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Submitted Literature

Who Was Sophie?

By Celia Robertson

Review

Tender and sensitive biography of Celia Robertson’s grandmother Sophie, who started life as Joan Adeney Easdale, a late modernist poet celebrated by Virginia Woolf and published by the Hogarth Press. Combining letters, fragments of Sophie’s poetry and memoir, the reader is given a rare insight into a complex and fascinating life.

 

Sophie’s early childhood experiences and family background are explored with a rare eye for detail combined with a gentle perspective on the eccentricies of family life, with the biography moving through her marriage and experiences of motherhood, to her psychiatric hospitalisation o Holloway Sanatorium in the 1950’s.

 

Where the book most came alive for me was Robertson’s portrait of Sophie’s later life in Nottingham. Sophie is warmly and at times humorously presented as vulnerable to the risks of city life, including sexual assault and rape, and physically frail towards the end of her life, increasingly eccentric and consumed by delusional ideas, but able to retain her own strange sense of community and independence. Even Sophie’s letters and lists (pp. 220-221) lend themselves to a human yet literary analysis, not just through their oddness but their poetry.

 

Also included in this volume is a reprint of Sophie / Joan’s lengthy Amber Innocent, published by Hogarth in 1939.

 

 

Key Themes:

  • Biography
  • Psychosis
  • Vulnerability

Significant Quotes / Pages

‘Her severe mental problems did not seem to affect her enormous physical energy; she was extremely active and couple appear on any doorstep at any time. There was an occasion in the early seventies when she tracked Jane down to Northumberland, where she was on holiday. Sophie turned up, trim and vigorous in fawn corduroy trousers, complaining she was being stung by “electric bees”. A decade later, in the middle of the night, she arrived at her cousin’s house in Notting Hill, very dirty, clutching two bursting plastic bags and announcing, “There’s so much sex around these days [...]”

When one was with Sophie the world felt strange. Maybe it was spending time with someone whose perception was so warped by her fears, but normal things seemed to loom and magnify. Shopping centres became hellish, adverts spoke personal messages, milk smelt off. Encounters with other people felt exaggerated or as if they might be being filmed.’ (p. 210)

 

‘Sophie’s letters reveal how the grind of survival kept her almost constantly busy. She had to feed herself, keep clean, keep her home safe and how she wanted it, write to her family, write to Scotland Yard, keep pressing the authorities about her situation. There was no let up in this labour. Until too infirm to walk, she would battle into town nearly every day to call at the Post Office, the Housing Office, the DHSS, the market, the police station, the pub. She was a recognised figure around the city centre, dreaded at various counters, the kind of old woman that people invent tea breaks to avoid. I can imagine their hearts sinking as they caught sight of her struggling through the door with her plastic bags. But few could have imagined how long it had taken her to get dressed, to count her money, find, lose and find her handbag, locate her Post Office book and house key, leave and lock the house, walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, struggle on board, negotiate and flirt with the driver (if she had forgotten her pass), struggle off again, get through the crowds, up the steps, into a queue, while all the while fending off assailants real and imagined, keeping hold of her possessions and her purse and making sure that she was listened to. As she got older, her increasing blindness and frailty made these trips into town even slower and more complicated, but she continued with them.

Sophie commanded respect as well as funny looks. People were often very gentle with her, like the assistant in a shoe shop who held her twisted feet with real tenderness as she was trying on boots. Or the optician who helped her down the steps on his arm after an appointment.’ (p. 211-212)

 

‘She missed the country but was a city person by now, a familiar sight in any Nottingham pub, peering out from beneath the enormous leather Rasta hat someone had given her, and which she wore like a collapsed football on her head. She loved the company of younger people, the humour and stimulation of pub conversation and the feeling of acceptance she got from drinking with strangers. She felt truly at home in some of the roughest pubs in the city, among washed-up heavy drinkers, people who had lived hard lives and drank to forget, people who could not make judgements about her. When my cousin Dinah came over from Australia in 1996 she and I went to visit Sophie (now eighty-three) and ended up at the Blue Bell, where she was obviously a regular. Dinah tried to buy her a sherry (as requested) but the bloke behind the bar laughed at her: “Is that for Sophie? She doesn’t drink sherry! Get her a bitter!” and pulled her a pint. “Don’t know how she does it,” he said, shaking his head in grudging admiration, “Walked out of here last night totally wasted.”’ (p. 220)

Reference: Celia, Robertson. 2008. Who Was Sophie?. Virago, 2008

Reviewer

- Charley Baker
Date Review Submitted: Saturday 11th September 2010