Monday, December 30, 2013

Presenting Helen Thomas - Who has it 'right' ?
The play at the Almeida a year ago? I don't think so. Neither does Thomas's new biographer.

Jean Moorcroft-Wilson

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida Theatre, London
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

There's no doubt that the play was  a box-office success.

What seems to have most  troubled or at least intrigued many is the portrayal of Helen. There is speculation that the author's sympathies were with Edward and that Helen needed to be silly and disagreeable to excuse his cruelty to her.

 Jean Moorcroft-Wilson whose full biography of Thomas will be published next year considered that as a piece of theatre the play worked, and the physical resemblance of the actors to their characters was remarkable.

Very like - though he would have been wearing his tin hat.
But, Jean goes on:
"Unfortunately, what makes for good drama does not always tally with what we know of real-life characters. To someone who has read Thomas’s many letters to family and friends, his copious diaries and his wonderful poetry, his character seems very one-sided; it is impossible to imagine him cowering cravenly before a game-keeper, for instance. The rest takes on an air of caricature. This is particularly true of Thomas’s difficult relationship with his father (Ifan Huw Dafydd), which is played for laughs, and the character of Helen (Hatty Morahan).
Morahan plays Helen as a Post-Feminist, yet she and Edward met in 1895, when she was 17, he only 16. She was a ‘bohemian’, but not of the hysterical variety portrayed in the play. Anyone who has studied her hundreds of letters to Edward, as well as her fictionalized account of their marriage, cannot fail to admire her love and devotion to him, but also her intelligence. It seems to me inconceivable that she would have behaved in the way she does in this play before his friends and thus risk humiliating him. Here her monumental forbearance has been sacrificed in the interests of ‘good theatre’."                                       Camden New Review.
The play tackled Robert Frost's quarrel with Helen after she published the first of her memoirs, 'As it Was.' Again, drama needs dramatic scenes - though none of their quarrel was face to face of course. Less exciting,  but more consoling, is the fact that they really did make it up eventually.
 It is well worth Googling both Lesley Frost (Robert's eldest child and a writer) and her daughter Lesley Lee Frost.
Both Helen and Robert suffered pain and anger from Edward's death: hardly surprising that they quarrelled as people do in these circumstances, often claiming they knew the dead person best. And Robert was a quarrelsome man. But Lesley Lee was there when they met, both 80-odd; Robert greeted Helen and Bronwen with open arms and he and Helen chatted about their grandchildren. Only TS Eliot's intervention broke up their meeting - a piece of literary irony, that High Modernist disruption! Later a planned visit to Helen was prevented by Robert's illness- he was always ill in the English climate.
Lesley Lee Francis's review of  Hollis's 'Now All Roads Lead to France' is so well worth reading for a different and an insider's view of the quarrel and in fact of the whole  Frost/Thomas friendship.

Well, I hope I have been 'both kind and true, or not unkind and not untrue', in Larkin's immortal words, about Helen.  Here is the poem that I think says what needs to be said:

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Helen Thomas - using Helen's words.
Perhaps a quarter of the novel is written in the first person, telling 'Helen's version' of the last four years of Edward Thomas's life as she experienced it. I put 'Helen's version' in quotes because of course it is really my version pretending to be hers.
 I have her write a memoir, which I called 'Half a kiss, half a tear' from Thomas's poem 'Sowing.' I'd originally called it 'Like Memory's Sand', which I think a lovely phrase but deprived of meaning without the words that follow. See the poem below.
The problem with Helen is of course also the bonus - she had written her account of her life with Edward in the moving and still widely read works, As It Was and World Without End, collected as Under Storm's Wing.

 I was interested to read that the major Thomas scholar Edna Longley came to Thomas 's poetry after reading Helen's work. Michael Morpurgo chose it as a favourite Good Read.



Helen also wrote many hundreds of letters and if I tried to emulate her voice it is the voice of the letters, not  because they were contemporary rather than retrospective (after all 'Half a kiss, half a tear' is meant to be a memoir) but because they are less polished, more spontaneous and so more easy to contemporary ears than Helen's  prose in Under Storm's Wing. Sometimes it is rather too fulsome   and I do try to capture that from time to time.
But mostly it is sincere, vivid and moving and I know I can't attempt to  equal it . Look at this on their final parting:
Edward Thomas"I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the walls. He takes a book out of his pocket. 'You see, your Shakespeare's Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?'; He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.
'Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki overcoat?' So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we often do, like young lovers.

