Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Frances Gregg, Plymouth, the War & The Mystic Leeway

When I was a child growing up in mid-Devon in the 50's my mother told me how during the war when the bombs fell over Plymouth the sky over Dartmoor blazed with red; our home on the 'wildridge' looked due south over Cawsand beacon and the moor; I used to try to imagine the scene; It is only years later that that inferno itself really comes to life because of the awareness of real-life tragedies; one of those was the American poet/writer Frances Gregg/Wilkinson.


Unlike the poet H.D., her friend/lover back in her youth in America, Frances Gregg's (see photo here and another with the Powys family) literary reputation seems to have derived from chance finds of chapters from book manuscripts that survived the bombing raids of 21 April 1941 in Devonport, Plymouth, when Frances, together with her mother and daughter were killed. You won't easily find Gregg's work on the web - it's difficult to pin it down just as it is not easy to follow her life-narrative (for she was an inveterate traveller) - although a bit of searching will access information about several stories she published, whereas H.D's work is fairly ubiquitous and scattered around in virtual libraries. Even the one book of Gregg's that you will easily find listed, her memoir, The Mystic Leeway, probably doesn't do sufficient justice to the writer; though it is unique and a strange book - see a review of Mystic Leeway here -and as such perhaps a perfect representation of its equally individual and purportedly 'strange', uncanny, powerfully charismatic person and author.


She was said to be strikingly beautiful and Pound (entering as a character in one of H.D's novels) is supposed to have said that Frances' face made him think of a Burne-Jones fury and in another H.D. novel 'it was her eyes [that attracted] set in the unwholesome face ... it was her eyes, an unholy splendour. Her eyes were the blue eyes, it is said one sees in heaven'. Fascinated with the paranormal, prophecy and witchcraft, the young Frances seems to have possessed a peculiar power over both sexes.


Gregg's son Oliver Wilkinson told the story of his mother's, sister's and grandmother's death in April 1941 in the introduction to her memoir (see The Mystic Leeway). His mother was then manager of the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute at the Citadel and during the evening of the 21st April she had made sure all the staff were safe 'whilst the centre of Devonport was destroyed' and had at some point begun to wash dishes then locked the manuscripts into the safe. She had decided to return to her home at Tamar Terrace to be with her mother and daughter and would not listen to staff who tried to dissuade her.
        Wilkinson had later rescued 'chapters of Mystic Leeway - (sent [by Frances] one by one to John Cowper Powys and returned by him with "pleas to continue"') - after staff had told him his mother had left belongings there. This wasn't the only textual find after the tragedy, as sackfuls of letters from John Cowper Powys, Ezra Pound, H.D and others to Frances were also in the safe, whilst Ezra Pound's Hilda's Book was discovered in the rubble of the burnt-out house - see the story of the making of a film based on Gregg, Pound and that book here.



These documents hook Frances Gregg's story into that of two of the most important and famous literary circles of the C20 - the Imagists (who included both Ezra Pound and H.D.) and the circle of writers and artists that swirled round the Powys family (who included John Cowper (Jack) and Llewellyn). Frances Gregg had first travelled to Europe in 1911 with H.D. The stories of the two writers' involvement, adventures and of some of the repercussions of their relationship were told by H.D. in several autobiographical novels including Paint it Today, HERmione and Asphodel. The two young women had left America with Gregg's mother on 23rd July in The Floride; they were following Ezra Pound to Europe in the wake of a complicated triangular relationship that had had the three of them emotionally attached: Pound had been H.D.'s fiance/mentor; he had also become close to Gregg; her friendship with H.D. had developed into an intense bond. In her journal Gregg wrote 'Two girls in love with each other and each in love with the same man'. The three women travelled to England by way of Le Havre, Rouen and Paris. In London Pound took them round the city's literary rounds; introduced as the 'American poetess' Frances with her friend Hilda met, amongst others, May Sinclair. By late October H.D was at the Docks in Liverpool waving the Greggs back to the States.



It didn't take long for Frances to become attached to the next clutch of literary minded personalities for on 9th January 1912 she met John Cowper Powys (Jack). Unfortunately he was already married so he hatched up a plan for Frances to marry his best friend Louis Wilkinson: the couple married on Easter Sunday that year and soon the whole party were on their way back to London and Europe.Thus was Frances Gregg/Wilkinson hooked in with the Powys circle, but it was a double link in which her life-journey would be inextricably bound with people from both these literary networks and the books they authored; Frances' erotic-emotional ties with different characters from these groups was complex and evidently long-lasting. Inevitably, moth-like, she seemed to gather male attention in her early life; Lllewellyn Powys fell for her as soon as he met her in Venice with Louis and his brother John - himself still besotted with her - shortly after her marriage. His first impression of her was 'of one walking in a trance, her head full of dreams ... she is tall and dark and very supple and slender ... almost Tess-like'.



Gregg's involvement with the Powys network is touched on in many of their texts and secondary texts about them; these include the letters of Llewellyn and John Cowper Powys and R.P. Graves' The Brothers Powys. The latter in its account of John Cowper Powys - whose love for Frances was lifelong - dips into various moments when his life crossed with hers. Her life-style was that of a nomadic wanderer travelling on an obsessive hunt for a 'home': she spent some year back in America but in the early 1920's was in England, in Suffolk where she contracted and eventually recovered from breast cancer; in the late 20's she was in London working as a journalist for the News Chronicle and was able to contribute some of her own stories; by the 1930's she was in Norfok, then the Chiltern Hills to Sussex, High Wycombe and by the beginning of the war was at St Columb in Cornwall working at an AS Neill type school and looking after young evacuees - who apparently found her a calming influence, as well as caring for her own family which included twin granddaughters. Gregg's homes were in the main caravans, beach-huts or small cottages and she evidently had a tough life - her writing of The Mystic Leeway was mostly accomplished at night or during odd moments of free-time.


The writer's encounter with Devon at Plymouth was only short; she arrived there after a stint at St Mylor and Falmouth and one of her last comments to Jack Powys was that 'the eel has travelled far'. How long would she have remained in the county if the outcome of the blitz on Plymouth had been different? Possibly not long; the only claim the county can make is that of harbouring the jigsaw of her manuscript for her so that it could be collated and eventually, many years later, published.


That memoir indicates the paradoxical nature of her spiritual longing: 'I want to claim no country for my own and to take the whole world in my stride. I want to move on and on and on ... I do no know why I do it, nor what I seek, nor towards what bourn I am eternally pressing. I don't know. Nor do I know who it is who weeps darkly within me, longing for its "home"'.

Gregg was buried in a communal grave at Estover in Plymouth under her full married name, Josepha Frances Wilkinson; I understand that her name is also included in a memorial there but need to confirm that.

If you want to get more of a sense of Frances as she wished herself to be remembered and understood The Mystic Leeway is the only satisfactory source; her son collated the text and journeyed it to its publication in 1995.