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Essay

The Disappearance of Rosemary Tonks

Praised by the likes of Philip Larkin, Tonks was a writer to be reckoned with. Why did she vanish?

There’s something unnatural about wildly successful people who decide that, actually, they prefer to be anonymous after all. What kind of person chooses to forfeit the rewards of fame: the praise, the power, the prestige? We might say we admire them for eschewing the worldly, but there’s an edge of resentment to our fascination too. It goes against human nature.

In poetry, the most famous example of such a retreat is Arthur Rimbaud, who quit writing at 21 after five years of blazing innovation and productivity. Rimbaud spent the rest of his short life traveling, and he became one of the first Europeans to visit Ethiopia. His letters show him apparently consumed with his work as a trader. Critics call his abrupt abandonment of his gift “le silence de Rimbaud.”

Related: Artificial Art
By Peter Orr
A conversation with Rosemary Tonks.

Decades later, a London poet named Rosemary Tonks would name Rimbaud as one of her main influences. If she was not quite the scandalous sensation of her forebear, she was nonetheless respected, and she ran with a bohemian crowd. Tonks published two collections of poetry in the 1960s, along with six novels and frequent reviews. Philip Larkin corresponded with her and anthologized her. Critics took her seriously; Cyril Connolly praised the “unexpected power” of her “hard-faceted yet musical poems.” And then, quite suddenly, she disappeared.

Tonks died in April 2014, at the age of 85. Now the British publisher Bloodaxe Books has issued Bedouin of the London Evening, a slim collection that features all of Tonks’s published poetry, selections of her prose, and an introduction by Bloodaxe publisher Neil Astley, who has become her champion. Though Tonks has been frequently anthologized, much of her poetry has not been available since the 1970s; all her books fell out of print. The poet that emerges in the pages of the new collection is somehow aloof and fragile, tough and sensual. And her long self-exile casts her writing in an almost eerie light. What was Rosemary Tonks running from, and how far away did she really get?

Rosemary Tonks was born in 1928 in Gillingham, in southeast England. Her father was an engineer who died of complications from malaria in Nigeria before she was born; her mother was “unable to cope,” to use Astley’s term. Tonks, an only child with eyesight problems, grew up in children’s homes and then boarding school. Later she spent time in Lagos with her mother, who had remarried. Her stepfather, too, would die in Nigeria.

Tonks was back in London at age 18, “very poor, and beginning to read Joyce and Baudelaire.” She also began hanging around clubs such as the Mandrake, a dark jazz joint in Soho. Her first book, On Wooden Wings: The Adventures of Webster, a children’s book that she also illustrated, was published in 1948. The next year, at 20, she married Michael “Micky” Lightband, an engineer like her father. His job took the young couple to India and Pakistan. In Karachi Rosemary contracted polio, which left her with a withered right hand. She returned to England and then traveled alone to Paris, covering her hand with a smart black glove. “In illness you want to be alone,” she told an interviewer later, foreshadowing the final decades of her life.

Back together in London, the couple settled in the stylish neighborhood of Downshire Hill, Hampstead, just around the corner from the aristocratic poet and critic Dame Edith Sitwell. Tonks was a vivacious hostess; her cousin told Astley, “She effervesced and often held a dinner table spellbound.”

Meanwhile, she was writing. Between 1963 and 1972, she wrote six satirical novels, which seem to have been generally well reviewed; the Times Literary Supplement described one of them as “the product of a highly individual imagination which is yet unmistakably in touch with its time.”

A friend from the time described Tonks as something like a prophet: “Surrounded by the voices of conventional wisdom, she manifested the loner’s stare into, and the need to speak of, the indescribable future before it was too late.” But she wore this quality uneasily. She told interviewer Peter Orr in 1963: “I think it is diabolical, this getting of a poet out of his or her back room and the making of them into public figures who have to give opinions every twenty seconds.”

Tonks’s first poetry collection, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms, was published in 1963; her second and final one, Iliad of Broken Sentences, in 1967. She interweaves images of her years in Asia and Africa with snapshots of bohemian London: desert oases and mirages, jazz and cocktails. True to the first collection’s title, the poems carry a mood of chic urban dissipation. “For my fierce hot-blooded sulkiness / I need the café,” she asserts in the opening of “Diary of a Rebel.” In “The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas,” the narrator complains wryly about a faux intellectual rambling on about opera and the “international situation”: He “digs himself into the sofa. / He stays there up to two hours in the hole—and talks.” Across the two books, lovers meet at dusk, flaneurs wander dusty streets, and conversations last all night.

