Friday, 30 April 2021

On the Isle of Portland, with Thomas Hardy

When Lockdown lifted and travelling became possible, we escaped for a few days to a small island neither of us had visited before. This was the Isle of Portland, lying off the Dorset coast and attached to the mainland only by that great tombolo of shingle, Chesil Beach. I took with me Thomas Hardy’s last novel. I’m glad I did.


If you had asked me a month ago which of his novels Hardy had set partly in London but mainly on an island he described at different times as ‘the Isle of Slingers’, ‘this island of treeless rock’, ‘the oolitic isle’ and ‘the peninsula carved by time’, I’ll admit I wouldn’t have known. It’s The Well-Beloved and even now I’m not sure how it should be pronounced – ‘Beloved’ in two syllables, rhyming with that absurd modern euphemism for ‘secondhand’, pre-loved? or three, as in ‘Dearly Belov-ed’?


It’s a strange book. Originally serialised in the Illustrated London News in 1892 as The Pursuit of the Well-Beloved, Hardy revised and republished it as a single volume with its shorter title in 1897. At 150 pages it is hardly a full-length novel; more like a novella divided into three sections: ‘A Young Man of Twenty’, ‘A Young Man of Forty’ and ‘A Young Man of Sixty’. The young man is Jocelyn Pierston, a promising sculptor who pursues his image of ideal beauty and ideal womanhood from one woman to another. 


It’s a tale (on one level at least) of frustration and frequent disillusion. I found Pierston’s progress as voyeur, pursuer, predator even, makes uncomfortable reading, but the story is ostensibly presented by Hardy as a Victorian version of the Pygmalion myth, in which the sculptor is more in love with his own fantasy of an ideal woman than with its reality. The reality is represented by three generations of young women – mother, daughter and granddaughter – all called Avice Caro. Things don’t end happily for any of them, nor for Pierston himself. Between the sculptor and the third Avice there is an age difference of almost forty years. Hardy himself was thirty nine years older than his second wife, Florence Emily Dugdale.


Hardy knew the Isle of Portland well. History and topography matter in The Well-Beloved, as do landmarks and locations. Most of these are precisely situated and instantly recognizable. We were staying in an old quarryman’s cottage at the end of a lane that began by the Portland Museum, opposite the gatehouse to Pennsylvania Castle. Before this neat little house became a museum, it was previously known – on the strength of Hardy’s story – as Avice Caro’s Cottage. Beyond our Airbnb, the lane became a path winding under the arch of Rufus Castle, down to the coastal path and the steep steps leading to Church Ope Cove. This lane and these places, renamed Red King’s Castle and Hope Cove, loom large in The Well-Beloved. Even our holiday cottage gets a mention.


Upstairs I found a framed Indenture dating from 1802, transferring the freehold of the cottage between two brothers, Bernard and John Stone; the witness to this transfer, transacted ‘according to ancient custom time out of mind’ in the parish church, was Henry Pearce. Originally, in The Pursuit of The Well-Beloved, Hardy had spelt Jocelyn’s surname Pearston. 


Portland only gets one mention in Claire Tomalin’s 2007 biography, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. Hardy and Florence visited the Isle in 1923 and ‘had themselves driven to Portland Bill to visit a new friend, Marie Stopes, who had settled in a lighthouse tower there’. (p.350) I’m pleased Tomalin adds that Hardy’s host for the day found him ‘boyish and twinkling […] eager to climb to the top of her tower and out onto the roof to see the circular view.’ Hardy had a head for heights,* his novels containing several memorable and sometimes visionary descriptions of landscapes and places seen – and heard – as if from on high and afar. One night the ‘young man of forty’ goes out in pursuit of Avice and from the highest point of the Isle takes in 


…the stars above and around him, the lighthouse on duty at the distant point, the lightship winking from the sandbank, the combing of the pebble beach by the tide beneath, the church away south-westward, where the island fathers lay‡ [….] He seemed to hear on the upper wind the stones of the slingers whizzing past, and the voices of the invaders who annihilated them, and married their wives and daughters, and produced Avice as the ultimate flower of the combined stocks. (p.77)


Tradition has it that when the Romans first invaded the island, they were assailed by stones hurled from the slings of the natives. Even in the mid 19th century – Hardy’s story begins in the 1840s – those who came over to the island from mainland Wessex were considered ‘kimberlins’ (foreigners) who threatened the islanders’ ancient customs and practices. But Hardy, though a kimberlin himself, loved this island ‘standing out so far into mid-sea that touches of the Gulf Stream soften the air till February’. In his Preface to the 1912 Wessex edition of The Well-Beloved he confessed it was ‘a matter of surprise that the place has not been more frequently chosen as the retreat of artists and poets in search of inspiration (p.3).’


