Barbara Belford Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers and Friends—Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James.
Simon & Schuster, 351 pages, $22.95
Violet Hunt (1862-1942) had an affair with every man mentioned in this book’s subtitle, except one. Most readers can probably guess who the exception is. Suffice it to say that Hunt’s most noteworthy run-in with Henry James was that she was one of the theater critics who panned his 1895 play Guy Domville, the flop that finally convinced James he was no playwright. In her memoirs, Hunt described James being booed off the London stage on opening night during the curtain call: The audience’s derision ringing in his ears, James walked offstage “sadly and pa tiently, rather like an elephant who had had a stone put into his trunk instead of a bun.”
By quoting a remark like that every once in a while, Barbara Belford, a professor of jour nalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, illustrates her subject’s wit, sympathy, and humor. A good thing, too, otherwise we might wonder why we were reading this account of a life spent din ing out, flirting, writing sloppy melodramat ic novels, trading in vicious gossip, and hus band-hunting among the already married.
Violet Hunt was the daughter of a novelist and a landscape painter who were friendly with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and writers of mid-nineteenth-century England. So friend ly, in fact, that Margaret Hunt offered a will ing Violet to John Ruskin as a prospective wife (Violet was thirteen at the time; fifty-three-year-old Ruskin decided against). So the taste for “inappropriate men,” as Belford puts it, was cultivated early. It left the well-educated, attractive, and socially daring Hunt an unmarried woman who lived at home her entire adult life, deceiving her parents about how she spent her evenings and pouring out in her diary her grief when each successive lover tired of her.
Hunt was bored by eligible bachelors her own age. Instead she became the mistress of George Boughton, an artist nearly her father’s age. Next came a diplomat-turned-editor named Oswald Crawfurd (who gave her syphilis, and who liked to take her to “[prowl] Hyde Park at night, looking for the ugly prostitutes who shunned the bright lights of Picadilly”). After dalliances with H. G. Wells and Somerset Maugham she fell in love with Ford Madox Ford, né Ford Madox Hueffer.
Belford highlights the craving for respect ability that co-existed with the appetites of a self-described “female rake.” That craving was nowhere more apparent than in Hunt’s insistence on calling herself Mrs. Ford Mad ox Hueffer, despite the fact that the weak, mendacious Hueffer never really obtained a divorce from his obstinate wife, Elsie. Elsie sued Hunt for libel over a newspaper account of the “new Mrs. Hueffer,” and the scan dalous publicity cost Hunt her friendship with Henry James and other members of London’s artistic and political elites.
Belford draws largely on Hunt’s extensive, well-preserved diaries for this biography. It is entertainingly written, with smatterings of literary and cultural detail, but suffers from a breezy journalistic certitude (e.g., “Violet overstated Wells’ feelings for her... he never considered leaving Jane and his children”). Belford is sparing in her description of Hunt’s novels, which were churned out at the rate of one a year from 1900 to 1918. The biographer makes clear that she finds the life more interesting than the works, for which Hunt’s contemporaries found words like “sordid” and “flowery.”
Some, however, professed to like Hunt’s books. D. H. Lawrence did, although he had little use for her extravagant and possessive personality. He is quoted as saying of her, “Why, she’s too devilishly clever for a man ever to want to marry.” Interestingly enough, Hunt’s fictional versions of herself (each of her novels had one) tended to cor roborate this view. To judge from Belford’s excerpts, the “ingenious ingenue” Hunt created time and time again may have been silly, but the frivolity was leavened by a sad self-knowledge.
Lauren Weiner is
Lauren Weiner reviews books regularly for The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times and The Weekly Standard
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