Analysis of Hilda Doolittle’s Nights

Hilda Doolittle (1886–1961), an American-born author who worked under the penname H. D., did much of her writing while living in London, England. She was initially best known for her poetry despite an abundant corpus of plays and fiction and nonfiction prose. It was thought for many years that Ezra Pound (the modernist poet to whom she was engaged briefly; was largely responsible for developing H. D.’s early “imagistic” style. However, recent criticism suggests that H. D.’s idiom originated with her and in fact influenced Pound. Her later marriage to poet Richard Aldington led to her involvement with the magazine the Egoist, which she edited for a short time. More than two decades after her death in 1961, H. D. gained significant critical attention due in large part to the work of feminist critics Susan Stanford Friedman and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who read H. D.’s prose and poetry with a critical eye toward feminine, lesbian, and bisexual discourses. Texts such as Friedman’s Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H. D.’s Fiction (1990) helped bring H. D.’s prose into the critical fold. Referring to H. D.’s maternal, life-giving poetics as the “gynopoetic,” Friedman is one of many critics who view the author’s work as a precursor to that of French feminists, including Julia Kristeva and Helen Cixous (11). Miranda Hickman’s The Geometry of Modernism (2006) calls yet more attention to H. D.’s important prose work, taking into account the past three decades of H. D. criticism. By focusing primarily on Nights, which previously had been underrepresented in H. D. criticism, Hickman does important work toward challenging some of the assumptions about H. D.’s oeuvre that have reigned since the 1980s. “With its presentation,” writes Hickman, “of an idealized geometric body, Nights not only offers an alternative to the childbearing body but in fact indicates a profound discomfort with that body, resisting its dominion and even critiquing its entailments for women” (331).

Written under the pseudonym John Helforth, Nights is one of H. D.’s several romans à clef, including HERmione and Bid Me to Live. Based on her own life, these narratives helped the author work through challenges related to her writing, mental health, and bisexuality. One of five novellas in a series, Nights was published first in a tiny edition for H. D.’s friends in 1935 and republished for larger distribution in 1986, with an introduction by the author’s daughter, Perdita Schaffner. Schaffner was adopted during H. D.’s lifetime by her female partner, Winifred (Bryher) Ellerman, and Bryher’s husband of convenience, Kenneth Macpherson, who had also been H. D.’s lover. Bryher and Macpherson are recast as the characters Renne and Neil, respectively, in Nights.

Nights begins with a prologue in Part I by the fictional John Helforth, seen by many as “H. D.’s alter ego” (Doolittle, ix). As John Helforth explains, his mission is to read the journal entries and try to understand the protagonist’s suicide. Part II consists of the journal entries by the protagonist of the story proper, Natalia, who, in turn, is a thinly veiled representation of H. D. herself. By writing a version of herself in Natalia and rewriting another version in John Helforth (both of whom are written over the living, breathing author, H. D.), the author creates a text in which she is at once male and female, dead and living, writer and critic, recalling the palimpsest structure often attributed to H. D.’s work. Literally, a “palimpsest” is a manuscript in which later writing has been superimposed on earlier (effaced) writing; this was initially practiced as a means of conserving paper. For H. D. the palimpsest structure enabled her to rewrite classical myths with a female voice, express bisexuality in artistic form, and replicate aspects of the human psyche with which H. D. and her analysts (including Sigmund Freud) were concerned. In Nights, this structure also contributes to the mysterious atmosphere surrounding Natalia’s apparent suicide and the critical reading John Helforth must perform to uncover the mystery. John

Helforth serves as a narrative device for critical distance from Natalia’s journal entries. H. D. therefore was able to write Natalia’s intensely emotional, “high fl own,” “cryptic” journal entries while preserving a critical distance resembling that of the detective or the psychoanalyst (ix). Detective fiction was popularized during the 19th and 20th centuries by authors such as Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Allan Poe. John Helforth in Nights, however, bears a stronger resemblance to later versions of the disorganized and often psychologically disturbed detectives of the 20th century in fictions by authors such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The gothic and mystical elements of the earlier detective fictions can be traced in Nights, while the psychoanalytic elements of the later detective fictions are particularly relevant: The suicide itself, after all, suggests that the most troubling mystery is that of the human mind.

Having faced excessive trauma, including the birth of a stillborn child and the loss of her brother in the war, H. D. sought distance from her immediate environment— as a psychoanalyst maintains distance from her analysand—and left London. Like H. D., Natalia has been living abroad for many years, prompting her friends to question: “O, she’s always abroad, why doesn’t she stay in England?” This “living abroad” is itself redoubled in H. D.’s case, for she is already an American abroad in England who then imagines herself “abroad” when out of England. Therefore, H. D. represents in the figure of Natalia her own otherness, or “alterity,” relative to national English society, as well as to conventional sexual norms within that society. Moreover, Nights gestures toward the postwar desire among Londoners to travel abroad in an effort to escape the tragic events they had faced.

Natalia’s journal entries tell the story of her life leading up to the suicide. In an attempt to heal the pain she has sustained as a result of her desertion by her husband, Neil, in his pursuit of an openly gay lifestyle, Natalia has sex with a young man named David Leavenworth. The relationship that develops between Natalia and David primarily constitutes the action of the journal entries, but the most crucial elements of the text involve the mental, spiritual, bodily, and linguistic challenges she must face as a result of Neil’s abandonment, her bisexuality, and the writing itself. Contrasting the organic fluidity of the stream of consciousness with the “psycho-surgical” invasiveness of psychoanalytic thought, Natalia’s prose reveals H. D.’s struggles in a rich, highly stylized, but accessible narrative. Natalia’s journal entries effectively probe the unsolvable problems of H. D.’s life, and they appropriately leave open the many questions they pose.

Doolittle, Hilda (H. D.). Nights. New York: New Directions, 1986.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. H. D.: The Career of That Struggle. Brighton and Sussex: Harvester Press, 1986.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. Penelope’s Web: Gender, Modernity, H. D.’s Fiction. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.
Hickman, Miranda. The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H. D. and Yeats. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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