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Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition
By Marjorie G. Jones
NICOLAS-HAYS, INC.Copyright © 2008 Marjorie G. Jones
All rights reserved.
A Late Victorian Family
Thus it came about that I continued to escape regular education, and this almost accidentally. It was a marvellous good fortune such as can befall no child today.
Although her life spanned the greater part of the 20th century, Frances Yates seems more at home in the 19th. She was born in Portsmouth on 28 November 1899, the fourth child of James Alfred and Hannah Malpas Yates. Eleven years younger than her closest sibling, she was named Frances Amelia, after both her grandmothers.
The Yates family history illustrates the expansion—through hard work and education—of England's middle class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although they had no formal schooling, Frances' parents were both highly literate and recognized the importance of education. Frances' only brother was sent to boarding school and Oxford, while one of her sisters attended Cambridge and the other went on to art school after high school. Ironically, it was Frances, born on the fault line between the centuries and casually educated, who became a renowned scholar.
Although not wealthy, the Yateses were an established Victorian family by the time Frances was born, and the influence of those Victorian values on her worldview cannot be overestimated. Indeed, her life experience and scholarship fit well within a tradition of self-trained and independent Victorian women historians whose views of the past were not molded or constrained by formal academic training.
On the day Frances was born, her father noted in a small leather notebook that she "was a very fine baby with a nice head of hair." A month later, on the last day of the year, she was "taken out of doors for the first time, and everyone was very proud of her." In February 1900, in the presence of her parents and older siblings, she was christened at St. Ann's Church at H. M. Dockyard at Portsmouth, where her father was a naval engineer. According to him:
She was dressed in the ancient robe worn on similar occasions by Mamma, Nannie, Ruby, & Jimmy and was awake, was very good, and looked charming. She had a cake with her name upon it and she was presented with a silver spoon and fork by Uncle Jim [her godfather] ... After the christening baby was taken to be photographed. She is a strong fat infant in splendid condition. She has a good appetite and laughs and crys [sic] with equal effect. She is very impatient and shows considerable temper when her wants are not promptly attended to.
A few days later, she was vaccinated and turned "peevish," but "on the whole everything was very satisfactory." In March, "Mamma bought baby an India rubber swan her first toy."
Given the age of her parents when she was born (her father was 46; her mother 40) and the decade between her and her closest sibling, we can surmise that the birth of Frances was unplanned. Still, she was cherished. When she was not quite a year old, her father recorded that she had two lower teeth and "a very fine head of hair" and "is especially fond of going to dada but she is the idol of all."
Frances' father was the son of Amelia White and James Yates, a gunner with the Royal Navy. He began his own career as a naval apprentice in the dockyards in his teens and, by the time he retired in 1911, had risen to the position of Chief Constructor at the Portsmouth Dockyard, witnessing the transition from a navy of wooden ships and overseeing the accelerated construction of dreadnoughts in the decades leading to World War I.
Frances attributed the family's "educated middle class" social standing to her father's "untiring efforts" in the dockyards and his wish to "give his family the kind of advantages which he had not had." An avid reader, he had been "a penniless boy," but managed to provide his own children with foreign holidays and "plenty of books." Although Frances reported that she had "a most handsome dolls' perambulator," she "never had any pocket money and did not miss it. At Christmas a very small sum was provided out of which one bought Christmas presents with extreme care."
Christmas was a time for family plays. A handwritten program, preserved in the Warburg Archives, for A Farest Experience noted that it was performed by Mr. J. S. Yates, Miss H. Yates, and Miss R. Yates—and probably written by Nannie (Hannah), who eventually became a novelist. Frances recounted her only memory of these performances:
It was the only Christmas play in which I took part, as I was either not yet born or too young for the others, and Chatham was the last of the series. My brother as the hero was making an affecting speech and I was waiting in the wings, or rather on the stairs, to run in as his long-lost child. I failed to appear, and was found weeping outside, overcome by the pathos of the situation.
Nonetheless, despite family celebrations and annual holidays in France, Frances' childhood was isolated. Her sisters, Hannah and Ruby, were already in their teens and soon to leave home when she was born; her only brother, Jimmy, was eleven and away at school. She was schooled at home by her mother and, in the years leading up to World War I, her father was engaged in a demanding career and often away from home. Concerned about his absences, he wrote to his son in 1908:
I sometimes think that I am not sufficiently sympathetic with my family, and I know that the mere doing of one's duty is not sufficient to inspire affection. Your letter [written to acknowledge his birthday] was therefore very welcome & not only on my own account but because for such feelings there is a promise from God in the fifth commandment. I am always happy in remembering my father & mother when that commandment is read.
