Thursday, November 28, 2013

Visiting 'Edward Thomas' at Lincoln College.

Thanks to Professor Stephen Gill's kindness I was able to have lunch at Lincoln College, then visit the archives to see the College Edward Thomas archive material.
From the Porter's Lodge

Edward's stair, no 12, in the quad called the Grove.
 In the archive :

An intriguing letter on the back of the poem, 'Roads'.

His own copy of Shelley.

The manuscript of 'Oxford' - touching in its small neat hand, so urgent that it be well-received as he was 23 and penniless with a family to support.

I will look at the rest in another blog.



I LOVE roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.

Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.

On this earth 'tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure:

The hill road wet with rain
In the sun would not gleam
Like a winding stream
If we trod it not again.

They are lonely
While we sleep, lonelier
For lack of the traveller
Who is now a dream only.

From dawn's twilight
And all the clouds like sheep
On the mountains of sleep
They wind into the night.

The next turn may reveal
Heaven: upon the crest
The close pine clump, at rest
And black, may Hell conceal.

Often footsore, never
Yet of the road I weary,
Though long and steep and dreary
As it winds on for ever.

Helen of the roads,
The mountain ways of Wales
And the Mabinogion tales,
Is one of the true gods,
Abiding in the trees,

The threes and fours so wise,
The larger companies,
That by the roadside be,
And beneath the rafter

Else uninhabited
Excepting by the dead;
And it is her laughter
At morn and night I hear

When the thrush cock sings
Bright irrelevant things,
And when the chanticleer
Calls back to their own night

Troops that make loneliness
With their light footsteps' press,
As Helen's own are light.
Now all roads lead to France

And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring

To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude

Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Edward Thomas and three women, Edna, Eleanor and Helen:Edna Clarke Hall

Still Life, Basket on Chair


A blog-reader commented that I had left hanging a reference to Edna and my discomfort about what I've made of her in the novel.
It's true that the Edna episodes are by far the most speculative, based chiefly on poems of Edward and Edna. Then belatedly my speculations were to some extent confirmed by Matthew Hollis who had access to Edna's journals of the period. But whether she actively tried to seduce Edward - well, I can only say I think it quite likely, and likely that she would not have succeeded. But at present, at least, we don't know.

Edna's Story:
Edna – slender, extraordinarily beautiful, with a mass of chestnut hair and expressive eyes, was so talented an artist that she was accepted at the Slade at fourteen. She didn’t need to attend drawing class – there was nothing she needed to learn – so she developed her own way as a painter, especially as a water-colourist.  

It was William Clarke-Hall, a lawyer friend of her father’s, who had persuaded her parents to send her to the Slade. In her mind Willie was of their generation, twice her age. She was grateful to him but she’d never regarded him as a lover. When he proposed marriage she was too young to know herself, her feelings, and his nature. The marriage was unhappy from the beginning. Edna was nineteen, Willie thirty-two, she was open, honest and forthright with her feelings, he was reserved and formal, but he had been, for a time, overwhelmed by Edna’s beauty.

Edward had been in his last year at Oxford, already a father at twenty-one and married, though not yet living with Helen. A close friend of his, a law student, knew William and liked to talk about legal matters with him. Edward went on these visits, but spent the time talking to Edna. It was ‘them and us’, as Edward said – the lawyers and the artists.

Edna was glad to have someone who understood her, because already her new husband constantly criticised her behaviour and indeed her thoughts; he blamed her for her introspection or what he called self-absorption. Worse, she was young and wild, wanting to sleep out under the stars and climb the high elms around their house. She went out barefoot in simple cotton dresses and Willie said she looked like a gypsy.

Along with her wildness was the problem, for Willie, of the informality and spontaneity of her painting. Her art suffered; she managed to exhibit once in a group with some old Slade friends, but nothing more. All her promise seemed to have disappeared. She found what inspiration she could in Wuthering Heights, identifying herself with Catherine and her yearning for passionate love, something that she felt was cruelly denied her. She’d said a little, even at that early time, to Edward to hint at her unhappiness but she’d restrained herself from too much complaint then. 

