Today, a century back, Eleanor Farjeon traveled from London to High Beech to spend part of Edward Thomas‘s leave with him and his family. It’s not officially a “last leave,” but it’s significant nonetheless: his commission has come through and assignment to an active battery will not be far behind.
But Farjeon’s day was marked less by her arrival at her beloved friend’s cottage in the woods than by an ogre she met on the journey. Farjeon is both a very good storyteller (this will shortly be obvious) and a woman of great self-possession. She tells the tale evenly enough, and would have us forgive the wounded their trespasses… but it’s hard not to read this with a shudder, for a horrible thing is narrowly averted. While this sort of trauma might suddenly befall anyone–and Farjeon argues that it is made all the more likely by the pain and disruption of the war–it is also undeniably a threat that only a woman, traveling alone, must face.
I spent the last week-end in November at High Beech. The journey from Liverpool Street was marked by a small adventure. I caught a non-corridor train which stopped once near London, and then ran without another stop to Loughton. There was the usual bustle of soldiers, but the station was not very crowded. I found an empty carriage, put my knapsack on the rack over the far comer seat away from the platform, and settled myself. A pretty young mother and her little girl got in; the child took a window-seat near the platform, and the mother sat beside her. At the last moment a small party of soldiers hustled by, glanced in, and hurried on; but just as the train began to move, one of them rushed back, flung open the door, and fell into the corner opposite the little girl. He grinned affably at his vis-à-vis, then at the pretty mother, and the train pulled out.
It was soon obvious that he wanted conversation. He was a big Australian, who should have been husky, but looked, in fact, gaunt and ill. The mother was pleasant but reserved, and changing his tactics, he began to talk to the child—or rather, through the child to the embarrassed mother. He was oncoming but not in the least offensive. The child answered him bashfully; the mother smiled but said as little as possible; and when the train made its single stop she said, ‘Good day—we get out here’. He helped her with her suitcase, lifted the child down, and the pair disappeared from sight; into, I felt sure, another compartment. The soldier blocked the window until the train drew out. As soon as it was well away, he walked over to my end of the carriage, and said, ‘Gurl! there’s sumpin’
I been wantin’ to do ever since I got in. D’you mind?’
I said I didn’t and hoped I wouldn’t. To my relief he tugged a flask out of his hip pocket and gulped down a big swig of whisky. Then he offered the flask to me. ‘Have one?’
‘No, thank you,’ I said amiably, ‘I don’t drink it.’
He put the flask back, sat down opposite me, leaned forward, and said very earnestly, ‘Gurl!’ (He slapped my knee with the back of his hand.) ‘Gurl—I don’t want you to think us Aussies is all larrikins. You won’t, now, will you, gurl?’
I promised him, as earnestly, that I would not, and asked him what part of Australia he came from. Sydney, he said. What had he done there before the war? He had worked in the sewers. I played my strong card with larrikins from Downunder, and told him that though I had never been to his country my father had emigrated there in the 1850s, following the gold-rush from camp to camp, and having adventures without number. I did not have to invent the adventures, either; my father’s stories were extremely exciting, and enlisted the soldier’s interest. By the time I’d exhausted them a third of the journey was done, and we were practically larrikins together. Every now and then he took another swig. I kept it all very pally. Where was he going? To the station beyond Loughton, to say goodbye to the nuns in a hospital there. He had been sent back to Blighty with his inside torn out. He described his dreadful wound fully, and spoke with tears in his eyes of his nurses. He was returning to Sydney next week, and he couldn’t go without saying goodbye to those good women. He was taking them presents.
His ghastly pallor was explained. I felt great sympathy for him, and rather liked him, but I wished he wouldn’t swig his flask quite so often.
So the man is good, she believes–it’s only the war wound and the whiskey…
I asked about his family—had he any? Yes, a wife and two or three kids. ‘I’ll show you, gurl.’ He pulled out a bursting pocket-book, and littered the seat beside him with snapshots and letters till he found what he wanted. I admired the children and asked their names. He had something else important I must see. He strewed the heterogeneous contents of his kitbag over the carriage: things he was taking home for trophies and souvenirs, loot, documents official and private, pitiful mementoes of an experience that would sear him when they were faded—ah! here at last was the bit of shell they’d dug out of his guts, other bits that he had picked up in the trenches, for his friends—‘would you like a bit, gurl?’ I spun out my questions. He wanted to shift the key, took another swig, was a little baffled, and began to fumble with his bag, looking morosely at his scattered junk. After one or two attempts to stow it back, he gave up.
‘Awl’ He flung the bag into my lap, waving a large hand over the muddle on the seats. ‘Purr ’em away, purr ’em away.’ He emptied his flask.
I made the job last as long as I could. He watched me. There was still one station to go. At last everything was somehow stowed back in the bag. I gave him the pocket-book filled with his poor home life, and knew that the final swig had effected the change, that my larrikin’s confused vision mistook me at last for a woman, no longer for the mate who had dug gold and ranged the Bush with him, and worked in the sewers of Sydney.
‘Gurl! I tell you what.’ He leaned forward from his comer and pinned my knees with his. ‘You goin’ to Loughton, I go
on to the next—tomorrow you walk halfway an’ I walk halfway, an’ we’ll meet.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t. I ’m staying outside Loughton, with a friend who’s soon going to France. I’m sure you’ll see that I
can’t take time off on a short visit.’
