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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Becoming Modern

The Life of Mina Loy

Carolyn Burke



Becoming Modern

--PART I--
Everything has already taken place ... our personality or destiny, like a roll of negative film ... is unrevealable until it has found a camera to project it and a surface to throw it upon.
--MINA LOY, Islands in the Air

We were the last group to grow up under the formidable discipline of the nineteenth century, whose effect, however much we resented, cannot be entirely eradicated from our systems.
--BRYHER, The Heart to Artemis
The Bud beside the Rose
(LONDON, 1882-97)
A DOORWAY FIGURES in Mina Loy's earliest memory, of a time when she found herself among strangers. Too young to know why she had been brought to this large, dark house full of people she did not recognize, she knew that she wanted to go home. One afternoon they bundled her into her winter clothes; then someone picked her up and began carrying her down a flight of stairs. There was nothing familiar about the man who held her in his arms. Suddenly something flashed above the doorway at the bottom of the stairs. Colored lights dazzled her eyes. She blinked and stared at the fiery reds and yellows, barely making out the colored bottles that stood in a row behind the fanlight. The sun was shining through layers of glass and straight at her, as if she had caught fire, as if shards of color had entered her body. But as she stretched her arms toward this brilliance, the force that gripped her like a clamp kept on going down the stairs. The colored lights vanished when they went out the door.
In this first memory, something precious is lost, and something else --which we might call self-consciousness--is gained. Trying to analyze this moment decades later, Mina could still feel its power over her in middle age, as she wrote and rewrote the many versions of her autobiographical fiction. First impressions of this kind were unconditional, she wrote: such experiences could "print pictures, even maps, which are not, as it were, taken 'off the press' until years later."
But as a child, Mina could interpret neither this first "map" nor her feeling of having been "so lately embodied." In adolescence she learned from a chance remark that she had been sent to stay at the family doctor's house during her sister Dora's birth one month before her own secondbirthday. When she remembered being carried downstairs to go home, she understood that the doctor's professional grasp had been the clamp that held her: "The entire event emerged quite clearly. I was staying with the wife of our family doctor to be 'out of the way' while my younger sister was born."
Mina returned to this memory as an adult because she wanted to grasp its meaning. She had yearned to become one with the glow, she thought, since an infant, "conceiving no distinction between the thing to be known & the knowing of it ... becomes in turn everything it encounters." In that moment her precocious aesthetic sense had been "quickened by that fundamental excitement combined of worship and covetousness, which being the primary response to the admirable very likely composes the whole human ideal." The memory also crystallized the time just before self-consciousness. "My conviction of having been everywhere-at-once while definitely aware of my self survived my discovery that something I since have known as space intercepted my relation to other contents of the nursery." This "first concrete impression" underlay her efforts to map her inner world.4
Yet it stayed "on the press" for reasons other than those revealed in her autobiography--even when she saw the difference "between the thing to be known & the knowing of it." The intensity of her focus on this first memory also suggests a disturbance in the little girl's passage from her parents' house into the world.5 The image of the door is charged with ambivalence--on neither side can she regain the comfort of her mother's arms. At the onset of self-consciousness--she is not quite two--the child finds herself in the grip of a stranger who, rather than giving her what she wants, carries her off in the opposite direction. She must forgo the blazing reds and yellows and return to the house where she is always "in the way."
For the young Mina Loy, the discovery of self was linked not only with the enchantments of light and color but also with the loss of "home." The memory stages embodiment as a shock. She is exiled first from her mother, then from the colored glass. Although her yearning is displaced onto the glowing shapes, this consolation proves inaccessible and, for that reason, all the more fiercely desired. (In memory, the blaze of colors signals pain as well as wonder: gazing up at them, she is "riddled with splinters of delight.") Like a palimpsest or a pentimento lying beneath the "homes" she created in verse and on canvas, this first impression maps the spacewhere Mina felt that she had been cast out from paradise; its component parts--the door, the colored glass, the flash of illumination, the sense of embodiment--recur in her art like sudden glimpses into her imagination.
By reflecting on such memories, Mina hoped to write her way to self-knowledge: "Far from being fantastic interpretations of half forgotten infantile responses," she believed, "these analyses are as painstaking in their accuracy as a blueprint." For this reason she kept analyzing her life in poems, fiction, and lightly veiled memoirs. This unfinished "autobiography" is voluminous but fragmentary, as if her experiences as she traveled from the Victorian era into the modern world were too diverse to be woven into a single narrative. Yet certain threads recur. Rage against her mother runs like the weft through her tales of childhood, and a sense of herself as the family outcast interlaces her later forays into modernism. Taken together, these stories comprise the materials for an autoanalysis carried out on the page, and only in part, since they bristle with unassuageable anger at her mother as the cause of her difficulties and internal divisions. Yet to a sympathetic reader they also suggest that without this adversary, Mina might never have been driven to compose her own story.
She was born Mina Gertrude Lowy, the first child of Julia Bryan and Sigmund Lowy, on December 27, 1882. Anxiety about the family name, which sounded unmistakably Jewish to British ears, would inspire in both mother and daughter a variety of strategies for dealing with the awkwardness it inevitably provoked. But Mina never guessed at the equally embarrassing circumstances that preceded her birth, nor did she realize that her mother had been seven months pregnant at her wedding. Had she known the reasons for this unlikely marriage, they might have given her greater insight into what she saw as her mother's innate dislike of her firstborn. About this union, only the date and place are recorded: whether the delay reflected the Bryans' concern over Julia's marriage to a man who was both a foreigner and a Jew, or whether there was little love between the couple, is not known.
What is known about Mina's grandparents is suggestive. George Bryan, a carpenter and, later, cabinetmaker, lived with his wife, Ann, in Bromley, a village southeast of London where, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Evangelical and Nonconformist chapels outnumbered Anglican churches. As the daughter of an artisan in this area, Julia was presumably raised as a Baptist, a Congregationalist, or in one of the Methodist denominations. Consequently, even if her parents respected Lowy's skill as a tailor, they could not have helped thinking him an unusual choice for her hand. While forced marriages were not unusual, mixed ones were: a Jew was foreign to their experience except as a descendant of the Old Testament Hebrews.