After Oxford and a year in London the Thomases’ life took them away into the country, to Kent and Hampshire, and the friendship faded. Fifteen years passed. Edna had two children. Her old teacher from the Slade persuaded her to exhibit in a one-woman show early in 1914, and in the Saturday Review she was described as a sensitive and expressive draughtswoman. Her sense of colour, the reviewer said, was individual and instinctive. 

None of this altered Willie’s attitude towards his wife. 
In 1915 Edward's posting at Hare Hall camp, Romford, meant that he was near enough the Clarke- Hall home, Great House, Upminster, to visit and renew the friendship with Edna.

What 'happened' then between them we don't know, but Edward's poems of the period tell us that a real woman  or 'Woman' preoccupied his thoughts.
I have a book of Edna's poems kindly sent to me by Alison Thomas, a scientist at Cambridge who, for reasons I've never sought out, knows about Edna and other artists of the period. 'Portraits of Women', Alison Thomas.
The poems - well, I do wonder whether Edward was asked to read them and if so what he would have said. They are almost all full of pain, all about Love, Desire or Death.

The poems were published in 1926 and none are dated.

Edna hated the war and was in effect a pacifist - she painted very little during the war years. Somewhere around 1918 she had a serious mental breakdown. Her therapist persuaded Willie, her husband, to  respect her and her art more.
 She had a studio and gallery in London and continued to paint.

Love said unto my soul.   1930

In 1930 (aged 51) she was drawn by Augustus John.

Her gallery, studio and most of her extant work was destroyed in a bombing raid in WW Two, and she ceased painting. Edna lived till she was a hundred, dying in 1979.

   Thomas's poem, written 4th March 1916


Thinking of her had saddened me at first,
Until I saw the sun on the celandines lie
Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame,
A living thing, not what before I nursed,
The shadow I was growing to love almost,
The phantom, not the creature with bright eye
That I had thought never to see, once lost.

She found the celandines of February
Always before us all. Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world; and I was happy too,
Seeing the blossoms and the maiden who
Had seen them with me Februarys before,
Bending to them as in and out she trod
And laughed, with locks sweeping the mossy sod.

But this was a dream; the flowers were not true,
Until I stooped to pluck from the grass there
One of five petals and I smelt the juice
Which made me sigh, remembering she was no more,
Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.      

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Biographical fiction, HG Wells and David Lodge

Ultimate biog fiction?

HG Wells
Anthony Beevor - an historian's objections to 'faction.'

 David  Lodge recently talked about the 'Year of Henry James' - see last blog- and then more generally about the use of real figures in fiction.
He has a recent novel on HG Wells, 'A Man of Parts' published, which I have just ordered. With that and the Jude Morgan on Shakespeare I'm about to start,  I'm heavily  into biographical fiction.
As the 'Conscious Englishman' is now being printed I'm thinking about reviewers and wondering about David Lodge himself - rather a cheek, but nothing venture...

Anthony Beevor wrote  a Guardian  article - also called  'Author, Author'( 19 February 2011) on  the perils of faction, and Lodge referred to his views.  It's very well worth reading if you are interested in this subject. Beevor  is a historian and his argument is essentially that truth is lost or blurred by these works, even though immaculately researched, like Hilary Mantel's Cromwell.
Mantel says,
'Unlike the historian the novelist doesn't operate through hindsight. She lives inside the consciousness of her characters for whom the future is a blank.'
 Beevor comments that the historian should do both, seeing things as the protagonist did at the time, then analysing.

'But the key fact is that when a novelist uses a major historical character the reader has no idea what he or she has taken from recorded fact  and what has been invented in their re-creation of events.
Restorers of paintings and pottery follow a code of conduct in their work  to distinguish the original material from what they are adding later.'

I believe Lodge added that maybe Beevor wanted  the made-up bits, or else  the 'real' bits,  in bold! (But isn't it rather dated to be adamant that we are sure of 'real'?)

Here Beevor speculates about its popularity:

A blend of fact and fiction has been used in various forms since the dawn of creative writing, starting with sagas and epic poems. Yet the appeal of faction to writers and readers has recently increased in a dramatic way. Is this due to a poverty of imagination, as some critics argue? Is it a marketing-driven phenomenon, perhaps catering to the modern desire in a fast-moving world to learn and to be entertained at the same time? Is it influenced by a curious need for authenticity, even in works of fiction? Is there a prurient compulsion to fill in those gaps in our knowledge about the private lives of great figures, which history has failed to cover? Movies and TV now revel in the speculative biopic.

I think there is some truth  in all those factors if I'm honest - on the first,  like Jean Rhys on writing the Wide Sargasso Sea,  'I cannot invent, but I can imagine.'

Poem of Edward Thomas - because  I feel he is getting lost in  all this

First Known When Lost

I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone,---the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill.

It was not more than a hedge o'ergrown.
One meadow's breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as a bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut faggot ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary's tributary rises there.

Has anyone noticed that on copying from Oxford's digital 1st WW site the enjambents are lost? It's like one of those exercises in a poetry writing class where you have to guess where they should be. I quite enjoy putting it right really, and am almost tempted to try it without checking Edna Longley - but no, the capital letters give it away.

'First Known When Lost' is the title of a rather wonderful blog, by the way.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

'Faction'? No,  Biographical Fiction.

The two novels that gave me the idea of writing a novel about Edward Thomas's last years were  these:
David Lodge, in his 'The Year of Henry James', wrote about the 'co-incidence  waiting to happen' - that he and Colm Toibin were writing their novels at the same time. (The same thing has happened to some extent now with Edward Thomas of course, but not, I hope, in fiction.)
Lodge puts forward his thoughts about the James coincidence in 'The Year..' but more interesting to me is his discussion about the current  popularity of biographical novels, especially as applied to the lives of writers:
'It could be taken as a symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative in a culture where we are bombarded from every direction with formal narrative  in the form of 'news'. It could be regarded as a characteristic form of post-modernism - incorporating the art of the past in its own processes through reinterpretation and stylistic pastiche. It could be seen as a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing, or as a positive and ingenious way of coping with the 'anxiety of influence.'
After commenting  that the same has happened in drama he goes on:
'In short, the  biographical-novel-about-a-writer has acquired a new status  and a prominence as a subgenre of literary fiction.'
That was published in 2006, when I was just getting under way myself. His sections on acknowledging sources, the 'voice' and on seamlessly joining facts and fiction are good and I will look at them in the next blog.
Since then there have been many many more - notably for me 'Arthur and George' by Julian Barnes. I had an opportunity to talk to him and rather wasted it by chatting to him about settings - it is Staffordshire based and one scene is set in the building which was an annexe to my (and Carol Anne Duffy's)old  school.  He did tell me that the genesis of the idea -  the Dreyfus case - came to him on a visit to Germany.

There is a 'novel'- not well received, about Frost too. This is the blurb:
'Through the revelatory voice of fiction, Brian Hall gives us an artist toughened by tragedy, whose intimacy with death gave life to his poetry-for him, the preeminent symbol of man's form-giving power. This is the exquisitely rendered portrait of one man's rages, guilt, generosity, and defiant persistence-as much a fictional masterwork as it is a meditation on greatness.'

Recent additions to the genre, if it is one.

'The Great Lover', Jill Dawson's 2009 novel about Rupert Brooke in Grantchester - very speculative, entertaining.

Another - my former tutor on Oxford's creative writing Diploma course, novelist Clare Morgan, who has  Nietzsche,Virginia Woolf, and some modern characters woven together in her gripping, 'A Book for All and None.'

