Wednesday 6 March 2024

Correspondence between Robert Aickman and Edith Tyler, March 1937 to August 1940

One of the great loves of Robert Aickman’s life was Edith Tyler, whom he called ‘Eve’ in The Attempted Rescue, presumably to hide her identity. When his autobiography was published in 1966 she may have been still alive, and perhaps had a family. Recently discovered love letters exchanged by Robert and Edith corroborate many of the details he gave in The Attempted Rescue, but Aickman appears to have re-written their history in a few respects.

Robert and Edith met in 1937, at a time when both were living bohemian existences in London. It is not surprising he omitted to mention that when they became lovers she was a married woman. It is unclear whether Edith was estranged from her husband, but she and Aickman were at pains to keep their relationship out of the public eye, and especially unnoticed by her family. She was 29 and he was 23.
The letters are full of their love for each other, which is obviously sincere, although Aickman is by far the more conscientious and assiduous letter-writer. He makes a point of asking Tyler to preserve the letters, and she writes, ‘I know you like to keep track of your literary efforts’. At one point he says the letters may one day be published, and when their relationship ended she returned them all to him. Most of Aickman’s letters to Tyler contained an extra sheet of notepaper on which he quoted from his favourite writers, including Oscar Wilde, Gabrielle D’Anunzio and Oliver Onions.

It is clear that Aickman preserved their love letters for posterity, and he would have been able to consult them when writing The Attempted Rescue. Nevertheless, he knowingly altered the facts beyond what was required to simply preserve Edith’s privacy. For example, he wrote that they ‘moved into’ a disused windmill at Baldslow just before the start of the Second World War. It is offered as an important moment—the last period of true happiness he would ever experience in his life. He wrote to Audrey Linley in April 1940 that during the summer of 1939, he spent ‘three weeks in a windmill which I leased with some friends,’ which is a different story already. But the letters clearly show that it was Edith’s family who rented the Windmill, briefly, and that Aickman visited them on only a couple of occasions. (He left at one point because it was important for him to go to the first night of the Proms.)

He also wrote that when war broke out, Edith was sent to Liverpool ‘for a few weeks’ to be trained before departing for the West Indies. These details may have been made up so that she could not be identified, but when she moved to Liverpool she was to stay there for the rest of the war, and beyond. She went to work for the Postal Censorship (which greatly annoyed Robert), and while in Liverpool she met John Mallinson, whom she married. There may have been a very good reason for Aickman altering some of the facts, but it is strange that he felt the need to show her in a bad light by saying she thought he resented her for going to somewhere as nice as the (fictional) West Indies.

The correspondence between Aickman and Tyler is fascinating, not least for what it tells us about Aickman’s view of life when he was in his early/mid twenties. His interests and obsessions, his loves and fears, are all those that he appears to have carried into maturity. They reveal that an ordinary, conventional life of work and family was anathema to him; only the arts were of any importance to him. The arts . . . and love.
While protesting his love for Tyler, Aickman devotes an equal amount of time in his letters to the organisation of visits to the theatre and to concerts. He refers to himself as an artist, but it is not clear what creative work he may be doing, and no writing projects are mentioned. His ambitious philosophical work, Panacea, seems to have already been completed. He complains of having very little money, but he is unwilling to find employment. There is brief mention of him attempting to help set straight his father’s business affairs, but this is only in passing. Aickman’s claim that he and ‘Eve’ dreamed of living together in a studio is corroborated by the letters, and he may have been correct to say that to afford such accommodation would have meant finding employment to pay the rent. He implies they were both equally unrealistic, but during their relationship Eve was always employed, first in the Staff Training Department at Harrods department store in London, and later for the Censorship in Liverpool. It was Robert who was unwilling to find a job that would have meant they could have rented their studio and lived together. Aickman is dreaming of an ideal that he is unwilling to try and realise. 

Aickman also explains how they must not make onerous demands on each other and tie the other down. For him, their great love exists because they are free of commitment, and he makes it very clear that he does not believe in marriage. Their free and easy relationship seems to have appealed to Tyler as much as to Aickman, at least to begin with. He also discusses the fact that he is at ease with her seeing other men, as long as he is still considered the most important man in her life. Again, he dreams of an ideal, but must know it is unworkable. It seems he thinks the ‘miracle’ he failed to perform was to offer her marriage.
One can’t help thinking that in those worrying and uncertain times, as war loomed, Aickman found solace in romance, while Tyler enjoyed the attentions of a fervent young lover. She then met somebody who not only offered her love, but the development of a long-term, workable relationship. Aickman would spend the rest of his life looking for other women who would not spoil his dreams by engaging with the conventional, everyday world.
Edith is not quite honest with Robert as to when she was married, and she returns his letters stating that he has reminded her often enough how important his writing is to him. He would thus be able to keep both sides of the correspondence for posterity.

Robert Aickman: A Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2023


With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.


  1. Would love to hear a bit more about how the letters came to light. Were they held by the estate? A literary executor or library?

    1. It is slightly strange, but they seem to have been given to a close friend for safekeeping, separate to all the material given to the Estate and which forms the archive (in the British Library). I can only assume this was because the letters meant so much to R.A. The friend died and it has been with her family for several years, before being offered to a bookdealer whom I happen to know...

    2. Well, that's often the way these things happen. A family friend sold a typescript, annotated in F. Scott Fitzgerald's hand, of a late story he wrote while convalescing in Asheville--it had been given to her mother, a local nurse, who kept it for decades. I hope the dealer recommended sale to the British Library, the Ransom Center, or some other appropriate archive.

    3. I am confident they will end up in the B.L. eventually. :-)


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