Sometime in 1913, two Leeds University students taking part in a Union debate on socialism declared that they were not only socialists but atheists. One was a student of botany, Evelyn Roff; the other my father, Herbert Read. This intellectual affinity led to a friendship, kept up through correspondence throughout World War I. Read emerged from the war a decorated officer and a published poet, patronised by Osbert Sitwell and Virginia Woolf and a friend of TS Eliot.
Read resumed his courtship of Evelyn, the only girl he knew. Though she was radical in politics and philosophy, she was conventional in mores and wanted the commitment of marriage. They were wed and had one son; but the marriage was not happy.
Read worked first in the Treasury, then in the ceramics department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. His principal interest was literature, but he became the art critic of the BBC magazine the Listener, where he wrote enthusiastically about the then-ridiculed modernists. A series of articles in The Listener became a book, The Meaning of Art.
Other books followed, and his reputation as a poet and literary critic became overwhelmed by that of an art critic: he was called “the apostle of modernism”. In 1930 Read was appointed to the Chair of Fine Art at Edinburgh University, in a move to ginger up the faculty. Because of the war, he had not graduated from Leeds: he was hastily made a Doctor of Literature.
It was in Edinburgh that Read first came across Catholics in the form of a rich Russian Jew, André Raffalovich, and his friend John Gray. Gray had once been Oscar Wilde’s lover; later, he converted to Catholicism and became a priest in Edinburgh. “Raffy” had paid for the construction of a church for Gray at Morningside, and then built a house for himself in which he entertained members of the city’s cultural elite.
Read was invited to one of Raffy’s lunches. He went without his wife, and was placed next to a young viola player and lecturer in music at the university, Margaret Ludwig or “Ludo”. Of mixed German, Scottish, Irish and Italian ancestry, she had been born and raised in Aberdeen, studied in Edinburgh under Donald Tovey, then in Cologne under Walter Braunfels. She was welcomed into the Braunfels family, all devout Catholics, and when she returned to Edinburgh she took instruction and was received into the Church. However, three months later, at Raffy’s lunch, she fell in love with Read, and he with her. A year or so later they ran off to London, and Ludo became Read’s second wife.
A recently discovered cache of letters and documents reveals the tentative and cautious evolution of their affair. Beginning “Dear Miss Ludwig” and “Dear Professor Read”, the correspondence develops into cautious avowals of friendship and then love.
In many ways it was an attraction of opposites – the reserved and emotionally inhibited intellectual drawn to the exuberant Catholic flapper. There can rarely have been such a highbrow exchange between lovers, with tutorials on George Santayana from Read, on Schoenberg and Hindemith by Ludo; poems by Read, and passages in German which Ludo spoke fluently and Read was eager to learn.
“I don’t know whether you realised,” wrote Ludo early in the correspondence, “I am a Catholic – a convert of two years ago. In certain things I know I cannot have a God’s point of view because I am not God but poor Margaret Ludwig, so those things I do not trouble to understand. This may disturb you. I will never change – it is my rock.”
To which Read replied: “I did realise that you were a Catholic, but not that you were a convert. That does not disturb me in the least. I have myself come near enough to that haven to understand. To understand perfectly, but not to participate. There is some barrier in my heart or in my understanding which I cannot pass. No doubt it is my want of Grace, my intellectual vanity. But you will find me very humble in the presence of this faith in you, and you need never be afraid to reveal it to me.”
Read was true to his word. Though he could ill afford it, he paid for their four children (including me) to go to Catholic boarding schools and, though I suspect he was baffled that we remained Catholics, he never spoke against the Church in our presence. His atheism had mellowed into agnosticism: “It is a genuine puzzle to me,” he wrote in Annals of Innocence and Experience, “how anyone with a knowledge of the comparative history of religions can retain an exclusive belief in the tenets of a particular sect.”
However, in one of his last essays, he admitted that “all my life I have found more sustenance in the work of those who bear witness to the reality of a living God than in the work of those who deny God … In that state of suspense, ‘waiting on God’, I still live and shall probably die.”