The Correspondence of Elizabeth Jennings

In keeping with her yearning for relationship, friendship, acceptance and intimacy, Jennings was a prolific correspondent. Throughout, we find consistent elements of her two-sided personality: her sense of isolation along with a generous and sympathetic spirit. At the same time, if we approach the letters in search of a ‘real’ Jennings and for a sense of personal development, we come across the same persona that we find in her autobiography and lyrical, at times ‘confessional’ poetry. While airing her internal darknesses, she will quickly move away from them to express love and interest in the recipient. While appearing to be open and self-revealing, the sense of the unsaid is as poignant as her disclosures. Often, the core emotion or information is put in the deceptively casual postcript/s (‘P.S.’ or ‘P.P.S.’). Similarly, the apparently dashed off postcards often relay some desperation that is masked by a cheerfulness belied by several exclamation marks.

Regardless of the recipient, Jennings mingles allusions to her personal and professional activities, insecurities and joys. Constantly, self-deprecating, we pick up some professional pride that was desperate for affirmation and recognition. The tragic-comic tone characterizes the writing from the 1950s to the 1990s. At the same time, if anyone were to undertake a biography, the correspondence would provide key information about where she lived, her relationships and professional activities along with her attempts to overcome her private fears, depressions and other health problems. We also learn about some of the significant dramatis personae in her life alongside events and views on literary trends, figures and publications.

Below are selections from key correspondents in chronological order.

With Michael Hamburger (Brotherton Library) -

This correspondence is mainly 1952-4 plus some from 1986. We see that right from the start, Jennings professes insecurity about her writing and desperation to penetrate the literary world. Hence, meeting significant people and getting good reviews were crucial. Any kindness is received with almost embarrassing gratitude. We learn about encounters with such poets as Stephen Spender, Edwin Muir, Kathleen Raine and Stevie Smith.

In December 1960, she explains that she cannot attend a party because of gall bladder problems that are caused by stress. We also learn that she left her job at Chatto because she was finding it too exhausting.

With Bonamy Dobrée
(Brotherton Library) -

One exchange about young contemporary poets is interesting as a cultural record as well as proving Jennings’ more progressive streak. On 19 January, (n.d. probably 1954, from 431 Banbury Road, Oxford), she comments on an article in which she believes he was unfair and believes that the new generation have a good clarity and feeling for form although the so called ‘neo-empsonians or new academics’ lack strong feeling which might alienate a potential audience. In her ‘P.S.’ she states that she would be pleased if ‘what Dr Johnson and Virginia Woolf called “the common reader” enjoys one of my poems’.

With Anthony Thwaite
(Brotherton Library) -

Thwaite was literary editor of the Listener with whom Jennings corresponded about her reviewing between February 1962 and November 1964. During this period, Jennings was admitted to the Warneford Hospital (Ward F1) and, desperate for normality and money, wanted to continue her work. However, when her typewriter broke she sent untyped reviews with huge apologies, then protested when he decided that she could no longer do the reviewing. Her letters comment on the books she received and frequently made glossed references to being unwell and her aversion to the psychotherapy she was undergoing. In 1962, she often complained about the battles she was having with her psychotherapist. The hinted misery is evident in the frequent exclamation marks and postscripts, such as one ‘P.P.S’ (8 Nov 1964) that rejoices over Macmillan publishing a book of her children’s poems alongside a reference to a blackness that reminds her of T.S. Eliot’s “fear in a handful of dust” at the heart of The Waste Land. In May 1963, she wrote from Spode House, Hawkeshead Priory, Rugely, where she was having a break and in July 1963 she was back at 49, Park Town, Oxford and continued to live between there and the Warneford during November 1964 and 1965. In April 1965, she went for a ‘nerve test’ at Guy’s Hospital.

When doing regular fortnightly reviewing, as in April 1964, she needed to submit a piece of about 1100 words for the sum of 15 guineas. One bonus was to sell on any novels that were surplus to her requirements.

Incidental references include her acquaintance with the poet Geoffrey Hill and a celebration for Bonamy Dobrée.

