In July 1926, ninety years ago this month, Robert Graves and Laura Riding consummated a relationship that began in 1925. By October 1929, the two were living in Deià. Apart from the years 1939-46, the village was to be Graves’s home for the rest of his life.
While in Cairo
When I read that Graves had spent time in Cairo teaching English Literature at the university there, I assumed this had whetted his appetite for life in the sun. In fact, Graves’s time in Cairo, in a curious menage with his then wife Nancy and future lover Laura Riding, was more about how the relationship with Laura developed than anything else.
Graves had become enamoured of Laura’s work after he read a poem by her in the American magazine Fugitive. As Miranda Seymour writes ‘What shone through was the intelligence of a writer whose airy mockery of the conventional world seemed entirely in tune with Graves’s own way of thinking.’ When Graves and Nancy learned that he had been appointed to the post of professor at Cairo University, they invited Laura to come with them.
Once in Cairo, Graves, Nancy and Laura became a ‘Trinity’. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t to last. Laura fit Graves’s idea of a goddess – something he’d been looking for since the early 1920s – as well as a literary collaborator perfectly. It was probably inevitable that she would replace and transcend Nancy in Graves’s eyes.
Incidentally, Cairo was where Graves learned the story of the death of Egyptian god Osiris at the hands of his brother and rival Set. He went on to incorporate the notion of ‘an evil contender in love’ into the personal mythology that would shape his life and work and have profound consequences for himself and those around him. (Read Simon Gough’s The White Goddess: An Encounter.)
After just five months, the heat and sun defeated the Trinity and they returned to England. It was here, in July, that Graves and Laura became lovers.
Goodbye to All That
Graves described the autobiographical Goodbye to All That, published in 1929 when he was just 34, as ‘My bitter leave-taking of England, where I had recently broken a good many conventions.’ Once he had written the book, for which Laura was his ‘spiritual midwife’, Graves began his search for somewhere to live outside England.
He was attracted to Spain, it seems, primarily because of the language – the least difficult for a Latin scholar to learn. The Baleares appealed because of the name. Apparently, the ancients called them ‘the islands of pines and the word derived from their skill with slings’. Graves also liked the idea of living among people descended from the Moors, Romans and Carthaginians.
A golden fortress
When Graves first saw Palma cathedral at dawn on a morning in late October 1929, it looked to him like a golden fortress. A splendid image of both isolation and promise.
Goodbye to All That was published in November, shortly after Graves and Laura discovered Deià. The first impression of 5,000 sold out immediately. By Christmas it was on its fifth impression. A third American printing came out in January 1930. Goodbye to All That, Graves’s ‘bitter leave-taking’ of his own country funded the beginnings of his life in a new one.
It was in Deiá that Graves began to write Muse poetry, inspired initially by Laura. Three qualities she possessed in abundance – integrity, ruthlessness and conviction – were celebrated in Ten Poems More (1930).
As I wrote in the first part of this series of posts, I’m a little obsessed by the question of how much Robert Graves’s writing, life and personal mythology have shaped our idea of Deià. The village has been a place of escape and transformation for so many of us over the years. Pursuing a Muse, or being one, has also been part of our experience of Deià. It certainly has for me.
But that’s another story.
You can read Miranda Seymour’s Robert Graves: Life on the Edge at the splendid Deià town library, along with other books set in and inspired by the village.