Elizabeth Jennings (18 July 1926–26 October 2001) was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, the younger daughter of Dr Henry Cecil Jennings, medical officer of health for the county .The family moved to Oxford when she was six. Being a Roman Catholic, she was first sent to Rye St Antony School in Headington, but later moved on to Oxford High School. It was here that she found her abilities and started writing. Jennings read English at St Anne's College in Oxford from 1944 to 1947. During her degree, she attended lectures by such prestigious names as C.S. Lewis and was particularly influenced by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Four Quartets. The breadth of reading that the course demanded included the Classics, Anglo-Saxon verse and Philosophy. Her first collection of poems was published in 1953 and her inclusion in Robert Conquest's New Lines (1956), helped to establish her in the Movement, the grouping of English poets associated with Philip Larkin during the 1950s. Her literary career spanned nearly 50 years and her awards included the Somerset Maughan Prize and a CBE.
Jennings lends herself to biographical curiosity because her vocation as a poet was inextricably tied up with her inner life. In her vast correspondence and personal notebooks she integrated news about and reflections on her poems, on her literary career, on literary tradition and new writing with accounts of her environment, health, acquaintances and religion, always shifting between anxiety and gratitude. Around 1970, she wrote an autobiography that was never published although her correspondence includes a letter from C & J literary Agents, informing her that Busby, an American publisher, was extremely pleased by the first chapter. ‘The Inward War’, as she called it, was taken from American poet Marianne Moore’s line, ‘there never was a war that wasn’t inward.’ The autobiography colludes with the version of Jennings’ life that she presented in letters and notebooks and that she reworked into her poetry. She is not precise with dates but we can cross-reference some events with particular poems. Her earliest recorded memory of refusing to go out with her father’s mother who kept a shop in Felixstowe is recalled in the popular poem ‘My Grandmother’. In Jennings’ account of her first six years, she stresses that guilt-inducing religion was a further source of terror and misery. She confessed shame about her sexual curiosity and was referred to a Jesuit psychologist. She was frequently physically ill with congestion in her lungs and tonsillitis. The anxieties, manifest in sickness, insomnia and nightmares that beset her life from the age of seven she names her ‘neuroses’. Fear defined her relationship with her father in her childhood (although later she professes that they got on better) and this compounded her jealousy towards her sister, who was two years older, seemed to have an easier relationship with him and succeed in every area of her life, pursuing a relatively normal route of war service, work, marriage and children. An unpublished draft poem written in the early 1960s, ‘The Plain One’, tellingly compensates: ‘My sister was much prettier more clever’ … ‘Later the ugly duckling became the handsome swan as she/Was sought after for herself and as a poet.’ … ‘Many young men/Asked me out and swore they were in love.’ (MS 186, F13, Delaware). Typically, here, the poetic confession appears authentic but also to protest rather too much; we pick up an undertow of unresolved emotion that constitutes a dynamic in relation to the aesthetic closure of the lines. Their father died of cancer in 1967 and when the sisters visited just before Jennings records it as a ‘traumatic experience’ but also an appeasement for their ‘old wars.’
Although we have access to so much apparent self-disclosure in Jennings’ personal writing, we have a sense that she conceals as much as she reveals. For example, her relationships with men are hardly mentioned and yet so many poems deal with unfulfilled desires. She admitted to being ‘briefly engaged’ to a man seven years her senior who had been a Prisoner of War in Japan, whom she met in her final year as an undergraduate. They enjoyed a ‘summer of loving’ in 1947 that partly accounted for her narrowly missing first class honours; as he was a year behind her, she stayed on at St Anne’s College Oxford for a BLitt, writing a thesis on Matthew Arnold. He, Stuart, moved to London where she took a job as a copywriter. She lost her job and, at the same time, he broke the engagement. She writes of being hurt even though she was developing an interest in men more generally and baulked at the confinement of houses and babies.
Six months later, Jennings took a post at Oxford City Library where she worked for eight years. She alleges that a string of men would visit her, either to show her their poems, or to talk of their troubles or because they were interested in pursuing a relationship with her. She mentions one significant relationship then dwells on her enjoyment of feeling part of the ‘literary talent’ in Oxford and networking with poets and literary figures such as Janet Adam Smith. She was buoyed up by the acquaintance of luminaries such as Stephen Spender, John Lehmann, the American Donald Hall, the Jewish German Michael Hamburger and the Indian poet Dom Moraes.
Jennings’ first holiday to Italy in 1953 provided new inspiration for her writing. She made many subsequent trips to Venice, Florence (‘intoxicating’) and then Rome in 1957 which saw the revival of her religious faith, much helped by a Dominican Priest, Father Aelwin. At the same time, she was not immune from enjoying the gaze of Italian men (Letter to parents, 2 April 1957, Delaware). She also met Princess Laetini, editor of a multilingual literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure, in which Jennings had some poems published around 1956/7. The subject of her poem ‘To a Friend with a Religious Vocation’ could be Beth Davidson, whom she met in 1958 and who became a Carmelite nun, or an American friend Charlotte who took orders in 1958. In the late 1950s, Jennings had weekly sessions with a priest in Oxford until he moved to Wales and then she met with Father Hildebrand James until he moved to Hawkeshead Priory in 1960. After this they maintained a close friendship and she would stay at Spode House, adjacent to the priory In Staffordshire.
