How I began excavating Jacquetta
An archaeologist excavating an archaeologist…Those were my thoughts as I began to go through the books in Jacquetta Hawkes’s study shortly after her death. She was still a formidable presence, her house strewn with objects and ephemera which narrated a life of eighty-five years. Not just an archaeologist's life, but that of a poet, novelist, playwright, photographer, journalist, not least a celebrity, too; all aspects of this remarkable woman in time lay in fragments around me, requiring nothing less than rescue archaeology of a literary kind. Invited there to survey, I began to dig as well.
Opening my notebook to record the auction-bound books, I tried to interpret the order. The volumes became sections of a trench, their spines exposed to the daylight. How best to interpret a book jammed into a too-small space? (Placed with force because it kept falling out? With love because it was much used and needed to be near?) Was there anything to be read in the couplings of subjects, the bracketing of archaeology with other arts and sciences? Was there a narrative concealed in the non-alphabetical order? And the dedications to Jacquetta from Christopher, or from Jack - the names of her two husbands Christopher Hawkes and JB Priestley - were self-evident, whose were the other names written with love? What was the tale behind a book which was never returned to a Baghdad library? And of Christopher and Jack's own books on her shelves, were these choices made in a move from former, larger libraries in previous homes, or misplaced escapees from other sortings, or books at last returned by borrowers from years back?
But there was evidence more tantalising than words. In Jacquetta's bedroom, I found some of her finely-tailored clothes still hanging in the wardrobe. And I took out her in her familiar long, black, cape to sense its owner's height, and found a single silver hair still clinging there. On her large, formal dressing table, costume jewellery still lay in bowls, anticipating the mirror's reflection.
I became as fascinated by what had already left the house since her death, two months before, as by what remained. The more valuable paintings, gifts from her circle of artists and other much-loved possessions, had left before to continue their history in the family homes; but I could still examine the fine but unwanted pieces bound for saleroom and auction, and the books, some bundled into fascinating lots (for a commemoration room in Stratford-upon-Avon).
Some things had been distributed in Chipping Campden, the Cotswolds town which was Jacquetta's last home; (I suddenly pictured her souvenirs from many travels - miscellaneous artifacts, fragments of ceramics, rudimentary pots - now sitting on a very English mantlepiece next to Royal souvenirs and Denby china).
A strange set of circumstances led to me being there at all. I never met Jacquetta Hawkes, although I am sure I saw her smile across the room at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford; one did not forget a smile like hers. She would have been in her eighties, and I was just making my way in archaeology after many years as a journalist. I was drawn to the idea of the past as a means of inspiration for poets and artists, and had just came across Jacquetta’s lyrical writings. Looking for more on her life - and thinking, too, that she and Jack Priestley would make for an interesting research paper on partners in time - I found "Time and the Priestleys", written by their close friend, Diana Collins. Before I had the chance to complete it, Jacquetta died in March, 1996. I wrote to Diana Collins. Weeks later she rang me at home, where I was briefly between digs. Diana was paying a last visit to Littlecote: would I like to come?
Diana proved to be an exemplary guide to her friend's life and work. We talked a little before going in to Littlecote. I remember the feeling as Diana slowly opened the door of Jacquetta’s last home. I cannot say there was anything mystical about it, but I felt a strong sense that I had a job to do. I looked at all the books about to be dispensed: Jacquetta’s, Jack’s, Christopher’s, Jack and Jacquetta’s, Jacquetta and Christopher’s. Could I at least catalogue them first? I rang Jacquetta's son, Nicolas, in Edinburgh. He said, of course, but Littlecote's new owners were about to move in. Given my next dig, I had three days.
The housekeeper made up a bed in the guest room, and I set to work. I sat on the floor, cataloguing by hand, chiding myself for getting continually distracted by fascinating titles, and subjects matter, not least by the signatures within.
I worked my way up the house to the landings and bedrooms, and down again to the book room off the garden, with its trove of obscure off-prints and papers. There I found a treasure. A black ring-binder which opened to real a fragment, a few pages of typing which I learned was unknown to anyone else. Facing up to time passing, Jacquetta had begun a book about old age. It seemed appropriate, I felt, for an archaeologist to leave such evidence for another archaeologist.
As I continued my task, and the deadline approached, I felt cataloguing books was not my only reason for being there at the house. Diana has written a memoir of Jack and Jacquetta, which she insisted was not a biography. Christopher Hawkes had one of his own, Diana's Webster's "Hawkeseye", and there were four biographies of Jack. Perhaps I should write one on Jacquetta?
