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Robert Graves
Life on the Edge
By Miranda Syemour

Chapter One

Side by side they stand, this very proper Victorian couple on their honeymoon in Munich in 1891. She is Amalia, or Amy, von Ranke, aged thirty-four, the oldest daughter of a German professor of medicine. He is Alfred Perceval Graves, aged forty-five, the second son of the Irish Bishop of Limerick. Her mother is the Norwegian daughter of the Greenwich astronomer Ludwig Tiarks. His mother is a Cheyne, a Scot from a family tracing its line back to the times of Robert the Bruce.

The Graves family and the von Rankes are alike in being industrious, religious and altruistic. The Graveses are superstitious, poetic and quick-witted; they excel in word games, anagrams, puzzles and rhymes. Alfred's father, a brilliant anagrammatist, is also a leading authority on the ancient Irish alphabet called Ogham, which demonstrates his skill at deciphering codes. The Graves family is also famously absent-minded, careless about finishing sentences and ferociously competitive. Several family members have had nervous breakdowns.

The von Rankes are more disciplined and political. Amy's father started out as a rebellious student who participated in the 1848 risings in Prussia and ended by working to improve the diet and living conditions of the Munich poor. Her great-uncle Leopold, who brought the dignifying 'von' into their family, was one of Germany's greatest historians, the man who wrote that he wanted to see things as they really are 'wie es eigentlich war'. His marriage to Clarissa Graves, Alfred's aunt, united the two families in the 1840s.

The photograph has been taken while Amy introduces Alfred to her father - he has already met her mother and sisters in London - at LauEzorn, the pretty old hunting-lodge near Munich which her mother's money enabled them to buy and restore. It is called a lodge but is in fact a house of handsome size.

In later life, photographs of Alfred show a trim little man in a frock-coat with a long white beard and neat hands and feet. It is not surprising to learn that he enjoyed dancing a jig. Here, as a hard-pressed widower with five children to be cared for and a demanding job as an inspector of schools, he seems earnest and tired. The drooping walrus mustache gives him the look of an honest, depressed bank manager. We know that he is standing either on tiptoe or on a small box because he is a good inch taller than his wife. In other photographs, even though he stands while his wife sits, it is plain that she towers over him. But it would not, on her honeymoon, be diplomatic to do so. Amy does not care much for clothes and her taste in them is famously dowdy, but she has made an effort today. Perhaps her sister Lily, who helped arrange the match, has chosen her smart jacket with its black satin bows. Robert, in later years, would be astonished by his physical resemblance to his great-great-uncle Leopold. In his wit, his curiosity, his love of language, his superstitiousness, his truculence and his jerky, eloquent, captivating speech, he was a Graves through and through; in looks, he was a von Ranke. Here, in Amy, we see the same full but closed lips, the direct, slightly dreamy stare, the strong, rounded jaw. Not knowing them well, we might guess that Mr. and Mrs. Graves will make a congenial couple, but not a romantic one, and that the wife, discreetly, will rule the home. If we are given the additional knowledge that Amy is much wealthier than her husband, we might grow even more certain that this will be the case. And we would be right.

Robert Grave's feelings about his family background fluctuated according to his mood and interests. As a boy, he was proud of his Irish blood. When he wrote Good-bye to All That, in 1929, he was still overcome with guilt at the thought of all his German relations who had died in the war. Then, he wrote that he preferred his German Emily. By 1957, when he revised the book, his son David had been killed in the Second World War and he had become close enough to several Jews to be ashamed of belonging to the same race as the Nazis. In the 1957 edition, the preference switched to his Irish and Scottish antecedents. Later still, Graves liked to say that, having spent much of his childhood in Wales, he was Welsh by adoption. In his last phase of family interest, he became absorbed by the history of the Scottish Cheynes. For the biographer, however, there can be no doubt that, while Graves had many of the physical characteristics of his mother's family, he was first and foremost the product of his father's.