There were many secrets in the Lowy household. Mina had no idea that her mother had married Sigmund, who was twelve years her senior, to avoid disgrace. Nor did she know what had attracted her to this handsome foreigner in the first place. But she was aware that, for her mother, life with a man who clung to his faith and his profession, and who could not--or would not--lose his accent, was a trial. In Mina's view her mother tried all her life to conceal both her husband's religion and the source of his income. Although Julia sometimes let it be known that he was "connected with trade," no one was allowed to mention what he did. Mina was surprised to learn in later years that he began as a tailor.
Haunted by the contradictions of her family life, Mina wrote and rewrote her autobiography--first as the modernist verse epic "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose" (1923-25), then in the many prose versions that constitute her fictionalized memoirs. While this writing brims with the sensuous immediacy of childhood, it is also shot through with the analytic insights of adulthood, in nearly the same proportion in which physical exactness and intellectual acuity combine in her poetry. She rarely recorded sensory memories without commenting on them or trying to interpret their meaning; returning to the same incidents from different angles, she kept trying to grasp the emotional dynamics of her childhood and its effect on her imagination. It is difficult to see beyond her perspective--both because it is so persuasively presented and because there are no sources other than her autobiographical writing for most of her life. Yet it is possible to evaluate the plausibility and consistency of these accounts, as well as their confirmation in her art and adult experience.
In one version of her childhood, the free-verse autobiography Mina wrote in her forties, she and her father are "Anglo-Mongrels" and her mother the "English Rose"--a blossom "self-pruned" yet bristling with "the divine right of self-assertion." Once Sigmund decided to follow Jewish custom by assigning the spiritual education of his girls to their mother, Julia could bully the family in the name of religion; in Mina's view, her mother's delicate coloring concealed a self-righteous determination to have her way. Julia probably believed that children were born not in innocence but in sin, and that girls had to learn to suppress their natures through self-denial. Like most Evangelicals, she was undoubtedly raised to think that the slightest indiscretion paved the road toward depravity. If Julia resented her firstborn as intensely as Mina's memoirs suggest, it was because her daughter was a daily reminder of her own lapse from rectitude.
But Mina came to suspect that her mother's religion was based less on theological principles than on her concern with other people's opinions. For those of uncertain social status like the Lowys, genteel affectations and censorious cant justified their claims to middle-class respectability, especially at a time when "not only were the middle classes drawing away from the poor, but each stratum within the bourgeoisie was drawing away from the stratum next below it." And as the Lowys moved up the social ladder,trading the lower-middle-class standing of small shopkeepers for the more middle-middle rung of the merchant and professional classes, Julia's enhanced respectability only partly concealed the insecurities of her position. Lacking self-assurance as well as an education, she paid close attention to the codes of propriety--a practice which complemented her religious belief that stringent rules applied to the least acts of everyday life.
Julia may have also shared the widespread Victorian belief that parents should repress young children for their own good. Reflecting in middle age on her "inner necessity to escape from the Victorian era," Mina was thinking of her own childhood, but also more generally of the sternness with which childish attempts at self-expression were usually met. Although Julia maintained only a slightly exaggerated version of common practice, Mina came to see her mother's tyrannizing as the domestic version of imperial rule: just as Britannia had taken for granted her right to govern the uncivilized peoples over whom she held sway, so her mother believed it her duty to encourage the repression of her daughter. While one could not overemphasize the inhibiting force of Julia's views on Mina's temperament, one could also say that this oppressive force may also have served to strengthen her resolve and focus her imagination.
In "Anglo-Mongrels" Mina's father appears as the Jewish tailor "Exodus," a touching figure who bows to the will of his British wife, while in one prose version of her life he is "Mr. Israels." As Mina understood it, the Lowys had been wealthy members of the Jewish community in Budapest for more than a century before her birth. After giving part of his fortune to build a synagogue, Sigmund's grandfather had disinherited his son Adolph--Sigmund's father--for marrying a working-class woman who came there to worship. Their son--Mina's father--was born in 1848, a year of anti-Semitic riots following the granting of civil rights to Hungarian Jews. Adolph Lowy named the boy Sigmund Felix in honor of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who had died the year before and was a relation of the Budapest Lowys. Sigmund's father transferred to his son his own frustrated ambitions, making sure that the boy learned Hebrew along with German and Hungarian. But after his father's early death, Sigmund's mother married a man from her own class who disparaged his stepson's cultural interests and forced him to learn tailoring. Although Jews were granted political rights in 1867, when Sigmund was nineteen, they were denied religious equality, and anti-Semitism persisted among the Hungarian bourgeoisie. After his apprenticeship Sigmund emigrated to England, where, it was said, Jews prospered.
Lowy soon became the highest-paid tailor's cutter in London. A handsome man who carried himself well, he painted delicate studies of English flowers or strolled around London on his days off. Once Lowy acquired fluency in business English and began to dabble in stocks, he was ready to go into business and start a family. But he was of a sensitive nature, preoccupied with his health and social status, especially at a time whenJewish tailors were associated in the public mind with the East End sweatshops. 6 Although the marriage brokers introduced him to a number of eligible Jewish women, he could not interest himself in their charms. On a holiday in a country village near London, he met the pink-and-white hedge rose who, he decided, would initiate him into Englishness. Wondering (in "Anglo-Mongrels") how such an unlikely match was made, Mina thought that her father believed he had found "Albion in female form" and would "unite their variance / in marriage."
Their variances were so great, however, that once united, the Lowys shared little more than their three daughters and their common interest in marking out their superiority to those beneath them on the social ladder When Mina was born, Lowy had already established himself as a merchant rather than a man who worked with his hands and put considerable distance between his Gracechurch Street office and the squalid East End. Having suffered from both social rigidity and religious discrimination in Budapest, he was happy to find that in London, being a tailor (or a draper as he now called himself) could be socially acceptable provided one made a great deal of money, and being a Jewish tailor might be overlooked provided one made even more. By the time Mina's sister Dora was born in 1884, her father had joined the ranks of the highly skilled "English" tailors, who made clothes for the upper classes; judging by his own manners and appearance, he could have been taken for one of his clients. But he was never to accumulate the great wealth that might have opened the doors of society.
