Books to Tune Your Soul On: Louise Bradley’s Bookshelf

This spring, I started transcribing Louise Bradley’s 1930s diary and was soon captivated by the quirky brilliance of Theophilus and Rebecca Wylie’s great-granddaughter.  In a series of diary entries in the summer of 1930, Bradley “rearranged [her] books,” “wonder[ed] what literary vitamin [she] lack[ed],” and began “hunting for the perfect book to tune [her] soul on.”1  Bradley read quickly and widely, not just for information or enjoyment but also to develop her own skill as a writer.  Although Bradley worked tirelessly at her craft and took writing classes from established authors, alas—no drafts of her stories remain, and very few people know her name today.  Determined to give Bradley her due, I made a virtual exhibit about her life and came up with a plan to create a physical remembrance of her in the Wylie House, which she often visited as a child.  To honor her brilliance, feminism, and devotion to the written word, we collected books by the sixteen women writers she mentions in her diary and chose copies published in the United States in the late 1920s and early 1930s to represent her bookshelf as faithfully as possible. 

Works by American art historian Helen Gardner (1878-1946), Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), Russian fashion designer Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), and American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) helped Bradley gain an appreciation for the fine arts and those who practice them.  Bradley began reading Gardner’s art history textbook in the winter of 1930 with a plan “to memorize [it], Freshman-like.”2  She adored reading about the lives of Bashkirtseff and Pavlovna, and her entries suggest that she wished her own life were as captivating as theirs were; “I should be famous,” she wrote, “and I am nothing.  As I intend to be even more frank than Marie Bashkirtseff, I shall add that I am beautiful.”3  Bradley loved dancing and wrote in her diary that she “sat up in bed all morning” on Thanksgiving Day, 1931, “rapturously reading Isadora Duncan’s autobiography.”4  

American bestsellers Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), Temple Bailey (1869-1953), and Mary Austin (1868-1934) intrigued Bradley.  When she read Rinehart’s autobiography in May 1931, she concluded that the mystery writer was “weak and resentful and unable to think in a straight line.”5  Bradley seemed to expect more high-mindedness from a famous writer and admired romance novelist Bailey for “stand[ing] for something—even if it is sweetness and light.”  Like the heroine in Bailey’s Burning Beauty, Bradley was devoted to her brother; she lived with Bob until her death in 1979.  In Earth Horizon, Austin writes that her brother received all the attention in her household: “the mere whim of the dominant male member, even in fields which should have been exempt from his interference, [was] allowed to assume the whole weight of moral significance.”6  In her diary, Bradley expresses her frustration with Bob, saying that he is “cruel, rude, and supercilious,”7 but her later letters suggest a deep affection for him.

Bradley’s references to British birth control campaigners Dora Russell (1894-1986) and Marie Stopes (1880-1958) reflect her own changing attitudes toward sexuality and women’s rights.  In the summer of 1930, she wrote, “I wish that people wouldn’t insist on discussing sex. . . . Russell and her philosophized vulgarity nauseate me.”8  One year later, after spending several days “reading and rereading Married Love,” she wrote, “I do not think Freud overestimates the importance of sex.”9  And a year after that, she declared, “I am obsessed by sex, I do not deny it.  No healthy person recently freed from the inhibitions of Puritanism can be otherwise.”10  She believed that, in order for women to be free from repression, “Birth control and abortion [should be] made legal.”11

Bradley aspired to be like Modernists Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), and Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990), who were known for their uninhibited attitudes toward life and their intellectual writing styles.  Bradley admired Millay’s sonnets, calling them “sculpturesque,”12 and especially loved “XLVIII” in Fatal Interview.  Bradley compared her own writing to Katherine Mansfield’s, saying that she was “almost up to” the short story writer in some ways and was even “ahead [of her]” in others.13  In one diary entry, Bradley noted that she wanted to try “an adaptation of Va. Wolfe’s [sic] method in The Waves” for her story about a bridge party.14  Finally, she called Lehmann’s Dusty Answer, which caused a stir for its portrayal of a lesbian relationship, “a luxuriant, undisciplined book with flashes of greatness.”15

International celebrities like Rebecca West (1892-1983), Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940), and Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) made Bradley doubt her own ability to be a famous writer.  When reading West, whom Time dubbed “the world’s No. 1 woman writer,”16 Bradley felt her own “utter innocence and inexperience and ignorance” and was “tempted to renounce writing forever and ever.”17  Bradley was similarly disgusted with her own writing when she read Lagerlöf’s The General’s Ring: “I almost threw my fountain pen away in anguish, for I am weak at plot.”18  In 1909, Lagerlöf became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in 1928, Norwegian novelist Undset became the third.  Bradley read part of Kristin Lavransdatter, Undset’s medieval epic, in July 1931.

Together with these sixteen books, Bradley’s diary gives us a glimpse into the life of a passionate woman finding her own way during the societal upheaval of the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and the Great Depression. Although the women represented here sometimes intimidated Bradley with their talent, they also inspired her to pursue her own writing and to imagine herself as a famous author. While Bradley never published her own work, I like to imagine her as the seventeenth member of this collection, no less important than the other sixteen.

Bradley’s guides (L-R): Gardner, Bashkirtseff, Pavlovna, Duncan, Rinehart, Bailey, Austin, Russell, Stopes, Millay, Mansfield, Woolf, Lehmann, West, Lagerlöf, and Undset.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following booksellers for helping us create this collection: A Cappella Books, Between the Covers Rare Books, Bookfever, Chanticleer Books, Common Crow Used & Rare Books, Derringer Books, Joe Maynard, Julian’s Books, Lorne Bair Rare Books, The Modern First, The Reluctant Bookseller, Second Life Books, and Yesterday’s Gallery & Babylon Revisited Rare Books.

Citations

[1] Diary, 25 July 1930, 11 August 1930.
[2] Diary, 16 November 1930.
[3] Diary, 24 May 1930.
[4] Diary, 26 November 1931.
[5] Diary, 10 May 1931.
[6] Austin, Mary Hunter. Earth Horizon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932. p. 128.
[7] Diary, 18 December 1931.
[8] Diary, 25 July 1930.
[9] Diary, July 18 1931.
[10] Diary, November 1932.
[11] Diary, 11 May 1931.
[12] Diary, 16 December 1930.
[13] Diary, 26 May 1930.
[14] Diary, October 1932.
[15] Diary, 19 January 1931.
[16] “Books: Circles of Perdition.” TIME. 8 December 1947.
[17] Diary, 11 December 1931.
[18] Diary, May 1931.

In a diary entry on October 5, 1930, Bradley wrote “I have read almost constantly for 14 years.  I couldn’t dress or undress — even take a bath without a book.”  Here she is reading at age 3 or 4 (Wylie House Image Collection 2005.003.1497).