Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life

Jo-Ann Wallace finds that a lack of personal detail clouds an otherwise valuable biography

August 6, 2009

It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful name for a serious writer than Storm Jameson, and it is only partially - or perhaps incompletely - a nom de plume.

Born Margaret Ethel Jameson in Whitby, North Yorkshire, in 1891, and called Daisy when she was a child, she adopted her father's middle name (he was William Storm Jameson, a sea captain) when she began publishing.

This tension between the fantastic and the real, between self-invention and the bedrock of fact, is characteristic of her writing... and there was a lot of writing. Jameson was unbelievably prolific. Her biographer, Jennifer Birkett, lists 47 novels, a handful of plays, scores of articles, several critical or topical books and, tellingly, a variety of memoirs and autobiographies. Indeed, the autobiographical impulse appears to have been strong, and many of Jameson's novels are based on her own life.

These two factors - the sheer volume of writing, on the one hand, and the quantities of autobiographical material, on the other - pose formidable challenges to the biographer. Birkett is more than equal to the first challenge. She seems to have read everything Jameson wrote, and she weaves discussion of the novels, articles and memoirs relatively seamlessly into the life. It was a life marked by unrelenting hard work. The mass of published material is an indication of Jameson's work ethic as a professional writer (and, at times, journalist, editor and publisher) and of her need to support herself, her son by her first marriage, and, for a time, her second husband, Guy Patterson Chapman, as he established himself in his own careers.

A graduate in 1912 of the University of Leeds at a time when it was still relatively rare for women to enter higher education, Jameson went on to complete a masters thesis on modern drama at King's College London, receiving her masters in 1914. Her prodigious career as a writer had already begun a year earlier with her first publication, an essay on George Bernard Shaw in The New Age. A member of what both Jameson and Birkett refer to as "Class 1914", she was, like so many of her generation, irrevocably shaped by war. Her brother was killed in the First World War, and her sister, a civilian, in the Second. This is the crucible in which her vocation was formed.

In her autobiography, Journey from the North, Jameson says of the period between the two wars, "what we were living through was an interregnum, not a new age". The 1930s were her "road to Damascus. The heavens opened, and I saw that two principles were struggling for mastery of the future. On one side the idea of the Absolute State... On the other all that was still hidden in the hard green seed of a democracy."

Jameson responded with typical energy and commitment, rethinking her role and aesthetic as a novelist (abandoning formal experimentation and committing herself for a time to "neo-naturalism"), settling in as something of a political iconoclast, and, in 1938, taking on the presidency of the English Centre of International PEN, a position she held until 1945. From this position, she devoted herself tirelessly to the plight of refugee writers and persecuted intellectuals, a commitment that - together with her postwar sojourn in the US, where Guy held academic positions - appears to have fuelled her commitment to an idea of Europe, and France in particular, as offering a political and cultural way forward, avoiding both American materialism and Soviet communism.

Jameson's life was a massive, complicated, wide-ranging one, and it resists easy classification. In addition, its many phases are recorded in her novels, essays and autobiographies. One must ask why a biography is needed now, especially since Birkett makes no attempt to offer a corrective or explanatory reading.

It feels coolly removed from Jameson, and it passes almost indifferently over personal details that many readers would find interesting (Jameson's early suicide attempt, her relations with her frequently abandoned son and the formative influence of her mother).

Birkett's goal appears to be to revive Jameson's literary reputation. Several early 1980s Virago reprints notwithstanding, Jameson has, as Birkett notes, "slipped... completely from view". This is a shame because, pace Jameson's shifting styles, the novels and autobiographies are both aesthetically and socially important. They open up our understanding of late modernism and give us a feeling for the social and cultural conditions of a huge chunk of the 20th century.

Birkett's biography does excellent work in locating the novels in the context of Jameson's life, but for a fuller sense of the woman, readers will want to read the biography in tandem with Jameson's own work.

Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life

By Jennifer Birkett

Oxford University Press 400pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199558209

Published 19 March 2009

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