The Princess of Vix

vix kore




I find it difficult to talk about my own poetry.  If I talk about the research I did and the academic sources I read before I could write it, it makes it sound scholarly.  If I talk about the very deep, personal and interpersonal feelings it expresses, it makes it sound confessional.  If I emphasize the facilitating function of the PENfro Poets workshop I was attending while I wrote this sequence, it makes it sound like just another set of poems generated by good prompts.  I suppose it’s all of these things; but for me it feels like a set of poems that could only be written after a lifetime of woman’s experiences.  I hope and I believe that these poems reach beyond the academic, the confessional and the current fashion of workshop production to stand as objective correlatives to the experiences of many daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  I’ll be interested to know what my readers think!

Here are the responses from two readers:

The past has never been less past than in these sensuous poems by Helen May Williams. The mysteries and rituals of two and a half millennia ago take on flesh and blood and move through her pages in a seamless marriage of the mythic and the all-too-real. Ecstatic, cruel, and deeply literate in human longings and frailties, these poems constitute a profound act of imagination.

Michael Hulse co-editor of the best-selling anthology The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and author of Empires and Holy Lands, The Secret History and, most recently, Half-Life.

In The Princess of Vix, Helen May Williams evokes a world in which blood, libation and the heady opiate of poppy-seeds lead the reader to the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient times. Based on the discovery of the Vix Burial in Burgundy, this is a rich and tightly-wrought sequence of poems. Chthonic deities intertwine with Celtic legend, myth with archaeology, in precise language that never loses its way. Steeped in ritual and ceremony, this intriguing little chapbook is also about the power of women.  We are reminded of the blood-vengeance of the Erinyes, of shamans, of the importance of the female role in pagan worship. Complex, fascinating and vividly descriptive, this is a tiny jewel of a collection, a chapbook to delight, inform, and make you think.

Kathy Miles. Author of The Shadow House and Gardening with Deer

Here is an extract from a recent interview, where I tried to introduced the poems for the first time.

Judith Barrow: Could you tell us a bit about your most recent book and why it is a must-read?

HMW: The Celtic Princess of Vix, whose burial chamber was discovered at Vix, a small village close to Châtillon-sur-Seine in Burgundy, was crippled due to injuries sustained in child-birth. This sequence dramatizes poetic identification with the female, Iron Age shaman, whose distorted, pained figure marked her out as different. I delve into the strong emotions associated with motherhood, evoking a series of feminine archetypes associated with Greek, Etruscan and Celtic culture. The Vix Princess officiates at an autumn ritual that synthesizes elements of Greek, Etruscan and Celtic culture. Her daughter, the Kore, is at the heart of the ceremony, which thus becomes a rite of passage. The third major figure in this drama is an Etruscan foot soldier, who has migrated to Vix, without having yet had experience of battle. And the fourth major figure is the Hecate or Hag; thus, completing the triple aspect of the Goddess and of women’s lives, from Virgin to mother to old woman, who has seen and experienced it all before and is now a spectator of the continuing, female drama. I would say it is a must read for anyone who wants to think about what it is to be a daughter, a mother, or a grandmother. And it’s not just for women; anyone who is fascinated by Greek and Celtic myth will find a new perspective on some fundamental myths here.

Judith Barrow: What was the inspiration behind The Princess of Vix?

HMW: Complex, varied and deeply personal.

Judith Barrow: How long did it take you to write The Princess of Vix?

HMW: I wrote the first draft of the sequence over an autumn and winter. Each time I completed one poem, the next one would start to emerge. The drama gradually unfolded for me, as it does for the reader.

The Princess of Vix is available for sale from Lulu:

Princess of Vix front cover



Cock Pheasant

His neck feathers

ruffle indigo   then

he tilts his head &

they flicker bottle-green.


His eye make-up

is cardinal-red

his beak is white

that pecks the whiter bread.


He clucks his thanks

stuffs his gullet

struts towards

his sole stippled mate.


Yesterday there were

two moiré hens.

Side by side they warily 

eyed his perplexed yen. 


