The “genius” George Barker – a “very peculiar fellow” in rural Norfolk’s earth

In the mists of my early manhood (when searing emotions reigned and before the joy of  dogged bitterness set in), I mixed with creative folk and found myself one day at a poetry reading in an arts centre in Berkshire, southern England.  Three poets read at the session – John Heath-Stubbs, W. S. Graham and George Barker.   I would think them now to be a very illustrious crew.  Morever the reading had been arranged by Barker’s son Sebastian, who was writer in residence at the arts centre and no mean poet himself.  Of the poems recited I can, alas, remember absolutely nothing, but the physicality and the images of these three poets are still etched vividly in my memory some 40 years later – the angular grey-haired Graham, the wonderfully monstrous block of the almost blind Heath-Stubbs and the bemused and deceptive diffidence of Barker.

Of these three poets, the one to whose works I kept returning intermittently was George Barker.  Well, I say works, but it is one work in particular which has stood out for me and which has been a fairly constant companion.  This is the marvellous long poem called The True Confession of George Barker which I had serendipitously found in a second-hand Penguin Poets volume I possessed at the time of the reading.  This volume, entitled The Mid Century: English Poetry 1940-1960 was edited by David Wright, a fellow poet and acquaintance of Barker.  Wright – happily for me – had decided to include in his anthology some exemplary long poems.  George Barker was thus represented singly and singularly by Book I of The True Confession.

This Penguin edition was published in 1965, the same year that saw the publication by MacGibbon & Kee of Barker’s own volume, The True Confession, which also contained the first publication of Book II of the confession, written more than ten years after its companion piece.

It seems rather trite to say this, but George Granville Barker (1913 – 1991) was a true poet, a poet to the core.  He never knew any other life.  He was the embodiment of his fabulous flamboyant verse and verbal magic.  He lived a mischievous, chaotic, Bohemian poet’s life, treading a littered trail of loves lost and found, leaving in his wake the many children he fathered in those embraces.  His poetry, siren-like, lured women to him.  He was passionate, physically argumentative, difficult and controversial, extreme, obscene and, at times deliberately one might think, cocking a snook by spoiling a good line with an outrageous pun.  “I cannot bear poems that do not have dirty marks on their faces,” biographer Robert Fraser (in his book The Chameleon Poet) quotes him as saying in later life.  And in his teens Barker was already declaring “I like poetry to be dirty with earthly mould, finger marks on it, and its napkin… not quite deodorised.”


Berated by poet and editor Geoffrey Grigson as a producer of “nauseating poems” and a “loose rhetorician”,  Barker made his name initially in modernistic prose and free verse famously gaining the patronage of T. S. Eliot (who called him both “genius” and “a very peculiar fellow”) and, less famously, of Graham Greene. But he was also technically adept at form and rhyme, wanting to move away from “Latinate bullshit” towards rigorous simplicity.  He was deeply impressed by A. E. Housman.  “I wanted to write a hundred little poems of eight lines, rhymed.  I did this, and I saw how terribly, terribly hard it is to do”. The rhymed eight-lined stanzas of True Confession exemplify this rigour while at the same time retaining a wonderful Whitmanesque declamatory extravagance and energy.

The sulking and son-loving Muse/Grabbed me when I was nine.  She saw/It was a question of self-abuse/Or verses. I tossed off reams before/I cared to recognize their purpose./ While other urchins were blowing up toads/With pipes of straw stuck in the arse,/So was I, but I also wrote odes.

His True Confession is his take on the first forty to fifty years or so of his disordered life as an “Augustinian anarchist”. As well as rhyme, there is a persistent physical rhythmic quality to the poem, which may have taken a lead from the motions of travel.  Barker routinely wrote the stanzas of Book I while journeying on a bus.

When I call devils from the deep/The damned brutes answer only too pronto,/skipping up out of the beds of sleep/Not at my call, but because they want to.

The first part of the “confession” dwells idiosyncratically on his childhood years, his early dalliances with sex and God, musings on morality and faith and his beginnings as a poet:

The literature that I prized/Was anything to do with the nude/Spirit of creative art/ who whispered to me: ‘Don’t be queasy./Simply write about a tart/And there she is. The rest’s easy.’//And thus, incepted in congenial/Feebleness of moral power/I became a poet.

He usefully gives a cryptic nod to his own exemplar Francois Villon:

I entreat you frank villain,/Get up out of your bed of dirt/And guide my hand.  You are still an/Irreprehensible expert/At telling Truth she’s telling lies./Get up, liar; get up, cheat,/Look the bitch square in the eyes/And you’ll see what I entreat.


He writes of his first marriage and child.  Moments of elegiac lyricism are followed by declamatory self-deprecation.  He notes his ill-timed departure for Japan where the ridiculous and sublime blend together in typical Barker fashion:

I sat one morning on the can/That served us for a lavatory/composing some laudatory/Verses on the state of man:/My wife called from the kitchen dresser:/’There’s someone here from Japan./He wants you out there.  As Professor./Oh, yes.  The War just began.’

And he confesses to his “Good God” of his omissions and commissions (“Every man knows well/He rides his own whores down to hell.”)

I confess, my God, that in/The hotbed of the monkey sin/I saw you through a guilt of hair/Standing lonely as a mourner/Silent in the bedroom corner/Knowing you need not be there.


Book II of the confession takes us to his time in Italy, the end of the war, the atomic bomb and original sin (“What, has the Ideos gone quite mad/Not to be frightened of the Atom?/I hear its joke, both rude and bad:/’Sir, it was I split the Adam’). He notes the birth of a son. He dwells on his deep preoccupation with St Francis of Assisi, contrasted with the Italian penchant for roasting song birds.  And there are some remarkable part reverential, part irreverential ode-like verses to Cardinal Newman, who loomed large in Barker’s Catholic upbringing. He muses on art, religion, pagan gods, Bacchus and drink.  And in this context introduces us to Louis Macniece and Dylan Thomas and that “deaf poet” (is this David Wright?) “whom the fishy/Girls upon their ragged rock/Chant vainly to, and close their ears”.  He records the death of love (and the death of a love affair).  Death, love and sin merge in one embrace:

“The lovers lying at their ease/Like coldblooded snakes that creep/And curl together half asleep/Eating each other by degrees/Until these heart-shaped heads of Satan/Stare bodiless at each other:/So, fattening as we’re being eaten,/ We devour one another.”

There is a diatribe from this ever-poor poet about moneyed poets (‘Three great bards, whose Income Tax/(What with Professorships and perks)/Filled more pages than their works”);  a nod to the Jesuits and the confession ends.

O bed of roses!  Let the man/Here in the prisons of the Night/And dreaming with a second sight/Look up to see, like Aldebaran,/The gold sunsetting mask of God/Christening us with our day’s/Apotheosizing blaze/Like Death on fire overhead.

As biographer Fraser rightly notes, this True Confession is far from autobiography.  What we have here is a poetical reflection from a mature and practised poet, with biographical elements a kind of motivator, a skeleton around which Barker threads and shreds his “psychological history” and “theological disquisition”.

Eliot at Faber wouldn’t publish it.  When, in April 1953, Barker was broadcast reading passages from Book I of the poem on the BBC’s Third Programme, there was outrage.  The Daily Sketch – keen to get at the broadcaster – branded it “gilded filth”, sending reporters down to Barker’s home to garnish their offering.  “Dirty thoughts are presented under the guise of culture. It is a challenge to basic dignities, a sexual meandering.  It commits blasphemy in a condescending prayer.”   The poem even featured prominently in Parliament where, in a debate in the House of Lords, Barker’s “piece of pornography” was used as a stick to beat the BBC.

Barker didn’t leave us with a similar take on the last 30 years of his life.  Though perhaps he did, because his output never flagged and anyone dipping into any of these volumes will find a confessional treasure trove, be it the cleverly turned dialogues of Gog and Magog or the epistolary odes to fellow poets such as David Archer and Heath-Stubbs.

There is a cornucopia of prosaic philosophical reflection on love, life and death formulated in free verse – more reminiscent of Pascal than St. Augustine.  (One remembers Grigson’s strictures.)


Indeed the volume Dialogues etc has a free-verse poem entitled Pascal’s Nightmare; and yet in the same collection, we have the perversely playful rhymed quatrains of Dialogue VIII where the stopped heart becomes a cuckoo clock with the cuckoo fled to cloud cuckoo land and poem itself beats to berate the silent heart:

‘There there is no sun arising/or circles of the moon,/there is no kiss in the morning/and no gun at noon./ There is no river running into a future tense;/ and long though you look down, it bears no image hence… The waves are always breaking/although they never break/and the footprints of the wind have gone/from the surface of the lake./There the suns hang for ever/in the eternal tree./ – The cuckoo will never call again/for you, my love, or me.’

Barker could be truly offensive and deliberately outrageous.  The anecdotes of his life can read like a Dostoevsky novel.  At one moment he is as perverse as “the underground man”, at another point his antics are reminiscent of a scene from The Idiot.  He takes umbrage when he decides (second wife) Elspeth is smirking while reading verse from his Villa Stellar and he grabs the completed typescript of the collection and hurls it on to the fire.  An appalled visitor tries to retrieve the burning manuscript only for Barker to clout him on the head with a coal shovel.  On another occasion son Christopher describes Barker’s explosive and furious reaction when this son’s attempt at reconciliation ends with the poet – in tears – smashing his fist down on a vinyl recording of Ave Maria as the record plays on the turntable, and storming out, declaiming “How dare you! How dare you!”  As a young man Barker had the misfortune accidentally to put out the eye of his brother in a play sword fight (recounted later in poem XXXVII of the In Memory of David Archer collection), an act which he dubbed “an enormous natural calamity”.  He must have been both joy and despair for those who knew him.


Back in the early 1980s, in my youthful self-centred arrogant naivety I paid too little attention to what went on round about me.  The blind Heath-Stubbs could see clearer   than ever I could.  But a life lived is a life learned and to anyone in reflective mode who wants help in wondering what the hell happened, I heartily recommend George Barker’s  True Confession.

And so in my East Anglian travels this past summer, I found myself embarking on two pilgrimages on the same day.  In the morning I drove across the Suffolk/Norfolk border to Walsingham and visited the Anglican and Catholic shrines of Our Lady.  George Barker who struggled all his life with Catholicism and original sin and whose verse is deeply, at times angrily, imbued with this struggle must also, surely, have made this trek.  From Walsingham I drove a few miles east to the easily accessible but curiously remote village of Itteringham – the English equivalent of  “France profonde”.   And, as the sun was setting, and some forty years after my one and only encounter with the poet, I visited another religious establishment, the Itteringham village church where in the far end of the graveyard lies buried the mortal remains of George Granville Barker.

