Beyond Holy Russia
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Colophon: Half-Title, Title, Copyright, Dedication

6. A Rising or Setting Sun?

Graham arrived back in Southampton on the White Star Line’s ‘Majestic’ liner at the start of April 1923, ending a hectic four-year period in which he made three extended trips to the USA and two long tours of Europe. He spent most of the next year in London, writing his biography of Wilfrid Ewart and completing the manuscript of In Quest of El Dorado. He also began to immerse himself in London’s cultural life, casting off his rather reclusive persona to mix freely with the capital’s literati at parties and gallery openings. Graham’s success in the literary world of New York seems to have given him a new interest in the intellectual beau monde of his own country. Frith Street became a setting for gatherings of artists and writers (the Grahams held a regular Sunday evening ‘at home’ where the guests assembled to hear readings of new poetry and prose). By 1926 The Bookman was able to publish, without comment, a picture of ‘A Round the Fire Party at Stephen Graham’s’, secure in the knowledge that most of its readers would know that the author’s home had already become a recognised if minor site of literary London.1 Graham’s year-long sojourn in London during 1923-24 also provided him with a chance to immerse himself once again in the rhythms of the city’s life, including its more seamy side, which had fascinated him since he worked as a journalist on the Evening News so many years before.

In the early summer of 1923, a few weeks after returning from the United States, Graham was approached by the chaplain at Wandsworth Prison who asked him “to come down [...] and talk about your travels or about ideals”.2 He wisely chose to speak about his travels, giving a talk to 600 prisoners on life in the ‘Wild West’ and Mexico, which received “tremendous ovation” from his (literally) captive audience. A few weeks later he volunteered to become a prison visitor at Pentonville Prison, at the suggestion of a young Quaker he met at Toynbee Hall, the pioneering East London settlement established in the nineteenth century to allow undergraduates to experience first-hand the realities of urban deprivation. The Governor and Prison Chaplain enthusiastically welcomed Graham, and gave him permission to move from cell to cell unaccompanied, talking to men who were glad to see him even though he “could do so fantastically little for them”.3

Most of the prisoners Graham met were guilty of minor offences. One was a former army general, who had passed bad cheques to fund his wife’s expensive tastes. Another was a middle-aged clerk “in prison for stealing a piece of silk to get money to pay his rates”, who now faced the anguish of knowing that he had lost his job, and was likely to lose his home and family as well. A third prisoner befriended by Graham was a former RAF pilot, sentenced to gaol for staying at a hotel even though he had no money to pay the bill. A fourth man had been imprisoned for “sodomy”, and had since found religion in prison, where he was keen to talk about his new-found faith to anyone who would listen. A fifth man had been sent to Pentonville for attacking his wife.4 Graham recognised that many of the men were victims of difficult personal circumstances. Some had no homes outside prison. Others were ex-soldiers who found it difficult to integrate back into civilian life after the horrors of the trenches. He was nevertheless hard-headed enough to recognise that a large number were “humbugs, conspiracy-maniacs and liars”.5 Graham spent a good deal of time meeting the families of prisoners (he even bought a car to travel around London to carry out his work). He visited a number of wives in their own homes, coming across many who lived in “curious dens” surrounded by “children, cats, old clothes and dirt”.6 He also liaised with the welfare organisations that tried to help prisoners find work when they were released from custody. It was an uphill task. Graham was often disturbed at Frith Street by ex-prisoners demanding money. The problem eventually became so serious that he had to end his association with Pentonville to avoid being harassed. It might, less charitably, be suggested that he had also exhausted the novelty of his new vocation.

Graham depicted some of his prison-visiting experiences in articles later reproduced with other material in his 1925 book London Nights, describing the “riff-raff of cocaine-sellers, fraudulent dole-lifters, bicycle stealers, and incorrigible ‘drunks’ who occupied so many of the cells”.7 Some of them were fantasists who claimed to have been at top public schools. Others lay in their cells fretting about what would happen to their families whilst they were inside. There was little sentimentality in Graham’s description of prisons like Pentonville as “a human zoo”, where the animals were caged and cowed, their claws and talons cut to make them “harmless”.8 Other chapters in London Nights provided accounts of the early-morning bustle at major markets like Billingsgate, “the vast caravanserai of East London”, full of porters in “gutter-brimmed hats” carting round boxes of mackerel and cod.9 Graham also described at length his perambulations through some of the outer suburbs of the East End, as well as nocturnal street-life in his own home quarter of Soho, with its shifting population of drunks and prostitutes. He wrote of his visits to cheap music halls, where the unfortunate acts were barracked by cat-calls from the audience, and described too his trips to illegal drinking dens hidden away in the back streets of the capital. Graham also relived some of his Moscow days by spending nights in East End doss-houses, sharing a stuffy dormitory with thirty or forty other homeless men seeking shelter from the cold of the streets.

The sketches in London Nights conveyed all Graham’s talent for “lurid realism” that had won him the approval of his superiors on the Evening News thirteen years earlier. The reviewer in The Bookman praised his “fine gifts of observation” and commended him for never descending to sensationalism “for sensationalism’s sake”.10 Graham himself noted that the main aim of the sketches was to capture the “poetry” of the capital’s streets at night which was missing in the glare of day. There was nevertheless a clear tension between his fascination for the rituals of the night and his moralistic distaste for the tawdry world of nightclub and music hall. His vivid description of night-time cafes, where “hot-blooded men carouse with women of the carmined lip and hennaed hair”, contrasted curiously with his priggish lament that “immorality has so grown upon us in London that one may say it is becoming national”.11 Graham’s life as an urban vagabond, surveying the streets and squares of the city, could hardly have contrasted more sharply with his earlier sojourns as a rural tramp relishing the solitude and beauty of the countryside. Both represented authentic aspects of his personality, but by the mid-1920s the Romantic in Graham was starting to fade, as he began to exercise more systematically his talent as a kind of urban flâneur, chronicling the street scenes through which he wandered, involved and yet remote from the scenes he described.12

Graham’s fascination with his native city shone through his 1923 novel Under-London, even though it had been written the previous year in the shade in front of his mud-walled house in Santa Fé. The book was heavily autobiographical, describing the life of a small group of boys growing up in one of the less privileged suburbs of London in the 1890s, a time when the young Graham had himself been living with his family in Chingford. It was a world in which “houses in their thousands marched outward [from London] like infantry upon a great battlefield”, gradually eating up “the green fields and the trees in the country”, one side looking towards “a vast urban area” and the other to “the still unspoiled” land.13 The young Freddie Masters – modelled on Graham himself – is raised in a household where life is governed not by real poverty but “by thrift and mean circumstances”.14 Freddie, again like Graham, relishes the sights and sounds of the countryside that lie just beyond the “wilderness of brick and mortar” of the suburbs. His fascination with lepidoptera, along with his schoolboy crush on another boy, also echo the childhood experiences of his creator.

Under-London was, as several reviewers noted, less a novel and more a loose series of episodes in the fictional life of a group of boys on their journey into adulthood. It certainly captured the pathos of the fading dreams of youth, as “office life closed in on their horizons”, and childish hopes of being an explorer or engineer gave way to the prosaic realities of commuting to work as a clerk in the city.15 The book finishes with an acknowledgement that “Many will ask why this chronicle has been made”. The answer Graham gave was, in effect, that the petty rituals of suburban life were of great importance to those who lived them, even if they “are not to be compared with the one-mile radius from Hyde Park Corner”.16 The drafting of the final manuscript of Under-London must also have given Graham a chance to recall the world that he had escaped from so many years earlier, when he abandoned his post at Somerset House in favour of the uncertain prospect of life in Russia. Graham’s pen-portraits of London life lacked the merit of more literary works like Ford Maddox Ford’s The Soul of London, but books such as Under-London and London Nights still possessed “a charm and interest” that attracted a readership, both in Britain and, more surprisingly, the United States.17

The first half of 1924 witnessed a resurgence of Graham’s interest in Russia, prompted in part by changes in the international political situation. The Labour government that came to office in February moved quickly to offer de jure recognition to the government in Moscow, a decision that caused considerable concern amongst many in Britain, who feared that “the party of revolution” would destroy “the very bases of civilised life”.18 Graham was deeply conscious of the loss of his personal ties with Russia over the previous few years. Although he had sent financial help to old friends there for some time after the 1917 Revolution, he was by now no longer in contact with any of them, fearing that they had died in the violence and famine of the Russian civil war. Nor could he get a visa to visit the USSR, for the authorities there knew full-well that their putative guest was unlikely to paint a positive picture of the Soviet experiment upon his return home. Most Britons who visited Russia in the 1920s came from a left-wing political background that predisposed them to look with at least a degree of sympathy on attempts to build a new workers’ state. Very few of them shared Graham’s nostalgic sympathy for the old Russia that had been swept away by the Revolution of 1917.

