THE JOHN MEADE FALKNER SOCIETY
Founded 8th May 1999
NEWSLETTER No. 29
3rd January 2009
Most of you will find the usual subscription renewal form with this Newsletter. Please return as soon as possible , as I hate sending out reminders. If there is no renewal form enclosed it means you are paid up for at least 2009. I have held the sub at £5.00 yet again - the ninth year running. Early warning, though - it may have to go up in 2010, purely because of ever increasing postal charges. However, thanks to some members also giving small ‘donations', we may celebrate a tenth consecutive “no change”.
DATE FOR YOUR DIARIES:
The Society's Third get-together will be held in Durham on Saturday 16th May . I am still working on the programme, but it will include talks by Kenneth Warren, Christopher Hawtree and myself, visits to the Cathedral Library [+ a look at their JMF holdings] and JMF's lodgings and home ‘The Divinity House'. I do hope as many of you as possible will come. Anyone interested, please contact me as soon as possible . I will be sending out further details in the New Year to those who express an interest.
“QUIETLY, STEALTHILY MAD”
Another perspective upon Chesil Beach
Although J. B. Priestley's survey of England's industrial quarters in the autumn of 1933 yielded the well-known English Journey , his other forays around the country languish in periodicals or sometimes surface in collections which he made from them. Among these highly readable volumes is The Balconinny (1929). This concludes with “Out of It” which had appeared on April 6th that year in the Saturday Review (such was his output that the previous day he had reviewed several biographies for the Evening News and the next day found him deliberating upon Dublin for the Sunday Dispatch). With “Out of It”, however, he seeks retreat from the fray, and again reminds us that Ian McEwan does not have a monopoly upon Chesil Beach.
Priestley remarks that it is a beautiful village. “But where are the rosy-cheeked and clear-eyed villagers in this island of ours? Have they vanished with the smock? The women we saw in those delightful doorways were nearly all dark slatterns who would have looked at home in the nearest city slums. They have greasy locks and long sallow faces. Their appearance suggested gin and fried fish. And the children like apples, where were they?” He did not linger, the village was not his concern; he walked from it along the road which narrowed and climbed, to become a form of terrace beneath a sunshine which struggled through light mist while undergrowth was burnt somewhere on the hill. “We saw the flames leap up, higher and higher. Oh, if it would only burn the whole hill, go roaring to the sky! We waited wistfully for some vast conflagration, the incendiary or salamander that lives on in the hearts of all of us, gleeful at the sight of every new writhing tassel of flame and sulky at once whenever the orange tongues dwindled and finally disappeared in clouds of smoke.”
Anybody asked to name the author of that passage might reasonably suggest Falkner, Forster or Virginia Woolf. Although Priestley has a reputation as a plain-prose merchant, he was in fact adroit in evoking a scene and drawing upon those raw sensations within the human sensibility. Meanwhile, along the road, he points to something little noticed but could have had an equal effect upon young Falkner. “A turn of the road brought us into Roman Italy. That is really the most delightful thing about England. You never know - could never guess - what is waiting for you round the corner. Eccentric aristocrats have worked their wills on this island for centuries, with the result that anything may happen in it. Some time during the eighteenth century, the local lord of the manor here paid a visit to Italy, returning with a head humming with ecologues and Virgilian tags and plans for improving the estate. Thus we walked into Roman Italy. But first we rested on it; that is, we found a carved stone seat at the side of the road, antique Italy in every line and crevice of it, and sat there in the vague trembling sunlight. After that, for the next half mile or so, England disappeared. We moved in a tiny world of sharp light and shadow, of grave dark beauty, of fine lines and harsh surfaces. Virgil himself could have paced that ilex-bordered avenue at ease, waiting for the magic of his thunder and tears.”
Such simple sights as a cow and boat become of a piece with a walk towards a shore the perspective of which suggested that “something was wrong or everything was going quietly, stealthily, mad”. They are alone with “this creaming line of water, sucking away at the pebbles” while nearby a bird “was dressed like an old shabby clerk, in black that had a green sheen on it”; it departed, into the water, and they were left to themselves, and Priestley found that “when you lie down at full length and see them close, those pebbles are enchanting. They have every colour and every combination of colours, and you can spend hours and hours collecting black ones with red stripes or cream ones banded with brown, and all you have to do, to bring up a fresh assortment, is to sweep your hand across the top and then begin collecting again. Ali Baba in his cave had no richer profusion of stones. The sun scattered the last shreds of mist and smote the south ridge of the bank so strongly that you could see the shimmer of heat above the pebbles. The whole land disappeared, but sent a singing lark to remind us it was still there somewhere. Ours was a world of sun, air, water, pebbles, and this mad trilling in the blue. Nobody came. Nothing happened. For a few hours we were out of it, gloriously out of it, living richly on a current account in Chesil Beach”. That spirit is a far cry from the end of Moonfleet, where those waves that “had lost their dirty yellow colour when the light died, and were rolling after us like great black mountains, with a combing white top that seemed as if they must overwhelm us every minute”.
As did Michael Powell, Priestley catches with equal skill another moment in that hauntingly eternal beach, and we can be sure that Falkner could have appreciated the piece - although one might wonder at what he would have made of the following week's (uncollected) instalment in the series, the outlandishly titled, “Nottingham: a City of Pretty Girls”.
A MINSTRELSY CONUNDRUM
Amongst the JMF-Rendel letters stored in the Newcastle Discovery Museum's archives there are the remnants of a letter marked by an archivist as ‘ about November 1901' . Each of its pages is headed confidential and JMF writes at the very end of the letter: ‘ Many thanks for your letter which I will destroy as I beg you will destroy this.'
