A LITTLE PORTRAIT
By HUGH WALPOLE.
SHE WAS BORN in the late fifties in a little western town, and was brought up until her marriage in the very sanctity of Victorian domesticity. How secure and complete that was we are forever to-day being told, but in this case at least it was the security of geographical as well as sociological remoteness.
Truro, the town where she was born, was, seventy years ago, almost as cut off from the rest of the world as any of Jane Austen’s villages. There was, it is true, the railway, but travelling in the train was still an adventure, costly, rather dangerous, and above all not necessary because it was felt that the town itself had in it resources enough for any human being. There was, of course, the magical adventure of London, very, very occasional and rare, but in the main the small narrow streets, the high lanes thick in the spring the primroses and violets, the stir of the market days, the thrills of the county balls, the local garden parties, the many little private dances, the expeditions to the sea, Newquay and Perranporth and The Lizard and Penzance, these were enough for anyone’s life time.
She was the daughter of the principal doctor of the town, one of its leading citizens, related to every family in Cornwall, and cousin to the Barham of The Ingoldsby Legends. In those days Truro was simply a nest of relations, a family affair, Barham and Carlyon and Trefusis and Grylls, a very close and intimate society. There was at the time of her growing up a vast company of young people, there were no easy avenues of escape, and so they found all possible pleasures and excitements in one another’s society that there were to find. She was herself a member of a large and loving family; I saw her mother first and last when I was myself six years of age with thoughts centering in the main on food; I see her as a very old lady in a white lace cap, in my memory, rather like Queen Victoria, and dispensing sweet curly biscuits known as lemon biscuits out of a round silver box. She gave me a Bible on the only Christmas Day that I spent in her company, and she comes back to me whenever I think of her in a mingled essence of Russian leather and sugar lemon.
The children were brought up strictly but by the hand of love; there was a real intense family life in which everyone was excited by the doings of everyone else. It should have been absolute security here, but no one is safe and, if that generation was free of the alarms of all our modern progress, they were attacked on the other side by ignorance, old-fashioned ways and a tendency to place too much reliance upon an unfailing Providence.
The lady of whom I am writing was my mother, and her world, which must have seemed utterly secure in its atmosphere of little tea parties, readings round the fire, lessons in Italian and water colour painting, was suddenly broken up by a devastating epidemic of scarlet fever which swept the town, carried off a brother and sister, and left almost every house in Truro a place of lamentation and mourning. I suspect that my mother never recovered quite from this. All her life long there was to be in her a note of apprehension, she seemed often to be summoning her courage to meet some terrible catastrophe. After that epidemic she was never to feel quite secure again, and I think out of that very apprehension she built up her character so that by the end there was simply nothing that she was not able to face.
I have a little yellow photograph, and from this, both prettier and shyer than any girl is allowed to be to-day, she looks out into a world that can, she knows, be terrifying. Nevertheless, those early years must have been delightful; she was, I imagine, one of the belles of the town; everything that came her way was exciting, and the very fact that in those days the fun was concerned with little things, that outside the excited circle of the adventures that you might have was always the vast dark unknown world of the adventures that you must not on any account have, added zest and spice to everything. My mother never lost that exultation over small pleasures; when she was over seventy I took her to Saint Joan, the last play, in fact, that she ever saw, and it seems as though it were only yesterday that I watched her delighted pleasure and heard her little sigh as the curtain fell: “Oh, I have enjoyed that; oh, I have enjoyed that!”
And yet I think there were great dangers in the inexperience of that time. It seems to have been the rule with parents of that day to tell their children nothing and to frown on every sort of question. It seems to have been the rule with parents on every sort of question. It was my mother’s fate in life to be always mentally honest; she could not conceive a lie whether to herself or to others, and with that mental honesty there was an urgent never-ceasing longing that life should be of the finest; nothing would do for her but that. Some people shut their eyes and make of life what they would have it, but my mother could never do that, and as shock after shock of realisation came to her, her courage grew; but it was always a battle. She was no sentimentalist, but intensely romantic in her ideal dream.
Indeed, I think that everyone who came into contact with her felt that she was a little “fey.” Even in that early childish photograph she looks as though she had been lost, stolen, or strayed from her own country; that country had been beautiful and marvellous, and this one was something quite other; she would never be altogether a citizen of it.
My father was the first Precentor of Truro Cathedral, coming there with Benson, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury. He fell in love with my mother at sight, and she with him, and he in his way had had as remote and isolated an upbringing as she; but he could always make terms with life, having a faith and trust in it which he has never lost, believing implicitly that it was of such and such a kind, that it must in return be of that kind. They were married in Truro Cathedral, and the day after the wedding left for Auckland, New Zealand, where he was to have a church. The journey to New Zealand in those days was no easy business, and their honeymoon apparently was spent in one of the worst ships on a succession of the roughest of seas. Here was real life for my mother with a vengeance; she who had never ventured outside Cornwall, who had been surrounded by people who wanted nothing but to give her every comfort and pleasure, found the wide world stormy and terrifying. She had, I suppose, no realisation of the suspicions and hostilities of other people; all her life until then had been based on the belief that people wished one well and would rather be kind than unkind; but the Colonial society of Auckland, rough and good-hearted and pioneering, interpreted her shyness perhaps as pride and her breeding as arrogance. She was so young and inexperienced as to charge herself with every fault. Before she left Auckland she understood their good intentions, but those first years there shook her self-confidence; she was never again easily to believe that people liked her or wanted her, and at the first suspicion of her own adequacy she would withdraw, feeling that she had made another failure.
