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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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