Helen Thomas I hide my face on his knee and all my tears so long kept back come convulsively. I cannot stop crying My body is torn with terrible sobs. I am engulfed in this despair like a drowning man by the sea. My mind is incapable of thought. So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth betweeen us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other's arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows."
And here is the first part of the letter Helen wrote to Robert in March 1917:
High Beech
March z.
Late at night
Dear Robert
What a bit of luck to get your letter at all. I thought all the mails had gone down in the Laconia, but evidently not. I'm so excited & happy about your splendid news, & I've already written to the dear man & told him, & to John Freeman to find out about those 'insists'. I feel sure it will be all right. I'm not at all sure that Edward Eastaway will consent to be Edward Thomas, but I will add my 'insists' to yours & hope for the best. Also I like the idea of your preface & feel sure he will too. It's all very good news & you sound as pleased & you knew we would be.
By now you will have heard from him. He's at Arras & expecting a hot time presently. I don't suppose I can tell you much about him may I. He's at present at head quarters as adjutant to a ruddy Colonel whose one subject is horse racing & jockeys & such & with whom our man gets on so well that the he's longing to be back at his battery, he's afraid the Colonel has taken a fancy to him & will keep him. It will probably mean promotion, but Edward wants the real thing & wont be happy till he gets it & what is one to do with such a poet. In a pause in the shooting he turns his wonderful field glasses on to a hovering kestrel & sees him descend & pounce & bring up a mouse. Twice he saw that & says "I suppose the mice are travelling now". What a soldier. Oh he's just fine, full of satisfaction in his work, & his letters free from care & responsibility but keen to have a share in the great stage when it begins where he is.
At first after we'd said 'Goodbye' & we knew what suffering was, & what we meant to each other, I did not live really, but just somehow or other did my work, but with my ears strained all the time for his step or his coo-ee in case he came back. But the one can only wait & hope & not let panic take a hold of one, his happy letters & the knowledge that all is so well between us, are making life life again, & the Spring helps too & the feeling that the end is near-must come soon, & that that end will be-if it is at all-a beginning again for us with such knowledge of each other as nothing can ever obliterate, nothing can ever, that is what we know & what makes life possible now.
I must tell you that [the] last evening we were talking of people of ourselves of friends & of his work & all he'd like done. And he said "Outside you & the children & my mother, Robert Frost comes next." And I know he loves you.
I send you this photograph. Merfyn took it. People don't like it because they say he is too much a soldier here, & not at his best. But I send it thinking that you know him so well you'll be able to read him into it, if he is not there to you. We too will send to Leslie. We are all well,& Merfyn has attested and will 'join up' when he is I8. Bronwen is happy & careless & so useful & willing. Baba is well & growing long  & clever & disconcerting often with her shrewd observation& her totting up of character. And I am just the same, & despite  all the terrible anxiety & terror in me, a great calm nothing can unruffle.
I'll leave this letter open for details to be added about the book.
Edward will be 39 tomorrow March 3rd, & we are hoping our parcels of apples& cake & sweets & such like luxuries will get to him on the day. Our letters take a week to reach him. Yours not much longer I expect. '

Poem:From The Sun used to shine
on his friendship with Frost

To faintness like those rumours fades- ­
Like the brook's water glittering

Under the moonlight -­ like those walks
Now -­ like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silences -­ like memory's sand

When the tide covers it late or soon,
And other men through other flowers
In those fields under the same moon
Go talking and have easy hours.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon:Three Women, Edna, Eleanor and Helen.

'Morning has broken Like the first morning...'

Eleanor's wrote the well-loved hymn 'Morning Has Broken' but I wonder how many people are aware that she was its author. It was written in 1931, is entitled 'Morning Song for the first day of Spring' and is sung to an old Scottish tune.
 I can never remember not knowing it and I have in fact known of Eleanor since the age of eleven: at my school, Stafford Girls High School (also C-A Duffy's as I say at every opportunity) we had elocution lessons with a flamboyant speech and drama teacher, Eleanora Fenn. Mrs Fenn knew Eleanor and dropped her name all the time. We had to learn a poem a week; often they were Eleanor's and very enjoyable and memorable they were.