Like his verse, the handsome tombstone has both solidity in form and flamboyance in expression with its white lettering and the carving of a bird, immediately recognisable as a phoenix rising from flames and ashes.  And beneath all this – the Latin word “RESURGAM” – I shall rise again.  Barker, who had battled with – and against – his faith throughout the whole of his life and told the priest who married him to Elspeth that there was only one of the ten commandments he hadn’t broken, pledges he’ll be back.

The image of the phoenix is no random choice, of course.  And I do not know whether this was Barker’s doing or the act of his family and friends.  But the phoenix – the bird that rises from the flames and ashes of its predecessor, this universal symbol of renewal – was the emblem not only of D H Lawrence.

Barker and his younger brother Kit in their creative adolescent years – and with an expressedly clear nod to Lawrence – had set up a pottery in their garden shed and – as biographer Robert Fraser recounts – “devised a logo of a stylised phoenix rising from some equally stylised flames, which they stamped on the base of their pots.”  “They called the enterprise the Phoenix Pottery.”  And as they acquired a printing press and began to publish their own works, this enterprise soon transmogrified into the “Phoenix Press”.  This tombstone looks like its last production.

I stand by Barker’s tomb, loath to move on, quietly paying my respects and thanking the dead poet for his verse, but my wife urges me away, sets off back to the car and then suddenly reappears accompanied by a tall silver-haired man.  “This is the church warden,” she says.  “He knew George Barker.”

And so, for ten minutes I am privileged to hear some reminiscences of the poet’s time in the village and yet another anecdote about his outrageous behaviour and his banishment from the local pub.  After he died the Itteringham church was used for a commemorative reading of his verse.  “It was packed full!” my interlocutor tells me in disbelief.  “Packed!”

I drive back as darkness descends, reflecting inevitably on faith, life and death.  I think of Barker’s own mock epitaph in his True Confession.  “Essex gave me birth, and Sex/Death.  I lie here, poet/of hawkers, bottles and bad cheques”.  I think too of the terrifying scope of Barker’s self-taught knowledge and wide reading.  The asides, allusions and references in his work range with ease through the vast halls of thought and culture, ancient and modern.  The reader reels with vertigo as these dizzying horizons unfold.  Beliefs, ideas, thoughts vie in his verse with an emotional honesty and force.

Barker lists in True Confession a pantheon of poets ancient and modern ascending the  heights of the “Matterhorns of intelligence”: “…at/A crevasse in the icebound soul/Cowper sits imbibing tea;/Pound whistling in an iron cage/over an avalanche; Eliot/Roping down an untamed gale,/ And old Yeats, frozen in majesty.”  Byron, Pope, Clare, and Catullus (inevitably) are there, “old Blake/Like a bald prophet on a tricycle/Riding the Trinity…” and Leopardi.  I am surprised at the absence of Housman.  But, then, who is this – the last on this list of pioneering poetical mountaineers, the one nearest the summit?

“…the good guide Thomas Hardy/Lost in vast mist; and the metaphysical/Fury assaulting them all alike.”

Typical Barker.  Goodness me!  The great man Hardy – his leading mountaineer of poetry, last in the list.  And so good a guide is he, that with life’s little ironies and with a satire of circumstance, he is lost in the mist.

December 2018

Book I of True Confession can be found here or here
Robert Fraser’s splendid biography of George Barker is titled: The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker, Published by Jonathan Cape, London 2001
Peter Wilby published a most informative short account of Barker’s life in the Guardian newspaper in 2008
See also the piece by Christopher Barker published in the Guardian
An interesting piece by poet Paul Potts who also knew Barker –  “the world of George Barker is a place for sinners…”
See also the blog – the diary review 



W G Sebald, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy – a literary wander along the Suffolk coast

I have been in Suffolk over the summer months and, as usual, during my trips to this wonderful county in the east of England I was accompanied by The Rings of Saturn.  Most folk with a literary bent will immediately understand that I am not referring to interplanetary travel and the actual rings which circle the planet Saturn, but the most memorable book of that name by Winfried Georg Sebald, first published in English 20 years ago.

I first came upon this book not long after its publication in English which, magically, coincided with my first adult visit to the county.  Reading this book was, for me, one of those rare breathtaking moments when you realise that you have come upon something special.  Curiously, the experience was rather like actually seeing with my own eyes those entrancing rings around the planet Saturn when a few years later I managed to assemble and use a telescope on the grass verge outside my house.  Memorable in the extreme.  And memory, of course, figures large in Sebald’s musings.


Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a book about walking in Suffolk, well, superficially at any rate, and walking in Suffolk is one of the things I do when I go there.  Of course, saying that Sebald’s book is about a walk through Suffolk is rather misleading (a bit like saying War and Peace is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia).

The range of Sebald’s journey takes you not only through Suffolk and through many other parts of the world, but also beyond geography, through history, time and, perhaps most importantly, memory.  This world is populated not only by Sebald, his friends, colleagues and acquaintances, but also by a whole gamut of figures – incidental (as much as anything can be incidental in Sebald’s work), historical and, of course, literary.  His narrative reminisces about his own life and the lives of others.  He creates a multi-dimensional melancholic world which not so much traverses time as transforms it.  And he punctuates this with premeditatedly grainy, predominantly uncaptioned, photos which not so much illuminate the narrative as gloomily interact with it.  These images, Sebald himself apparently thought, served not only as a verification of the narrative, but were, more pointedly, time busters.  They arrest time, they seize us, they engulf us, they take us out of time and communicate directly with us.

There is plenty elsewhere about W. G. Sebald, about his life, his tragic death, and his writing – there are books devoted to him, journalistic pieces, blogs and academic studies.  And rightly so.  He deserves the attention he gets and deserves more, though there will be some (and I understand why) who do not appreciate his idiosyncratic musings.  For me, I come back to this book in some measure every year when I arrive at the Suffolk coast, as the long frenetic drive finally succumbs to country lanes, as the speed of life slows and the relativity of space and time begins to manifest itself.  And when I walk, I take his book with me and I try, inadequately, to make both my feet and my head traverse the same sort of territory.

Take for example, the walk from Pakefield to Lowestoft, along the promenade past Kirkley Cliff.  This inevitably evokes for me not only thoughts of the prolific Joseph Conrad who first set foot on English soil in Lowestoft 140 years ago, but also of Sebald who muses in Rings of Saturn on Conrad strolling in the evening along this very esplanade, a 21-year-old foreigner alone amidst the English, “intrigued”, speculates Sebald, “by the ease with which he is absorbing a hitherto quite unfamiliar language”.  As I walk down towards the harbour where Conrad’s ship will have docked, I too hear the chatter of a foreign tongue, Conrad’s own, Polish.  Poles play on the beach and shout happily to each other, unaware perhaps of the faint passing step of the ghost of their compatriot.  Unless, of course, that is, they frequent the local Wetherspoon pub  which is located in what goes – misleadingly – by the name of Station Square and which proudly proclaims itself The Joseph Conrad.


What on earth the well-travelled Conrad would have made of this tribute, I am not sure.  Sebald would perhaps have given us a handsome few pages on Ebenezer Tuttle, Mayor of Lowestoft, whose shop used to occupy the premises.  And I myself speculate whether Sebald would have welcomed the brash conviviality of this public house or whether it would have increased “the feeling of wretchedness that instantly seized hold of [him] in Lowestoft” and which for many other visitors still persists.

Sebald wrote in his native German tongue, despite living for years in England.  His works were translated into English. He espoused the cause of literary translation. He taught creative writing courses at his English University apparently with reluctance and reservations because he was not a native English speaker.  And yet here we have the cosmopolitan Conrad ultimately churning out his well-respected prose in what was probably his third language.  (French being the second.)  Conrad’s first tutors of English, Sebald recalls in Rings of Saturn, were the Lowestoft Standard and the Lowestoft Journal.  Without meaning to be disrespectful to any jobbing journalist, one can, however, hardly imagine Sebald taking these as his cue.

Heading south from Lowestoft towards Kessingland, alternating between beach and cliff top, the pedestrian traveller finds much of the cliff top path gone, eroded by wind, rain and sea and one treads such paths with care and irritation.  Care, because a misplaced step could prove disastrous and irritation, because so often one sets off along such a path only to find it has vanished into thin air and one has to turn back.

The cliffs hereabouts are literally made of sand and at some point the path inevitably ends up on the beach or in the sea. A traveller feels like one of Conrad’s pedestrian pilgrims – “unhappy souls” – cited in an epigraph to The Rings of Saturn or indeed like the rings themselves, battered into fragments, we are told in another epigraph, by the planetary tidal effect.

This amorphous, shifting nature of the Suffolk coastline is not only portrayed so admirably in Sebald’s Rings but actually infects the very structure and narrative of the work itself as it moves seamlessly through time and space.  The fishermen on the coast are “the stragglers of some nomadic people”.  “They just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.”  Transformation and transience abound.

As I walk the coastline the solidity of old military fortifications are collapsing and crumbling into the sea.  The remnants of a history deeply embedded in Sebald’s own consciousness are transformed from lofty carapaces of conflict into beach ornaments.  What was – is now no longer or is utterly estranged.  What wasn’t – is now substance, like the curious desert of a beach in Kessingland which has emerged, usurped the sea and now stretches out way beyond the crumbling cliffs.


As I walk through Kessingland I look in vain for Henry Rider Haggard’s house, recalling now not Sebald, but the childless Thomas Hardy, who – in comments shockingly hurtful to our modern ears – commiserated with Haggard on the death of his 10-year-old son from measles by telling him: “I think the death of a child is never really to be regretted, when one reflects on what he has escaped”.  A cruel harbinger of Jude, no doubt:  pessimism absent the meliorism.  Hardy then, typically,  goes on to talk about the weather.


On the beach towards Southwold the subverted dislocation of military concrete is enhanced by transformations of the natural world.  Trees, taken by the sea, are transformed into beach sculpture. It is like an art installation.  Sebald himself noted:

“…dead trees lie in a confused heap where they fell years ago…  Bleached by salt water, wind and sun, the broken barkless wood looks like the bones of some extinct species, greater even than the mammoths and dinosaurs, that came to grief long since on this solitary strand.”

A walk on a beach transforms into a view of time without end:  “…that day, as I sat on the tranquil shore, it was possible to believe one was gazing into eternity”, writes Sebald.