Pierston by contrast was an islander who had learned to sculpt by chipping away at fragments of

white stone picked up in his father’s quarry. However, his subsequent fame as an artist in London, his becoming a Royal Academician, counted for little with the quarrymen of Portland. Yet today sculpture here is something of a tourist attraction. One morning, we walked a narrow stretch of the Island’s clifftop coastal path in search of Tout Quarry, a maze of old workings now converted into a Sculpture Park. I wonder if Pierston, the disillusioned ‘young man of sixty’ abandoned by his art and his women, would have recognised himself in Antony Gormley’s image, chiselled out of a sheer rock face there, of a man Still Falling?


© Adrian Barlow


Quotations above are from the excellent Wordsworth edition of The Well-Beloved, edited by Jane Thomas (London: Wordsworth editions, 2000).


Illustrations: (i) The view in early evening towards Rufus Castle and the English Channel from the garden of our Airbnb cottage on the Isle of Portland.

(ii) Antony Gormley’s sculpture, Still Falling (1983), in the Tout Quarry Sculpture Park, Portland. Photographs © the author.



*I have written before about Hardy’s head for heights, in Thomas Hardy’s Bird’s Eye View.


 ‘the church away south westward, where the island fathers lay’: I am intrigued by these ten words: their fourteen syllables and unusual metre exactly anticipate the length and metre of some key lines (lines 3, 4 and 7) in Hardy’s poem ‘Beeny Cliff’, written after the death of his first wife Emma. Scanned as a line of verse, rhythmically this line divides into two equal halves, the second being the reverse of the first: di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di followed by dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum. Hardy had worked hard to achieve this effect because he had rewritten the second half, which in 1892 had appeared as ‘where the original Avice lay’. Compared with the resonant sound and significance of ‘the island fathers’, ‘the original Avice’ was crude and clumsy. 

To my mind, ‘Beeny Cliff’ is one of the most poignant of all the poems Hardy wrote in the immediate aftermath of Emma’s death, and I can’t help wondering whether the metrical virtuosity of the poem doesn’t owe something to this apparently random (but carefully revised) line buried in The Well-Beloved.

Hardy also wrote a poem entitled ‘The Well-Beloved’, set not on the Isle of Portland, but at Kingsbere (Bere Regis), the village in whose church lay the ancestors of Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

I have written elsewhere about Hardy’s fascination with time in his poetry: Short Measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy. 

Friday, 9 April 2021

Posthumus, alas! Where is thy head?

    Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume,
Labuntur anni nec pietas moram
    rugis et instanti senectae
                                                adferet indomitaeque morti.                                     
                                                             Horace, Odes, II. xiv

 ‘Alas, Posthumus, O Posthumus, the fugitive years hasten away and mere piety can delay neither wrinkles nor the onset of old age and indomitable death.’*

I must admit it wasn’t Anglican piety that drew me to Ely Cathedral on New Year’s Day, 2010, but the need to take some photographs for a series of lectures on Cambridge architecture I’d been asked to give to the Cambridge Green (formerly Blue) Badge Guides. I wanted pictures to demonstrate the links between the Bishop’s Palace at Ely and the Gatehouse of Jesus College, and between the Wren Library at Trinity and the north transept of the cathedral. I wanted, too, to re-photograph the interior of the second finest cathedral in England on a day when the clear winter sunlight made flashlight unnecessary.


It was very cold in the cathedral, and even the formidable Gurney stoves in the aisles could barely offer local warmth. These great ribbed cylinders, each surmounted by a Queen Victoria-style crown, must be terrific gas-guzzlers, but they used to be coal-fired. I have a clear memory of being in the cathedral on a bleak and gloomy winter afternoon many years ago and seeing an aged verger pushing a trolley laden with buckets of anthracite from one Gurney to the next. It was like a moment from an M R James ghost story – ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, perhaps, for which I suspect Ely was the setting. In the half-light, there was something sinister about the glow of the red-hot stoves. 


However long ago was that? I found myself murmuring a barely-remembered line of Horace: ‘Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume’. To my surprise, I could recall the exact date: 1st January 1975 - thirty five years ago to the very day. What’s more, I could remember exactly why I was there. I had been attending a course at Madingley Hall (my first) which ran from 28th December over the New Year until 2nd January. On the last afternoon, one of the students announced she was going to drive over to Ely Cathedral, which she had never visited before, and asked if anyone would like to join her. In those days I had no car and was only too happy for the chance to re-visit the first intact medieval cathedral I’d ever seen.


