Thursday, 13 April 2017

Henry James and the Spoils of Old Place

Old Place, Lindfield in Sussex, was the home of stained glass designer Charles Eamer Kempe. He restored this Jacobean manor house, enlarging and enlarging it again, to create a stately pleasure dome that dazzled visitors and led Country Life to write about it no fewer than four times in as many years. Variously described as a House Beautiful and as a Palace of Art, its contents and its gardens reflected Kempe’s taste, his passion for art and for the past. One dazzled visitor was the sculptor and writer, Lord Ronald Gower, who wrote in his Diary for 27th September 1889:

'I paid Mr Kempe (the great artist of coloured glass) a short visit at his delightful home, Old Place, at Lindfield. This is truly a ‘house beautiful’, every room in it, even the bedrooms with their quaint old ‘four posters’, their tapestries, and stained glass windows, artistic studies one and all. [….] The outside of Old Place is as beautiful as the interior, the effect of crimson from the Virginia Creeper on the grey stone walls, crowned by picturesque gables, harmonizes with the wealth of colour within doors.'

Lord Ronald (doyen of the Aesthetic Movement’s demi-monde, model for Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey) became a frequent visitor to Old Place, his name appearing often in Kempe’s Visitors Book. In July 1893, when the new East wing had just been completed, he noted that ‘Old Place is now one of the prettiest places I have ever seen,’ but added  – as if reluctantly – ‘Perhaps if one could find a fault with this almost perfect house it would be that it is a little over-decorated. The new drawing room is a blaze of carved roses in scarlet and gold, with superb oak carving on the walls.’

Another visitor in the 1890s was Henry James, to whom Kempe had been introduced through his friends Field Marshal Viscount and Lady Wolseley, near neighbours in Sussex. James signed his name in the Visitors Book for the first time on 8th March 1897, and it’s tempting to think he might have had Old Place in mind when he wrote The Spoils of Poynton, his novel about a widowed lady, Mrs Gereth, who lived in an ‘exquisite old house’ full of ‘the things’, antiques collected from all over Europe with which Poynton ‘overflowed’. While writing this novel, James had provisionally titled it The House Beautiful, the same phrase Gower had borrowed for Old Place from Pilgrim’s Progess. Clearly, Lord Ronald had thought Old Place overflowed; he would also have agreed with James’s description of the house as ‘early Jacobean, supreme in every part, a provocation, an inspiration, the matchless canvas for a picture’.

Kempe’s friends would have had no difficulty in recognizing what James meant when he said that Poynton was

the record of a life. It was written in great syllables of colour and form, the tongues of other countries and the hands of rare artists. It was all France and Italy, with their ages composed to rest. For England you looked out of old windows – it was England that was the wide embrace.

The windows of Old Place too offered a vision of England – and explicitly of early 17th century England: rose garden, yew walks, sundials.  When in 1885 he held a grand garden party, Kempe opened the gates ‘to all who would see the England of their forefathers’, he and his friends dressing up in period costume to add to the atmosphere. A photograph taken on the occasion shows them sitting, rather self-consciously, as if for an amateur production of Twelfth Night.

Surely, then, Old Place must have been the model for Poynton? Much as I’d like to say so, I cannot be sure, for the novel was actually written between 1895 and early 1896, and I have as yet no proof that James visited Old Place before 1897. In any case, James preferred to work from a ‘germ’, a single fleeting idea taking root in his imagination and lying dormant until he was ready to let it develop. He did not want to be burdened with too many external facts as he planned his stories. I think it likely that he’d heard about Old Place, probably from the Wolseleys, but deliberately abstained from going there until the book was written. Poynton, as he describes it, is simply James’s idea of a House Beautiful stuffed with ‘things’, not Kempe’s.

I’ve been writing about Old Place myself, for my book on Kempe. I can’t help feeling, though, that it belongs more to the world of fiction than biography. And I’m not the first to have thought this.  In Kempe’s lifetime Hugh Benson, the Roman Catholic convert son of Archbishop Benson of Canterbury, wrote By What Authority? (1904) an historical novel partly set in a house directly modelled on Old Place. More recently, David Smith’s Love in Lindfield (2016) updates The Spoils of Poynton, setting the whole story in and around Kempe’s home.

