April 7th, 2011
Perdita, or Lack Thereof
It is striking to me how little is written about Perdita. I see her of one of the most interesting people of the many who surrounded H. D. Perhaps I am only romanticizing, but she seems to me a relatively normal child, and later woman, thrust by no fault or request of her own into the most unusual of circumstances. It’s true that she’s not the most interesting of the cast of characters in which she was born—less drama surrounds her than anyone else. Even in the trials that do involve her, such as the spat over her registration and her eventual adoption, have almost nothing to do with her—she might as well have been a piece of furniture or a relic of art.
This strange fading away of such an interesting person is reflected in H. D.’s writing. There is very little written about Frances Perdita Aldington Schaffner by her mother or mother-figures; she seems not to have been a very noteworthy person at all. Even when she is mentioned, it is as an allusion to H. D.’s pressures and troubles surrounding Perdita’s birth. Thus, I consulted Barbara Guest’s biography of H. D., Herself Defined: The Poet H. D. and Her World, to try to find more information about this “little lost one.”
On page 243 I found a little nugget that explains so much about Perdita—not only about her early life, but also about the kind of atmosphere she was raised in and the attitudes of those around her. Her first few weeks were spent at the nursery where we see her at the end of Asphodel, and then she was moved to another house, separate from H. D. For a time, it seems, she lived with Bryher and H. D., but was sent to a vocational school (cooking, housekeeping), and then a girl’s school, and then shunted between Kenwin and London, as H. D. couldn’t stand to have her around too much. At eighteen, she moved to a flat in London separate from her mother. In fact, for most of her life she lived separate from H. D., which explains her absence from H. D.’s writing—she was absent from her life. According to H. D., “This did not mean…that her love was any the less for Perdita. It was that she suffered from the mere physical presence of another person.” I’m not well-informed enough to judge H. D.’s parenting skills, and I have no children of my own, but I believe that some sort of proximity to one’s child is rather useful in their upbringing, and it appears that H. D. couldn’t physically do that.
In a biography of a person, you would expect attention to be devoted to their family most of all. In Guest’s biography, H. D.’s friends and lovers take precedent, and Perdita, her one blood tie left at the time (her family either dead or in America), is mentioned only in little asides. To get a sense of what the daughter meant to the mother, these little asides must be examined. In 1924, Bryher writes to H. D. to come to Paris, suggesting she bring “the Pudding’ (159). Nursery-age Perdita, apparently round and chubby, is the dish referred to—almost an afterthought, and certainly an object (it is a cute nickname, but the fact remains that it’s indicative of how her two mothers treated her). When Bryher encourages Perdita to go to America, she warns of how these two mothers could smother her. “We would eat you up!’ she told Perdita” (289). (pudding, anyone?) Here we can see that the high drama and demanding personalities of the people surrounding Perdita caused her to truly become a background character, as she is in the biography.
In the US, she married a literary agent, and their home became “one of literary enterprise combined with raising a family of four children” (289). She appears to have come into her own here—it was in the US that she started her lucrative career as a writer—she writes her own works and the prefaces to and criticism of her mother’s works. After H. D., Perdita has become more of a person than during H. D. Two of her sons are published writers, and her daughter is an artist, and Guest says that “H. D. would now see in the Schaffner household fresh rewards of her own literary creativity”—though she appears to have been mostly absent from this actual household. It seems that there is not much about Perdita in H. D., but plenty of H. D. in Perdita. While Perdita’s effect on H. D. cannot really be considered an anecdote, I consider her an important person in H. D.’s life—and was slightly disappointed to find that, ultimately, she isn’t.
Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World. Garden City: Doubleday, 1984. Print
Perdita, Schaffner. “Running.” The Iowa Review 16.3 (1986): 7-13. JSTOR. Web.*
*This is very very interesting reading, I highly recommend it.