Since Graham could not visit the USSR in person, he decided to do the next best thing, and contacted Harold Williams, the Foreign Editor of The Times, and an expert on Russia in his own right, suggesting that the paper should commission a series of articles describing a trip down the western border of the USSR from Finland to the Black Sea.19 The proposal was quickly approved by The Times editor, Geoffrey Dawson, and in early summer Graham set off from Hull bound for the Baltic. Graham went first to Finland – which had been a province of the Tsarist Empire before the Revolution – where he visited the tenth-century Orthodox monastery on the island of Valamo in Lake Ladoga. A pall of melancholy hung over the buildings. The number of monks had fallen dramatically over the previous few years as the turmoil of war and revolution had taken their toll. Those who remained spent their time staring “with sunken eyes” at the grey waters of the lake, whilst others talked “as if they felt God had let them down” by turning his face away from the collapse of the world to which they had once belonged.20 Back on the mainland, rows of grand houses on the lake shore stood deserted and forlorn, their wealthy owners long since vanished. Graham visited the home of Ilia Repin, perhaps the most celebrated artist in pre-revolutionary Russia, famous for such pictures as ‘Ivan the Terrible’s Murder of his Son’ and the ‘Volga Boatmen’. Although over eighty, he remained “robust and vital”, and, to Graham’s eyes at least, retained “an unspent spiritual reserve” that had survived the upheavals of the previous few years.21 The plight of other ethnic Russians stranded in newly-independent countries like Finland and Estonia was seldom as comfortable. Many struggled to find work, and lived in great poverty, whilst even formerly wealthy aristocrats were reduced to near-destitution. The situation was a little better in Latvia, where the Lettish authorities “allowed their Russian subjects to live in their traditions as if no revolution had occurred”. Even here, though, poverty and dislocation were the fate of most of the refugees met by Graham.22

After leaving Latvia and Lithuania, Graham headed by train for Poland, a country he had never warmed to since first going there almost twenty years before. In Warsaw he visited the homes of numerous Russians, finding in their lodgings the “scenes of poverty” suffered by those who shared “a strange history of calamity, driven to point from point and pillar to post downward”. One of the people he met was the wife of a former tsarist minister, who had tramped across Soviet Russia for two years before crossing the Polish border “completely destitute, parting with her last bundle to the women who led her across”. In another house he came across a group of young Russian men living lives that seemed to be drawn straight from Gorky’s Lower Depths “but with society people playing the parts”. Graham also heard numerous stories describing how Russian refugees were thrown into prison by the Polish authorities, or taken back to the Soviet frontier and dumped there.23 After leaving Warsaw he headed southwards through Galicia towards Rumania, arriving in Bessarabia, territory which had once formed part of the Tsarist Empire but was now a province of Rumania. Graham believed that the local Russian-speaking peasantry was worse off than in pre-revolutionary times, living under harsh conditions which included punishment by flogging for non-payment of taxes.24 He also condemned the “war that was being waged against Russian culture” by the Rumanian authorities, ranging from savage censorship to the closure of libraries.25 Graham doubted whether the region could ever be fully integrated with the rest of Rumania, as the peacemakers in Paris had envisaged back in 1919.

The plight of the Russian refugees who talked to Graham revived his anger at the Soviet regime, which had been curiously muted over the previous few years. Graham had never supported British intervention to crush the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Nor had he endorsed the rabid anti-Soviet views expressed by some of his fellow-countrymen in the years that followed. Witnessing at first hand the plight of old Russia in emigration hardened his views, though, and in the book he wrote about his trip, Russia in Division, he attacked the new Soviet culture as nothing “more than a jargon culture superimposed on the old culture. The old Russia brought manifold great gifts to the common altar; the new one brings only death and change”.26 He also turned his anger on the Labour government for recognising the Soviet regime and receiving “the representatives of those who killed the kindred of the king”.27

Graham’s anger about the Labour Government’s policy towards the USSR made him determined to play a role in the October 1924 election campaign, which took place following MacDonald’s decision to seek the dissolution of Parliament. Although he claimed to have supported the Labour Party in the two previous elections,28 he now wrote to the Conservative leader, Stanley Baldwin, offering his services as a lecturer. He was subsequently dispatched to talk to working-class audiences in constituencies as far apart as London and Tyneside, where he often faced barracking for his “scathing denunciation” of the MacDonald government’s “pro-Soviet policy”.29 He also used his pen to attack MacDonald himself, writing in The Weekly Westminster that the Prime Minister’s desire to secure a trade treaty with Russia was carried out “at the bidding of the most extreme and unrepresentative group within his own party”.30 Graham’s article appeared on the same day that the Daily Mail published the infamous Zinov’ev Letter, a forgery concocted in Paris, which purported to contain instructions from the Comintern calling for “a successful rising in the working districts of England”. Graham recalled many years later in his autobiography that it was the Zinov’ev Letter that prompted him to get involved in the election campaign. His memory was as so often at fault. It was his anger about the misery of the refugees from Soviet rule, casualties of the chaos and violence that had swept through Russia since 1917, which led him to make a rare foray into the world of party politics.

The electoral victory of Baldwin’s Conservative Party allowed Graham to return to his more accustomed activities. He spent the winter of 1924-25 at Frith Street, writing up the first part of Russia in Division, although he also travelled to Paris to meet some of the Russian émigrés who had congregated in the city since 1917.31 Graham had a long talk with the writer Ivan Bunin, “a bright-faced, slightly-built man of middle years”, who was best known in Britain for his short story The Gentleman from San Francisco. Bunin had by now become a bitter critic of the Bolshevik regime, and was intrigued to know why it still appeared so popular amongst certain sections of British society, something that Graham unconvincingly put down to the legacy of the pre-revolutionary anti-tsarist campaign waged by radical émigré writers like Peter Kropotkin and Sergei Stepniak.32 He also met the novelist Alexander Kuprin, “sitting at a table with a bottle of wine in a bare kitchen in a house on the Avenue Mozart”, where he lived with his small dog for company (Graham and Rose had translated a number of Kuprin’s stories for Constable’s Russian Library back in 1916).

One of Graham’s most enjoyable encounters was with Aleksei Remizov, “one of the few undoubted geniuses of modern Russia”, whose tales of folklore and myth he had long admired.33 Remizov invited Graham to his studio, a curious place cluttered by books and a melée of fish-bones, seaweed, ducks feet and starfish. Although he was less critical of the Bolsheviks than some of his fellow-émigrés, and still hoped one day to return to Russia, Remizov’s views were coloured by intense homesickness. His sitting room was arranged to include a “holy corner” of the kind found in most peasant houses before 1917, complete with an icon of the virgin flickering in the light of a candle, whilst in a small powder box he kept a pinch of Russian soil to remind him of home. Graham was deeply moved by these symbols of his host’s love of Russia. The writers he met in Paris had been spared the worst of the destitution suffered by many of their compatriots, but the pathos of their lives served only to fuel his melancholy at the demise of old Russia. The country “still remained in my subconscious” and fuelled an inchoate longing of the kind that had first taken him to Moscow some twenty years earlier.

