I found the fuzzy photo in a drawer. It was a house that could have come out of Gone With the Wind: classical proportions, a white columned portico rising the height of the house, large trees framing the whole. “That”, my father said, “is the Gracey mansion, the house in Tennessee where your grandmother grew up”. I was perhaps seven or eight years old. and transfixed by the idea of a grandmother floating around in hoop skirts sipping mint juleps.
Later, when I was pestering my parents for more independence, my father gave me the talk that most parents must give their children at around that time. There were the usual cautions about road safety and not taking sweets from strangers, and eventually he came to personal safety and what to do if I were lost or felt threatened by anyone. “Don’t go to a policeman”, he said, “find a nice lady with white hair and tell her where you live and ask her to take you home”. It was many years before I understood my father’s reasons for this advice.
I remember, too, the distinctive typed envelopes that arrived, sometimes several times a week. My mother would go tense, my father would storm out of the room, and the envelopes would be put to one side. “Why don’t you ever open them?” I would ask. “Who are they from?” My mother would murmur something indistinguishable and change the subject. I eventually realised they were from my “Southern” grandmother.
Other children I knew had grandparents who were a part of their lives; I had very little contact with mine. I knew my grandfathers were still alive: we had visited one in North Carolina and the other in upstate New York. I wrote regular childish letters to my maternal grandmother in far-away New Mexico. But my father refused to talk about his mother. He did, however, tell us some things that were part of his own story: that his mother had eloped to Brazil with my grandfather who was 20 years her senior and married with four grown children; that to avoid scandal they had changed their names from Elsie Dunn and Frederick Wellman to Evelyn Scott and Cyril Kay Scott; that my father was born in Brazil where they lived until returning to the United States when he was five; that after their return his parents had had a number of affairs and that he had lived sometimes with one, sometimes the other; that he had spent much of his childhood in Bermuda, the south of France and North Africa; that in his teens, after his parents parted, he spent most of his time with his father in Santa Fe and Denver; that she had later married a British writer named Jack Metcalfe, of whom my father was quite fond.. But nothing specifically about his mother.
I also knew that my grandmother had published a number of books which had, at the time, attracted both controversy and admiration. Her “autobiographical” novel, Escapade, was a barely-fictionalised account of the years in Brazil when my father was born. But I had not read anything she had written, anything that would tell me who she was..
I needed to find out more.
The posts that follow chronicle my voyage to discover my grandmother. They also tell her own account of her life, in her own words.
The Story in Brief
Evelyn Scott was a ground-breaking American author of the 1920s and 30s whose novels sparked controversy and elicited admiration in equal measure. By the time her first novel was published in 1921 when she was 27, she had published 12 poems in the so-called “little magazines”, a volume of poetry, eight pieces of criticism, again in the little magazines, and had a play performed. In the following 15 years she published a further 12 novels and an autobiography, as well as three “juveniles”; her last published novel appeared in 1941. Throughout this period and until 1951, she was also publishing numerous poems and critical articles and the occasional short story. She worked on two further novels into the late 1950s, but they were never published.
Scott’s writing is described as modernist and she is considered one of America’s pioneer feminist writers. Her novels sold relatively well at the time of publication, but also attracted a certain hostility because of their themes of female sexuality and ideas that would now be called feminist. Biographers have summarised her life by describing Scott as a “gifted and original poet, novelist and critic, an important though under-rated figure in American literature, who sadly declined into mental illness in her latter years and died in poverty”.
I culled this information from a number of sources: Google, biographies and the very sparse details my father shared with me. It is, however, little more than a skeleton much in need of fleshing out. The woman who seemed to haunt my family is hard to discern from these details.
I had no idea at the time where this search would lead me, nor what I would discover.
Discovering my grandmother
Years passed. . . .
One day in 1985, my husband pointed out a book review in The Sunday Times. It was for a volume entitled Pretty Good For A Woman, by a journalist and second-hand book dealer from Yorkshire named David Arthur Callard, and the dust-jacket bore a photo of my grandmother aged about 25. It was the first photo I had ever seen of her.