The name Graves derives from graef; the Norman word for a quarry, suitable enough for a family who loved delving into the meaning of words. Their arrival in England from France is dated, variously, to the twelfth and the fifteenth century. The first notable Graves was a Roundhead colonel who turned royalist after being put in charge of Charles I at Carisbrooke Castle. Robert, a staunch monarchist, approved of his ancestor's change of heart.

Settled in Co. Kerry, Ireland, the family produced an impressive number of clergymen, many of them with a literary bent, most of them long-lived. The great-uncle after whom young Robert was named had been one of Wordsworth's closest friends; Alfred revered him as a second father.

Janie Cooper, the first Mrs. Graves, had been dead for six years when Alfred's sister Lily decided that a busy man whose spare time was entirely taken up with helping to run Irish literary and folk-song societies needed a second wife. After holding discussions with their German cousin Friedhelm and his wife, another Lily, she learned that Lily's sister, Amy von Ranke, might be a suitable candidate.

Amy, as her descendants never wearied of saying, was a very good woman. And, as good women will, she sought to instill her own high standards of rectitude and moral probity in her children. In terms of self-sacrifice, hers was a hard act to follow, something of which her sons and daughters were aware long before she wrote her memoirs. (Robert did not see these until 1967, the year in which he reshaped them into the wonderful story, 'Miss Briton's Lady-Companion', with a few additional imaginative flourishes. But he evidently knew most of the details already, since they appear in his 1929 autobiography, Good-bye to All That.)

As a child, Amy fondly recalled, she had been known as the little policeman because of the way she watched over her siblings. It had been no hardship. She was glad to be able to warn them of the angels who thrust their spears into the eyes of wicked children, and of the fate that awaited those who took five currants from a plate when only three were offered. At the age of eighteen, Amy was sent to London to become the companion to Mrs. Tiarks, an elderly relation whose husband had adopted Amy's mother and aunt as orphans. Amy went dutifully, and stayed for sixteen years. Mrs. Tiarks's terror of poverty meant that the most rigorous economy was practiced; the dining-room and drawing-room were always locked against burglars and every scrap of food was accounted for. Once a year, however, Amy was allowed to return home to Germany as 'dear granny's' companion. She was in Munich for the fancy-dress party to celebrate her sister Clara's wedding. Having no sense of humour, Amy went dressed as Nelson's Column to show her affection for London.

Graves, romantically, claimed that his mother had been sent to England to prevent her marrying the rich, ancient Roman Catholic Prime Minister of Bavaria. The true story showed his mother's conscientious nature in a sharper light. She received the Prime Minister's proposal while she was living in London; she was tempted, but refused him because of her promise not to abandon 'dear granny'.

Mrs. Tiarks was a bully but not a monster. Having told Amy that she would inherit two-thirds of her fortune, she was ready to keep her word when it was discovered by Amy's computations that she had a surplus 100,000 pounds worth of untouched investments. But Amy insisted that the money should be fairly shared out among her family. After a year of acting as 'dear granny's' nurse, sleeping on a sofa in the corner of her room and using her weekly day off to sing hymns in a hospital to 'some who were worse off than I', she was released by Mrs. Tiarks's death. The money was distributed as she had asked - Amy took for herself only the initial 10,000 pounds which she had been promised, and the use of the house for a year. It was this house, in Gloucester Terrace, Bayswater to which Alfred Graves came to pay court to Amy in October 1851.

Amy's family were enthusiastic about the prospect of marrying her off to rosy-cheeked, red-haired little Alfred, the genial author of that well-known Irish ballad 'Father O'Flynn' (from which, having sold his copyright, Alfred had earned only a few guineas while the composer and music publisher had made small fortunes). Mr. Graves was welcomed into the Gloucester Terrace house and urged towards Amy who, he was told, was hoping to play the piano for him. Amy, seeing how smartly her sisters retreated to leave them alone, realized that she had been trapped. She did not ask their guest to sing 'Father O'Flynn' and she did not respond to a flowery message the following day to the effect that he had come, seen and was conquered.

Graves and Amy's family had been playing their cards clumsily. Amy liked her independence and she was not romantic. What she wanted was to be useful: she had been planning to go and do missionary work in India. It was only after she had been introduced to his motherless children, Philip, Molly, Richard, Perceval and Susan, that she began to see a role for herself. Even then, however, her memoirs leave an uncomfortable suggestion of a consent achieved by pressure.

I did not say No, and perhaps I said Yes . . . Alfred at once told my Mother that it was 'All Right' . . .I felt it hard that all should be settled so suddenly and barely before I knew my own mind. Immediately after breakfast we had a little talk in the breakfast room and then he felt bound to wire news of his engagement to his Father and Uncle Robert. Now, I felt, my bridges are burnt and I cannot go back.

They married two months later. On their honeymoon, Alfred admitted that any good woman who was ready to look after the children would have done. Theirs was an affectionate, loyal and, latterly, companionable alliance, but, as Robert told a friend many years later, there had been no love in it. Pregnant in the first year of her marriage, Amy hoped for a boy: she wanted, she told the old Bishop of Limerick, to produce a grandson worthy of his name. But her first two children were daughters and Clarissa, the oldest and most sensitive, suffered for it. Rosaleen, born in 1894 and treated with a good deal more affection, became a more assertive character.

Robert, the first of Amy's three sons, was born on 24 July 1895. This made him - by grace of a day - a Leo, a point which is worth noticing, for Graves was a passionate believer in astrology. Shunning any form of analysis, he preferred to put his faith in the zodiac. Many of his later poems display the poet as a lion hero, favoured by the goddess who keeps him for her chosen beast.

'Her ladyship is not at home?' 'No, sir.' 'She was expecting me. My name is Lion.

In certain ways, Graves fitted his 'given' character uncommonly well; in others, we have to laugh at him for believing in planetary influences. The Leo character is usually thought to love bright colours, to dominate conversation, to show a tendency to bully and swagger, to be extrovert, noisy, active and vain. Leos are also supposed to be impulsive, proud and strong-willed.

If we take the vanity to be of an intellectual kind, these characteristics fit Graves well, but there are just as many which do not fit and which he chose to ignore. The Leo sign produces, for example, extravagance and an obsession with personal appearance. Graves was a lover of bargains and famously disheveled: stories of his mismatched socks, rumpled hair, use of ties instead of breast-pocket handkerchiefs, bare feet at interviews, are legion. It would be hard to find a man who cared less about how he looked, and yet he had faith in a horoscope which declared him to be a smart dresser. We learn more about the strength of Grave's superstitious faith from this than about the accuracy of astrology.

His first memories were of the handsome brown brick house in Lauriston Road, Wimbledon, which his mother had helped to design. The family had moved to London from Somerset in 1894, when Alfred took up a new appointment to work in Southwark and Bermondsey. The East London schools for which he was now responsible were on the opposite side of the city to the family home, and the children saw little of their father, most of whose evenings were spent chairing discussions of Gaelic and Celtic literature.

