perfectly polite to the old man, perfectly reserved and perfectly discouraging. His father began to lose heart in the face of
his suave unapproachableness. Nevertheless, he tried perseveringly to interest his son in the estate, which was his own last absorbing passion. The young man courteously but firmly refused to be interested. When questioned and driven into an argumentative corner, he replied quietly that it struck him as slightly degrading that man – who after all was an independent thinking animal – should allow his whole life to be dominated by and devoted to his possessions.
His father then left him alone.
James was unsociable. He fled from the society of his father’s friends, whom he disliked, to the society of his inferiors, whom he disliked even more, and from whom in turn he fled to solitude. In spite of his habitual cold politeness, he was occasionally extremely rude to members of his own class, for whom he felt a curious blend of sympathy and contempt. He was essentially one of them; and he knew it. If he could not tolerate them, at least, most certainly, he could tolerate no one else; and if he despised them he despised himself also. He was at once an aristocrat and a revolutionary, the hater and the hated. An unfortunate combination.
People put up with his eccentricities remarkably well, partly on account of his prospective wealth and partly because of his appearance, which was rather distinguished. He was always the best-dressed person in the room.
When he was twenty-seven his father died, discouraged. Since he could do no more for him, he left his son a large fortune.
James’s first action was to sell the estate; an act that would have broken the old man’s heart. He then proceeded, with a certain methodical determination, to spend his father’s money. Eight years later he had practically
succeeded, when he suddenly and incomprehensibly married a penniless girl of semi-Austrian parentage.
James Forester was now thirty-five years old and looked considerably older. He was tall and thin, with a cold, stern, grey face and smooth grey hair. He looked like a statesman. His manner was chilly, aloof, arrogant and repelling. He had no friends and he disliked everyone. He liked mountains, however; he was also fond of the sea and of the earth as a whole: ‘Where every prospect pleases, and every man is vile,’ as he sometimes mis-quoted.
Nevertheless, he was sufficiently attracted by Lise to marry her. It was almost a clandestine marriage. Lise’s Austrian mother did not approve of James. But she tolerated him because of his distinguished appearance and his reputed fortune, into which, being a lady of casual temperament, she did not trouble to inquire. In point of fact it was already practically non-existent.
The couple lived opulently enough upon credit until the birth of Anna-Marie some eighteen months later. Thereupon, Lise, conveniently, or perhaps inconveniently, died; and it became known that James was no longer a rich man.
He himself caused the news to be spread about Europe, where in the course of nine years’ extravagances he had achieved a considerable reputation. If anything, he exaggerated the rumours of his ruin. He was a moral extremist. If he could not be a Crœsus he would be a pauper. And he derived a certain ironic satisfaction from contemplating the complete dissipation of his father’s carefully nursed inheritance.
The family of Lise was indignant. They consoled themselves, however, with the thought that they had never approved of the marriage. And they prepared to receive the motherless infant.
But now the aggravating eccentricity of James’s character manifested itself. He refused to part with the child. To an impressive old lady of the impoverished Austrian nobility, and a very charming young one who was Lise’s sister, he courteously and determinedly announced his intention of keeping the baby himself. And finally they had to go away, beaten. Though anything more incongruous than the association of an infant in arms with this cold, severe, grey-faced man would be difficult to imagine.
Why did he want the child? Perhaps only from the perverse desire to annoy them all; perhaps from some dubious secret feeling of responsibility; perhaps from some motive still darker and more obscure. In any case, his mind was made up.
A Miss Wilson appeared; one of those inevitable middle-aged British spinsters who always seem to be at hand where a baby is concerned, ready and eager to devote to its care thankless years of unprofitable self-sacrifice. Miss Wilson was like all the rest, inconspicuous and unassertive, with timid, pale eyes in her sharp, pale face. She was terrified of James and devoted to Anna.
With the last remnant of his fortune James bought a small farm in the eastern Pyrenees. He was fond of mountains; and the district was rough, wild, unfrequented by tourists, and very far from anywhere where an old lady of the Austrian nobility would be likely to travel. The place was called Mascarat.
It was very different from any of his previous residences: a strong old Spanish-looking farm with rough wood floors and whitewashed walls, and the sloping wall of the mountain bordering the small domain. At the back of the house, beyond the vineyard, grew almond and cherry trees, and there was a bright ribbon of water in the stony ravine. In
front were two more vineyards and a stretch of grass-land running down to the little chestnut-forest beyond the stream. At the far end of the valley the mountains stood up, blue and rather unreal, fold after fold, seventeen separate slopes rising one behind another, to the vast, dim, improbable peaks of snow that floated like strange white scarves upon the distant blueness.