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HERmione (1981) by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

 New Directions, 2022
HERmione (1981) by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). New York: New Directions, 2022. With afterword by Francesca Wade.

H.D.’s HERmione opens with a meditation on the past, courtesy of her daughter, Perdita Schaffner. In H.D.-like prose, Schaffner reprimands herself: “Don’t delve and dredge. Cut down on nostalgia, that too can be insidious.”[1] This past is inescapable for Schaffner, as the ‘Pandora’s box’ of her childhood – the literal boxes of her mother’s archival material – was opened continually throughout her life, with H.D.’s letters and forgotten novels brought to Schaffner to be approved for publication. HERmione, the novel written in 1927 and recovered in 1981, connects an adult Schaffner to her eight-year-old self, as she remembers the year H.D. wrote it, locked away in her study. Schaffner tells a revealing anecdote, in which H.D. tells her of her namesake, Frances Gregg – “beautiful and good, that’s why I named you Frances Perdita.”[2] H.D.’s life-partner and Schaffner’s adopted mother, Bryher, responds sharply, forbidding H.D. from mentioning Frances Gregg again.

This episode, on the dangers and intensities of the past, is a fitting introduction to HERmione: it reveals the necessary pain of laying open one’s history, simultaneously offering a possible explanation for why H.D. never published HERmione in her lifetime, and pointing to New Directions’ decision to re-release it in 2022. The novel follows Hermione (Her) Gart, a fictionalized version of H.D. at nineteen, living at home in Pennsylvania in 1905, after flunking out of her science degree at Bryn Mawr. She already has the mind of a poet, as the text reveals how landscape turns to imagery before her eyes, interlinking with her broader web of experience: “Pennsylvania whirled round her in cones of concentric colour, cones … concentric … conic sections was the final test she failed in.”[3] Feeling alienated by her physical surroundings, familial expectations, and her relationships with former classmates, Her reaches out to individuals she can connect to spiritually and intellectually – first, George Lowndes (Ezra Pound), an old beau recently returned from Europe, and then Fayne Rabb (Frances Gregg). After agreeing to marry George – his proposal doubling as an offer to escape her family and perhaps Pennsylvania – she battles internally over her love for him, worrying that his kisses “smudged out something” in her.[4] In the midst of this anxiety, Her meets and becomes infatuated with Fayne, a mirror image, sister-self through whom she comes to understand her own art and mind. The two develop an intense relationship, much to the dismay of Her’s family and her new fiancé.

It is a compelling story embedded in the feelings of late adolescence, written with the full hindsight of adulthood. The text is riddled with personal anachronisms, as the narrator highlights concepts Her has not yet learned, or ideas she could not yet know. H.D. applies in the rear-view the terminology of psychoanalysis, which was a burgeoning interest of hers at the time of writing. Trying to further parse her identity and recover from a period of traumatic life events, H.D. spent the 1920s writing a series of romans-à-clef—among them, Paint It Today (2002), HERmione, Asphodel (1992), and Bid Me to Live (1960), which constitute what Susan Stanford Friedman termed the “Madrigal cycle.” Writing and rewriting the events and figures of her life so far, these novels functioned as auto-psychoanalytic exercises, through which H.D. sought to process and re-narrativize herself, constructing, as Francesca Wade writes, “her own legend.”[5] This strategy anticipated advice she later received in the 1930s from Freud, who instructed her to write further novels to process her trauma and unconscious desires.

HERmione is a masterclass of self-narrativizing. Reading it evokes the feeling affirmed by Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”[6] H.D. sings herself into being, in a work that is more incantation than prose. It is a novel that could only be written by a poet, as it echoes with refrains of self-assertion, the blurring together of connected ideas, and intensely poetic imagery. It is, perhaps, best described as an Imagist novel, as her descriptions of landscape seem lifted from her early poetry and blown out into an entire world. But H.D.’s real poetic prowess is revealed in the way she plays with language, inverting sentences, shifting meanings back and forth across clauses. The repeated ideas, the swirling text, and the often amorphous boundaries between the third person narrative and Her’s internal monologue create the sensation of watching a cauldron bubble and stew; this novel is a textual swirl out of which a figure can emerge, reborn into a different, mystical order of being.

The project to cement H.D.’s place in the modernist pantheon has been a conscious effort, jump-started in 1975 by Friedman’s seminal article “Who Buried H.D.?”. Since then, H.D.’s popularity has ebbed and flowed, with corresponding “waves” prompting new releases and re-releases of her work. HERmione’s initial publication in 1981 by the historically modernist publishing house, New Directions, was part of this first wave of attempts to shift her unpublished works into public view. In 1984, Virago re-published the novel in Britain under the shortened title, Her, and New Directions re-released it, largely unchanged, in 2000. This year’s re-publication constitutes the fourth published version of the novel.

While H.D. is now well-known among modernists, she has yet to find a foothold with the general reading public. In the last fifteen years, a number of H.D.’s later novels have been republished by the University Press of Florida, edited by H.D. scholars and intended as texts for academic study, as part of a push to move H.D. into the undergraduate curriculum. Perhaps as a result of this effort, we are experiencing another H.D. renaissance, as evidenced by two recent H.D. biographies: Susan McCabe’s H.D. and Bryher: an Untold Love Story of Modernism (2021) and Donna Hollenberg’s Winged Words (2022). Alongside this new wave of academic interest in H.D., Francesca Wade released her critically acclaimed Square Haunting in 2020, exploring the lives of five women, including H.D. and Virginia Woolf, during the time they lived in London’s Mecklenburgh Square.

This new edition of HERmione, with an afterword by Wade, is a kind of commercial coda to Square Haunting, primed for readers who discovered H.D. for the first time in Wade’s biography but find themselves swimming in a sea of commercially unavailable, outdated editions of her work. This 2022 release from New Directions is a beautiful edition that breaks the mold of previous H.D. covers being fairly uninspiring. The cover art rebrands H.D. as a sexy, avant-garde, pioneering author whose work is just right for the present moment: queer, questioning, feminist, bold, and free-thinking. The back matter of the edition cuts right to the chase, branding H.D. first as a “feminist icon” before describing her as a “major twentieth-century poet.” While H.D. has always been a feminist icon, whose ideas were fresh in 1927, 1981, and still today, this fact has been obscured behind stuffy-seeming cover art, often featuring black and white photos of her face. This is a rare edition of H.D.’s work that would not look out of place on the shelves of a Barnes and Noble.

The content of this edition is largely a reprint, with the exception of Wade’s afterword. Wade provides a soft landing for a first-time H.D. reader, deciphering some of the more complex and disorienting themes of the novel. The afterword contextualizes HERmione in H.D.’s wider work and literary project, while deftly shading in a portrait of H.D., recounting the usual legends of H.D.’s life and introducing the key players and ideas of her history. The content of the afterword is not new to scholars, but for the general public it is a tantalizing glimpse into an unconventional life and mind, and offering readers the vocabulary to delve deeper into H.D.’s work. The most compelling argument of the afterword is Wade’s move to resituate H.D. in the sphere of queer history and literature, carefully laying out the significance of Frances Gregg to H.D. taking herself seriously as a poet. One of the most compelling images of the novel is H.D.’s description of Hermione and Fayne sitting together as “prophetess faced prophetess over tea plates scattered and two teacups making delphic pattern on a worn carpet.”[7] If the sapphic love between Hermione and Fayne is what made the book unpublishable in 1927, its potential for enlightenment and individual self-discovery is what makes this novel ring out in 2022. Moreover, HERmione’s release now allows it to join with McCabe’s biography in cementing a queer H.D. moment, picking up the threads left by Diana Collecott and others in the 1990s.

With this re-release of HERmione, New Directions has created a new entry point into H.D.’s work as a whole, both with their choice of text and their inclusion of Wade’s afterword. Additionally, in the context of Annie Ernaux’s recent Nobel Prize, highlighting women telling the stories of their own lives seems especially timely. Rather than “delving” and “dredging,” HERmione enlightens contemporary themes through H.D.’s unique, mystical view of the past; this new edition is a boon to H.D. scholars and casual readers alike.


[1] Perdita Schaffner, “Pandora’s Box.” In HERmione. (New York: New Directions, 2022), vii.

[2] Schaffner, “Pandora’s Box,” ix.

[3] H.D., HERmione (New York: New Directions, 2022), 3.

[4] H.D., HERmione, 115.

[5] Francesca Wade, “Afterword.” In HERmione. (New York: New Directions, 2022), 238.

[6] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself (1892 version)”. Poetry Foundation. Accessed October 11, 2022. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version

[7] H.D., HERmione, 142.