Aside from capturing some late summer vitamin D with my family I tend to amuse myself with holiday reading. What do I pick? Bonk-busters? Chick-lit? Something from the Booker prize list I know I should read but just simply don't appeal? No, always always always I reveal my quarter Englishness and go for a biography.
Apollonie, Cora Pearl and La Païva are interesting for their use of wit, fashion and studied intelligence over physical beauty and class. If young women are determined to have a sex symbol as their chosen role model, far better to pick from an array of Belle Epoque courtesans than than today's shrewd but less imaginative business models Jordan and Danica, et al.
Last year the hefty tome that travelled a few hundred miles with me concerned itself with the writer Jean Rhys's life. The brevity, flashes of self-sabotage and inaction of her fiction turned out to be echoes of her life, most of which she spent asleep in France, the West Indies and London. Hers is a miserable story of disappointment, abuse and misunderstanding. Rhys, on BBC radio's rediscovery and lauding of her work in later years remarked: “It has come too late!”
Rhys's women characters aged with her, beginning with After Leaving Mr MacKenzie youthful dancer Julia and Quartet's malleable Marya before ending (discounting Rhys's prequel to Jane Eyre – Wide Sargasso Sea) with the tragic and middle aged Sasha in Good Morning, Midnight. These women, like Rhys, found solace in napping, alcohol and shopping while they awaited death or a male saviour. Whichever came first.
This year I am reading about the rail thin and tortured poet Nancy Cunard. The first time I encountered Cunard was in Viva King's autobiography (if a trend's not clear by now I shan't know what to do with you). King described a wasted figure, sitting in her bath tub with haunted eyes. A casualty of both war and familial neglect, Cunard was unable to find peace in her society girl status due to acute bouts of depression brought on by survivor guilt from the First World War.
Most comfortable when amongst Society outsiders Cunard proved herself a solid war reporter during the Spanish Civil War and published The Negro, a publication that celebrated African and African inspired art and writing. Cunard started up her own publishing company The Hours, printing books by hand and displaying remarkable type setting skills with little training.
Essentially come holiday time I appear to indulge in misery memoirs under the faint guise of historical or literary research. Even the carefree courtesans (bar the financially astute La Païva - resulting in her going down in history as grasping) meet their ends either relying on the charity of those who enjoyed their talent for entertaining in their earlier years or eking out a living on the streets.
Depending on how long I can be bothered to lie (and my forehead can hold out) I have a few years left in my 20s to achieve Nancy Cunard and Jean Rhys's various accomplishments. I am however, fortunate enough not to suffer their strong sense of melancholia and guilt. Which brings me to the curious trend in the biography of a woman artist. It seems a woman cannot be an artist, or a respected artist without near fatal outward signs of the inevitable battle within.
I don't expect the next generation to seek out Anne Geddes' life story any more than I can hope to open a book that spends a little more time on Virginia Woolf's sense of humour. In spite there being plenty of bon mots attributed to Woolf who once, when inviting Clive Bell over in a letter added: 'Tom [T S Eliot] will be there in a four-piece suit'. A comment on the American Eliot's staunch adoption of a true Englishman character.
Instead, along with Kahlo, Cunard, Rhys and The Courtesans, Woolf's name is usually accompanied by the prefix 'the tragic'. I would like to read a biography of Kahlo, Cunard, Rhys and Woolf that acknowledged their tenacity, their creativity and their humour in balance with the darkness they lived and did not live through. Because if you don't believe it also contributed to their art – you aren't appreciatin' it right.