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Memories of Women

ISSUE:  Summer 1931

Education of a Princess. By Marie, Grand Duchess of Russia. Translated from the French and Russian under the editorial supervision of Russell Lord. New York: The Viking Press. $3.50. Theatre Street. By Tamara Karsavina, with a foreword by J. M. Barrie. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.75. World Without End. By Helen Thomas. New York: Harper and Brothers. $2.50.

The memories of women, like those of elephants, are notoriously good, and often alarming in their accuracy. And this year three notably picturesque revivals of a vanished Europe are created by women born of that Europe. By right of an overwhelming popularity, in. addition to the laws of precedence, the memoirs of the Grand Duchess Marie must be mentioned first. To be a best-seller—the only book, I was lately informed by a publisher, which has made what publishers consider a sufficient amount of money in this last fatal year—is, I suppose, to be important. “Education of a Princess” is, to me, the least interesting of the group, perhaps because a book of this kind is necessarily, written at second-hand, a circumstance which robs any subject, whatever its importance, of exactly the same degree of charm lacking to a library, however distinguished, collected by an alien expert rather than by its owner. In spite of this, it is beyond doubt one of those books which had to be written, by the only person in the world who could have written it. This story of the most exciting event of our time has all the defects of any story written by a person who is not a writer. In professional hands it could have been more colorful, more dramatic, more saturated with the atmosphere of reality which imaginary events in such hands acquire, and which history itself, flowing through a more imperfect channel, cannot achieve. The story has, of course, a fascination of which no style can rob it, and this special style has always the merit of simplicity. There are many things one wishes to know which are never | told, since the author has not an infallible news sense. To f the late Czar is attributed a spectacular personal charm which most of us have never known he owned, a charm which reduced his soldiers to incoherent tears at sight of him. Not only the imperial family, but the entire calamitous social system of Russia, is viewed with a detachment almost incredible in a woman who was once an indispensable link in this system. A notable accomplishment of the book is a distinct impression of the aristocratic personality of its author, not a small accomplishment when a woman writes about herself and her family; especially when she is plainly no typical aristocrat, for she has, triumphantly, survived. Another equally distinct impression is that the life of royalty in old Russia was little less horrible than the crimson ending of that life. A life whose uneventful hopelessness makes one reasonably certain that Marie, no longer Grand Duchess of Russia, but fashion expert of Bergdorf-Goodman’s in New York, is having a better time than she ever had before in her life.

From every literary standpoint “Theatre Street” is a far better book than the other Russian memoir, although this star of the Imperial Ballet also makes her first appearance as a writer. Tamara Karsavina, lately of that ballet, here ardently introduced by Sir James Barrie, tells her own story with no intervening “ghost,” and tells it in an amazingly, pure and flexible English, without benefit of translator or editor. Although the story moves frequently to London and Paris, it is built around Theatre Street, the impressive buildings in St. Petersburg—as it must here be called— where the glamorous Russian ballet had and—surprisingly —still has its home; now the single steady candle-flame in a dark and ugly land. There are many luminous though diminutive portraits of the artists and aristocrats of several countries, but the most amusing pages of the book present Karsavina herself, who, if she is not among the most charming of women, possesses all the gifts of a creative, instead of merely interpretative, artist. In discussing herself, Diaghi-leff, Nijinsky, Pavlova and her other Russian friends, her stories own a simplicity attained by no other people on earth. The climax of Karsavina’s story is the year 1909, when Russian art was introduced to Europe by the Imperial Ballet in Paris, with “Prince Igor” and other dances, and Karsavina and Nijinsky, as principals. This, of course, was followed by the enormous vogue of Bakst and the Russian interpretation of the music of Debussy, whose sole, cryptic comment upon their efforts was “Pourquoi?” Upon the first appearance of Nijinsky and Karsavina upon this occasion, when Russia for the first time made her indelible impression upon European art, Michael, their courier, said of the Paris audience that “you would have thought their seats were on fire.” There are appealing, living glimpses of Nijinsky before his tragic mental disintegration, also described by Karsavina. Diaghileff was the first to recognize the possibilities of the half feline, half elfin personality which everyone of pre-War vintage remembers, for until this nearly inhuman creature appeared in Theatre Street, the same ideal of masculine beauty prevailed in the ballet as elsewhere. Karsavina apparently understands her own technique and clarifies it even for an uneducated reader. But Nijinsky, seems to have been moved by instinct. When someone asked him if it was difficult to stay in the air when jumping, he replied: “No! No! not difficult. You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.” The descriptions of the best known dances of the ballet written out of the author’s own experience, her explanation of the causes which produced their unsurpassed effects, are invariably clear and lovely. There is no suggestion that she has worked hitherto with her toes, which she calls her “points,” rather than with her brain. Her story is, I am sure, the most truly important book of this feminine trio. For it is the story of the eternal, radiant Russian Empire, which no Soviet, however savage, can annihilate. And Karsavina has given to this story the gaiety and glamor which are its special right and privilege, and which might easily have been lost in a less perfect transmission.

Helen Thomas’s “World Without End” is as alien to the two Russian books as roast beef to caviar, and is her own love story and that of her husband, Edward Thomas, the English poet killed at Gallipoli. It is the only one of these three books by women which includes, even indirectly, a love story, although marriages are a part of the others. Helen Thomas, in her story, has no personality, outside of her relation to Edward Thomas, in her life with him both before and after their marriage. She has, extraordinarily, given details and pictures intimate beyond belief without making them revolting. Indeed, one does not quite realize until the book is finished that she has told an old story in a new manner. For she has told everything exactly as it happened, while leaving no doubt in her readers’ minds that it is a true and genuine love story and not, as in most autobiographies of equal candor, a sex story. And this is its unique value, for love stories are not, as a rule, written from the inside. One might easily feel annoyed with Helen Thomas for doing this, but somehow one does not. She describes herself as a commonplace girl, without beauty or intellect; but she is not commonplace, for in addition to her gift for writing, her gift for falling in love and remaining in love—thereby shedding glory on every surrounding circumstance, circumstances otherwise equally commonplace — makes less endowed women marvel. And, like nearly every authentic English writer, she possesses also the happy gift of falling in love with the English countryside. A countryside which, in sober truth, is in no way superior to alien countrysides, but which, through the immortal passion it has inspired in the writers it has bred, remains always before the world lyrically lovely as any other heroine of a genuine love story.


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