Graham’s nostalgia for old Russia was intensified by the problems he faced in his personal life. The death of Anderson Graham at the end of October 1925 seems to have led to tension between Anderson’s old and new families. If the fictionalised account that Stephen later set down in Lost Battle is to be believed, then he and his father had grown closer in later years, and Anderson’s death was felt by his son “in the marrow of his bones”, even though he once considered his father “the betrayer of his mother”.34 In his will, Anderson left most of his money and his Lutyens house in Hertfordshire to his second family, although he bequeathed a small number of shares to Stephen to help take care of his mother. There were some irregularities in the will, since it named no executor or residuary legatee. The High Court in London eventually appointed Stephen as executor, since he was the “son and next of kin”, and Stephen faithfully carried out the provisions of the will, even though some of his siblings wanted to challenge its provisions. The fate of Graham’s mother Jane – to whom he remained “bound by passionate affection” – remains unclear. Although she renounced any right to administer Anderson’s estate herself, her alter ego in Lost Battle bitterly resented the exclusion of her children from her husband’s will. The fictional Jeannie Macrimmon in Lost Battle dies within a few weeks of her husband, before the family could put into effect plans to move her to a flat in Bloomsbury. No death certificate has been found for the real Jane Graham. There is, however, strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that she died early in 1926. Whatever the exact nature of the calamities that swept through the Graham family in the winter of 1925-26, they exercised an enormous emotional toll on Stephen himself. A short trip to Paris with Rose in January restored his spirits a little, allowing him to get away from the recent “troubles” in London, but even the “light-hearted” French capital could not offer much relief from his worries.35

Graham’s personal life had in fact been descending into turmoil well before his father’s death unleashed a whole series of new problems. He had always been inclined to jot down cryptic notes and self-motivating maxims, but the entries in his journal for 1925 are far bleaker than those of earlier years. Some of them are impenetrable and reflect the instinctive mysticism (or obscurantism) that had long characterised his outlook on life (“You are either a plus or a minus”). Others reflect a sharp deterioration in Graham’s relations with Rose (hints of which can be traced back over a number of years). In the summer of 1925, he noted down an aphorism that may have been intended for a novel, but was clearly rooted in personal experience, writing that “You have many secrets but do not know yourself. Your will is weak. You are in danger of having the will of others imposed on you”. A few weeks later, in September, he jotted down the words “Promise never to quarrel with me. In return: whatever you ask me to do at any time I will do it”. The significance of the words becomes clearer from a journal entry a few weeks later, when he was in Paris on his own, and noted down that “I have three girls” and “do nothing but go to Montmartre to draw the money”.36 The marital stress must have caused Graham anguish. There had always been something of the moralist in his outlook. He was still a practising Anglican, although he periodically spoke at national meetings of the Congregational Church, and ruminated occasionally on becoming a Catholic “if they would get rid of their Pope”. Graham’s interest in religion had invariably focused on its spiritual rather than its ethical dimension, and his earlier sojourns into the dark sides of the cities of Europe and North America showed that he was no prude, but the presence of Rose in London had always provided him with an emotional and geographical centre to which he could return from his travels abroad. By 1925 the texture of his personal life was beginning to fall apart.

It is ironic that the two books Graham was beginning to sketch out during this period were both optimistic celebrations of life. The first of these was published in 1926 under the title The Gentle Art of Tramping, and became one of his most popular books, proving that there was still a steady market for his distinctive brew of vivid description and mystical philosophising. Although it was some years since Graham had undertaken any major tramp – his recent journeys had mostly been carried out by train – he was still anxious to assure his readers that “know how to tramp and you know how to live”. He went on to describe tramping as “a way of approach, to Nature, to your fellow-man, to a foreign nation, to beauty, to life itself”. Part of the book was concerned with providing practical advice about what kit the aspiring tramp should take with on their journeys (Graham’s idealised tramp was, as ever, less a vagrant and more a noble searcher after truth). Nor was there any shortage of somewhat trite maxims denouncing materialism and the popular obsession with money. At the heart of the book, though, was the familiar nature-mysticism of his earlier work, laced with an almost metaphysical sense that a close study of the landscape could provide access to new and unfamiliar truths. For the tramp “Nature becomes your teacher, and from her you will learn what is beautiful and who you are and what is your special quest in life and whither you go”. Nature itself was “trying to tell us something; she is speaking to us on a long-distance wave”. There was also a strong hint of another familiar motif from Graham’s earlier work, namely that the tramp was a kind of pilgrim, an exile from Eden wandering the earth in a quest to find the shards of a paradise long abandoned. It is not difficult to ridicule much of what Graham had to say. His tramp was in essence an idealised portrait of himself – clever, sensitive, and committed to discovering new truths about the world – and had little resemblance to the human flotsam that moved up and down the highways of Britain in the difficult economic years between the wars. There was nevertheless something touching about the wistful yearning of his book, even if the style was, as so often with Graham, over-blown. “Each day nature puts her magic mirror in our hands. ‘Oh child do you see yourself today’. We look, we look, and answer wistfully, not to-day, not to-day”.37

The Gentle Art of Tramping proved to be an immediate commercial success, running through several editions, although the critical response was more lukewarm. The Saturday Review described it as a “masterly book”,38 but the Times Literary Supplement regretted the absence of more practical advice needed by walkers, and suggested that many would be put off by its “sentimentalism” and “high-brow baby talk”.39 Although few readers could have known, the elegiac tone of the book was shaped by the crisis which its author was experiencing at the time of writing. The memory of Graham’s earlier trips through Russia and America, undertaken at a happier time of his life, provided the inspiration for his romanticised portrayal of a life led in the fields and mountains. At least a part of Gentle Art of Tramping seems to have been written when Graham was in Paris in the early autumn of 1925, immersed in the city’s life, and uncertain about where his future lay. The lyrical reflections on landscape and meaning were composed at a time when he was under enormous strain and, perhaps, teetering on the edge of a breakdown. Many of the urban readers of The Gentle Art of Tramping were doubtless seduced by its apparent promise of a life free from conflict and strife. They could hardly have realised that Graham’s words were fuelled by his own desire to recapture some of the joys and simplicities of an earlier stage of his life.

Graham started work in 1925 on a second book, a novel that subsequently appeared the following year under the title Midsummer Music, which tells the story of a group of British writers and artists invited by an eccentric Croatian professor to spend the summer on the Dalmatian coast. The genesis of the book can probably be traced back to an invitation extended to Graham himself early in 1925 to visit the eastern coast of the Adriatic (he does not appear to have gone). The central character of the book is a middle-aged literary scholar, Felix Morrison, who travels to Dalmatia to complete his magnum opus on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although he faces enormous tribulations, living in a draughty half-ruined castle, Morrison soon finds himself enthralled by a region where “all dissolved in harmony, starlight, and pomegranate blossoms”.40 He also finds himself enchanted by the rhythms of life followed by the local peasantry, a world of song and music, in which the young people regularly meet together by the shore to sing ballads of love and mystery. Morrison himself falls in love with a local beauty, Slavitsa, who although engaged to a wealthy Jew from Zagreb prefers to remain in her childhood home of sea and music.