I walk into Southwold past the pier (blazoned with reminiscences of George Orwell and thus tangentially another pier); and up into the town. The midday drunks of Lowestoft have been replaced by a chauffeured limo waiting to ferry some well-heeled folk back to their town house in London or some other residence: a scene, no doubt, which has been rehearsed for well over a century.  I pass the Sailors’ Reading Room and the Crown Hotel, where Sebald muses in Rings on the horror of ethnic “cleansing” in World War 2, punctuating his narrative with a, mercifully and purposefully indistinct, photograph of a cross-bar gallows “on which Serbs, Jews and Bosnians, once rounded up, were hanged in rows like crows or magpies”.  The nausea in my stomach, as I take a sideways glance at this awful picture, reminds me of a visit to Berlin when I fled, uncomprehending, feeling violently sick, from the museum called the Topography of Terror.  The Rings of Saturn suddenly encircle me and time stands shockingly still.

My own travels come again to the fore as I recall Sebald’s musings in Southwold on the curious connections between the Congo, Conrad and Roger Casement and Conrad’s dispirited journey south along the west coast of Africa past “trading posts with names like Gran’ Bassam or Little Popo, all of them seeming to belong in some sordid farce”.  And, once home, I dig out some old photos I took in Grand Bassam, almost a lifetime ago.

Grand Bassam

I recollect the haunting, dreamlike, decaying grandeur coupled with the shocking physicality of abandoned mansions taken over haphazardly by those in need of more than shelter.  I wonder what Sebald would have made of Grand Bassam unmediated by Conrad’s passing glimpses.  Inevitably, I dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and read the unmediated Conrad:

“…we passed various places – trading places with names like Gran’ Bassam, Little Popo; names that seemed to belong to some sordid farce acting in front of a sinister back-cloth. The idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform sombreness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.”

And I am just recollecting fleeing Grand Bassam by taxi to the greater terrors of Abidjan when in my copy of Heart of Darkness, marking the page, I find two receipts from a Georgian restaurant in Moscow dated March 1996 of which, terrifyingly, I have no recollection at all beyond the fact that I have traversed ten years of life in the blink of an eye and with time arrested once again am still no nearer the truth of things, nor further away from mournful and senseless delusion.


At least when I have traversed that splendid beach at Sizewell, where folk nonchalantly walk their dogs adjacent splitting atoms, and have reached genteel Aldeburgh, I have escaped momentarily the gravity of Sebald and moved into a more comfortable orbit.  I pass Benjamin Britten’s first house in the town and move on to my destination further down along what passes as the Aldeburgh promenade.  I am in search again of Strafford House.  This residence, with its striking yellow wash, rings with literary resonance. I always pause here and take a photograph.  I am back again to Thomas Hardy.


Hardy stayed in this house a number of times.  He was familiar with the streets around it, with the railway station, with the beach, with the river Alde that runs down from Snape. His shade is everywhere.

This was the house of Edward Clodd, one of those great Victorian polymaths – banker, anthropologist, folklorist.   He was a man of many parts, born the same year as Hardy, and, like Hardy, not averse to controversy in his writings. The sociable Clodd routinely opened up his seafront home to the intellectual elite of his time.  Writers, scientists, adventurers all enjoyed hospitality and each other’s company at Clodd’s Suffolk home.  But for Hardy, Strafford House was, on occasion, much more than a holiday retreat or venue for literary conviviality, since it was here that he was able to meet up with his helpmate and wife-to-be, Florence Dugdale, before first wife Emma had died.  It was here, on the beach not far from Strafford House, that the famous photo of Hardy and Florence was taken in August 1909 on what was, probably, the most memorable of the many visits he made.


Hardy had already travelled up to Aldeburgh in July of that year and confided in Clodd about the state of his troubled marriage.  A few weeks later – after the farcical marital manoeuvres around the opera of his Tess – he was back, but this time with Florence.  Emma will not have known.  Just as she did not know about the manoeuvres keeping Florence away from her at the opera.  She never, as far as I know, visited Strafford House, and soon afterwards there began that curious deceitful charade with Florence who became a regular visitor, not only to Strafford House, but also, having separately – and some would say insidiously – befriended Emma, to Max Gate, the Hardy homestead in Dorchester.

Clodd notably remarked about the August visit – “Hardy and the Lady are enjoying themselves”; and there has been much speculation about the relations at this time between Hardy and his amanuensis Florence, not least the opposing views of biographers Millgate and Seymour-Smith (and the latter’s sensational, if not scurrilous, conclusions).   Hardy, who did not take kindly in his lifetime to prurient interest in his personal affairs and who (with the help of Florence) attempted to manage such interest even after his death, would be beyond outrage.

Walking south out of Aldeburgh I ponder, without much insight, commonalities in the writings of Sebald and Hardy.  The shared interest in history and the Battle of Waterloo; the curious coincidence of the models of Jerusalem in Jude and the Temple of Jerusalem in Rings; and the rings of Saturn did, of course, cross Hardy’s horizon too, most patently in the astronomically themed Two on a Tower, where hero Swithin gives Lady Constantine a telescopic tour of the heavens:

“…’we see a world which is to my mind by far the most wonderful in the solar system.  Think of streams of satellites or meteors racing round and round the planet like a fly-wheel, so close together as to seem solid matter!'”

“The most wonderful in the solar system.”  But the “flywheel” that circles this wonderful planet is deceptive to the distant eye.  That which is not solid appears to us with solidity.  Those cursed rings.  Ice crystals, meteorites, satellites, the fragments of a moon – spinning round with a dizzying intensity, seeming to us from afar not quite what they are.  Transformed and transient.  A bit like this Suffolk coast, I think.  You look at the sea as it moves in and out, and the landscape as it shifts and turns, full of memory, full of shades

…which take me by the hand,
and lead me through their rooms
In the To-be, where Dooms
Half-wove and shapeless stand:
And show from there
The dwindled dust
And rot and rust
Of things that were.

‘Oh Memory, where is now my youth
Who used to say that life was truth?’

September 21st 2018

Some references for the ramblings above…
On W G Sebald, there is an interesting piece by Mark Fisher  commenting on the “essay film” Patience which references Rings of Saturn.  And there are some excellent insights made inée
particularly the last piece by Spring Ulmer.
There were also my perennial hard copy Hardy companions – Oliver Millgate’s Thomas Hardy, A Biography Revisited; and Martin Seymour-Smith’s Hardy; and The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate and Richard Purdy.

The final verse quotes are from Hardy’s I have lived with Shades; and Memory and I.

In pursuit of a battered book – far from the madding crowd

I recently spent a couple of days driving back and forth to Dorset.   Two hours there, two hours back, and doing it twice, on consecutive days – that’s eight hours’ driving.  I would have stayed over and indeed I did book a room in a guest house in Dorchester via one of the many online websites only to get a phone call late in the evening prior to departure saying “sorry” the room had already been taken.  So, in my stubborn stupid way, and initially not really sure whether I would need to stay over, I ended up driving there and back – twice, in two days.

My wife – whose opinion I value dearly – made the obvious point: “You realise you are completely crazy,” she said.  My granddaughter will say the same when she hears about it.  And whom should I blame for this onset of madness?  Well, it’s Thomas Hardy.  At least (for those few who read my last blog) Emily Dickinson can take a rest.  And it’s not really blame, of course.  I need to thank the great man, not curse him.

My current preoccupation with Hardy occasionally leads to feverish hours of expectation as I sit at my computer waiting for a distant online auction to begin and then attending impatiently, blocking out all shouts and commands, as an auctioneer finally gets to lot 632 or whatever and announces: “And now we have blah blah blah Thomas Hardy”.  Then in a thirty second rush it’s all over, my blood pressure is 180/85 and I am either greatly disappointed or greatly impoverished; and I scuttle downstairs to express relief that we still have money in the bank or confess to our sudden poverty and my sins.  Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  Hardy would think me most profligate.

But the Dorchester auction last week was not online.  There was a book that interested me.  So, I thought, what the heck!  I’ll go and have a look.  And I did.  I suspected the book on offer was a first edition but couldn’t quite figure out why it was bundled with a load of other stuff; and if there is one thing I have learnt in book buying, it is that if you have a hunch, keep shtum and follow it.


So… first edition it was: sadly, a few pages missing, a couple of illustrations gone, one even rejigged and taped into the wrong place (crikey! what was that about?), backstrip flapping, bits falling off… and battered.  Definitely battered.  But for me sometimes the more battered the better. (I am not keen on those pristine rebound jobs all gilt and glitter in a special box.)  For 150 years folk had given this book a good going over.  Nevertheless it still cost me a fair few quid and I was at my point of quitting when I won the bidding.  But this book now sits on a shelf in my little library (half a converted garage) along with other books on the floor and in piles all over the house.  And my dear wife goes through her usual routine:  “I don’t understand.  What are you going to do?  Take it down from the shelf every day and look at it?  And when you are dead, it’ll get thrown into a skip with all the others, despite the stupid little notes you put in them.”  “Heck,” I say.  “I’ll be dead.  Why should I care?”  But of course, at the moment still in the land of the living, care I do.  Perhaps my granddaughter will step in at the right point in the future and make folk see sense.

So I am in Dorchester.  It is hot and sunny.  I have my walking boots in the car and a bottle of my favourite water (yes… favourite… sad, isn’t it).  What else would I do but trek off to the great man’s cottage and walk over the fields from Higher Bockhampton to Kingston Maurwood House and on to Stinsford Church to pay my respects, returning by Lower Bockhampton where Hardy started school as a young boy.  As I walk I turn over in my mind not only his early school day trek, but also his first and second published novels, Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree where the locations often are… well… precisely those that I am passing as I walk.  

The imposing grand house itself, in Desperate Remedies the home of Miss Aldclyffe; in Hardy’s boyhood the residence of Julia Augusta Martin who was “passionately fond of Tommy almost from his infancy”.  The Tudor manor nearby, in Desperate Remedies the ramshackle dwelling of Aeneas Manston, illegitimate son of Aldclyffe.

The village school – now a private house – in Lower Bockhampton, where Hardy was first educated and where Fancy Day taught in Under the Greenwood Tree.  Stinsford Church itself, which Hardy attended as boy, where his father played the fiddle and which features so prominently as Mellstock Church in Under the Greenwood Tree.  And, of course, the churchyard there which is home to the Hardy family graves and where Thomas Hardy’s heart lies buried. This burial in itself a desperate remedy attempting and failing to resolve the conundrum of how he might be buried in two places at the same time.

How desperate at times, I recall, was the plot of Desperate Remedies!  After being told by publishers that what he really wanted to write about needed to be toned down in case  posh folk took umbrage, (biographer Millgate deemed it “pervasive class hostility”), his remedies were indeed desperate as he veered off in the direction of Wilkie Collins with a dead body being hauled across a wood with a detective in pursuit.  And then in Under the Greenwood Tree he lurched off desperately in a different direction with the portrayal of rustic life – this being prompted by comments made by reviewers who, Hardy thought, had made “very much” of the rustic characters in Desperate Remedies.  So we move from a desperation of plots into a tale where plot is not so much slight as almost entirely absent.  Fearing to “dabble” again in plot, he surmised that a “pastoral story would be the safest venture”.