It seems Rendel obeyed the request only in part, for of the four pages of the original letter just the first is missing. But this means the exact date of the letter and the location in which it was written remain speculative. On the final page of the letter there is an evocative passage:
‘I believe this to be the most beautiful spot in England - of coast towns I mean. And a dozen times since I came here (and before I got your letter) I ask ‘if only Lord Rendel were here!' You would have found a blue sky and a blue sea not inferior to Cannes, and an eternal haze hanging on the downs. It is out of the way - there is more recorded sunshine than in any place in England. There are level walks and walks always dry. There are no negro minstrels, there are old brick houses and an air of calm old-world placidity about the place that I always think would suit you and bring you rest. You must have known it well in earlier life - but then earlier life does like metaphysical negro minstrelsy , and does not always realise the charms of quietude.'
The inclusion of - ‘ Many thanks for your kindness in asking my wife and me to come to visit you in Brighton' - gives a suggestion that the letter was written at JMF's ‘bolt-hole' at 5, Brunswick Terrace, Weymouth. But perhaps a larger question mark hangs over the interpretation of the references to negro minstrels and negro minstrelsy .
Professor Richard Taylor, whose welcome article ‘ John Meade Falkner and Thomas Hardy' featured in the 2007 Journal, offers this interpretation of ‘the minstrelsy conundrum':
My feeling is that Falkner is referring to one of the popular forms of seaside resort entertainments in the nineteenth century, the negro minstrel acts, often to be found on piers and at seaside theatres. I think he is lauding to Rendel the superiority of, presumably, Weymouth over other seaside resorts - ‘ the most beautiful spot in England - of coast towns I mean' - and one of the qualities that he invokes in this cause, as well as the blue sky, blue sea and sunshine, is the absence of vulgar and noisy entertainments. The negro minstrel acts were lively, noisy and boisterous; they were a kind of jolly seaside musical act, they lifted the spirits of the stereotypical seaside holiday makers and they remained very popular into the Edwardian era. But they were hardly the sort of thing likely to ‘ bring you rest,' and here in Weymouth he appears to be saying, by contrast with the typical resort, ‘There are no negro minstrels,' but, instead, ‘old brick houses and an air of calm old-world placidity about the place.' Weymouth, he seems to be implying, is a superior kind of coastal town, where placidity and peace are able to prevail in the absence of such distractions as negro minstrels.
In the next paragraph, I'm not sure whether Falkner means that Lord Rendel must have known Weymouth or just the qualities of old-world calm and placidity when he was younger, but when he adds ‘ but then earlier life does like metaphysical negro minstrelsy, and does not always realise the charms of quietude' . I would infer that he means that, however, he does realise that the young like things that are lively, noisy and boisterous (since he has been referring to the kind of noisy distractions represented by negro minstrelsy, he uses negro minstrelsy as a metaphor for this), because they have not yet learned to appreciate ‘ the charms of quietude.' ‘ Metaphysical,' as with the Metaphysical Poets, is to do with relations between the spirits and the senses, the visionary and the real. He is, I think, using such loud entertainments as negro minstrels provide as a broader image of all things loud and lively (like pop music today) that are most appreciated by the young, who like being loud and lively themselves, and don't always appreciate the value of peace and quiet, in fact often finding places that are peaceful very boring. He seems to be saying light-heartedly that Lord Rendel was probably no different himself when he was young, while saying that he is sure Rendel would appreciate Weymouth's peaceful old-world charm and calm now.
George Robson and Professor Richard Taylor
ELIZABETH FALKNER died on 4 September 2007. She was the youngest child of Charles Gaskell Falkner (1864-1932), the younger brother of JMF. She was born in 1918 and was unmarried, thus being the last of the immediate family to bear the Falkner name. She was an Honorary member of this Society. I am grateful to Elizabeth's niece, Celia Grover (née Falkner), for letting me know about her aunt's passing. Celia herself is a very supportive member of the Society.
MAYFIELD HALL, DERBYSHIRE
In our Journal No. 5 (July 2004), Peter Davey wrote of a possible real life inspiration for Royston, the Temples' home in Derbyshire ( The Lost Stradivarius ). He argued that Mayfield Hall, quite near Ashbourne, and home of the Talbot Greaves family, could fit the bill. Well, it is for sale, at a mere snip, for £2,200,000 . The Sale Brochure proclaims: A much improved Grade II Listed Georgian Hall providing substantial accommodation, extensive outbuildings with planning consent for conversion into holiday lets, landscaped gardens, orchard and paddock land. Extending to approx. 2.3ha (5.68 acres). Ashbourne - 3 miles, Derby - 15 miles. No mention of ghosts!
THANKS are due to Giselle Panero and George Robson , for sending me some excellent photographs relating to JMF places: Carisbrooke Castle, Durham Cathedral, The Divinity House, Jesmond Dene House, Deepdene House, to name but a few. A project I have had in mind for some years is to produce an illustrated Gazetteer of places and buildings associated with JMF. Watch this space! Also to Ian Jackson for sending me information about a Benjamin Jordane (actually the invention of Jean-Benoît Puech), who amongst other “drames et mélodrames pour son théâtre de table” adapted Moonfleet “sous le titre Le Maître de Moonfleet ”.
Best wishes for 2009
Greenmantle, Main Street, Kings Newton, Melbourne
Derbyshire. DE73 8BX