'My Best Christmas', a piece published in Robert Grave's old age, provides a detailed account of life in the Wimbledon house when he was four years old, the age at which he started to retain impressions. Robert's grandfather, the Bishop of Limerick, died in the summed of 1899 and, by December, Red Branch House - Alfred named it after a band of chivalrous Irish knights, the Red Branch Heroes, from whom he claimed descent - was full of family treasures of a weightily impressive kind. Prominent among them were two massive marble bas-reliefs of the late Bishop and his wife Selina, a canteen of silver engraved with the haughty Graves motto 'An eagle does not hunt flies' and, on permanent display to inspire the children, the gold medals which Alfred's father and Uncles had won at Trinity College, Dublin, for their erudition and scholarship. On Christmas Eve the children were sent into the unlit hall where they whispered ghost stories to each other until the drawing-room door was flung open to exhibit the glittering tree, the nativity scene and Amy, head back, foot down, playing 'O Come All Ye Faithful' on the piano to welcome them in. Father Christmas (one of Alfred's brothers) then knocked at the window and requested his customary glass of cherry brandy. He drank alone; Amy, Clarissa and even little Robert had taken the pledge in support of Alfred's renunciation of liquor. The children had already distributed their gifts, bought for 'Jesus's birthday' with their penny-a-week allowances. Now they were each permitted to go to a separate table on which, under a white cloth, their own presents had been arranged by Amy. Her opinion of their behaviour during the year would become clear in the morning when a lump of coal in the stocking sometimes replaced the usual sugar mice and puzzles. But Robert was never punished, for 'I', he reported more than seventy years later, 'was always as good as Prince Albert'. Robert's saintliness was put to the test in 1899. His presents were magnificent: a musical box, a painting book, a clockwork horse, a toy helmet and drum, two boxes of soldiers, and a red leather prayer-book. A few weeks later he was taken to hospital with scarlet fever and kept in isolation for two months. When he returned home, only the helmet and drum had been rescued by Rosaleen for her personal use until his return; all the other toys had been burnt in case they should infect the new baby. It was not a good beginning to the relationship between Robert and Charles, his baby brother.

Christmas aside, there was little jollity in Wimbledon. The house was full of books but Amy censored what her children read. There were no outings to pantomimes or concerts; Robert remembered only being taken to the British Museum by his mother and told that it was better to see treasures than to own them: 'We can look at them, admire them, and study them for as long as we like. If we had them back at home, we couldn't do better. Besides, they might get stolen.

Wimbledon Common lay at the end of Lauriston Road, justifying its name in those days by the two or three houses which stood along it beyond Red Branch. Here, the heathland covered more than a thousand acres of scrub, bracken, ponds and disused saw-pits. The early summer woods were thick with bluebells; not far from Lauriston Road there was Caesar's Camp, a neolithic earthwork; a couple of miles away stood a windmill which had been erected just after the Battle of Waterloo and, abandoned, became a playhouse for local children. But Robert did not go to the heath only to play. Repressed at home, he vented his frustration on any small child who crossed his path when he was out of sight of his good-hearted but stern nanny. In the house he was a model of good behaviour; locally he was regarded as moody and rough. He did not, as he grew older, find many young friends in what was still a remote and unassuming extension of the London suburbs.

Although Graves went to his first three schools in Wimbledon, London made little impact on him. His strongest memories of childhood were associated with Germany and North Wales where he spent the school holidays.

Amy continued to visit LauFzorn and Robert went there five times before Grandfather Heinrich's death in 1909 put an end to Bavarian summers. Schloss Aufsess, where Aunt Agnes lived, was an intimidating medieval castle, but Laufzorn was a cheerful, unpretentious manor-house, with a barn where the children jumped from the rafters down to the hay bales, an orchard to be raided, the clear green River Isar to go swimming in and woods to be explored. Wandering through their grandfather's shady pine forest, the Graves children became a tribe of mycophiles who jeered at the English terror of anything more outlandish than the field mushroom.

Robert's youth equipped him well for his later investigations of the mushroom which poisoned the Emperor Claudius, and of its use in ancient religious rites.

Even in London, Robert could terrify himself into staying awake all night with the monster figures of nursery rhymes and fairy stories; in Bavaria, he found gruesome wayside crucifixes with pictures of helpless sinners writhing in sheets of orange flame to add to his private world of nightmares. He did not see the Munich morgue, but his cousins told him how eminent corpses were dressed in their evening clothes and made to sit up, with their limbs attached by strings to a bell. If life remained, the bell would ring. To a child with Robert's vivid imagination, it was a horrifying image; when his grandfather died and went to the morgue, he joined the world of phantoms, sitting upright and glaring-eyed in his silk hat: 'Trying in a nightmare to be alive; but knowing himself dead.