When Mina came into the world, so precipitously after her parents wedding, the Lowys had not yet consolidated their social position. Since Lowy had no time to find new lodgings, Julia joined him in his boarding house in Hampstead, a comfortable North London suburb where many successful English Jews lived, as well as a number of writers and artists He may have hoped that Julia would feel more at home in countrified Hampstead than in the center of the city. In any case, their anomalous marriage would seem less unusual there, and the location--a short walk to Hampstead Heath and the station where Lowy caught his train to the City--was convenient. Not only would his new family enjoy the better air and green expanses, but their position would be enhanced by life far frorr. the center of commerce.
Yet one could not claim middle-class status simply by living in a place like Hampstead. Others had to behave as if they, too, felt you belonged. Sigmund was confident of his position as a merchant and a family man, however suddenly this had come upon him, but Julia was unsure of herself. Suspicious of strangers and hostile to foreigners, although (or because) she had married one, she tended toward anti-Semitism as well. Even thoughLowy had already joined the better class of tailors, a certain taint of exoticism clung to him, and Julia was dismayed by his refusal to adopt either her religion or her prejudices. Within a few years, energized by the self-righteousness of her faith, she began to domineer over her husband despite his superiority in years and worldliness. Julia maintained her advantage in the face of all arguments: she was British and Christian, while he was foreign and Jewish. By the 1890s--Mina's teenage years--Lowy had withdrawn into hypochondria. Julia's attitude remained that of her lower-middle-class origins, where support for the British Empire often joined with virulent jingoism and anti-Semitism. Under these circumstances Mina's emotional life became a battleground of contradictory loyalties.
In the process of writing "Anglo-Mongrels," Mina managed to reach some understanding of her mother's situation. Realizing that Julia saw her as her father's child--the trick he had played upon her and the cross she had to bear--she could all but put herself in her mother's place:
To the mother the blood-relationship is a terrific indictment of the flesh

under cover of clothing and furnishing "somebody" has sinned and their sin --a living witness of the flesh swarms with inquisitive eyes
But although she had almost grasped the reason why she had always felt "overshadowed / by the mother's aura / of sub-carnal anger," this insight did not release her from her rage against the parent who, she believed, had never really loved her.
Lowy made occasional attempts to intervene in his wife's methods of child-raising, but gradually concluded that he could do little to alter the social equivalent of Julia's austere theology--the doctrine of what is and is not "done." This highly coded set of rules governed behavior, since to flout its expectations meant to risk disgrace. From Julia's perspective, their mixed marriage was a blot to be overcome with unfailing attention to external forms. As the Lowys were both impeccably dressed and could soon afford servants, appearances were maintained, but not without considerable anxiety. For Mina was always about to do something that would reveal the true nature of things. Their recently acquired middle-class standing was like a new suit of clothes that might come apart at the seams to uncover the family's secrets.
Because Mina Loy's accounts of early childhood recall its colors, textures, and atmospheres so vividly, they are more painful to read than if her memories had faded. Interwoven with an unusual number of very early yet clearly focused memories is a litany of complaints against her mother, relieved only by infrequent attempts to see Julia as a woman of a certain class and generation. Since the same incidents are examined from slightly different perspectives, it is likely that these events took place much as Mina remembered them. But the emotional distress coloring her interpretations of them suggests that while she gained some understanding of their relationship, she never forgave Julia for withholding "the intuitive value every true mother sets upon the babe she treasures."
An unusual number of scenes from childhood open the door to her imagination. Like the first impression of colored bottles, another early memory connects her attraction to light with childish play, bodily fragmentation, and separation from her mother. As a very young child, perhaps no more than two, Mina was waving her arms about with one of her set of dominoes clenched in her fist. Suddenly the little block flew off in the direction of a large illuminated surface, which shattered in pieces on the floor. Then "words instead of sailing off to unknown destinations descended stinging me with a vocal shrapnel." Her mother swooped down at her, shrieking about damnation: Mina had broken a windowpane. She was to contemplate her wickedness while everyone had tea. Trying to understand the meaning of these words, she gazed up at the window and became "tremendously engrossed with that placard of light set in the air ... It was the being there of its not being there that intrigued me." When her nurse comforted her by calling it an accident, the word took on a mysterious meaning. Mina later wondered whether emotional balance depended on one's having a sense of proportion and supposed that her own had been injured in this "accident." In a stinging critique of her mother's taste and judgment, she recalled her sense that a home should offer reassurance, and her realization that "a room composed in a quarrel of display and thrift could not hold out the arms of its walls to gather me in."
As a child Mina learned to comfort herself by taking refuge in her imagination. She remembered watching pixies appear and disappear among the patterns of her mother's bed and talking to the childish figures who stepped off her nursery wallpaper. By concentrating her imaginative powers upon objects or sensations, she could feel them "coming alive" and, by this means, blot out her mother's tirades. Hearing a march played on the piano, she could see toy soldiers parading across her carpet; walking across a colored print of a meadow placed on the floor, she found herself in the country. But while her imagination provided escape from the constraints of childhood, it also caused her to be reprimanded for "making things up." Like most Evangelicals, for whom the imagination was a source of sin, Juliadistrusted her child's ability to invent. Not only was Mina guilty of a crime she could not fathom, but her chief refuge, her imagination, provoked repeated threats of impending disgrace.

By November 1884, when Mina was staying at the doctor's house, the Lowys had moved to more spacious lodgings in Bloomsbury. They did not find permanent accommodations until Mina was four and Dora two, when they moved back to North London and settled at 17 Greville Place, too close to working-class Kilburn and too far from prosperous Hampstead to allay Julia's anxieties. For their girls, however, returning to the suburbs meant a stable middle-class existence, with a nursery, a succession of nannies, and daily lessons in proper behavior. Family photographs taken at this time show a wistful Mina, with her dark hair cropped like a boy's, and a sulky Dora, with long blond curls. Between them stands their mother, whose firm mouth belies a certain wariness in the eyes: placing her arm around Dora to support her on her perch, Julia turns her back on her elder daughter.
Once a nurse was engaged, her mother made fewer appearances in Mina's domain. Since the Lowys had decorated the nursery with a wallpaper by their Hampstead neighbor Kate Greenaway, Mina spent hours bringing to life the beautifully dressed, well-behaved little children on her walls, who also seemed to inhabit her picture books. These pleasant images offered a vision of a life without tension, where little Phyllises and Belindas took tea in their garden while their friend May Blossom lolled under the apple tree. But the charming melancholy of the Greenaway girls must have had a depressing effect over time, since these idealizations of a simpler age are strangely lacking in energy. Like most middle-class parents, the Lowys probably expected daughters who never soiled their sashes or crushed their bonnets. Mina's imaginary friends were models of a demure goodness that she could never quite manage when making up games with Dora: compared with the urchins she saw in Kilburn during their walks, they seemed unsuited for life outside the world of her imagination.
