Richard Murphy on the Taylor-Riding-Graves Ménage

in The Kick (London: Granta 2002).

Geoffrey [Taylor]’s first marriage, in his twenties to Norah McGuinness, was based on a similar agreement, fashionable among the bright young things of that period. Norah rebelled against her Protestant family of coal merchants in Derry by becoming an artist [...] The high risk we took in our marital agreement seemed, at first, to sharpen and confirm our love. It may have done the same for Geoffrey and Norah, until the day Norah announced that she was leaving Wicklow to live with David Garnett in England, and would be back in six months. Geoffrey took this in his Anglo-Irish stride, but felt wretched until he received a letter out of the blue from a young American poet called Laura Riding, praising one of his poems that had just appeared in the New Statesman and, furthermore, inviting [167] him to come and stay with her in London. It was like an invitation from one of the Muses to sport on Mount Helicon.

He found her living with Robert Graves, on the top floor of a four-storey terrace house in Hammersmith, both of them writing and publishing poetry under her influence as an avatar of the White Goddess. Robert’s wife, Nancy Nicholson, who allowed no one to call her Mrs Graves, was living nearby on a barge on the Thames. Their circle of literary friends included T. E. Lawrence, and Sir Edward Marsh, a top civil servant and editor of the Georgian Poetry anthology.

Geoffrey’s attraction to Laura was inspired by no worship of an incarnate Muse, but ambition to have his poems published and admired. Hers was inspired by his charm and his arch-devil looks. She required her poets in their pagan priestly role to do the housework, which involved laying the table for meals as if it were an altar. Her sloppy habit of leaning her elbows on the table had been sublimated into a ritual. Mats of a different colour had to be placed where each of her elbows could lean during moments of meditation between dainty mouthfuls of herbal food. If Geoffrey, whether through carelessness or frivolity, reversed the colours for the left and right elbow, Laura would throw a divine tantrum and demand to be appeased.

For penance and self-abnegation she would order him to come with her on a journey, giving him no idea of where they were going or why. They would get on or off a bus, as and when her fancy dictated, the excursion shrouded by her in mystery. The farcical seriousness of this appealed to Geoffey, who accepted the domination of a woman as an Irish birthright. What he found difficult was making love to Laura, when ordered to do so, turn by turn with Robert Graves in the same bed. He said it impaired his virility. Laura had hung on the wall above her triple bed a sky-blue banner that declared GOD IS A WOMAN. What Robert took seriously, Geoffrey was more inclined to treat as a joke. Laura, superhumanly manipulative, was deterrmined to keep Geofirey under her spell.

But his diminished potency bothered him, and he tired of their threesome. After one of Laura’s frightful scenes, he took a train to the country, where he persuaded his wife to set David aside andjoin him on a journey of reconciliation to France, telling nobody where they were going. They had reached a small provincial town and spent two [168] of their reunion happily in a guest house, when ther was a knock on their bedroom door from the concierge announcing the arrival of Monsieur Graves. Laura had sent him to bring Geoffrey back.

He had found out where they were by appealing to Sir Edward Marsh, who was happy to use his influence to advance the cause of mmor poets, or relieve their self-inflicted distress. Eddie knew someone who got the police to track them down discreetly.

Geoffrey was vague about why that mission had ended his reconciliation with Norah, and restored him to Laura’s bed, and Norah to David’s. He said that by going back he hoped to convince Laura to let him go freely, without rancour or cursing or suicide threats. Of course he failed in a conflict with her will and, rendered impotent, walked out for the second time, with Lisheen as his destination.

There, after a few weeks of staring all day through goldenrectangular windows at trees in the park, swayed by one storm after another, and at banks of waxy dark-green escallonias drooping in the slanting rain, he was only too glad to see a shadow that turned into a ruffled Robert Graves walking up the avenue, bringing the same message as before, ’Come back to save Laura’s life!’ Tired of living at Lisheen without a lover or a friend, he succumbed again, and travelled to London, determined this time to use all the charm of his nature to avoid a reunion with Laura and persuade her to let him go without threatening to kill herself.

There followed, in the bedroom on the fourth floor, a night of intense, hysterical argument, repellent to Geoffrey, whose breeding inclined him to prefer emotional evasiveness to confrontation. Laura was wearing a nightdress, Robert pyjamas, and Geoffrey the Donegal tweeds in which he had arrived. His suitcase remained packed, ready for him to catch an early train to meet his wife at David Garnett’s country house.

As he was about to leave, Laura declared that she would go first, and climbed out on to the window-ledge. Robert crossed the room, intending to grab her and pull her back, but Geoffrey, who felt sure she was bluffing, argued that they should call her bluff, rather than submit to further threats. As he told it, ‘Three times Laura said “I’m going”, and then, by God, she had gone!’

Robert ran down three flights of stairs and jumped out of a [169] window. Geoffrey caught his train to the country He was sure they had killed themselves, he told me, and he thought there was nothing he could do. He may have panicked, though he spoke as if it were a blackly humorous event, laughing the horror and the pity of it all away.

Of course, the police arrived to interview Geoffrey treating him as the only suspect in a case of attempted murder. They said Robert had accused him of pushing Laura, and did not tell him that both of them were recovering in hospital. Robert had suffered a broken leg, and Laura’s claim to represent the goddess seemed vindicated by the lightness of her injuries and the speed of her recovery

Up to now, Geoffrey’s service to the Muse had been poorly rewarded. Though the Hogarth Press published in 1927 a slim volume called The Withering of the Fig Leaf by Geoffrey Phibbs, and the following year It Was Not Jones under the pseudonym of R. Fitzurse, these were not well received. On this evidence, it looks as if Geoffrey changed his surname to Taylor in order to start a new life after the crisis of Laura’s jump on 27 April 1929 brought him no fame but infamy.

Eddie hushed up the police, but the Riding affair got out of his control when Geoffrey ‘behaved like a gentleman’ in allowing Norah to divorce him in an undefended case. Then the Daily Mail splashed on its front page the judge’s summing up, with vituperative condemnation of the scandalous immorality of bohemian writers. Feeling abandoned by those he had let down, literally in Laura’s case, he turned to Nancy Nicholson, who gave up the barge, and spirited him away to a pastoral setting, where they printed fabrics. This idyllic period ended when Geoffrey met and married Mary Dillwyn.

‘Nancy was so upset,’ Geoffrey told us, ‘that she lay down in a bath full of water, swallowed several aspirins, and would surely have drowned had she not, as her head was going under, pulled the plug with her toe.’ [The Kick, pp.167-70.]

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