Sunday, March 04, 2007

Obscure English Writers

It's difficult to go anywhere in England without encountering a memorial to some literary figure—a birthplace, a tomb, a church memorial, a house, the scene of some fiction. Westminster Abbey is full of tombs and memorials of some of the most famous, but many of these literary figures are obscure or entirely forgotten. In Warwick, for example, there was the birthplace of Walter Savage Landor, and in the Collegiate Church of St. Mary there was his bust, in a niche in a column along the south side of the nave. Under the bust was a copy of his most famous poem, the epigrammatic "Rose Aylmer:"

AH, what avails the sceptred race!
Ah, what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and sighs
I consecrate to thee.

The poem was written in memory of a young friend in Wales who died of cholera. Poor old Landor ended up, near the end of his long life, living with his dog in Bath, receiving literary visitors more famous than himself, and eventually being hounded out of town after he was accused of libelling a woman who had cheated him out of money. He's buried in Florence, and is generally forgotten.

The Dinah Craik Memorial in Tewkesbury Abbey (click to enlarge for more detail).

Likewise forgotten is Dinah Maria Mulock Craik (1826-1887), a memorial to whom I discovered in Tewkesbury Abbey. She was born in Shropshire, the daughter of a Dissenting clergyman, and became a writer of the kind of sentimental and moralistic novels that went over well with the Victorians. Her best-known novel is John Halifax, Gentleman (1857), which is set in a fictionalized Tewkesbury (the mill where part of the action is set is still there). An earlier novel, Olive (1850), is available now in an Oxford World Classics edition, dusted off because of its feminist subject matter (it's about a disabled woman in Victorian England who struggles to become an artist). Few people read Craik these days, but after her death a committee was set up to fund a memorial to her in Tewkesbury Abbey. The committee included Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold, John Everett Millais, and T.H. Huxley. If you click on the photograph, you may be able to make out part of the inscription: "A Tribute to Work of Noble Aim and to a Gracious Life." Beneath her portrait, it says, helpfully: "She Wrote John Halifax, Gentleman."

I'm a fan of obscure English women writers, especially those from the first half of the twentieth century whose novels have been published in the Virago Modern Classics series and, more recently, in Persephone Books editions. Recently, I read Barbara Comyns' Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, a lively novel with a harrowing and memorable description of childbirth in a London hospital, ca. 1940. Comyns was born not far from here, in Bidford-on-Avon, and wrote an eccentric book (full of intentional misspellings) about her eccentric childhood in Bidford, called Sisters By a River (Virago Modern Classics).

Total Lunar Eclipse
Saturday, March 3, 2007

We, along with many people in Britain, got a good look at last night's total lunar eclipse. The night sky was miraculously clear. This remarkable photograph comes from the Associated Press (click to enlarge).

No comments: