“If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”
Henry Adams in a letter to Henry James 1877
This is the house where Henry James stayed on his visits to Much Wenlock in 1877, 1878 and 1882. At the time it was known as The Abbey, but once it was the Abbot’s House, and part of a great medieval Cluniac priory whose ruins stand beside it. Only the house, and the town’s parish church survived Henry VIII’s great monastic dissolving campaign of 1540.
I’ve recently read, too, that the Dissolution did in fact involve actual structural ‘dissolving’. The first thing King Henry’s agents did in their bid to disempower the clergy and seize their estates was to rip the lead off the monastery roofs. The wear and tear of English weather then did the rest. Since Wenlock Priory was once one of the most imposingly large religious houses in all Europe, you can well see how efficiently the elements did their work.
The adjacent small town of Much Wenlock town dates from at least from Saxon times when St. Milburga, daughter of a Mercian king, founded the first religious house here. She was Abbess of Wenlock between 675-690 AD. The later priory was the work of the invading Normans, who liked to use looming architecture to cow the natives into submission. The monks were brought in from France, but it wasn’t until end of the 12th century when Bishop Odo, a former Cluniac monk, published his account of the discovery of St.Milburga’s bones (he describes them as “beautiful and luminous”) that this great house acquired the kind of saintly cachet that ensured serious pilgrim-appeal, and thus brought much prosperity to the town.
After the Dissolution, however, pragmatism ruled, and much of the fallen priory masonry was used to build or expand the town’s homes and businesses. Thereafter, Much Wenlock’s success was based on providing a small but busy mercantile and manufacturing centre for the local agricultural and quarrying community. It even had two Members of Parliament.
But back to Henry James (1843-1916). What on earth had brought this widely travelled writer to the little town of Much Wenlock? And not once, but three times.
In fact it was only the urging of a friend, Harvard history professor, Henry Brooke Adams, that brought James here at all on that first visit in 1877. He hardly knew his hosts, Charles and Lady Catherine Milnes Gaskell. Charles Milnes Gaskell, rich barrister and landowner, was a close friend of Adams, and it was Adams who indirectly secured the invitation for Henry James. He knew that James would love the Abbey. Hence the exhortation: “If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”
And so, further enticed by “a gracious note from Lady Catherine Gaskell” and armed with a copy of Murray’s Handbook of Shropshire, Cheshire and Lancashire, Henry James left London for deepest Shropshire, travelling by train to Much Wenlock. The details of how he spent his time on his five-day visit appear in a travel sketch called Abbeys and Castles, later published as part of Portraits of Places (1883).
At the station (now private houses) he was met by the Gaskell’s coachman, Crawley, driven into the town, passing in sight of Holy Trinity Church (today without the spire shown in the Frith photo). Here they turned left into the Bull Ring…
passing Priory Cottage on the left…
…the turning right into the Abbey’s winding drive…
…with the priory ruins on the left.
The carriage would then have swung hard into the open courtyard of the Abbey, and this would have been Henry James’ first view of his destination. Well-travelled as he was, I think he would have been astonished.
Adams’ certainty that his friend would love the place was spot on. In Portraits and Places (p278) Henry James says:
“It is not too much to say that after spending twenty four hours in a house that is six hundred years old, you seem yourself to have lived in it for six hundred years. You seem to have hollowed the flags with your tread, and to have polished the oak with your touch. You walk along the little stone gallery where the monks used to pace, looking out of the gothic window places at their beautiful church, and you pause at the big round, rugged doorway that now admits you to the drawing room. The massive step by which you ascend to the threshold is a trifle crooked, as it should be; the lintels are cracked and worn by a myriad-fingered years…it seems wonderfully old and queer. Then you turn into the drawing room, where you find modern conversation and late publications and the prospect of dinner. The new life and the old have melted together; there is no dividing-line.”
In letters James admits to being rather in love with Lady Catherine, whom he describes as a perfect English rose. She was only twenty years old at the time, and expecting her first child. She apparently put garden flowers in his room and made sure he had plenty of writing paper and pens. But when it came to entertainment, this was down to Charles Gaskell. Despite the rainy weather, he and James appear to have yomped all over the district looking at stately homes and other ruins. They also took the train to extend their excursions to Stokesay Castle and Ludlow. Henry James was clearly enchanted. Of Much Wenlock and its setting he says:
“There is a noiseless little railway running through the valley, and there is an ancient little town lying at the abbey-gates – a town, indeed, with no great din of vehicles, but with goodly brick houses, with a dozen ‘publics’, with tidy, whitewashed cottages, and with little girls…bobbing curtsies in the street. But even now, if one had wound one’s way into the valley by the railroad, it would be rather a surprise to find a small ornamental cathedral in a spot on the whole so natural and pastoral. How impressive then must the beautiful church have been in the days of its prosperity, when the pilgrim came down to it from the grassy hillside, and its bells made the stillness sensible.”
Things have changed of course, although we still have a fair few ‘publics’ for so small a town – five in fact. But there are no longer little girls who curtsey to gentleman, and sadly no railway, which means instead we do now have the inevitable din of vehicles..
An interesting aside to the Henry James’ Shropshire travelogue is that he is said to have been working on his disturbing ghost story The Turn of the Screw while staying at the Abbey. He certainly had the supernatural on his mind during that first visit.
“…there is of course a ghost – a gray friar who is seen in the dusky hours at the end of passages. Sometimes the servants see him; they afterwards go surreptitiously to sleep in the village. Then, when you take your chamber-candle and go wandering bedward by a short cut through empty rooms, you are conscious of a peculiar sentiment toward the gray friar which you hardly know whether to interpret as a hope or a reluctance.” (Portraits of Places)
And this does rather remind me of a passage in The Turn of the Screw where the governess narrator describes how her young charge, Flora, takes her on a guided tour through the rambling old mansion at Bly:
“Young as she was, I was struck, throughout our little tour, with her confidence and courage with the way, in empty chambers and dull corridors, on crooked staircases that made me pause and even on the summit of an old machicolated square tower that made me dizzy.”
But then Henry James seems to have made a life’s career of ‘staying’ in, or visiting large country houses. All the same, I like the idea of his brewing this grim tale in Wenlock. Certainly from across the old monastery parkland, the Abbey does have a more brooding and sinister air. And now I’ve sown that notion, I’ll leave you with some more views of undissolved monastic relicts:
Cynthia Gamble John Ruskin, Henry James and the Shropshire Lads New European Publications Ltd 2008
Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock Shropshire Books 2001
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell