Monday, 22 June 2015

The Second Mrs T.S. Eliot

Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s play, The Second Mrs Tanqueray, is about a young woman ‘with a past’ whose marriage to a much older widower has complicated and ultimately disastrous consequences. By contrast, Valerie Fletcher, who became the second Mrs T.S. Eliot, was a woman with no past at all. Her life only ever had one focus: Eliot himself. Although she was thirty-eight years younger, her marriage to him was (as far as she at least was
 concerned) blissfully uncomplicated, and its consequences for Eliot’s posthumous reputation have been the opposite of disastrous – though not everyone, I know, agrees.

A friend recently handed me a photograph (c.1943) showing a squad of lacrosse players from Queen Anne’s School, Caversham. Did I recognize the girl on the right at the end of the back row? my friend asked. The girl was Valerie Fletcher. ‘She was never much of a looker, was she?’ added my friend. Actually, some people thought she was a looker: when Groucho Marx met her, in 1961, he described her as ‘a good-looking, middle-aged blonde whose eyes seemed to light up with adoration every time she looked at her husband’.

In many ways, Valerie Fletcher’s marriage to T.S. Eliot in January 1957 was even more extraordinary than Marilyn Monroe’s to Arthur Miller the previous year. At least Monroe and Miller had met, plausibly enough, in Hollywood; by contrast, the story of the lacrosse-playing teenager and the Nobel Prizewinning poet defied all probability.

Eliot died in 1965; Valerie outlived him by forty seven years. The Guardian obituary of her maintained that as a schoolgirl she had told her headmistress her ambition was to become Eliot’s secretary; the Queen Anne’s Society News (2012-2013), took the story a step further and reported that while still at school, Valerie had confidently announced she would marry him. The most specific account, however, comes in Tarantula, John Smart’s biography of Eliot’s close friend, John Hayward. Eliot had shared a London flat with Hayward for eleven years, up until the day before he married Valerie – to the astonishment of everyone except Valerie herself:

Valerie Fletcher had been listening intently in an English lesson to a gramophone record of John Gielgud reading ‘Journey of the Magi’. She was bowled over. At the end of the lesson she went up to her teacher, Miss Bartholomew, and asked, ‘Who wrote that poem?’ Miss Bartholomew told her that it was T.S. Eliot. ‘I shall marry that man,” her pupil said immediately. After a moment’s pause, she mused, ‘But how shall I meet him?’ Without thinking anything of it, Miss Bartholomew replied, ‘You could become his secretary, I suppose.’

It would be quite unfair to conclude that Valerie was a manipulative young gold-digger setting out to entice a foolish, fond old man. Lyndall Gordon in T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life – to my mind, by far the best study of Eliot’s life and poetry – says simply that ‘Eliot came to recognize in his secretary the absolute dedication of an ideal heir’. In an interview quoted by Gordon, Valerie herself explained the life-defining impact of hearing ‘Journey of the Magi’:

It just hit me. The whole feeling of Tom in it – and the impression I formed then – was borne out right throughout marriage and everything. After that I tried to find out everything I could about him. It was something very sympathetic.

‘Throughout marriage and everything’ – for Valerie, marriage was to be eight years of devoted happiness, as it was for the poet too: Lyndall Gordon speaks of  ‘the idyllic nature of his attachment’. Afterwards, ‘everything’ included the nearly fifty years she lived on as his widow and literary executor.

The first most people knew about Valerie in this new role was her publication in 1971 of  

The Waste Land
Edited by Valerie Eliot

The ‘lost’ manuscript of this poem, as originally edited by Ezra Pound and annotated by Eliot, Pound and Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, had only resurfaced in 1968 when the New York Public Library announced it had been discovered among a collection of privately purchased papers. Valerie’s Facsimile and Transcript was itself a ground-breaking work of bibliography: the reader could see on the left-hand pages Eliot’s hand-written or typed sheets and on the right could read the same text now type-set and with all the annotations, erasures and overwritings ingeniously transcribed typographically and colour-coded. It showed that Pound had been far more influential in shaping the most famous Modernist poem of the twentieth century than many people had recently wanted to believe, and that his editorial judgment had saved the poem.  Eliot himself had acknowledged this by dedicating the poem to Il miglior fabbro’. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Valerie’s book helped rehabilitate Pound’s reputation. Put simply, it was (and is) a master class in responsible editing and exegesis: without it, I wonder whether Helen Gardner’s virtuoso work, The Composition of Four Quartets, which refined the approach Valerie had previously taken with The Waste Land, would even have been published.

