J. R. Ackerley wrote only a few books and, except for his poems, never employed the same genre twice. All of his work is autobiographical in nature, and employs and subverts a variety of forms--play, travel book, animal book, novel, autobiography.
Ackerley was born in Herne Hill, South London, on 4 November 1896, the second of three children; he was registered simply as Joe, not Joseph, and his second name, Randolph, was added later. His older brother, Peter, was born in 1895, his sister, Nancy, in 1899. Their father, Roger, was a prosperous fruit importer, and their mother, Janetta Ackerley (née Aylward), had been an actress before her marriage. Both sons attended Rossall School in Lancashire, where Joe was encouraged to write by one of the schoolmasters, S. B. P. Mais.
Having failed the entrance examination to Cambridge in 1914, Ackerley applied for a commission in the army when the war began and became a second lieutenant in the Eighth Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. Ackerley considered himself a coward but was wounded in action during the Battle of the Somme and promoted to captain. A year later he was wounded again and became a prisoner of war. In December 1917, through an exchange of prisoners into internment, he arrived in Mürren, Switzerland, and was billeted in the Hôtel des Alpes. He had already written some war poems and attempted an autobiographical novel, but he had greater luck with a play, The Prisoners of War, which was eventually performed and published in 1925. The play traces the relationships among a small group of officers and is remarkable for its sympathetic treatment of homosexual love. The Prisoners of War includes many melodramatic elements, and the protagonist, in love with a younger, heterosexual man, ends up apparently mad, but the characters are well observed and plausible. As Peter Parker notes in Ackerley: A Life of J. R. Ackerley (1989), "The play's most famous exchange is that between Conrad [the play's protagonist] and Mme. Louis, who makes an ill-judged attempt to charm him with 'a ravishing smile' as she says, 'I have heard you do not like much the fair sex.' 'The fair sex?' Conrad replies. 'Which sex is that?'" (p. 33).
Ackerley's brother, Peter, was killed in battle in July 1918, and in December of that year, shortly after the Armistice, Ackerley returned to England. He seems to have felt guilt about Peter's death, as is apparent in his unpublished writings, and revised The Prisoners of War before attending Magdalene College, Cambridge, to study law in the autumn of 1919. He soon switched to the study of English literature and graduated with a B.A., earning a Third in 1921. Ackerley's father gave him a generous allowance as he tried to establish himself as a writer, but he produced little, traveled in Italy, and spent much of his time in London looking for sex. By 1923 his only publication was a group of ten poems in a collection called Poems by Four Authors. The volume sold poorly, but, to Ackerley's embarrassment, several of the poems turned up over the years in various anthologies. In the same year, through the intercession of E. M. Forster , Ackerley was employed as secretary to the Maharajah of Chhatarpur, a minor native state in central India, where Ackerley spent five months. In the meantime, The Prisoners of War was produced in a "private" theatre (to avoid the possibility of censorship or banning by the Lord Chamberlain), and the almost uniformly favorable reviews prompted a move to a larger theatre. The play ran there for just twenty-four performances. It was published as a book in March 1925, however, and received good reviews; the published version went into a second edition in 1927.
The protagonist of the play, clearly based on the author, is in love with a man who is not worth the trouble. Ackerley himself never found the "Ideal Friend" he dreamed of. He formed close, often devoted, friendships with other gay men, including writers Forster, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood , and William Plomer , but he was attracted sexually to working-class men, and his relationships with them were almost invariably disappointing. The disjuncture between loving companionship and sex, established in his twenties, became not only a theme of Ackerley's mature work but also a symbol of other kinds of division. Homosexual activity was not decriminalized in England until 1967, so for much of his life Ackerley had to observe--at least in certain circles--a discreet silence about the secret sexual life behind his respectable public life. He came to see that the "official" version of most people's lives was far from being the whole truth and to feel that only the truth, however painful, could enlarge people's minds and sympathies. His primary subject was himself, and he dissected his life and compulsions with a harsh candor that still has the power to shock. Within his family he found further compelling evidence of sexual nonconformity: his parents did not marry until 1919, and after Roger's death, Ackerley discovered that his father was a bigamist who had maintained a second household, including three children. There were also intriguing suggestions that Roger, as a young guardsman, had had a secret gay life of his own.
