Ruth Burton, archivist for the Herbert Read project, writes about the enthralling letters of Herbert Read and Margaret Ludwig.  Which words would you most like to see in a love letter? How about, ‘I love you beyond any homage my senses can make’? Or maybe, ‘I love you 1000 times more than your letters’? That might make you smile. What if you read, ‘It is a matter of common observation that morality and religion do not necessarily coexist in the same persons’? Or the letter included a definition of the contrapuntal technique in music?

All of these can be found in the remarkable correspondence of the poet and critic Herbert Read and Margaret Ludwig, the talented musician who became his second wife. Alongside the letters are manuscript poems written by Read, including one called ‘The Innocent Eye.’ This would become the title of one of his most personal and best loved books. The poems and letters are part of the Herbert Read archive, donated to Special Collections by the Read family.

Read first met Margaret Ludwig in late 1931. They were seated next to each other at a Sunday lunch hosted by Canon John Gray and André Raffalovich, in Morningside, Edinburgh. Sundays at ‘Raffy’s’ were sought after invitations. Both Gray and Raffalovich were poets who had known Oscar Wilde. Critics have suggested that Gray, who signed some letters to Wilde as ‘Dorian’, was the inspiration behind ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’

BC MS 20c Herbert Read. Read during his time in Edinburgh. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Read was in his late thirties when he met Ludo, as she was known to her friends. He was not yet well known, but was a respected critic, a published poet, and decorated veteran of the First World War, embarking on academic life in a new city. Ludo was in her mid-twenties. She was a brilliant viola player who lectured in music at Edinburgh University. Their attraction was mutual and instant, but Read was married and had a young son. Ludo had recently converted to Catholicism.

At first, their relationship could only be imagined as ‘an affair of letters’. But what began as a tentative correspondence very quickly became intense and intimate. The archive holds nearly 200 letters that passed between them from November 1931 to the summer of 1933 when they decided to leave their lives in Edinburgh and move to London together.

BC MS 20c Herbert Read. Ludo (Margaret Read née Ludwig). Image credit Leeds University Library.

Passionate and serious by turn, these letters are filled with views on war, Proust, Mozart and avant-garde art, alongside intricate debates on faith, morality and Catholicism. Read’s letters are more than equally matched by the fiercely intelligent, deft, and often very funny responses of Ludo who was equally capable of hiking around Skye in heels or dismantling Joyce’s Ulysses.

‘I am delighted to find a certain toughness in your mind’, Read wrote; happy and surprised when Ludo unravelled his meticulous arguments or deflated his complacent assumptions. His admiration for her shines through these letters, which offer an insight into the private thoughts of a prolific writer, as well an introduction to Ludo, who many researchers can now meet for the first time.

The Herbert Read archive is now being fully catalogued thanks to an Archives Revealed grant from the National Archives.