No longer now the gawky, sporty schoolgirl with a crush, nor the adoring blonde on the arm of an elderly husband, Valerie Eliot had proved she should be taken seriously as a scholar and as Eliot’s literary executor. I have every admiration for what she achieved with The Waste Land and every sympathy with the way she defended Eliot’s posthumous reputation later.  Others may disagree. But her own best memorial should be her definitive edition of The Waste Land. Let Lyndall Gordon, comparing Valerie’s edition with Helen Gardner’s work on The Composition of Four Quartets, explain why:

Both are lasting works of scholarship […. ] In Mrs Eliot’s introduction and Helen Gardner’s chapters on the growth and sources of the Quartets, facts are selective and direct the reader towards the work. It is to be hoped that scholars of the twenty-first century will follow their lead in discerning the simplicity at the heart of Eliot’s apparent difficulty.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: ‘The Scarlet Runners’ – Queen Anne’s School, Caversham, Lacrosse players c.1943 (private collection)

[Notes: Groucho Marx’s description of Valerie is quoted by Lyndall Gordon in T.S. Eliot, an Imperfect Life (1998), p. 517. From the same source comes the extract from Valerie’s 1988 Times interview, p.497-8, as does the description of Eliot’s recognizing in Valerie ‘the absolute dedication of an ideal heir’. The quotation with which I end this post will be found on p.679.

John Smart’s account in Tarantula (p.263) of Valerie’s reaction to hearing ‘Journey of the Magi’ is based on an interview he conducted with Dorothy Bartholomew (1913-2011), the teacher who transformed Valerie’s life simply by putting a record on the gramophone.

For an additional account of Valerie’s marriage to Eliot and her subsequent life as his literary executor, I recommend the Independent obituary (14 November 2012); while for a different perspective on Valerie Eliot, see Karen Christensen, ‘Dear Mrs Eliot’, Guardian 29 January 2005.

I have written previously about Eliot, in T.S. Eliot and the Turning Year. 2015 being the 50th anniversary of his death, I hope to write about him again, more than once in the remaining six months.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Kempe’s Bells - a Postscript

Describing himself as ‘a pedantic old palaeographer’, a friend of mine who had just read Ring Out, Wild Bells! (my previous post) suggested tactfully that I had misread the last word of the telegram sent to Charles Eamer Kempe on 21st June 1887. He was right, of course: what I had too hastily transcribed as ‘all three’ is actually the name ‘Attree’. It makes quite a difference.

I had assumed that the telegram referred to the three bells Kempe had donated to his local church, All Saints Lindfield, Sussex, where he was churchwarden. He had given these to enable a full peal to be rung in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. I admit that the word, as written out by a Telegraph Office clerk, looked more like ‘alt[h]ree’, but I had made the mistake of underestimating the clerk’s accuracy. The transcription error was mine, not his. What’s worse, I’d failed to notice that the word began with a capital ‘A’, albeit in the old-fashioned script form I was taught at my own primary school. So, on all counts my misreading was an egregious error, and I must apologise – not least to Mr Attree, whoever he was.

But I think I can identify him. Attree, I’ve discovered, was (is) a widespread Sussex name. In Kempe’s own immediate neighbourhood and in his own time, there were plenty of Attrees listed in the census returns of 1881 and 1891: a blacksmith at Bolney, an innkeeper at Cuckfield, gardeners, carriers and so on – all indispensible members of a rural community in those days. But Kempe’s family came originally from Brighton and in the late 18th - early 19th centuries both the Kemps*and the Attrees were property speculators. However, in Brighton in the 1880s perhaps the most well-known Attree was George F Attree, who combined two important businesses. As both undertaker and auctioneer, he provided what was doubtless a useful, two-in-one service, dispatching not only the deceased themselves but their belongings too. Indeed, George was a man of parts, with a keen interest in promoting bell-ringing. It was through his endeavours that the Sussex County Association of Change Ringers (SCACR) was founded in 1885, and he was its first Secretary.

So I think it likely Kempe would not only have known George but would have consulted him about his plans for the Lindfield bells. What’s more, I suspect Attree himself was one of the ringers of the Jubilee peal: already an experienced change ringer, he would have been a valuable addition to what might otherwise have been a team of novices: this was the first peal rung from the Lindfield tower – and ringing a full peal requires stamina, practice and terrific concentration. It may even be that this peal was rung not by local Lindfield men but by SCACR ringers brought in for the occasion.

