4 January 2018

Celia Robertson: Who Was Sophie?: My Grandmother, Poet and Stranger (2008)

This is really the story of two lives in one person: first Joan Adeney Easdale, who was a promising poet in her youth; and the second Sophie (or Sophia) Curly, a paranoid schizophrenic who spent many of her years in Nottingham, UK, where she died. The book is written by Celia Robertson, Joan's granddaughter, who tries to work out the secret of what happened to her.

I read somewhere that a doctor (probably a psychiatrist) was pleased that this book is not yet another criticism of psychiatry, and yet to me it reads as just that, it's hugely Laingian. Joan moved from southern England to Australia with her husband and family, and was told by a psychiatrist to forget writing, be a good wife and get on with the housework (OK I'm exaggerating, but to prove an important point), and take up painting as a hobby.

We will never know how much the ill health of Joan's father had an effect on her, how many of her later problems were due to genetic factors, how many to psychological ones. But there are many of Joan's writings here, and it is evident that her writing was a kind of therapy, and that forgetting it would probably do as much harm as the barbaric electro-convulsive therapy she was subjected to in England for seven years from the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s. (And I know what I'm saying: I once worked as a psychiatric nurse for many months, helping to administer ECT in its 'modified' form (using muscle relaxant drugs): it's not the kind of experience you forget quickly.)

And so Joan moved back to England, being financially taken advantage of by an unintelligent man called Curly, lived for a few years with him before leaving him for Nottingham and a new life as Sophie Curly. Here she lived off national assistance, in a council house (later flat), becoming 'almost' a prostitute, getting outrageously drunk frequently in the local pubs, where she descended further into (often controlled) madness, and where no one knew of her past budding career as a poet.

Joan Easdale lived from 1913 to 1998, and three books of her poetry were published by Hogarth Press. The cover shows her as a young woman at Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Monks House, Rodmell. Her publications are A Collection of Poems (1931), Clemence and Clare (1932), and Amber Innocent (1939), the last of which is published in full at the end of the biography.

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