This was not a project I needed - I had just started an unfunded doctoral thesis on poetry and archaeology, and hardly had the time. But there was a growing realisation that Jacquetta was an almost invisible figure in the archaeological record of the 1990s. She needed a mediator who understood her motivation. Diana sensed it too; she encouraged me to ring Nicolas again. He barely missed a beat. Of course I could write her biography, he said. And take whatever you need from the house.
The last instruction, with its implicit choices, left me giddy. What to take, when I had her whole life and work to consider? I knew I could source her work in libraries, but here were her own copies of "A Land" and other works. I selected a range of books, the black ring binder, and a number of offprints. Then the housekeeper said: You might find something of interest in the garage… That simple sentence changed everything, and a remark for which I remain eternally grateful to her to this day.
The door of the garage swung open to reveal a literary excavation site: there were tea-chests containing Jacquetta's original typed and hand-written manuscripts, and the scribbles of her reworkings; there were albums of photographs were concealed under mounds of paper, there were boxes of slides, and rudimentary camera gear; there were things rolled up in cardboard, fruit boxes of files and notebooks; jotters and journals. And two hefty grey filing cabinets, barely openable, so filled were they with a lifetime of professional correspondence between publishers, agents, associations, readers. All beautifully filed by Jacquetta’s secretary over the years. And to make this treasure properly authentic, it was glazed with cobweb and came sprinkled with dust. The housekeeper’s assurance that this had an uncertain future - it was apparently - ‘being taken away by the council’ - only increased the rush of excitement. I took no photographs of that scene, but it is etched indelibly in my mind.
It took three car-loads to remove the papers; I had to take the files out of the cabinets, but kept them all in their original context of organised, terracotta-coloured files. With nowhere else to keep them, they went to college at Oxford where, by luck, I had two rooms in which to store the considerable cargo.
One literary agent thought everyone would want a life of Jacquetta Hawkes. But no-one did; some said they did not know who she was, and that was enough to reject her.
And yet I could not give up on Jacquetta. Encouraged by Nicolas, I began my research and carried out interviews with Jacquetta's aged friends, a number of whom are now dead. I began to gives talks about her life and work.
There was no funding for the project, nor even a room in which to work on her at Oxford; I was determined not to write a biography by cherry-picking the papers - it would have felt like barrow-digging. Given the sheer amount, they needed sorting by the keen eyes of a trained archivist. To inspire interest in Jacquetta I wrote about what I had already gleaned, showed films she had made, and found a small but growing groundswell of curiosity about her life. Some people remembered her from the fifties and sixties; some had even been inspired by her to become archaeologists.
Meanwhile, I finished my thesis and wrote another two books, sending out proposals on a regular basis to publishers in the UK and US. I was invited to write her entry for the New Dictionary of National Biography. Nicolas, to his credit, still believed that I could not only write the biography, but should write it.
But it would be seven years before history caught up with Jacquetta Hawkes, through another happenstance. Nicolas was invited to the J.B.Priestley Library at the University of Bradford, where some of his mother’s letters had been found within the papers of another archaeologist, Calvin Wells (even to this day, no-one can understand what they were doing there). The Library already held an archive of Priestley material in its Special Collections. Nicolas mentioned the problem of finding a home for Jacquetta. Again, there was hardly a missed beat. Jacquetta should come to Bradford; her papers would sit beside Jack's.
And so it was that Priestley’s home town became the final resting place of his wife’s manuscripts, photographs, letters, and all manner of other evidence of her life and work - including bit of pottery and worked flints I salvaged from her study at Littlecote.
Over the past 18 months, Alison Cullingford, the Special Collections Librarian, and John Brooker, the archivist, have been preparing Jacquetta’s oeuvre for a wider audience. Nicolas has continued to add other papers and pursue his own research. The university graciously made me their first Writer-in-Residence, and at last not only had a carrel in which to work, but a companionable relationship with both the library and the Department of Archaeological Sciences, which gave me an Honorary Research Fellowship.
Having the archive so close by was as exhilarating as it was daunting. On the one hand I had everything there; on the other hand, I had everything there. Eventually I took myself off somewhere else to write up. I found myself completing Jacquetta’s biography in Italy, in Rome and in deep in the same Etruscan countryside Jacquetta had visited as a teenager, and which she write about in her journal of an Italian holiday of 1929, just before she began her journey to archaeology.