Graham portrayed Kastelli – the village where most of the book is set – as a dream-like place remote from the cares of the real world. Morrison is however alone amongst the English visitors in succumbing to the charm of the place. Most of his compatriots see only poverty and dirt or, as Graham drily put it in his narrator’s voice, “Fairyland always becomes invisible in the presence of a dozen Englishmen”.41 In a rare example of artistic restraint, Graham refrained from making any but the most glancing parallels between the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Morrison’s experiences on the remote coast of the Adriatic. There is something profoundly melancholy in his description of the way that Morrison is finally forced to accept that he can never share his life with Slavitsa, but must instead return home to his arid bachelor life in Britain. It was a theme that came easily to Graham. The tension between dream and reality must have been particularly potent for him at a time of personal crisis. The critical reception of Midsummer Music was surprisingly low-key, given Graham’s reputation, although the reviewer in The Bookman was enchanted by a novel whose characters and setting were “romantic enough to have wandered straight out of a beautiful and wonderful musical comedy”.42 Graham himself later told Vachel Lindsay that the book represented a deliberate attempt to strike out in a new artistic direction at a time when his outlook on life was going through a rapid process of change.43

If 1925 was a difficult year in Graham’s life then 1926 proved to be far worse. In the winter of 1925-26 he flitted between London and Paris, managing the fall-out of his father’s death, a process which placed a huge strain on his nerves. And then, at some point in late January or early February, he met at one of his Frith Street literary evenings a young writer with whom he soon fell deeply in love. Her name was Margaret Irwin – invariably referred to as Peg or Peggy in Graham’s journal – and she was later to achieve fame as the author of the historical romance Young Bess. Graham’s random use of his journal makes it difficult to chart the exact chronology of their relationship, but by February he was already fretting about his relations with Peggy, and wondering whether “I want something that is not there […] friend, inspirer, life-giver”.44 He was nevertheless confident that “I feel I was right […] when I adopted her as one of my little circle living and dead to whom I turn at night”. By March he was confiding to his journal that “I am afraid of this life of seeking excitement”. Other entries show a strong sense of self-doubt, and a fear that the success of his public self was somehow unreal and unconnected to “my real self”. The precise nature of the relationship between Graham and Peggy at this time is uncertain, but Rose was deeply upset to see her husband’s obsession with a woman almost twenty years younger than herself (Graham had the previous year noted in his diary the importance of having the “inspiration of a young girl in a man’s life”).45 On 28 March Graham recorded in his journal that he had arranged “to take Peggy out on Tuesday. R. straightforwardly grieved, preoccupied the whole of our poetry reading”. That night he felt her “sighing, trembling”, before heading for the sitting room couch, only for Graham to beg her to return. By April, Graham was sure that “I love Peggy that is a gay and happy fact […] R has the first place in my heart, but is not sure of it. She is mortified […] We have such passionate talks in tears”. Rose almost certainly had a good deal to worry about. By May Graham was confiding to his journal snippets of conversation that make it clear he had asked Peggy to travel the world with him, an offer she declined, preferring to remain in London to develop her writing career.

Figure 8: Stephen Graham in 1926 (photographer unknown).
Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, © CC BY-NC-ND.

The relationship between Graham and Rose throughout their earlier life necessarily remains opaque given the absence of any substantial cache of letters or diaries to cast light on it, whilst many pages of his 1926 journal were ripped out and destroyed, probably by his second wife, making it difficult to chart with any precision the emotional turbulence of their annus horribilis. The thinly-veiled autobiographical references to Rose in Priest of the Ideal suggest that their relationship was always based on what might loosely be called spiritual affinity rather than sexual passion. Rose’s own isolated journal entries for the critical months of 1926 certainly indicate that she saw her relationship with Graham in such terms. At the start of April she noted that “Love seems to me the watchword of today. Love and spiritual life – that life which is not merely to be the life of the individual, but the mysterious and mystical life in connection and union with others”. A few weeks later, she wrote that “Stephen gave me a wonderfully beautiful thought about the life of the Virgin and therefore all women – She not only received the message of the Annunciation and responded at once […] She was never unmindful of the heavenly vision – all her life she heard the voice of Gabriel in her heart and knew her path of life in sorrow and joy”.46 Such moments of reconciliation and reflection could not overcome the strains in their relationship. By the end of May, Rose had left Frith Street and taken a room at a religious retreat, although she continued to see Graham, who noted mournfully that “R very serious, earnest, melancholy, wants me to talk as in a problem-play conversation”. Even when she returned home at Graham’s urging, he found that he could think only of Peggy, and felt “cold and guilty” at the anguish he was causing his wife, who “naturally hates to see P in her place in my heart, mind, life, society”. By the start of June, Rose was blaming the decline of their marriage on the fact they had no children. Graham agreed, recalling that “we were both blind in those early married years” when neither of them could imagine the sadness that lay ahead.

By the early summer of 1926, Graham was deeply depressed at being torn “between two women”. It is not clear whether Peggy felt as deeply about him as he did her. There are certainly numerous obsessive entries in his journal fretting about meetings at which she seemed cold or distracted. The hot-house atmosphere was relieved, at least for a time, when Graham was asked by The Times to visit Czechoslovakia and write a series of articles on his experiences there. Although it was not a country he liked, Graham welcomed the opportunity to get away from a situation that had become intolerable to him, whilst he was in any case still too much the professional writer to turn down a lucrative assignment. Prague was “hung with little flags” when he arrived, in celebration of a local festival. Graham was struck by the extent to which the city had become “more Slavic” and less German during the five years since he last visited. He met President Tomaš Masaryk, as well as his son Jan, the future Foreign Minister, who died twenty years later when he fell from a window in mysterious circumstances at a time when his country was falling under Soviet control. Neither man had much sympathy for Graham’s brand of religious idealism. Jan Masaryk in particular was indignant at a speech Graham gave on the role of religion in public life, responding that the Czechoslovaks were “a practical people” whose future lay in “the building of civilization and the conquest of Nature”.47

Graham’s own heart was not really in such polemics at this stage of his life. His nights were disturbed by terrible dreams and his days punctuated by thoughts of Peg. After leaving Prague, Graham moved on to Bratislava, the Slovak capital situated on a picturesque site by the River Danube, where he tried to lose himself in street cafes thronged in a “flood of electric light”. His attempt to find solace amongst the crowds met with little success. He headed on to the remote Carpathian lands in the east of the country, arriving in the “charming” capital Uzhgorod, where the local Ukrainian-speaking people were resisting attempts to “absorb [them] into Czechoslovak culture”.48 He then left Uzhgorod behind in order to travel on to a Ruthenian village close to the Polish border, where he arrived to find the local people dressed up in national costume to celebrate the festival of St Peter and St Paul. The journey there took him through “wild and beautiful” scenery, whilst the village itself was “very picturesque”, with wooden houses capped by “pyramid-like roofs”.49 Such distractions could not take Graham’s mind off events back home. Ten years earlier, he would have been overcome with joy at finding himself in such a setting. Now he could only think of the situation that would confront him when he returned to London.

Graham’s journal entries in the weeks following his return from Czechoslovakia show a man in the grip of both obsession and depression. Within days of arriving in London he was recording how “I love my Rose, probably I love Peg. I feel so lonely and weep and weep”. He also noted how Rose had become “very bitter” and “inclined to break down and cry and I cannot bear it”. By the middle of August things were close to erupting. Graham felt that the whole situation was driving him to become a recluse, as he withdrew from the normal round of literary and artistic events which had come to form an important part of his life in London in recent years. He also – tellingly – wrote with regret about how his relationship with Peg lacked “that touch of maternal tenderness”. Peg herself was finding the strain of the situation too much to bear. She accused Graham during a trip to Brighton of selfishness, a charge from which he did not entirely demur, although he fretted about how the “brightness” of their relationship had faded as Peg became “indifferent” to “my life, my happiness or sufferings”.

Rose grew “hysterical” under the strain of events, torn between urging her husband to give up Peggy and offering advice about how best to handle the situation in which he found himself (a tension, perhaps, between her uxorial and maternal instincts). Graham noted bitterly in his journal that he and Peggy would never have been in such a situation if Rose had “given me my freedom”, ignoring his own doubts as to whether Peggy herself actually wanted to be with him at all. He also angrily told Rose that she would be happy if he was dead so long as she still had his books to remember him by. A few days later, Graham drove Peg out of London and the two of them went for a walk through the countryside. The outing ended in bitter arguments about the future. Peggy angrily told Graham that the “next time you have a woman see that you have finished with Rose before you start with her”. Graham for his part felt “empty-hearted” as they returned to the car, which he raced back towards London, before suddenly stopping the vehicle and breaking down in uncontrollable sobs. When they resumed their journey, he was tempted to “drive the car under a motor bus”, noting that he was only prevented by the thought that Peg might die whilst he survived. Although there was yet again a brief reconciliation between the two, it was clear by the middle of August that Graham had little prospect of securing a future with Peggy. It was also becoming clear that his relationship with Rose had been damaged forever, even if it was to be another three or four years before they finally drifted apart entirely.