Today we swerved

to avoid last night’s road-kill

marbled brown & ferrous red

a startled puzzlement,


then accelerated

past discarded

Kentucky Fried Chicken:

jointed, seasoned and charred.

18/03/2017 – 19/03/2017

We have a new resident in our garden this spring. We’ve named him Phil the Pheasant. He is very tame and very stupid, but quite gorgeous. He arrived with two shy hens, both with exquisite patterning on their feathers. Unfortunately, one hen became roadkill on a Friday night. We suspect the driver was the same one who threw unfinished KFC and its packaging out of his window onto the roadside.  

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Ignazio Silone. Bread and Wine. Tr. Eric Mosbacher. (With an afterword by Barry Menikoff.) New York: Signet Classics. 2005.

Writing in her diary in Paris  in  11 . 5 . 47, while she was working for E.C.I.T.O., my mother concluded her entry on Bread and Wine with these reflections.

‘His return to religion stripped of its furs & furbelows seems to indicate that he is becoming a Liberal — the poor unfortunate who wants to introduce a new way of living & not a new way of organising life.

Perhaps it is right that the only possible way to evolve a happy social system is the ‘happiness by product’ one again. Live honestly so that it helps others to do likewise & sooner or later the perfect democracy will spring from this good soil without plan or forethought but merely because it can’t help himself. — After all that is Ghandi’s power over India — the strength & altruism of his own personal life.’

My mother would have read the original unrevised version of the novel, first published in 1936 in a German language edition in Switzerland as Brot und Wein, and in an English translation in London later the same year, which the author himself critiqued and thoroughly revised later. This revised version can plausibly be described as a modern classic, despite its political even ‘agit-prop’ characteristics. It contains many of the qualities of classical tragedy, focussing on the interiority of a main protagonist and representative hero, striving to reconcile two aspects of his character: secular, revolutionary fervour and a spiritual/existential quest for significance and justice. Other main characters include Don Benedetto, the protagonist’s teacher and mentor, and the two women who reflect the two aspects of Don Paolo/Pietro Spina’s personality: Cristina and Bianchina. It is worth remarking that all these names have symbolic significance: the protagonist is both a St Paul and a Peter figure, Cristina portrays a Christ-like type who would prefer to renounce the world, and Bianchina is the more worldly character, who despite her demonstrable sexuality and sensuality chooses to leave personal gratification behind and work for the cause. Secondary characters include revolutionary comrades of Pietro and vignette sketches of other women and Italian peasants. So we are presented with something close to main actors and a chorus of characters, and yet each member of the ‘chorus’ is a detailed, differentiated vignette, depicting the variety of human figures in this political-realist drama. One could also say that the action is divided into five parts, according to the classical tragedy model: 1, Pietro’s initial covert return from exile to his birthplace, 2, his donning a priestly disguise and move into a safer hiding place up in the Abruzzi mountain village, 3, a brief interlude in Rome when he meets up with comrades, challenges the pressure to conform to Soviet dictat and encounters disaffected former party members, 4, his return to the mountain village, and the final denouement, when he flees further into the mountains to escape arrest. Through these five ‘acts,’ the argument of the novel centres on his own character development and struggles, but these only make complete sense because of the scenarios, debates and actions that take place around him. Like the author, the protagonist is full of revolutionary fervour but cannot vow obedience to a revolutionary international communist party that he perceives as transforming into a totalitarian state and transnational regime. Nor can he remain quiet confronted by the totalitarian nature of the Fascist government. No more can he espouse the Catholicism of his upbringing. Yet, his ‘spiritual’ journey towards reconciliation of opposites and his realisation that the individual man must continue to work out an existential ethics that serves common humanity rather than any institution, is comprised of the best of the two traditions he is unable to pay lip-service to: Marxism and Christianity. At times bleak, the novel is not without moments of redemption. The ‘saintly’ Cristina dies a martyr’s death in the final scene of the novel; this comments on the difficulties women faced in 1930s Italy, constrained by traditional family values and a Catholic church that has lost touch with the spirit of radical Christianity. In a comic interlude, the three daughters of the ex-socialist lawyer all give themselves sexually to the first three enlisted soldiers they can find, but other young female characters overcome both Church and family pressures and the temptation to selfish gratification to work in the cause of humanity whatever way they can. (The older women peasants are depicted as part of the problem of peasant ignorance, superstition and resignation.) The older male peasants depict various responses to their situation and lack of hope, from despair, drunkenness and violence, through to sly, undermining of authority. The younger male characters also represent a whole series of different responses to the socio-economic and political status quo, ranging from reckless egotism, pragmatic obedience to the totalitarian regime, undisciplined revolutionary fervour, naïve idealism, total despair. One issue that the novel highlights is that of a student party member acting as ‘double agent,’ becoming a police informer as a result of intense police pressure and extreme poverty. After Silone’s death it emerged that he had been a police informer, although many contemporaries refused to believe the verity of this report. While the novel can be accused of not fully developing all the characters, as my mother rather harshly did, my considered opinion is that in a relatively short novel, Silone implies a large canvas, as if the breadth of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky has been married to the symbolic intensity of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Despite the unresolved questions that now hang over the author, one can still accept the novel’s premise that ‘He is saved who overcomes his individual, family, class selfishness and frees himself of the idea of resignation to the existing evil.’ (257). this sentiment is expressed both through ‘showing’ in plot and action, and through ‘telling’ in the conversations that constitute an important part of the novel’s discourse. For example, having carefully written revolutionary graffiti all around the mountain village on the same day as the war in Abyssinia is declared, Don Paolo/Pietro Spina states: ‘The dictatorship is based on unanimity […] It’s sufficient for one person to say no and the spell is broken.’ (207).

