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Ellerman, (Annie) Winifred [pseud. Bryher]locked

(1894–1983)
  • K. S. Walwyn
  • , revised by Clare L. Taylor

Ellerman, (Annie) Winifred [pseud. Bryher] (1894–1983), writer and philanthropist, was born fifteen years before her parents' marriage, on 2 September 1894 at Norfolk Villa, Harold Road, Margate, the elder child (by fifteen years) and only daughter of John Reeves Ellerman, later first baronet (1862–1933), shipping magnate and newspaper owner, of London, formerly of Brough near Hull, and Hannah (d. 1939), daughter of George Glover. Her illegitimacy diminished her rights of inheritance when her father died in 1933 leaving one of the largest private fortunes in Britain. She showed business acumen in later life, much more so than her brother John [see Ellerman, Sir John Reeves (1909-1973)], who was unable to manage the money successfully (Benstock, 269).

Since Winifred's father was self made and her mother was middle-class in background, the Ellermans were never accepted as part of London high society, and Winifred and her brother experienced a sequestered upbringing in London. On the many family tours of Europe, Africa, and the Near East however, Winifred was seized by a spirit of adventure and rebellion which never left her. These excursions stimulated an interest in ancient history which informed many of her later novels. She was virtually self-educated by voracious reading, especially of history and G. A. Henty; her world was shattered when she was sent, at fifteen, to Queenwood School, Eastbourne. The experience precipitated her first novel, Development (1920). Childhood had bred in her 'a desire of expression, love of freedom'. School presaged future constraint:

To possess the intellect, the hopes, the ambitions of a man, unsoftened by any feminine attribute, to have these sheathed in convention, impossible to break without hurt to those she had no wish to hurt, to feel so thoroughly unlike a girl—this was the tragedy.

Development, 139–40

It was during her school years that she visited the Isles of Scilly and was so enamoured of them that she named herself Bryher after one of the islands; she confirmed this by deed poll some years later. The genderless name was later combined with a plain and unfeminine taste in clothing and a short haircut.

After abandoning the study of archaeology Bryher planned a career in journalism, writing for The Sphere and Saturday Review, and during the First World War tried to sign up as a land worker. She persuaded her father to allow her to have her poems printed (Region of Lutany, 1914) and to take Arabic lessons. At nineteen she discovered imagist poetry and wrote a pamphlet championing Amy Lowell. Lowell returned the favour by fostering Bryher's reputation in America and helping her to publish three poems, 'Wakefulness', 'Rejection', and 'Waste'. Meanwhile Development, described as 'imagistic' and praised by Dorothy Richardson, sparked controversy in the Daily Mail because of its dissenting view of education. Through Lowell, Bryher became aware of Sea Garden, a collection of poems by the American imagist Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961), known as H.D.; Bryher was entranced, and an encounter with H.D. in Cornwall is luminously described in Two Selves (1923), a sequel to Development. Bryher also featured in many of H.D.'s prose works in the 1920s and 1930s, including Asphodel, where she describes Bryher as a 'hateful hard child … pedantic and so domineering'. H.D. was initially cautious of Bryher's devotion and emotional frailty, but their close personal association, which was at first sexual, lasted until H.D.'s death in 1961.

Bryher made herself indispensable to H.D., ‘saving’ her when H.D. became seriously ill with influenza during the 1919 epidemic while pregnant with her daughter Perdita. Bryher subsequently took charge of Perdita's upbringing, allowing H.D. to concentrate on her work. Meanwhile H.D. nourished Bryher's talent, encouraging her to translate Callimachus. After H.D.'s recovery the women travelled to the Isles of Scilly and then to Greece in 1920 with the sexologist Havelock Ellis, with whom Bryher shared an interest in transvestism, sexual inversion, and ‘colour hearing’. It was Ellis who introduced Bryher and H.D. to Freud's work, and Bryher became one of the first subscribers to the British Journal of Psychoanalysis; she began analysis in 1920.

In the same year the women also travelled to America to meet Amy Lowell and the poet Marianne Moore. Bryher proposed to and, on 14 February 1921 in New York's City Hall, married, a writer, Robert Menzies McAlmon (1896–1956). The New York headlines were aghast: 'Bride exploited as daughter of Sir John Ellerman, to whom Burke's peerage credits only a son' (Knoll, 147). There was some mutual regard, but principally he gained funds and access to travel while she acquired the freedom reserved for a married woman. The trip to America was fictionalized by Bryher in West (1925). Bryher, H.D., and McAlmon briefly returned to London where McAlmon was introduced to the Ellermans, before moving on to Paris. Here, with the Ellerman money, McAlmon founded the Contact Publishing Company which, over eight years, published Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, Nathanael West, H.D., Bryher, Djuna Barnes, and Dorothy Richardson, whom Bryher greatly admired. Bryher also supported Joyce and his family with a monthly allowance, helped George Antheil, financially assisted Sylvia Beach in her running of the influential Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, and subsidized Harriet Shaw Weaver's press which published both McAlmon and H.D.

