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Under Storm's Wing
By Helen Thomas, MyFanwy Thomas
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 1988 Myfanwy Thomas
All rights reserved.
As It Was
I remember so well that very first meeting. We lived then in a little new villa in a row, in a new road quite near Wandsworth Common. The front room was the dining-room, and the piano was there; the back room at the end of the passage looking on to the tiny garden, which was kept full of flowers, was my father's study. This was lined with books, and in the middle of the room was his knee-hole writing-table. On the table were scattered papers, his tin of Three Castles cigarettes, and his small tumbler of weak whisky and water. As a child I used to marvel at the way he puffed the smoke out of his mouth after sipping whisky and water. He smoked and sipped all day, while he wrote with his thin, delicate hand in his small, thick writing, or lay on the sofa by the window reading the three-volume novels which he reviewed for part of his living. My father had a name as an essayist and critic among a small public, but he had to eke out his means with reviewing and journalism, and we had just moved from Liverpool to London so that he could be more in touch with literary affairs.
Our house was comfortable and pleasant and very cosy, with people always coming and going. My mother and father were both very sociable and hospitable, and, though there cannot have been much money, owing to my mother's wonderful management there was always everything we wanted, and the unexpected guests who often turned up were warmly welcomed. My father's study was the general sitting-room, and here all visitors were invited. Nothing disturbed my father at his work so much as to be left alone. Often when my mother thought we were getting too noisy for him, we would creep out unnoticed by him into the dining-room, but in a few minutes we would hear his strange halting step in the passage, and his voice asking why we had left him, and back we would all have to troop, to read aloud, play games, talk and laugh, while he wrote an essay or reviewed a book.
Our life was very happy, very social, very united. We were unconventional, though in no startling way — just informal and unselfconscious. A good deal of freedom of movement was allowed to us children, and freedom of speech and thought; and so far we had all pulled together, interested in new movements — 'well up in things', I think we should have said — mainly artistic and especially of course literary — and with wide views on religious and social questions. We all went to the Unitarian Church on Sunday, though neither of my parents belonged to this denomination, Father having been born and bred a Churchman, while Mother came of stout dissenting stock. But I expect they were drawn to the Unitarians by the semi-literary, semi-philosophical, nature of the sermons. We were poorer than most of the congregation, our income being very irregular our ways were not so bound by the conventions that seem to be set up by a regular flow of money. By the well-to-do of our type we should have been called Bohemians.
I think at this time we were all at home: that is, my eldest sister Irene; myself, seventeen and just left school; and my youngest sister, Mary, still at school. Both my sisters were clever, and had carried everything before them at school. I hated school, where my sisters' brilliance threw into sharp relief my own incapacity, and I had begged to leave and be at home with my father, whom I adored.
I remember that afternoon. We knew the strange boy was coming. Our Unitarian minister had asked my father to look at some of his work and see if it was any good, and Father had thought so highly of it that we had already nicknamed the boy 'The Genius'. Perhaps we had been told he was shy; anyway we left the study and went into the dining-room, and when he came he was shown straight in to Father, who was waiting for him. We girls were playing The Mikado on the piano and singing, and between whiles laughing and talking of the boy and wondering what he would be like, and I think feeling a slight, amused prejudice against him for being shy and serious and clever. Soon, when we thought Father had had enough of him to himself, we thought we should like to see him, but my two sisters drew back at the door; so I went in alone. I opened the door, feeling silly, and giggling, because of the rather extravagant things we had been saying about him; and just inside the door, standing by the bookshelves with an open book in his hand, he stood, so that I came upon him sooner than I had expected. This made me laugh the more, or feel inclined to laugh, had not his face, into which I looked, immediately changed my mood. My father introduced us and our eyes met — the boy's solemn grey eyes rather over-shadowed by drooping lids with long lashes. He did not smile, but looked very steadily at me and I at him as he took my hand with a very hard and long grip. I remember feeling pleasure in that first touch and thinking 'I like him; I like the way he shakes hands and the straight, intense look in his eyes.' After I came in, the talk lagged, my father doing his best to keep things going, but Edward was too shy and constrained by my presence to be able to talk. And soon he went, refusing to stay to tea to meet my sisters. I can't remember if he dwelt much in my thoughts after the first meeting, but I do remember that though I thought him shy and awkward and silent I liked him and wanted to see him again.
Edward was tall — just six feet — and slim, with a broad chest and shoulders, which he carried well — loose-limbed and athletic. He had a beautifully shaped head with a fine brow, and his thick fair hair, worn rather long, curled a little over his forehead and ears. His nose was long and straight, his mouth very sensitive, with the upper lip slightly overhanging the lower. The chin was strong. The eyes were grey and dreamy and meditative, but fearless and steady, and as if trying to pierce the truth itself. It was a most striking face, recalling a portrait of Shelley in its sensitive, melancholy beauty. His hands were large and powerful, and he could do anything with them from the roughest work to the most delicate: they symbolize for me his strength and tenderness. It is his hands even more than his beautiful face that remain in my vision when I think of him; I shall never forget them.