My mother, trained in Modern History rather than English Literary Criticism, reads the novel more literally than I do. In particular, she focusses on the lack of positive outcomes for the young female characters. In doing this, she pinpoints a highly significant issue for herself and for her generation of young women, anxiously wondering what (if any) fulfilling and significant roles will be available for them post war. Her other main act of interpretation tells us much about her own political beliefs, already firmly embedded: rather than read Don Paolo /Pietro Spino as a representative modern, existential hero, she concludes that the novel’s ultimate message, and as she expresses it the author’s own intentional message, is that the only solution is Liberal individualism. Silone was not a Liberal. He was a founding member of the breakaway Communist Party of Italy in 1921. Because of his opposition to Stalin, he was expelled from the Communist Party of Italy during the 1930s while he was in exile. He returned to Italy in 1944, and in 1946 he was elected as an Italian Socialist Party deputy. However, my mother’s reading of the text is a plausible and valid one, given its emphasis on the significance of individual action; moreover, it reveals her deep-seated commitment both to liberal politics and to liberal humanism.

Dorothy Evelyn Smith. O, the Brave Music. New York: E. P. Dutton. 1951. (First published 1943)

Here is a diary entry from my mother’s Bletchley Diary for 13.10.43:

‘Retired to my parlour to finish ‘O, The Brave Music’ which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Dorothy Evelyn Smith, whoever she is, [can] certainly get over to me the mingling of nature & love relationships which is at its most potent when youth is appreciative. She writes well, her metaphors true, occasionally striking but it’s the identification of love with pace which made me feel her strength & appreciations 0f human feelings. I love to read about people who feel & have well-described their feelings & how they feel. Then I am glad for the things — however seemingly ridiculous — which make this child feel & become hopeful for reciprocation from some person or place.’


Dorothy Evelyn Smith appears to be a popular fiction writer of the mid-twentieth century, who has been neglected entirely by scholars. There are a few brief reviews on various bibliophile websites and blogs, otherwise precious little. And yet, O, the Brave Music reads like a classic, female Bildungsroman, capturing that all-important time between the ages of seven and fifteen; a time that Willa Cather famously stated is when a writer stores up the materials that will be transformed in adult fiction. While the novel might not bear too searching a comparison with the artistic achievement of My Antonia, it is a well-crafted work that somehow seems to capture the deep sympathy of many of its readers. Like many a nineteenth-century, female-authored heroine, Ruan is cast into the world early, having been ‘orphaned’ by the elopement of her mother and her subsequent death in a riding accident, and by her father’s decision to become a missionary in Africa. Her formation derives from the number of different worlds and contrasting characters that she encounters, and the ways in which she negotiates these, learning from them and developing as a consequence. Not only does she lose her father and mother, she also suffers the loss of a surrogate grandfather figure, Joshua, the grandmotherly Mrs Abbey, and her scholarly maternal uncle Alaric, who becomes her guardian upon her father ‘s decision to leave for Africa. Yet through it all the reluctantly nouvelle riche Rosie and her ward, David remain steadfast, as does the Yorkshire moorland in which they live. In the writing of this novel, one senses the influence of the Brontës and of Mrs Gaskell, and within the text the strong influence of English poetry, including Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling is acknowledged and used as a trope of continuity in change.

