Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I'm not sure how I heard of E. Arnot Robertson's Cullum and decided I wanted to read it. I must have found it mentioned and discussed online somewhere, but even though it was only a couple of months ago, I can't remember where. No matter; I just finished reading it, and I'm knocked out by it.

Robertson (1903-1961) was a broadcaster, lecturer and film critic as well as a novelist. Cullum was her first novel, published when she was twenty-four. The edition I got was one of the Virago Modern Classics reprints, a series I've bought and read a lot of. It's remarkable in many respects, and would stand out if it were published today.

The main character, Esther Sieveking, is nineteen when she meets the slightly older Cullum Hayes, a newly published novelist with a lot of charm. Esther comes from a shabby-genteel family descending into respectable poverty: her ex-military father earns a tenuous living training horses, while her French mother lives in Paris. Esther is Daddy's girl, an enthusiastic rider and hunter, but she's also a bit of a misfit because of her literary interests and ambitions: she has one published poem and a pile of rejection slips to show for them. She's not conventionally pretty, and not much interested in males, so of course she sets off my gaydar; but she's a false positive, a heterosexual butch -- they do exist, you know. (It would be fun to rewrite the book to make her lesbian, but Robertson didn't seem to have it in mind even as subtext.) When she meets Cullum, they quickly recognize each other as soul mates, but Cullum is already engaged. They commit minor impropriety by monopolizing each other's conversation at the dinner party, and Esther shocks the hostess with her country bluntness.
Mrs. Cole enquired with a simulated shudder of horror whether that huge dog of mine had ever bitten anyone. "I was petrified when the creature rushed for me," she said. "Simply petrified, I was!"

"Justice is too old and fat and good-natured to hurt a fly," I told her, "unless she sat on it by mistake."

"What a curious name for a dog," Mr. Cole observed. "Why do you call him 'Justice'?"

"Justice isn't a 'him,' but a bitch," I answered without thinking. "Originally her name was Sheila, but she's called Justice because she has had so many miscarriages."

There was a moment of heavy, tense silence, before Mrs. Cole said, "Oh, really?" in a forced voice ... [23].
The novel had the same effect on many readers in its day. The back cover quotes one reviewer: "It is all very well to be outspoken, but there are some things which are better left unsaid and Cullum is full of them." That's what makes it interesting today, though it is Esther's fierce independence, which she only very gradually surrenders to Cullum, that makes the book unusual even now. The writing is sinewy and direct, as in this description of Cullum when they first have sex (208):
Cullum, stripped, was an unusually fine human creature. His body was one of those entirely beautiful things whose loveliness hurts. He was lithe, and the moulding of the long arms, lean and muscle-grooved, was splendid. Wide shoulders tapered down to narrow hips, set over narrow, deep thighs, and his fair skin held an almost transparent sheen.
Excuse me, I think I may have to go take a lie-down for a few minutes ... That's better. There's no explicit writing about their copulation, but the setup is strong stuff for 1928. (That's the same year Radclyffe Hall's lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness was published, and banned because it dared to suggest that inverts would find satisfaction in each other's arms.) In Sexual Politics Kate Millett wrote that Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853) was the first novel she'd found which acknowledged that women find men beautiful, though when I read Villette myself I had to guess what passage Millett had in mind. Cullum goes much farther in that acknowledgment.

Another thing I liked about the novel is that Esther's mannishness (I can't think of a better word for it), though often flagrant, is never labeled as such, either by herself or by anyone around her. She's a strong, quite independent woman, and she feels no need to femme up for anyone. Even her reaction to being dumped by Cullum is stereotypically masculine, though I won't tell you what it is -- you should read the book yourself. The only real flaw is the ending, where Cullum swerves into melodrama, but even there Esther remains true to herself. It's a remarkable story for a young (twenty-four years old!) woman to have published, then or now.

Robertson herself exhibited familiar contradictions. She wasn't even a proto-feminist, but rather another one of those male-identified women who pushed through doors that men tried to close to her, but didn't mind if the same doors hit other women behind her as they swung back. When Metro-Goldwyn Mayer objected to her movie reviews on BBC radio because they weren't positive enough, and tried to have her removed, she sued for libel. (According to Rachel Billington's introduction to this edition, "although she lost the last round in the House of Lords where, according to a friend, her left-wing lawyer antagonized their lordships, she was generally thought to have achieved a moral victory" [iii].) Yet she was so dependent on her husband that when he died in a boating accident, Robertson committed suicide within a year.

I find it both exhilarating and frustrating to contemplate all the books out there that I haven't read, haven't even heard of yet, and wouldn't have time to read even if I did. Cullum was a good find; I should read more of Robertson's work.