The BBC once serialised James’s novel; in Smith’s story one of the central characters is scouting for locations for another BBC adaptation. Smith is careful not to imply that Old Place was Poynton, but he makes great play with the idea that since Henry James had been friendly with a number of Kempe’s friends who were avid collectors themselves, one of them could have been the model for Mrs Gereth. This is especially true of Viscountess Wolseley; Smith correctly points out that some of her ‘things’ had been literally spoils of war, brought back from distant corners of the Empire by her husband, the Field Marshal (Garnet Wolseley, lampooned by Gilbert & Sullivan as ‘the very model of a modern major general’). 

Kempe isn’t a character in the novel, but he is a haunting, ambiguous presence in it. Appropriate, you might say, for someone who slipped effortlessly between the 17th and the 19th centuries, and who, shortly before his death, even had himself photographed as the Ghost of Old Place.

[Illustrations: (i) Old Place, the East Wing (1891); (ii) the gardens and sundial of Old Place - a glass transparency (c.1908) (iii) C.E. Kempe photographed as a ghost (1907). 

All photos © copyright The Kempe Trust 2017. 

  • Old Place is now divided into three private houses, with no public access.
  • My forthcoming book, Kempe: the Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, is due to be published by Lutterworth Press in 2018.

Monday, 10 April 2017

'Bad shoving and deep water’: writers on the Thames

This photograph has puzzled me for some time. A  country church on a steep little hill, with a river beside it; a service of some kind taking place in the open air, conducted by a bishop in front of what looks like a new war memorial near the church porch; the choir lined up on steps leading from the little lychgate. Apart from the clutch of local dignitaries around the bishop and one family at the bottom of the slope but within the churchyard, all the remaining villagers are gathered in the open space outside the wall. Women and children greatly outnumber men. The women, all with hats, are wearing what may be their Sunday best, and the girls have clean aprons. A few boys stand on the grass near the gate, watching proceedings; are those Eton collars round their necks? One of them trails a cricket bat, though this is winter: the trees are bare, the adults all wear coats and hats (of course) and someone is putting up an umbrella. The date can be pinpointed precisely, for written below the photograph are these details: ‘Feb[ruar]y, 26th 1909, Aldenham’.

Edwardian England, in the year my father was born.  It’s not a posed picture nobody is looking at the camera but in its way it is a portrait of a community.  I had assumed that this must be Aldenham in Hertfordshire, but Aldenham Herts. is a small town and it’s not on a wide river. The Colne, which sidles past, is little more than a brook. Ah, the power of the internet! Within hours of my picture being posted on Twitter, I had learned where this was: not Aldenham at all but Clifton Hampden, a village on the Oxfordshire bank of the Thames. It has doubled in size since the photograph was taken, but still has fewer than 700 inhabitants.

Once upon a time I was fascinated by punts and punting: I collected pictures and books, and took a punt out whenever I could. Forty years ago this year, I even began to keep a punting diary, recording all my outings. It is beside me as I write – and so are some of my most prized punting books. In these, Clifton Hampden features frequently.

The Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames from The Source to London Bridge (London: Edward Stanford Ltd.) is a seven-foot long, linen-backed, fold-out map of the river. My 1927 edition combines a Thameside gazeteer with detailed, if rather condensed, notes on how to punt each stretch of the river from Cricklad Cricklade (Glos.) to  Putney. Thus its entry for Clifton Hampden reads:

Clifton Hampden Br. Station: Culham, G.W.R., 1¼ m. Inn: The Barley Mow on Berks side of bridge. Boatyard: Casey, at Bridge Toll House, will look after boats, and has a few to let.
From Clifton Bridge keep right bank, but to left of reed beds and islands at Burcott: then bad shoving and deep water to lock.

The artist George Dunlop Leslie, whose book Our River (1881) is one long paean to punting on the Thames, knew all about the problems of shoving on this stretch of the river: ‘The punting here is peculiar,’ he declared; ‘mud is a bad thing, but there is such a thing as too hard a bottom, for here the pole rings with a clunk as it strikes the ground, and slips aside without any hold.’ But he admired the view:

At Clifton Hampden, as if to make up for its dullness, the river suddenly comes out in quite a novel aspect. For a short distance it runs over a bed of hard sandstone; the little cliff on the Oxfordshire side, from which the village is named, is of this stone, and quite unlike anything else on the river. With its ivy bushes and small church perched on the top, it resembles some of Bewick’s vignettes very strikingly.