Morality and Romanticism
In her unfinished autobiography, Yates observed that her family did not "belong to the Cathedral set. Perhaps it was the dockyard influence, or perhaps it was something in the family temperament, but there seemed always a certain classlessness and isolation about our social position." She described it as "a world somewhat cut off from the outside world, yet also at the centre of history."
It is apparent that, despite his frequent absences, James Yates set a high moral tone for his family. A thoughtful man, with strong views on religion that appear to reflect the Oxford Movement and the thinking of Newman and Pusey, he wrote further to his son (in the letter cited above):
I have read the life of St. Thomas and like it very much. As you are aware I have much sympathy with the Roman Catholic Church. I believe with Benson that if we were all of one faith, religion would control the world as it did to a very large extent before the Reformation.
Yet he was not austere. Indeed, he displayed a romantic, poetic side when, a year earlier, he wrote to Jimmy:
... I am most anxious that you should enjoy to the full the pure pleasures of life which, in youth, are especially delightful—The pleasure of sweet sounds. The pleasure of fragrant odours. The pleasure of [illegible] of form and colour. And above all the pleasure of the feeling of existence in God's beautiful home. The world is indeed a delightful place to those who make up their minds to be delighted with it.
This typically sentimental expression of Victorian morality and overt romanticism influenced the worldview of each of his children and had far-reaching effects on the scholarship of his youngest daughter.
Self-made and self-educated, James Yates relished Shakespeare and shared his appreciation with Frances. He took great pride in the family relationship to Nellie Stewart, a well-known Australian actress and singer whose mother, Theodosia Yates, was his grandfather's sister. His grandmother was also a "minor actress," and an engraving of her as Lady Macbeth was kept on the mantelpiece of the dining room. In the last year of her life, Frances still recalled "the buried theatrical strain in father—how he used to hum to himself songs from operas—strain of sentiment, poetry, & passion, buried beneath the technical education of his strenuous career."
James frequently expressed his reflection and spirituality, which he instilled in each of his children, poetically. In 1881, he wrote on his twenty-eighth birthday:
A day of retrospections,
And vivid recollections;
A day to make one ponder on the action of the past.
A day brimful of gladness,
On which to banish sadness,
And treasure blissful moments
Which are ever fleeting fast.
A day of expectation,
And sanguine divination,
A day to see a future in which
Joy and peace shall last
My birthday – 12.4.81
On St. Valentine's Day 1884, when he had fallen in love with Hanna Eliza Malpas, he wrote to her:
My golden thoughts with diamonds shine.
To thee by Faith I came,
Hope soon was mine;
These ripened into love,
All, All, is thine;
So am I not thy Valentine.
James Yates was also a man of high principles. According to Frances, he did not take out a patent for a gunner's lamp used during the War that was invisible to the enemy because he believed the idea belonged to the government. She also recounted the story of an elaborate sugar cake sent to her by a private Glasgow shipbuilder hoping for government contracts. At her father's fierce insistence, it was returned.
Frequently, his wife and older daughters participated in the ceremonies celebrating the launchings of ships whose construction James oversaw. Clippings in a family scrapbook noted that, at the launch in 1895 of Her Majesty's new first-class battleship Prince George, the Duchess of York was presented with a bouquet by Miss Ruby Yates. "Suspended over the ship's bows was a bottle of wine ingeniously concealed in flowers, the work of Mrs. Yates, wife of the Chief Constructor." In 1899, at the launch of the battleship London by Lady Grace Hamilton, "Mr. Yates explained the mechanical nature of her duties" to Lady Grace and a bouquet was presented to her by "his youthful daughter, Miss Ruby Yates."
In 1902, James Yates was transferred to the Chatham Dockyard, where he continued to supervise the production of dreadnoughts. The family lived nearby in Rochester until their house in the dockyards was ready. "With the Rochester House," Frances wrote, "my memories begin."
When Frances was three, her father noted:
She is very bright and intelligent and takes a keen interest in everything going on. She has a very good memory and remarkably good powers of observation ... She is very practical and businesslike [and] knows where things are kept and where she puts her toys and books and is seldom at a loss in finding what is wanted.
There was, however, one problem. In October 1903, he wrote:
Frances has always been a very regular sleeper she goes off about seven and sleeps very well until about seven in the morning. She still sleeps with mamma and dada though she is beginning to make the bed seem very small.
The next spring, in April 1904, her father noted again:
Frances is still making rapid progress in every respect. She is very fond of a doll she has named Winifred and takes her to bed every night. She still sleeps with Mamma and Daddy but we must soon arrange for her to sleep elsewhere ... She is very good at relating incidents and telling stories putting words and sentences together very well indeed.
