Borderline madness

Typical. You wait ages for a lesbian heiress to arrive and then three come along at once. The third in this week’s trio is Annie Winifred Ellerman, born in 1894 and better known (and that’s not saying much) as Bryher, a pseudonym the English writer took from one of the Scilly Isles. What fame she attracted in her lifetime, largely for her historical novels, has barely recommended her to posterity.

As we saw yesterday, Bryher (pictured above in a portrait by Carl Van Vechten) distanced herself from Natalie Barney, though their Parisian Left Bank circles overlapped and she was similarly encouraging of young writers, often backing up her support with financial assistance. She was also generous when friends were in need, buying an apartment for Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in her decline.

To secure her inheritance, Bryher entered into two marriages of convenience. The first was with Robert McAlmon, an American author mentioned in Gore Vidal’s autobiography Palimpsest, who evidently nursed an unrequited affection for Vidal’s father Gene. McAlmon, confusingly, was also romantically involved with Bryher’s long-time partner Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D. On divorcing Bryher he was set up with a tidy sum and in Paris he was mockingly referred to as “McAlimony”.

Husband number 2 was painter Kenneth Macpherson, who although gay was also in an unlikely menage à trois with H.D. (around now I feel like this would make a more useful PowerPoint presentation than a blog post; I’m seeing lots of arrows and flow charts). H.D. was apparently just as confused by this situation as I am, consulting Sigmund Freud in an attempt to make sense of it all.

Despite their messy romantic entanglement, the trio formed a progressive creative unit which they dubbed The Pool Group. Their most significant achievement was not, as you might expect, in the field of literature, rather in cinema. In 1930 they made the film Borderline, which featured singer Paul Robeson and his wife Eslanda as well as H.D. and Bryher. It mirrored the group’s preoccupation with psychological themes and formal interest in Soviet filmmaking with highly unconventional framing and editing. The film assumed mythical status after being lost for decades and it is only in the last few years that a restored print has been available.

Here’s a trailer:



  1. Fascinating people. and yes, a powerpoint presentation is called for 😉

  2. Pingback: Circles: H.D./Bryher « Strange Flowers

  3. Pingback: Pearls: Bryher « Strange Flowers

  4. Pingback: Carl Van Vechten | writers | Strange Flowers

  5. Orville Stoeber

    H.D. s tribute to Freud is profound …thank you for enlarged and enlightening insight into her life

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