But how could he combine the two and let his own voice speak out at the same time? Well a few years later, he managed just that.

IMG_0507At the cottage, just like the great man and his second wife did a hundred years ago in the summer of 1918, I looked up at the bedroom window with its little table where Hardy finally penned the book that made his reputation and set him thankfully and rightfully on the path to… well stardom, I suppose.  And what was the book?  Well I now have a battered, incomplete, copy in my bag.  Two volumes.  1874.  Only a thousand published first time round.  It was Far from the Madding Crowd.

So as the sun is setting on a glorious summer day, I sit on the bench in the country churchyard at Stinsford and think, for once, not only of Thomas Hardy, but also of another Thomas – Thomas Gray, of his elegy written in country churchyard in a county distant from Dorset but really as close to Hardy’s heart as the bench I am sitting on.

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade, 
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap, 
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid, 
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, 
         Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray; 
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life 
         They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

22nd June 2018

Emily Dickinson and the titling of poems

My wife often gets to the essence of a matter while I just thrash around feeling grumpy.  This is probably why she is on Twitter and I spend my time on blogs like this. She can tweet and move on while I am still doing homework for another essay and being tiresome in the process.  And after the other morning I owe her not only the usual apology for unwarranted grumpiness but gratitude as well.  The reason for this?  Well it’s Emily Dickinson.  Now there’s a thing!  And it’s not some lady of that name from down the road with whom I have recently been smitten in my dotage, causing domestic outrage, but rather THE Emily Dickinson, the hugely talented 19th century American poet.

I have come to Emily Dickinson rather late in life and am always interested when I catch mentions of her, when, for example, she features in the blogs of other folk, such as Oliver Tearle’s splendid interesting literature.  I’ve also recently taken to carrying around with me a handy pocket-sized volume of Dickinson’s I picked up for a song in a local charity shop.  It is a tiny book in The Illustrated Poets series published by Parragon Books and edited by Daniel Burnstone.  (The cover picture is Destiny, 1900, by John William Waterhouse – it’s not Emily Dickinson…)


So the other morning as I sat down in the kitchen for a coffee and a croissant, my wife pointed to the Emily Dickinson volume still on the table where I’d left it and said: “I can’t tell where one poem begins and another ends.  There aren’t any titles.  Most poems have titles.”  Being my usual grumpy defensive self, I counter sardonically by noting that I am not familiar with the overall world stats on percentage of poems with titles v poems without and, in any case, it is surely quite clear typographically in the said book where a poem’s first line is.  And – amidst berating her further – I look at the volume again and remember sheepishly how I too had been at times (literally) initially confused.


And so – tangentially – I got to thinking about why lots of poems have titles and why Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t and how – well yes – you could quite easily read “across” Dickinson’s poems and on many occasion happily let one poem seamlessly merge into the next, leaving yourself wondering if and where one ended and another began. And, of course, I began to realise that my wife had again hit the nail right on the head and that for Emily Dickinson that is, sort of, the point.

So as I was thinking through all this, I headed for my shelves of poetry and, of course, soon discovered that, unless you know where to look, finding poems without titles is not an immediately straightforward matter.  My wife was right.  Most poems do have titles.  Indeed I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of poems have titles.

A predominant reason, as many have pointed out, is that publishers and editors hate poems without titles.  They need poems to have a name, to be called something, just like a story or a novel.  They can’t go faffing about every time, naming the poem by just reproducing all the words in the first line.  True, you can frequently pick up volumes with an Index of First Lines, but these are almost always referring to poems which also have titles.  The first lines are handily indexed by publishers because we awkward readers often know the first lines independently of the titles of the poems and use them as our reference point.

Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” is, it seems, a prime example of where a title has come to trump the first line since in my Oxford Book of English Verse I see this poem is called Daffodils, but if I seek out a digital copy of the original publication in Poems, in Two Volumes it seems to have no title at all.  Whether Wordsworth himself came up with the rather obvious Daffodils, or whether a publisher/editor imposed the title upon him I do not know.  Certainly for many, many poets the title of a poem is their own creation, rich in nuance, and a well thought out addition to the lines of verse themselves.  But I digress too much…

So where would I look routinely to find poems without titles?  Well sonnets are a good bet, the marvellous Edna St. Vincent Millay – a good example.  And there is that other fellow…  What’s he called?  Oh Shakespeare! (Or is it Francis Bacon?) But his sonnets were, I think, numbered even in the first edition which helps the publishers call them something even if it is just i and ii etc.  Haikus are another good bet (at least the first line is only five syllables).  You are also likely to find an absence of titles more in lyric or epigrammatic poetry than longer forms.


I find many more untitled poems among Russian poets than I do among those writing in English.  I am not sure why this is or about the practice in other languages or cultures.  I suppose scribbled untitled stuff like jottings and juvenilia published posthumously would also be another likely candidate for the untitled work.  Ancient poets also may well be absent titles.  After all we are often darn lucky we have the works at all.  Catullus would be a good example.   Where else?  Well “modernists” I suppose, like e. e. cummings, who as a matter of principle eschewed much of the “normal” poetic tradition, though there is a link to sonnets in his work.  And, of course – let’s not digress further – Emily Dickinson.  Almost the whole of Dickinson’s output is absent titles and she, of course was writing (mid to late 19th century) at a time when titles reigned supreme.  So why did she not title her poems?

Certainly one of the main reasons must be that she did not write for publication in her lifetime and did not have to grapple much with editors and publishers who would have demanded them.  But it is more than this.  There is something about her aesthetic, her approach to verse, her poetry itself which defies naming, which is unnameable.  Reading Dickinson is like reading the book of life.  Her poetic world is so vast that to nail it down with titles would almost be a travesty.  Fortunately, having begun to ponder this conundrum, I soon came upon the splendid article by John Mulvihill which tackles the issue head on.   I won’t rehearse here the reasons posited by Mulvihill for Dickinson’s disinclination to title her poetry, since folk can read the article itself, but he gives a very cogent and convincing account of what seems to be going on and how, in a sense, her poetry reaches beyond words and into the unnameable.  And he mentions others who have noted the lack of finality in her work and how for Dickinson each poem was a process in a stream of creativity where one poem serves as a gateway to the next poem.  I overegg it, I am sure, but it is as though all those individual poems, each one echoing another, are just part of a single marvellous whole.  How could you pin such a thing down with a title?

Well, hey!  I’m getting too carried away and I haven’t quoted even a single poem of Dickinson’s, but even my six-year old granddaughter was enthralled by I started early, took my dog…  (though we do wonder what happened to the dog)…  and here’s a link to a stash of wonderful stuff.  Well worth a browse.  There are, of course, more discerning selections elsewhere.

And so now I’d better find my wife and apologise for being such a prat and thank her for the literary journey that she started me off on, only to find, of course, that she was already there when I began.

It’s funny how the day turns out.  For the Latinists among you it might be more a case of ex rebus ad librum than ex libris ad rem.

6th June 2018


Wilfred Macartney – writer, adventurer, soldier, spy

This black, grubby, battered volume had been sitting in one of the many piles of books in my house for some months.


I had been moving books around… yes, you might have guessed it, looking for a book… and, as often happens, before I found it, this volume emerged at the top of a pile to confront me and I thought – “What on earth is this?”  Dirty, stained black cloth covers,  dinted and scuffed in the middle of the spine, twisted in shape – or in booklovers’ parlance – “cocked”.  Overall, very unattractive indeed.  Just the sort of thing, of course, that would have caught my eye in a junk shop somewhere some time, though where and when, I could hardly remember.

Even the title and author’s name – once in gilt – at the top of the spine were barely readable.



So I opened the book, read the name of the title and of the author, neither of which were familiar, started to read page one…  and the rest of the day and a couple of succeeding days disappeared before I emerged again.  I can’t remember now what book I was looking for in the first place, but the one I found  – or which found me –  and absorbed me for the best part of three days was:

Zigzag , by W. F. R. Macartney, published in London by Victor Gollancz in 1937

and I am heartily glad I came upon it, the opening paragraph hooking me and drawing me in:



I suppose one would call it an autobiography, and one containing enough adventures for a dozen such reminiscences and written by a man not yet forty and with even more adventures yet to come.  But it reads at times like fast-paced fiction and, although  I haven’t researched the events described, seems to prove the old adage – “you couldn’t make it up”; or as a review of the book in the Perth Western Mail put it – stranger than fiction:

“If some of the lifetime experiences of Wilfred Macartney had been incorporated in a novel the universal criticism would have been that the character had been overdrawn and the incidents impossible.”

Moreover there is topicality in these pages since, in these centenary years of the First World War, much of Macartney’s action takes place in the global arena of this awful conflict and the story concludes with dastardly deeds by the Russians and Macartney  being sent to prison for ten years for spying.

So how can one describe in some sort of shorthand the extraordinary Wilfred Francis Remington Macartney?  He was a global adventurer – a citizen of the world (or as someone might say, a citizen of nowhere).  It is almost certainly a good job he didn’t end up in the Russia of the 1930s where his political sympathies eventually inclined.  Stalin would have dubbed him a “безродный космополит” – a “rootless cosmopolitan” (aka citizen of nowhere) and he would undoubtedly have disappeared without trace or died in the gulags.

He was a Scot – or was he born in London?  Father Irish, but brought up in the US.  Mother American of French origin, or was she Canadian?  He lived and was schooled, for a few years at least, in England. Saw Jamaica, no doubt passing through.  Was in Ukraine to see his mother wrongfully arrested as a spy by the Tsarist police.  Lived in Malta where he seems to have been happiest.  Lived in the USA, where he ran off to enlist, lying about his age.  Spent war years in Egypt, Palestine.  Was fighting as a swashbuckler soldier in the Greek islands with Compton Mackenzie, both already involved in the murky manoeuvring world of intelligence.  He captured whole islands, commanding ragtag troops, managing the politics.  He was only 18 for goodness sake!   Then he was fighting in France, was wounded, a prisoner of war taken to Germany.  He escaped by leaping from a train; got back to England via Belgium and Holland. Then ended up as part of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway Mission in Turkey.  At nineteen he was “friendly” with Kemal Ataturk.  He travelled to Spain, France, north Africa…  You lose track of his travels. Worked in the City.  Engaged in financial and entrepreneurial wheeling and dealing.  Gambling, boxing, nightclubs, drink, women, the underworld of London.  Criminality – breaking and entering, drunk and disorderly.  Jail.  Communism.  Journalism.  And, apparently, spying…  And still only in his mid-twenties.  And jail again.