Time and place are inferred, not explicitly revealed, but through prolepsis the author indicates that The Great War will happen in the near future. Through prolepsis, we also learn that Ruan and David will eventually face the world together, hand in hand and side by side as they have always been. Yet, this novel doesn’t quite end in happily ever after wedding bells. It merely states that Ruan will find the strength of character to face the world, with David, when the time comes.

Several elements make this a Bildungsroman. Firstly, the repeated transitions between contrasting situations, scenarios and characters. Secondly, the constant search for an adequate mentor figure. Thirdly, the extent to which Ruan grows in understanding of the world, and in self-understanding as she develops into a mature and congruent personality, absorbing aspects from the good influences she encounters and learning to deal with the troublesome, immoral or salubrious to which she is exposed at a young age.

I can imagine that this novel might have appealed to my mother, given her own less than perfect upbringing, with its shocks and transitions and sometimes abrupt changes. Without the benefit of a degree in literary studies and prior to the feminist revision of literary history, she would not have been in a position to articulate fully why this novel is so appealing; but she must have responded to the descriptions of the cramped life of a non-conformist minister’s family, to their poverty and the various interdictions the sisters suffer. she would also have felt empathy for a heroine who loved books and for one who wasn’t a classic ‘beauty.’ She would most certainly have felt sympathy for a heroine who had to move between worlds at an early age, just as my mother had been moved from Stranraer to Crosby, from Scottish mixed state schooling to English single-sex direct grant school, then forcibly removed from it by her step-father to work in a department store, before being sent to step-relatives in Lausanne, only to be summoned home at the outbreak of world War 2, to return to Merchant Taylors’ School for Girls, doubly different from her peers, given her different life-experiences. Other similarities would be the fact that June saw her mother as pretty but uneducated and lacking in judgement. that she came from a poor background but at university found herself, through her friend Ann, moving in the elite artistic circles of Glasgow and later being appointed to an important job in E.C.I.T.O. That a heroine could find and be herself, eventually find a loving surrogate mother in the childless Rosie and a willing tutor and mentor In the Anglican priest, Mr Lord, and a faithful companion for life in the beloved David, that a heroine could achieve all that in pre-World War 1 Britain must have instilled some hope that she too would find happiness once World War 2 was over.

The novel was first published in the UK in 1943, the date my mother read it while working at Bletchley Park, and noted it in her diary. To me this reads like a classic, female Bildungsroman, which ought to be better known and reprinted with a proper, scholarly introduction. A perfect Ph.D. project for an enterprising researcher!

Jean Giraudoux. Combat avec l’ange. Paris: S.E.P.E. (Bibliothèque de lectures de Paris). 1946. (First Published éditions Grasset, 1934.)

Here is my mother’s diary entry for Boxing Day 1947. I reproduce it verbatim. It is handwritten in blue fountain pen in a personal diary, which she kept secret all her adult life. She wrote as she thought and since she had no intention of publishing it, she didn’t go back and proof-read it! What is remarkable, is how excellent an account it is of a highly perplexing novel, by a young woman whose wartime, Glasgow university training was in Modern History (Major) and Geology (Minor).

‘ 26 . .12 . 47

Combat avec l’ange — Giraudoux.

There is the strange comfort of complete unreality about this novel. Not that the characters lack veracity — it is just that they belong to a strata of society as out of touch with everyday life — or rather the life of the ordinary person bourgeois or working-class — that one might just as well be reading a fairy tale.

