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  (Frances) Caryll Houselander (1901–1954), by unknown photographer, c.1950 (Frances) Caryll Houselander (1901–1954), by unknown photographer, c.1950
Houselander, (Frances) Caryll (1901–1954), religious author, was born at Fern Cottage, Batheaston, Somerset, on 29 September 1901, the second daughter of Willmott Houselander (1868–1959), an aristocratic, atheistic bank manager, and his wife, Gertrude Mary, née Provis (1875–1950), an attractive, extroverted former mixed doubles Wimbledon champion. In her idiosyncratic autobiography Houselander described her emotionally neglected childhood and constant poor health, manifest from the day of her birth when the frail baby—‘a small, odd tiny red fish’ (Houselander, 4) was baptized in extremis by her uncle and named in jest after his yacht. Under the influence of a family friend, Houselander's mother converted to Catholicism when she was six, and thereafter Houselander and her elder sister, Ruth, were subjected to what the adult writer described as ‘a persecution of piety’ (ibid., 30)—an intense devotional practice and round of repetitive prayers, but with little doctrinal formation. When she was aged nine, and had already suffered a period of serious illness, her parents separated and her mother opened a boarding-house in Brighton. A disrupted period followed, with a broken, cursory education, often interrupted by illness, at Olton Convent School, a protestant boarding-school, and then Holy Child Convent School until she was removed aged seventeen.

Pressed into household service at her mother's boarding-house in Maida Vale, and then Boundary Road, St John's Wood, Houselander began to move in bohemian circles, setting up a collective studio at the end of the garden and holding a scholarship at St John's Wood Art School. Striking out on her own through a ‘strange series of professions’ (Ward, Caryll Houselander, 64), she eventually alighted upon paid employment as a commercial artist, taking on product advertising commissions and discovering a lifelong passion for ecclesiastical wood-carving. Red-headed, bespectacled, and often struggling with her weight, she was never pretty but immensely amusing and well-liked. For a time she was engaged to a rich, Oxford-educated man, but the one great love affair of her life, which she obliquely likened in intensity to ‘being swept by temptation as dry grass is swept by a flame of fire’ (Houselander, 137), came afterwards. Dashingly handsome and sophisticated English/Russian spy Sidney Reilly, was twenty-six years her senior and would quickly move on from the relationship to marry British actress Pepita Bobadilla. Writing to a young friend twenty years later about love and loss, she reflected ‘the years have not lessened or dimmed’ her love for Reilly (Ward, Letters, 75). She never married, though she found companionship in later life when she lived, as a virtual recluse, with her closest friend, Iris Wyndham (Walters, 206).

Houselander's young adulthood was also a time of estrangement from the Catholic church though a time, too, of frenetic spiritual experimentation, and in her spiritual searching she explored protestantism, Russian Orthodoxy, Buddhism, and accompanied a Jewish friend to synagogue. This period was also marked by a number of intense mystical experiences, which persisted throughout her life, including a vision in 1918 (while on an errand for potatoes) of an icon of Christ the King crucified, looking with sorrow over London streets. Reading a newspaper report about the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II the following day, she recognized his face as the face of Christ in her vision (Houselander, 112–13). In another equally intense experience, while travelling on the London underground some time later, Houselander had an epiphany about her fellow train passengers which profoundly altered her perception of the human condition: ‘Quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all’. Emerging onto the streets, she walked in the crowds and found ‘It was the same here, on every side, in every passer-by, everywhere—Christ’ (ibid., 137–8). This fundamental insight was to prompt her return to Catholicism at the age of twenty-four and this priority on the incarnation, and the recognition of Christ's indwelling in humanity, remained the central theme of her writing.

Houselander's first book, This War is the Passion (1941), a series of spiritual reflections written by lamplight during the blitz, offered an alternative rereading of the ‘bitterness, hatred and ruin of the world around’ (Houselander, 1) as a journeying through the passion with faith that all and everybody's suffering had divine meaning and that redemption could follow. She went on to become Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward's best-selling writer—a laywoman writing contemporary, accessible, yet profoundly theological spiritual commentaries and poetry. These included her most successful book, a manual of contemplation, The Reed of God (1944), The Splendor of the Rosary (with Maisie Ward, 1945), The Flowering Tree (1945), The Dry Wood (1947), The Passion of the Infant Christ (1949), The Comforting of Christ (1954), and the psychologically perceptive Guilt (1952), which explored repression, relational displacement (through female celibacy, marriage, and homosexuality and clergy–laity relationships), as well as the nature of sanctity, which could be found in ‘every possible kind of human creature’, not all of them likeable (Houselander, Guilt, 100–02).

These insights came from Houselander's recognition of her own unconventionality and limitations—a self-described chain-smoking, gin-drinking, and sharp-tongued ‘neurotic’. Her personal experiences of pain, despair, and spiritual insight, so appreciated by her readers, also came to the attention of members of the medical profession. Despite a lack of formal training, people flocked for guidance and doctors sent many of their young patients for counselling and therapy. Reflecting on her emotional generosity, natural talent for listening, and empathic engagement for people in mental pain, Dr Eric Strauss (later president of the British Psychological Society) reflected that ‘she loved them back to life … she was a divine eccentric’ (Ward, Houselander, 9).

Plagued by ill health and physical pain throughout her life, yet continuing a gruelling schedule of writing, correspondence, and consultations, Houselander was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a mastectomy in 1951. She died of carcinoma of the breast and multiple metastases in the spine and pelvis at 819 Nell Gwynn House, Chelsea, London, on 12 October 1954. Ronald Knox, who paid tribute to this laywoman's profound insights and spiritual legacy, commented that ‘She seemed to see everything for the first time, and the driest of doctrinal considerations shone out like a restored picture when she had finished with it’ (The Tablet, 23 Oct 1954).

Alana Harris

Sources  

C. Houselander, A rocking-horse Catholic (1955) · M. Ward, Caryll Houselander: that divine eccentric (1962) · M. Ward, The letters of Caryll Houselander: her spiritual legacy (1973) · The Tablet (23 Oct 1954) · National Catholic Reporter (12 Dec 2003) · www.peregrina.com/caryll/caryll.html, accessed on 17 April 2012 · W. M. Wright, ed., Caryll Houselander: essential writings (2005) · K. Walters, The art of dying and living: lessons from saints of our time (2011) · The Times (14 Oct 1954) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

University of Notre Dame, Indiana


Likenesses  

photograph, c.1950, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, University of Notre Dame archives, Caryll Houselander papers [see illus.]