Travelling as the son of his father had been “good fun”, Zigzag tells us.  His father was an engineer, an entrepreneur, the Macartney in Macartney, McElroy & Co. Ltd.  He made a fortune.  He built tramways all round the world. Wilfred’s early days were “vagrant”, he says, but so were his later ones. Thirteen when his father died, he was already running the company with his brother, holding meetings, negotiating deals.  This autobiography doesn’t even seem to cover his months in the Spanish foreign legion in Morocco, or his apparent duties in the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  I suspect his involvement in the dark arts of intelligence and potential legal action may have led to some omissions in his already full and remarkable tale.

In 1946 he was charged and fined yet again with an offence under the Official Secrets Act. (An offence Compton Mackenzie also endured for his revelations.)

How such an adventurer as Macartney coped with ten years in Parkhurst prison in the Isle of Wight, I do not yet know, but there is another – more available – book he wrote entitled Walls Have Mouths (called “remarkable” by George Orwell) which will shed some light.

And I haven’t even mentioned yet Macartney’s involvement as the first commander of the Republican British Battalion in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and the curious (and yet again murky) circumstance of how he ended up getting shot and wounded another time.  Accidental?  Intentional?

Towards the end of Zigzag when Macartney relates the events of the espionage which led him into Parkhurst, he switches from the first person narrative of autobiography to the third person narrative of… well what?  A biographer?  A biographer who “must surmise… must often be content with comparatively exiguous material…”  Unlike the autobiographer,

“The biographer… can write attractively of a character who was certainly not always attractive, and he can be judicial and like a lecturer at a dissection can examine and apportion blame or confer praise where these were due.

“So therefore I come to the position where writing an autobiography becomes distasteful to me, where the character of whom I write seems to be outside myself, and about whose life for the succeeding two years I propose to write of in the third person…  The more detached ‘he’ of the third person will carry the story to its conclusion.  The biographer will attempt to be objective.”



And so for the last three chapters of this remarkable tale, in his curious idiosyncratic “objective” way Wilfred Macartney tells us how he ended up in jail, found guilty of spying for the Russians.   He was in his late twenties.  Sentenced to ten years, he served eight.

And the “zigzag” of the title?  He certainly zigzagged his way through life and the world, and his circuitous journeys in war and peace zigzagged from one destination to another.  But Macartney had more in mind the tactics of political manoeuvring.  Referring to a journey which took him to Greece via Rome, Sicily and Malta, he writes:

“From Malta to Mudros I travelled in a ship which zigzagged all the way.  Zigzag became one of the best known words of the war and was particularly liked by Lenin.  He always used it when recommending caution to those who thought revolution was a kind of smash and grab.”

He then continues to narrate yet another tale of smash and grab which fills this splendid book.

Macartney died in London on 4th November 1970.  Apparently his death was noted in the Times, but there was no obituary.  One of the few comments I found about Macartney on one internet site noted that “Wilfred Macartney is one of the most interesting people in history”.   Bit of a superlative, one might think, but it is not far wrong.  And the comment continues: “Yet there is virtually nothing on him on the web.”  Well, with this blog about this rare book Zigzag there is a bit more now, and perhaps other folk will be spurred on to read and write about Wilfred Macartney’s extraordinary life.

25th May 2018

The following websites have some good information about Wilfred Macartney.…-a060358409

Detailed information about the espionage case for which Macartney went to prison can be found in: Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence by Gill Bennett, published by Routledge in 2007.  Morton was the intelligence officer who pursued Macartney.


In Praise of Illustration (and Thomas Hardy yet again)


The few folk who have come upon my intermittent blog will have gathered that one of my favourite authors is the English novelist Thomas Hardy.  Like many readers, the “reading copies” I have of his works are no longer the battered paperbacks strewn around my house but the digital editions I have on my iPad.  These digital texts do have great advantages, not least that you can read them in the dark and that many of them are free.  So why then are the several thousand books I have in my house not diminishing in number but rather increasing?  There are at least a couple of reasons.  One is that I have a fascination for older books and editions and another is that these books often contain wonderful illustrations which usually feature neither in modern battered paperbacks nor in digital copies.

So when my long-suffering postman wearily knocks on my door to unburden himself of yet another vast parcel, and my nearest and dearest call out “What on earth have you bought now, you sad old man?”, they naturally despair when I proclaim: “Well, it’s another copy of the Mayor of Casterbridge.”  And when they declare “But you’ve got five copies of that already!”, I can proudly say – as I unravel the packaging of a book well over a foot in height – “Yes.  But not this one!”

And what is so great about this edition of the frequently published Mayor?  Well it is the very first publication of the great work serialised in the wonderful Victorian magazine The Graphic; and serial publication in Victorian times usually means, of course… illustration.


In the 1886 publication of the Mayor in The Graphic, over a period of almost five months, each of the 20 weekly instalments carried a splendid illustration by Robert Barnes.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles was illustrated in its first serial publication in The Graphic in 1891.  Similarly, the (even more) controversial Jude the Obscure (or as it was initially entitled – The Simpletons and then Hearts Insurgent) contained illustrations by William Hatherall when first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1894-95.  IMG_4284

Hardy was so taken by Hatherall’s illustrations that he wrote to him in November 1895 expressing his “sincere admiration” for the illustration of “Jude at the Milestone”.

“The picture is a tragedy in itself: & I do not remember ever before having an artist who grasped a situation so thoroughly…  Would that I possessed a copy or photograph of it!”


Hatherall sent Hardy a complete set of the illustrations which Hardy liked so much he had them framed and hung in his study at Max Gate.  He will have seen them every day when he sat down to write.

Hardy was often engaged with the practicalities of the illustration of his work, providing advice and sketches of his own. As an architect drawing up plans to renovate churches he could – and did – sketch and draw.  At times he even contributed and published his own illustrations, the prominent example being the first edition of his Wessex Poems.


Typical of Hardy, so prone to infatuations with the opposite sex, he even appears to have developed a romantic attachment to one artist, Helen Paterson, who illustrated Far from the Madding Crowd in the Cornhill Magazine.  Helen Paterson married the poet William Allingham (the same year that Hardy wed Emma Gifford), hence the change in the illustrator’s name during the publication of Madding from H. Paterson to H. Allingham.  How characteristic that some 30 years later “with his memories – imaginatively inflated” – so described by biographer Michael Millgate – Hardy could declare in a letter to Edmund Gosse in July 1906 that this was the woman he should have married “but for a stupid blunder of God Almighty”.  He even penned a poem about this attachment (The Opportunity).  What, if anything, Helen Allingham or Emma Hardy knew of this “romantical” (Hardy’s own word) attachment, I do not know.  But he could now declare that Helen was: “the best illustrator I ever had”.

And so I can at least turn to my 1877 edition of Madding which, happily, contains some of these illustrations to get a glimpse of what had captivated Hardy; and certainly the last illustration in the volume, depicting the dramatic scene where Troy unmasks himself immediately prior to being shot by the hapless Boldwood, has much to recommend it.


There is a fascinating interplay between the images in the illustrations and the text and any serious study of the illustrations to Hardy’s works reveals in them some curious traits and inconsistencies, but they make a significant accompaniment to the text, even – and perhaps now particularly – for the modern sophisticated reader.  Anyone wanting to delve more should have a look at the detailed insights offered on the splendid website

And there have been at least two books written specifically about Hardy’s illustrations, which I have yet to explore.

The mid 19th Century was a time rife with the serialisation of novels by established writers of the day –  Dickens, Eliot, Collins, Trollope, Thackeray, Hardy to name but a few. Most magazines which published such works employed or hired illustrators to depict key scenes.  Although a publishing convention, these illustrations were more than artistic icing on a verbal cake.  For the unsophisticated readers of the day these illustrations and accompanying vignettes were an integral part of the presentation of the fiction, helping readers to visualise the narrative.  Indeed it seems to have been these copies, bound into volumes, that the libraries on occasion purchased for their general – unsophisticated – readership in preference to the unillustrated book-form editions.

However, if a novel had not been serialised, then likely it would not be illustrated; and when full first editions were produced, purchased by the more affluent and educated reader, if there were illustrations, then they often went by the wayside.  And subsequent editions tended to omit the illustrations.  So if the avid reader of today wants to get a taste of what the first serialised (and often bowdlerised) editions looked like, that reader needs to seek out copies of the magazines which first carried them.

Throughout the years many publishers have – fortunately – sought to produce new illustrated editions of Hardy’s novels, notably, for example, the edition of Tess with the wood engravings by Vivien Gribble.

Nora Lavrin illustrated some translated editions of Hardy.  Illustrations are a feature of the Folio editions too, and not just of Hardy.   There is, of course, a whole tradition of writings across a plethora of works where illustration is integral to the production of the work, from William Blake, to the Moxon edition of Tennyson, to the Russian Futurists, to W. G. Sebald, not to mention the wonderful illustrated editions of books for children and young readers.  For some writers illustration was an intensely integral part of their work.  For others it is a practical or inspirational enhancement or adornment.

For me, whatever the images that have formed in my own visual imagination (enhanced or diminished by our cinematic presentations), with my own copy of Harper’s magazine for 1895, I can return to an image of the desperate Jude, of which Hardy himself was so enthralled he framed it on his wall.  And no wonder the illustration of his work preoccupied him. He had, after all, a supremely visual imagination.  References to paintings and pictures abound in his works.  He had a stunning capability to paint a picture in words, not just in his poetry but in his novels too.  I recall Melvyn Bragg on the radio being bowled over by Hardy’s Tess.  “He’s Constable.  He’s Turner.  He’s amazing.”  Not even I can top that.

April 2018

The two books I am aware of on Hardy and illustrations are: Arlene M Jackson, Illustration and the novels of Thomas Hardy, published by Rowman & Littlefield Pub Inc (1981); and Philip Allingham (who has written much for the website), Hardy’s Illustrated Fiction, Published by LAP Lambert Acad. Publ. Mrz 2011 (2011)
Unusually Under the Greenwood Tree had an interesting illustrated edition published very soon after the first unillustrated edition – see the volume published by Tinsley as a “Christmas book” dated 1876.
Melvyn Bragg’s comments came in his BBC Radio 4 programme In our Time, broadcast on 5th May 2016
Hardy’s letters can be found in the Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, published by OUP and edited by R. L. Purdy and Michael Millgate

To Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and back to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

I’ve recently read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  I’d like to say “re-read”, but while I am very familiar with the story, I can’t properly recollect ever reading the whole novel.  I think I must have had it as a child in some illustrated abridged version and filled in missing bits from the many Hollywood films.


