Eliot Bliss collections

Eliot Bliss was born Eileen Bliss in a Jamaican army garrison in 1903. She adopted the first name Eliot because of her admiration for T.S. Eliot and George Eliot. Bliss was educated in convent schools in England before rejoining her family in Jamaica in 1923. In 1925, she left the Caribbean for good and returned to England.1

Saraband. Proof title page.

Her two novels, Saraband (Peter Davies, 1931) and Luminous Isle (Cobden-Sanderson, 1934), are autobiographical, based on her experiences growing up as a child of Anglo-Irish descent in Jamaica. The Bildungsromane examine the development of young female characters aspiring to independence in their dominant colonial society.

Saraband. Author's inscription to her parents

Our initial Eliot Bliss holdings consist of letters between her and Jean Rhys, which were acquired for the Jean Rhys archive in 1994 (coll. no. 1976.011). In the introduction of the 1984 Virago Press reprint of Luminous Isle, Alexandra Pringle writes about Bliss and Rhys becoming good friends due to the West Indian childhood they shared in common.

They met in 1937, and Jean would often invite Eliot over for dinner. “She used to make me delightful West-Indian suppers, and we used to drink an awful lot. Well she could hold it, but it used to make me ill, frequently ill. And she had a delightful husband who used to leave us, go out. Well, often he would come home and find us drunk. He once picked her off the floor. And he was furious if he found we’d drunk his wine.”2

Their friendship lasted for decades, and they corresponded until Rhys’s death in 1979.

Locks of Eliot Bliss's hair

The Eliot Bliss diaries (coll. no. 1995.001) consist of 19 volumes of daily diaries dating from January 1959 to December 1960 and January 1963 to August 1980. Additional notes, correspondence, poems, photographs, and sales receipts are laid into many of the diaries.

Most recently, we acquired the Patricia Allan-Burns collection of Eliot Bliss (coll. no. 2011.009) in February of last year. The collection includes proofs and published copies of Bliss’s own works, other books from her personal library, correspondence, a manuscript from her mother, photographs, and ephemera.

Ephemera removed from Bliss's copy of The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

Authors represented in her library include Rhys, Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, and Emily Dickinson. After returning to England from Jamaica, Bliss “moved in with a female companion and established herself in the lesbian literary scene. She befriended Vita Sackville-West and Dorothy Richardson and later entered an intimate relationship with Anna Wickham (a poet and the rejected suitor of Natalie Barney).”3 As the collection’s name suggests, this purchase, as well as the previous two acquisitions, came from Patricia Allan-Burns. Allan-Burns, the dedicatee of Luminous Isle, was Bliss’s aforementioned companion in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire for over half a century.

Together with her novels, the correspondence, manuscripts, diaries, and ephemera of Eliot Bliss offer a direct insight into the experience of modernist women writers, postcolonial literature, and an author who was mostly forgotten during her own lifetime.

[1] Bliss, Eliot. Saraband. 1931. London: Virago, 1986. Print.
[2] Pringle, Alexandra. Introduction. Luminous Isle. By Eliot Bliss. 1934. London: Virago, 1984. xi-xix. Print.
[3] Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. p. 71. Print.

About Alison M. Greenlee

Special Collections Librarian, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa.
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