The Contemporary Essay / On dumping my library; Or, Elizabeth Hardwick in Ballymacash / Gillian Russell

Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.

If I was ever interviewed about “the books that made me,” the one that would immediately come to mind is Elizabeth Hardwick’s collection of essays, Seduction & Betrayal: Women & Literature, first published in 1974. I have the first edition beside me as I write this in York in 2022, the cover, with its ‘70s design, tattered and torn. Fifteen years after her death in 2007 at the age of 91, Hardwick is now receiving due recognition as a major twentieth-century American writer, her star continuing to rise as that of her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, loses its prominence. I am proud to proclaim myself a Hardwick fan of long-standing.  Seduction & Betrayal means more to me than any other work by Hardwick because of how I got it and the conditions in which I first read it—Northern Ireland in the 1970s—conditions as far removed from the patrician Manhattan literary milieu to which Hardwick belonged as it is possible to imagine. Book collectors have a term for books that bear signs of previous ownership, calling them “association copies”: my copy of Seduction & Betrayal is so thickly accreted with association that it is no longer simply a particular book or a work of literary criticism, but a personal lieu de mémoire.   

In 1974 I was in fifth form, preparing for my O-level exams. My two brothers and I were living with my grandfather and two aunts in a small rural council house, known as a laborer’s cottage, outside Lisburn in the townland of Ballymacash, or Ballymacoss as it was also known. (Townlands refer to a system of land division in Ireland of ancient origin, Ballymacash deriving from the Irish “Baile Mic Coise.” Ballymacash was shorthand in the family for the house itself).  My mother had died suddenly in 1966 and my father, with impeccable timing, remarried a Catholic at the beginning of the Troubles in 1968 and we only saw him occasionally after that. (We were protestants, by the way). Moving to live with my grandparents and aunts—my grandmother died in 1971—was only supposed to be temporary but lasted for decades. One of my aunts had given up her job to look after us in 1966 and took over responsibility as our primary carer. The other aunt was less welcoming, feeling that the arrival of three young children had disturbed her single life and led to my grandmother’s death, which it probably did.  

My access to books at that time was limited because we lived too far from a public library and my school library was inadequate and inaccessible. This changed, however, when my cousin’s wife started working at W. Erskine Mayne’s in Belfast, one of the two main bookshops in the city centre along with Wm. Mullan & Sons.  Mullan’s was situated behind the security gates in Donegall Place while W. Erskine Mayne’s faced the western side of the Belfast City Hall in Donegall Square. Together with the bookshop at Queen’s University, Erskine Mayne’s and Mullan’s sustained literary culture in Belfast (and were also a valuable resource for visiting journalists during the Troubles). Both feature in Michael Longley’s recollection of his apprenticeship as a published poet in his 2016 poem, “Bookshops” in which he writes of, 

Mullans in Royal Avenue, Erskine Mayne’s
Close to the City Hall, dusty corridors,
Aisles of books, elbow room and no more,
Our first pamphlets jostling for attention,
Then first slim volumes.  

My “good” aunt worked in a series of factories in Belfast that shut down one by one in the 1970s. When we were small children, she was allowed to come to work later than normal because of her responsibilities, an arrangement she maintained when we grew older because she liked the freedom to take her time to travel through Belfast, even when the Troubles were at their worst. Her route involved popping into Erskine Mayne’s to say hello to my cousin’s wife and to socialize with the staff, including an older man who checked the bags of customers for incendiary bombs at the main door. My cousin’s wife would sometimes be compelled, jokingly, to throw my aunt out of the shop for wasting staff time. My aunt would then catch the bus up the Springfield or Crumlin roads, depending on which factory she was working in at the time.

Part of her business in visiting the shop was to buy books for me, which my cousin’s wife always gave her at a massive (unofficial) discount. My cousin and his wife regularly visited our home on Sundays for a family tea, bringing a copy of The Observer. I would devour the arts pages, especially the book reviews, being a bookish teenager with no social life outside school because we didn’t have a car and, anyway, it was the Troubles. It was in The Observer in December 1974 that I read about Hardwick’s Seduction & Betrayal. It was nominated as a “book of the year,” as I’ve discovered by retrieving the issue on the internet, by Al Alvarez and Mary McCarthy. As were many teenage girls in the 1970s, I was a Brontë fan and got my cousin’s wife to order the book for me because it contained an essay on the Brontës. It cost £3.95, making it quite expensive then, but I probably got it at a discount at the expense of W. Erskine Mayne’s. Apparently, there was some conversation in the shop about the title and its suitability for a 16-year-old girl.  

The author’s copy of Seduction & Betrayal.

My cousin’s wife eventually found a job for me at Erskine Mayne’s and I worked there in the school holidays for the rest of the 1970s. Seduction & Betrayal and the other books I acquired were initially stored in a cupboard in the living room next to the fire in the house at Ballymacash. My grandmother had kept banks of packets of tea and sugar there, a habit acquired from rationing during the war. The fire kept the tea and sugar dry, as it did my books which smelt of the same, until the books became too many and a source of contention with my ‘bad’ aunt. Eventually I bought a self-assembly bookcase from MFI, a 1970s precursor of IKEA, which I managed to erect on the small landing at the top of the narrow and steep stairs to our bedrooms. This bookcase, on top of which was a cassette player-cum-radio, was the closest I got to a private space in the house, as we shared the bedrooms with my aunts and grandparents. Eventually, overladen with Penguins, it teetered to the left, an MFI Tower of Pisa, and fell apart.

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Until I read Seduction & Betrayal, I hadn’t encountered literary criticism or the genre of the review essay. The author’s photograph on the now tattered back cover (see image) shows Hardwick, her eyes and lip-sticked mouth narrowed by a broad smile, wearing pearls and a hairstyle that make her look like a headmistress welcoming a parent or an eager member of the U.S. Congress. The intensity of that smile belies the cool astringency and forcefulness of Hardwick’s style. Seduction & Betrayal is divided into five sections, an opening chapter on the Brontës, followed by one of three chapters on women in Ibsen’s plays, “Victims and Victors” on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf, “Amateurs” on Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle, and finally, the title essay, “Seduction and Betrayal.” Combining sweeping generalisations with forensic acuity, Hardwick argues that the tragedy of sex for women outside marriage was a defining theme in novels such as The Scarlet Letter, Adam Bede, Clarissa, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Nana, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection, a theme that waned in the twentieth century as sex lost this danger, allure, and pathos.  

Hardwick’s prose, a secret knowledge I held to myself, is adamantine and magnificent: “When love goes wrong” she writes in “Seduction and Betrayal,” 

the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, solitary grief.  These are tremendously moving qualities, and when they are called upon it is usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment.  She is under the command of necessity, consequence, natural order, and a bending to these commands is the mark of a superior being. Or so it seems in the novel, a form not entirely commensurate with the heedlessness and rages of life.  

I read and reread such passages, which were deliciously thrilling in their romantic feminism but also tough and clear-eyed, without illusions about the “heedlessness and rages of life” beyond fiction, a “life” which I was experiencing in the form of the quotidian rages of the Troubles.

I was aware at the time that some of the essays, such as the ones on the Carlyles, the Wordsworths, and Sylvia Plath, resonated with Hardwick’s long marriage to Robert Lowell, and Lowell’s abandonment of her in 1970 for Lady Caroline Blackwood. Later, as part of my English degree, I read Robert Lowell’s Life Studies. Hardwick was not on the curriculum though, curiously, Lady Caroline Blackwood was, in the form of her 1977 novel Great Granny Webster which we read as part of a fourth-year course on the Irish country house novel. (Blackwood was a member of the Irish aristocracy, the daughter of a Marquess and one of the Guinness heiresses. She grew up at the family seat, Clandeboye in north Down, about twenty miles from where I lived, but which might have been on the moon for all I knew of that history and world). In recent years Blackwood’s career as society beauty in the 1950s, “muse” of painters and poets—and a sometimes-disastrous influence on her children—has been detailed in a number of biographies and memoirs. Hardwick has also been the subject of a biography (published in 2021) and an edition of her correspondence with Lowell from the 1970s, The Dolphin Letters, appeared in 2019. Hardwick’s response to this interest in her life may well have been sceptical. As she commented on the obsession with the Bloomsbury group in her essay on Woolf: “The period, the letters, the houses, the love affairs, the blood lines: these are private anecdotes one is happy enough to meet once or twice but not again and again.”  

In 1976 I wrote an essay on “Women’s Liberation” which won a prize in a competition sponsored by the Northern Ireland branch of the United Nations Association, led by a man called Harry Barton. (1975 had been the first UN International Women’s Year.) Largely forgotten today, Barton was well known in the 1970s for campaigning against violence and sectarianism in his books and on television and radio. Barton promoted the United Nations Association to widen horizons both locally and internationally, especially for young people. It was from him that I received the prize for the essay during a special trip to Ballymena. He was probably also responsible for news of the award appearing in the Belfast newspapers, the Telegraph and the News Letter. My aunt kept a clipping of the notice, headlined “Lisburn Girl wins Contest,” which still survives though the essay itself does not. It was never published, and I don’t know what happened to my handwritten copy. I do remember that I tried to mimic Hardwick, in particular the cadence of phrases such as “endurance, independence, solitary grief.” I may have even plagiarised her, so, at least in parts of the essay, the esteemed judges of the competition (the poet James Simmons, the novelist Jennifer Johnston, and a young Paul Muldoon) were responding to Hardwick’s Manhattan voice mediated via Ballymacash. 

