Oxford story rerun continued, on request.
Lincoln College, Oxford and 'going wrong.'
The 'back-story' : fiction writer's phrase for what the author knows about his or her characters but includes only obliquely.
My novel begins in August 1914, when war was declared and Edward Thomas was thirty-six. The events in this blog are part of his back-story, a very crucial part. It can take a long time to recover from events that 'go wrong' in your youth; some would say that he never recovered, others that perhaps those events gave something as well as taking from him.
I find myself thinking about this period much more than before - almost wondering whether a 'prequel' would be a good idea!
In the autumn of 1898 he moved from 113 Cowley Road to Lincoln College.
He was glad to be in college, with tutors and the possibility of friendships, rather than the solitude of his lodgings.
When he writes of Lincoln he mostly stresses its quietness; on writing to Helen on his first day he liked everything including his neighbour on the stair.
I had my first delightful glimpse of the grey, main quadrangle of Lincoln, so quiet and deserted, filled with the gaudy crimson of flying creeper leaves.
In 'Oxford,' he writes of the 'quaint cottages of Little Grove' - the fifteenth century originals. And:
what sweeter and more dignified picture of quietness and study is there than at Lincoln in Wesley's time?
But the reality is that in many ways his own university career was a failure, especially his final year.
He felt friendless at times, writing to Helen,
'If I did not know you I should by this time be the most abandoned of creatures up here. As it is - did you see me as I am, I fear you would think me sadly fallen from my sentimental, well-intentioned babyhood, two years ago.'
But he did make some lasting friends, he rowed, and he had an excellent tutor who challenged and encouraged him. He was not just studying, though, but living as a semi-professional writer with deadlines and demands for deep reading on whatever he might be reviewing or depicting. This, his scholarship and allowance from his father made a reasonable income - for one.
He did find time to visit friends of his friend, law-student E.S.P Haynes, the lawyer Clarke-Hall and his very young wife Edna; Edward and Edna were attracted to each other, seeing themselves as 'the artists' as opposed to 'the lawyers.'
And then in his second year Helen found she was pregnant. Worries: the future, lack of money or prospects, the reaction of their parents, whether to marry - these anxieties show in their letters especially Edward's. Helen's mother rejected her (her much-loved father had died) but Edward's parents took her in. The couple married in May 1999. About the expected baby, Edward wrote:
'You ask, if I too feel any joy at the thought of a child. I confess I have felt it considerably, but I do not know if it is a decent joy.'
Edward stayed at Lincoln, but saw Helen often. In November - Helen seven months pregnant - he wrote:
'I crave unbearably for you, body and soul. That poor body!I can easily understand how the sight of it upsets you. I hope it is not very prodigious, also that it will not interfere with us when I return. Will it do you think? for a weight upon it might do it great harm.'
Merfyn was born in January 1900; at this time Edward's work began to suffer and his moods became gloomy. He started drinking heavily, socialising more, taking opium occasionally and despairing of getting a good degree. He was dreading leaving Oxford, having no job and no way of knowing how his family was to avoid 'bankruptcy and the gutter ahead.'
What really ruined his performance in Finals, though, was that he'd contracted gonorrhea in May during the celebrations for the relief of Mafeking - when 'all the women of the city allowed themselves to be promiscuously kissed ..,. everyone was drunk,' as he wrote to poor Helen. 'It was an absurd occasion for so unpatriotic a man'.
He felt ill and the treatment would have made him feel worse.
Poor Edward too - as far as anyone can tell this was his first and last infidelity, aged twenty-one, and he certainly paid for it.
He tried last minute revision but too late to make enough difference. He did get a second class degree - if he'd had a First he could well have become a Fellow and life would have been easier. His father, who had paid an allowance for three years, was annoyed and contemptuous.
The Poem: written when Merfyn, then fifteen, was leaving for America to be away from the war and to grow up a little. It looks back on what had been a difficult relationship.
THE Past is a strange land, most strange.
Wind blows not there, nor does rain fall:
If they do, they cannot hurt at all.
Men of all kinds as equals range
The soundless fields and streets of it.
Pleasure and pain there have no sting,
The perished self not suffering
That lacks all blood and nerve and wit,
And is in shadow-land a shade.
Remembered joy and misery
Bring joy to the joyous equally;
Both sadden the sad. So memory made
Parting to-day a double pain:
First because it was parting; next
Because the ill it ended vexed
And mocked me from the Past again,
Not as what had been remedied
Had I gone on,--not that, oh no!
But as itself no longer woe;
Sighs, angry word and look and deed
Being faded: rather a kind of bliss,
For there spiritualized it lay
In the perpetual yesterday
That naught can stir or stain like this.