As for the grown-up women who dominated daily life, they looked to her like "armored towers" in their whalebone corsets. Moving through the house as if on the warpath, Julia seemed propelled by "the irate dignity innate to her, her abdomen steering her fine draped dress." Julia did her best to embody the feminine ideal of the eighties--two cage-like shapes connected by a waist so small that a man's hand could encircle it with his fingers. But rather than suggesting vulnerability, Julia's hourglass figure reminded Mina of "a corset-busk giving out ominous creaks as if nursing resentment for some secret affront." (What she could see of her father resembled "two tubes rattling coins in their summits, magical sources of the houses and provisions that poured from them.") Much later Mina depicted her mother as one of the many women of the eighties who bristled with the resentments of emotionally repressed lives, while also sardonicallypointing out the resemblance between her mother's contemporaries and their overstuffed furniture.
When the Lowys engaged nurses for their daughters, Mina began to see that there was another class of women, often more pliant than the armored towers. The first in a series of substitute caretakers was Lilah, who had understood that her charge's crimes were accidents. Mina responded to Lilah's gentleness, her violet eyes, and her one treasure, a brooch of coral rosebuds that Lilah let her touch. She listened attentively to Lilah's stories about Hungary, where she had worked for a Jewish family, and to her reassurances about the one person who always understood little children, the gentle Jesus, who died for their sins. Mina yearned for the Saviour to come to her house. He would convince her mother that she was a good girl and let it be known that "for every infantile / indiscretion / there is absolution."
Hearing of her child's spiritual disposition, Julia instructed the nurse to read to her daily from The Peep of Day, or A Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving. In the first chapter of this terrifying evangelical tract, the Infant Mind is told "how easy it would be to hurt your poor little body! If it were to fall into the fire, it would be burned up. If hot water were to fall upon it, it would be scalded. If it were to fall into deep water, and not be taken out very soon, it would be drowned." Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden into a place full of weeds and thistles seemed harsh punishment for their mysterious sin, yet in keeping with what Mina already knew about the administration of justice at the hands of her mother. Lilah always reminded her of God's kindness in sending His only son into the world and assured her that release from its perils would come at last, when "God will burn this world we live in ... and make another much better than this." Years later, Mina wondered at the contrast between what people like her mother, "while proclaiming the ineluctable purity of Christ, made of the merely annoying brat I may actually have been, and His 'suffer the little children to come unto me' with its implication that children alone were fit for His company."
Although Lilah was sure that God would spare them from the torments of hell, Mina fretted over the question "Whom will he save?" What if her mother was right and she was to be numbered among the damned? To make matters worse, Mina woke up one morning to learn that Lilah had been sent packing. When Julia said that her nurse had not been useful, Mina decided she "was never going to set any store by useful things again." Soon Mina had a new nurse named Queenie, who took her on endless walks around the newly developed streets of South Hampstead: "All the streets were the same--bare and buff. Sometimes a richer house would have pillars painted a dull red. The more streets they saw--the less they had to say." Queenie, though good-natured, had few stories to tell and offered no visions of a happier existence. Soon she, too, went the way ofLilah: just when Mina became accustomed to a new nurse, Julia would find fault with her and she would be dismissed.
Under such circumstances Mina developed a lifelong interest in underdogs. Once she noticed that the right side of things was always favored at the expense of the left, a childish sense of justice urged her to make up for this inequity: "I would pick up the left hand side with my sensibility and nurse it in my astral arms like a doll, croon to it and make ugly faces on its behalf at the aristocratic right that gave itself such airs." One day she was standing at the top of the stairs while performing an expiatory ritual that consisted of wearing her left shoe on her right foot to punish it for its pretensions. Swinging the right foot back and forth while humming a sort of incantation, she was so absorbed in her ritual that she failed to notice the housemaid replacing the rods on the stairs below. When Mina inadvertently kicked her in the eye, the maid screamed and sent her to her mother for punishment. Mina could not understand the reason for their rage. Still preoccupied with the problem of injustice in the world of left and right, she could not fathom "the mystery of how innocence may at any time and unwittingly change into guilt."
Another memory symbolized for her the emotional dynamics of her childhood. Mina discovered a basket containing some Japanese paper fish, whose unexpected colors and textures delighted her. Her father explained that she was to be given these fish later on and told her not to spoil the surprise by mentioning that she had already seen them. Proud of their secret, she accompanied her father to the drawing room. When he asked her whether she had looked into the basket, she said no, only to be pounced upon by her parents. In front of the guests they called her a liar: "If I did not remind him that he had asked me not to tell," she recalled, "it was because I succumbed to their necessity to make something out of me that they knew how to 'deal' with. (Does not society create its own criminals?) Or rather because their animosity always stabbed me in the solar plexus, causing a knotted agony that paralyzed self-defense." Years later, Mina concluded that her role in the family had placed her in a psychic double bind. But at the time she took the only escape open to a child--running away. Outside in the street, the fresh air and the lilac trees' perfume banished her unhappiness, until she was caught and taken home: "They did want a liar."7
Throughout her childhood Mina took refuge in "curative colour," in the reaches of her imagination, or in moments of natural beauty, all private "places" where she could be alone. Although the street was forbidden territory, she loved the back garden, where she could play by herself. Not long after the incident of the Japanese fish, she was playing alone in thegarden when she suddenly felt in touch with the great world around her. "Illumination," one of the few non-satiric poems in "Anglo-Mongrels," evokes this moment when
The high-skies have come gently upon her and all their steadfast light is shining out of her

She is conscious not through her body but through space
She cherished the memory--"this saint's-prize / this indissoluble bliss / to be carried like a forgetfulness / into the long nightmare."