In 1928, Ackerley got a job as assistant talks producer with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and remained with the BBC until his retirement in 1959. One of his early assignments was to produce a series of talks in which men who had escaped from prisoner-of-war camps told their stories. Ackerley gave one of the talks himself and edited the collection that emerged from the series, Escapers All: Being the Personal Narratives of Fifteen Escapes from War-Time Prison Camps 1914-1918 (1932). Like Ackerley's play, it enjoyed some success and was reprinted. The same year, Ackerley published Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal, a lighthearted account of his five months in Chhatarpur. It was, and remains, his most successful book commercially; four printings were exhausted by the end of the year, and it was praised by readers as diverse as Vita Sackville-West , Evelyn Waugh , and André Gide . Ackerley had changed various names in the narrative, but the disguises were transparent: Chhatarpur, for example, became "Chhokrapur," which means "City of Boys"--a wry reference to the Maharajah's unashamed homosexuality. Anyone who had been in that part of India would recognize the major characters. Hindoo Holiday is technically fiction and was marketed as travel literature, but it defies easy classification. At its center is the preposterous but endearing figure of the Maharajah; Ackerley's account of him and of what he saw in India is flawless in tone--detached and ironic but not condescending. The Aga Khan III liked Hindoo Holiday more than "any other work of imagination about India written by one of your countrymen, including Kipling" (Parker, p. 162).
In April 1935, at the age of thirty-eight, Ackerley was appointed literary editor of the BBC magazine The Listener. Under its previous literary editor, Janet Adam Smith (for whom the post was created), the magazine had already established a reputation for publishing good poetry and trenchant, expert reviews of books and art exhibits; under Ackerley's editorship, which lasted for twenty-four years, The Listener became one of the premier arts journals in Great Britain. The key to being a good literary editor, Ackerley once explained, was a universal curiosity: "I read everything in sight--histories of the Ottoman Empire, instructions on patent medicine, bus-tickets, anything" (Parker, p. 176). Through his friends, his skill in approaching potential contributors, and the growing reputation of The Listener itself, Ackerley developed an impressive list of contributors from academe and the arts, despite the small sums the magazine paid its contributors. Younger writers such as W. H. Auden were particularly well represented, and many later acknowledged Ackerley's decisive role in their careers. In retrospect, his success in making The Listener a focus of British literary and intellectual life seems obvious from the beginning, but Ackerley did not have a free hand. Every piece he wished to publish had to be approved by R. S. Lambert, the general editor. Lambert was the one who had first made The Listener into a cultural journal rather than simply a broadcast magazine, but his taste was conventional, and he shared the bureaucratic desire of his superiors in the corporation to avoid controversy. Ackerley, by contrast, loved controversy and refused to allow consideration of anyone's feelings to compromise a sound review; he drew the line only at what he saw as malice or deliberate cruelty. This policy led, naturally, to hurt feelings on the part of some who thought that their friendship with Ackerley would guarantee favorable notices, but Ackerley was usually able to smooth over any difficulties, and his absolute integrity as an editor was respected by reviewers and friends alike. It was not, however, immediately respected by Alan Thomas, who succeeded Lambert as general editor in 1940; Ackerley's relationship with Thomas was acrimonious from the start, though it became more amicable over the years.
By the time of his appointment to The Listener in 1935, Ackerley had published just two books of his own, and he did not publish another until 1956. Aside from the demands of a full-time job and the fact that he needed time to find the appropriate shape and tone of a book, there were other reasons for his lack of productivity as a writer. Ackerley discovered after his father's death that Roger's double life had exhausted almost all of what had been a considerable fortune, and Ackerley became largely responsible for his mother, his aunt Gertrude "Bunny" Fowler, and his sister, Nancy, who had divorced her husband and seemed chronically incapable of managing her own affairs or of gratitude to those who helped her. Ackerley also continued to devote a good deal of his free time to the search for his Ideal Friend. Still good-looking, he was now more than forty and aware that he was more often the pursuer rather than the pursued; he often paid--directly or indirectly--for the services of young straight or bisexual men whose needs and desires were at odds with Ackerley's own. Some real friendships nevertheless grew out of these encounters, notably with policeman Harry Daley, who remained a friend for life. World War II brought to England large numbers of Allied soldiers, and gay life flourished in London; Ackerley had affairs with many Jamaicans, one of whom he continued to see for years. The most important relationship of these years, however, was with a young, married guardsman named Freddie Doyle, who had deserted and was scraping by in the London underworld. Through Doyle, Ackerley met and eventually came to own the great love of his life--the Alsatian bitch Queenie, who plays a more or less central role in the three major books Ackerley wrote in the 1950s and 1960s. For fifteen years (1946-1961), Queenie was the focus of Ackerley's emotional life.
