“We all know Jean Rhys. But now, out from under the shadow of her more famous contemporary, comes Eliot Bliss. Bliss: an early twentieth century, white creole, Jamaican, lesbian writer. Bliss: whose out-of-print 1931 novel Saraband Calderaro first stumbles across in a bookshop in New York in 1998. Bliss: the absent figure Calderaro pursues throughout this book. The scholar Michela Calderaro reads into the past to recover Bliss, a writer she reveals as ahead of her time and not fit for her time or place in the world. Calderaro delivers Bliss back to the present, through interviews conducted across many years with Bliss’s lifelong partner Patricia Allan-Burns, through the recollections of editors and friends painstakingly tracked down, through letters and diaries discovered and meticulously pored over and pieced together. Calderaro’s book is, like Bliss’s own novels as we come to learn, genre-defying. One part biography, one part criticism, one part memoir, one part detective story, Sheer Bliss carries us on the ‘treasure hunt’ Calderaro enacted over twenty years of research and personal devotion to solving a literary puzzle: Who exactly was Eliot Bliss and why were she and her work forgotten? Calderaro answers in luminous prose and what amounts to the most suspenseful excavation of a writer’s life and lost-then-recovered legacies I’ve yet encountered.”
—Shara McCallum, Professor of English, College of Liberal Arts, Penn State University
List of Illustrations / vii
Preface / ix
1 The Meeting / 1
2 The Diaries / 20
3 Patricia / 46
4 The Vanished Works / 69
5 The War and Gardenia Cottage / 79
6 The Last Years / 103
7 Sylvia Revisited / 111
8 The Poems / 118
9 Vanished Works Found / 131
10 Cairn’s Letters / 135
11 Becoming Eliot / 139
12 Spring Evenings in Sterling Street / 148
13 The Mermaid / 152
Appendix: Bliss Family / 153
Photographs and Drawings / 157
Bibliography / 171
Acknowledgements / 173
Michela A. Calderaro has taught English and postcolonial literature at universities in Italy and the United States. She is the author of A Silent New World: Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End and editor of Spring Evenings in Sterling Street: Poems by Eliot Bliss.
When I first read Eliot Bliss’s novels, Saraband and Luminous Isle, I could not imagine I would be embarking on a twenty-year quest in her footsteps. I was simply driven by my curiosity and puzzled by the fact that there was no information to be found about her writings nor her life. I could not even confirm such details as her birth name, Eileen Nora, or why she had changed it to Eliot.
Most of my academic work until then had been dedicated to carrying on research and writing critical analyses of works by British modernist writers and, later, Caribbean writers, as well as teaching courses on lesbian and feminist theories and writers, strictly focusing on textual or historical theories, always trying to distance myself from the writers’ lives. As a celebrated writer’s grandchild once argued, “You have his books, why probe his life?”
Sheer Bliss follows a different path altogether. I found myself involved in research without knowing where it would lead me. Soon enough I realized I could not analyse Bliss’s works and shed light on the circumstances and social context surrounding their writing without describing my personal quest and the meetings with people she knew.
This book, then, is more like a diary of my years-long attempt to bring Eliot Bliss out of undeserved obscurity. It is not, nor does it claim to be, a traditional biography. Indeed, it is not a biography at all, as I don’t see my role here as that of a biographer or a historian. It is, rather, a researcher’s report of her quest to get to know more about a talented writer – written as a chronology of my finds, or, in some cases, of failures to find what I was seeking to uncover, rather than a straightforward chronology of Bliss’s life.
Stephen James Joyce, Joyce’s grandson, comment during the eleventh International James Joyce Symposium, Venice, 1988.
And so, since the unexpected “encounter” with Eliot Bliss changed my perspective as a critic and forced me to adopt a new approach, the present work is also a testimony to this change, as well as to the way it affected both my personal and my academic life.
I was bound to work on Eliot Bliss during my time away from my day job at the University of Trieste, and so my own family became involved in the search. Personal friends and acquaintances became instrumental in my search as well, providing places to stay or work when I was away from home.
In my “diary”, I incorporated articles I had previously written about Eliot Bliss, because they were part of the search, part of my attempt to find more manuscripts, more poems, more answers. Also, I chose to keep the original version of the various documents I quote (Eliot Bliss’s diaries and letters, or letters by other people), even where words are misspelled or grammatical errors are found, because they provide a glimpse of their writers’ state of mind.
Bliss’s “mystery” stirred my curiosity and drove me to embark on a journey through an uncharted territory which often felt endless and fruitless – uncharted because her writings posed a complex interpretative challenge. They can be labelled as belonging to different “schools”. While not appearing to belong in any specific genre, they actually belong by right in quite a number of them.
They are modernist, in that they follow in the steps of such writers as Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, but also Henry James, who stood at the centre of the transition from the old order towards a new way of writing. Not much action is shown, and her protagonists too are the expressions of a society on the brink of disaster, stubbornly resisting novelty and oblivious to the wind of change destined to destroy their world. They are feminist, because her new way of writing is applied to portray Dorothy Richardson’s female way to self-discovery. They are lesbian, since they lead towards a lesbian literary tradition that was then still in its germinal stage. They are full expressions of a creole identity, and constitute, especially Luminous Isle, a courageous endeavour to describe the reality of pre-decolonization white society.
Using the experimental tools of modernist fiction, Bliss exposed the delicate issue of creoleness, the interplay of race and gender, the impact of colonial heritage and the tragedy endured during decolonization. Though her name and work are little known, her mentors were the most influential figures of London’s modernist, feminist and lesbian circles: Dorothy Richardson, Anna Wickham and Natalie Clifford Barney. Studying her work, then, is certain to lead to a better understanding of the influences of modernism on the complex nature of creole women’s writing – of which, I strongly believe, she is the clearest expression. Her writings indeed reflect, on one hand, the tension between the community and culture of her birth, and on the other, the community and culture of exile, as well as their effect on her individuality. Eliot Bliss’s work bears witness to this tension and to the feeling of being different within one’s own community.
In this sense, Bliss was a real historian of her times, chronicling events and history without any romantic or sentimental distortion. The strong and straightforward criticism of white, racist life in the colonies, as expressed by the description of certain characters in her novels, especially her mother’s, was bound to raise outrage among readers; but she did not change a single phrase exposing such racism, or revealing her attraction towards a black island girl.
During my journey I had the fortune of meeting and becoming friends with Patricia Allan-Burns, Bliss’s lifelong companion. Our encounter led not only to an unexpected and beautiful friendship and the rescue of precious unpublished material, but also to the discovery of Bliss’s unknown talent for painting.
Pictures related to Eliot Bliss and Patricia Allan-Burns together with some of Bliss’s delicate and beautiful Jamaica drawings and watercolours are published here for the first time.