15 June 2012

Ethel Mannin: Confessions and Impressions (1930)

A third of this book is autobiography. The daughter of a 'country girl' from a farm and a Cockney father, a postal worker of Irish ancestry, Ethel Mannin (1900 – 1984) was born near Lavender Hill in Clapham. Her first chapter contains such gems as 'The defiant snobbery of the plebian is as stupid as the arrogant snobbery of the patrician', and 'the affectation of the Lowbrow [is] as tiresome as the affectation of the Highbrow', calls herself a 'Philistine' and says that she started work as a shorthand typist at fifteen, and 'that is all there is to it'.

Political awareness came to Mannin at a young age, and her earliest memory is walking on Clapham Common with her father, who stopped to talk with a man for whom he had a great respect – the socialist MP John Burns: she thought socialism the right stance to take until she was eighteen.

Mannin spent a year in a private school where she thought the 'spinster' schoolteachers drew a sadistic sexual pleasure from disallowing their pupils to leave the room to go to the toilet, then sending them home for wetting the floor. She sees no hope either in state education, believing the teachings of A. S. Neill and Bertrand Russell (a future lover of hers) to be the path to a future without schools or marriage.

She worked for Charles Highham at fifteen, by the following year was writing adverts and running internal business magazines, and at seventeen was writing stories, poems and articles for one of Higham's monthlies that she produecd herself. By this time, she had had a strong, year-long, non-sexual friendship with an anarchist in his late twenties who gave her a more intellectual education than any organized schooling had done for her.

After a few inconsequential affairs she married and lived at Strawberry Hill for five years, during which she had a child and wrote four novels. But after spending a short time in the States Mannin realized that marriage wasn't for her. She bought the cottage of her dreams near Wimbledon Common and began to understand a few things: people are dead, civilization has distorted natural intelligence, they fill their lives with meaningless rubbish, they have sterilized their emotions by intellectualizing them: D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley are strong influences.


The remaining two thirds of the book are devoted to prominent people of the period that Mannin has met. Most of her portraits are complimentary, although she is particularly scathing about the drama critic Hannan Swaffer, whom she detests for a number of reasons, and calls him a puritan: a great insult in Mannin's world.

Understandably, her best words are reserved for the fellow anarchists A. S. Neill and Bertrand Russell, (whom she says has a 'first-class mind').

She dedicates the book to another 'first-class mind', an unnamed man she loved greatly but who killed himself shortly before publication.

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