The nature of dogs is to be loving and whole-heartedly devoted to their owners, and Ackerley found in Queenie the sort of love that had eluded him in his search for the Ideal Friend. Many of his old friends were appalled that Ackerley seemed to have settled for a dog instead of a lover; Forster, who had always thought human relationships the most important thing in the world, was particularly disappointed. Ackerley himself had written that the English, "unable to love each other . . . turn naturally to dogs" (Parker, p. 269) but was untroubled by the implications of his own relationship. He was something of a narcissist, as he recognized, and the opportunity to lavish love and attention on another being and to be loved in return constituted an escape both from his self-regard and his earlier relationships. He continued to write about himself, but in confronting a relationship that was intense, unorthodox, and, to many people, unacceptable, he was able to analyze himself without the narcissist's sentimentality. At the same time, Ackerley became, in many ways, the sort of animal lover who gives the English their reputation for dottiness on the subject of pets and animals generally. As Parker notes, he was a libertarian who "believed that life should be led off the leash by humans and animals alike" (Parker, p. 269), and part of what delighted him in Queenie was her freedom and joy in existence--qualities that the English, as Ackerley saw them, seemed to have lost in their concern with rules, respectability, and puritanical meddling in the affairs of other people. Ackerley fully endorsed, and often quoted, the words of Walt Whitman , another freedom-loving gay writer, from section 32 of "Song of Myself": "I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd, / I stand and look at them long and long."
The last serious human candidate for the role of Ackerley's Ideal Friend, a guardsman named Frank Harris , was killed in action in April 1941. In May, Ackerley moved to a flat on the Lower Richmond Road, which he occupied for the rest of his life. Ackerley's family now consisted entirely of women: his mother, who died in 1946; his aunt Bunny; his sister, Nancy; and his three half sisters, Roger's daughters by his other wife. From 1946 until his own death in 1967, Ackerley shared his flat most of the time, first with Bunny, then with Nancy. Bunny was a cheerful and supportive presence and popular with Ackerley's friends, but Nancy had never adjusted to her straitened circumstances and developed symptoms of a mental illness similar to schizophrenia. After an attempted suicide, she was in Ackerley's care for the rest of his life; she recovered sufficiently to live more or less normally, but remained querulous and self-pitying, incapable of happiness or real friendship, and jealous of Acklerley's circle of friends and his reputation.
In 1956, Ackerley published My Dog Tulip: Life with an Alsatian. The innocuously cheerful title, reminiscent of so many sentimental books aimed at the dog-loving public, was one of Ackerley's jokes, for the book included more details of Queenie's bowel habits and sex life than most readers wanted to know. As in Hindoo Holiday and later in My Father & Myself (1968), Ackerley adopted the pose of an innocent narrator taking the reader with him on a voyage of discovery that includes many surprises and unpleasant shocks. Chatto and Windus, who had published Hindoo Holiday, wanted many drastic cuts, and Ackerley offered the book to Frederic Warburg instead. Even Warburg felt obliged to get a legal opinion as to whether the book could be prosecuted for obscenity, and the printers demanded further changes. The book has wonderful comic passages, and Ackerley was disappointed that so few reviewers seemed to notice them. In the first scene of the book, for example, Ackerley encounters an old woman whose baby carriage contains a dog, "lying upon his back, propped up by pillows, with a rug tucked round his middle; just above the top of the rug the edge of a thick bandage was visible." The woman is eager to share the details of her dog's surgery, and Ackerley's comedy introduces us artfully to the strange relationship between dogs and their owners. Much of the narrative involves Ackerley's coming to terms with the dog's not being a substitute child, with its having needs and desires that have to be understood on their own terms, but the tone of bemused discovery ensures that the book, though ultimately serious, always maintains a light touch.