From 1958 Jennings became a reader for Chatto and Windus, renting a room in Swiss Cottage, London and returning to Oxford at weekends. She saw Leonard Woolf each week as the Hogarth Press had gone in with Chatto. Reading manuscripts gave her daily headaches that were not helped by living it up in the evenings at the theatre or cinema. In 1960, the strain was too much and she left the publisher.
About this time, a relationship with an anonymous man shortly preceded her breakdown. The love was mutual but they could not marry so we assume that he was married or in orders. The fact that Jennings makes an oblique reference to this episode with ‘B’ in one sentence in her entire autobiography, supports the sense that her prolific self-revelations mask the deepest areas of pain.
In 1961/2, when staying at Spode House, she took an overdose of Nembutal and this was followed by blackouts. She saw a consultant psychiatrist at Guy’s Hospital, London. On holiday with Father Hildebrand she took another overdose. In her autobiography, she puts it down to the fear of living alone after her parents moved to Eastbourne and to an allergy to the drugs she was given. After a third suicide attempt she was referred to the local mental hospital. She was put on Amytal and Paraldehyde, along with some insulin treatment. She escaped the ECT that was common in the 1960s but underwent psychotherapy with which she struggled but tried to understand through reading up on it. Again and again her private papers register acute distress at the pressures she felt from psychiatric diagnoses and treatment, the sufferings and ‘shock therapy’ she witnessed in fellow patients. Her self-esteem was rock bottom and her guilt acute. (See MS186/ F86 Delaware for notebooks from this period; they include ‘Prayer for a poet who attempted suicide’.)
At the Warneford, Jennings was given a room in which to work and was greatly helped by the night matron. Vivien (wife of the catholic novelist Graham Greene) often visited and took her home for Christmas. While in hospital, she met Rugena Stanley, a Czech refugee with whom she became a close friend. Jennings reworked her journal notes about the experience into moving poems, notably ‘Sequence in Hospital’ published in Recoveries (1964) and reprinted in New Collected Poems. Through the following decades she continued to write and publish prolifically, always dogged by loneliness, physical and mental health issues that were accompanied by dire poverty. She pushed for commissions and advances on her publications, sold her literary papers, the complimentary copies of her own books, her collection of dolls’ houses and furniture.
Jennings’ correspondence displays her commitment to and reliance on close friendships that especially encompassed: Priscilla Tolkein, whom she met when six years old; Dame Veronica Wedgwood who was a tremendous supporter of her writing and even typed up Jennings’ poems in the 1970s; although London based, they were in constant contact and Jennings was deeply bereft when Dame Wedgewood was lost to Alzheimer’s disease in the mid 80s; Barbara Cooper, who was also London based and with whom she had a long correspondence, 1961-74; and Miss L Tomlinson (‘Tommy’) whose address, 28 Wynham House, Plantation Road, Jennings used when she moved around in the 1990s. From 1972, when he moved the Carcanet Press to Cheadle then Manchester, Michael Schmidt was the constant figure upon whom Jennings relied for professional guidance, income and personal encouragement. His forbearance of her continual demands for reassurance seem nothing short of saintly. His belief in the sustainability of her poetry was proven well founded as all her books sold extremely well.
It is difficult to pin down an exact genealogy of her homes in Oxford, as some letters are undated and she had spells with friends or in hospital. She resided at her parents’ home, 431 Banbury Road, then moved for a short while to 31 Polstead Road. During the 1960s she spent long periods in the Warneford Hospital. In 1973 she was put in Fairfield House for, in her words, ‘the deaf, dotty and dying’ where she reluctantly underwent more individual and group therapy. It seems that she was also there between 1976-9. Otherwise, she was based for around 20 years (1972-1992) at shared lodgings in 11, Winchester Road where she was very unhappy. She found it noisy and inhospitable so spent most of her time in the city where she became a familiar figure in coffee houses, at literary events and cinemas. She liked to sit and write at the Randolph Hotel where coffee cost £2.25, yielded 4 cups and included a biscuit. The downtrodden appearance of her later years (cardigan, skirt, ankle socks, plastic carrier bags) became something of an anecdote, culminating in her refusal to deviate from this costume for a dinner at Rules Restaurant to celebrate her CBE Honour or her appearance at Buckingham Palace. She noted having 6 addresses between September 1994 and 1995, and during 1995-6 she wrote mainly from 412, Banbury Road then in 1997 moved to the more peaceful 64, Birch Court, Colemans Hill, Headington.
Up until her death, Jennings continued preparations for her final volume Timely issues and New Collected Poems. (One covering letter to the publisher stated that due to ill health she was residing at 37 Middle Way, Summertown OX2 7LE.) Jennings died at a care home in Bampton, Oxon.
- For an excellent overview see, Neil Powell, ‘Jennings, Elizabeth Joan (1926–2001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Jan. 2005 - Article
- Elizabeth Jennings. (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 04, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online
- Michael Schmidt, Introduction, New Collected Poems, Manchester: Carcanet 2002