But most expeditions out-of-doors were taken under the supervision of her nurses. She and Dora left the house each day on "walks in glum streets between semi-detached facades in paralysed regimentation ... like soldiers on the march." Expeditions to the Maida Vale sweetshops at the end of the street provided tantalizing glimpses of forbidden licorice strings, iced biscuits, and sugar mice--all reserved for the "common children," according to the nurse. They sometimes walked as far as the populous streets of Kilburn, which Mina understood as "kill-burn"--a paved lid over the fires of hell and a premonition of her own damnation. Although the nurse drew her skirts back from the crowds--mainly Jewish or working-class--Mina was fascinated by the "common" children's accents and pastimes. One day when she was peering with concern at a girl her own age, whose foot was stuck in an iron grating (perhaps an entrance to hell), she heard her nurse chide, "Hold up your chin ... you begin to walk like a horrid ragamuffin." The outcast's freedom began to seem appealing: although one wore rags, one was given, as compensation, the daily muffin.
As Mina grew older, she met people in whose presence she felt more relaxed than at home. "Aunt Mary" Gunne, a ladies' companion hired to help Julia with the ways of being a middle-class matron, made a handy addition to the Lowy household, since she lived nearby with her elderly mother. Of a happier temperament than Julia, Aunt Mary believed in brightening the children's days by behaving whenever possible as if fairy tales might come true. She made up stories, produced surprises like the ill-fated Japanese fish, and welcomed Mina to her home. The next time Mina ran away, her destination was Miss Gunne's house. Enchanted by old Mrs. Gunne's intricate lace cap and white corkscrew curls, she was pleased to be allowed to trace the delicate patterns on their antique china. Although Mina was nearly always out of sorts at home, Miss Gunne's easygoing ways made her happy. But like Lilah and Queenie, Aunt Mary was soon banished over a difference of opinion about the proper methods for disciplining young children.
To escape these disappointments, Mina visualized the land of her dreams. "A peculiar land I could see distinctly," it held only "two trees like planed poles, each bearing its single enormous fruit, the one a pear, the other an apple," whose symmetry promised some kind of knowledge other than that mentioned in the Bible. She realized only in adulthood that these dream images had been adapted "from the rosy branches of fruit dividing vignetted groups of Kate Greenaway figures in the night nursery." Although she later dismissed such images--"the hot-house purity / essence / of English childhood"--she remembered her ardent desire to escape into that promised land, envisioned as "a musical-box / of colored glass / growing like gilly-flowers / and Phlox / with butterfly-winged / cherubim / warbling in / low-branched fruit trees." There, fruit hung from the trees for little girls to enjoy, and colored glass glittered--within arm's reach.
Although her grandparents might also have provided alternatives to the atmosphere at home, Mina remembered only one visit to the Bryans in Bromley. They were well-meaning but ineffectual presences who seemed to shrink from contact. As if he feared to grow fond of Mina, her grandfather contented himself with a "timid benevolence." She was particularly interested in his craft and the variety of tools in his carpenter's shed, where, "understanding that all operative objects have magical properties for small creatures like myself, he show[ed] me an enormous magnet." But her grandmother had no such secrets. Thinking back on Mrs. Bryan's one visit to the Lowys', Mina guessed that this modest woman must have felt ridiculous perched on a gilt chair in their showy drawing room. When her grandparents died within the year, Mina was full of grief at the idea that her magical powers had proved fatal: shortly before their deaths, she had reached for a white weed during a walk with the nurse, only to hear that if she picked that flower, her mother would die. Since Mina had cried out that her grandparents should die instead, she was horrified to learn that they had done so. She must be truly wicked, as her mother said.
When Sigmund's aged grandmother paid a visit from Budapest, she reminded Mina of the fairy godmother in the Christmas pantomime. This apparition in black silk and lace took her great-grandchild on her lap, cried over her, and choked out Mein schönes Kind as if it were a blessing. Mina remembered feeling swathed in the unconditional love of her great-grandmother's adoration--like her illumination in the garden, an experience of bliss that later seemed a "spiritual orgasm, the mystic's admittance to cosmic radiance." But since Julia wanted to minimize contact with foreigners, especially Jewish ones, she vetoed plans to have Mina visit her father's family.
Through her precocious discovery of books, Mina learned that "there are many thresholds that may be crossed ... into non-existent sanctuaries." Education was one of these doors opening onto new prospects, which, on closer inspection, concealed fresh disappointments.
At three she crossed a new threshold when she discovered what she took to be a small door lying on its side: it opened to reveal "an infinite succession of white, four-cornered flaps ... covered with linear conundrums." This sanctuary proved to be a book, like her beloved Peep of Day. Mina begged for one of her own: "As the result of many inquiries I gathered at last that such doors as these open onto the contents of time; that behind them is stored the composite brain of humanity as if preserved in microscopic slides." A book might offer "the final answer to the whole question" of her being. Once she learned to read the alphabet book her parents gave her, she felt that she was "holding the doors of the universe ajar": each letter had meaning, its thickness and heft, and in the company of its fellows lived a life of its own. But rather than praise their daughter's precocious knowledge, the Lowys called her a show-off--an opinion echoed by the alphabet itself, which accorded the letter X to Xantippe but remarked of Socrates' wife that she "was a great scold." This condemnation of strong-minded females put a stop to her quest for knowledge, which did not, after all, provide the answer.
Mina still clung to the idea of divine forgiveness, since, at least in God's eyes, she was innocent. One day her mother would show her the love she craved. Julia was quite capable of playing the doting parent in public, where she appeared to cherish her daughter's beauty and intelligence. Mina saw that some parents appreciated children despite their sinfulness when she came across one of the few nonreligious books allowed into the nursery--a cultural version of the earliest instruction the infant mind is capable of receiving, entitled Chaucer for Children. This new door opened not onto eternity but onto British history and culture, and its author, a Mrs. H. R. Haweis, had dedicated her book to her four-year-old son. More than her bowdlerized versions of Chaucer's tales and flat, Pre-Raphaelite-style illustrations, it was the author's estimate of her child's mind that impressed Mina. She envied the young boy in the dedicatory portrait and wondered at his cleverness as he sat reading the stories that his mother had provided him.8
Her own found fault with her on most occasions. As she grew, Mina began to think of Julia not so much as an armored tower but, rather, as "the Voice," the overwhelming force that invaded her thoughts. When her mother's threats about God's seeing her evil ways collapsed into whatseemed like an uncanny ability to reach into her daughter's mind, Julia became the embodiment of "the parental, or counter-will" which "awaits the convenience of seizing its opponent on common territory." One morning, when Mina hurt her hand searching for her mother's smelling salts, she uttered a childish imprecation. Suddenly "that dreaded voice leapt out of the thick air conserved by heavy curtains so like a lash it almost whipped me off my balance." Julia chastised her for using bad language and rehearsed her future as an outcast. To clinch the point, she shrieked, "You're just like your father."