Ackerley was pleased by the reactions of friends. A letter which Ackerley never saw (from novelist Julia Strachey to Frances Partridge) would have delighted him in its precise understanding of his intentions:
Another excitement in this house has been reading Joe Ackerley's little book My Dog Tulip, which though entirely about dogs and bitches is a veritable little marvel of brilliance and shockingness. I don't know when I read anything so indecent, disgusting, touching, beautiful and stylish; I do fervently recommend it. Now I am telling all the tweedy philistine old crabs up here [in Newcastle] to read this sweet book about a man and his loyal doggy, and revelling in the idea of their scarification as they proceed. (Parker, p. 328)Ackerley did like to shock, but not for the sake of shocking. As he wrote to writer Stephen Spender ,
To speak the truth, I think that people ought to be upset, and if I had a paper I would upset them all the time; I think that life is so important and, in its workings, so upsetting that nobody should be spared, but that it should [be] rammed down their throats from morning to night. And may those who cannot take it die of it; it is what we want. Away, away with the obstructionists that clog our lives. Let us be liberated and free in our minds. (The Ackerley Letters, p. 115)That seriousness of purpose did not involve preachiness except when Ackerley wrote letters to the newspapers about animals' rights. Since he knew how off-putting any touch of sanctimoniousness could be, it was all the more important to achieve his effects through art. This need is most apparent in the last chapter of My Dog Tulip, "The Turn of the Screw," which Ackerley described as "a kind of prose poem about the passage of time and the frustrations of life." In it Ackerley pulls together remarkably diverse subjects--the changing seasons, the mortality of trees, the hunting instincts and sex life of dogs, and the suicide of a boy on Wimbledon Common--into a controlled meditation on the fleeting nature of life. My Dog Tulip was well received in the press, and Forster, despite his dislike of Queenie and his disappointment at the turn Ackerley's life had taken, named it his "Book of the Year" in the Sunday Times. Despite the good reviews, the book sold poorly in England and was turned down by nine American publishers; the Beacon Press, which finally accepted it, canceled the contract before publication.
In the meantime, Ackerley had completed We Think the World of You (1960), a fictionalized account of his involvement with Freddie Doyle's family and their dog. Ackerley could not risk a libel suit by Doyle, and in the repressive climate of the 1950s, even a muted portrayal of a gay protagonist was liable to prosecution for obscenity. Warburg turned down the original version on the advice of his lawyers, and a second, milder version because of his partners' opposition. After a final series of changes, the book was finally published by The Bodley Head in 1960. Like My Dog Tulip, We Think the World of You includes some brilliant comic writing, but it is a dark book, and the ending is anything but a conventionally happy one. The novel is narrated by Frank, the Ackerley character, and the innocent reader tends to sympathize with a first-person narrator, but the book is constructed so as to undermine that original sympathy. Ackerley was exasperated by a reader's report for the publisher Hamish Hamilton in which the assessor seemed to conclude that the reader's final loss of patience with Frank showed some failure of craft on the author's part. As Ackerley wrote, "Frank is an unstable, maladjusted man, obsessed and frustrated, and the story is subtly contrived to turn completely over so that his 'persecutors' can be viewed in a sympathetic light. . . . The book is about the human predicament, and is meant to be amusing, in a wry sort of way" (Parker, p. 349). Ackerley, who had now retired from The Listener, left for an extended trip to Japan before the book was published. We Think the World of You was praised by fellow novelists, including Kingsley Amis , L. P. Hartley , and Paul Scott , but it did not initially sell well. Ackerley hoped that he could restore some of the expurgated material in the American edition, but that edition--published by Obolensky and set without Ackerley's knowledge from uncorrected proofs of the English edition--was full of errors and omissions, and Ackerley experienced the chagrin not only of an author but also of a scrupulous editor who hated to see a garbled text.