With Barbara Cooper
(Delaware) -

Spanning 1961-74, these are frank letters that cover the years of acute depression and hospitalisation.

With Kevin Crossley-Holland
(Brotherton Library) -

In September 1965, Jennings wrote from Unity House, 8 St Andrew’s Lane, Old Headington, Oxford. She expressed appreciation for his poems and the suffering behind them. She confessed to having been in a dreadful state of mind but that her ‘trouble’ in May had not returned. She believed that she had been ‘quite literally nuts!’ as a result of the drugs, she had been prescribed. She expresses disillusion with her psychotherapist.

With Michael Schmidt: 1972-2001.
-

In 1972, with the support of Professor Brian Cox, Michael Schmidt took Carcanet Press to Manchester. The letters are a record of an author-editor collaboration: they deal with the publications of and reception to her books. She would send masses of poems, asking him to select the best while stating her preferences. She peppers the business with personal references to her bleak moods, ill heath, miserable lodgings where she felt cruelly treated by her landlady and fellow lodgers at 11, Fyfield Road (1970s) and later her move to Freeland House (Holyrood, South Leigh, Oxford) for the ‘deaf, dotty and dying’. In 1984 she was back at 11, Winchester Road but continued to feel persecuted by ‘the evil woman’ and a ‘yobbo’. She spent little time at home, frequenting cafes and the Randolph or taking refuge in a cinema, seeing films over and over. In 1991 she was temporarily c/o Mrs Anne Scott, 24, Southmoor Road, Oxford and in September 1991 wrote from her new address 18a St Margaret’s Road, reflecting ‘I was at, or nominally at, Winchester Road for nearly 18 years and desperately unhappy for the last few.’ On 11 September 1995, she reflects that she had 6 addresses the previous year, justified coffee at the Randolph Hotel and her cinema going with the disclaimer, ‘aren’t recent films awful’.

As with other correspondents, she refers to the low spirits and loneliness that dogged her more than ever through the nineteen seventies. By 1977 she was fearing another breakdown but kept going by writing and concentrating on getting her books through press. In 1979, she was cheered by a bursary of 1250 from Southern Arts. As in the 1960s, in these three ensuing decades, she protests against her treatment with her psychotherapist and pressure to undergo group therapy. Her blackouts were put down to low blood pressure associated with Coelear’s disease and she was prescribed a strict diet for a while but it was dropped when she was cleared of the diagnosis.

Jennings cultivated a personal friendship with Schmidt and Claire Harman whom he married. In return, he was warm and reassuring but needed to keep boundaries and judiciously withheld his personal phone number. His prestigious poetry magazine PN Review promoted her work and he tried to get her on Radio Manchester for a reading.

We glean her dependence on and effusive gratitude towards her good friend Veronica Wedgewood who offered tireless sympathy and practical help that included taking Jennings on holiday. Other close friends were Priscilla Tolkein and ‘Tommy’, Leila Tomlinson who lived at 13, Tackley Place and took her to Devon for 10 days in September 1989. In July 1995, she was staying with Tommy at 28 Wynham House, Plantation Road, terrified ‘of getting in that Bin again’. Her unhappinesses were compounded by the bereavements of Veronica Wedgewood and Rugar, her Eastern European friend who had helped type her poems.

Snippets of her predilections and lifestyle include champagne being her favourite drink although allegedly drinking too much at the Thwaites’ wedding distanced her relationship with them for good. She fell in love with Greece where she spent a wonderful holiday. She found Robert Lowell’s death ‘a terrible loss’ (21 September 1977). In the 1990s, she spent a week in Cirenceter with Gail Tucker, who taught at Downe House, and her husband.

Her last letters, in poor handwriting, in 1999 tell of her bad back that put her out of action. On 7 November, she wrote from the John Radcliffe Hospital, where she had been since 5th, that she had friends like Father Robert and Tim Calvert from Blackfriars to visit her and was pleased with a delivery from Carcanet of a Les Murray collection and Graves’ war poems, that she’d requested.