Eleanor's Story
Eleanor Farjeon was born in London on 13 February 1881. Her family was literary, father a popular novelist, two brothers became writers and another a composer. "Nellie", was a small timid child, who had poor eyesight and suffered from ill-health throughout her childhood. She was shy and not a pretty child as she wore thick glasses - as a result she was sensitive and empathic towards children, qualities which show in her writing for them.
She was educated at home, spending much of her time in the attic, surrounded by books. Her father encouraged her writing from the age of five. She describes her family and her childhood in the autobiographical, A Nursery in the Nineties (1935).
She lived much of her life among the literary and theatrical circles of London.
A holiday in France in 1907 was to inspire her to create a story of a troubadour, later refashioned as the wandering minstrel of her most famous book, Martin Pippin in the Apple Orchard. Among her earliest publications is a volume of poems called Pan Worship, published in 1908, and Nursery Rhymes of London Town from 1916, one of the manuscripts she sent to Edward for comment.
  From A Conscious Englishman:
'When she’d met Edward almost two years before, she was overwhelmed by him. So beautiful - his face, and his voice. And his mind, she felt sure.

 ‘He was so kind to me,’ she’d said to her brother. ‘He asked to see some of my writing. Do you think he meant it?’

‘I’m sure Edward doesn’t say anything unless he means it.’

       So she wrote him a friendly note, rather a witty one, and he replied in the same vein. After that they wrote and met often. She knew that he was habitually melancholic – after all, their circle of friends thought of him as ‘The Patient’ by reputation before they knew him. They’d been quite cross at the way this mysterious ‘patient’ absorbed the time of their doctor friend, Godwin Baynes.

         She fell in love and she continued to love him when that first ‘in love’ phase passed. He knew, of course, but she sensed that she must never speak about her love for him. Bertie and a few close friends knew – and her mother, who was dismayed and disapproving.

On the first occasion that she went to visit the Thomases at Steep, Helen realised it at once. Seeing that Eleanor loved her husband, her response, her strategy perhaps, was to make sure that she became Eleanor’s loving friend too.'


During World War I, the family spent time in Flansham in Sussex where the landscape, villages and local traditions were to have a profound effect upon her later writing.  It was in Sussex that the Martin Pippin stories were eventually to be located and in the novel I have her visit Edward's printer near Flansham.


Eleanor aged 21


At only eighteen Eleanor wrote the libretto  Floretta, to music by her brother Harry. She also collaborated with her youngest brother, Bertie, Edward's friend, a  Shakespearian scholar and dramatic critic. Their later productions include Kings and Queens (1932), The Two Bouquets (1938), An Elephant in Arcady (1939), and The Glass Slipper (1944).
Eleanor had a wide range of friends with great literary talents including D. H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare and of course Edward Thomas. After Thomas's death in April 1917 she remained close to his wife, Helen. She later published much of their correspondence, and gave her account of their relationship in Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years  in 1958. On holiday in Norfolk
                                                 with her brother Bertie, Clifford Bax and Edward.


After Edward

After World War I Eleanor earned a living as a poet, journalist and broadcaster.  Her topical work for the Labour-supporting paper The Herald, Reynolds News and New Leader was the perhaps the most accomplished of any socialist poet of the 1920s and 30s.( I'm proud to say that my parents took the Herald.)
 Eleanor never married, but had a thirty-year friendship with George Earle, an English teacher. After his death in 1949, she had a long friendship with the actor Denys Blakelock who wrote of it in the book, Eleanor, Portrait of a Farjeon (1966).
During the 1950s she won three major literary awards: the annual Carnegie Medal for British children's books;[ the inaugural, international Hans Christian Andersen Award for career contribution to children's literature; and the Regina Medal of the American Catholic Library Association. (An agnostic from childhood, in her later years she converted to Catholicism.)
She died in Hampstead, London on 5 June 1965 and  is buried in the churchyard of St John-at-Hampstead.
The Children's Book Circle, a society of publishers, present the Eleanor Farjeon Award annually in her memory.