Decades later, Mina tried to understand Julia's background in her efforts to gain relief from the self-critical part of herself--the internalized mother or "the voice that edits private history." She came to think that if her peace of mind had been shattered by the impact of the Voice, it was because her mother was herself the product "of a class whose loud self-assertion lifts them above the manual clatter of their lives, whose heritage it is to lack the mental leisure which alone, of all conditions, allows for the culture of such superficial graces as amenity, the expression of affection or the tempered rebuke--a class for generations so hard-driven they had no time for loving their offspring." But as a young girl she could neither understand her mother's animosity nor ward off her tirades. She often stood mute until Julia told her to get out of her sight, since she did not like what she saw (of herself?) in Mina's eyes.
Coming across her own image in a full-length mirror had a strange effect on Mina's imagination. On a visit with her father to one of his colleagues when she was nearly seven, she wandered through his shop while the men talked. "Before that winter evening my being alive had consisted entirely of a narrow variety of intensive emotions," she recalled. "I had no identity, until, wandering into a deserted fitting-room, I came upon my appearance in a triple mirror. Drenched in those depths and distances of interreflected glass which are endless in having no existence ... I found my covered image surmounted by my naked face." She was stirred by the shock of seeing herself not as her mother saw her but as an imaginary friend: "My own face filled me with the instant sympathy one might feel for an exile ... 'That's me,' I thought, 'and it's got such a "different" expression.' The unreal distance between myself and 'it' disquieted me." Once again fascinated by absence--"the being there of its not being there"--she wondered whether a part of herself had gone into the mirror.
Soon a Miss Ware, known as a strict disciplinarian, was hired to curb Mina's imagination while giving her lessons. She learned the rudiments of grammar, arithmetic, and English history, which consisted mostly of kings and queens. But as welcome as it was to have work to do, the penalties for mistakes were hard to swallow; Miss Ware believed in "punishment bread"--one dry whole-wheat slab for each error. Under her care, Mina went into a decline that no amount of tonic could cure. In consultationwith an eminent physician known to attend Queen Victoria, the Lowys learned that their child was in danger of contracting tuberculosis, for which the specialist prescribed immediate removal to the country. When they ignored his advice, Mina decided to hasten her decline by pouring cold water over herself under her nightgown. After several attempts at finishing herself off, she decided to get well. Soon Miss Ware, too, was sent packing, along with her punishment bread.
Julia's opinion of her daughter was confirmed by Mina's accidentally acquired "sex-enlightenment" at the age of eight. When she repeated her mother's stinging-nettle theory of her origins to her new friend Evangeline, the girl hooted at her ignorance. Passing quickly over the initial phases of procreation, Evangeline explained: "The woman gets most terribly ill and writhes in agony for nine months and then the doctor comes to cut her open and takes 'it' out. But it hurts so badly that she almost always dies before he has time to sew her up again." This information, acquired shortly after her mother's third pregnancy and the birth of her baby sister, Hilda, in 1890, made Mina so nervous that her parents asked what was wrong. "Alas, I had given my mother the opportunity to draw herself up to the very pinnacle of her superb morality. 'Now you are like a leper,' she told me." What Julia called her disgusting secret meant that "behind the ominous creaking of those busks" lay "a relentless machinery, involving myself."
Julia's attempts to repress all references to procreation--a common strategy in middle-class households--had the effect of driving the subject deeper underground. Mina had two recurrent nightmares that express her confusion about the nature of sexuality. The first dream began to haunt her after her mother took her to see one of the earliest electrical power plants, whose "weird sparks and flashes flying from the slip and clang of enigmatic engines" made her uneasy. That night she dreamed: "I drag at my mother's towering skirts to entreat her to come away--she takes no heed--Suddenly this dream mother comports herself in the wildest way--She is flinging her arms up, and at once they become steely arms." Her mother is turning into a sort of dressmaker's dummy: "There, where the skirts should have been, all that upholstery dissembling the site of sin, is a forbidding cage of iron wire." The mother's hand rasps the fingers "that have clutched at it for protection, a protection I now require against itself, the very author of my being, being author of my fear." The grimacing mother spins faster and faster until she dissolves, and the nightmare ends.
In the second nightmare, Mina is crossing a bridge over a terra-cotta-colored sea. From the water there arises a totem pole from which the heads of bearded patriarchs stare at the terrified child: "All prophesying at once, they conjure me to some enterprise that is obscure to me." For a long time she was afraid of falling asleep, because the patriarchs returned when the light went out. Much later, she connected them with her father's lectures to the nurse on the continuity of Jewish history. While he evoked "thepriestly glory of his ancestors," Mina would tell herself that the patriarchs were "only dead men's heads in a dream." Sometimes this nightmare took another form. Walking in a shed with an earthen floor, she would come upon a bearded old man buried up to his chin: "Not so much coming out of the earth as sinking in, my English grandfather tries to convey some duty--as though he were drawing me into the ground with him." She would awaken at this point, desperate to escape from the demands of the patriarchs whose claim on her was impossible to grasp. It is hard to know which nightmare was worse, since each reveals the fault lines in her emotional ground, her relation to her parents.9
In 1892, when Mina was ten, Sigmund Lowy purchased his own home in a newly developed part of West Hampstead, between Finchley Road and West End Lane. This large, semidetached brick house at 68 Compayne Gardens, which the Lowys named Clinton, was one of the newest three-story homes in an area designed to express the prosperity of its residents. The unified character of the neighboring streets proclaimed the homeowners' membership in the "middling" middle classes, families that kept three or four domestics but could not aspire to a carriage. Despite their pretentious names, these double residences were far less grand than the costlier individual homes east of Finchley Road or the glamorous Norman Shaw houses on Fitzjohn's Avenue; and they were still too close to the crowded working-class districts just beyond West End Lane. Their status had been concretized in an exact social geography: Compayne Gardens lay "at the western foot of the Hampstead heights whose elevation stood always close at hand as a visible reminder of where social superiority resided," and just a few blocks east of Kilburn's "populous vulgarity." While Sigmund was satisfied with their proximity to the Finchley Road and the West Hampstead station, Julia's anxiety increased as they moved up the social ladder.