Moving then to New York, where my father was a professor of a theological college, she met again another kind of startling experience. The noise and confusion of that life, a certain inadequacy of means, three small children, and a persistent homesickness that would never leave her, homesickness that was of something behind and beyond her early Truro life, these things were forever forbidding her tranquility. The Americans were then, and are now, kinder-hearted than any other people; she made some warm friends who persuaded her almost in spite of herself that her lovely gentleness of character, her integrity, her generosity and her quiet, unexpected humour were possessions that they would value all their days. But when she came back at last to England she was sure of what when she had left it she had only dimly suspected – that she would never learn the ways of this strange foreign world.
WE LIVED IN Durham for seven years, and became during that time a family. We became it partly in self-defence, because my father was head of a college that was considered by the Durham Upper Ten to be slightly outside the pale. My mother was the least snobbish of all people alive, but her sensitiveness, her distrust of her own power of attraction, made her, if the world showed a rough face, withdraw into her own security. She began at this time to live only for us; she was most happily married, sharing all my father’s interests and ambitions and achievements, but she did not care for these things at all in comparison with our own individual happiness. The rest of the family were happy; I was very unhappy and entirely by my own fault. We lived in an odd house hacked out of the college buildings as it were by accident, and surrounded by an overgrown garden and neglected. I considered myself misunderstood and neglected; I read novels insatiably and told myself stories with Cinderella-like themes, mooning up and down the orchard and thinking how fine it would be to throw myself into the river if only I could at the same time survive that I might hear the universal lamentations. Now my mother never, either then or later, had much patience with moonings of this kind. She had a tremendous sense of duty and a queer ironic humour. I was always at the bottom of every class at school, and appeared to her to be forever wandering lazily about doing nothing. Moreover I was clearly very unhappy and for no very definite reason, so during those years we misunderstood one another, and yet the very thing that separated us was the thing that we had in common. She knew that this funny world, with its snobbish Cathedral society, the odd, uncouth young men of the college, the queer, untidy garden, the cold, rainy winds of the north, the occasional rudeness of unimaginative people, the perpetual housekeeping which she always hated, did beautifully, and never until the days of her last illness would relegate to anyone else; these things were not real, and beyond them was some beautiful place where she once had been and whither again she would go. I too had my sense of an unreal world, bullying, stupid schoolmasters, impossible, torturing mathematics and Greek accents, untidiness and bodily discomfort, and everyone apparently engaged about things that were stupid and waste of time. I could not explain; I was dumb, and my mother, because of her essential shyness, also could not explain. I wrote endless romances to which no one would listen, and I must say in my own defence that I didn’t care a hang whether they listened or no. This again seemed to my mother a dreadful waste of time; the writers whom she at that time loved were the heroes and heroines of her Victorian youth – Browning and Tennyson, George Eliot and Mrs. Gaskell. I wanted to be romantic, mysterious, unusual, and my mother, loving me, was distressed that I should be so absurd.
In the years that followed I broke away and sought adventures in London, and it was with the publication of my first book that my mother and I suddenly began to understand one another. She perceived that this driving urge in me was real and determined, and I began dimly to perceive the splendid development of character that was in her. She had to fight against numberless things, against allowing the longing in her own real country to become too strong in her, against a rather sharp ironic sense that was, she saw quite plainly, mainly destructive, against an intolerance of people’s gaucherie and bad manners. She detested bad manners and failures of tact; she had been brought up in a world where everyone was courteous, where servants were devoted to their masters, where people had time to think of small kindnesses, where there was a sort of gentle etiquette of good conduct. A new world was now around her, better in many ways than the old, but lacking many of the things that she loved; she had to fight herself into acceptance of this. Then she had to fight against her shyness, her sensitiveness to what she thought were rebuffs, her shrinking from intimacies in which she could not wholly play her part. She took all her relationships with intense seriousness; she had a conscientiousness that I have never seen equalled in any human being save her daughter; there was nothing casual about her word or her promise, and when she loved she loved with all her heart. I myself, growing much happier, began to have more understanding, and I dimly perceived how splendidly my mother’s character was developing! but it was not until the middle of the War that I realised her.
I should like here to draw some physical portrait of her, but how difficult that always is when one has been so continuously close.
- She was very slender
- Her body moving always with a nervous energy that was yet not restless and with a great dignity so that I think she was always noticed at once in any room into which she came.