Jerome K Jerome, in Three Men in a Boat (1891) describes Clifton Hampden as ‘a wonderfully pretty village, old-fashioned, peaceful, and dainty with flowers’. He doesn’t mention the church; he’s more interested in the local pub, The Barley Mow, whose ‘low pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more  once-upon-a-timeyfied.’ Such quaintness comes at a cost, however:

It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always ‘divinely tall’, and she is ever ‘drawing herself up to her full height.’ At the ‘Barley Mow’ she would bump her head against the ceiling every time she did this.

John Ruskin visited Clifton Hampden, and if he climbed up to the church he was no doubt horrified by the make-over given it by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Ruskin’s views on church restoration were uncompromising: ‘Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end … It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.’ But Ruskin was more interested Clifton Hampden’s old bridge (originally Tudor, but also – as it happens – restored by Gilbert Scott. Local people kept their punts moored under its arches.)  Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, in The Stream of Pleasure (1891) tells the story of how Ruskin, watching the sunset reflected in the river, was distracted by a small boy he saw suddenly

run from one side of the bridge to the other, and lean far over the parapet with eyes fixed upon the current beneath. Of what was he thinking, this little boy? Was it the hurry of the water, of the beauty of the evening, or had this speed and loveliness already awakened him to higher and holier thoughts? And as Ruskin wondered, a boat drifted from under the arches into the light, and the little boy, leaning still lower, spat upon the oarsman, and dodged quickly and ran away, and Ruskin went home a sadder, if a wiser, man.

I intend to visit Clifton Hampden this summer. I may even call in at the Barley Mow. But I shall definitely climb up to the church, and pay my respects at the memorial to Lord Aldenham, designed by Walter Ernest Tower and unveiled by the Bishop of Oxford on 26th February, 1909.  If  you want to know why I’m interested, you’ll find the answer in my forthcoming book, Kempe: the life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, due to be published by the Lutterworth Press in 2018.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustrations: (i) Clifton Hampden Church, 26th February 1909 (Kempe Trust Archives)
(ii) A stretch of the Thames from the Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the Thames.
(iii) G.D. Leslie, ’The Author’s Punt' from Our River, 1881

Friday, 11 November 2016

Quiller-Couch and the Prisoner of War

Wilfrid Parsons and my father had been good friends at Theological College in the 1930s, and both began their careers as curates in South London. Wilfrid became an Army Chaplain as soon as the Second World War broke out, and after brief training sailed to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940.  Some time between 28th May and 3rd June he was captured, along with the remnants of his unit, during the retreat to Dunkirk. He spent nearly five years as a Prisoner of War in various camps in Germany and Poland, even though as a non-combattant padre he should have been repatriated at once under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

He was my godfather. I never knew him well, but I can picture him on a visit to our home. He spent most of the time sitting alone on a deck chair in the middle of our large Rectory lawn, smoking his pipe. ‘I can hardly imagine,’ (he’d written to my father in October 1941), ‘what it is like to sit in an easy chair, and as for walking out of the front garden without an attendant I shall be quite lost! The greatest godsend will be to be alone for five minutes. But it will come.’  It did, but it took almost the rest of the war.

He was sent first to Kriegsgefangenenlager Oflag VIIC, in Bavaria, and it was from there he sent the first message my father received from him, a card, dated 10th December 1940, thanking him for a letter sent via the Red Cross. Thus began an unpredictable correspondence, hampered by letters and parcels frequently going astray. Twelve of his letters (including one Christmas card) to my father survive. I have them now; I doubt if there were any more.

After a year in Oflag VIIC, Wilfrid was transferred to a huge camp in Poland, Stalag XX A/3, where he was one of the padres officially approved by the camp’s Kommandant . Recently I was astonished to find a photograph on the internet of Wilfrid conducting the funeral of a British prisoner, under the watchful eye of a German guard. He was glad to be busy, but it was reading that helped to keep up his spirits. Writing on 22nd October 1941 to my father, who had just got married and was setting up home for the first time with my mother, Wilfrid said,

I do wish I could look in for a cup of coffee this morning, and have a look at your new home and talk about bookcases and pictures. I can imagine how nice you and Doreen have made everything. These things seem a long way off - at the moment our bookcases are converted milk-boxes and as for an easy chair – well, I suppose they do exist somewhere. But there are plenty of good books, thanks to kind friends and the Red Cross.

I always associate my godfather with books. He used to send me 7/6d book tokens every Christmas, and when he retired and downsized, he bequeathed to me a revolving bookcase of his that, once, I’d enjoyed spinning round – until I whizzed it so fast that all the books fell out. While a POW, he would sometimes ask my father to send him particular titles. Sometimes too he’d mention what he had just read. ‘Ah me!’ he wrote in February 1942, ‘My youth passes by, and the affairs of the world come to me as distant sounds of some dreamland. (Excuse the last sentence; I have recently finished reading Fowler’s King’s English.)

By the end of 1944, Wilfrid had heard he was to be repatriated at last, but no date had been given. He wrote to my father again:

The reading ticks over … I received a batch of Plato, Euripides and Thucydides which I should like to bring back, but I have got most enjoyment since being a POW out of Quiller-Couch’s lectures on ‘Reading’ and ‘Writing’ and other subjects in English Literature. Well, here’s to beating this letter home to you!

The books by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Q) my godfather admired were collections of lectures given at Cambridge between 1913 and 1918. In them Q had a lot to say about war. When war had been declared in August 1914, he had sat on recruiting committees back in his native Cornwall. Yet he was scathing from the start about ‘well-intentioned superior persons who, with no prospect of dying for their country, are calling on others to make that sacrifice.’ He had no illusions about what was happening. His first lecture in The Art of Reading, delivered on 5th October 1914, attacked politicians who were already ‘perverted by hate’ and eager only ‘to invent what will be commercially serviceable in besting your neighbour, or in gassing him, or in slaughtering him neatly and wholesale.’

Horrified by the way, as he saw it, that such ‘practical science’ was sidelining the humanities, Q spent the war lecturing his audiences on the importance of European literature, from Homer to Thomas Hardy, and how it not only made life endurable during ‘the blank and devastated days of this war’ but would be indispensible in helping to bind Europe together once the war was over. I understand now why my godfather - Uncle Wilfrid as I still think of him – valued Q so highly, and why he marked in pencil this prescient passage from ‘On the Use of Masterpieces’, a lecture delivered just as the Armistice approached, on 6th November, 1918:

This War will leave us bound to Europe as we have never been: and, whether we like it or not, no less inextricably bound to foe than to friend. Therefore, I say, it has become important, and in a far higher degree than it ever was before the War, that our countrymen grow up with a sense of what I may call the soul of Europe. And nowhere but in literature (which is ‘memorable speech’) … can they find this sense.

Adrian Barlow
11 November 2016

[illustrations: (i) Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, CF (Chaplain to the Forces), conducting the funeral of a Prisoner of War at Stalag XX A/3. (ii) Wilfrid’s first message to my father, after becoming a POW.

I have written before about the importance of Q:

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Anthony Trollope’s own goals

I first read Trollope’s Barchester Towers nearly fifty years ago, on the island of Ithaca, while travelling with a friend during a long vac. We had rented a little room overlooking the sunny harbour at Vathi, the port to which Odysseus at last returned. The room had an en-suite of a sort: you walked out onto a flat rooftop to find a privy and a shower consisting of a head-height tap from which dangled a tin can with holes punched in its bottom. The water was cold but, in the Ionian heat, welcome.

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) may have been the first novelist to write about a shower. When Alice Vavasour, heroine of Can You Forgive Her? (1864), arrives to stay with her aunt in Cheltenham, she is hardly through the front door before Lady Macleod starts berating her for having broken off her recent engagement. Her aunt certainly does not intend to forgive her, and Alice struggles to defend herself, after which Trollope’s narrator comments:

Perhaps it was better for them both that the attack and defence should thus be made suddenly, at their first meeting. It is better to pull the string at once when you are in the shower bath, and not to stand shivering, thinking of the inevitable which you can only postpone for a few minutes.

I came across this interesting analogy while preparing a talk on ‘Past and Present in the world of Trollope’ to give to the Woodstock Literature Society last weekend.  It is always a pleasure to come back to Trollope; but when I mentioned this lecture to an old friend, he replied , ‘Why has Trollope never quite made the A-list of required reading?’ It’s a question to ponder. I raised it with my audience on Saturday, suggesting that Barchester Towers was possibly the finest comic novel of the 19th century, and that two at least of Trollope’s books, The Last Chronicle of Barset and The Way We Live Now, deserve a place in anyone’s Top Ten list of Victorian fiction.

Trollope himself is often held responsible for his failure to keep a secure foothold in the Premier League. In his posthumously published Autobiography (1883) he had spelt out – much too bluntly for some – the economics of being a novelist, publishing the exact sums he had earned in royalties and fees for every one of his forty seven novels. Then, in describing his working methods, he had startled readers by dismissing that idea that great writing requires great inspiration (preferably to be found by a starving author shivering in a garret); Trollope was unapologetic about sticking to a strict regime:

I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40. It has been placed as low as 20, and has risen to 112. And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went.

Confessing he had been warned ‘such appliances are beneath the notice of a man of genius’, he cheerfully admitted he’d never thought of himself as a genius, but was sure that, even if he were, he would have subjected himself to what he called ‘these trammels’ because  ‘A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules. It is the tortoise which always catches the hare.’ (Echoes of Samuel Smiles?)

Trollope is sometimes too hard on himself, and no doubt some critics (such as F.R. Leavis) and some of his fellow authors (Henry James, for instance) have been too ready to take him at his own estimation; but his analysis of what makes for a successful novelist is worth our attention. Describing how he came to write The Warden, the first of the Barchester novels and the first book of his to receive much recognition, Trollope explains how he wanted to expose – or at least to describe – two contrasting evils. The first of these was ‘the possession by the Church of certain funds and endowments which had been intended for charitable purposes, but which had been allowed to become incomes for idle church dignitaries.’ In the novel a young radical, John Bold, exposes the scandal of a clergyman, Mr Harding, who lives comfortably as the Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, an almshouse for twelve old men: shouldn’t these bedesmen have been receiving the accumulated benefits of the original endowment, instead of the Warden?

The second evil against which Trollope inveighs is by contrast the ‘undeserved severity of the newspapers towards the recipients of such incomes, who could hardly be considered to be the chief sinners in the matter.’ In the novel the Times, disguised as The Thunderer, launches a campaign so scathing against Mr Harding – one of life’s innocents, a man devoted to God and his daughter, to music and to the old men of Hiram’s Hospital – that he resigns, to the despair of his daughter (who is, inconveniently, in love with John Bold) and of the Cathedral clergy, who regard him as a weak-willed traitor to the Church of England for allowing its privileges thus to be undermined.

Trollope wanted to see, and sympathize, with both sides of the argument. However, he concedes:

I was altogether wrong in supposing that the two things could be combined. Any writer in advocating a cause must do so after the fashion of an advocate, – or his writing will be ineffective. He should take up one side and cling to that, and then he may be powerful. There should be no scruples of conscience. Such scruples make a man impotent for such work.

But here I think Trollope is wrong. The genius of The Warden, and what makes it compulsively and provocatively readable, is that it does have ‘scruples of conscience’ about both sides; this is what sets Trollope apart, for example, from the Dickens of Hard Times or Nicholas Nickleby – Dickens, the novelist whom he lampoons in The Warden as Mr. Popular Sentiment. Trollope was almost incapable of seeing only one side: when he stood for Parliament in 1868 he described himself as a Conservative Liberal, and was roundly jeered by both parties.

In speaking last week at Woodstock, I referred to Trollope’s own account of The Vicar of Bullhampton, a novel in which he does place all his sympathy behind a single character: Carry Brattle, the miller’s daughter, whom he politely calls a ‘castaway’ but others do not scruple to call a prostitute. This novel, Trollope declares, ‘was written chiefly with the object of exciting not only pity but also sympathy for a fallen woman, and of raising a feeling of forgiveness for such in the minds of other women.’ He felt so strongly about this that he reprinted the novel’s Preface in his Autobiography; but his own final verdict on The Vicar of Bullhampton was as absurd as it was unsparing, and, alas, did all that was needed to keep this fine novel, and Trollope himself, off the A-list:

As regards all the Brattles, the story is, I think, well told. The characters are true, and the scenes at the mill are in keeping with human nature. For the rest of the book I have little to say. It is not very bad, and it certainly is not very good. As I have myself forgotten what the heroine does and says – except that she tumbles into a ditch – I cannot expect anyone else should remember her. But I have forgotten nothing that was done or said by any of the Brattles.

Adrian Barlow