Mina was struck by a detail in the doorway of their new home--"this papered & enamelled container prepared for my adolescence." Patterned after the wealthier houses of Hampstead proper, their development featured "aesthetic" touches like Dutch gables, terra-cotta ornaments, and imitation stained-glass panels. Some of the more ornate single houses on the slight rise to the west also had Victorian Gothic or Classical details applied to their façades as decorative afterthoughts. Standing at the threshold, Mina touched an apple-blossom branch in the faux-stained glass beside the front door as if it were a talisman: "On touching that pane of glass Iturned into a commonplace person with average expectations, agog with the expectancy of normal life. Of the Cosmos of infancy the Voice alone survived."
At first, she recalled, daily life at Clinton "seem[ed] to consist in my being flapped in and out" on a series of walks around the streets of West Hampstead. Mina's "brick box" was distinguished from the others primarily by the tense atmosphere within, which seemed to stifle her as soon as she entered: "Day by day, drifting from room to room seeking for something to do," because she had no governess and hence no occupations, she began to feel "like machinery working full blast on the production of nothing." Like many of her background, Julia believed that stitching, embroidery, and other forms of fancy "work" provided sufficient occupation for a young lady: did not The Young Englishwoman advise readers to pass their time in the manufacture of such items as embroidered handkerchief boxes, ornamental pincushions, and crocheted garters?10 Although she did learn to sew, Mina preferred reading to work of this kind and begged to be allowed to start her education.
Soon after their move to Clinton, Julia engaged Miss Nickson, the one governess with whom she was never to quarrel. Pleased that Mina's religious training had begun with The Peep of Day, Miss Nickson prescribed as the next step a program of biblical study, confined to the New Testament. "Hour upon hour we looked up texts, compared references under the awning of her white eyelashes," Mina recalled. This grounding in the practice of citing chapter and verse backfired, however, by producing in her the desire to be irreligious, if to be pious meant to resemble Miss Nickson. It did not help matters that her governess looked like a pig in a woolen dress, or that her habit of breathing down her neck as Mina bent over the Bible made her nauseous. Nor did Miss Nickson's morning prayers aid in her charge's daily struggles with lumpy porridge, or her nightly Bible reading outside the nursery door help in the process of falling asleep. Their governess, Mina believed, had been brought into the household as Julia's ally, "to insure a silence in which no original sin could rise to the surface."
The spare diet of pious texts, monotonous prayers, and lumpy porridge did little to purge Mina of her imagination. One day when Miss Nickson was too busy to keep close watch over her charges, Mina investigated the Old Testament. Pondering the long series of "begats" and the suggestive "he went in unto," she concocted a scenario in which a lion would go in unto Miss Nickson, who would then beget cubs in keeping with her tawny mane and freckles. She respected her governess on one score only: Miss Nickson was sometimes seen to sharpen her pencils to a fine point in orderto draw exquisitely shaded narcissi, a skill for which Mina expressed her admiration, for she, too, liked to sketch. Miss Nickson's talent was, however, an anomaly. She often glared at Mina, who was turning into a very pretty young girl, and told her that beauty was to be regarded as a delusion: Mrs. Nickson, a good Christian woman, never cared what her children looked like as long as they had the right number of fingers and toes.
Mina's aversion to her governess's physical presence extended to her pious lessons as well. She had become a precocious atheist not long before Miss Nickson's arrival at Clinton. In defiance of her mother, Mina decided to behave as if God did not exist. Although she "could not be sure that the everlasting flame was bluff," she wrote, "I decided to risk eternal torture rather than resemble the people He approved." This decision also seemed like a step in her father's direction. Even though he had given up attendance at synagogue, he refused to join his wife and daughters at church. Although Mina was unsure what it meant to be Jewish, her father's religion did not seem to confer the right to tyrannize others. But she may also have wondered whether he had abandoned the attempt to give her a religious education because she was female and could not, for that reason, learn Hebrew. Although he often showed Mina the affection she craved, he also teased her and called her "Goy," which she took to mean that she was different from him despite their obvious likeness.
Lowy nonetheless cherished the idea that his girls might excel, since Mina showed artistic talent and Dora was musical. Dora would study both voice and piano, he declared, and Mina would be allowed occasional bursts of self-expression. What he had had to renounce when forced into apprenticeship in Budapest he would cultivate in his daughters, in the hope that their worldly glory would crown his success by attracting desirable suitors. But his belief that artistic refinements were an ornament ran counter to his wife's desire to school the girls in self-denial. When Mina produced a poem on the marriage of a daisy and a gnat, her mother declared that she had the mind of a slut. Clearly she was doing this to get round her father. "'Where on earth's your modesty,' she shrieked. 'You certainly never got such ideas from me. Nice girls never think about weddings until after they're married.'"
Mina's "nasty" poem is of particular interest because it prefigures sections of "Anglo-Mongrels," on the subject of the parents' marriage. In "Nat and Daisy," the lowly Nat flies higher than his station when he asks the white Rose to marry him, just as in "Anglo-Mongrels," Exodus proposes to the proud English rose whose thorns hide under the hedgerow. Nat is more fortunate than Exodus, however: once his Rose has scorned him, he wins the heart of the humble Daisy. In Mina's nine-year-old romance, she identifies with both the gnat who yearns for beauty and the lover brought low by the rose's disdain--as in later years, she would identify with the father whose higher instincts seemed to have been crushed by the weight of Julia's disapproval.
Given her own religious upbringing, Julia could not help seeing Mina's attempts at self-expression as proof of her depravity, and she lashed out at her whenever she got hold of her drawings or poems. During the reign of Miss Nickson, Mina observed, her mother was calmer, because she had an ally. Together they would attempt to drive out some "evil, originated, I felt, in my father," and Miss Nickson would purge her of her disgusting secret. But when the pious governess left Clinton after two years' service, Julia's calm shattered. She insisted that they replace Miss Nickson with someone of equal rectitude. When Sigmund announced that he planned to send Mina and Dora to school rather than engage another governess, renewed hostilities broke out between their parents.
