Anna Wickham

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Anna Wickham was the pseudonym of Edith Alice Mary Harper (1883–1947), a British poet with strong Australian connections. She is remembered as a modernist figure and feminist writer, though one not able to command sustained critical attention in her lifetime. Many treated her as an eccentric, on the basis of a disorganised lifestyle in later years, while she had a number of very good and notable literary friends.

Early life[edit]

She was born in Wimbledon, London, and brought up in Australia in a rather disordered existence, mostly in Brisbane and Sydney. Her pen-names imply an Australian self-identification: 'Wickham' was after a Brisbane street; it followed her use of John Oland for her first collection, which alludes to the Jenolan Caves in New South Wales.

She returned to London in 1904, where she took singing lessons and had a drama scholarship (at the future RADA, just founded). She pursued her singing in Paris in 1905 with Jean de Reszke, the Polish tenor.

In 1906 she married Patrick Hepburn, a London solicitor with interests in Romanesque architecture, and later astronomy. They had four sons, but the marriage had constant difficulties. They lived first in central London, then in family houses in Hampstead: Downshire Hill from 1909, and then from 1919 a house on Parliament Hill which would be her permanent home.

She invested a great deal in motherhood for her first two children, and also became involved in the contemporary philanthropic movement concerned with maternal care, at St Pancras Hospital. She was in a private mental hospital in 1911 for a period of about six weeks, after a voyage to see her father in Ceylon, and a visit from her mother (both parents were still resident in Australia).

Career and strifes[edit]

In her autobiographical writing she represented this occurrence as related to her husband's hostility to her writing of poetry. It followed a violent quarrel. Given the complexities of her emotional life at the time, post-natal (with two miscarriages) and in relation to parental conflicts, there is reasonable doubt whether that was the single factor.

Her first collection, Songs by John Oland was published in 1911. Around then, or shortly after, she met Harold Monro at his Poetry Bookshop. He encouraged her, and she published a second collection in 1915. This was the effective start of thirty years in which she mixed with literati in London (and later Paris). She carried on a bohemian, later Fitzrovian existence socially, in parallel with a home life.

During World War I Patrick Hepburn spent time away from home, joining the RNAS. Anna struck up an acquaintance at this time with D. H. Lawrence and Frieda. She also knew H. D., with whom she'd had a brief bisexual affair[citation needed], although that was one of several contacts which apparently failed in sympathy.

Her third son Richard died of scarlet fever aged four. She spent a period in 1921/1922 in Paris, after his death, to recuperate. There she developed a passion for Natalie Barney. It was not returned in the same way, but they sustained a correspondence (later published as Postcards and Poems). She met some leading Paris figures in anglophone modernism of the time.

Her marriage was in crisis in 1926, and she separated from Patrick until 1928. He died in an accident on holiday, in 1929.

During the 1930s she was well known in literary London, and wrote a great deal of poetry (much of which was later lost in war damage); but found it harder to get published. She did have support from the somewhat louche quarter of John Gawsworth, who put out a Richards Press collection of her work in 1936. An extended autobiographical essay Prelude to a Spring Clean dates from 1935. That was the year in which she supported the just-married Dylan Thomas and Caitlin, and then quarrelled with them.

Her death was by suicide in the very hard winter of 1947, foreshadowed a dozen years before in her writing.

Works[edit]

  • Songs of John Oland (1911)
  • The Contemplative Quarry (1915)
  • The Man With A Hammer (1916)
  • The Little Old House 1921
  • Anna Wickham: Richards' Shilling Selections from Edwardian Poets (1936, Richards Press)
  • Selected Poems (1971)
  • The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman & Poet (1984) edited by R.D. Smith, includes Prelude to a Spring Clean

References[edit]

  • A New Matrix for Modernism: A Study of the Lives and Poetry of Charlotte Mew and Anna Wickham (2002) Nelljean McConeghey Rice
  • Anna Wickham: A Poet's Daring Life (2003) Jennifer Vaughan Jones
  • AustLit Author Entry