Archive for August, 2014

Doreen Wallace (1897-1989), Writer and Social Campaigner (book #130)

17 August 2014

June Shepherd, 2000.

Wallace was one of the Somerville School of novelists. I can’t find much online about this group (most links are to lists of all novelists from Somerville, not this more specific group) but Shepherd says they comprise Vera Brittain, Muriel Jaeger, Margaret Kennedy, Holtby and Sayers as well as Wallace. They are discussed in Susan J Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists, which I would like to read.

Wallace wrote 48 novels, starting with A Little Learning in 1931 and ending with Landscape with Figures in 1976. I came across her through How to Grow Food, 1940, recently republished.

Sayers probably caricatured Wallace in Gaudy Night in the person of an old student, Catherine Freemantle / Bendick, who had been brilliant at university but then married a farmer, had children and sunk into domesticity: “a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart”. Wallace certainly felt this was a depiction of her and was angry about it. It seems odd though as Wallace was already publishing novels by this time – I guess Sayers must have seen this popular writing as of no account weighed against academia.

“It was some three years after her son’s birth [which was in 1927] when, in the later stages of her third pregnancy, Doreen sat down … to start the novel that had been in her mind for months. ‘I was too hefty to do much gardening or other physical work … [ellipsis in text] I felt that by now I had enough experience of life, though limited, and knowledge of country people, though limited, to have something more to say”.”

I like Wallace’s implication that she was “too hefty” to garden so might as well write.

Wallace was very involved in the 1930s Tithe Wars – these were protests by landowners in East Anglia and Kent against paying the church tithe. Again, there’s not much online, but see the summary of this paper, The Tithe War in Kent 1925-36: an Example of English Militant Agrarianism and this article about an East Anglian man’s memoirs, North Suffolk man’s autobiography recalls tithe wars and Mosley’s blackshirts. The Tithe Wars lost their importance when the Second World War started, but compulsory tithes were not ended until the 1970s. Wallace said that it was this issue that ended her friendship with Sayers, who as a vicar’s daughter and Christian was on the other side of the argument.

The biography includes some of Wallace’s poems as an appendix. I don’t think most of them are very good, though I quite like this one, the first verse anyway, for its focus on a mundane activity (and the suggestion of Marvell’s mower):

Cutting the Grass

He is cutting the grass, and it flies like spray
On following wind, in a brilliant bow
With light white bubbles bestarred, the day
Prisoned by trees in this narrow plot,
Bright, scented, hot,
Rings with the noise of the blades that mow
Their ribbony pathway to and fro.
Like bubbles of foam the daisies fly
Before the speed of his industry.

It is done: there lies the impeccable sward,
Silkily striped like a party-gown.
A crushed sweet silence creeps abroad
And night’s first veil comes down.
The cutter is being taken away,
A dwindling tune of jangles and jars:
But the myriad daisies, where are they
That were more and whiter than summer stars?

There’s also this one:


A valedictory whisper, high and rare,
The last note of a hidden violin,
Steals from another world discreetly in
And quietly flowers on the heated air.
Thin is the wall that sunders Here from There,
A membrane only of the mind, so thin
That I can watch the conversation spin
Its web about the room from chair to chair.

And still be drawn by that frail note away
To the unbounded world beyond the wall
Where I can see the littleness of day,
The timely grace of seasons at their fall,
Can see the light go down, the darkness climb,
And hear the cadence of the feet of Time.

As with the mowing one, she’s reaching for deepness in the second stanza, and I don’t think pulls it off. But some of the first verse is more successful, the amazement at the here-and-there-ness of the radio sound.

I want to scan in a picture of Wallace in a wonderful 1920s hat, but my printer won’t let me as it’s out of ink (even though I don’t need ink to scan), and as this is an inter-library loan book I’ll probably have to return it before getting more ink. I’ll photocopy the picture and scan it if it comes out at all usable.

Read since last post:

Jan at Island School, Ethel Talbot
The Case of the Gilded Fly, Edmund Crispin (re-read)
Private Scandals, Nora Roberts
Key of Light, NR (reread)
All Mortal Flesh, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Born in Ice, NR (re-read)
Blue Smoke, NR (re-read)
Falling Free, Lois McMaster Bujold (re-read)
One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming

Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain (book #129)

2 August 2014

Arthur Weigall, not dated but the Bodleian catalogue has it as 1927, and the inscription in my copy is also 1927. The book is online.