Eleanor loved Christmas - her family Christmases had been lavish Dickensian - style events with entertainments by their writer father and the four children - Eleanor wrote a version of Snow White when she was seven for the family to perform. It had a very succint opening -

The Queen, embroidering, pricks her finger.
QUEEN: I wish I had a little dauter with her skin as white as snow her lips and cheaks as red  as blod and her hair and eyes as black as my en-broadeere frame.

QUEEN dies. Enter KING.

KING: She's dead. I must marry agayne.

1927 - Cyder Press facsimile

She was always very generous with her  presents to the Thomas family. Here is Edward's poignant 'thank you' note, of 27th December 1916:
My dear Eleanor, I am bloated with your presents. But that is not their fault. The apples were delicious and the poem is.  (Eleanor had sent another London Town poem).....It has been another entirely lovely day of melting snow and we have been out in it half the time in batches, I in each batch. If you had been here we should have been more Christmassy.  Goodbye. I hope we shall meet next Christmas time.
             Yours ever
                          Edward Thomas.



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Biographical fiction, Jude Morgan, David Lodge.

 Jude Morgan's  'Secret Life of William Shakespeare'

Jude Morgan makes interesting comments about the development of his work.
 He was motivated above all by wanting to re-instate Shakespeare as a real person, not as a cultural icon only.
The known facts are few: born, went to grammar school,  married an older woman, Anne, when he was eighteen, was a father at nineteen and two more children followed. He worked away from home a great deal. ( I don't want to draw fatuous comparisons but I do wonder whether Edward Thomas noticed those parallels with his own situation.)

Morgan writes:

Armed with these bare facts, the biographer must draw only the most likely conclusions, and emphasise that they are informed speculation. The novelist has an easier time of it. We are liars by profession. People pay us to make up stories for them. On the other hand, like all con artists we have to be persuasive. As soon as the reader shakes their head in scepticism, as soon as they feel something doesn't ring true, the deal is off. So in writing about Shakespeare I strove to give the feeling, not that 'this is how it might have been' but 'this is how it was'.

On language, he chose not to use archaisms: the reader would lose that sense of immediacy, of life happening in the present for the characters. He just tried to avoid anachronisms.
Unlike me he scarcely used the dating of the works to deduce what Shakespeare's concerns and life events might be, because, as he says, Shakespeare was the least autobiographical writer, probably what makes him great.
I found it very instructive and actually reassuring to read this novel, as I could see parallels in mine in several ways - especially  giving a major role to the protagonist's wife and having a secondary, less likeable writer friend as a counter-foil, a context of the other writers and trends of the times - quite unconsciously arrived at I thought, but maybe stemming from some teaching and the many thousands of novels read in my life.

David Lodge - I did write to him saying how valuable I'd found his writing on this subject in the past and recently, and asking if he would consider reading and commenting. He wrote back very promptly, declining with reasons and adding 'I may well buy it and read it one day' and wishing me luck.  I think that was very kind and very understandable.

I didn't enjoy 'A Man of Parts' very much as I found Wells such an unattractive, shallow character.  'Author , author '  was much more rewarding  and its subject  - asexual, intensely moral and unspontaneous Henry James, could hardly have been more different. So that is interesting, I suppose, Lodge choosing such contrasts.


Written in December 1914, one of Thomas's first poems.  It's been that sort of day today.


Gone the wild day:
A wilder night
Coming makes way
For brief twilight.

Where the firm soaked road
Mounts and is lost
In the high beech-wood
It shines almost.

The beeches keep
A stormy rest,
Breathing deep
Of wind from the west.

The wood is black,
With a misty steam.
Above, the cloud pack
Breaks for one gleam.

But the woodman's cot
By the ivied trees
Awakens not
To light or breeze.

It smokes aloft
It hunches soft
Under storm's wing.

It has no care
For gleam or gloom:
It stays there
While I shall roam,

Die, and forget
The hill of trees,
The gleam, the wet,
This roaring peace.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

 Helen Thomas

 Helen is the woman  who matters most : her devotion and loyalty to Edward Thomas must move all but the stoniest heart.

I think the letters from Edward, like the one in my previous post,  counteract the view that the marriage became dead for him in later years. He signed every letter 

All and always Yours,  Edwy.

Radio 4 on Sunday at 4 30pm 'And You , Helen'- a programme about her.