(Why say ‘intact’? Why ‘medieval’? Because I was born in Birmingham: so the first cathedral I ever entered was St Philip’s, a fine Georgian building, and the first medieval cathedral in which I set foot was the ruined shell of Coventry. Then, when I was six, we moved from the Midlands to the Fens, and Ely in those pre-Beeching days was just a short train journey from Wisbech.)


The Madingley course was on Shakespeare’s late plays. It was run by John Andrew and Leo Salingar, and one of the guest lecturers was Richard Luckett, then a junior fellow at St Catharine’s College but for many years afterwards the Pepys Librarian at Magdalene. He and I had been at the same school (St.John’s, Leatherhead) and in the same house. I reintroduced myself to him after his lecture and we kept in touch until we each had left Cambridge . Richard was a remarkable person,  one of those people one may not have  known well but whom one is grateful to have known at all.  

We were only a small group - not more than fifteen or so. Several of us were young teachers, but one student was the then recently retired Agnes Latham, shortly to publish her Arden Shakespeare As You Like ItFor me it was a memorable course in every way. I would not have spent the most rewarding years of my career teaching in Cambridge for the University’s Institute of Continuing Education, if I hadn’t spent those six days at Madingley. And I remember the exhilaration of the classes, held in the Hickson Room. Leo Salingar, the distinguished scholar of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, was developing his theory that Shakespeare’s profoundest insights were found in the comedies, not the tragedies. His book Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy  had just appeared in print and contained chapters elaborating the ideas he teased out with us on that course. 

He and John Andrew sparred cheerfully, Leo defending Cymbeline against John’s tongue-in-cheek charge that the play was almost unactable and all but unreadable. “Why should Shakespeare have sent poor Imogen all the way to Milford Haven, for goodness sake?” asked John. Leo, of course, had the answer. “Is there any scene in Shakespeare more absurd,” demanded John, “than the moment when the hapless Imogen wakes from her drugged sleep to discover a headless corpse beside her, which she promptly mistakes for her beloved Posthumus?” (It actually belongs to the treacherous Cloten.) “It doesn’t have to be absurd,” argued Leo: “act it and see.”


And we did. On New Year’s Eve, in the Saloon, we rehearsed and then acted scenes from the late plays. Anne, a drama teacher from Solihull, gave a performance as Imogen which won great applause, and no one laughed when she reached the lines:


O Posthumus, alas,

                        Where is thy head? Where’s that? (IV.ii.320-1)


People said Susan Fleetwood, playing Imogen that year for the RSC, could not have done better. My performance too was praised. I was the headless corpse.


Adrian Barlow



Illustrations: (i) Ely Cathedral, seen from the south east; (ii) Madingley Hall, home of the Institute of Continuing Education, University of Cambridge, Photos   © the author


*Translator’s notes: (i) I don’t believe in literal translation of poetry. Here I have picked up William Cowper’s echo of Horace in ‘The Poplar-Field’: ‘My fugitive years are all hasting away’. (ii) pietas of course means devotion to one’s friends, family, ancestors and country – as in ‘filial piety’ – rather than religious observance and behaviour.


Richard Luckett (1945-2020): summed up by The Times in its obituary of him (19.12. 20) as an ‘unworldly and whimsical Cambridge don, polymath and Pepys Librarian [….] One of the fabled dons of his time, Richard Luckett came to embody Magdalene College, Cambridge. His fund of recondite knowledge was a continual source of comedy and delight to all who knew him, but it also enabled him to enhance the fabric and collections of the college, its music, its reputation, and the scholarly endeavours of others in many disciplines.’


Monday, 5 April 2021

On unreliable memoirs

‘Never underestimate titles.” This was a mantra I repeated to students, young and old, many times throughout my teaching career. I used it particularly when talking about poetry, but it’s not the titles of poems alone that deserve our attention, and I’m intrigued by a new book by Marina Warner, reviewed recently in the Times Literary Supplement, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An unreliable memoir. Both title and subtitle invite comment. 

In non-literary contexts, of course, the word inventory can suggest a long list of contents, often laboriously compiled. Whose heart has not sunk on arriving at a holiday cottage to find  an inventory of all the knives, forks and teaspoons, together with a warning about forfeiture of deposit if a single spoon is subsequently found to be missing? One prefers to be trusted.