Over the next four years, with McAlmon in Paris, Bryher travelled feverishly with H.D.—from London, to Paris, to Switzerland (which she used as a tax haven), to Egypt, to Constantinople, and to Italy. She divorced McAlmon in 1927; he wrote bitterly of the Ellermans in Being Geniuses Together (1938). On 1 September 1927, at the Chelsea register office, London, Bryher married H.D.'s lover Kenneth Macpherson (1902/3–1971), the son of John Macpherson, an artist. The honeymoon ménage is fictionalized in H.D.'s 'Narthex'. The web of loyalties apparently worked; the marriage granted Macpherson some financial independence while it allowed H.D., who was still married to Richard Aldington, to continue her affair with Macpherson. Although Bryher and Macpherson divorced in 1947, the three remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Nurturing Macpherson's interest in cinema, Bryher started a film company, POOL Productions. Its works included Foothills and Borderline, in which Bryher appeared as a cigar-smoking innkeeper. She also founded Close-up, the first English-language magazine devoted to the art of film; it ran successfully until 1933, and introduced Sergey Eisenstein to a wider public. In 1929 Bryher published Film Problems of Soviet Russia. Her interest widened into education, and she advocated the use of film in schools. Her building in 1930–31 of a late Bauhaus home, Kenwin, above Lake Geneva, coincided with the formal adoption of H.D.'s daughter Perdita by Bryher and Macpherson. (Bryher had no children of her own.) At this time she also supported the psychoanalytic movement in Vienna by providing the money for the publication of their Psychoanalytic Review, and, as well as enjoying analysis with Hanns Sachs ('the central point of my life'; Bryher, Artemis, 253), she also paid for H.D. to be analysed by Sigmund Freud. As war approached, she put emergency funds at Freud's disposal, and from 1933 to 1939 she risked her life to help Jewish refugees cross the border from Germany to Switzerland, and to establish them in new lives; among their number was the philosopher Walter Benjamin. She escaped to London in the nick of time.

During the war, Bryher oversaw the literary magazine Life and Letters Today, which she had formed in 1935 from the remnants of Life and Letters and the London Mercury, and ran it until 1950. She exercised her noteworthy business intelligence as well as literary inclinations in the international arena; and she could probably have edited it more effectively than Robert Herring. Settled in Lowndes Square with Macpherson and H.D., she learned Persian and got to know the Lowndes Square group, especially the Sitwells (she bought a house for Edith Sitwell).

This period also saw Bryher establish her own literary voice. The war made her examine her feelings towards England, expressed in Beowulf (1956). Between 1948 and 1972 she published twelve books including The Fourteenth of October (1954), The Player's Boy (1957), Roman Wall (1955), Gate to the Sea (1959), The Coin of Carthage (1964), This January Tale (1968), and two moving autobiographical accounts, The Heart to Artemis: a Writer's Memoirs (1963) and The Days of Mars: a Memoir, 1940–1946 (1972). The novels are distinctive historical imaginings, cinematic in construction, intense but passionless, frequently using the narrative perspective of a young man, and with settings ranging from Paestum to the battle of Hastings. They are minutely researched but the detail is awkwardly assimilated.

Bryher's wealth gave her something of the freedom and independence she so envied as the especial province of men. Valuing autonomy and work so highly, she helped others to achieve it by thoughtful and responsible financial sponsorship (after the Second World War she settled £70,000 on H.D., which gave her an income for life). She said of herself: 'I have rushed to the penniless young not with bowls of soup but with typewriters'. Loyalty and friendship were a passion, as were activity and adventure, and she embraced the new ('I was completely a child of my age')—psychoanalysis, air travel, inoculation against flu, modernist fiction, experimental cinema. She died, rather lonely, in Vaud, Switzerland, on 28 January 1983.

Sources

  • G. Hanscombe and V. L. Smyers, Writing for their lives: the modernist women, 1910–1940 (1987)
  • B. Guest, Herself defined: the poet H. D. and her world (1984)
  • Bryher, The heart to Artemis: a writer's memoirs (1963)
  • S. Benstock, Women of the left bank: Paris, 1900–40 (1986)
  • J. S. Robinson, H. D.: the life and work of an American poet (1982)
  • N. R. Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the lost generation: a history of literary Paris in the twenties and thirties (1983)
  • R. McAlmon and K. Boyle, Being geniuses together, 1920–1930 (1984)
  • D. Collecott, H. D. and Sapphic modernism (1999)
  • R. E. Knoll, ed., McAlmon and the lost generation: a self-portrait (1962)
  • J. Donald, A. Friedburg, and L. Marcus, eds., Close-up, 1927–1933: cinema and modernism (1998)
  • J. Shattock, The Oxford guide to British women writers (1988)
  • Bryher, The days of Mars: a memoir, 1940–1946 (1972)
  • private papers, Magd. Cam.
  • private information (1990)

Archives

  • Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp.
  • NRA, corresp.
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp.
  • Bryn Mawr College Library, letters to Mary Herr; letters to Alice Modern Alt

Film

  • ‘Borderline’

Likenesses

  • Man Ray, photograph

Wealth at Death

£462,020: administration with will, 22 July 1983, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Magdalene College, Cambridge