MARY BERENSON: A Self-Portrait from Her Letters and Diaries by Mary Berenson

MARY BERENSON: A Self-Portrait from Her Letters and Diaries

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In welcome contrast to the thin, prim sampler of letters by Logan Pearsall Smith (A Chime of Words, p. 252), these selections from his sister Mary's vast epistolary output--plus a few diary entries--are exuberant, revealing, and psychologically intriguing, with a strong narrative sense of Mrs. Berenson's half-admirable, self-indulgent, conflict-ridden life. From the start young Quaker-raised Mary is spoiled, passionate, ""savagely independent,"" but proper too, writing home from 1882 Smith College with very mixed feelings about Walt Whitman's poetry. (He'd soon become her near-idol.) Soon, however, she has leaped into young marriage with English/Catholic lawyer Frank Costelloe, vehemently espousing abstinence as birth control. Disillusionment comes almost immediately: ""I married too young a man who had already passed beyond the requirements of my age. . . . What an awful institution for hypocrisy and oppression the family is!"" Enter, then: young Bernard Berenson, with whom Mary is soon traveling in Europe--when not writing him fulsome love-notes. But before settling down with BB there's an affair with a German sculptor and great distress about giving up her children--not to mention frettings overBB's thorny, fussy personality. (""O Bernhard, Bernhard, if thee will only relax a little. . . ."") And the years that follow bring curious missives about Frank's dreadful death, an abortion, BB's intense infidelities, Mary's own strange attachment to a gloomy bisexual youth, money wrangles, worries about her two daughters, and health problems--with the tangles of emotions usually tackled in an unself-conscious, headlong fashion. Plus: amusing glimpses of the hordes of visitors to I Tatti--including Duse, Gordon Craig, the skinny-dipping Gertrude Stein (""I really didn't know such enormities existed""), Alice B. Toklas (""an awful Jewess, dressed in a window-curtain""), and Maynard Keynes (""curled up in a rug, all huddled together and looking indescribably wicked""). Under-annotated for those not familiar with the territory--but a rich, largely involving, zestily written life-in-letters overall.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1984
Publisher: Norton