Ralph Hamilton stayed up until two in the morning last night, a century back, first slaving over the duplicating machine and then touching up his colored maps by hand, with a paintbrush. A raid has been ordered on his sector and he has been charged with devising and executing the artillery plan. He is “very anxious the thing should go off well for everyone’s sake, and particularly as it is the first little battle that I have entirely arranged by myself.” Then, with all the planning done but for the smaller details, he went to a Casualty Clearing Session to have a rotten tooth pulled.
While we await developments, then, let’s to London and, beginning with yesterday’s entry, reacquaint ourselves with Cynthia Asquith’s diary. Her husband’s surprise leave from his own artillery command lends a festive atmosphere to… scenes that may have had a different festive atmosphere had “Beb” not been there.
The list of friends to be mourned has grown longer, but her life is still filled with visitors, amusements, and sharp commentary on familiar figures–Lady Desborough, for one, whom we most recently saw mourning the death of Patrick Shaw Stewart.
Monday, 14th January
Ettie and I were deep in conversation about Gosta Berling, and for what sum we would ‘give ourselves’, when Michael rushed up with a small silver egg-cup and peremptorily shouted, ‘Take that, and be sick in it!’ His power of suggestion was so great that Ettie began to feel sick and even she lay down before dinner.
The beloved Professor arrived before dinner, looking more like a Blake drawing than ever. I love the way his eyes signal the thought which his tongue is shortly going to voice ‘coming over’, and he has such a delicious giggle in his eye.
This would be the formidably named Professor Walter Raleigh, one of the first and most influential professors of (contemporary) English Literature. But it is not to be a night, merely, of learned discussion.
After dinner really brilliantly amusing games were played. First Ettie unveiled me as a Renaissance statue; her float voice in pointing out the ‘lascivious contours of my cheek’ was admirable. Then Beb unveiled Evan as a ceramic of Helen of Troy—far the best thing of the kind I have ever seen. He really was brilliant, reaching his climax when he bared Evan’s shirt-front as Helen’s famous breast, delicately pointing out the curious and uncommon formation grotesquely represented by Evan’s two studs ( : instead of . . )!
Just in case no one else is as pleased with the timelessness of Asquith’s writing as I am, I will note for the record that the above typographical representation–of what I take to be vertically-arrayed (rather than traditional horizontally-arrayed) nipples–is a pioneering use of whatever those ASCII smiley faces we used to use in emails are called…
We rocked with laughter. The Professor and Letty then did an excellent Hamlet and Ophelia to Beb’s judge.
That was yesterday, a century back. To today, then:
Tuesday, 15th January
Ettie had to go up by early train and so Evan was carried off bound to her chariot wheels—I wonder if he wouldn’t have loved to stay and talk to the Professor. Pages and pages of Barriesque sentiment from John’s governess, comparing John to Peter Pan and me to Wendy.
Which is a bit odd. But then again Asquith is a close friend of Barrie’s, and has worked as his assistant.
I got up late and took the Professor for a short walk before lunch. He wore a rug instead of a coat, and it looked just like a Sir Walter Raleigh cloak. I told him about Sylvia Strayte and he promised to write a scenario with the right part for her. After luncheon… my question, ‘Do you miss Ettie?’ led to the most interesting discussion on her.
‘Miss her? No,’ he replied, ‘I never miss her—I’m glad to see her, but I never miss her—because you see she’s never a rest.’ I said I thought she was just one of the people one might miss in absence more than one enjoyed in presence; Ettie being such a tuning-fork, one might feel in the dark—as if the electric light had been turned out—and when it was turned on it might make one blink. He said he didn’t need a ‘tonic’, and that his quarrel with her was her constant ‘battling’ against life, her swimming against the current—precisely the ‘steel’ qualities in her which Letty and I had been admiring and enjoying. I had even thought I must make an effort to emulate her and I must say it was honey to hear the Professor’s disapproving dissection of her. How she would have minded what he said!
I said that I thought, before the war and its weight of personal suffering had fallen on her, One might have been irritated by her stubborn gospel of joy and attributed it largely to health and personal immunity. But that, now she had earned the right to preach and practise, her determination to go on fighting with broken tools and to save what was still worth keeping was wholly admirable and most valuable. This he admitted, but when I said I envied her capacity for intimacy, he strenuously denied it and said that her deliberate activity made her mechanical, and prohibited any real friendship or the finest companionship—his great point being that she never ‘blossomed’, and that that was what he valued. When, in his comparison of us, I denied the dewdrop that I was natural he said, ‘No, you’re not natural—you’re Nature.’
A compliment produced with the skill of an Elizabethan courtier. But Asquith–high-born and well-married though she is–would rather Raleigh pass another test. She is a serious reader, unashamed of having popular taste (of the best sort), and requires some of this taste to be shared by her intimates:
The Professor has just re-discovered Dickens—having not touched him for years and approached him critically, he has now found himself caught up in a flame of love and admiration. At dinner he said no one should read him between childhood and thirty or forty—certainly not in college days. The discussion led to his reading us heavenly bits out of Our Mutual Friend, chiefly those-relating to those masterpieces the ‘Wilfers’. Beb’s sick, dainty face led to a fierce discussion between me and him, which inducted the Professor into some very good talk about beloved Dickens. I said he was my principal touchstone about people, and that I should never have married Beb had I fully realised this dreadful lacuna. Beb said, with a sort of pride, that at Oxford they had considered Dickens something scarcely to be mentioned, and he accused us of being on the wave of the counter reaction. This annoyed me—as at every age I have read and revelled in him from pure hedonism—I maintained that no one would feel obliged to admire him from literary snobbishness, as they would Keats. He gaped at me when I said that, whatever his faults of style, I ranked him with the real giants—with Shakespeare, in fact, because he had above all the quality of wealth, and love, and sympathy—and I also claimed the Homeric quality for him.
Shakespeare and Dickens again!
To my joy, the Professor was an eloquent ally and said Dickens was a ‘howling swell’: that he had suffered from mispraise—which had produced the reaction against him—that by his contemporaries he had been liked for the comic and the sentimental, and that now the tide of true appreciation had thrown him right up amongst the giants. He spoke of his ‘heavenly homeliness’, his exuberance and amazing richness, and proved how false and superficial the charge of ‘unreality’ was. To Beb’s inquiry he maintained that Sterne was ‘thin’ beside him, Meredith nowhere, and Thackeray pour rire. In fact he said he had ‘eternity’. He considers Great Expectations the masterpiece and that, even from the point of view of ‘style’, the description of the marshes was as good as anything.
It was interesting talk and I wish I could record it. I enjoyed getting heated, and Mamma told me to ‘put two bits of Beb on the fire’—meaning coal. I made the Professor promise to ‘testify’ his conversion to Dickens. I think he might write something delicious about him.