The Tightrope Walker:
Autobiographical Writings of Anne Wilkinson

by Joan Coldwell,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0802057454

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Private Necessities
by Joyce Marshall

A JOURNAL that the poet Anne Wilkinson kept between 1947 and 1956, and a memoir covering the first 22 years of her life that she was preparing for publication when stricken by the cancer that killed her in 196 1, have been edited by Joan Coldwell and published as The Tightrope Walker. I approached the book with excitement. Wilkinson was an unusually beautiful woman, born to wealth and status, and a poet of sensitivity and grace. I expected, at least hoped, to find if not a study of literary creativity, then glimpses of it in action, hot.

There are rewards and insights in the journal, but these, for the first few years, are rather few and scattered. One makes such a record for a self that already knows more than one need write down or explain, and all too often simply jots down events, thoughts, and doubts as they come and as they seem. In addition, Wilkinson was an exceedingly reticent woman, and it soon becomes clear that there was much that she was unwilling, or perhaps unable, to talk about, even to herself. Also, she was at first just feeling her way as a diarist, and only in 1954 does she announce that she now sees what purpose her journal ought to fill. By then she'd read Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary and, like most writers, especially women writers, been profoundly moved by it. "I could have written the book," she wrote, "if I could write." Well, she could write - her poetry gives ample proof of that -but she lacked the skill, or more probably the need and inclination, to seize and make explicit, as Woolf could do, the very essence of the creative process, its travails and agonies and exhilaration. She was working by that time on Lions in the Way, a history of the Osler family, from which she was descended through her mother, and the journal now becomes richer and fuller, more concerned with her writing, less with the social fripperies to which she was born. Still, I often wished she'd tell us more than she does. The slow breakdown of her marriage to Dr Robert Wilkinson, for instance, is barely sketched. But I can't quarrel with this. There's something awkward and unnatural about reading, and commenting upon, another person's diary, which was written for private necessities and not for us.

The memoir of her early life, part of which was published in the Tamarack Review after Wilkinson's death, was written for us and made in large part ready for our eyes, though the final section is spotty, with several pages lost. This is a graceful and spirited account of a kind of sheltered young woman's life long vanished and scarcely comprehensible to us now (Wilkinson was born in 19 10); a world in which a young lady could be carried off by her mother for a European cruise because she'd been careless enough to become engaged to two young men at once. A life of long, idyllic summer holidays at the family vacation estate at Roches Point on Lake Simcoe, winters in California for her mother's health. A somewhat scattered education at various idiosyncratic small schools, culminating in a harum-scarum session at Swarthmore College. The piece is charmingly written and beautifully shaped, the details and curiosities of the life sharply caught and intriguing, but I wish Wilkinson hadn't been quite so determined to present her young self as a madcap rich girl with scarcely a thought in her head. Was this modesty? A reticent need to keep her personal secrets to herself? Or is the portrayal true? It's impossible to judge at this point, or to understand how or why she became the gifted poet that she was - as if it were ever possible to understand such things. Which may be just what Anne Wilkinson was trying to tell us.


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