I’d not heard of Weigall before but he seems to have had a fascinating life: worked with Flinders Petrie, was concerned about the export of archaeological items from Egypt, wanted to support Egyptian involvement in archaeology. Is described as having some sort of breakdown and then becoming a set designer and novelist. I would like to read the biography by his grand-daughter. Would also like to read some of Weigall’s novels.

This book fits well with the books by Jessie Mothersole I’ve been reading. Weigall, who was a journalist, expresses more definite views than Mothersole about what we can or should infer about the British from archaeology. He says in the first chapter,

our school books have so incorrectly spread the belief that the English have no relation to the British, and we have been credited with a purely Germanic ancestry. Actually, however, we are a blend of the two races; and thus while our English ancestry takes us back only 1,500 years or so to the darkness of a rather stormy life in Denmark, Schleswig, and along the neighbouring German coast, our British blood, apart from the “Roman” strain, carries us right back into the four centuries of our connection with Rome, and thence back for at least another 1500 years of more or less civilized life in Britain, and links us at length with the men who built Stonehenge.
As descendants of the British we have at least 3,500 years of civilization in our own land behind us; but though our English history covers less than half that period it, too, presents, even in its early phases, a very creditable tale. The conditions of life in England in early Anglo-Saxon times were at any rate far superior to those in France under the contemporary Merovingians.
Thus, if my purpose is achieved, I shall put forward in these pages a picture of our forefathers’ history which, on the whole, will give us cause for much pride of race …

I love the idea that we should be looking for a creditable tale in archaeology. Here are some more of his thoughts on the British, with more slaps at foreigners:

In spite of wars and tumults, a remarkable and gradually increasing refinement of mind is to be observed in these early [Anglo-Saxon] ancestors of ours, contrasting them very favourably with their contemporaries on the Continent. …

Is it the influence of Britain, rather than that of any one strain in our blood, that has made our race the most orderly, the most magnanimous, and perhaps the most kindly in the world? Is there some quality in the land itself, some unchanging spirit of gentleness brooding over our countryside, which tames all men who come hither, whether they be Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, or Normans, and moulds them into one undying type? What is the nature of this miracle wrought by Britain time after time upon the minds of those various peoples who have come home-hunting to her shores, so that to call a man British is to denote his character? …

the Anglo-Saxons, the English as we now say, became a people different from their Germanic kin, gentler, more magnanimous, more kindly, more idealistic, yet of greater common-sense, more nearly approximating in certain ways to the Celt than to the Teuton …

[The Anglo-Saxons] generally displayed that same tendency towards domestic exclusiveness, privacy, and independence which has remained a national characteristic ever since, and which is now exemplified in the saying that an Englishman’s home is his castle. …

[In Bede] we may fully study the childhood of the English nation, and it may well be a matter of deep satisfaction to us that, thanks to this great old Englishman, our country is far ahead of any other in western Europe in the knowledge of its early history. Through Bede’s labours it may be said that the English race makes its appearance on the world’s stage in both a more vivid and a more reputable manner than does any other western nation; and at a bound, so to speak, we thus take our place in front of all other peoples. …

On the Continent it is proverbially said that “the English are defeated in every battle except the last.” Now this exaggerated but witty saying need cause us no offence, for it means simply that the steadiness of our nerves and our powers of endurance are deemed to be greater than those of other peoples, and that though at first we may receive a terrible gruelling, owing to our national dislike of the attitude of being prepared for war, we may be expected to survive the first shocks and to come out at last on top. …

Weigall is concerned to correct the “Dark Ages” stereotype, writing that “the story of Britain . . . maintains its detailed course through the Anglo-Saxon period, full of interesting and romantic matter, rich in recorded events, and never once falling back into the darkness and vacancy of an unchronicled epoch”.

He ends like this:

the crowds upon it [the road of British history], viewed in the mass, move forward in the same traditional spirit of goodwill, toleration, and compromise which are the historic characteristics of our age-old race. From incalculable distance, augmented by innumerable strains of type and breed, the British people come thronging along this immeasurable way, pressing forward towards the vision of the future, generation succeeding generation, moving from strength to strength, until the Past merges into the Present and we of to-day see ourselves inseparably part of the progression, part of old England, part of Britain that was, and is, and is to be.

Books read since last update

A Fountain Filled With Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Out of the Deep I Cry, Julia Spencer-Fleming
To Darkness and To Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Treachery in Death, J D Robb