I came back to Treasure Island when my granddaughter was off school recently and needed entertaining and I also had a mind for inspiring the pirate costume she might don for World Book Day (in the end she went as Miss Jump the Jockey without anyone having to fork out anything for pirate gear – so much for granddad’s inspiration). I read Treasure Island, or rather summarised the tale for her, book in hand, until after a few chapters she moved on to something else. Then, over the next few days, I just carried on reading it on my own.  It was certainly a distraction from Thomas Hardy’s Desperate Remedies which I was reading and finishing around the same time.  More on that some time soon.

There has been a plethora of writing about Treasure Island, since it first appeared in the early 1880s.  A first edition now will cost you several thousand pounds. I suppose it must be one of the most famous books in the English language and is very collectable.  A tale for children – yes.  But it is certainly more than that and, like all good books, works on more than one level.  I am not going to rehearse here any well-worn analyses of the tale or characters.  There is plenty of that elsewhere.  What struck me, though, as so often, are the off-beat things I gleaned in a little more reading around the tale.

The edition I picked up from my huge piles of books was the Thomas Nelson edition in their “Teaching of English Series” (already in its 32nd impression in 1964!).  This contained as an appendix the article which Stevenson wrote not long before his death in 1894, called My First Book, telling of the origin of the tale which, famously, began, literally, with a map.


Stevenson explains how he was  kept indoors by the inclement Scottish weather along with “a schoolboy… home for the holidays”  who spent his time painting and drawing.  Stevenson joined the young fellow – actually his stepson Lloyd – in this pastime and “on one of these occasions… made the map of an island” – a “treasure island”.  “As I pored upon my map of Treasure Island,” Stevenson wrote, “the future characters of the book began to appear there…”  “The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.”

Many tales have maps associated with them.  The first edition of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe  had a map of the world showing Crusoe’s voyages.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would would be unthinkable without the joy of the detailed maps the books contain.  I think my earliest recollection of such things would probably be the map of the village in Milly Molly Mandy.   But I suspect none of these books has the actual map itself as the genesis of the tale.  Maybe Treasure Island is wonderfully unique in this regard.  And Stevenson has some very sensible things to say about how important it is for the author to know his countryside – real or imaginary.  “The distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil.”  And with a tilt at Walter Scott, he notes that once an author has “the map before him, he will scarce allow the sun to set in the east”.  Ahh, the pitfalls that lay in wait for the unwary novelist!

This central preoccupation with the map set me thinking: who else, writing around the time Treasure Island appeared, gets so preoccupied with his topography that he has to include a map?  And the answer, of course, is Thomas Hardy, whose Wessex was already taking shape in the mid 1870s with Far from the Madding Crowd.  Then in 1878, before Treasure Island came out,  Hardy published The Return of the Native and, for the first time, suggested in a letter to his publishers that they include as integral to the work  “a Sketch of the supposed scene in which the ‘Return of the Native’ is laid – copied from the one I used in writing the story”, declaring that this “would be a desirable novelty, likely to increase a reader’s interest”.  It is notable that this self-made map was used by Hardy during the writing.


The map itself I have always found to be a rather disappointing affair, helpful true, but containing little detail.  Hardy’s maps of Wessex – penned by folk other than him -certainly improved over time.  But one needs to acknowledge that this first sketched map of Egdon Heath is not a patch on the map of Treasure Island and is certainly not the genesis of the tale. I would have thought it fair to say that the countryside itself – rather than a map of it – was Hardy’s inspiration for his tale.  However, there’s no denying that here is a map heading up the novel, just like Stevenson’s map fronted Treasure Island, and before Treasure Island was published.

Stevenson doesn’t give any acknowledgement to Hardy in his article about the inspiration of his map for the writing of Treasure Island.  But he does write the following:

I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe.  The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins, the ponds and the ferries, perhaps the Standing Stone or the Druidic Circle on the heath; here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or tuppenceworth of imagination to understand with!

I cannot help but wonder, mischievously, whether hidden in this is a reference not only to Hardy but also specifically to his The Return of the Native which – predating Stevenson’s yet to be published Treasure Island – also had the map centre stage as a frontispiece.

Stevenson was well acquainted with Hardy’s work.  He praised A Pair of Blue Eyes (published 1873), he was one of the first visitors to Hardy’s new house, Max Gate, in August 1885, having a few days earlier written to Hardy from nearby Bournemouth saying that “my acquaintance with your mind is already of old date”.  He read “with admiration” Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and wrote to Hardy asking if he could “dramatise” it. Hardy – who also at the time admired Stevenson’s writing – replied “yes, by all means” and shortly afterwards they dined together in London.  Stevenson apparently sought out a copy of Woodlanders to take with him when he travelled to the USA.

But there was a massive reversal in Stevenson’s view of Hardy’s work upon the publication of Tess of the D’Urbevilles in 1891.  Writing in December 1892 – two years before his death – in correspondence with Henry James (openly known as a rather hostile critic of Hardy), Stevenson – by now ensconced in Samoa – denounced Tess in vitriolic terms as “one of the worst, weakest, least sane, most voulu books I have yet read”.  Stevenson continues:

I should tell you in fairness I could never finish it; there may be the treasures of the Indies further on; but so far as I read, James, it was (in one word) damnable. Not alive, not true was my continual comment as I read; and at last- not even honest! was the verdict with which I spewed it from my mouth. I write in anger? I almost think I do;… I cannot read a page of Hardy for many a long day, my confidence [in him] is gone.”


Goodness gracious!  Tess did provoke a certain storm (“coarse and disagreeable story” – one reviewer wrote), but overall it was well received.  Even Henry James didn’t damn it fully when he reviewed it.  But Stevenson’s response here seems visceral in the extreme.  It was certainly sufficiently shocking for most of it to be redacted or censored in 1899 by the publishers of his letters after his death.  One wonders what angered Stevenson so?  The intensity of the complaint seems to go beyond what one might expect in terms of a literary squabble.  Perhaps Stevenson’s Calvinist upbringing is coming into sway here, though his own life seems to have been a rather bohemian affair. Perhaps those more immersed in Stevenson’s biography and work will be able to enlighten me.

One cannot also but be struck by James’s response to this vitriol against Hardy.  James’s return letter regretted that he – James – had not been more condemnatory of Tess, and, egged on by Stevenson, he denounced the book as “vile” and said:

“I grant you Hardy with all my heart and even with a certain quantity of my boot-toe.”

Crikey!  So Henry James, spurred on by the angry Stevenson, wanted to give Hardy a kicking!  Similar to how Stevenson’s comments were dealt with, the words containing this threat were suppressed when James’s letters were published in 1920, after James’s death but still in Hardy’s lifetime.


Thomas Hardy was sensitive to criticism and, in deference to the great man of English literature, these letters seem to have been censored by publishers and editors.  However, as is clear from the biography of Thomas Hardy which was initially published, after Hardy’s death, under his wife’s name but which Hardy himself oversaw, he had certainly seen what hadn’t been censored and most likely had heard something elsewhere of Stevenson’s change of heart.  He sardonically dubbed James and Stevenson “the Polonius and the Osric of novelists” and made some rather sarcastic remarks about the indecency of “those two virtuous females” exposing their “mental nakedness”.  But from my perspective here, the most interesting comment – in the same publication – is a specific reference by Hardy to the map in Treasure Island.  Hardy, noting his suggestion at the time for including his own map of Egdon Heath in the first edition of The Return of the Native, goes on to say:

The publishers fell in with the idea and the map was made.  It was afterwards adopted by R. L. Stevenson in Treasure Island.

And so I seem to have travelled from Treasure Island to Wessex and back to Treasure Island again.  What basis, if any, there is for this assertion by Hardy that Stevenson had pinched the idea off him, I do not know.  Others may.  But Hardy could nurse a literary grudge for many a year and he wanted to have the last word even when he was already dead.  It is a characteristically mischievous ironic dig; a posthumously published riposte to a once friendly fellow writer who had the temerity to declare one of his books “damnable”.

March 2018

In addition to Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Hardy’s The Return of the Native, the books I’ve been consulting for this blog were: Michael Millgate’s Thomas Hardy: a Biography Revisited; Richard Little Purdy’s splendid Thomas Hardy: a Bibliographical Study; the autobiographical Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate, Vol 1 of The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, edited by Millgate and Purdy; and the rather idiosyncratic biography Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith.


Thomas Hardy – a parsimonious poet

I’ve recently been reading the book by Vere Henry Collins which tells of his conversations with the great English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy in the early 1920s when Hardy was in his early eighties.  The book – Talks with Thomas Hardy at Max Gate – was first published in 1928 following Hardy’s death in January of that year, and republished in 1978 to mark the 50th anniversary of the great man’s demise.


Collins was obviously something of a Hardy “groupie” though that is, perhaps, a strong word for a man from the Oxford University Press, a literary fellow and friend of Edward Thomas.  But he does confess in the book’s introduction that in 1900 he had cycled round what we might now call the Hardy trail and twice held “vigil” outside Hardy’s Max Gate house “in the faint hope of catching a glimpse of him”.  Twenty years later he managed to wheedle his way into the old man’s presence and – happily for other subsequent Hardy groupies – made an account of his conversations.

The conversations are presented in the form of a dialogue with the participating “persona” listed as Hardy (H), second wife Florence (Mrs. H) and Vere Collins (C).  I am not sure how Collins noted down the conversations so apparently verbatim, whether Hardy saw the transcription or what he would have thought of them. I guess Collins waited till his death to publish them since Hardy could take exception – as the conversations themselves show – to what we might these days call “fake news”.

In his biography of Hardy, Michael Millgate says the conversations were “doggedly recorded” and another Hardy biographer, Martin Seymour-Smith, describes them as “unconsciously comic”. Whatever one thinks of them, however, this slim volume is a fascinating read for those interested in the work of Hardy, not least for the enlightenment it provides on some obscurities in the great man’s verse and his views on other writers.

What caught my eye also, however, is a rather off-beat remark Hardy made about the journey he undertook to Aberdeen where he went in the spring of 1905 to receive from the University there his honorary Doctorate in law.  The short poem, Aberdeen, was written to mark his visit.  “That was the only time I ever went to Scotland,” Hardy reportedly told Vere Collins (although I have seen reference elsewhere to at least two other visits Hardy made).  And Hardy went on: “It was so expensive, and for the same money we found we could go to the Continent and get a more thorough change.”  Hardy had travelled there by sleeper-car on the railways.  In his sanitised “autobiography” (under wife Florence’s name) the long return journey was described as “easy”.  Not so, apparently, on his purse.