He came often, and always Father liked to have him alone, but shortly before he went I used to slip in and try to talk to him. I have no recollection of how we got on, but I think not very well, because his shyness made me shy.
My father helped him a great deal with advice about writing and reading, and with Father he got on well and talked well, whose genial kindness and interest slowly broke down Edward's reserve. My father became very fond of him and used to call him Phil, because his first name was Philip, and my parents had had a little boy called Philip who had died as a baby, and by a strange coincidence Edward's features and general colouring were very like this baby boy's, and I believe my father felt that this was his boy — the boy of his heart, loving the things he loved, and seeking self-expression in the same way that my father had sought it. My mother, on the other hand, grew to dislike him. She was jealous. She could find in this quiet, reserved, clever boy no point of contact, though as a rule she got on splendidly with boys, and preferred them to girls, and many came to the house, but none like this one. The boys she liked were jolly, frank, well-mannered, easy creatures, intelligent enough most of them, though hardly ever speaking seriously of things, but genial and cheery, and who found her a very congenial hostess.
At this time Edward talked exclusively of the books he was reading — buying when he could, or borrowing from my father — and my appearance in the study stopped all talk except what could be dragged out of him by questions. I do not want to give the impression that his manners were those of a hobbledehoy, for though he was very shy and reserved, he had a natural courtesy and distinction of manner, which, though perhaps stiff for a boy of his age, was always dignified.
His writing was devoted almost entirely to descriptions of nature, of clouds, sky, trees and landscapes, and I had read and liked very much some of his essays. My father got several of them accepted by a weekly paper of which he was then co-editor, and the Globe printed some, and Father was encouraging him all he could with appreciation and advice and help. This period is a little vague for me, for I was outside it and was conscious of no attraction towards him beyond the impression, still very distinct, made by that first surprisingly firm grip, and that straight look, which made me patient with his silence, his shyness and his awkwardness.
I had always had a strong yearning for the country. Our life had been spent in towns in the north of England, and owing to my father's invalidism we were not, as so many children are, taken out for long walks by our father, and our times in the country had been confined to our summer holidays in north Wales. But I loved the country, and Edward's knowledge of country things gave us a common interest and subject of conversation, so that slowly we got to easier — though even now not very easy — terms until one day my father said to Edward. 'Here's Helen dying for the country, and a good walker; why don't you take her, and show her some of the places you know?'
Before this happened we had moved to a much bigger and nicer house in a better neighbourhood. It had a very pretty garden, which had been part of an orchard, and had several fruit trees in it — one, a very beautiful old cherry tree, always lovely to look at, and full of fruit in the season. A forked branch made a comfortable seat, and I often sat up there reading, and I remember how Edward once found me, with bare feet and legs, eating cherries and reading, and his surprise and pleasure at finding me unembarrassed by his seeing me like that. The study in this house had french windows opening on to the garden, and so in summer time the garden became our general gathering-place, and the cherry tree's branches provided seats for several of the company. It was from this house that we set off for our first walk to Merton.
Merton was then a pretty rural place, with fields and lanes and footpaths and woods. We walked to it through a wilderness of mean streets, and I can't remember that we talked much. Now it was I who was shy, and conscious of my intellectual inferiority, and I tried to talk 'up' to him, and became more self-conscious and said stupid things. But it was on this first walk that I spoke of the picture of a titmouse in a natural history which Edward had showed me some time before. It was a coloured illustration, and I could not believe that the colours were natural, and that such a lovely bright bird was really a common English, even London, bird. My short sight and lack of observation made me ignorant of even the most commonly known facts of natural history, and this picture impressed me very much, and I told Edward as we went along how I had dreamt of a titmouse, only it was gigantic in size, and the colours of its plumage very, very vivid. He was delighted and amused at this, and this simple incident put us quite at ease with each other. We spoke of poetry, too, of Wordsworth particularly. I told him I didn't care for him because he was 'sentimental', which shocked Edward, and made me feel ashamed. Afterwards, when I got home, I read some of the poems he had spoken about, and from that talk my appreciation of poetry began.
I remember in that first walk how we scrambled about in a little roadside copse. It must have been winter or early spring, for the trees were bare, and Edward showed me many old nests, telling me the names of the birds which had made them, and pointing out to me their special characteristics. Later on he brought me as a present a most beautifully compact, moss-covered nest of a chaffinch, which I could hardly believe was the work of a bird, and all my wonder pleased and amused him in his grave way. In that copse were many burdocks, and I remember asking him to throw some of the burrs on to my skirt, so that I could prove to my people I had really been into the country.
