Bryher

Bryher ( - )
Also known as
Annie Winnifred Ellerman
Short biography

A well-known novelist, poet, and patron of the arts. Born Annie Winifred Ellerman, Bryher took their name from their favourite island in the Isles of Scilly.

Full biography

If like a plant we can draw; life from a particular soil, I have drawn mine from the islands.

Bryher, about the Scilly Isles. From Heart to Artemis (1962), p. 141

Born in Kent to an extremely wealthy family, Bryher grew-up in London and travelled widely as a child. It was whilst at Queenwood, a boarding school, where they* were enrolled at the age of 15, that they first to travelled to Cornwall. She had befriended two sisters from Penzance, Doris and Ethel Banfield, at school and called on them when she visited Cornwall for the first time in the summer of 1910 with her father. She stayed on the Scilly Isles with the Banfields late in the summer of 1911 and returned there in for many summers throughout the 1910s, before and during the First World War. Even before these visits, Bryher explains that they had been fascinated with Cornwall and the West Country throughout their youth:


All that I knew was that I regarded the West Country with awe. It had everything that I desired, color, the sun, sheltered valleys and little, wandering paths; above all, it seemed closer to the sea. (1)

In the marshes, a landscape they loved, they described hearing a word in Cornish, without knowing what it mean or what language it was:

...with the sunlight catching the points of the reeds, I used to hear a word, ‘Ru-an, Ru-an’, echoing in my ears. I did not know consciously for another twenty years that it was a Cornish word meaning running water. It was simply a sound ringing like a bell with its promise of shelter to a fogbound traveller. (2)

She met her long time partner, the modernist writer H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) in Cornwall, in 1918. Bryher had read H.D.’s 1916 modernist book of poetry Sea Garden, calling it one book above all others that made them aware of themselves. It was not for a number of months after reading it that she realised H.D. was American and a woman. Due to the illness of Doris Banfield’s mother, instead of travelling to the Scillies in the summer of 1918, she and Bryher spent two weeks in Zennor. H.D. was staying nearby and Bryher was given her address by Clement Shorter via May Sinclair. According to Bryher, on their first meeting had prepared to prove herself as an equal in poetic knowledge. Instead, H.D. asked her if she had ever seen a puffin; Bryher said yes, and invited her to the Scillies the following summer. (3)

After the summer, they met back in London, where H.D. was both heavily pregnant and ill with pneumonia. Bryher nursed H.D. through the birth of her child, Perdita, and her ilness. They travelled to Cornwall together in June 1919, staying at Mullion, then on St. Marys in the Scillies through July. They moved back to London together in August, and travelled to Greece in the spring of 1920 before returning to Mullion in the summer. (4)

It was in 1920 that Bryher published their first book, Development, and changed their name legally, by deed poll. Their abiding love for Cornwall and the Scilly Isles was reflected in their decision to name themselves 'Bryher' after one of their favourite Scillonian islands and what they saw as a common surname. The choice to rename themselves sprung from their wish to distance their works from their family; they were concerned that their wealthy family's name would colour people's perception of them, as well as the publication and reception of their books. Further, it confirmed and gave legitimacy to their gender non-conforming identity.

They travelled widely in the 1920s, spending time in Paris and America. In 1921, Bryher married Robert McAlmon in a marriage of convenience. They divorced amicably in 1927 and she married H.D.'s lover, Kenneth MacPherson, in the same year. They adopted Perdita, H.D.'s daughter, who Bryher had jointly cared for since her birth in 1919, and the four settled in Switzerland. Their circle of friends included the Sitwells, the Pounds, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sylvia Beach, Mary Butts, Ruth Manning Sanders, and Dorothy Richardson. Bryher would remain lifelong friends with the Banfield sisters and it with with Bryher's financial assistance that Doris Banfield (then Doris Long) bought a flower farm at St. Kerverne, near the Lizard, where she bred new varieties of daffodils. 

In Switzerland, Bryher founded the film magazine Close Up! with H.D. and MacPherson and helped Jewish refugees escape persecution in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They divorced MacPherson in 1947 and no longer lived with H.D. from 1946, though they continued their relationship until H.D.'s death in 1960. 

Bryher authored 15 novels and two autobiographies. Many of their novels were historical and Ruan, published in 1960, was set in Cornwall, following a sixth-century Cornish boy who runs away to sea, rebelling against his family's expectations. 

Writing in 1960, aged 66, Bryher said: 

Even now, although I have travelled from the Khyber to the Arctic, it is Scilly of all places and countries that holds my heart. (5) 

*Both 'she' and 'they' pronouns are used in this article to refer to Bryher. H.D. and other people close to them used she/her pronouns for Bryher. However, Bryher frequently identified as a boy and had masculine nicknames in private letters and conversation and utilised masculine nicknames in private writings. They discussed ‘inversion’, the contemporary term for same-sex attraction, with Havelock Ellis, the sexologist, and jointly agreed with him that, ‘I ought to be a boy—I am just a girl by accident’ (6). Freud, who they met in Vienna and who later took H.D. as a patient, saw Bryher as ‘all boy’ (7). Using both sets of pronouns draws attention to the distance we face between the context of their own time and our present moment and the choices we make when we try to historicise or represent Bryher's gender identity and expression today. 

Footnotes

(1)  Bryher (1962) The Heart to Artemis. New York: Norman Holmes Pearson, 125

(2) Ibid, 125

(3) Ibid, 183

(4) Susan McCabe (2021) H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism. Oxford: OUP

(5) Bryher, 175

(6) McCabe

(7) Ibid

Sources

Bryher (1962) The Heart to Artemis. New York: Norman Holmes Pearson

Funke, J. (2022) 'Age Difference and Queer Feminism: Bryher, H.D. and Norman Douglas.' Notcheshttps://notchesblog.com/2022/04/07/age-difference-and-queer-feminism-bryher-h-d-and-norman-douglas/#:~:text=Bryher%20was%20a%20novelist%2C%20poet,one%20of%20the%20Scilly%20Isles.

McCabe, S. (2021) H.D. & Bryher: An Untold Love Story of Modernism. Oxford: OUP

Schaffner, P. (1986) 'Running.' The Iowa Review 16:3, pp. 7-13

Thompson, C. K. (1994). 'Fido, Cat, and the Rat: Correspondence between Bryher, H.D., and Dorothy Richardson.' Women’s Studies Quarterly22:1-2, pp. 65–76

Works in our collections

Image
A photograph of Bryher at Kenwin, their house in Switzerland. They have short, dark hair and are wearing a short sleeved, belted jumper over a white shirt and wide-legged trousers. They are leaning against a railing. and looking to the left of the picture.
Image caption
Bryher at their home Switzerland c. 1932. Image from Beinecke Library Digital Collections, Bryher Papers.
Date of birth
02 September 1894
Place of birth
Margate, Kent
Date of death
28 January 1983
Place of death
Vevey, Switzerland
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