I have approached this work as both a journalist, gripped by the story, and an archaeologist, mindful of the old adage ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. I do not know what is missing from this life, as much as I don’t know what went where in Chipping Camden. Jack begged Jacquetta to destroy his letters to her; something which she was not always able to do, and so that remains at remarkable evidence to the intensity of their love affair. However he destroyed her letters to him, apart from a very small number which slipped through. Some letters have been loaned out by the family, and have never returned. At time of writing, the correspondence of her former lover, Walter Turner, is unaccounted for somewhere in Switzerland; the trail continues.
My geographic fieldwork was simpler. I know many of the areas of which Jacquetta was fond, and about she had written. Places in Ireland, New Mexico, Italy, France, and England. I was born and grew up in Jersey, about which she write a monograph, and my mother was a teenager there when Jacquetta was carrying out her research.
This has been a project full of coincidences and chance conversations. I hope others will find more gems over time. That is the way of excavation, and biography shares the possibility of unturned stones revealing wonders in future years. In the end, this is the beginning of a study of Jacquetta's life and work. I hope I have succeeded in my intention to write both a biography of an archaeologist, as well as an archaeological biography.
So the process, which began with a survey, continued to be excavation. I have been a digger or a field walker, looking for things which are odd, or out of place, as much poring over the certainties of school reports, passports, publisher contracts and page proofs, in libraries, and at Nicolas's home.
In tackling such a diverse and complex subject as Jacquetta, I chose to read the publication files as small excavation sites; beginning with the reviews and working my way back through the papers to the original concept. Each book, I felt, was an artifact; retaining its own context in the terracotta file, giving a literary strata to be read up or down over months or years of the publication process. It felt more meaningful to work this way, each turning over of the page analogous to the slow progression through a section. When working my way through the file marked "Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in Archaeology", I was replicating a process; there Jacquetta was an archaeologist also writing the biography of an archaeologist. Examining the books as artifacts gave more prominence to the look of the whole, the dedication and prefaces, the changes over time in the editions, as Jacquetta, over time, kept abreast of the changing discipline of archaeology.
I am only sorry that Diana Collins did not live to see publication. I spent wonderful hours at her home in Essex early on; I particularly recall Diana considering which of Jacquetta's poems to be read at the evening to celebrate her life (at the Society of Antiquaries later in 1996). Diana was also a remarkable woman, and never wavered from her deep affection for Jacquetta. She was missing her greatly, as I have found that those few still alive who were close to Jacquetta, still do. I used Diana’s recollections as an important source; she knew Jacquetta for so many years and interviewed her, and her friends and family, in detail for "Time and the Priestleys". This work, an authorised memoir published two years before Jacquetta died, presents a frank account.
Franker still, is the work which is as near an autobiography as Jacquetta wrote: "A Quest of Love", published when she was in her seventies. This curious work of the imagination outraged many academics, already unforgiving of Jacquetta leaving Christopher Hawkes. It is an intimate book (and I believe it deserves a place in literary history as a work of female sexual fantasy). But read closely, it is Jacquetta's attempt to tell her story, including her attraction to woman as much as men. Jacquetta was a passionate woman: passionate about her life and passionate about her work - Diana regarded her as "a mixture of Athena and Aphrodite" - and her output cannot be considered apart from that passion.
Nine years after her death, Jacquetta is still being rejected as a biography subject; "too academic", "too general", "too unknown", "too soon" have been some of the responses from agents and publishers who remain interested but... In suggesting I put a life on line, I am opening up the excavation, asking if I have been deluding myself, misplacing my belief. It begs comments and critique. I must stress that the version here is edited, in the main because of the problem of obtaining permissions clearance. But I am have written online about what I have already seen and read. This version complements the print version, and hopefully will hasten it. At least prove that there is an interest in Jacquetta Hawkes. I hope it will inspire archaeologists and others to seek out and read her works, to form their own opinion of a personality who I believe was made invisible by a combination of academic forces, personal grudges, and intellectual fashion. She was both a woman of her time and ahead of it. Her frankness won her enemies and Jacquetta admitted that she had sometimes ‘behaved badly’, but she was driven by a unique passion, and through that she created work of enduring worth. Her duty, as she once wrote, was ‘to love, to create, and to try to understand’.
I wrote the closing pages of Jacquetta's biography in the Etruscan landscape near Lake Bolsena, north of Rome. I glanced up to see Italian television was showing images of Utzi, the "iceman" found in the Alps near Bolzano.
Jacquetta, the archaeologist, would have loved the new detail of discovery.
Jacquetta, the poet, would have wished Utzi a gentle thaw.
Rome. June, 2005.