I enjoyed that walk. It was an utterly new experience for me. Everything was new — the very exercise which I found so delightful was new; the country so near to home; my companion, the first boy I had ever been on such terms with. And all his knowledge of everything we saw, and all his intimacy — everything lifted me at once into a new world.
I was at this time about eighteen, and he nine months younger.
We came back to tea in the dusk of the evening, very happy together, and with very much of our former constraint worn away. But even now I felt he was 'The Genius' and I a very ordinary girl, as indeed I was.
After that he came and went, talking with my father, and more now with me, and accepted by my mother in a grudging way. In a little while we had arranged to go on another walk, and my father was delighted with the success of his idea.
This time we were to take the train to Barnes, and walk up Priory Lane and over Richmond Park to the heronry where once at night Edward had climbed to get a heron's egg. I remember the place, which was near a big lake, and the tall trees (were they Scotch pines, or elms?) in which the huge, untidy, insecure nests were built, looking more like rafts of twigs than nests. I, with my dizzy head, could not endure it when he — to show me his prowess, I expect — began to climb the straight tall trunk of one of them.
He told me of his fishing exploits, and of the big pike he had caught in the pond near by, for he was always a keen fisherman, and we spoke of Izaak Walton whom I had read. I learnt here the names of several wild flowers, especially the little low-growing kinds — tormentil was one: I have never forgotten it, and its tiny bright flower always brings me back to Richmond Park, and that day. He found me a good walker; I did not get tired, nor lag behind, but we stepped out eagerly and joyfully always.
Of these walks we took many, but only one other is clearly recalled to my memory. We went again to Merton, and talked of Shelley, whom we were both reading and both very full of. His life I knew very well, and he had for long been a hero of mine. It was his love of freedom, his hatred of injustice and tyranny that I chiefly responded to, I think, but also his spiritual beauty caught up my dawning perception of poetry. That day we talked of Shelley, and Edward had in his pocket a pretty little volume of selected lyrics — the flapping of a book in his jacket pocket as he strode along with his long sweeping stride is one of my earliest and latest memories of Edward — and we read 'Adonais' and the 'West Wind' and 'Love's Philosophy' and 'Epipsychidion' together.
Coming home from Merton, not yet having left the country roads, and in the sunset-flushed mist of an autumn afternoon, as we walked side by side, silent for the most part, but deeply conscious of happiness and friendship, he took my hand, and I, full of a new wonder and a new fear, and a new something — I could not tell what, let him walk thus. When we got home he would not come in to tea, but as we said good-bye at the gate he asked me to keep the Shelley for my own, and I took it, but did not want to, and yet could not tell why.
I was a plain girl, morbidly conscious of intellectual and physical deficiencies. I had often cried bitterly in the thought that no man could ever love me, and that my longing for children would never be satisfied. I had so persuaded myself of this that it never entered my mind as a possibility until that moment when Edward took my hand; and even then I did not consciously think of love; all I felt was an unrest, a fear, a thrill, perhaps also a hope.
I was very affectionate, and almost painfully grateful to people who showed me affection, but conscious of my own unworthiness and with a constant distrust of myself. I think this was partly due to the contrast to myself in my two sisters, one older and one younger. Both were clever and self-confident and admired. They both succeeded where I failed, and my mother constantly said to me when she was irritated by her ugly duckling, 'Why can't you be like your sister Mary?' and that remark made it more and more and more difficult for me to attain that ideal, and I shrank further into my shell of self-distrust.
I loved all children passionately, especially young babies. I loved to see a pregnant woman — I almost adored while I envied her. I desired love, but only, at any rate consciously, in an emotional or spiritual form, for I did not comprehend physical love, and the whole thing was very mysterious to me, and my mother had always refused to discuss the subject. I yearned vaguely for freedom, for something more than this quiet home life, where my mother's word was law. I had begun to have different tastes from the others. In dress, for instance, I took to what were then called Liberty dresses, very simple and plain in line, but of beautiful colours and ornamented with embroidery. The fashions then made this style of dress conspicuous, and my sisters laughed at it, but I was getting to the priggish stage, and I am sure I thought myself superior. I wanted less furniture in my bedroom, and more air, and I read Ruskin and Morris and became their disciple. Edward and I read Carlyle's French Revolution, and particularly Wilhelm Meister, which we loved, and which influenced us very much, me specially perhaps in my natural instinct for unreserve and freedom and frankness of speech.
Excerpted from Under Storm's Wing by Helen Thomas, MyFanwy Thomas. Copyright © 1988 Myfanwy Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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