In “Addiction to an Old Mattress,” the narrator’s imagination carries her from a dreary February in England to restorative warmth:

Salt breezes! Bolsters from Istanbul!
Barometers, full of contempt, controlling moody isobars.
Sumptuous tittle-tattle from a summer crowd
That’s fed on lemonades and matinees.

Though she’s stuck among the “potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know,” she describes herself as “powerful, disobedient.” But there is also a strong undercurrent of pain, exhaustion, fear, boredom, and real disillusionment in many of these poems. For a poet of “the modern metropolis,” as she once admiringly referred to Rimbaud, Tonks seems distinctly uneasy there. In “Story of a Hotel Room,” for example, a casual tryst proves emotionally dangerous:

Londoner, Parisian, someone should have warned us
That without permanent intentions
You have absolutely no protection

In “Bedouin of the London Evening,” which lends the new collection its name, the poet concludes:

I have been young too long, and in a dressing-gown
My private modern life has gone to waste.

If you know where this is heading—well, you can see where this is heading.

Tonks’s mother died suddenly in 1968, and then her marriage collapsed. She spent the rest of her life searching for spiritual succor. Over the course of the next decade, Astley reports, she attended spiritualist meetings, sought out an American yoga guru, sat before Sufi “seekers,” and consulted mediums, the latter approach one that had been favored by her mother. She stopped writing for publication. In 1977 she was involved in meditation and eye exercises that involved staring for hours at a wall, crossing her eyes, and staring at bright objects. On December 31 of that year, she underwent emergency surgery for detached retinas in both eyes, which left her almost blind for the next several years.

Tonks’s last published work, a poignant essay that psychologized the risqué French novelist Colette, appeared in the New York Review of Books in 1974. “In the material world, it is extremely useful to become lucky before you can become unlucky,” Tonks wrote. “Your contemporaries get into the habit of liking you: and you are able to retain your daring.” (The essay is reprinted in the new collection.)

In 1980 Tonks moved from London to Bournemouth, a resort town where her aunt lived. There she finally developed the spiritual habit that would sustain her for the rest of her life: reading the Bible, which she called her “complete manual.”

Bit by bit, Tonks stripped herself of her old possessions, connections, and customs. She sold her house in London and refused to respond to letters from friends, family, and publishers. To break herself of her reliance on sleeping pills, she shaved off a bit more of each tablet with a razor blade every day until she could go without them altogether.

Most dramatically, she gathered her significant collection of Asian artifacts and set fire to them in her garden. It had been a tremendous collection, enough to fill five suitcases: masks, bronzes, Tang and Sung figurines, pieces of porcelain and jade and mother-of-pearl. To her, they were all “graven images.” Tonks spent days hammering the charred remnants down to “dog-biscuit size” pieces. When she was done, she burned the manuscript of her last unpublished novel.

On October 17, 1981, Tonks was baptized near the River Jordan. The next day was her 53rd birthday. It was a “second birth.” She lived the rest of her life in Bournemouth as Rosemary Lightband, her married name, and one almost Dickensian in its allusion to her life as a convert. She saw signs everywhere; loneliness was caused by Satan’s influence, while a favorite string quartet on the radio or the sound of soft bird-calls was sent by God to comfort her.

Writing about the last decades of Tonks’s life carries the risk of romanticizing a likely mental illness. But dismissing her newfound faith and purpose as the mere result of a chemical imbalance seems just as wrong. She lived for decades after her “second birth,” and although she was often depressed and avoided talking to other people as much as possible, Astley makes clear she was functional. In the first few years of her new life, she bicycled around the country looking for a church to attend. She spent time in libraries, parks, and cafés, and in her later years became a regular at the Piccadilly Hotel; a friend she made there described her to Astley as kind and quick to laugh. She kept coherent notebooks well into her 80s.

After her death, Tonks’s family allowed Astley to collect and publish her work—“not without much hesitation and careful consideration,” he writes. Tonks had rebuffed his attempts to contact her in life; after her death he learned that she had reportedly referred to him as “Satan” in her diary. But her will, completed years into her second life, did not forbid republication of her old work.

As Astley describes it, the new Tonks had “rejected not just her own books, but all books apart from the Bible.” She preferred the Tyndale Bible, the first English translation, or the later King James Bible as a last resort. She was known locally for passing out Bibles outside various churches. Beginning in the mid-1990s, she traveled on many weekends to Speakers’ Corner in London, to hand out free translations to passersby. She was no longer a “speaker” herself, and she wasn’t handing out modern poetry. But her actions suggest that even in her new life, with a new name and a new purpose, the onetime disciple of Rimbaud never stopped understanding the power of words on paper.

Essay

The Disappearance of Rosemary Tonks

Praised by the likes of Philip Larkin, Tonks was a writer to be reckoned with. Why did she vanish?

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