The immediate storm was once again dampened by Graham’s departure on his travels, this time for New York, where he planned to carry out research for a series of articles about the city’s night life for Harper’s Magazine and the New Yorker. It is astonishing that he felt able to make the trip, given the desperate state of mind visible in his journal entries, which included one on the eve of his departure that read: “Darling mother where are you now? Do you know how solitary I am? You know how foolish I have been. Terribly sad. Lonely empty day”. During the journey his mind ran endlessly over the events of the past few months, whilst at night he dreamt of Peggy, including one dream in which the two of them were furnishing a flat together. His arrival in New York provided him with the usual distractions of establishing himself in a hotel and catching up with the latest literary gossip, but thoughts of Peggy continued to obsess him: “Peg does not want what I want. I have failed to inspire her and after all we have no common interests in life. I go away but her thoughts do not follow me”. He tried to “school my mind” against thoughts of her, but it proved to be a “fruitless cause”, and he spent evenings poring over her old letters. Peg herself still wrote to him occasionally, although she had now left with friends on an extended holiday to France, leaving Graham to write a piece of doggerel about his state of mind:

I’m feeling very blue today,

I do not care for song or dance,

I haven’t any heart to play,

My Peg is eating frog in France.

Graham was gradually distracted by his forays into New York’s nightlife (he also found time to broadcast on the radio and give a number of lectures). His first impression of the city after dark was that prohibition had ended all activity beyond “a little cabaret” and a few “dancing-bars”. He quickly realised how wrong his judgement had been. Within a couple of weeks he was visiting speak-easies with a journalist friend, and attending various burlesque shows, as well as going to clubs where “a naked contortionist tickled her own chin with tenuous fingers of arms which were locked behind her head”.50

Graham’s tours through New York nightlife were punctuated with reflections about the way in which recent events had shaped his personality. A few weeks after his arrival he noted in his journal that he had until recently been:

Making for a late maturity, thought I was a setting sun in fact a rising one. My mind goes back to early Moscow days, when I was vaguely in love with a young married woman, who had the reputation of being v. immoral. She said I was a quiet boy and she had swallowed me. But she had not the sense to help me and I was very quiet. I’ve gone through a great deal since those days – and wakened several times, but curiously enough I am stale – about to waken, about to be someone broader and in every way powerful.

His words may have reflected the fact that he found himself in what he wryly termed “an interesting situation”. Graham’s tours of the nightclubs of New York usually took place in the company of one of a number of young women, typically working in publishing or some part of the entertainment industry, and there is little doubt that he was seeking female company to provide him with the emotional support he always so desperately craved. By the end of October he was torn between two women, both in their mid twenties, one of them looking for love and the other very “loose [...] twenty years ago I should have chosen the good girl but now it seems the other holds me”. Graham was soon involved in an affair with Patrica (Pat), to whom he eventually dedicated the book New York Nights when it was published the following year. Together the two of them went to exotic clubs like Samarkand, a place populated by “people in evening dress” and decorated with “oriental lamps hanging from the ceiling”.51 Graham himself was uncertain whether he was in love with Pat – he tried to change the conversation whenever the subject came up – but there is little doubt that he was searching for a new kind of relationship utterly different from the one he had with Rose. Graham had always been attracted by the hum of the streets, finding in the major cities of the world an excitement that exercised a surprising thrall over a man whose early reputation had been made by his lyrical descriptions of the Russian countryside. In more recent books, like London Nights, he still looked on the world of nightclubs and late-night drinking dens with the eyes of an outsider, fascinated by its decadent aura, but faintly repulsed by the lax morality and uninhibited behaviour of its habitués. In New York during the tail-end of 1926 he immersed himself far more thoroughly into this world of urban decadence than ever before.

Graham returned to London for a few months at the end of 1926, before heading off again to New York at the start of April the following year. At Christmas he saw Peggy at a party, looking “tired and drained”, but the two did not talk to one another.52 A few weeks later he wrote in his journal that “It is dangerous to fall in love with a hard unimaginative but sentimental person”, and noted bitterly that he had been nothing more than “a literary experience for Peggy”, a claim that must remain entirely speculative in the absence of any perspective other than his own. Graham sent flowers to her on a number of occasions, although they seem to have been rejected, leading once again to the familiar self-pitying lament that Peggy had been “very cruel to me”. Despite his gloom, Graham found the time and motivation to attend the Gargoyle Club regularly, whilst the party he held in March to celebrate his birthday was “the largest party I have ever had at Frith Street lasting till three in the morning”. He also used some of the time to sketch out an article on the ‘Passing of the Old Russia’, which appeared a few months later in a symposium published by the New York journal Current History.53 Although he was generally adept at keeping his private troubles to himself, the turmoil in Graham’s personal life was well-known enough to his friends to lead to speculation that he would not return home from his next trip to New York. A few days before he left London, he wrote to Vachel Lindsay telling his old friend that:

It’s been a stormy year for me, as I’ve been terribly torn up between a love affair and my affection for my wife. I have been restless and passionate [...] My life and outlook is changing a great deal and if I come to Spokane [where Lindsay was living] you will see a difference between the Stephen of Glacier Park days and that of today [...] I have turned a bend and there are new horizons.54

Graham’s departure for New York in April certainly removed him for a time from the setting of his recent woes. On arrival there he wrote to Lindsay telling him that he was “so happy” to be back in America.55 The relief proved short-lived. He found Pat “very flat as though she has lost her soul”, and he alternated between convincing himself that she “still loves me dearly”, and fretting that there was “nothing” between them. He also lamented that she seemed to have “no care for me”, the cry of anguish of a man who always expected those he loved to devote their lives unreservedly to him in return, as Rose had done throughout their marriage. Although Graham dedicated New York Nights to Pat when it appeared later in 1927, by the time he returned to Britain in the summer its seems clear that their relationship was over, or at the very least that Graham had recognised it could not provide him with the emotional support he still so desperately wanted.

The personal crisis that Graham went through in 1926-27 did, for once, reduce his astonishing productivity, although he still managed to write a considerable amount, including several articles about his nocturnal ramblings in New York,56 which were in due course reproduced in New York Nights. No reader of the book would have guessed at the turmoil faced by its author. The self-revelatory tone that characterised so much of Graham’s early travel writing had by now long disappeared. There were a few references to Pat and a number of other “pretty women” who provided him with “the best passport to New York at night”,57 but most of the chapters were designed to give pen portraits of the city, ranging from the scene at celebrated nightclubs like the one run by Texas Guinan to the human detritus thronging the Bowery. The book also contained a series of pictures by the German-born book illustrator by Kurt Wiese who had recently moved to the USA. During his first visit to New York, fourteen years earlier, Graham had condemned the city as the apotheosis of the kind of commercial and industrial society that he loathed. His views were now more nuanced, reflecting his changing outlook on the world, as he found in the city a glamour that had eluded him when his heart still lay firmly within the grasp of Holy Russia. Graham acknowledged that the modern American city was inhabited by crowds of:

solitary people, friendless and lonely men and women, who have moped all day in wretched gloomy rooms, in homes which are mocked by the happy idea of home. At eleven o’clock at night they bethink them of the radiant shore just so many blocks away, pick themselves out of their loneliness, and make for the light, to lose themselves in the light-intoxicated throngs. Poe’s man in the crowd is walking there every night, back and forth, forward and back again, his eyes lit by some dream.58

He now however found the experience of belonging to such a world exhilarating as well as dispiriting, relishing the anonymity of New York, and the extraordinary richness of its street scenes. Although he was unable to find “poetry” or “tenderness” in the city,59 he was gradually seduced by its energy, sensing that for all its faults it served as “a portent of this and coming time, the towering apex of a growing pyramid of civilisation”.60