I’d love to know if the name ‘Attree, GF’ appears on a board in the All Saints ringing chamber, recording this memorable first peal. If it does, then it should be no surprise that, after the peal was successfully completed, George sent Kempe a telegram on his way home, telling him the ring had been completed in precisely three hours seven minutes and reporting that the bells were ‘good and go well’.

In addition to my friendly palaeographer, I have had a number of responses to ‘Ring Out, Wild Bells’. Some sided with Ezra Pound; but for my own part I always enjoy the sound of a peal of six, eight or even twelve bells going like the clappers – a campanological simile, as it happens. In Tydd St. Mary, the Fenland village where I lived in the 1950s, the bells were rung every Sunday morning. My father, the Rector of Tydd, always regretted that the bell ringers, having come down from the tower, sat at the back of the congregation so that they could sidle out when his sermon began, to enjoy an early pint at the nearby Six Bells.

Even more vivid, however, than the Sunday peal, is my memory of the Nine Tailors being rung to announce a death: nine solemn strokes and then, at half-minute intervals, one stroke for each year of his life. The whole village stopped to count: men and women weeding between the emerging rows of peas would pause, unstoop and lean on their hoes until the bell ceased tolling – this I have not forgotten. ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls’, warned John Donne, from whom Ernest Hemingway later borrowed the phrase; ‘What passing bell for these who die as cattle?” demanded Wilfred Owen, and Thomas Hardy wondered

… will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?

It was this verse – and in particular the second line – that Seamus Heaney recalled when writing ‘Chanson d’Aventure’, the remarkable love poem addressed to his wife in which he relived the trauma of the stroke he suffered and from which he nearly died. As the ambulance hurtles him along familiar Irish roads the fear of being separated from his wife makes him recall at once Keats and a famous line from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bell-ringer of a staunchly republican Irish village and his own efforts ringing the chapel bell as a student at St. Columba’s College:

Apart: the very word is like a bell
That the sexton Malachy Boyle outrolled
In illo tempore in Bellaghy

Or the one I tolled in Derry in my turn
As College bellman ….

that last word even summoning ‘the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman’ from Macbeth.

All of which is a long way from Charles Kempe and George Attree, if indeed it was George who sent the telegram. But it just shows how powerfully bells resonate – across time and poetry.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustration: the Kempe arms, used as a mark to identify the S transept window of Hereford Cathedral, 1895

* It was Charles Kempe himself who added the final ‘e’ to the family name, seeking to revive a connection to the old family line that included Cardinal Kempe (c.1380-1454), Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Thomas Hardy stanza quoted above concludes his poem ‘Afterwards’ in Moments of Vision (1917). The lines by Seamus Heaney are from ‘Chanson d’Aventure’ in Human Chain (London: Faber and Faber, 2010) p.15.

I have written about Tydd St Mary once before, in Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb.

I have also blogged about Heaney before:

Friday, 5 June 2015

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

In Cornwall, at the beginning of last week, I discovered a telegram sent to the stained glass designer, Charles Eamer Kempe, on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee; five days later I discovered that the poet Ezra Pound had been a fan of Dorothy L Sayers’ detective novel, The Nine Tailors. These discoveries are not unconnected.

That Pound had enjoyed this story of bells and bell-ringing in the Fens astonishes me: he famously hated the noise of church bells. Yet no other novel describes the art and sounds of change-ringing more knowledgeably and affectionately than The Nine Tailors.

When he lived in London, Pound had lodgings close to St Mary Abbot’s, Kensington. The bells tormented him, and he held the Vicar, Prebendary Somerset Edward Pennefather, to blame. Thus when the Vorticist magazine BLAST  (promoted by both Pound and Percy Wyndham Lewis) appeared in 1914, among the list of those to be blasted ‘Rev Pennyfeather (bells)’ duly appeared – much to the bewilderment of the few readers who bought this short-lived but now-seminal modernist tract. Poor misspelt Pennefather was in good company: the Bishop of London ‘(and all his posterity)’, Edward Elgar, John Galsworthy, cricketer C.B. Fry and Beecham (Pills, Opera, Thomas) were among those similarly damned.