Bavaria gave him a rich cluster of childhood memories and a working knowledge of German; the mountains and moors of North Wales gave him an enduring source of myth and imagery. Grave's attachment to Wales was profound. So was that of his parents, who are both buried at Harlech. It comes as a surprise to find that the family association with it only began after Robert was born. In 1897 Alfred and Amy took the three youngest children for a Welsh holiday on the recommendation of some friends. They stayed in the little grey village which perched on the hillside in the shadow of the most famous of Edward I's 'iron ring' of castles, built as an English defence against Welsh insurrection. Golf-links and the St David's Hotel had not yet arrived; the view from the hillside was as serene as when the king of Ireland sailed across the Bay of Cardigan to Harlech to ask for the hand of the Welsh princess, Branwen. Amy, who had not been charmed by Ireland on her one visit to Alfred's relations, saw everything to Harlech's advantage. It was only a five-hour journey from London. It was religious (Lady Winchelsea's mixed choir had already made a name for itself in the area) and there was not a whisper of bohemianism. The countryside was beautiful enough for her to wish to die there- although it was better to live there first, Alfred pointed out - and the land was cheap. By the end of the holiday she had started negotiating to buy a tract of land above the castle (she purchased a good deal more, including adjacent woodland and cottages, over the next few years) on which to erect a house. An architect was found. In 1898, while Alfred worked on in London, Amy returned with the children to oversee the building.

The house she built, erinfa, was a rectangular stone-clad block with two protruding bays. A steep ascent brought visitors hard up against its side; seen from a distance, it was a bulky shape behind the trees. The charm of Erinfa, meaning 'towards Ireland,' was that of a much-loved holiday house where a brass gong summoned the children to meals, where Clarissa's water-colour landscapes and flowers were arrayed along the wall by the staircase and Amy's piano stood ready for family concerts at the end of the day. In the hall a row of sandy buckets gave way to walking-sticks and golf clubs as the children grew up. Erinfa, far more than Red Branch House, was home to the young Graveses, who saw it rise from its foundations. 'It was our holiday heaven,' Graves wrote in later life, 'with a sandy beach, wild hills, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, flowers, mushrooms, adventures. The house stood on the hillside and Robert's progress there can be charted as an ascent from shore to summit. As a small child he was most familiar with the Morfa, a hard sandy plain from which the sea had withdrawn, tufted with hillocks for playing hide-and-seek and, in spring, for finding plovers' eggs. Old enough to be free of Nurse Emily Dykes, he spent long afternoons with Rosaleen in the great fortress which dominates the village and landscape. 'Oh, to be a child once more, sprawling at ease / On smooth turf of a ruined castle court!' he wrote in 'Down' in 1921, a poem in which the narrator makes sickening identification with a stone dropped through the vacuum of a courtyard well into burning rivers, 'the flame-axis of this terrible world'. Here, as in all his postwar poems which describe falling sensations and imprisonment, the childhood memory of the empty castle was entwined with later experiences of claustrophobia and panic in the trenches. 'I have worked hard on myself in defining and dispersing my terrors,' he wrote in his autobiography. Heights terrified him. The castle at Harlech challenged his worst fears. Accompanied by Rosaleen, he forced himself to scramble up into the broken turrets and towers, to find footholds in the crumbling stone and lean to look down to the miniature shore. This was his first test in self-discipline.

Above and behind the castle stretched the empty hills and moors where, as they grew older, Robert and Rosaleen spent whole days walking and arguing. Sometimes they stopped to rob a lapwing's nest or observe the neat wheel pattern of a heron's daily catch being laid out on a rock. Peering into the dark mouths of caves, they made up their own histories of the area. Time was irrelevant on the Harlech hills; when Graves returned to tramp across them during the war years, he was searching for a return to the anaesthetizing fantasy of an existence in which time meant nothing.

Time has never journeyed to this lost land, Grakeberry and heather bloom out of date, The rocks jut, the streams flow singing on either hand, Careless if the season be early or late .