New York Nights was not short of details of the city’s demi-monde, including vivid descriptions of the night life in one club in Harlem, where a nearly-naked contortionist distorted her body for the gratification of the audience. Graham also visited a number of burlesque shows, as well as dance halls, where men and women could pay to secure a dancing partner, whose morals he noted pointedly “I could not vouch for”. His old censorious tone also occasionally surfaced when he saw performances that he thought were “an offence against decency”, but most of his writing was simply designed to capture the texture of what he saw. Some of the best passages in New York Nights focused on his travels along the Bowery, still at that time a by-word for flop-houses and illegal speak-easies, which Graham described as a street that had “not been made; it grew, and even if it be a fungoid, it is natural”.61 He explained how he used secret passwords to gain access to illegal clubs, which served drinks of such potency that many patrons collapsed on the pavement as soon as they left, as well as describing the crowds of beggars who swarmed round any faintly prosperous-looking passer-by demanding money and cigarettes. Graham acknowledged that, for all its squalor, he found the Bowery “a strange, haunting, haunted street”, whose denizens had their own particular code of honour, and he was convinced that the time he spent watching its street-life gave him “a true perspective of the city, and I think I know more of New York because of the many nights I have spent there”.62 The reviewers varied in their judgements about the success of his attempts to convey his experiences. The New York Times praised his book for providing “an important part of the picture of New York as quite a lot of people not New Yorkers are currently seeing it”.63 The reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, by contrast, found Graham’s descriptions those of “a very external observer”, who managed only to make his subject matter sound “dreary”.64 The Saturday Review found the sketches “sensitively written” but lacking the interest “to warrant publication in book form”.65 The variation in the reviews may help to explain why New York Nights sold better in America than in Britain. Graham was still finding greater critical and commercial success in the New World than he was back home.

Graham returned to England from America in July 1927, noting rather cryptically in his journal that he was returning home “for my soul”, perhaps suggesting that he had begun to worry that his New York lifestyle was warping his personality and outlook. His chronic restlessness meant that he only stayed in London for a few days, though, almost immediately leaving the capital for a car trip to Scotland.66 Graham stopped off to admire the medieval Romanesque architecture of Ely Cathedral, before moving on northwards up the east coast, camping out on Holbeach Marsh in Lincolnshire, where he watched bats swooping to take insects at sundown. He then visited the gothic Minister at Beverley in Yorkshire, before heading for Berwick and the border, travelling through the area where his father had spent his early years. By the second half of July he was at John O’Groats, “in perfect weather”, after which he drove round to the west coast of Scotland through lanes full of summer flowers. Graham covered more than 2,000 miles during his seventeen-day trip, and later wrote that he found himself appalled at the emptiness of my “native land”, a phrase that had considerable significance. Although his interest in his Scottish roots had previously been rather desultory, his mother was always enthralled by the songs and literature of the land of her birth, whilst Anderson Graham had, in later life, spent much of his time and energy writing about the borderlands.67 Graham’s trip to his “native land” was made at least in part in homage to his late parents. It may also have been designed to help him delay, at least for a while, his return to the city where he had recently endured so many frustrations and disappointments. His respite was only temporary. By the start of August he was back home in London, where he began collecting pieces for a collection, The Tramp’s Anthology, which included works by authors including Vachel Lindsay and George Borrow. Graham hoped it would sell well on the back of the recent success of Gentle Art of Tramping.68

Rose Graham had by the second half of 1927 become deeply involved in the establishment of the International Society for Individual Psychology – more often known as the Adler Society – an organisation that was the brainchild of Stephen’s old friend Dimitrije Mitrinović.69 The Society was formally committed to fostering the establishment of “an organic social order based upon the understanding of human beings affected by modern psychology” (despite its nomenclature the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler was decidedly luke-warm about the organisation that bore his name).70 Although Mitrinović was convinced that recent developments in psychology and sociology meant that “knowledge of the soul has become an exact science”, the records of the Society show that many of its members were interested, above all, in various forms of eastern and esoteric thought, even if these were clothed in a language designed to make them seen scientific and objective. Rose served as Secretary of the Adler Society from its formation, as well as chairing one of the early meetings of the Society, and her notes record talks on subjects ranging from Zen Buddhism to Hegelian dialectic. Her husband briefly participated in the Adler Society on return from his trip to Scotland, nominally serving as Vice-President of its Sociological Group, before being replaced by the writer and critic Philip Mairet (who had like Graham known Mitrinović for many years). Although the reasons for the end of his involvement are not clear, it is hard to imagine Graham having much time for debate about such topics as ‘Communism and the Zodiac’, which formed the subject of one of the Sociological Group’s meetings soon after he left.

Graham’s brief participation in the Adler Society suggests that neither he nor Rose were convinced that the breach between them was as yet final. He nevertheless chose to spend the final months of 1927 alone in Paris, the city he had for years escaped to whenever life had become too difficult in London, spending his time rather aimlessly attending the Folies Bergères and various cabaret performances. Although Graham knew a number of artists and writers in the French capital – he had met Ernest Hemingway there a few years earlier – his visit in the autumn of 1927 seems to have been a solitary and rather lonely affair. The gradual breakdown of his relationship with Rose removed a central anchor in his life, fostering a powerful sense of anomie that he could not shake off wherever he went. There was something distinctively forlorn about Graham’s last entry in his 1927 journal that “I have not lived as much this year as last”. Whether he felt that the gentle air of melancholy pervading his life was preferable to the storms of emotion unleashed in 1926 by his affair with Peg is hard to say.

Graham’s journal entries for the first few weeks of 1928 suggest that the scars of the previous few years were still far from healed. He reflected on the way that love was “often a mean state. One wants so much more than one gives. How preferable the innocent state of living in daily happiness, taking and giving, the joys which are possible”.71 Graham was, though, gradually regaining some of his old energy. He spent the first few months of 1928 working on his novel The Lay Confessor, which he regarded as his finest work of fiction right down to his death, writing 43,000 words in May alone. The experience left him drained. By the middle of June he had finished revising the novel – “harder work than writing” – although he was still confident that it was his “strongest book”.

The setting of The Lay Confessor took Graham back to the turbulent days of pre-revolutionary Russia. The central character is one Epiphanov, a kind of tavern-philosopher, whose outward interest in “eating and drinking” conceals the “ascetic under-garb of a confessor”, who attracts those around him precisely because they find him more approachable than the priests and deacons of the Orthodox Church.72 Many of the sentiments uttered by Epiphanov echo those of his creator, including his attacks on the new Russian middle class as “a dangerous element”, and his claim that “Peter the Great cheated Russia of her true capital” by moving the Court from Moscow to St Petersburg. Graham also used his own narrative voice to condemn Britain for its policy towards Russia before 1917, suggesting that the government in London had worked to undermine the tsarist ancien régime by encouraging investors to extract wealth rather than allow it “to flow freely into the communal life of the country”.73 Epiphanov himself plays a morally ambiguous role in the plot of The Lay Confessor, living openly with a young woman who had once been in love with a former student, Sasha, himself a leader in one of the more violent revolutionary factions. Graham made Rasputin a central character of the novel, providing a surprisingly positive portrait of the celebrated Holy Man as one who lived “very simply” in rooms “utterly devoid of luxury”.74 The denouement of The Lay Confessor comes when Epiphanov is thrown into prison following the revolution, and Sasha only agrees to release him if his former lover returns to him, a condition which she accepts. Epiphanov himself dies, still anguished by the fate of his beloved Russia, his character enriched by personal suffering.

