cover image A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson

A Mannered Grace: The Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson

Elizabeth Friedmann. Persea Books, $37.5 (450pp) ISBN 978-0-89255-300-6

""Few writers have been so highly praised and fiercely damned as Laura (Riding) Jackson,"" writes Friedmann in the introduction to this dense and somewhat disjointed biography. Certainly, Jackson is a complex subject. The ""muse"" of Robert Graves for 14 years, she was also an accomplished poet in her own right, and her work has been admired by the likes of W.H. Auden, Robert Fitzgerald, John Asbury and Ted Hughes. Others have denounced her as a ""witch"" and a ""megalomaniac"" who destroyed the Graves's family without compunction. Drawing on an extensive collection of Jackson's manuscripts, letters and papers, Friedmann produces an admiring account of Jackson's dispassionate first marriage, her development as a poet during the 1920s, her ""marriage of three"" with Graves and his wife, her attempt to commit suicide when the ""marriage"" imploded, her life with Graves in Majorca and her eventual decision to leave him so that she could marry a freshly divorced intellectual named Schuyler Jackson. The biography is peppered with excerpts from Jackson's prolific correspondence with other writers, among them Gertrude Stein and Robert Penn Warren. Remarkably, nearly every friendship and correspondence ends with an argument and, sometimes, legal action as well. ""The intensity of Laura Riding's personal presence and the concentrated focus of her keen intelligence were a magnetic combination, both attracting and repelling,"" Friedmann explains. Indeed, despite Friedmann's best intentions, Jackson comes off as a shrill and fickle presence who wrote torrents of bitter letters that offended all. The sheer length of the volume-and the confusing tumult of the life it contains-may deter readers not already riveted by Jackson's personal travails. And Friedmann spends so much time detailing Jackson's private dramas that she neglects to illuminate the poetic excellence that was clearly her most admirable trait. 16 pages photos.