NYPL Researcher Spotlight: Eva Isherwood-Wallace

By Julie Carlsen, Assistant Curator, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature
May 14, 2024
photograph of the author in front of a gray-brown background. Eva is looking at camera the without smiling, but looking more contemplative than stern. She has a soft, androgynous appearance; she is wearing a silver septum piercing, earrings and necklace, and she is wearing a gray and sheet smoke or marble patterned shirt over a gray tank top.

This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library's collections for the development of their work.

Eva Isherwood-Wallace is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, researching the poetry of Laura Riding and sculptural modernism. She recently undertook a research placement at the British Library concerning contemporary artists’ books and fine press publishing. Her research has been published in The Irish Journal of American Studies and The Robert Graves Review, and she has also written for Art UK. Her poetry can be found in Catflap, The Tangerine, Banshee, Poetry Ireland Review and The Emma Press Anthology of Contemporary Gothic Verse. Her visit to NYPL was supported by a grant from AHRC Northern Bridge Consortium.

When did you first get the idea for your research project? 

My research focuses on the work of New York-born poet Laura Riding. Often best known through her professional and personal relationship with English poet Robert Graves, she has long been considered a ‘neglected’ female poet. Her significance within early 20th-century modernism has undergone processes of recovery in recent decades, but she remains a largely unfamiliar name. I first began with the intention of continuing in this scholarly vein of feminist recovery, but quickly found her too slippery to pin down in this way. Riding’s idiosyncratic (and at times frustrating, for critics) resistance to any simplified categorization makes her work and life difficult to write about, but this idiosyncrasy is what continually draws me to her work. For example, she refused permission for her work to be included in any anthologies of ‘woman poets’ as she considered such publications to be reductively separatist. This is one of the manifold reasons her work is not so well-known today. Her lifelong insistence upon interpretation on only her own terms extends beyond the page and through her complicated personal life. Moving countries and changing her name multiple times, Riding shaped many selves in a life that spanned almost the entire 20th century. This sense of self-shaping can, in my view, be paralleled with the sculptural. My reading of her work takes into account the work of modernist sculptors during that time, but it also uses the sculptural as a way of thinking more conceptually about monuments and memorials, self-construction and the book as a material object.

black and white photo of Laura Riding with a light ribbon holding back her dark hair as she looks to the side.

Photograph of Laura Riding by Ward Hutchinson, circa 1934.

What brought you to the Library?

Riding was born in New York, but as a young woman she moved to England to live with Robert Graves and his wife Nancy Nicholson. She stayed in Europe until the war, spending the thirties in Deià, Mallorca with Graves where they ran Seizin Press. After returning to America and spending the rest of her life in Florida, Riding’s personal papers became part of the Berg Collection following her correspondence and friendship with curator Lola Szladits. Riding’s papers can be found in numerous archives, but the Berg Collection has the material most relevant to my project. In addition to material relating to her career in the 1920s and 1930s, visiting NYPL allowed me to read early letters written while Riding was a student at Cornell and her correspondence with Szladits in the later years of her life. Following Riding’s development as a writer and as a person was a great privilege. It was also, at times, a deeply moving experience. Working with this private and personal correspondence felt very intimate, resembling what I imagine it would be like to attend a seance.

stack of papers, with a gray photocopy on the bottom, a pink post it and white envelope in Riding's spindly handwriting, and with a black and white photo of an elderly Riding on top

Letter from Laura Riding to Lola Szladits, December 16, 1980. With a photograph of Laura Riding by Mary Lowber Tiers.

What's your favorite spot in the Library?

The whole building at Bryant Park is incredible, but my favourite spot would have to be the Berg Collection reading room. Getting through even just the books displayed on the room’s bookshelves would take a lifetime. The room is very conducive to getting work done (especially with the support of the extremely knowledgeable and helpful curators, Carolyn and Julie). It’s also very beautiful, with ornate wooden panelling and a mother-of-pearl doorbell. The Berg Collection also holds some fascinating and bizarre objects, like a paper knife belonging to Charles Dickens topped with the paw of his beloved cat, Bob.

What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research?

Amongst Riding’s fan mail, I found a request for an autograph written in a child’s handwriting and full of spelling errors. According to the letter, he had been asked by his teacher to write to a poet he admired. Riding had attached a note to her secretary instructing her not to reply, as she was suspicious of its legitimacy (and had a general rule against giving out autographs). At first I thought this was quite cold-hearted and slightly paranoid. After making use of modern technology and tracking down the little boy in the Yellow Pages, it turned out that I was wrong to doubt Riding’s instincts as he would have been around 50 years old at the time! Looking again, I could see places where the childlike misspellings were contrived. It was a reminder not to always take archival material at face value, and perhaps to trust Riding a little bit more. Both in her lifetime and beyond, she has often been considered a difficult personality. Though this isn’t entirely without reason, I couldn’t help but find myself sympathizing with her to a greater degree while reading her papers at NYPL. 

Describe a moment when your research took an unexpected turn.

Having spent quite a lot of time researching Riding’s relationship with Robert Graves, I hadn’t expected to find reading their letters so emotionally affecting. From their first interactions (when Graves wrote to her in America having never met) to the eventual breakdown of their intense relationship, the letters were funny, heartbreaking and at times a little obscene. Reading other critics’ accounts of their partnership, such as the brilliant biographical work by Deborah Baker, didn’t prepare me for the experience of actually holding their letters in person. In one particularly touching letter, from an early and more apparently peaceful time, Riding describes going to the cinema in Piccadilly with Graves and Nancy Nicholson. She writes that “we all three held hands through a new Harold Lloyd picture,” an image that suggests a more idyllic vision of their triangular living arrangement than presented elsewhere.

black and white photograph within a large beige border. The photo show an empty room with open windows with light pouring through them.

Photograph of the press at Robert Graves's house in Canellun, Deya, Majorca.

After a day of working/researching, what do you do to unwind?

As this was my first time in New York, my after-work activities were a lot more exciting and highbrow than they would be at home! Bryant Park is close to both Broadway and Lincoln Center, and I managed to get cheap tickets to the theater and the opera which were great experiences.

Is there anything you'd like to tell someone looking to get started?

Accept that you probably won’t be able to get through everything you want to. It depends on your project, but the Laura Riding papers is such a vast collection that I quickly realized two weeks would never be enough time to see it all. Once I had viewed everything on my priority list, I decided to explore the rest by letting the material guide me. You will find new threads to follow and discover surprising things. For example, Riding’s correspondence with Lola Szladits has taken my research in a direction I hadn’t anticipated. I’m grateful to Julie Carlsen for introducing me to this material and for her insight into Lola’s work. I’m glad I spent my time in this way and didn’t rush through without a method, and now I have many reasons to (hopefully) come back someday soon. 

Who makes the best coffee in the neighborhood?

I think the best coffee I had was from a kiosk in Bryant Park itself, where there are plenty of outdoor tables. Even on a snowy January day it was the perfect place to sit and watch people ice skating, walking their dogs, and playing chess beside the frozen fountain.