No fairy tale, however, would concern itself with the multiple workings of these complicated mind of Maléna, altho’ the restoration of her original life & habits after her struggle with poverty & sordidity is true to form.

It is difficult to understand what is the main theme of this story. The title, the action is surely Maléna’s effort to make herself into a being worthy of her lover — a being who understands & supports life in all its cruelty & deceptions — & her failure to be anything but the delightful, charming creature that nature & money had intended her to be. As the author-lover tells us she is delightful & charming we assume that she is so; in actual fact to the reader she has no character at all. She is not a living human being who we come to know as chapter follows chapter. From time to time a few indications are thrown out as to indicate ways in which she passed the time or personal idiosincracies [sic] in which she had indulged but Maléna is more a vehicle for abstract thought than a pulsating human being. What is more everything everybody with whom she comes in contact is similarly an abstraction whether it be the solitary, poverty-stricken human man with the spectacles without which he was helpless or her friends & acquaintances at the race-course — not of them are individuals; they are symbols of a strata of society like the crucifixion of some early Flemish primitive which is so divorced from the people we see in every far from human flesh & blood that is pure expression of agony. In both cases the wonder of it is that one’s emotions are touched. A human being who has the wonder of living is scarcely ever completely tragic but when instead one is faced with a personified tragic quality the sorrow of it is almost too much to bear. The tragic little figure of the man without his spectacles, quite alone & at the mercy of an attacking humanity is quite desperate.

The only human being in this peculiar description of mental activity is Brossard. & he has nothing to do with the current of the story at all nor have the people who have anything to do with them. He happens to be the ‘chef’ of the ‘raconteur’ & that is all — if the references to him were removed and collected to make an article it would be an extremely interesting account but in the novel it is merely a rather worrying interruption which one feels should be explained away.

In other words the power of this book lies completely in the expression of a mental struggle going on in the mind of a being whom we [k]no[w] little or nothing of. We see her at this moment of her life which comes to most of us at one time or other but which usually has to be dealt with in the frame of a normal working existence. Maléna a charming nonentity undergoes it detached from human society. She may walk & talk with her friends & acquaintances but there is an almost invisible test tube surrounding her so that when she does go out to contact humanity she cannot even begin to get near it. She is so busy trying to consciously save her soul that she almost loses the minute quantity of it which she already had in her possession.

Giraudoux’s style emphasises this juxtaposition with separation of the real & the unreal. The moment an ordinary activity — such as that of the small boy taking the bottle of milk home — comes within Maléna’s orbit it ceases to be ordinary & takes on a dream, or rather nightmare quality. It is no longer a normal human action full of latent excitement — it has become a process whose effect on Maléna is like a science room experiment.

As a novel does all this lead us anywhere. Does one learn anymore of humanity — its thoughts & actions? Does one leave the book with an understanding of a new character, a new way of life, the interpretation of an old way or the feeling that a person, a situation has been set before one & explained away as far as it is possible. Je crois que non! Personally, I finished the book with the same sort of feeling as I do on awaking from a particularly lucid dream when I ask myself ‘now why did that particularly vivid scene arise before my eyes & for what reason did those distinctly spoken words follow each other in that sequence[?]’ Life & its more pressing problems always prevent the enquiry being pursued. It is always pleasant to see human beings in love being brought together so the end of the story is quite satisfactory but for Maléna & her lover never would I give another thought — they mean even less than those hectic, dream like sophisticates who crossed one’s vision at the first cocktail party — creatures without character, without vision & without purpose.’



Giraudoux’s novel draws on conventions of surrealism and the absurd, while narrating a slice of social reality. He destabilises the reader by having a first person narrator, Jacques, who writes an intradiegetic narrative, increasingly about the beautiful, exotic, wealthy, Latin American Maléna, her domestic life, her social encounters and her private agonies as the novel progresses, as if he were a third person narrator. All vraisemblance is lost when our narrator tells a story that in reality he has had no access to. As a feminist literary critic, I would also say that this destabilising narrative device confers authority on both the male author and the male protagonist-narrator, while taking agency away from the female protagonist, whose story my mother quite rightly identified as being central to the novel.