After a visit from the young Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly in 1895, Alfred had added a collection of wild Hungarian ballads to the repertoire of family songs. His son never forgot them; he was still able to sing them, word for word, when he visited Hungary for the first time in 1968. It was Kodaly, too, who gave Alfred the idea of starting every fantastic story with a 'sneeze'. Kodaly's opera, Hary Janos, begins with an orchestral equivalent, just to tell us to believe nothing; so, after the young Hungarian's visit, Alfred's stories for his children would always begin with an old gardener blowing his nose on a red pocket handkerchief.

Most of Alfred's spare time, as before his marriage, was devoted to literature. The literary events which occupied his evenings brought him into contact with some eminent men. (His memoirs bring in Swinburne, Ruskin, Yeats and Tennyson, but in a very marginal way. Alfred's eager pursuit of the larger literary figures of his time is an endearing feature of his correspondence.) In 1902 he was made a bard and began to turn Welsh folk-songs into English. Other translations followed; by the time Robert was seven, Alfred was wholeheartedly involved in the world of Welsh poetry. The older boys had left home; Robert was the chief beneficiary of his other new passion. Amy's kind but stiff manner and her exceedingly frugal habits had not found her many friends in the Harlech neighbourhood. Alfred had a more gregarious nature. In London he was laughed at behind his back for the zeal with which he pursued literary prestige; in Harlech his wish to bring Welsh literature and music to the attention of a wider audience could only gratify. Ceirog Hughes, the Welsh Wordsworth, came to call at Erinfa, as did the booming Arch-Druid. Canon Owen Edwards visited, and taught young Robert the difficult rules of writing in bardic rhyme. A local fishmonger from Criccieth took the little boy on a tour of the mythical topography of the area, showed him the path along which the wizard Gwydion had been chased by a king of Dyfed, and told him about the terrible powers of the lovely flower goddess, Blodeuwedd. On one occasion he was taken by his father to the Caernarfon eisteddfod, where his sharp eyes registered the comic contrast between the flowing druid robes and Sunday walking boots plodding through the puddles. Welsh poetry, in Robert's mind, had more to do with the stories of The Mabinogion he had started to read in translation than the bowler-hatted gentlemen who stood on platforms with his father to sing the rallying song of the Celts (it was written by Alfred), of which a sample couplet runs: 'That flower of the free is the heather, the heather! / It springs where the sea and the land strive together.'

Being Amy's first-born son did not make life easy; on the contrary, it meant that Robert was a child unusually prone to guilt and aware of the need to excel. The family's gold medals were always on display in the Wimbledon drawing-room to remind him of his duty and Amy offered no relief from the silent weight of expectation. Conscious of being second-best to her husband's beloved first wife, she needed her own children to be, at the least, the equals of Janie's older brood. Her maternal affection was closely related to the level of their moral and intellectual achievements; their success was also hers and their conduct was examined with the same scorching zeal which she applied to her own. Failure was not acceptable. Possessed of a precise sense of right and wrong, Amy did not permit her judgements to be questioned. She saw the heavenly pattern plain before her; her self-appointed task was to shape her sons and daughters to fit God's prepared moulds.

Many children have undergone pressured upbringings and survived without noticeable damage. The problem in this case was with the highly-strung nature of the Graves family. Extreme sensitivity was apparent from an early age in Clarissa, Robert and the youngest boy, John, all of whom suffered forms of mental breakdown before the age of thirty. For this, the unforgivingly high standards of their mother were partly responsible. Robert, in later life, invented a mythical figure who would make the same cruel demands on her favourite son. But she, unlike Amy, was controlled by her creator.

