Penelope Fitzgerald, 1984.
Mew’s father’s jollifications in the years after his marriage. They lived at Doughty Street, round the corner from Coram’s Fields. “His idea of an evening out was a smoking concert, or Jolly, at the R.I.B.A. … Sometimes he crossed the street to the Foundlings’ Home in Coram’s Fields to talk to the orphans, and see them eat their dinners.”
May Sinclair “‘came to dinner sometimes [wrote the novelist I.A.R. Wylie] and talked mainly about cats'”.
The Poetry Bookshop (1913-26) “was on the ground floor of a dilapidated eighteenth-century house, with only one cold-water tap for the whole building. However, as you came through the swing door you felt the warmth of a coal fire burning at the other end of the room. There was a dog stretched out there and a cat, which sometimes sprang about the shelves, apparently deliberately, knocking down piles of books. The furniture had been made by the Fabian master-carpenter Romney Green, and was exceptionally solid, the curtains were of sacking, and there were cushions in “jolly” colours. Across the walls rhyme sheets were displayed in rows, a penny plain, twopence coloured, and bought mostly for children.”
It was true that these little volumes, even when they were by the newer poets, were often not very demanding. John Drinkwater, for example, in Poems of Love and Earth (1912) thanks God for
(2) clear day through the little leaded panes;
(3) shining well water;
(4) warm golden light;
(5) rain and wind (apparently at the same time as (2));
(7) wallflowers, tulips, primroses and ‘crowded orchard boughs’;
(8) good bread;
(10) brown-shelled eggs;
(11) kind-faced women with shapely mothering arms;
(12) tall strong-thewed young men;
(13) an old man bent above his scythe;
(14) the great glad earth and ‘Heaven’s trackless ways’.
There was a great deal of this kind of thing at the lower and easier end of the repertoire, where eggs were always brown, the women always kind, and the earth always glad. But the poetry was meant to give pleasure and it was, after all, the last body of English poetry to be actually read, by ordinary people, for pleasure.
Her life was affected by family mental illness – a brother and a sister both died “insane”, and she and a surviving sister agreed not to marry in case they passed on madness – by caring for her elderly mother, by her lesbianism (mostly unacted on apart from a farcial and humilating episode with May Sinclair), by poverty and guilt. It is difficult not to think that her life would have been happier if she’d been born a hundred years later.
On the Asylum Road
Theirs is the house whose windows – every pane –
Are made of darkly stained or clouded glass:
Sometimes you come upon them in the lane,
The saddest crowd that you will ever pass.
But still we merry town or village folk
Throw to their scattered stare a kindly grin,
And think no shame to stop and crack a joke
With the incarnate wages of man’s sin.
None but ourselves in our long gallery we meet,
The moor-hen stepping from her reeds with dainty feet,
The hare-bell bowing on its stem,
Dance not with us; their pulses beat
To fainter music; nor do we to them
Make their life sweet.
The gayest crowd that they will ever pass
Are we to brother-shadows in the lane:
Our windows, too, are clouded glass
To them, yes, every pane.