It is not easy to see why Graham regarded The Lay Confessor as his best novel. The language is often stilted (“Let’s go to Yama and have some cabbage pies and tea”). The portrayal of the historical background is extremely confused (the February and October revolutions are in effect conflated into one). The characters are, as all too often in Graham’s fiction, extremely one-dimensional. The reviews were nevertheless generally positive. The Manchester Guardian praised the book as “genuinely realistic art”.75 The Observer praised the “superbly sharp” observation.76 The Bookman was less effusive, but still believed that the “dignified competence” of the novel would enhance Graham’s reputation,77 whilst the Times Literary Supplement praised him for “snaring” readers with his vivid prose.78 Some critics claimed to detect in the book an echo of the themes found in the major works of nineteenth-century Russian literature, including redemption through suffering and the co-existence of virtue and vice in the human heart. The positive reception of the book is particularly surprising given that Graham’s critical reputation in British literary circles had declined over the previous few years (his fiction in particular seldom attracted favourable reviews). His reputation as an expert on Russia, albeit one who had not visited the country for many years, was still powerful enough to encourage critics to presume that he had an unusually vivid insight into the dramatic events of 1917. Graham’s lectures on Russia continued to attract audiences eager to hear him talk about how Bolshevik Russia might yet change as a result of the “pent-up national spiritual forces” suppressed over the previous ten years by the Soviet leadership.79

Graham recovered from the strain of finishing The Lay Confessor with a car trip through the West Country, sleeping outside when the weather was good, in an attempt to recapture something of the free-spirited life he had relished so strongly twenty years earlier. He then headed off to Fontainbleau, the headquarters of Gurdjieff’s controversial Institute, in order to visit the ever-mercurial Maya (the sometime companion of Algernon Blackwood). His trip was only a short one, though, and by the middle of August 1928 he was back home working on the publicity for The Lay Confessor. He also worked on the early drafts of a series of literary essays, as well as regularly visiting the British Library to carry out research for a biography of Peter the Great, which was published the following year. Graham had by now started to recover a good deal of his emotional equanimity. The Daily Mail published articles by him on ‘London Evenings’ which told of his visits to fashionable restaurants and clubs.80 By the end of 1928 Graham was enough of a fixture on the London social scene to warrant a gently ironic (and astute) comment in the Daily Mirror’s ‘As I see Life’ column that for “a writer of mystical books” he loved “to look at gaiety”.81 An entry in his journal a few weeks earlier noted laconically, and without comment, that “Rose goes to 6 Denmark Street to live”. Rose Graham’s exact whereabouts over the previous few months is in fact something of a mystery, although she certainly stayed for a time with her sister-in-law Eleanor, who lived not far away from Frith Street in Bloomsbury. Rose’s own journal conveys little of her emotions at this time. She would however surely have been tempted to agree with one of her husband’s journal entries dating from December 1928, when he wrote cryptically that “there’s a lot of mystery about my family but I can’t fathom it”.

Graham’s partial break with Rose provided the springboard into a new phase of his life, and the period 1929-30 saw a number of changes that were to have a profound impact on his work, as he began to concentrate on writing novels and biographies rather than travel books. His biography of Peter the Great, which appeared in 1929, was predictably unsympathetic towards a Tsar whose life had been dedicated to making his country more western and less Russian in thought and culture. Peter was portrayed as a man who “throve in an atmosphere of fear, cruelty, and burlesque mirth” and, although not personally cruel, he could be brutal in his determination to change “the appearance and style” of the lands over which he ruled.82 Some critics praised the book for possessing the drama of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, “set back a couple of centuries and embodied in one man”,83 but Alexander Nazaroff writing in the New York Times found the book accurate but “not very dramatic”.84 Professional historians were still less kind.85

Graham himself wrote many years later that he had never found writing historical biographies a rewarding experience, since he lacked the patience to engage in detailed historical research, preferring the art of “writing from what you see”.86 The essays of literary criticism he prepared for publication during 1928-29 were altogether more impressive. A few of the pieces that appeared in the collection The Death of Yesterday had been published previously. Some of the unpublished pieces dated back to 1914, whilst others were of far more recent origin, including articles on Vachel Lindsay and Rudyard Kipling. The best work combined a shrewd appraisal of individual writers and literary trends with Graham’s characteristically lively, if over-coloured, prose. Nietzsche was described as “a man killed by his loneliness”. The poems of Carl Sandburg “should be slowly intoned, the way one might read the Book of Job at Vespers”. Robert Burns provided “a voice for the voiceless”.87 Even the most cursory reading of The Death of Yesterday shows how much more emotionally involved Graham was in the work than in his biography of Peter the Great. His travel writing had always been at its best when offering something more than simple descriptions of landscape and people. His best literary criticism showed a similar ability to hint at the deep textures and colours that characterised the work of his favourite writers.

Graham continued to travel a good deal in 1929-30, although the financial crisis that erupted with the collapse of the Wall Street markets cost him a good deal of money, and made it hard to find new commissions for his writing. His two longest trips were to the United States. One of Graham’s main reasons for travelling to America in the spring of 1929 was to see Vachel Lindsay and his new wife Elizabeth, who had recently moved back to the old Lindsay family home in Springfield from Spokane, along with their two young children (Lindsay and Graham had corresponded regularly since their Glacier Park hike eight years earlier).88 After staying in New York for a few weeks to discuss business with his publishers, Graham took the train to Illinois, where he was struck by the change in his old friend: “It was surprising to sit with Vachel in his home, drinking red wine and [smoking] cigarettes. He adored his wife to a point that was almost embarrassing to a guest”.89 After leaving Springfield, Graham travelled back eastwards to New York, which he found “very blank and uninteresting”, and quickly “got on the first boat I could find”. He arrived in London in June where he felt “in the blues for a whole month”, and it was only with a short trip to France that he began to recover his spirits. He wrote to Elizabeth Lindsay that he planned to return to America in a few months if his biography of Peter the Great was a commercial success, adding mournfully that “the worst of your dear country is that for a man of my type it is very difficult to earn a decent living. I spend much and earn little, so I am always seeking some success such as I might easily have with a book of this kind”.90 His hopes were not fulfilled. He was unable to return to America until the autumn of 1930, when he gave a series of lectures in the United States and Canada on subjects including such unlikely topics as ‘Family Life in the USA’ (the lecture circuit remained profitable for overseas speakers, although the Wall Street crash of 1929 meant that lucrative engagements were harder to come by than before).91 Graham also once again met Vachel and his wife in New York. It was their last meeting before Lindsay took his life the following year by drinking a bottle of Lysol disinfectant, following a long struggle with depression and financial worries. Graham arrived back in London a few days before Christmas 1930. He published nothing about these two trips – unusual for a man who had always been so adept at turning his experiences into prose – and evidence perhaps both of his weariness and the collapse in the market for such work.

Vachel and his wife still addressed their letters to both Stephen and Rose right down until 1930, even though they were at least dimly aware of the problems between them. It is almost impossible to recreate in any detail the texture of the relationship between the Grahams during the final years of the 1920s. The two of them certainly went on holiday together to the Pyrenees in 1928. They also occasionally drove out from London into the countryside, where they lay side-by-side, staring at the sky, relishing the peace and quiet. The few letters that survive from Rose suggest that she was withdrawing into a private world, punctuated by her involvement in the Adler Society, and she seems to have found consolation in precisely the kind of esoteric language and outlook that her husband had increasingly abandoned. She wrote to Vachel Lindsay in 1929 that “to obey the dictates of one’s spirit and create a satisfactory adjustment and vision to see through this contradictory little world of ours is no easy matter [...] Perhaps it is true that there is a recipe for solution of any problem: a measure of honesty and sincerity with one of wonder and bewilderment topped off with a puff of humour”.92 The wistful tone of the letter suggests that she had not herself found the solution. Rose’s presence simply fades out of her husband’s life during these years. Graham was left with the task of building a new personal and professional life to replace the one that had slowly crumbled apart.

