Two weeks ago I made some purchases in Abélard in the book village of Montolieu near Carcassonne. Monsieur le Propriétaire keeps an excellent stock of second hand books in all languages. He says he has three times as many but is pressed for space to display them all. I was left to browse alone while he popped down the street for a coffee. Very civilised. I came away with three hardback biographies for forty euros, the 2007 biography of Ted Hughes by Elaine Feinstein, The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill by Hermann Hagedorn, published in 1954 and Rage and Fire, a life of Louise Colet – Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse by Francine du Plessis Gray, published in 1994. The delight of the second-hand bookshop rests on the fact that one escapes the hype surrounding the newly published and one can pick up the most unexpected items. I admit to an addiction to biography. It all started with Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King sometime back in 1973. The dynamics of families and people’s early lives always prove fascinating. Autobiographically based fiction has a similar appeal..
The Hughes biography covered much of the well trodden ground re Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill and the sad fate of both. A few things are destined to lodge in the mind. Sylvia’s extraordinary rudeness while visiting the Hughes home in Yorkshire, Hughes’ surprising enthusiasm for astrology, the occult and alternative medicines and the romantic incontinence which characterised his whole life. How deserving or undeserving has been his treatment at the hands of supporters of Plath it is difficult to say. Feinstein was a friend though she does strive for objectivity.This work is something to send one back to the poems though I don’t anticipate revisiting The Bell Jar. Feinstein tells us that further correspondence is sealed for two more decades so the Hughes/Plath controversy looks set to run and run.There was one striking quotation which gives pause for thought. In an interview with the Paris Review Hughes spoke of coming from a close-knit family: ‘The moment you do anything new, the whole family jumps on it, comments, teases….There’s a unanimous reaction to keep you how you were.’ That might have some resonance with Irish people.
Written in a rather old fashioned tone the Roosevelt book had all the hallmarks of hagiography. Nevertheless it proved informative about this extraordinary clan. It cleared up the confusion between the Hyde Park Roosevelts (FDR’s family and Democrats) and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (Teddy’s family, Republicans). This book described Theodore’s household. TR was a fifth cousin of FDR but the two branches came together with the latter’s marriage to the famous Eleanor who was Teddy’s niece. There was an interesting comment from Edith Roosevelt on the young Eleanor. ‘Poor little soul, she is very plain’, she wrote to her sister-in-law, ‘Her mouth and teeth seem to have no future, but, as I wrote Theodore, the ugly duckling may turn out to be a swan.’ For the hapless Eleanor, that was not to be.
TR was a hands-on father in a way that would put today’s new man Dads to shame. Annoyingly outdoorsy, he swam, hunted, fished, sailed and chopped wood with his six offspring in and around Sagamore Hill, the family compound in Oyster Bay on the north-east shore of Long Island. Books were read to children and grandchildren. TR is described as the most well read President since Jefferson. Edith Roosevelt seems to have been the emotional anchor of the entire extended family. Curiosity sent me agoogling but I failed to turn up any amorous adventures on the part of her husband. In this he differed from his cousin FDR.The house, is now in the care of the U.S National Park Service. Frozen in time, packed with animal heads and hides, it features an Edwardian interior which would scarcely appeal to modern tastes. Roosevelt, who is described as a conservationist, had, paradoxically, cut a swathe through the wildlife of Africa on a trip there with his son.
For a brief time after his presidency, frustrated by what he saw as the inactivity of the Taft administration,TR became involved with a third party, the Progressives. He was no Jimmy Carter in that he kept at the forefront of American political life to the end. Eager for America to join the Great War, he saw his four sons off to the front. His youngest son, a fighter pilot, was shot down and killed behind German lines. A point of interest for us Irish is his irritation with what he called ‘hyphenated Americans’, German-Americans and Irish- Americans who opposed entry into the war. Two other small points of Irish interest. A prominent member of the household was the children’s nurse Mary Ledwith, “Mame”, an Irishwoman. Secondly, when TR married Edith in London in 1886 his bestman was his lifelong friend Cecil Spring – Rice, described as ‘a delightful Englishman’. Cecil was the grandson of Lord Monteagle of the Mount Trenchard, Co. Limerick family. The identity dilemma of the Anglo-Irish is further underlined by the fact that Cecil was the kinsman of Mary Spring – Rice, one of the crew of the Asgard in the Howth gun running of 1912. Cecil was for a time British Ambassador to the U.S.
The person I really wanted to know more about was TR’s eldest daughter Alice, the child of his first wife who died the day after her birth. TR’s mother died the same day in the same house. Alice was brought up by her stepmother Edith who went on to have five children of her own.
The Roosevelts with Alice at centre rear.
Alice was a beauty who proved a handful to the parents. TR famously said that he could run the country or manage Alice but he could not do both. Beautiful and wilful she became the doyenne of Washington and New York society. As Alice Roosevelt Longworth she continued to fascinate until her death, aged 94 in 1980. She is best remembered for saying ‘If you haven’t got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me’. For more on the entrancing Alice see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Roosevelt_Longworth.
Like that other femme fatale Wallis Simpson, she gave her name to a shade of blue which in turn inspired a popular song. I have yet to dip into the Louise Colet book. A la prochaine. I’ve taken a fiction break with Maeve Brennan’s The Visitor on the recommendation of the mates. I’ll have more of that. The Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar is promising to stock up on Maeve. Meanwhile, here’s Alice’s song. I like the jazzed up bit at the end.