I bought the book and devoured it, By this time my father was 20 years dead and I was estranged from my mother, who was in any case showing the first signs of the dementia which eventually killed her. Callard’s book contained the same photo of the Gracey mansion I had seen all those years years ago. He told the story of a gifted young woman, a writer whose work was widely acclaimed, who had numerous lovers and loyal friends, who was frustrated by her inability to find the son and grandchildren whom she so wanted to see, and who died in obscure poverty in a shabby residential hotel in New York’s upper West Side. I was beginning to understand some of the events of my childhood.
More years passed . . .
I picked Callard’s book up again, and realised that there was no real reason not to go to Clarksville to see what I could learn there. I contacted the local museum to say I was thinking of coming to see my grandmother’s birthplace, and did they have any information about the Gracey mansion? They did and I would be very welcome.
I flew into Newark. I knew from Callard’s book that Evelyn was buried in a cemetery very near the airport, and as soon as I had collected my bags and hire car I headed there. The cemetery office was very helpful. “Just follow this man on the little tractor. He will show you where the grave is.” The tractor wound round to the far side of the cemetery, and the man unhooked a shovel from the back. For a horrified moment I wondered if he was going to dig Evelyn up, but he used the shovel to clear grass away from the little metal plaque identifying the plot. Evelyn was buried in an unmarked grave.
The museum at Clarksville made me very welcome and rolled out the red carpet. I was given access to all the information they had on Evelyn Scott, I met people who had studied her life and her work, I was taken to see the Evelyn Scott “sights”. For me, the saddest of these was the site of the Gracey mansion: long since torn down as derelict, it had been replaced by two very shabby-looking apartment blocks. The maple trees that had graced the front of the house were still there, however, and I picked up some maple wings to bring home and propagate. They never sprouted.
While in Clarksville I was told that a large quantity of Evelyn’s personal papers, including letters, were in the library of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where they had been deposited by Robert Welker, a former resident of Clarksville who had written his PhD on Evelyn’s work. It was suggested that I would find it interesting to visit Welker and hear his account of both his friendship with Evelyn and how he came to have so many of her papers, and I was soon on the Interstate heading for his home in Alabama. Welker, the personification of a Southern gentleman, made me welcome, gave me lunch and told me about meeting Evelyn, about his friendship with her and about her last days. And about how he came to have her papers. It was clear he had been devoted to her as a writer and as a friend, and she to him.
After that, I really could not leave Tennessee without looking at these papers, and two days later I was in the library of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, surrounded by piles of boxes and feeling more than a little overwhelmed. I had no real idea what I was looking for, so decided to limit my perusal of the letters to those which mentioned any member of my immediate family by name. I only had a few days before heading back to the UK, and I raced through these boxes, stopping from time to time to read a letter that caught my eye. There was one “a-ha” moment after another as I understood for the first time the reasons for so many events of my childhood.
It was a very emotional experience. The collection was mainly carbon copies of letters written during the 1940s and 50s which were unlike any letters I had ever seen before. By far their most striking feature was their appearance. Her typing was erratic (the result of an over-used and worn-out typewriter) and she made maximum use of the paper, filling each sheet to the right edge and the very bottom, then turning it 90 degrees and typing or writing across the wide left-hand margin. In addition, many letters contained insertions or annotations in her spidery angular handwriting, the anger and agitation clear in a visual frenzy. I could feel the emotional energy she transferred to the page.
These annotations often recorded the fact that a letter had not been answered. She beseeched my parents to let her know how they and her grandchildren were. She wrote lengthy age-inappropriate letters to me and my two brothers (we were all under six), urging us to urge our parents to write to her. Needless to say, we never saw these. Letters to friends begging them to call on us and report on her family were went unanswered. Reading these, I imagined a grieving grandmother craving contact with her grandchildren: as a new grandmother myself, I could share her distress at not seeing them.