Robert adored his mother and he seemed at first to be everything that Amy could want. He was a sturdy, handsome little boy with wide grey eyes, thick, curly black hair and her own full, soft mouths He had been brave about going to hospital for his first serious illness he was an obedient if restless member of her hymn-singing group; by the age of six, he knew his Bible well enough to compare banishment from a hymn session to exile in the tents of ungodliness. Full of religious fervour and terrified by Amy's stories of how sinners suffered for their wickedness, he took prayers seriously and won prizes for divinity; pleading for the legacy of a bicycle, he explained that he only wanted one to enable him to visit his dear mother's grave after her death. 17 He readily accepted Amy's pronouncements on the rewards of working hard and the importance of always speaking the truth.

Robert was, in short, given a splendid education in becoming a prig and delighted Amy in the process. Writing to her father at Laufzorn, she reported that he showed a real wish to do things in the correct way. Such conventionality is not instinctive and, in Robert's case, he was driven by a terror of displeasing his mother. In the short term, Amy's views on the importance of keeping himself pure gave her son a fear of sex which was not allayed when she told him in careful detail, at the age of twelve, of how his grandfather had died of cancer of the prostate. (It was an account which he never forgot.) A sense of honour, inflamed by his mother's zeal, made for a miserable experience at school.

He went, in all, to seven establishments, starting with a local dame school and progressing, for two terms, to the new Wimbledon branch of King's College, until he was removed for using bad language. At Rokeby, another local school, he made his name as a quarrelsome bully and was not missed when Alfred, worried that he was not going to achieve the Winchester scholarship they wanted for him, decided on yet another move. The decision was illjudged; Robert's new boarding-school was run by a man whose abrupt departure seems to have resulted from the discovery of sexual misbehaviour with some of the boys. Graves, in a late story, asserted that the headmaster was given twenty-four hours by the police to leave the country.

The move had one great benefit. It was at this school near Rugby that Graves learned the plain and forceful style of English which enabled him to appeal to a lay audience even when he was writing on the most obscure subjects. Mr. Lush, the deputy headmaster, hated florid writing; he taught his pupils to make their verbs do the work of description. A less able writer will always rely on adjectives and adverbs to do- this job. Graves never did. This is what gives his prose such vitality and makes it so timeless.

The scandal of the headmaster, together with his failure to win the coveted scholarship, caused Robert's parents to move him once mere in the autumn of 1908. His last preparatory school was Copthorne in Sussex and the year he spent here was pleasant, industrious and eventless.

School obliged Robert to deal with the troubling fact that he had a sexual identity. Amy had brought him up to think otherwise. Sex was not discussed in the Graves household, except to point a gruesome moral. Flesh was covered at all times. It was a disagreeable shock to Robert, then, when he saw other boys naked for the first time and observed that one of them was hirsute. His description of it - 'red hair, real bad, Irish red hair all over his body' - betrays the lingering, squeamish interest with which he later peered at putrefying bodies in the trenches. 19 Even as a small boy he was courting and exploring the sensation of horror. The feelings stimulated by the naked red- haired boy are closely related to those evoked by the notion of the living figure in the morgue or of imprisonment in the ruined castle of Harlech. By the age of nine, Robert was learning to thrive on images of fear and domination.

Girls frightened him if they showed themselves to have a sexual persona. He saw the red-haired boy in 1904, when he was spending a convalescent term away from Rokeby at Penrallt, a Welsh school where the air was expected to heal the effects of double pneumonia and measles. It was there, too, that the headmaster's small daughter and her friend trapped him in the garden and probed his under clothes to teach themselves about sexual anatomy. Graves told the story in Good-bye to All That as a repugnant memory, but it was an odd one, He was strongly built for his age. Could he really not fight off two small girls, or was he courting the experience of fear? It is not impossible that the story was a fabulous one: the reminiscence of little girls exploring sex in a garden has a suspiciously mythical slant. Writing his autobiography at the age of thirty-six, Graves hunted for reasons to explain why he had been afraid of heterosexual relationships for so long. Searching back, he found a convenient memory of an occasion when he had been removed from Rokeby for an afternoon and sent to sit in the darkroom of his sisters' school until they could join him for a family photograph. (The Graveses were addicted to these formal records of their happy home life.) Rosaleen and Clarissa were late; Robert was squirming with discomfort at all the giggles and stares directed at him by the time they arrived. His sisters seemed, he thought, to resent his presence and to look at him with anger. It was, he claimed, the memory of this humiliating episode and the little girls' probing fingers which had arrested his 'normal impulses' for years.