In November, it seems that sleeping arrangements were still an issue:
Frances is paying a visit to Portsmouth with Mamma and Nannie. The visit is partly to see Ruby who is a boarder at Miss Knight's and is at the high school again. Frances was very pleased to go; she is always ready for a little trip. She has been very troublesome lately going to bed. Someone has to be on the bed [her own?] with her and she does not go to sleep for hours sometimes. She is a very nervous child and someone has told her about burglars so perhaps that has something to do with it. She is a very active child and always ready to help in what is going on and as she is clever and sensible she can often render valuable assistance.
Later, Frances herself recalled these difficulties falling asleep in an old house:
There were great, empty attics with mysterious wooden lockers fitted to the walls. I preferred not to go up there after dark, and indeed a dockyard house with all its grandeur had a forbidding side. I had insomnia, which I never had in after life, and my longsuffering elder sisters would lie on the bed trying to induce me to sleep.
The next year, in December, as the family prepared to re-locate to Glasgow, her father recorded in his journal devoted to her progress that Frances was:
... much interested in gardening [a lifelong habit] and her little garden last summer contained one of almost every kind of plant and everything she planted seemed to flourish exceptionally. Frances has been sleeping with Nannie for some time but she comes in every morning to Mamma and partakes of tea. She is of an inquisitive form of mind & arranges in good time for her presents, and does not like parting with her property. She has particularly good judgment in selecting suitable presents for others. Mamma considers her a very industrious child and she promises to be clever with her needle as she has recently been filling in very nicely round a berlin wool pattern of cats.
Although she was not allowed to read it herself, because her mother "believed in keeping children back from reading too soon so that their active little brains should not be prematurely tired," it was in Rochester that Frances was given her first book, Alice in Wonderland, and it was here as well that she had her "first religious experience," which she recalled in the notes for her autobiography:
I was standing in the garden. It had rained; a rainbow shone out; and the story of Noah's Ark came into my mind, in a clear logical sequence which I remember absolutely distinctly. It says in the Bible that God put His bow in the sky: it has rained and there is the bow; therefore the Bible is true. Evidently I had already had Doubts. And evidently I have changed very little since the age of five, only acquiring a little more experience and learning, for those are the kind of thoughts which I always think and I suppose shall think to the end.
Even at an early age, Frances was "bothered by the Trinity and Eternity." She reported that "Ruby remembers me standing on the bed in my nightgown chanting 'For ever, and for ever, and for ever. Doesn't it make you feel tired?'"
When Jimmy went away to St. Bee's school in the Lake District and her sisters also left home for Girton and art school, young Frances was left at home alone with her mother. The daughter of George Alexander Malpas and Frances Hannah Lever Malpas, Hannah Malpas Yates also came from a dockyard family. Frances' maternal grandfather was a foreman at the Portsmouth dockyards where her mother later met and married James Yates. It is difficult to paint a picture of Hannah Malpas Yates because, apart from a few surviving photos and anecdotes, no written evidence of her remains in the family archives. As Frances once explained to a cousin, her mother "hated" writing letters, and since Frances spent her entire childhood and most of her adult life with her mother, the opportunities for letter-writing between them were limited.
Photos convey that, like her daughters, Hannah Yates was a handsome woman, although considered stern by some. In her novel Dim Star, Nannie Yates wrote of a household with "an iron routine which could not be broken and a complete incomprehension of any need to break it. Perfection demanded complete subservience from all within her realm." In another passage, the male protagonist considered "his mother's virtues":
His father had once told him that he had chosen his wife for her excellent ironing and her carefulness in keeping accounts. The woman, he thought, should take the burden of the house so that her husband after earning the living might be free to turn his mind to higher things ... Amos expected in time to enjoy the blessing that had rested on his father's house, the perfect bond of affection between husband, wife and children which was the revelation of God to him.
Since both of her published novels have obvious autobiographical characteristics, including the precocious and charming little girl in her first novel, Irene in the Centre, which is dedicated to Frances, it is not unlikely that Hannah was describing her own mother. In her teenage diary, Frances recorded that Hannah tried to persuade her to leave home for Oxford, prompting her to write: "I feel that it will be good for me in more ways than one to leave home. Mother has a very strong will & I fear that unless I go away & get a chance of looking after myself, I shall become too dependent."
Excerpted from Frances Yates and the Hermetic Tradition by Marjorie G. Jones. Copyright © 2008 Marjorie G. Jones. Excerpted by permission of NICOLAS-HAYS, INC..
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