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Letters and diaries of major artistic figures of the twentieth century illuminate Mary Hutchinson, but who was she?

By Marissa Kessenich

Learn about Mary Hutchinson, the woman who influenced the lives and works of writers T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Samuel Beckett.

Brenda Bynum
Brenda Bynum

Brenda Bynum, Resident Artist and faculty member at Emory University in the Department of Theater Studies from 1983 to 2000, presents “Mary Hutchinson Observed: From Bloomsbury to Beckett,” an illustrated lecture that documents Hutchinson’s impact on twentieth-century arts and letters. The free lecture occurs on Wednesday, February 22, at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center.

 

How did your interest in Mary Hutchinson begin? 

I have been working as a proofreader on the Letters of Samuel Beckett since the beginning and Mary Hutchinson was first mentioned to me by the editor, Lois Overbeck, as a fascinating correspondent of Beckett’s about whom little was known

When I was subsequently awarded the Heilbrun Distinguished Emeritus Research Fellowship at Emory University in 2005, I decided to use it to find out everything I could about her. I discovered that though there is no biography of her life, she was mentioned in the letters and diaries of many of the major artistic figures of the twentieth century.

 

The Ransom Center holds 22 boxes of papers relating to Hutchinson. How did your research here contribute to your project? 

The Hutchinson collection at the Ransom Center provided the very bedrock of my research, as it is rich with letters from and to many of those same major figures–personal letters which were deeply revealing about the quality of the friendships and connections she had with them. The papers also allowed me to construct a timeline for her life, as well as giving me addresses for the places she lived and when she lived there. I took two trips to England on the fellowship and was able to photograph all but one while there. I even found two ticket stubs for the Old Vic Theater in London and was able to go there one evening and sit in the very seats where she had sat, sometime in the 1930s. There is absolutely no substitute for the true access to a life that original documents can provide, and those in the Ransom Center were invaluable to me.

 

What was the role of a patron in this era, and how did Hutchinson become patron and friend to so many influential artists and writers? 

Mary Hutchinson was an original, and one of those women who had an instinctive and unerring appreciation for the very best and most significant works of both visual and literary art. And, when her eye was caught, she became a fierce and tireless advocate for the artists. She had resources, social connections, and prodigious energy, and believed completely in the power of art to illuminate and transform lives. It was second nature to her to support artists in every way she could. She was not an “art patron” in the sense of buying for investment or supporting for prestige&emdash;she did it because she knew that art was essential to a well-lived life and to a civilized world. Naturally, those she championed so passionately responded with gratitude and friendship.


How did she influence the lives and works of writers like T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and Samuel Beckett?  

Hmmmmm, interesting. With T. S. Eliot, she was a trusted reader and sounding board for his manuscripts and was one of the very first people to read The Waste Land. She was also financially and emotionally supportive of his troubled first wife. With Huxley, the connection was more about the six-year intense personal and sexual relationship she had with both him and his wife, after which they remained close friends. And, as for Beckett, she took every opportunity to promote interest in his work and was instrumental in having the Royal Court Theater mount a series of his plays there for the first time, by introducing him to George Devine.

 

What were some of the other sources that shaped or inspired this project?

Some of the most valuable sources for this research were the letters and diaries of mid-twentieth-century luminaries such as Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey (who was her cousin), Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and of course, those of Eliot and Huxley as well as Beckett himself. I think it was remarkable that she began with Bloomsbury and ended with Beckett and never faltered in her impeccable judgement and unstinting appreciation of the very best all along the way.

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