More Helen Hamilton

Intrigued by Helen Hamilton’s dissident verse, I called up a couple of her books from the Bodleian Library.

Napoo: A Book of War Bêtes Noires is a collection of verses that are mostly character-sketches, like The Jingo-Woman, which I quoted the other day. Some express anti-war feeling, though not all. There is an attack on a war profiteer, for example, and an interesting poem about syphilis.

Oh no! we never mentioned It,
Before the War,
We prudish folk.

So it  begins, and goes on to contain this rather good bit:

Men who otherwise could die,
For us, you understand –
A noble, satisfying fate, you’d think,
Get It instead.

Another one I like is The Kill-Joys, a monologue for someone who wants to shut all the pubs till the War is over:

Work! Work! Work!
That should be our motto.
And when in sheer fatigue,
We can no more,
Then should we sit,
Sack-clothed and ashy,
Looking glum,
Our very glummest!
That’s the way to win the war…

Like most of the poems, though, this one goes on for too long, and loses impetus. There is too often a tendency to the formless, repetitive and rambling. Free verse can be too free, and she could have done with a firm editor.

In this poem, though, she finds an effective form :

Provoking Parrots

May I…?
There’s a war on.

But why not…?
There’s a war on.

Oh, just one minute…
There’s a war on.

Public resorts…? Closed…?
There’s a war on.

Harmless… Improving…
There’s a war on.

Hotels all commandeered…
There’s a war on.

Where’s our money…?
There’s a war on.

Departmental waste…
There’s a war on.

I will get in a word…
There’s a war on.

Shameless profiteering…
There’s a war on.

A paper famine…
There’s a war on.

My season ticket…
There’s a war on.

Rapacious companies…
There’s a war on.

No coal, no gas?…
There’s a war on.

Must we be cold and dark?
There’s a war on.

Have we the right to live?
There’s a…

Oh chuck it,
If you want to live!

More enjoyable than the poems is her short novel, The Iconoclast, published in 1918 by C.W.Daniel, the Tolstoyan-pacifist press that published Herbert Tremayne’s The Feet of the Young Men, and Fitzroy’s Despised and Rejected, which was prosecuted for its mixture of homosexuality and pacifism.

The Iconoclast turns out not to be a war book. It is the story of a schoolmistress who becomes discontented when reading a new magazine (‘The Iconoclast’). She is Maud, nicknamed ‘Dicky’ by ‘Pretty’, her colleague, close friend and flatmate, who buys her a present of a cardigan bought from a man’s clothing store, to go with her severe tweed suit. Sapphic overtones are stated enough to be recognisable to alert readers.

When Dicky starts reading the magazine, she is appalled by it. She was expecting a standard feminist put-down of marriage, but instead it advocates self-fulfilment through free love. Secretly, Dicky subscribes to the magazine, and eventually goes to the fortnightly meetings it sponsors. There she meets Herbert Smee, a feminist vegetarian young man “singularly unversed in the ways of women”. She has remarkably little in common with him, but they strike up an awkward friendship, which Dicky tries to hide from poor jealous Pretty.

At the Iconoclast meetings, pasty-faced high-thinkers preach free love, and eventually virginal Dicky finds herself agreeing to go away with equally virginal Herbert. She even negotiates a term off school so that she can spend three months experiencing ‘life’.

At the last minute she changes her mind – probably wisely, because she knows that she and Herbert have nothing in common. When Herbert gets her telegram, he is secretly relieved. Both had felt the obligation to gain “experience”, but were really frightened of it.

Dicky stays with Pretty, remains a schoolmistress, and ends up a headmistress. A happy ending? Probably not, but, Hamilton suggests, an inevitable one.

A neat little fable, and well-observed.

One thing I wondered – the free thinking magazine, The Iconoclast – could this possibly be based on The New Freewoman, which later became The Egoist? If so, is “Miss Ranger, the talented and gifted editress” a portrait of Harriet Weaver?


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