As the grand old man of British literature, with many editions of his works published, Hardy must have been relatively well-off by this time, but his accumulating wealth was now famously becoming accompanied by a distinctly parsimonious attitude to expense.  Memoirs and comments written by others relating to his latter years at Max Gate, for example, are often notorious for references to his stinginess and thrift.   “He was parsimonious to the pitch of niggardliness,” the introduction to his parlour-maid’s reminiscences tells us, and the parlour-maid tells the story of how one winter’s day soon after she had made a fire in the dining room she found that all the coal not actually burning had been taken off and carefully placed upon the hearth.  She replaced the coals on the fire only to witness Hardy take the tongs and remove them from the fire again.  In the “grim, cold” house he would not permit good fires, she says.


The same maid’s memoir about Hardy relates that a Christmas gift of half a crown was “indignantly refused” by the cook who viewed it as “an insulting amount”.  (Florence later upped it to ten bob.)  “He lived a rather stingy life”, the maid laments.  Florence Hardy struggled with getting him to spend money modernising Max Gate.  The kitchen needed upgrading; there was no bathroom in the house until 1920.  It must have been a nightmare for the domestic staff having to pump water every day to the house from the well, heat up water in the kitchen and scurry up and down stairs with jug fulls for the Hardys’ baths.  We don’t have to worry about frozen pipes, Florence once wrote, because we don’t have have any pipes.  She had to “fight”, Tomalin says, to have a bathroom and hot water installed. Tellingly Millgate’s biography even has an index reference to “old-age frugality”.

So what caused this grand old man with his “accessibility and charm” – as described by his secretary in later years, Mary O’Rourke – “a gentle lion, friendly and with a sense of fun” also to embody characteristics more reminiscent of Pushkin’s Miserly Knight?

The answer, I think, is not too difficult to discern.  Like Pushkin’s knight, Hardy knew “how much human care and woe, how many lies, tears, prayers and curses” were expended to drive away penury and poverty.  His first – never published novel – was The Poor Man and the Lady. On the day he went to London, desperate to secure its publication, the same date is noted in his prayerbook against Psalm 86 “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, and hear me: for I am poor and in misery”.  Hardy’s father was a builder and his mother had been a servant.  They were not well off and at times struggled to make ends meet.  His father-in-law reportedly regarded Hardy as a “low-born churl”.  Arthur Benson remarked on his “peasant background” and elsewhere talked of his “kindly” face which was rather that “not of a peasant… but of a village tradesman”.  When Hardy gave up architecture to become a man of letters he knew he could be signing himself up to a future of impoverishment.  No wonder he counted the pennies in later life with, as Millgate puts it, his “careful record-keeping” and the “anxious zeal with which he watched over his publishing affairs”; and wife Florence could remark “that T. H. honestly believes that poverty & ruin stare him in the face”.

But it is more than this.  The way he lived was almost akin to a profession of faith.  Hardy was decidedly not Tolstoyan, but, although comfortably off, he made a profound statement in his daily habits.  He worked in old clothes.  He wore trousers, which – according to Tomalin – “he mended himself with string”.  He was devoted to living a simple life, hating wastefulness, donning his old work clothes in the morning and routinely toiling away every day, like a labourer, at his writing.  He was a working man. This is how he kept himself going successfully into advanced age.

Although Hardy would bristle at biographical features being identified in his fictional characters, there is undoubtedly something of this spartan diligence in Clym Yeobright – the character “loveable” to Hardy – in The Return of the Native, and the tensions between poverty and wealth, between the simple life and excess, are palpable throughout his fiction.  One only has to think of Tess and Jude.  On different levels we can also see distinct flashes of this in his poetry as well: the “simple self” in the poem Wessex Heights; the lack of expectation from life in the late poems Epitaph and He Never Expected Much; and the pointed reflections in the poem in the Winter Words collection, A Private Man on Public Men where the latter are

“driving their coach through Life with strain and striving,/ and raking riches into heaps”

while the “private man”

“…lived in quiet, screened, unknown,/pondering upon some stick or stone,/ or news of some rare book or bird”

and, (far from the madding crowd, one might justifiably add) was

“shut from the noise of the world without,/ hearing but dimly its rush and rout,/ unenvying those amid its roar,/ little endowed, not wanting more.”

So the frugality of this parsimonious poet may have raised eyebrows and irritated kith and kin and Hardy may sadly have missed out on the riches of a return visit to Scotland, but perversely the parsimony of this poet, his deeply engrained need for a simple “little endowed” life enriched his verse, and in his parsimony we, his readers, have become wealthy indeed.

February 2018


This blog has mainly referenced the following books:

Talks with Thomas Hardy at Max Gate, by Vere H. Collins, published by Duckworth, London 1928, reprinted 1978

Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited by Michael Millgate, published by OUP, 2004 (To my mind this contains the best account and reasoning I have read so far of Hardy’s “frugality”).

Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin Books, 2007

Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith, published by Bloomsbury, London 1994

The Later Years of Thomas Hardy 1892-1928 by Florence Emily Hardy, published by Macmillan & Co., London, 1930

Thomas Hardy: His Secretary Remembers by May O’Rourke, Toucan Press, 1965

The Domestic Life of Thomas Hardy (1921-1928) by Miss E. E. T. (Hardy’s Parlour-Maid), Toucan Press, 1963

The Little Tragedies by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Nancy K. Anderson, Yale University Press, 2000

Thomas Hardy – Family Matters

IMG_3458At the end of May this year I finally visited Max Gate, the house that the great English writer Thomas Hardy designed and had built in Dorchester for himself and his wife, Emma. I suppose I should confess that I went there primarily to see the attic.  I should, of course, have really wanted to soak up the room where Hardy created Tess and Jude, to see the bedroom where the great man died (and where they savagely cut out his heart and put it in a biscuit tin) and to look out of that window in his final study just as he would have done when (in his stocking feet and shawl) he sat and wrote his wonderful poetry.  But I’ll own up.  I really wanted to have a look at the attic.

Some (though not the Hardy-smitten) may ask – “why so?”  And the answer, of course, is that it is in this attic that his wife, Emma, spent pretty much the last ten plus years of her life.  The National Trust volunteer at the Hardy birthplace cottage in Brockhampton had said: “well it’s not really an attic.”  But you know what?  It is.

Emma wasn’t confined there, like the crazy Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre (though some did question Emma’s sanity).  Far from it.   It was a painful voluntary separation.  But, heck, what can you do to get yourself some sort of life when you are eclipsed by the great man of English literature with his constant train of visitors, with folk peering over the garden wall trying to get a glimpse of him, and with the various literary groupies paying calls and trying to catch his eye?  It would not be surprising for anyone to become a little paranoid, particularly given her husband’s well known flirtations.

I suppose that being a veteran of a long marriage myself, I can allow myself the privilege of looking at how other folk have coped.  And for the Victorian celebs like Hardy (and, one might add, Charles Dickens) it seems a fair cop since their marital travails were (like those of the much less interesting celebs of today) more or less public property.

When the Hardys moved in to the house in 1885, Tom was approaching the top of his game as a novelist.  Far from the Madding Crowd had propelled him to stardom and he’d recently completed the marvellous Mayor of Casterbridge.  The house (subsequently expanded) was a substantial residence for a man of substance.  A little dowdy, may be, but he was in this respect, it seems, a man of his time and he had a soft spot for the solid Victorian villa, despite Charles Harper – one of Hardy’s early topographers – having extolled the virtues of quaint Dorset thatch and noting that only “foolish folk” – “seek to be… ‘up to date'”.

And in his up-to-date house, periodically being modernised and extended, Hardy seems to have had peripatetic studies.  First writing in one room, then another and then another, where Emma (unless Tom wasn’t there) feared to tread.  He seems to have been so curmudgeonly towards her that she wasn’t even allowed to borrow his books. For Emma, I guess, there was nowhere to go, and once there was the attic she was up there like a shot (though she must have struggled with the steep narrow stairs).  A single bed in one little room, a space to think and work in another little room.  The great man could have the rest of the house and she would appear on occasion when protocol required.  But one still can’t ignore the fact that the lady of the house had to live (and die) in the attic.

It wasn’t always doom and gloom and they must have had some fun on their frequent cycling trips together (though they didn’t have a tandem), but the troubled marriage now had its physical separation. As Emma herself had advised – “keeping separate a good deal was a way of dealing with crises.”  But this physical manifestation of keeping separate was routine, not a crisis.

So, living in the same house, Emma and Tom saw each other intermittently, and, as one memoir noted, in the later stages they did not speak, even when together at meals, and Tom was often eating in his study anyway.  Second wife-in-waiting Florence Dugdale – insidiously, it seems, in the confidence of  Emma as well as Tom – visited frequently in the final years of Emma’s life and Tom was on occasion heading off to the Suffolk coast and elsewhere to be with her. Florence even had a friend’s flat available in London for her and Tom to pursue their liaison.

To add to the marital strife there was serious angry bitterness between Emma and Hardy’s family and in the last years of her life Emma was composing her “black” diaries full of bile about her spouse which the anguished Tom found after her death and burnt. The atmosphere in the house must have become pretty dire. Emma’s behaviour was regarded as increasingly eccentric and she became the butt of many disparaging comments. How could she be such an embarrassment to the great man? Denys Kay-Robinson in his well-researched book on the marriage (The First Mrs Thomas Hardy) is more sympathetic to Emma than many and he doesn’t mince his words about Max Gate describing it at the outset as “the gaol he [Tom] had specially built” for Emma.

Emma struggled to cope with life as the wife of a celebrity and to establish her own integrity and identity in the marital melee.  It can’t have been easy for her and the troubled state of her mind was hardly surprising.  Physically she had the attic, but mentally, where could she go for refuge?  And then, of course, to crown the difficulties for her there were the great man’s dalliances and infatuations.  He seemed to have done what he could – sometimes beyond what he should – to further the literary ambitions of his young paramours, but steadfastly ignored poor old Emma’s scribblings.

His novels and stories tell tales of marital and sexual strife and disharmony, with predatory males taking advantage of innocent maids, and hapless males like Jude succumbing to feminine wiles.  Curiously in the 1890s Tom shaved off his respectable Victorian beard and took to sporting a waxed moustache like his own character, Alec d’Urbeville, the cad who preyed on Tess, with his moustachio’d stage villain appearance.  Photographs of Emma show her middle-aged and thoroughly buttoned up, while Tom’s attentions wandered to Rosamund Tomson, to Florence Henniker, to Agnes Grove and ultimately to Florence Dugdale.  Serial dalliances.  No wonder Emma, roundly criticised for not supporting her great man, was driven mentally to distraction and physically to the attic.IMG_3836

One view is that she should have gritted her teeth and rejoiced at the privilege of being the great man’s wife.   A rather naive view, I think.  Humiliated at times by Tom’s carryings-on, she was not loth in turn inexpertly to try to humiliate him.   And the last of the dalliances, Florence Dugdale, had her comeuppance in the end since once Emma died, Tom drove Florence spare by devoting much of his energy to recovering his love for Emma and revering her memory.  Emma was “his late espoused saint”, as the unremittingly hostile Florence scathingly put it.