He wanted to get angry, but didn’t know how to yet. ‘Well then, gurl, give me a kiss before we part.’
‘No,’ I smiled. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What, not one kiss from them ruby lips?’
Now he did begin to get ugly. ‘GrrrI’ he growled, ‘I could get better kisses than yours from the gurls in France.’
‘I’m sure you could,’ I agreed. ‘Do you want to go back?’
He growled again. The time for words was over. He had my hands firmly, and the rest of me hemmed in the comer. I knew I mustn’t make any movement of escape, but I wasn’t frightened, and that baffled him too.
The train slowed up. Porters’ voices called Loughton.
‘My station!’ I glanced out of the window. ‘There’s my friend. Would you help me down with my knapsack?’ Drunk as he was, old custom was too strong for him. A train on the run was one thing, but no larrikin could keep a gurl pinned in her seat with the train at rest. He stood up and heaved down my knapsack sulkily. I shook his hand, and said ‘Good luck!’ Then I jumped down from the carriage and ran to meet Edward, who really was coming along the platform in his officer’s tunic. I suppose I was panting a little, for he glanced inquiringly as he took my knapsack from me.
Farjeon’s writing is frank and pleasant–always ready with a smile, whether it is children whose worried minds she is putting at ease, or otherwise.
But she’s always very canny, as good children’s authors must be. Is this just a story, an event of general interest? No such thing. So is it a frightening near-trauma which our heroine avoids through her steely resolve and clever handling of a drunk potential aggressor? Yes, but retrospective dwelling on her own skill and courage is only an entertainment–a side-note that Farjeon tosses off with careless brio.
Which is, I think, also a wink, a challenge to us to recognize that there is more than one way to lapse into wartime solipsism and utterly fail to respect the woman who is right in front of you–whether you have stopped mistaking her for a fellow-digging mate or not.
Edward Thomas is a poet–very nearly a great poet–and that means that he notices things on a level of intensity unavailable to most of us. Things in his own mind, the landscape, mostly–but even here, absorbed, he notices that something has happened to his friend. His glance poses a question, which Eleanor Farjeon answers:
‘Nothing much, it’s all right.’ My larrikin had disappeared from the window. Poor man with his guts torn out because of this war. Who could blame anyone for anything? I didn’t want to talk about him, and Edward asked no questions.
Friendship restrained by delicacy? Perhaps, but really I think this is the wry smile that comes with the wink. Of course she didn’t want to talk about having narrowly avoided sexual assault on a train, but a sensitive friend might push, might pry, might find out, might offer support… This is, I think, a parable on the limitations of friendship. Or the limitations of men, especially when their mind has been absorbed–or their guts torn up–by war.
We talked of other things on the long walk to the new home, a very dull walk through Loughton to begin with, but the last half was good, uphill through the spreading trees, now almost bare. Yes, the Forest was good, but the house itself was bad; it was dismal and poorly-planned…
Edward was restless, his centre had shifted, his military quarters had more meaning for him than this unfamiliar rather ramshackle dwelling. The move had left all sorts of jobs to be attended to; he was busy with them as he would have been at Steep, with his thoughts on the little study up the hill. But now, while he chopped a woodstack for his family against the winter, we all knew that he would not burn it with them, and while he busied himself his mind was on France.
Returning then, as we must, to the subject of Edward Thomas, I’m sure we’re not surprised by any of this. He has generally been the sort of man who is happier with friends–or alone–than with his family. And this is a troubled time. But his demons go deeper than mere war-tinged grumpiness.
His mood was a little perverse… Somehow or other Tristram Shandy came into it. Edward praised it as one of the greatest books in the language, but Helen was prejudiced against it, and exclaimed vehemently, ‘I can’t bear it!’
Edward said shortly, ‘No woman is able to understand Tristram Shandy.’
I protested, ‘But I read it again and again.’
‘No woman ought to be able to understand Tristram Shandy,’ he said, still more shortly.
Where are we left with this anecdote, then? There’s another little grace note of triumph for Farjeon, of course. She loves Thomas–chastely, unrequitedly. But then again Helen Thomas loves him unrequitedly too. I hardly know Helen Thomas, but I could hazard a shaky guess as to why she would not like a manic, madcap novel that embraces both absurdity and self-obsession. And it’s clear why Eleanor Farjeon loves it–it’s fantastic, animated by a powerful sense of humor that is anarchic but not unkind. (That is, it’s a great book, and she has sure taste.) So Eleanor Farjeon, who Thomas values as a friend (that always-hurtful three-word phrase!) but not as a romantic alternative to Helen, rates at least this very grudging inverted compliment. She is not a woman to him, then, and still a “mate,” a fellow traveler, a fellow-miner in literature’s quarry. but at least she can read.
And Edward Thomas? Is he grumpy, beleaguered, and trapped in an ill-suiting house with two women desperate to do what can’t be done–namely, cheer him up–or is he admitting to a foolish and ill-founded sexism?
But how different this project would be–how different war would be (here comes an original thought!)–if women were there in the trenches (or even there, in greater numbers, in the immediate war zone), writing male intransigence, stupidity, and nearsightedness. Writing war. Farjeon is writing retrospectively of this day, so her commentary is not really that of late 1916; nevertheless, she has arrived at a judgment that will serve for many of the more sensitive writers caught up in the monster-war, the ones who neither suffered overwhelming trauma nor looked away from the narrowness of their mistake: “Who could blame anyone for anything?”