Pound’s annoyance at the bells did not fade with age. In 1911, he had endured a three-and-a-half-hour peal rung to celebrate the coronation of George V; even after that king’s death twenty-five years later he was still outraged:  ‘It appeared to me impossible that any clean form of teaching cd. lead a man, or group,  to cause that damnable and hideous noise and inflict it on helpless humanity’  he wrote in Guide to Kulchur (1938). So how Pound had meanwhile read and enjoyed The Nine Tailors (1934) is a puzzle worthy of its detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Perhaps the answer lies in the book itself. Sayers acknowledges that
‘The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world.’ More than this, she admits that ‘To the ordinary man, in fact, the pealing of bells is a monotonous jangle and a nuisance, tolerable only when mitigated by remote distance and sentimental association.’  For Pound in Kensington, neither had the distance been remote, nor the coronation associations sentimental: he was after all American.

Thus far, then, Ezra Pound might have agreed with what Sayers had to say about bell-ringing.  He might, too, have relished the irony that in The Nine Tailors it turns out to have been the bells themselves that caused the victim’s death. As Lord Peter puts it, ‘The murderers of Geoffrey Deacon are hanging already, and a good deal higher than Haman’.  But I think Pound would have relished above all the way Dorothy Sayers names the bells and lets them speak:

The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. Tin tan din dan bim bam bom bo – tan tin din dan bam bim bo bom – tin tan dan din bim bam bom bo – tan tin dan din bam bim bo bom – tan dan tin bam din bo bim bom – every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again.

I know no better description anywhere of the sheer exhilaration of joyous sound; and no description more technically precise or more evocative of the whole tradition of English change ringing. But that’s not all.  In this same passage, Sayers is at work laying the foundations for the story to follow: the idea of ‘hunting up, hunting down’ prefigures the long and tortuous search for the murderer and the missing emeralds lying at the heart of this classic novel, while the sinister phrase ‘dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind’ anticipates (though one won’t realize this until the last chapter) the violence of the death Lord Peter is asked to investigate.

All of which chimes, aptly, with that telegram which came providentially into my hands last week. Sent at 9.57pm on Tuesday 21st June 1887 to Charles Eamer Kempe in London, it reads:

“Holts 10 part peal of Grandsire Triples rung at Lindfield in three hours seven minutes bells good and go well all three”

21st June 1887 marked Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Kempe, by this time becoming one of the best-known stained glass designers in the world, lived in Sussex and was churchwarden of Lindfield Parish Church. Like Prebendary Pennefather, he believed peals of bells were the right way to celebrate royal events, and had gone so far as to give three new bells to the church to enable a full
peal to be rung for the Jubilee. Hence this telegram, sent to him in London where he was at work in his Nottingham Place Studio.  He’d have been pleased to know the bells sounded well, for they meant a lot to him: each one bore (bears still) both the inscription

Felici Anno Lmo Regni Victoriae AD MDCCCLXXXVII Laus Deo
(‘In the 5Oth Year of the Happy Reign of Victoria AD 1887 Praise be to God’)

and, alongside the text, his distinctive mark, the wheatsheaf. Wheatsheaves are found in his stained glass the world over, but never on objects, furnishings etc, designed or commissioned by him. Except on these three bells. They are an important, unique and uniquely personal part of the Kempe heritage – his own signature on his own gift to his own church, to be cherished at all costs.  I’d like to think that even Ezra Pound, who after reading and enjoying The Nine Tailors was moved to write a fan letter to its author, would have appreciated how much that telegram I held in my hands in Liskeard last week must have meant to Kempe.

Adrian Barlow

[Notes: (i) I found the reference to Ezra Pound and The Nine Tailors in a review by Mark Lawson of The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards, in the Guardian Review (30.5.15)
(ii) For further information about the Kempe Bells and the plans of the present Vicar of All Saints Lindfield to melt them down, read ‘New Bells to Celebrate HM the Queen’, published in Lindfield Life.  You can also read my piece on Kempe’s Bells for the Kempe Trust Blog.
(iii) I am grateful to Ian Marr of Ian Marr Rare Books, Liskeard, for my first sight of the telegram sent to Kempe.

[Illustrations:  (i) Cover of The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, 1934 edition
(ii) The telegram sent to Charles Eamer Kempe (iii) Charles Eamer Kempe

Text © Adrian Barlow; illustrations (ii) and (iii) © The Kempe Trust