A fresh look at a forgotten flower …

In his forthcoming biography of Olive Custance, Edwin King will be seeking to tell the story of her life in a new way, using her poetry as the key …

new olive smallThere is a common misapprehension regarding many writers who convert to Catholicism; namely that conversion to Catholicism only serves to console them in difficult times, but does nothing for their art. This has especially been the case in the study of the work of some Victorian and Edwardian writers, coming out of a context in which such conversions were almost fashionable.

One thinks especially of Michael Field, the romantically connected aunt and niece duo, who wrote under a male pseudonym.  A similar analysis is sometimes made of Lord Alfred Douglas, and also of his wife, Olive Custance. In her case, there is also the suggestion abroad that making the mistake of choosing life with a man (rather than a woman) was responsible for a kind of total disillusionment with life.

In the case of Michael Field, the scholar Marion Thain, makes a good case for poetic maturity being reached by the Misses ‘Field’ through the personal journey of their conversion. I have a similar idea about Olive Custance.

Dr Sarah Parker, the most accomplished scholar on Custance to date, claims that she was deeply lesbian and needed Bosie as her ‘queer’ muse, hinting perhaps that Custance’s deep desire was, à la Camille Paglia, to be a gay man; I think that the search for Custance’s muse is an interesting issue and Parker is right that this is a key area that needs elucidation.  The poet herself speaks several times of her muse. But my strong feeling is that whilst her poetic output declined after the flurry of production in the 1890s, very much tied up with the atmosphere of literary excitement at that time in London, her search for the ultimate Muse took her to Christ and His Mother, who were able, in a sense, to fulfil all the deepest spiritual longings, even those mixed up with her sexuality.

She writes many times (after her marriage) of a celestial lady visiting her, and has Christ on his Cross casting away his crown and coming down to enfold her in his love and ‘give her back her Muse’. He is a boy-muse, sure enough, but he is Christ all the same. A similar idea of Christ casting away his crown to be closer to man occurs in a poem for Christmas 1936.

My honest impression is that Custance’s lesbianism has been vastly over-played, the deep love in the marriage underplayed,  and the religious aspect simply overlooked, even – to a certain extent – by Fr Brocard Sewell who states she converted in 1924, whereas in fact she converted in 1917, and of her own initiative. This error, so important for understanding her life, is repeated in the Introduction to the 1996 reprint of Opals and Rainbows (Thoroton, Small, eds.) and elsewhere, including more recently by Dr Sarah Parker in the chapter on Olive Custance in The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity, 1889–1930 (2013).

So, in short, my project is to cast more light on Olive Custance, with a painstaking examination of the correspondence and diaries and any existing print works that speak of her (including contemporary reviewers); also to give a clearer picture of her art by bringing together for the first time all (or almost all) her poetry, and perhaps to come to different conclusions about the essential direction and story of her life, as expressed through the themes in her poetry.

Edwin James King, 2017.

Edwin King is compiling the Collected Works of Olive Custance, with an extensive biography, for publication in 2018. He has already published, in 2015, a re-issue of her last collection, ‘The Inn of Dreams’, with a short biographical monograph. 

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