Aunt Bunny died on 3 January 1961, during Ackerley's trip to Japan, and Nancy, who had never gotten along with her aunt, moved into Ackerley's flat. She was no longer seriously unstable but was a difficult person to live with, prone to bouts of depression and outbursts of anger, and still jealous of the attention Ackerley got from his friends. Later that year Queenie, aged sixteen, had to be put down. Ackerley described 30 October 1961 as the saddest day of his life, and he was little consoled by the fact that We Think the World of You had begun to sell well, helped by a highly favorable review by Stuart Hampshire in Encounter and by three critics' naming it one of their Books of the Year in the Sunday Times. When it subsequently won the W. H. Smith Award, the check helped to supplement Ackerley's meager BBC pension.
In 1962, Ackerley took a trip to the United States; he liked most of the Americans he met, but disliked the American way of life and was particularly repelled by Los Angeles. Despite his continuing reputation as a travel writer (a revised edition of Hindoo Holiday had been published in 1952, gaining a new generation of readers), Ackerley actually disliked travel. He was now drinking heavily, and alcohol no doubt aggravated his depression; he wrote to Donald Windham (21 June 1962) that he seldom went to bed without hoping that he would not wake up in the morning. He nevertheless wrote a good deal, and finally completed the family memoir that he had been working on sporadically, he claimed, for thirty years. My Father & Myself was, in Ackerley's mind, a record of failure in his relationships with family and friends; the single exception was his friendship with Forster. In the draft, he even claimed, against all the evidence, that he had been a failure as editor of The Listener.
In addition to his work on My Father & Myself, Ackerley wrote a memoir of Forster, who survived him, and traveled to Cambridge to help Forster with his correspondence and literary papers; he also rewrote parts of his own diary that dealt with Nancy's breakdown, apparently with eventual publication in mind. He was called out of retirement for a month in 1965 to edit The Listener, which was between editors; he then finished revising My Father & Myself, and his only ambition thereafter was apparently to get enough money to drink himself to death. To this end, he negotiated the sale of his letters from Forster, but before receiving the £6,000 they brought, he died in his sleep at the age of seventy-one on 4 June 1967. In a 1964 letter to his agent, David Higham, Ackerley had worried that no one would want to know as much about him, or anyone, as his memoir revealed; its saving grace, he added, was that "I have played for laughs" (Letters, p. 246). Like all of Ackerley's books, My Father & Myself, published posthumously in 1968, is full of high and low comedy, but it is much more than a funny book:
My Father and Myself was promoted as a volume in the tradition of Edmund Gosse 's Father and Son, and further comparisons were made by the reviewers. The author's diligent attempts to uncover the facts of his father's life reminded some of A. J. A. Symons 's The Quest for Corvo, whilst the iconoclasm and irony recalled Butler's The Way of All Flesh (a comparison which would have pleased Ackerley). Angus Wilson placed Ackerley in a tradition of "ironic mockery" running from Butler, through Forster, to Ackerley and Isherwood: "a powerful, important stream of English literary thought, rejecting first Victorian institutions and Victorian Christianity, then questioning all family life because of its hidden economic foundations, finally in Ackerley and Isherwood standing back in self-accusation from the mockery itself." Wilson might have added that this stream is a homosexual one, temperamentally antipathetic, as it were, to traditional Christian values. Ackerley's contribution is a comic one, its irony gentle rather than savage, fulfilling Roger's devout wish that people generally would be kind to his memory.
The ingenious counterpointing of Ackerley's own "secret life" with that of his father blurs the customary distinctions between the generations, the rebellious children and their moral elders. The story of his family provides him with a splendidly comic paradigm of bourgeois respectability. The slightest tap exposes its essentially gimcrack nature, the entire edifice crumbling to reveal a rather less admirable but altogether more engaging "truth." Both in England and in America the book was loudly and widely acclaimed not only as a fitting culmination of Ackerley's career, but also as a masterpiece in its own right. It remains Ackerley's best-known book, the one upon which his reputation rests, and rests secure. (Parker, pp. 433-434)
Ackerley's memoir of Forster and a selection of his poems were published in 1970 and 1972 respectively. Ackerley has been fortunate in his editors and biographer. His letters, well edited by Neville Braybrooke, are a delight to read, and his diaries, edited by Francis King, show the same scrupulous concern for truth that marks the books Ackerley saw through the press. The one full-length biography, Ackerley: A Life of J. R. Ackerley, is a model of thorough research and graceful writing that combines sympathy and humor with Ackerley's own regard for truth; the best thing one can say about it is that it lives up to its subject's high standards.