Then there is  Jude Morgan who is prolific in this field  - the Byron trilogy, the Brontes - A Taste of Sorrow - I've read the Byrons and learned a lot, but have yet to read the Brontes. And now - what courage! Shakespeare! Surely that is the ultimate challenge.

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare.

'In this confident and accomplished fictional rendering of Shakespeare's life, Morgan makes a virtue of how little we know for certain about the playright. Not only does the paucity of fact open up spaces in which the novelist can operate with greater freedom, but Morgan has turned our lack of knowledge into a quality of unknowableness in his protagonist .'   (Jane Housham) That sounds excellent.

Life After Death

Andrew Motion on Keats, 'The Invention of Dr Cake' and on Edward Thomas in the collection 'Interrupted lives'  - made up a post-mortem future for them so is in a sense pure fiction. Reading the Edward Thomas is a very disorientating business, all well known facts and then suddenly:

'At 7.36 a shell landed nearby, just as he was standing to fill his clay pipe. The blast poured over him, sqeezing his heart and wrinkling the diary - and a letter from Helen - that he had tucked into his pocket before he started out. As he staggered backwards a piece of shrapnel skimmed towards him. missing his chest but lacerating his left arm between the wrist and elbow. He collapsed into the shell-hole unconscious. Stretcher-bearers found him that evening.'
His left arm amputated he is invalided home and has a 'honeymoon' period with a very happy Helen, but .... well, it's interesting to read, along with Marlowe's, Shelley's, Katherine Mansfield's, Plath's and Angela Carter's resurrections.

What does this all amount to? My feeling is that some readers, me for one, love these things and others, perhaps more scrupulous and scholarly types, loathe them. I rarely get through  a great bumper biography I've bought or borrowed - there have been exceptions, George Eliot's notably - but I learn plenty and sometimes retain more deeply from novels.

Edward Thomas wasn't a fiction reviewer - why is that? - but he had read everything that mattered, and of course he tried his own, the odd 'Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans', a 'faction' indeed as it is based on his own Welsh family in London.  Guy Cuthbertson (OUP) will elucidate it I know and I'll try it again.

 No poem as this is all prose so:
From The Childhood of Edward Thomas - his unfinished autobiography:
So I used to enjoy going about with Henry to look at the pigeon shops in Wandsworth, Battersea and Clapham, occasionally to visit the back-garden lofts of working men in the same neighbourhoods. He had me in tow and I think I remained for the most part silent in the background unless I had a bird to buy. These long rambles among crowds of working people under the gaslight, in all sorts of weathers, were a great pleasure and were interrupted by a greater one when we stood and looked at pigeons in an atmosphere of shag smoke, grain and birds. At one time I paid a good many visits to the lofts of a tradesman in our neighbourhood, a tall gross pale-faced man with a truculent geniality. He was said to ill-treat the small wife who did most of the shop work and to be going under an assumed name for some bad reason. John would never have endured him: if he had to deal with men below him he preferred gamekeepers and such like who had to be tipped and knew their place. But the man kept scores of long-distance homing pigeons. Their high circlings visible from our back garden, and their rushing lower flight between the chimney-pots, were sublime to me. It was a great day therefore when I went round to him to get the pair of young black chequers which I had been awaiting for many days. I was to have them, so I understood, for two-and-six the pair. When I already had them in my hands I learnt that they were two-and-six each. This was beyond my means, nor did I want to have one of them at such a price. So he took them back into his hands at the door. Then while I was still lingering he put the head of one bird in his mouth, as I imagined in fun, or to slip a grain into its beak. His teeth closed on the slender neck tighter and tighter, the wings flapped and quivered, and when he opened his jaws the bird was dead. I was speechless, on the edge of tears. He looked down at me with a half-pitying grin, remarking that I was "still soft-hearted". My tenderness turned to hatred for the man, yet I could not speak. I dared not show my feeling. With only a meek resentfulness I even accepted his gift of the surviving bird. It became the prize of my pigeon house, always distinguished as "the young homer". The man I never did more than nod to again.