Even the most diligent of biographers can never hope to penetrate fully to the subtle interplay of hopes and dreams that shape the life of their subject. Nor is it possible to recreate the storms of emotion that inevitably surround the breakdown of any long-term relationship. It seems that the collapse of Graham’s relationship with Rose was not so much the catalyst as the consequence of changes in his outlook on life which had been taking place over many years. The youthful Graham found in his half-imagined idyll of Holy Russia a place of order and harmony, which provided him with a sense of consolation for the deracination and estrangement he felt in the prosaic world of Edwardian Britain. Rose herself seems to have taken her place in Graham’s emotional life at this time as a serene presence who provided him both with the freedom to travel and the security of having someone to return to from his sojourns across the world. Yet even Graham’s early writings showed a fascination with the colour and contradictions of a “Little World” that possessed its own allure and vibrancy. Before the First World War, he was already torn between his search for the eternal and his interest in the rich texture of everyday life. His experiences in the trenches and his travels through post-war Europe made this tension even stronger, as he increasingly came to question the metaphysical musings of his youth. The breakdown of his relationship with Rose flowed from these changes. Her presence in his life had come about when he was still a very young man, hopeful of finding a place – both physical and emotional – where conflict and uncertainty could be banished to the margins. The more mature Graham intuitively understood that such an escape from the cares of the world was not possible. His break with Rose was part both of an anguished loss of old dreams and a step towards building a new life.

1 The Bookman, April 1926.

2 Stephen Graham, London Nights (London: John Lane, 1929), p. 96 (first published in 1925 by Hurst and Blackwood).

3 Ibid, p. 108.

4 All cases taken from Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 35 (Journal for 1923) or Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London: Collins, 1964), pp. 307-11.

5 Graham, London Nights, p. 118.

6 Ibid, p. 110.

7 Ibid, p. 118.

8 Ibid, p. 121.

9 Ibid, p. 65.

10 The Bookman, February 1926. See, too, the positive review in the English Review, March 1926.

11 Graham, London Nights, pp. 12-13.

12 Amongst the vast literature on this broad topic see, for example, David Frisby, Cityscapes of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2001). For an early classic treatment of the subject see Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

13 Stephen Graham, Under-London (London: Macmillan, 1923), p. 4.

14 Ibid, p. 66.

15 Ibid, p. 365.

16 Ibid, p. 367.

17 The Bookman, October 1923 (on Under-London); see, too, the New York Times, 24 October 1926 (on London Nights).

18 English Review, January 1924.

19 On Williams’s life and career, see Charlotte Alston, Russia’s Greatest Enemy: Harold Williams and the Russian Revolutions (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007). Graham’s private journal suggests that he may have considered the trip as early as the summer of 1923. See Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 35 (Journal for 1923, entry dated 1 May).

20 The Times, 29 August 1924.

21 Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 279.

22 Ibid, p. 282. See, too, The Times, 9 September 1924. For a contemporary account of problems faced by Russians living in the Balkans, albeit written from a very Russian nationalist perspective, see Baron A. Heyking, The Main Issues Confronting the Minorities of Latvia and Esti (London: P.S. King, 1922).

23 The Times, 23 September 1924.

24 Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 285.

25 The Times, 14 October 1924.

26 Stephen Graham, Russia in Division (London: Macmillan, 1925), p. 8.

27 Ibid, p. 26.

28 Western Morning News, 17 October 1924.

29 The Times, 23 October 1924; Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 287.

30 The Weekly Westminster, 25 October 1924.

31 For Graham’s views of the émigrés in Paris see Stephen Graham, ‘Russian Vignettes’, Saturday Review, 21 February 1925.

32 The Times, 3 April 1925.

33 Ibid, 28 April 1925.

34 Stephen Graham, Lost Battle (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1934), p. 299.

35 Vachel Lindsay Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Lindsay, 18 January 1926.

36 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 36 (Journal for 1925).

37 Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping (New York: Appleton, 1926), pp. 1, 4, 5, 221.

38 Saturday Review, 30 April 1927.

39 Times Literary Supplement, 26 May 1927.

40 Stephen Graham, Midsummer Music (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), p. 63 (first published by Hurst and Blackett in 1926).

41 Ibid, p. 67.

42 The Bookman, February 1927.

43 Graham Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Lindsay, 20 March 1927.

44 All the quotations in this and the following paragraphs are unless stated otherwise taken from Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 37 (Journal for 1926).

45 T.I.F. Armstrong (Gawsworth) Papers, Misc. (1925 Diary, entry dated 16 January).

46 New Atlantis Foundation Archive 1/6/2/12/1 (Rose Graham notebook).

47 Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 293. Also see The Times, 8 September 1926.

48 Uzhgorod is today in the Ukraine (Uzhhorod) and Graham’s treatment of its people as Russian rather than Ukrainian at least in part reflected his instinctive great Russian nationalism.

49 The Times, 16 September, 1926.

50 Stephen Graham, New York Nights (New York: George H. Doran, 1927), p. 246.

51 Ibid, p. 28.

52 The quotations in this and the following paragraph unless otherwise stated are taken from Graham Papers, Box 579, 48 (Journal for 1927 although the original erroneously labelled 1926).

53 Current History (New York), 27, 2 (1927), pp. 229-32.

54 Vachel Lindsay Papers (HRC), Letters, Graham to Lindsay, 20 March 1927.

55 Ibid, Graham to Lindsay, 20 April 1927.

56 Stephen Graham, ‘The Bowery under Prohibition’, Harper’s Magazine, February 1927; Stephen Graham, ‘In a Flop-House’, New Yorker, 30 July 1927; ‘Transient’s Impressions’, New Yorker, 23 July 1927; ‘A Rooming House in Speakeasy Street’, New Yorker, 9 July 1927.

57 Graham, New York Nights, p. 53.

58 Ibid, p. 14.

59 Ibid, p. 20.

60 Ibid, p. 17.

61 Ibid, p. 183.

62 Ibid, p. 199.

63 New York Times, 6 November 1927.

64 Times Literary Supplement, 19 April 1928.

65 Saturday Review, 4 February 1928.

66 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 580, 5c (‘Camping out in Scotland’). For further details see Graham Papers (FSU), 579, 48 (Journal for 1927 erroneously labelled 1926).

67 P. Anderson Graham, Highways and Byways in Northumbria (London: Macmillan, 1920); P. Anderson Graham, Lindisfarne (London: Knight, Frank and Rutley, 1920).

68 Stephen Graham (ed.), The Tramp’s Anthology (London: Peter Davies, 1928).

69 On the Adler Society see Andrew Rigby, Dimitrije Mitrinović: A Biography (York: William Sessions, 2006), pp. 95-105.

70 New Atlantis Foundation archives, NAF 3/1/2 (1928 Statement of the aims of the Adler Society).

71 Graham Papers (FSU), Box 578, 38 (Journal for 1928).

72 Stephen Graham, The Lay Confessor (London: Ernest Benn, 1928), p. 43.

73 Ibid, p. 62.

74 Ibid, p. 208.

75 The Manchester Guardian, 2 November 1928.

76 The Observer, 21 October 1928.

77 The Bookman, November 1928.

78 Times Literary Supplement, 2 August 1928.

79 Manchester Guardian, 24 February 1928.

80 See, for example, Daily Mail, 12 July 1928.

81 Daily Mirror, 12 December 1928.

82 Stephen Graham, Peter the Great (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 113.

83 The Bookman, October 1929.

84 New York Times, 22 December 1929.

85 Journal of Modern History, 2, 1 (1930), pp. 124-25.

86 Graham, Wonderful Scene, p. 299.

87 Stephen Graham, The Death of Yesterday (London: Ernest Benn, 1930), pp. 147, 87, 101.

88 For letters between Graham and Lindsay during the 1920s, see Marc Chenetier (ed.), Letters of Vachel Lindsay (New York: Burt Franklin, 1979).

89 Eleanor Ruggles, The West-Going Heart: A Life of Vachel Lindsay (New York: Norton, 1959), p. 404.

90 Vachel Lindsay Papers (HRC), Misc., Graham to Elizabeth Lindsay, 29 August 1929.

91 Montreal Gazette, 1 December 1930; New York Times, 7 November 1930.

92 Vachel Lindsay Papers (HRC), Letters file, Rose Graham to Lindsay, 15 June 1929.