‘Requiem’: Rose Allatini on Fitzroy Street

When Rose Allatini chose to publish Despised and Rejected under a different name, because of its sexual and political unorthodoxy, she chose for a pseudonym A. T. Fitzroy, after Fitzroy Street, where she was living.
Requiem (1919), the novel she published after Despised and Rejected, gives an idea of what the name ‘Fitzroy’ meant to her.
The book’s hero, Louis, is a young man whose parentage is even more of an international cocktail than Allatini’s own. His mother, an opera singer, was half Polish, half Spanish, and born in Belgrade. His father’s identity varied according to his mother’s mood or ‘according to what she judged would “go” best with the audience of the moment.’ Sometimes he was an Italian nobleman, sometimes a Hungarian gypsy violinist, and sometimes a Jewish banker. She married a Jewish banker, but after her death, Louis was adopted by a practical and kindly Scotswoman called Sarah MacTavish.
The novel begins after Sarah’s funeral. Her next-door neighbours, the respectable and very English Frobishers are indignant at Louis, who had rushed back to England for the ceremony,  wearing a felt hat there, not a topper.
Louis is good friends with the Frobishers’ son, who had been at Oxford with him, and their daughter, Anne, is very attracted to him. Their house is one of the three environments that he visits, though he never quite feels at home in any.
There is also a Jewish family, the Godmans, where he is made very welcome. Solly Goldman has a strong accent and a ‘plump, much-beringed hand’. His house displays a ‘solid Jewish opulence’ and he is very generous. Esther, the daughter, is another woman who appeals to Louis, but he has fears of being swallowed up by a ‘family’ – ‘ponderous, slow-moving and full of grievances’:

He could marry into a Christian family without danger of total absorption into it […] but it was the Jewish girl who had the greater appeal for him, and therefore his fear of her was greater.

The third alternative is ‘the life of the Quartier Latin in Fitzroy Street’. This, an area bounded by Rathbone Place and the Euston Road is London’s Bohemia.
Cécile, an artist’s model, lives in a house on Fitzroy Street:

On the second floor of the house was a kosher butcher’s establishment, on the first a café and billiards saloon; the second was occupied by a registry office for foreign waiters; the third proclaimed in several languages that it was to let; and in the fourth, in two tiny attics and a back kitchen, Cécile lived and moved and had her disreputable being.

Louis moves in with Cécile for a while, until she throws him out when another lover arrives in London. Later she is happy to take him back again, but Louis is naggingly aware that:

Nothing on the face of it is more free than life and love in Fitzroy Street; yet that very freedom might come to hold him captive, so that he could no longer escape to regions where life and love were – different.

Louis has the fear being pigeonholed, of being confined to being one sort of person, that is a constant theme of Rose Allatini’s novels. He tries escapes. He joins a theatrical company,as Rose Allatini did, and, like her, he writes. But he cannot decide who he is. He feels that he has a natural gift ‘bestowed upon him by the gipsy musician, or the Italian nobleman, or the Jewish banker.’ but asks ‘What was he going to do with it?’

August 1914 was the answer to that question, as it was to be the answer to so many others. [….] the general rush to arms, spreading like a gigantic tidal wave through the country, swept Louis up on its crest. He thrilled to the excitement of the newspaper headlines, the recruitment posters, the marching songs…

Later he justifies volunteering by saying

I was afraid of having to go, of being trapped and forced and driven. I have kept my freedom, or an illusion of freedom, this way.

August 1914 is an answer to the question: ‘What should he do?’ but not to the question: ‘Who is he?’ He is killed and the question remains open.

This failure to resolve the novel’s issues is appropriate to a book about a life cut short, but it also, I think, reflects Rose Allatini’s failure to decide exactly who she is. ‘Once a mongrel, always a mongrel,’ Louis says of himself. It was Allatini’s international background that made the war so painful and difficult for her. She was perhaps like Esther, whose ‘whole attitude seemed to imply that it wasn’t her war.’
This book is not such a radical exploration of uncertainties as Despised and Rejected, but it is gripping and perceptive, and takes us to interesting parts of London.
Fitzroy Street is described with particular zest. So perhaps when Rose Allatini chose Fitzroy as her pen name, she was, for her novel about outsiders, identifying with the home of Bohemian outsiderdom. This book is also about outsiders to some extent, but gives a warmer picture of those who are insiders of various kinds, and it has much less certainty that the life of an outsider is a superior one.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 17, 2016 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    Great! Thanks for introducing me to Rose Allatini.

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