Asserting his prerogative as head of the family, Mr. Lowy enrolled the girls in a progressive school in Hampstead, where the children of that suburb's elite, both gentile and Jewish, were known to study. Mina was overjoyed at the idea of becoming a scholar, until Julia struck back by insisting on increased surveillance. In retaliation for her daughters' new freedom, she refused them any opportunity for privacy by hiding the door keys and, worse, by screaming about blasphemy when they tried to do homework. Thus, Mina noted, "in the sheltered homes of the nineties, daughters were bullied to maturity subject to prohibitions unmodified since babyhood. Their only self-expression: to watch and pray." She saw going to school as a form of defiance, akin to her decision not to believe in her mother's God. Anticipating that as a schoolgirl she would be "joining an opposition club of youth combatting the mother-myth," she looked forward to exchanges of confidence about the terrors of domestic life.
Her first attempts at friendship produced the realization that not all households resembled her own, since not all mothers were at war with their daughters. When she asked another girl whether she loved her mother, the child responded, "But of course," and stared at Mina disapprovingly. Rethinking the incident, Mina recalled the girl's "formal curls ... tied up with love," a contrast to the "crippled knot in which some random hairs of my culpable head were caught." Her first lesson had made it clear to her that a gulf existed between children whose appearance showed a loving hand and others, like herself, "whose covering is not civilized with the detail of affection." Tellingly, she called the institution the Chaucer School, a wistful allusion to the affectionate mother-child relations she had glimpsed in the dedication of Chaucer for Children.
Like other women for whom a daughter's maturation provokes a crisis, Julia resented Mina's adolescence. As a girl, Mina had already wondered why "nobody took action when we grew out of our clothes or boots." When she complained that a pair of boots bought the previous winter pinched her feet, Julia accused her of ingratitude. Faced with a daughterwhose figure was developing, she resorted to a familiar strategy, denial of the truth. She dressed Mina in childish flat yokes, scolding her as she pinned the offending bodice: "How can I fit you? You nasty girl. Do you think at your age it is decent to have a figure." Perhaps seeing in her daughter her own story, Julia shrieked, "Your vile flesh, you'll get no good out of it. Curse you. Curse your father."
School offered respite from the Voice, but this form of escape had come too late. Thinking back on her three years there, Mina wondered, "Original sin, where does it lie, in the logical process of thought? The problem wearied my mind to the exclusion of all further operation." Well trained in the forms of self-suppression thought appropriate by women of her mother's temper, Mina had become a demoralized, anxious adolescent--whose very existence, or so she believed, provoked her mother's ire. Even though she could escape into books, the beauty of art or nature, or her own imagination, the certainty of her future disgrace had undermined her self-confidence. Between the tensions of home and her inability to concentrate at school, her lessons were nearly wasted. And in any case, since middle-class girls were educated to become decorous wives, their lessons rarely went beyond a superficial knowledge of arithmetic, English grammar and history, art, and religion.
Mr. Lowy did what he could for Dora and for Mina--the English, or "goyish," version of himself, especially once she took up drawing. The Lowys had musical evenings in their grand reception rooms, where Dora sang and had her voice recorded on an early gramophone. (They thought Dora far more talented than the other Jewish girl who won the school music prizes, whose name was Myra Hess.) Although Dora blossomed under the general approbation, Mina felt confused by visitors' inquiries about her artistic skill, such as whether or not she could do a faithful representation of a cork. Still, her father brought home reproductions of the pictures in the annual Royal Academy exhibitions and took both girls shopping whenever he noticed that their clothes were shabby. He even sought Mina's advice "as to what could be done" in the face of Julia's opposition to his plans for their futures: rather than address Julia directly, her father took Mina aside to plan strategies for a more harmonious home life. Although he maintained that, with some coaxing, Julia's anger might abate, Mina boldly suggested a separation or some other way of living apart from Julia. But Mr. Lowy could not think of such a step. "No daughter should ever leave her mother's side," he insisted. "It's so beautiful, the bud beside the rose; men like it."
Mina had to resign herself to the idea that following her last year at school she would take up the role of the grown-up daughter at home. There were moments when she longed to tell her mother that there was really nothing wrong, that they could be happy. But, if Mina's memoirs may be trusted (even assuming they exaggerate her grievances), Julia found it impossible to sympathize with her daughter. They grated on each other'snerves until the inevitable eruptions took place. Not only was Mina a reminder of Julia's lapse from propriety, but she had entered the stormy stage of adolescence. She was a foreign element, like her father.
A state of war prevailed between mother and daughter which neither understood. While Mina was developing a mind of her own, Julia came up with an unbeatable way of getting what she wanted. At the height of an argument she would swoon and fall to the floor by the firescreen. These dramatic faints came to seem predictable, but it was frightening to see her lying unconscious on the rug. Mina's feelings combined the suspicion that her mother had an unfair advantage and the fear that she might one day cause the death of which Julia spoke so often. And it was just as disturbing to see her father being gradually reduced to obsessive concern with his own health, even though the Harley Street specialist assured him that there was nothing wrong.
A full-length portrait taken in a commercial photographer's studio at this time, when Mina was fourteen or fifteen, shows a demure young girl who does not realize she is about to become a beauty. She stands before a studio backdrop representing a carefully tended park or garden--some secluded space where feminine virtue, flower-like, can be sheltered until wedlock. The photo is a cheap variation on what was by this time an artistic convention enshrining the middle-class female's sexual purity. But in place of the white lilies or roses which, in pictures of this kind, suggest the young lady's purity, the photographer has placed some inexpensive daisies in a pot at her feet, in a halfhearted gesture at tasteful composition.
Yet his subject seems oblivious of both the perfunctory setting and her aesthetic props, the Chinese parasol in her left hand and the three flowers in her right. Her dark hair is loose in a girlish coiffure: it cascades over the elaborate tucks, frills, and ruching of the starched white shirtwaist, which contrasts in its fussy detail to the severe plainness of her three-quarter-length dark skirt. The darker stockings and childish shoes complete a costume that presents her as dutiful daughter--the bud beside the rose. Although Mina's gaze avoids any recognition of the photographer's presence, her thoughtful expression betrays her awareness that this portrait has been staged: she is playing her part in a conventional drama.

Copyright © 1996 by Carolyn Burke