In addition to the trip to Ballymena, I received £25, which I promptly scaled up by availing myself of my personal discount at Erskine Mayne’s. As my English degree at Queen’s University in Belfast progressed, my library grew but I left it behind when I went to England to do my PhD in 1981. Many things changed in the 1980s. W. Erskine Mayne’s closed around 1982, my cousin, his wife and child emigrated to the United States, and my brothers and the good aunt left Ballymacash, taking my books with them. They were eventually stored in the basement of a house in Co. Down where I would visit them when I came back from England and, later, Australia. The “library,” though I was far from seeing it as such, became a time capsule of 1970s “Eng. Lit.” as taught at Queen’s—lots of Conrad, Lawrence (and Leavis), Faulkner, Eliot, Wordsworth, Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Langland, Chaucer and Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader with little trace of the impact in that decade of structuralism, cultural studies or, indeed, feminist theory. Over the years I would cherry-pick titles to take away with me to re-read, but the collection was still substantial. At one point I must have retrieved Seduction & Betrayal, but I can’t remember when—I somehow feel that it has always been with me.

The author’s copy of Seduction & Betrayal.

After my aunt died in 2015, my brother moved the books in various plastic bags to a loft over the garage at his house where they stayed until we decided that something, finally, had to be done with them. I made a last cull and my brother advertised them on Gumtree as the library of “an English professor.” There were no takers. My brother eventually decided, with my permission, to dump the books in a box outside a charity shop. In my mind’s eye I see a bright sunny day, the wind coming off Belfast Lough, a sloping black tarmac carpark outside the charity shop, and an overflowing dumpster from which Penguin classics are cascading towards the sea, along with discarded clothing, old shoes, cardboard boxes. 

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The essay is the literary form that is most open to registering the experience of living with as well as losing books, the most famous example of which is Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking my Library.” The history of the essay as a venue for the scrutiny of bookishness goes back much further, though, to Romantic-period essayists such as William Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Charles Lamb. The latter frequently turns to “detached thoughts on books and reading,” the title of one of his essays. Lamb was a frequenter of open-air bookstalls and carted his books with him and his sister Mary Lamb as they moved many times across lodgings in London in the first decades of the nineteenth century. In the essay “New Year’s Eve” Lamb writes of his collection as his “midnight darlings,” something to pore over in the dead of night, or to simply admire on his bookshelves as a sight that comforted him. “My attachments are all local,” he wrote to William Wordsworth in 1801. “The room where I was born, the furniture which has been before my eyes all my life, a bookcase which has followed me about like a faithful dog … wherever I have moved!” In the Romantic period, essay books are often unfixed and tenuous: here, there, and gone, but also sometimes steadfast survivors, moving with you across time and space like Benjamin’s library or my copy of Hardwick’s Seduction & Betrayal. Its dust jacket is torn but unlike my copy of T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, which I was studying for O-level and is enmeshed with notes and heavy underlining in biro, there is no other mark on it: no annotations, no inscription of ownership are required because the associations are still alive and unfinished.  

Bookshops also come and go, and the loss of them, due to damage, bankruptcy, change of ownership, or function, is always poignant. Though W. Erskine Mayne’s was never bombed, I can remember one evening when the staff were unable to leave due to an incident near the City Hall that had cleared the area. Soldiers in the gardens of the City Hall were training bazookas on a bus that was supposed to be carrying a bomb. We huddled in the delivery room and the owner Denis Mayne located a small bottle of whiskey in the office which the younger staff self-consciously declined. 

In spite of perpetual doomsday predictions proclaiming the end of the book, and more recently the Covid-19 pandemic, what are now called ‘independent bookshops’ seem to be thriving. No Alibis in Belfast, owned by David Torrans, who used to manage the University Bookshop, maintains the ethos of the University Bookshop and the long gone Mullan’s and Erskine Mayne’s as places where writers can see their work making its way into the world, as Longley did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even Dromore, the town to which my brothers and aunt moved in the 1980s, now has an independent bookshop located close to the bridge over the river Lagan. It was near this spot that my aunt saw a man getting shot, an unusual event in the town, which was generally quiet. Early one morning she also noticed the hand of a man crawling up from the river, a victim not of terrorism but of a night’s heavy drinking in a nearby bar. So, the opening of Bridge Books would have been news to relish for her, a gift to pass on like all the Penguin classics she carried from Erskine Mayne’s in the 1970s, a way of bringing me home.

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This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.

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