So it’s a surprise to come across Marina Warner adding the subtitle ‘An unreliable memoir’ to warn readers that she herself is, well, not to be taken literally at least. The TLS reviewer, Ann Kennedy Smith, reminds us that ‘Warner’s books include novels and short stories as well as studies of female myths, iconography and fairy tales’. These suggest a preoccupation, not with the historical as such, but rather with the enduring and dangerous potency of myths. I remember that Warner’s 1994 Reith Lectures, Managing Monsters, were as challenging as they were entertaining: beginning with the myth of the She-Monster, she went on to examine the threads linking ancient heroic myths with modern male machismo. In the last lecture she dissected modern myths of national identity (‘Home: Our Famous Island Story’); post-Brexit, her words spoken then should surely haunt us now.


I like literary reviews to give me a clear sense of what a book is about, how it is shaped and what are its strengths and weaknesses. Whether or not I shall go on to read the books being discussed – and, of course, most of them I won’t – I want to finish reading a review feeling glad to know more about a book, a subject, an author than I did before. Ann Kennedy Smith makes clear her enjoyment of Warner’s ‘imaginative retellings’ and in a single sentence both points to a key theme of Inventory of a Life Mislaid and describes how the book works:


This is a wonderfully rich, partly mythical memoir that sifts through the past to connect a family’s secrets to the deep-rooted colonial assumptions that still resonate in a post-Brexit Britain.


‘Sifting through the past’; it’s from her excavation and selection of events, photographs, objects and memories that Marina Warner has reconstructed the story of her parents’ unlikely marriage. In doing so she has set out to reclaim for her mother, Ilia, the identity she buried when, as a young and penniless Italian wartime bride, she married a much older ex-Etonian army officer with a colonial self-assurance quite unadapted to the post-war era of Imperial retreat. From the TLS review, one learns that Marina Warner’s book ‘unfurls at an unhurried pace, and embedded in the text are lengthy digressions, some previously published as essays in the London Review of Books’. This sounds a cautionary note, but one partly muted by the reviewer’s concession that, ‘If occasionally these asides slow down the narrative pace, they are never dull.’


A memoir, strictly speaking, is history and/or biography written from personal experience. There must always be a subjective element to such a book, sometimes explicitly defined by its title –Winston Churchill as I Knew Him (1966), for example, published a year after Churchill’s death by his long-standing friend, Violet Bonham-Carter. You wouldn’t expect a memoir often described as ‘an affectionate portrait’ to be as objective as an historical biography. 


But memoirs should be distinguished by something more than subjectivity.  The author Alison Light, whose book A Radical Romance: A memoir of love, grief and consolation, won the 2020 PEN Ackerley award for literary autobiography, just recently reflected on the experience of writing memoir. It gave her, she says,


…room to reflect on earlier selves and on the on-going illusion of being a self. Memoir is often closer to reveries and dream, evoking the lyrical rhythms of poetry rather than prose. As it moves through different kinds of time and ‘times out of time’ – falling in love, illness, mourning – narrative or plot gives way to images and scenes. I had the sense of halting, even defeating, time.


This account surely gestures towards a kind of poetics of memoir writing, marking out a territory quite different from the characteristically linear landscape of history. It suggests to me that if a memoir is ‘unreliable’, this isn’t because it is untruthful or inaccurate but because its ambitions and literary resources are essentially different.


I can think of some eminent historians who would have no truck with my tentative distinction, but one historian who articulated something similar, based on his own experience of writing both history and memoir, was Richard Cobb (1917-1996). After a distinguished career largely centred on the French Revolution, he began in later life to publish a number of memoirs. Introducing A Classical Education (1985) he admitted:


This is a very personal account, written from my own memories, such as they are, and often embellished by my own imagination. I have not aimed at absolute accuracy, being more concerned with readability; this is not a historical narrative, and I am not always sure at what stages fictional inventiveness takes over from the chronicle of memory.


Such honesty is disarming – reassuring, too, for anyone who (like me) has spent time during this past year of lockdowns trying to put onto paper memories and impressions of their own life. Truth is, we are all unreliable narrators and might as well admit it at the outset. Let Jane Austen, writing in Emma:, have the last word: ‘Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.’



Adrian Barlow



Marina Warner, Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An unreliable memoir, (2021)

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘Planted in Foreign Soil’ (review), Times Literary Supplement (26 March, 2021), p.20

Alison Light, ‘A Radical Romance’ (discussion of her memoir A Radical Romance: A memoir of love, grief and consolation (2019) in 9 West Road, University of Cambridge Faculty of English alumni magazine (March 2021) p.16