I fed piles of dollar bills into the photocopier as I copied what I thought interesting and relevant to bring home to study at leisure.
Back home I studied my harvest and began to understand the woman who was my grandmother. I felt, in turn and in varying degrees, sympathy, sadness, anger, irritation and disbelief. My grandmother was clearly unhappy, frustrated because no one would answer her letters, agitated, obsessive, paranoid. I began to understand, too, why the arrival of a letter from her would create the response it did in my parents.
This was the first time, ever, that I had been so close to information about my grandmother. Callard’s biography was a portrait of a strong-willed, gifted woman and an account of an unconventional life, but I hadn’t been able relate to it. During my childhood my parents had rarely spoken of her. What they did communicate was an almost subliminal sense that my grandmother was a force for evil. These letters revealed a complex and desperately unhappy woman who was at a loss to know how to connect with her son and her grandchildren.
Because of family and personal pressures, I did nothing more with these letters for several years, but during that time I had at the back of my mind a remark that had been made on my last day in Knoxville: “You know, we have had a number of people here, looking at her papers and writing about her literary development. But nobody has done anything with her family story. It’s a fascinating one, and you are the ideal person to tell it. You should consider doing it.”
Then, in the summer of 2007, my mother died. I had been estranged from her for some years and I went to her home in Nova Scotia with very mixed and intense emotions. As I went through her papers, I discovered a large collection relating to Evelyn. There were numerous letters from her to my parents (some unopened!) and a lengthy document Evelyn wrote in 1951 explaining their desperate financial straits in London which I read with horrid fascination. There was also a collection of letters from my father, written a few years before he died in 1965, begging, begging former friends for help in finding employment as he was destitute and unable to get any work, even as the local milkman. It was this last collection which was completely new to me, and it shocked me. It was clear from her earlier letters that Evelyn’s constant harassing of her son’s employers for information about his whereabouts had affected his reputation to the extent that he had become unemployable. My father’s letters were the catalyst to my decision to collect and edit her letters. I was motivated at first, I admit, by a filial impulse to revenge. Revenge is not a pretty emotion, nor a constructive one, but it was the spur I needed to start this project. As I worked I began to rise above the “family-ness” of their content and to become absorbed in the documentation of the disintegration of a once-gifted mind.
I knew that I was missing letters from the first half of her life, the years spent in Bermuda and France and North Africa. The story would not be complete without them, and so I spent a month at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, working my way through collections of her papers and those of her husband Jack Metcalfe and of Cyril, my grandfather. The next year I returned to Knoxville and spent a fortnight in the basement of the university library, photocopying at break-neck speed the large number of letters I had skimmed on my earlier visit. The following year I did the same at Smith College in Massachusetts and at Yale University. Scholars who were interested in Evelyn’s work forwarded more letters to me, and my collection grew and became more comprehensive.
The early letters could not have been more different from those I had first seen. During those years she and Cyril had had very little money. Their poverty led them to seek cheap rooms in warm climes where they would not have heating bills, and they ended up in a number of small towns in the south of France and north Africa. Evelyn wrote numerous lengthy letters to her friends back home, describing these places in astonishingly beautiful language. The letters were lyrical and full of detail. Two words could evoke a landscape in vivid colour. She was hugely intolerant of of the people amongst whom they found themselves, but that did not prevent her from describing them in vivid, if negative, terms.
These letters were warm and affectionate and full of concern for her friends and their circumstances. She valued artistic integrity above all else, so it was perhaps not surprising that her closest friends were writers. Nor was it surprising that they, like her, struggled to find publishers and earn a living from their work. Letters were filled with commiseration, with practical advice, with serious critiques of work in progress. Few of the letters from these friends have survived, but it is clear from hers to them that these friendships were affectionate and deep, so much so that they survived her gradual deterioration into obsessiveness and paranoia.
None of this matched the impression of her conveyed by my parents. And I would have learned none of this but for the chance spotting of a review in The Sunday Times.
I knew what I had to do.