After J. R. Ackerley's death, his sister, Nancy, reconciled to her own life and freed from any sense of competition with her brother, became the guardian of his reputation. In her will, she left money for the establishment of the J. R. Ackerley Prize, now awarded annually to a volume of autobiography by a British writer.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- Poems by Four Authors, by Ackerley, A. Y. Campbell, Edward Davison, and Frank Kenyon (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1923).
- The Prisoners of War: A Play in Three Acts (London: Chatto & Windus, 1925).
- Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal (London: Chatto & Windus, 1932; New York: Viking, 1932; revised edition, London: Chatto & Windus, 1952).
- My Dog Tulip: Life with an Alsatian (London: Secker & Warburg, 1956; New York: Poseidon, 1965; revised edition, London: Bodley Head, 1966).
- We Think the World of You (London: Bodley Head, 1960; New York: Obolensky, 1961).
- My Father & Myself (London: Bodley Head, 1968; New York: Coward-McCann, 1968).
- E. M. Forster: A Portrait (London: McKelvie, 1970).
- Micheldever and Other Poems (London: McKelvie, 1972).
- My Sister and Myself: The Diaries of J. R. Ackerley, edited by Francis King (London: Hutchinson, 1982).
- The Prisoners of War, London, private club, 1925; Charing Cross, Playhouse Theatre, 1925.
- "The Grim Game of Escape," introduction to Escapers All: Being the Personal Narratives of Fifteen Escapers from War-Time Prison Camps 1914-1918, by Harry Beaumont, H. A. Cartwright, H. G. Durnford, A. J. Evans, Duncan William Grinnell-Milne, J. L. Hardy, Michael Charles Cooper Harrison, E. H. Jones, Heinz H. E. Justus, E. H. Keeling, Hellmuth von Mücke, Ernest Pearce, Gunther Plüschow, Hermann Tholens, and Lawrence Arthur Wingfield, edited by Ackerley (London: John Lane, 1932).
- "Micheldever," in The Swing Riots, by Stuart Newton (Micheldever: Dove, 2002).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATION--UNCOLLECTED
- "A Memoir of E. M. Forster," Quadrant, 105 (1976): 50-57.
- Neville Braybrooke, ed., The Letters of J. R. Ackerley (London: Duckworth, 1975); republished as The Ackerley Letters (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975).
J. R. Ackerley's correspondence and manuscripts are held at the Special Collections of Durham University Library, Durham, N.C. Other Ackerley correspondence is in the Papers of Fred Urquhart Manuscript Collection at the University of Edinburgh Library and the Special Collections of McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa. In its collection of E. M. Forster Papers, 1908-1971, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, has more than eight hundred letters from Forster to Ackerley.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- David Bergman, "J. R. Ackerley and the Ideal Friend," in Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy (New York: New York University Press, 1994), pp. 255-267.
- Robert L. A. Clark, "Queering Orientalism: The East as Closet in Said, Ackerley, and the Medieval Christian West," Medieval Encounters, 5 (1999): 336-349.
- John M. Clum, "'Myself of Course': J. R. Ackerley and Self-Dramatization," Theater, 24 (1993): 76-87.
- Walter Kendrick, "Heavy Petting: J. R. Ackerley Goes to the Dogs," Village Voice Literary Supplement, 89 (October 1990): 14-15.
- J. G. Links, "A Talent Unfulfilled? Attitudes to Ackerley," Encounter, 74 (April 1990): 55-57.
- Susan McHugh, "Marrying My Bitch: J. R. Ackerley's Pack Sexualities," Critical Inquiry, 27 (Autumn 2000): 21-41.
- Peter Parker, Ackerley: A Life of J. R. Ackerley (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989).