Life in a household run on the highest of Victorian principles and Amy's religious fervour had more to do with Robert's retarded sexual development than the glances of girls in a darkroom, but he liked to explain his psychology by vivid cameos rather than venture into the soul-searching process of analysis. Better not to delve too deeply, for fear of what might be found. Better to gloss over the mysteries with a jaunty tale and a slick interpretation. If there were horrors there, let them find their way to the surface in the trance-state of his poem-writing. This was Robert's firmly held view and he kept to it. We, observing, can see how Amy bound her eldest son to her with iron hoops of guilt and obligation; how her strict views about sex governed those of her son; how Robert's passion for his mother, that paragon of honour, caused him to place the women he loved on a shrine, however imperfect their behaviour. But Graves himself admitted to none of it, beyond the fact that his mother had encouraged her children to be strong moralists. She was a good woman, and that was all there was to it.

The older sisters also made a contribution to Grave's view of women. Rosaleen, in particular, was his collaborator and rival. Robert contributed rhymes to the house magazine begun by their mother; Rosaleen's rhymes were better and she could compose music to go with them. At school, Rosaleen shone where Robert sometimes lagged; in word games, she could always match or defeat him. When Graves wrote the novel Antigua, Penny. Puce in 1936 and presented his portrait of a chuckle-headed brother in the web of a scheming, brilliant sister, he was drawing in part on the memory of his own resentful admiration for Rosaleen. He never doubted that a woman could outwit a man and that it was in her nature to do so.

The heroes of his childhood were the three tall half-brothers, Philip, Richard and Perceval Perceval, a charming idler, made the least impression with his stories of nights at the music-halls. Robert's hero-worship was reserved for Philip, who recovered from consumption to take a post in Cairo, and Richard, who went to Armenia in the Levant consular service. (These were very typical Graves career choices, of the kind which Robert fought hard not to make.) Both Philip and Dick were kind, lofty figures; they were, above all, free. Chained to the treadmill of academic expectation, Robert envied and admired them. His first loves were formed after this pattern, innocent crushes on boys who seemed to defy convention. At Penrallt he singled out 'Ronny', a daredevil who climbed trees, killed pigeons with a catapult and broke all the school rules while never seeming to get caught.

Ronny appears in Grave's history of himself for a purpose. It is not clear from his account whether he ever exchanged more than a few words with his hero. Ronny; manly, active and carefree, exists in careful juxtaposition to Robert as he bends over a book of old ballads in the school library, the very picture of the burgeoning poet. Doubtless he did revere the boy, but Ronny's function in the story is to represent the other side of his nature. Perhaps as a result of his father's hard work in ensuring that compulsory games were put on the agenda of all the schools he visited, Graves formed at an early age the view that a real man had to push himself as hard on the physical as on the intellectual plane. Every aspect of life presented a test of character.

Relishing these tests, Graves had little enthusiasm for the quiet, conventional environment of Copthorne, his last preparatory school. Driven by the knowledge that he must succeed to win his parents' approval, he worked hard during his year there and was given extra Latin coaching by Alfred in the holidays. He was highly intelligent and he worked well, but the headmaster could not give Alfred and Amy the firm guarantee of a Winchester scholarship which they wanted.

Alfred was a careful man - Philip, his oldest son, had been made to repay, with interest, the cost of his cure for consumption - and he wanted no risk of a heavy school bill on the eve of his retirement. Robert's weakest subject was Greek grammar. Charterhouse, of which Alfred knew little, had no Greek grammar paper.

© 1995 Miranda Syemour

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