Journey from the North: Autobiography of Storm Jameson

I’m finding the Writer’s Almanac to be a fertile source of reading material. Through it, I’ve learned about many little-known authors, or authors like Jameson who were famous in their day but unknown now. In her long life (1891-1986), Jameson wrote over 45 novels and served as President of the London center of the P.E.N., the first woman to do so. Her first aim in writing this autobiography in the early 1960s is to capture the tumultuous times through which she has lived. Her second aim is to discover for herself “what sort of person I have been,” acknowledging that nothing would be easier than to fabricate, using only the facts of her life, a portrait which would be “intelligent, charming, interesting and a lie” but choosing sincerity instead. The resulting narrative sometimes suffers from this lack of a throughline, but captures the vitality of life as we live it: a jumble from beginning to end, sprinkled with mistakes, false starts, and moments of unreasoning joy.

I’m reading some of her novels, but it is really this autobiography that captivates me. The book clearly conveys the image of a strong-minded woman who is not afraid to admit her mistakes or to admonish others for theirs. Impervious to advice, bull-headed, Storm barges her way through life, making—and often suffering from—her own decisions. For example, as a young woman, she gives in to her mother’s loneliness and refuses a prestigious London job writing for The Egoist, a position that is then offered to Rebecca West, who of course went on to literary fame and a place in the canon. Still, Jameson says, “Believe me, who should know, The Egoist and the world of letters got a better bargain.”

Her native Whitby is her great love, though restlessness repeatedly drives her to London and abroad. Being an admirer of that Yorkshire town myself, I was charmed by her descriptions of the town of her childhood at the end of the era of shipbuilding that supported her family and Whitby itself. Her relationship with her mother is as eccentric as everything else in her orbit. Acting almost as a bashful lover, she cannot resist giving expensive gifts to the perpetually dissatisfied woman. Twice married, Jameson later solves the parenting dilemma by boarding her young son with a woman outside Whitby while she herself lives in London, working and writing.

Jameson’s acerbic comments on writers and publishers whom she knew make me wish she’d expanded those sections. Many of them I’d never heard of and am now looking up. At one point she describes a meeting with John Middleton Murray, which gave me a start because I’ve also been reading Katherine Mansfield’s letters, spacing them out so I can savor them. I was shocked to realise the two women were contemporaries. Somehow I hadn’t made the connection.

The tale Jameson tells avoids bathos and hand-wringing; she’s too tough for that. Yet when, for example, her rage over the waste of the Great War slips out, it is profoundly moving. Moving, too, is her chagrin at having been too self-centered to appreciate her brother, killed just before the Armistice, while she had him.

Another section which brought me to tears was her visit to Prague in June of 1938 as a delegate to the P.E.N. Congress, just after Hitler’s invasion of Vienna. The Czech people she meets display a heart-breaking confidence that England will honor its promise to protect them, while Jan Masark, the Czech ambassador, cheerily says, “‘Who cares if you rat on us? . . . We have our army.'” Later, in the streets of Prague, she sees this army: “the Sokol striplings, carelessly lively and free-stepping, the girls hardly less broad-shouldered than the boys . . . Trained in groups, in villages and small towns, to the same music, when they came together for the first time in the Stadium they moved as a single body, a vast ballet.” She calls them “confident children” and her companion says, “‘See how gay they are . . . and proud, like dancers. When we train them for the Sokols we take care they are not stiff like Germans. It is a free discipline.'” Knowing what happened afterwards makes this hard to take.

I found Jameson’s personal view of the home front throughout this second war, its runup and its aftermath, enlightening and quite different from official histories. I’m not sure I would have liked Jameson if I had met her—she is very quick to voice her opinions—but I appreciate her lack of self-pity, her generous observations of others, and her flinty Yorkshire individuality.

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