I’m finally catching up on some Aldington posting, having had a hectic last few months – as, I suspect, have many of us. So, over the coming weeks I’ll be posting some pieces of varying lengths about recent Aldington-related publications. First up is Louisa Deasey’s A Letter from Paris (Scribe, 2018). I was glad to meet up with Louisa in Melbourne in the summer of 2018 (the British summer, that is). This review focuses on the Aldington connection, while also addressing the book as a whole to some degree.
A Letter from Paris focuses on Louisa’s search to find out more about and connect with her father Denison Deasey, a writer who died in 1984 when she was still young. Louisa intertwines her literal and figurative journey to discover what his writerly life had been like with her father’s travels in postwar Europe (see p. 98) and both of their wrestling with what it is to make a living as a writer. Her memory of his chaotic industry is striking:
In dad’s house, he always had a big notebook by his side.
His bookshelves were full of spilled-out folders, with papers stacked high, under and over hardback books. Even the smell of the library took me back to him, that sense of academia, the fascination with higher concepts mixed with amusement at the mundane, scribbling away on any piece of paper he could find – the backs of envelopes if they were nearby and he found it too painful to get out of bed or his chair. (p. 57)
Denison Deasey was an Australian author, publisher, and literary figure. He published as the Oberon Press, and his most substantial publication was Education Under Six (Croom Helm, 1978); Louisa records at the start of her journey a sense that her father left a lot lots unfinished, created by comments and even obituaries (p. 46). She discovers that her father was part of an Australian cultural elite, taking in figures such as Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, Geoffrey and Ninette Dutton, Barry Humphries, Alister Kershaw (who discusses their relationship in The Pleasure of Their Company (University of Queensland Press, 1986)), Mirka Mora, Albert Tucker. He was also well connected in postwar Europe, meeting poets and writers such as Roy Campbell, Dylan Thomas, Louis Macneice, F-J Temple and Richard Aldington.
Deasey remembers his relationship with Aldington in an article ‘Lunch at the Villa’, published in the Australian journal The Bulletin (1981; quoted by Whelpton, vol. 2, pp. 188-9). Vivien Whelpton describes how:
the impulsive, engaging, accident-prone and physically delicate Deasey became a surrogate son towards whom Aldington felt protective. […] Deasey shared Aldington’s historical and aesthetic interests and, perhaps more importantly, had also been scarred by his wartime experiences. (Whelpton, vol. 2, p. 194)
The connection between Aldington and Deasey came about through their mutual acquaintance Alister Kershaw, who had moved in with Aldington at Le Lavandou, France (p. 68) and wrote to Deasey to encourage him to join them in the south of France; Kershaw would later be the literary executor for Aldington’s estate until his own death in 1995. After Deasey returned to Australia in 1955, Aldington wrote to H.D. of him as ‘a very cultivated man (as the Aussies sometimes are) and a prof’ (19 June 1956; Zilboorg, TLIL, p. 372). Whelpton traces their sometimes complex relationship, particularly between Kershaw and Deasey (vol. 2, p. 194).
A key question for Louisa becomes working out the relationship with Aldington was so important to her father:
The Writer, he called him grandly, feeling an affinity with Aldington almost like a father-son relationship. Aldington had also been affected by the war, exiling himself from England to France to get away from the ‘wreckage and the waste’. (p. 95)
The meaningful introduction to Aldington for Deasey, and in the book (p. 137), is at the Villa Aucassin, where Aldington lived from 1947 to 1951. Louisa’s trip to the Villa is part of the denouement, the chapter in which she arrives entitled ‘La clé’ (the key) (ch. 28, p. 287). The letters between Aldington and Deasey in Canberra become in themselves a tempting but distant resource (p. 121); it is clear that the two writers were kindred spirits, committed to their craft, often generous to other writers while being far from infallible. The spirit of the Canberra letters is encapsulated by Louisa’s précis:
Aldington was intimate, affectionate, detailed and forthcoming. He was endlessly cheering dad on, congratulating him on any moves forward, confiding literary facts and details that implied a relationship based on mutual trust and deep companionship. […] Aldington hadn’t just loved dad’s company as a friend and companion. He’d seen dad’s potential as a writer and a creative. (p. 144)
Their connection, which Louisa dovetails with her own writerly development, is about living well, but also the hardships of being a writer and the commitment, the ruthlessness required in doing so. This shared mindset ensured a continuing intimacy by correspondence even after Deasey left France in 1955, having played a key role in researching Aldington’s infamous Lawrence of Arabia (1955; see p. 151).
It’s a shame that Aldington’s voice couldn’t come through more in this charming volume; there are always difficulties with bringing previously unpublished material into print, and the letters haven’t even been excerpted in any of the major publications on Aldington. He is, as it stands, an absent presence at the centre of the volume. That is no fault of the author, however, and A Letter from Paris is an engaging and touching story which has certainly made me keen to rectify a gap in my knowledge about Aldington’s Australian connections.