VIOLET The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and Her Circle of Lovers And Friends -- Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James By Barbara Belford Simon and Schuster. 351 pp. $22.95
IT IS impossible to write about Violet Hunt without dropping names. She knew -- often in the biblical sense -- everyone for decades. She has made brief appearances in the biographies of her more famous lovers, intriguing readers with her glamour and scandalous life. Now it's her turn. In Barbara Belford's biography, much of it based on recently discovered diaries, her lovers appear in a new light and in different perspectives and she emerges as a fully rounded, sympathetic figure.
Violet Hunt was not just a literary groupie; she published poetry, 17 novels, two collections of stories, memoirs, a biography of Lizzie Siddal (wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) and many articles and stories in London newspapers and magazines. With a friend, she translated Casanova; the two-volume translation appeared in 1902 without credit (Violet's father did not think she should sign her name to the translation of "such a man.")
She was born in 1862, the middle of Victoria's long reign. Her mother was Margaret Hunt, who wrote three-volume Victorian novels, and her father was Alfred Hunt, a Pre-Raphaelite water color painter. John Ruskin was her sister Venice's godfather (Violet wished he were hers). Sickert, Millais and Burne-Jones painted her.
She met Oscar Wilde in 1879, when she was 17 and a great beauty, 5 feet 5 and 110 pounds, with fine-textured auburn hair, and deepset smoldering brown eyes under heavy-hooded lids, but it was her daring wit that captivated Wilde. Andrew Lang was the first person to take an interest in her writing. She flirted outrageously with all sorts of men, but disdained eligible suitors.
In 1890 she fell in love with Oswald Crawfurd, a diplomat, novelist and editor of the New Quarterly Magazine and Black and White. Crawfurd, who dyed his hair black, was 29 years older than she -- and married. He helped her with her writing, published her work and gave her syphilis. When his wife died after his affair had gone on for eight years, he married somebody else.
In 1902 she began an affair with Somerset Maugham, one of the few documented instances of Maugham having an affair with a woman. Maugham used Violet as the original for Rose Waterford, the Pre-Raphaelite beauty in The Moon and Sixpence. In Paris, Maugham introduced her to Arnold Bennett, who, fascinated, drew on her personality to create a character in Sacred and Profane Love.
Henry James liked her and delighted in the gossip she brought him from the "Babylon" of London society. "In 1906, while still seeing Maugham, James and Bennett socially, Violet began a year-long affair with H.G. Wells," writes Belford in one of the several astonishing sentences in the book. Wells used her as the model for a character in Tono-Bungay.
The high point of her love life was her long affair with Ford Madox Ford, then still using his real name, Ford Madox Hueffer. She met Ford at a dinner party at John Galsworthy's house, when he was writing his 24th book and about to start The English Review. (Reading manuscripts for the Review, Violet also discovered D. H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound later joined their circle.)
Ford was married to Elsie Martindale, who did not take it meekly when Ford and Violet lived and traveled together. She sued for restoration of conjugal rights. The lovers went to Germany where Ford said he would get a German divorce. They claimed to have been married in Germany. When Violet was identified in a weekly newspaper as Mrs. Ford Madox Hueffer, Elsie sued for libel. She was the real Mrs. Ford Madox Hueffer, she said. She won, since neither Violet nor Ford produced evidence of a German divorce or marriage, but Violet had stationery and cards printed; "Mrs. Ford Madox Hueffer (Violet Hunt)."
The "marriage" caused a great scandal in Edwardian London and Henry James withdrew an invitation to his house in Sussex when he heard about it. Ford wrote a novel, The New Humpty-Dumpty, that savaged Elsie, H. G. Wells and Ford's brother-in-law and evoked an incisive review by an 18-year-old critic, Rebecca West. West became a good friend of Ford's and a better friend of Violet's. Ford went on to write his finest novels with heroines based on Violet: Florence in The Good Soldier, Marie Elizabeth in The Marsden Case and Sylvia in Parade's End.
After Ford abandoned Violet, she kept on with her writing and helped found PEN in 1921. She lived on until 1942 -- alone in South Lodge, her mother's home in Kensington -- until the end entertaining the literary stars of London and nattering on about what Matthew Arnold said to her when she was 16.
Today nobody reads Violet Hunt's novels. The incomparable Princeton University Library lists only one of them in the regular catalogue. (First editions of a number of others, including Their Lives, one of her best, are stowed away in Rare Books, the recent gift of a collector).
Barbara Belford, who teaches journalism at Columbia University, had so much material at her disposal that she rushes along, giving bare outlines of events and sometimes summarizing a novel in a sentence. She occasionally stuffs in irrelevant anecdotes about other people but the stories are so startling and delightful that her unwillingness to ignore them is perfectly understandable. In fact, this seems to be an entirely appropriate book about Violet Hunt: lively, splendidly revealing the bizarre facts of Hunt's life, and dropping many illustrious names. Ann Waldron is the author of "Close Connections," a biography of Caroline Gordon. She is working on a biography of the late Hodding Carter, a Mississippi newspaperman.