So why is Jacques there at all? Well, sexual politics in that society were unequal. From internal evidence I would say that the novel is set during the inter-war years between the Great War and World War II. Men have all the political power; woman’s role, especially a woman of the rich leisure class such as Maléna, is to be cultured, decorative and pleasing to men. And this is in fact Maléna’s dilemma. It leads to her breakdown in reason, which condition is named at the end of the novel as neurasthenia. Post second-wave feminism, we have a much clearer understanding of the gender politics surrounding the feminine condition named neurasthenia that male medical practitioners diagnosed and treated from around the fin de siècle well into the twentieth century.

My mother didn’t see the point of the narrative interludes away from Maléna, when Jacques is at work as private secretary to le Président du Conseil Brossard. (The depiction of Brossard is a barely disguised portrait of Aristide Briand, as the brief introduction to the 1946 edition makes clear.) Yet, the study of a ‘great man’ wrestling with the international politics of a world on the brink of war and desperately trying to maintain peace, shows us the other side of neurasthenia, as male anxiety in the face of modernity. Brossard’s health is severely compromised by the unequal struggle and he eventually dies. On his death bed, Maléna is summoned to be the ‘angelic’ presence that will console him in his finally moments. And by this stage in the novel, Maléna has come to her senses, so to speak, and resigned herself to this feminine role.

It should also be noted, that the comic sub-plot around Maléna’s domestic arrangements, where she is ruled by her ex-nurse, Amparo and her family, mirrors this state of malaise even further, when Amparo’s husband takes to his sickbed to be pronounced near death, only to be miraculously restored to health. Amparao’s daughter, Baba, adds a further note of absurdity with her fixation on an imaginary world of exotic creatures, especially elephants that Maléna is obliged to collude with. Baba is of course very distressed when she reads in a magazine that such imaginary creatures actually exist. The real is stranger than the imaginary, as Maléna’s wandering around Paris and the Bois de Boulogne demonstrate.

So, despite its narrative quirks, combat avec l’Ange presents a compelling analysis of the inter-relation between sexual politics and national and international politics. Through narrative metonymy, Maléna’s emotional confusion and temporary psychosis stands in a contiguous and intertwined relationship with the turbulence and instability of international diplomatic relations and the dehumanising effects of poverty and the class system. She illustrates the ways in which human judgement can be knocked off kilter and become worryingly fallible. The ways in which a person (and by analogy a nation) can misdiagnose her sense of malaise and then seek solutions, which only confound the original problem even further.

The choice of ‘Jacques’ as the narrator’s name alludes to the participants in the French Revolution, who used this appellation to identify themselves to one another. Jacques is inevitably a political being and Giraudoux shows how the personal and the political are inextricable. He conducts his private life in the interstices of his work commitments, dividing his allegiances between affairs of state in the company of a great statesman and affairs of a sexual nature in the house of a great Madame. His morality is neither than of traditional Catholicism nor of a pure revolutionary egalitarianism; by the 1930s a whole series of moral muddles and compromises have become the norm. Maléna is more disturbed by this than Jacques, but being a woman and therefore powerless, apart from through the powers of female beauty and persuasion, her sensitivity to the failure of the original ideals of égalité, fraternité & liberté can only result in psychological breakdown.

Her choice at the end of the novel is to descend into irreparable madness or to resume her normality, as if it were an item of clothing to be kept in her wardrobe and put on every day before facing the world. The novel ends with the following conclusion: ‘ce qu’il convient de dire c’est que la Providence sait tenir la balance parfaitement égale entre l’être et le néant…’ In 1943, Jean Paul Sartre published L’être et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. The philosophical argument of that existentialist text and the narrative exploration of Giraudoux’s 1934 novel agree fundamentally on the state of the human condition in twentieth-century Europe.

My mother commented that: It is difficult to understand what is the main theme of this story.’ She concluded that:

The title, the action is surely Maléna’s effort to make herself into a being worthy of her lover — a being who understands & supports life in all its cruelty & deceptions — & her failure to be anything but the delightful, charming creature that nature & money had intended her to be.

In 1947, did she too worry what role as an adult woman she might carve out for herself in post-war Europe?