Helen's Story

Helen Noble, the daughter of the journalist, James Ashcroft Noble, was born in Liverpool on 11th July 1877. Noble, who found work writing for The Spectator, moved the family to London in 1880. 

After an education at Wintersdorf School in Southport, she became a nursery governess in Rotherfield. She was quite 'bohemian' in dress and in the circles she moved in.

She met Edward through her father who encouraged his writing and their getting to know each other.

Helen became pregnant with Merfyn while Edward was an undergraduate at Oxford .( See my blogs on Oxford.) In 1896, they married and times were very hard financially. Bronwen was born and became quite ill with their poor living conditions, as Edward struggled to make a living by his writing.

Helen taught kindergarden children at Beadles, a progressive co-educational boarding school in Steep where they had moved. They had a third child, Myfanwy, who became a writer.
After the war Helen wrote about her relationship with Edward  in  1926 and 1931. The two volumes, 'As it Was '  and 'World without End' were republished with the  perfect title 'Under Storm's Wing' (from  the poem 'Interval').  Her daughter, Myfanwy, claims the books were written as a form of therapy to lift the depression which settled over her after the death of her husband. Helen  died in 1967.
It was a way of keeping Edward alive for her, and it is an intelligent, passionate work; in it Helen often belittles her intellect and wisdom, sadly, something she had probably evolved under Edward's frequent unkindness.

I depended heavily on 'Under Storm's Wing' and decided to have Helen in the first person - the voice  I give her is not that of Helen in her book - it needs to have that sense of happening in the present which Jude Morgan refers to in his 'Shakespeare'. But  I chose to have her write a memoir, 'Half a Kiss, Half a Tear' and to open and close it with scenes and phrases  taken very closely from Under Storm's Wing. Here is an extract: it is almost Christmas, 1916.         

'My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’

I knew I must live in the present, that we could at least be together like doomed lovers, doubting that they would have a future and making the most of their time. So I told the children and we danced all around the house, singing,

‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’ And in the same post came a cheque for twenty pounds, a gift from a private fund for writers. Twenty pounds – so much money! I hurried up to London and bought the best Jaeger sleeping bag, thick gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets for Edward, more presents for the children and a red dress for myself – Edward loved to see me in red. And I bought fruit, sweets, and other luxuries, even some wine.

The children collected fir, ivy and holly from the forest. We dug up a little Christmas tree from the garden and made it dance with sparkling decorations and candles ready to light.

Our Christmas Day was perfect. We woke to hear the children, Baba especially, exclaiming over presents in the lumpy stockings. Edward had crept in as usual and filled them while they slept. We always put exciting little things in them; bigger presents waited until later. Edward went down to make tea, his army greatcoat over his pyjamas, and then we all five squeezed into our big bed. Merfyn did still have a stocking, but we acknowledged his grown-up status with shaving soap, cigarettes and a new mouth-organ, and Bronwen’s with the grown-up things she liked, scent, ribbons and a lacy handkerchief, as well as a new sketch-book and crayons. Merfyn played, ‘It’s a long long trail’ on the mouth-organ while Edward wound up a grey clockwork mouse I’d bought Baba. It scuttled over the floorboards and to please her Bronwen and I duly screamed in the way women must.

As usual, Eleanor was too generous, with a great parcel of presents, each one gorgeously wrapped. Edward was happy to have the sumptuous warm Jaeger sleeping bag from me and straight away marked the name tape – P.E. Thomas.

The day passed happily. As soon as tea was over I went out and lit the coloured candles on the Christmas tree, then Edward carried it in from where Merfyn had hidden it in the woodshed. Myfanwy was entranced. She’d never seen a Christmas tree before.

After tea we sat near the fire, eating nuts and talking or reading our new books. Then Edward took Baba on his knee and sang Welsh songs and some rousing army ones.

It was just before her bedtime that I watched the two of them, Baba on a chair by the window, looking out at the snow and Edward behind her looking out too. They were hoping to see deer.

‘Shall we see any? Are they out there?’ she asked. I remember that she wondered if they were cold and frightened, out in the dark, not like her, safe in the cosy sitting room, with the lamp lit and her father’s hand on her shoulder. That was when I wept.
 The poem- of course:
And You, Helen
And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.