lady painting

 

Mar 2002 Journal

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Eros in exile

We live in an age where anyone wanting to publicise something new - whether it be a mobile phone, a cookery book or an arts event - is well advised to envelop it in a sexual ambience. Bikini-clad lovelies draped over shiny new cars at the Motor Show are one example of this; another was the publicity for the launch of Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. Posters showed the apparently naked young author standing behind a chest-high pillar formed by stacked-up copies of her book.

When we consider means of drawing attention to the forthcoming AJR 60th anniversary exhibition 'Continental Britons', such eye-catching gimmicks are obviously out. But although considerations of good taste preclude the visual presentation of erotically tinged material, we need not eschew the literary approach. Why should we be inhibited about stating in print that, just as some refugees were great scientists - or art historians, or publishers - other were great lovers. A few even aspired to the status of sex symbols. Foreign-accented screen heroes like Anton Walbrook (Dangerous Moonlight) and Paul Henried (Casablanca) stirred female romantic yearnings, while the sight of Lily Palmer in The Rake's Progress triggered surges of testosterone.

But to return to the above-mentioned literary approach: I wonder how many people know that three recently famous British women writers - of admittedly varying degrees of fame - had refugee husbands or lovers. Outstanding among them was, of course, Iris Murdoch. Her consecutive emotional involvement with two refugee intellectuals early on in her career surely accounts for the fact that Jewish gurus figure prominently in her oeuvre. The first of them was the ailing Prague-born ethnographer Franz Bärmann Steiner, whose premature death affected her deeply. Steiner was succeeded in her affections by the writer (and subsequent Nobel Prize winner) Elias Canetti, to whom she dedicated her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter. The married Canetti was something of a 'daemon lover', whom Iris Murdoch's husband, and eventually biographer, John Bailey so disliked that he dubbed him the 'Hampstead monster'. (Another refugee with monstrous tendencies was Arthur Koestler - but the less said about him the better.)

Jan Struther was a typical Establishment figure. Daughter of a Scots Liberal MP, a bohemian blue-stocking with husband, children and a rose-strewn country cottage, she wrote a chronicle of English middle class existence in peace and war, which, adapted for the screen as Mrs Miniver, helped to hasten America's entry into the Second World War. In those troubled times she met and fell in love with the refugee architect Adolf Placzek, who post-war became second husband to 'Mrs Miniver', legendary symbol of English womanhood.

Another English - actually Anglo-Irish - woman writer-cum-journalist who chose a refugee husband was Lady Caroline Blackwood. Being the daughter of the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava, she was socially even a notch above Jan Struther. But then she married none other than Lucian Freud, scion of Jewry's leading dynasty founded by his eminent grandfather. And with Sigmund Freud - aka der Lustlümml (lascivious lout) von der Berggasse - who placed Eros at the centre of human existence, we are back at the starting point of this piece.
Richard Grunberger

previous article:'Resistance and Rescue' theme for University's Holocaust Memorial Day
next article:Combating the 'Big Silence': Hitler and the man-in-the-street