So what on earth possessed the great man to pursue his late-life infatuations?  Was he really so hopelessly flattered as younger women beat a path to his door?  Jude-like did he lay down his books unable to resist?  I prefer to look at this in the round.  Anyone reading a biography of Hardy’s life will be struck how, even as a young man, he was driven to pursue affairs with women.  There were a series of relationships or attempted relationships (some very evident, some less so) before he met and fell in love with Emma.  The older Hardy’s infatuations simply followed in the wake of the younger Hardy’s flirtations.  Denys Kay-Robinson – in his book on Emma – even goes so far as to hint that one motive for Hardy moving to London as a young man might well have been that it was there he could experience the thrills of the seamier side of the metropolis and he asks – are we really to believe he never sampled the wares?

There are intriguing questions yet to be answered and perhaps best left alone.  After all, even these days we begrudgingly acknowledge that celebrities are entitled to a bit of private life.  For one, such as I, blown over by this great man’s work, it seems almost sacreligious – (I know,  it is not the right word for Hardy) – to intrude so much into the private affairs of his marriage with Emma.  And I fear to step.  But, of course, his writing invites us there.  The poems that he wrote about women, about love, and the outpouring of verse after Emma’s death, take us deep into the private life he lived.  So with the tiny attic now empty, its small single bed without an occupant, the stricken Tom sat in his study below and discovered how much he was bereft; and how he now had to steel himself to face the “dark undying pain” of his lost love.

November 2017

The main book I’ve referred to in this blog is The First Mrs Thomas Hardy by Denys Kay-Robinson, published by Macmillan, London 1979


I’ve also mentioned The Hardy Country by Charles G. Harper, published by Adam and Charles Black, London 1904

Back on the trail of Thomas Hardy’s Jude – the missing cottage


I’d been meaning for some time to trek up again towards Fawley – the Marygreen which was the home of the young Jude in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, Jude the Obscure. The recent May sunshine gave me the excuse to abandon domestic chores and head up towards the Ridgeway, the wonderful “white road” (Hardy) where (in H. W. Timperley’s words) the normal self is enlarged and the influence of the sky is out of proportion to the modest altitude.  I wanted, in particular, to pay a visit to something which no longer existed.  “How typical”, my family would have muttered to themselves as I headed out of the door.  “He’s off to look at something that’s not there!”

And so I trekked an oft-trod route up to Letcombe Bassett (Cresswell), past the cress beds where the much maligned Arabella hurled the private part of a dead pig over the fence into Jude’s face, up the steep incline across the fields where Jude and Arabella courted, and on to the “white road”.  It was certainly white that day, with no rain for some weeks and the strong sun baking the path bright and hard.  At the point where the Ridgeway meets the main Wantage-Hungerford highway (A338) I turned south on to the road and after three-quarters of a mile, dodging traffic, I ventured into the edge of a field of corn on the west side of the road.  An entirely unremarkable spot to the hundreds of folk in cars who drive past here everyday and, I suspect, to most other folk, but not of course to those well versed in Hardy’s remarkable tale of Jude for, as tour no. 10 of the Thomas Hardy Society pamphlets puts it:  “this is where Hardy placed Jude and Arabella’s cottage, in which the pig-killing took place.  There was once a cottage here, but nothing now marks the spot”.  Well, for a moment, at least, I was marking it.


I know it’s sad and I ought to get out more, as they say, but I’d been wondering about this cottage for months.  Was there really ever a cottage there?  If so, where exactly and what manner of cottage was it?  Why would someone put a cottage there, in the middle of nowhere?  Was there really nothing there any more?  Okay, I know it is a book of fiction, but Hardy needed real places to centre his fictional world and this spot was no different.

From Part 1 Chapter 9 of the novel we know the location to be “a lonely roadside cottage between the Brown House [on the Ridgeway] and Marygreen [Fawley]”; and topographical guides to Hardy, written by folk a lot more knowledgeable of the subject than I, locate it at the junction where the path from Fawley heading north meets the main road.  This is the path across the fields which Jude routinely treads when he heads north out of Fawley and wants to get to anywhere at all. It is a real path, is still there and is still used (well, by me at any rate).  I confess that weeks earlier I had already dragged my poor wife out to this spot when visiting a nearby location by car and she gamely joined me in scouring the corners of the fields immediately either side of the junction where the footpath meets the main road.  Was there any trace of anything to indicate a cottage which might have been there more than a hundred years ago?  There were some decent sized rocks along the boundary of the path which, I supposed, could have been (or not) the remnants of some structure, a wall or foundations perhaps, but nothing else at all.


Once I was home again this (literally) “field visit” prompted me to engage in more bookish research.  Bertram C. A. Windle’s splendid little book, The Wessex of Thomas Hardy, first published in 1906 only ten years after Jude’s publication (and, of course, during Hardy’s lifetime) doesn’t tell us which side of the path the cottage was on, but it does tell us that a cottage had been there but at that time was already “ruined”.  The book  provides a most useful footnote: “since these lines were written this cottage has been pulled down, nothing but the foundations, surrounded by a hedge and some pine trees, now remaining”.

The Thomas Hardy Society pamphlet locates the cottage at the junction alongside the road on the north side of the path to Fawley.  (I shouldn’t have been looking south of the path.)  So with this in mind I got my maps out and also began reading (yet again) Part 1 of Jude.  Interestingly as well as a reference to the location of the cottage in Part 1 Chapter 9 (the marriage to Arabella and its aftermath), there is in Part 1 Chapter 7 (the first date with Arabella) reference to Jude walking the path and “passing the few unhealthy fir-trees and cottage where the path joined the highway”.  And there is also an interesting further prequel in Part 1 Chapter 2 when the schoolboy Jude, smarting at his dismissal and from the beating by Farmer Troutham treads the path “till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees”.  So no mention of a cottage this first time (the pressures of serialisation create a slight continuity issue perhaps), but the trees are there again.

So what do we have?  A cottage, fir trees, a hedge and we can add to these the other details in the novel which form the background to the break-up of Jude’s unhappy marriage – a vegetable garden with a gate accessible from the road and a pig sty.  The cottage may be a “half-furnished hut”, but it had a bedroom, an upstairs and downstairs, and a fireplace with a copper and a blower.  That the cottage was immediately next to the road, there is little doubt.  When Jude grabs hold of Arabella to stop her mistreating his books she goes out of the door and “into the highway”, whereupon she exaggerates and denounces his abuse to passers-by.

And so I turned to the reprinted old hard copy maps that I have.  The one published between 1817 and 1828 shows the path up from Fawley, but no structures at the junction with the main road.  The 1919 map similarly shows no buildings.  However, when I look at the map published 1897-1899, opposite the milestone (3 miles to Wantage), north of the path from Fawley and just south of another track which cuts north-west across the road, I detect the black smudge of what could be a building immediately on the western side of the road.  So I went on line and, thanks to the marvellous digital availability of the Ordnance Survey county series maps, I discovered I wasn’t mistaken.

The 1879 map of Berkshire shows a definite structure in that spot and, what is more, adjacent to it are the distinctive map symbols for coniferous trees.  So there we likely have it just as it is described in the novel – the cottage and the fir trees.  What is more, the structure immediately adjacent to the road is even identified upon the map as the Letcombe Regis T.P.  So this would have been the turnpike and toll cottage located on the main road.  Sure enough, a bit of further research on confirms the existence of the Letcombe Regis toll house “opp. Black Bushe, beside path to Fawley”.  Interestingly there are a couple of other buildings around here also.

The 1882 map has the structure still present.  But by the 1899 map, while the coniferous trees are still marked on the triangular piece of land, there are no longer structures.  The cottage has gone.  Maps over the succeeding years see also the disappearance of the fir trees seemingly replaced by non-coniferous trees and eventually the disappearance of any evidence of a discrete patch of land.  The disappearance of this cottage on the maps seems to tally chronologically with the other evidence of its demolition; the timing of its disappearance also fitting in neatly with the end of the turnpike roads and the winding up of the turnpike trusts in the 1870s.  The cottage was there and will have been seen by Hardy when he was conceiving and writing Jude and will have disappeared not long afterwards.

I have as yet found no pictures of the Letcombe Regis turnpike or toll house, but what might it have looked like?  Such a structure in this part of the country could well have been of  brick,  would have fronted immediately upon the road for the collection of tolls, and traditionally, it seems, would have provided sufficient accommodation for the family of the turnpike keeper, a vegetable plot and (yes you’ve guessed it)… a pig sty.

So there I was on that fine day, searching a field for something that might still suggest an old cottage.  And what do I find?  I find ploughed up bits of broken brick right along the spot where the cottage would have been, stretching for several yards.


It was early evening when I trekked back along the Ridgeway and then down into Wantage.  I paused at the top, as ever, to gaze across the Vale to Oxford in the distance in the vain hope of  seeing Jude’s “heavenly Jerusalem”.  It was clear and I had binoculars.  Garsington – yes.  Blackbird Leys and Cowley – yes.  Wood Farm, Risinghurst and Shotover Hill – yes.  But the main part of the city with its colleges and the shining spots upon the spires…?  They seemed to be lying unseen in the dip, as usual, with only the cranes of the West Gate development poking above the rise.  And then I thought I saw just a glimpse, faintly revealed, miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.  And I walked on, blissfully, singing Blake’s Jerusalem loudly.

A couple of hours later I wearily sat down at the kitchen table and opened my rucksack.  “What on earth have you got there, you silly man?”  my wife enquired.  “Don’t ask,” I said.  “It’s too complicated.”


Postcript – 21st June 2017

I finally got round to looking at Hermann Lea’s Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, first published in 1913.  Lea was among the early topographers of Hardy’s world and one of those with whom Hardy co-operated.   Here is how Lea describes his own visit to the cottage (p.50):

“…here we meet with disappointment; real as it has been and as it is remembered – starved fir-trees and all – it was completely destroyed by fire some twenty years ago, and only the site on which it stood can now be pointed out by the local residents.”

Mmm…  Real and remembered, fir trees and all.  The site can be pointed out by local residents…  I suppose that must be me now.  But hang on a moment.  Something new here – “completely destroyed by fire some twenty years ago”.  I’ll need to start looking for scorch marks on the old bricks.  Surely if an old toll house was completely destroyed by fire in the 1890s there would be some newspaper report somewhere.  Surely?  I’ll add this to my “to do list”.