- She had the loveliest white hair that I have ever seen in any human being; it is not only that it was beautiful in its clear silver colour, but that it seemed to have a kind of radiance, or purity of texture.
- Her features were very delicate, rather sharply defined
- All her character was in her eyes, which were very soft and gentle and yet acutely penetrating.
- Her hands were lovely, aristocratic, strong, and very eloquent, so that all her moods seemed to be expressed in them, but never with ugliness.
When she was irritated or distressed I used to watch her hands and I would fancy that I could feel there the emotion of her mood, and then see the fine control rise in her and command her spirit.
In her last years her body was so slight that you thought that a breath of wind might blow it away, and it was interesting to observe how, as the years came upon her, she grew physically ever more slender and spiritually stronger and more dominating. I like to think of her coming into a room in a dress of some delicate grey colour with her lovely hair, her eagerness to greet some friend, her dignity mingling with her affection, and always at the last that colour of other-worldliness so that you felt that you must hold her there with your eyes lest, at some mysterious command, she should suddenly disappear.
We had always said in the family that mother could stand better than any of us a big crisis, but it was the little things that worried her – a stupid maid at a dinner party, something said that seemed to her in retrospect false or liable to misunderstand, somebody in trouble whom she was not able to help, reports of some cruelty or meanness – these things disturbed her terribly, but with many another woman of that time the War brought out all the grandeur that was in her. She had no meanness of view nor desire for revenge, she was intensely patriotic without hating the rest of the world, and she watched over her family with the utmost care and tenderness and understanding, and yet had thought and care left for everyone else who was in distress. I was abroad during most of the War, but was conscious through it all of a growing intimacy with her. When it was all over I came home (home being then Edinburgh), and we had a walk one day up and down round Arthur’s Seat and finally found one another. I had developed during those years a kind of religion of my own which, when I spoke of it to anyone else, was so vague as to be useless. She led me to talk about it. We had never discussed religion before; many of the dogmas that meant so much to her were meaningless to me; but I found that, more than anyone else I knew, she could understand almost any religious point of view. Her own faith was the most enviable thing in the world – absolutely certain, penetrated with a marvellous spiritual intimacy and confidence, the foundation of all her life and happiness, and finally mysterious as everything in her was a little mysterious, as though again she belonged to some country that must be unknown to us. But this did not separate her from me; it produced in her no arrogance nor condemnation of others; she took me on my own ground, only wanting to understand me and to support me in everything that seemed to her good and courageous.
In these later years everyone, I think, who came into contact with her felt her to be something rare and fine. She was very difficult to know, simply because she took so seriously her pledged word and was so sure that was too usual and ordinary for people to waste time about her. And yet she had a great pride, a pride not of herself nor of her family, but of her sense that life was a very grand and important thing. She felt, I think, that everyone ought to be proud that they were given the chance of this experience, and yet although she was a happy woman she seemed always like someone who was only waiting until she could resume her real life again. She grew every wiser and more tolerant and more kindly; she was very delicate, and almost everything she had to do needed twice as much physical determination as it would for most. She shrank sometimes from social things that seemed to her useless and waste of time, and it was one of her chief troubles that she was not eager enough about the social duties that my father’s position necessitated. More and more as the years passed she loved everything that was beautiful – pictures and music and scenery and books. In her young days she had had a very limited education, but her artistic judgment was very seldom wrong, although it was limited, of course, in its attitude to modern things by the generation to which she belonged.
We had one last expedition to Italy together. I think that was one of the happiest jaunts in her life, and always now when I think of her I see her as a little quiet lady, saying not very much, her eyes shining with pleasure, beautifully gracious to servants and railway porters and peasants on the road, with a great dignity but with a delightful childishness breaking out again and again, an excitement of appreciation that all the stress and conflict of her life left quite unimpaired.
There came then some last terrible months in Mentone when, in an empty villa lent us by a kind friend set in a garden rioting with huge scentless flowers, life slowly ebbed from her. One last victory remained for her; at first when she was unaware of how serious her illness was she struggled for life which she loved, but there came a day when she suddenly knew the truth, and from that moment she presented a most beautiful aspect of courageous acceptance. She hated to leave us, but we were all aware in the last weeks that her temporary sojourn in a foreign country was over. One of the last things that she said to me was: “You don’t know what a comfort it is to think that I am never going to be shy again.”
She was a very great lady of stupendous courage; she never knew how many people she made happy and proud.
.Hugh Walpole was a very popular novelist and lecturer, and, during the first World War, where he proved his courage, a war correspondent. He was encouraged by A.C. Benson, Henry James and Arnold Bennett, and was first befriended by, then humiliated and ridiculed by Somerset Maugham. He did a little movie work in Hollywood, but lived much of his life with a married PC in the Lake District, and was knighted in 1937. A restrained biography was written by Rupert Hart-Davis. This sketch was first published in the September 1, 1927, issue of The Fortnightly Review. It has been manually transcribed for the New Series, with trivial edits.