Ellerman, Winifred (1894–1983)

views updated

Ellerman, Winifred (1894–1983)

English novelist and benefactor. Name variations: Bryher; Winifred Bryher; Annie Winifred Ellerman. Born Annie Winifred Ellerman in 1894; died in 1983; daughter of Sir John Ellerman (a shipping magnate) and Hannah Glover; attended Queenwood, a girls' boarding school; married Robert McAlmon, in February 1921; married Kenneth Macpherson.

Selected writings:

Region of Lutany (poems, Chapman & Hall, 1914); Amy Lowell: A Critical Appreciation (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1918); Development (London: Constable, 1920); Film Problems of Soviet Russia (1929); (autobiography) The Heart to Artemis (1962); The Coin of Carthage (1963); The Days of Mars, 1940–46 (1972).

Annie Winifred Ellerman was born in 1894, though her parents did not marry until 1908, in time for the birth of her younger brother John. Throughout her life, she preferred to be known as Bryher. Her father John Ellerman was a shipping magnate, a self-made man whose wife Hannah Glover had been born into the middle class; thus, though the Ellermans lived in a large house on South Audley Street in London and John Ellerman had made a fortune, the family was not

a part of London's high society. John, who would later receive a knighthood, was deeply involved in world affairs and traveled with his family throughout Europe, Africa, and the Near East.

At 15, Bryher was enrolled in a girls' boarding school known as Queenwood. She would subsequently write in her autobiography, The Heart to Artemis: "Though as age has chilled the emotions I can accept Queenwood as a necessary part of my experience, the impact was a shattering one and it was hell while it lasted." She so hated the school that her first novel, the highly critical Development (1920), would be based on her school years. While at Queenwood, she spent a holiday at a friend's home on the Scilly Islands, off Cornwall's coast, and fell in love with the area. She would legally borrow the name Bryher from one of the islands. With a passion for the sea, Bryher longed to be a boy and stow away on an outbound ship. She wrote in her autobiography:

What a disappointment I was to my parents! All their friends had liked me as a child but here I was with the raw aggressiveness of a boy, clamoring to be loosed upon a world that had no use for me…. It must have been disconcerting when a guest, meaning to be kind, asked me what my hobbies were and got the answer, "I want to find out how people think." Once in an unguarded moment I said something about writing. There was a roar of laughter and a visitor answered, "Oh no, Miss Winifred, I'm afraid that is a little out of your range but I'm sure you'll run the garden splendidly in a year or two."

Though the Ellermans regarded writing as a selfish occupation, Bryher persuaded her father to allow her to have some poems published as Region of Lutany (1914). Frequenting bookstores, she devoured the little magazines that contained the latest poetry and, at 19, fell in love with the Imagists. But with the advent of World War I, she found herself trapped in her parents' household with no avenue of escape. Her only happiness seemed to be in discovering the Imagist anthologies of Amy Lowell , which were sent by an American friend. Lowell and Bryher began corresponding regularly, and before long Bryher was sending Lowell poems for criticism while Lowell introduced her to the work of Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Dorothy Richardson . In 1918, Bryher published Amy Lowell: A Critical Appreciation. Bryher was fascinated by H.D. and soon knew all the poems in Doolittle's Sea Garden. On learning that H.D. lived in England, Bryher set out to meet her. The engagement, she wrote Lowell, was a success, as she and Doolittle became instant friends.

Bryher planned trips with her to Greece and America, while H.D. encouraged Bryher's writing and helped her move out of her parents' house into a London flat. During H.D.'s pregnancy, Bryher was a support for the poet, and when H.D. came down with a deadly flu virus it was Bryher who put her into a nursing home for the birth. For the next few years, they lived together and traveled together—Greece, Paris, Switzerland, Egypt, New York and California. A devoted Bryher was to aid H.D. both mentally and materially for the rest of her life. Without Bryher, it is questionable if Doolittle would have had the means to write.

While in New York in 1920, Bryher met Robert McAlmon, a 25-year-old writer from America's midwest. McAlmon had the same dream as Bryher: he longed to board a ship and sail to exotic places. He was also intent on moving to Paris to meet James Joyce. Since McAlmon and Bryher enjoyed each other's company, Bryher proposed a marriage of convenience in which both would benefit: she would back his adventures, while, as a married woman, she would finally be free of her parents and could continue living with H.D. The pact was set, and McAlmon and Bryher were married at City Hall in New York in February of 1921.

Delighted with the marriage, the Ellermans greeted their son-in-law with open arms. Bryher and H.D. moved to Territet, near Montreux, Switzerland, where they would live for the next few years. McAlmon often visited. With Bryher's support, he formed the Contact Publishing Company in Paris, publishing the work of Mina Loy , Bryher, H.D., Djuna Barnes , Mary Butts , Gertrude Stein , Ernest Hemingway, and Marsden Hartley between the years 1922 to 1928. When McAlmon finally met James Joyce, he and Bryher agreed to pay Joyce $150 a month until Ulysses found a publisher. Throughout her life, Bryher would heed the words of her father: "Always buy a painting by a living man, Miggy, what use is money to him when he is dead?" Belonging to the influential women's network of writers in Paris of the 1920s, Bryher often journeyed to that city. She also contributed generously to Sylvia Beach 's bookstore and funded many publications for Harriet Weaver 's Egoist Press in London.

With McAlmon chafing under the marital arrangement, the couple divorced in 1927. Sir John, Bryher's father, gave her husband a divorce settlement of reportedly £14,000, earning McAlmon the nickname of McAlimony. Soon after, Bryher met Kenneth Macpherson, a Brit who had fallen in love with Doolittle. Since H.D. was by then legally married, Bryher hit on another idea whereby she would marry Macpherson to regain her British citizenship and maintain her protected married status. All agreed to the arrangement, and they remained a happy threesome even after the passion went out of Macpherson's relationship with Doolittle.

Together, Bryher and Macpherson started the first film magazine, Close-up. Sold in Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company, its contributors were H.D., Dorothy Richardson and Gertrude Stein. In 1929, Bryher published Film Problems of Soviet Russia, and the following year she and Macpherson built Kenwin, a lakeside villa near Montreux, which they shared as a base. Bryher would live out her life there. With Kenneth's enthusiasm, the Macphersons became more actively involved in filmmaking, their efforts culminating in the 1930 silent Borderline, starring Doolittle and Paul Robeson. By now, though still friends, H.D. and Bryher were seeing less of each other. Eventually, Bryher and Macpherson would adopt H.D.'s daughter Perdita .

In 1935, Bryher took over the literary journal Life and Letters To-day; she also abetted the founding of the Psychoanalytic Review. During World War II, she helped Jewish refugees escape from Germany, then joined H.D. in London and worked on her first historical novel Beowulf while Macpherson stayed in New York. In 1947, Bryher and Macpherson amicably separated. Bryher and H.D., however, remained friends for 42 years, a relationship described by Bryher in her Days of Mars, 1940–46 (1972). Bryher was with H.D when she died on September 27, 1961. Informed of Doolittle's death, Alice B. Toklas commented: "It is impossible to believe in Bryher without H.D."


Bryher. The Heart to Artemis. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1962.

——. Two Selves. Paris: Contact Publishing, 1923.

Hanscombe, Gillian, and Virginia L. Smyers. Writing for Their Lives: The Modernist Women, 1910–1940. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1987.

About this article

Ellerman, Winifred (1894–1983)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article