When Henry James came to Wenlock

“If Gaskell asks you to Wenlock don’t for the world fail to go.”

Henry Adams in a letter to Henry James 1877

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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… 

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passing Priory Cottage on the left…

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…the turning right into the Abbey’s winding drive…

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…with the priory ruins on the left.

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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..

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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: 

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References:

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

This fiction writer’s path: five things learned along the way

 

 

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1) Swimming not drowning: there will be (many) false starts

I associate intending to be a writer with learning to swim. I was ten, in my last year of primary school, when I told Mr. Williams, my very Welsh head teacher, that I meant to be a writer. I said it with great certainty, and he listened in all seriousness. He was someone I trusted implicitly. He was also the person who taught me to swim, and to me, decades later, the way he did it still seems a little miracle.

There were several non-swimmers in the senior class and one day Mr. Williams decided to remedy this life-threatening deficiency. Once a week for several weeks he drove us to the swimming pool in the school minibus. He made no concession to the occasion and still wore his smart grey headmasterly suit. Looking back, he probably did this on purpose. It showed he meant business and we were not there to play. The suit’s material had a soft metallic sheen and probably went by the name of Tricel. It somehow had a part to play.

After a couple of trips to the pool I had fully grasped the mechanics of swimming, but was unwilling to give up my rubber ring. Mr. Williams, however, was determined. He told me to walk twenty paces into the pool’s shallow end. He told me to take off the rubber ring. Then standing at the pool’s edge, he squatted down so low that his trousers strained across his knees and shone like silver. His eyes levelled with mine as I stood there – in the water – shivering – without my protecting ring. He told me to swim but I kept standing and staring at his knees, feeling silly and helpless. Then suddenly out flew his arms in a welcoming embrace. ‘Come on,’ he cried. ‘Swim to me. YOU.CAN.DO.IT.’ And such was his look of unconditional expectation that I took to the water and swam.

And the point of this story? Becoming a writer/maker/artist means learning to  grow and nurture your inner Mr. Williams. Along the creative path there may be few external expressions of encouragement. But without the deep-down core of self-belief you will not have the resilience to stay the course, bear the disappointments, handle the rejection slips, or to toil and toil alone for the days, months and years it will take to learn your craft. All of which is not to discourage, but to say that you really have to want to do this.

2) Having formed your intention, do NOT wait for inspiration to strike: you can wait till the crack of doom

Of course learning to swim is not the same as being a good swimmer who can swim fifty lengths with ease and feel quite at home in the water. To become a skilled artisan of any kind, there is the long haul of apprenticeship, probably one that will never end. I, though, and like many would-be writers, went for years, carrying in my head the apparently foregone conclusion that one day inspiration would strike and I would begin to write my own stories instead of reading other people’s.

It rarely, if ever happens this way. Besides which, inspiration is only the starting point, the ‘ah-ha’ moment when your attention fixes on an overheard conversation, or collides with a character on a bus, or gets hooked on some bizarre news event that starts you asking the kind of questions that kick off the story-making process. Mostly, though, you need to seek it out. Because the fact is, even if you are not actually writing, you must be doing the internal work, mentally exploring the stories that you might one day tell, gathering material, keeping watch, feeding that tiny flame of an inkling that says ‘I do have a story to tell’. ‘I do have something important to say.’

Inspiration, then, does not arrive ‘out of blue’ or occur in a vacuum; it needs one, two or several things to rub together. You could say it’s a bit like the slow-going process of rubbing dry sticks together, and trialling likely bits of kindling to get a fire started. In that initial whoosh of a blaze taking hold all is very exciting, but it is only the start. Now the hard work really begins – keeping the fire going, finding suitable material that will burn well – fast or slowly or long enough to cook your dinner. In other words, flash-in-the-pan, quick-fire notions (inspiration) are the easy part. Thereafter comes the sourcing of materials, planning, construction and general project management. You can only truly learn how to do this by doing it. So how to begin?

3) Do not fall into the trap of thinking that reading other writers will drown out your own small voice before you even start: read, read, read…

As an adult, my writing work was largely academic: dissertations, reports, preparing educational materials in various museums. Somewhere along the line I stopped reading fiction; I feared that to do so would distract me from finding my own inspiration, my own voice, my own stories. I have met other beginner writers who said they did the same thing, and especially when it came to books that they thought might ‘compete’ with their own ideas. Yet not to read widely is another form of writer’s self-sabotage. Writers need to read anything and everything they can, and across all genres, and they need to read with attention and discernment. For instance, you can learn a huge amount about story construction by studying an infant’s picture book that contains only around 30 words (Pat Hutchins Rosie’s Walk).

In fact some of the best-crafted storytelling on the planet is for young people – and here I’m thinking of writers such as Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, Robert Cormier, Kate di Camillo, Geraldine McCaughrean, Philip Pullman, Jennifer Donnelly, David Almond. Reading good books with all senses attuned is akin to having mental conversations with other writers; far from swamping your own style/voice/subject matter, listening carefully to what they say and how they say it can help release your very own form of creative expression. This is not about copying ; it is about finding your own truthful response to other writers’ work. Writing a book or a story or a poem is not a contest with anyone else. It is your book, story, poem. Only you can write it. And if in doubt, think ‘Mr. Williams’. At some point you have to get in there and swim.

But of course, having joined the fray, then comes the endurance testing and training, the honing of skills, and goal setting.

4) Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller

Some people are natural storytellers, and especially so when they come from families or cultures where oral storytelling is still practised. Even so, and no matter how you treat them later, it helps to learn the storytelling basics: the beginnings, middles and ends of a story, their possibilities, the ways to build tension and interest, how to manage revelation, crisis and resolution, what it takes to create believable worlds (real-life or science fiction), to breathe life into characters who will then ‘speak’ to readers, to make effective and affective use of language.

All these skills can be learned to some extent by much well-directed reading, including studying a few how-to-write books on the way. But taking out a subscription to a good creative writing magazine or attending a class are the more interactive and less lonely options. The disciplines of entering magazine contests or doing class exercises – reading others’ work with interest rather than envy, writing to deadlines, word counts and prescribed themes are all worth cultivating. They all build the kind of writing muscles you need to best deliver ‘the what’ of the creative process – the  story.

5) Writing fiction does not mean ‘making things up’; it is all about building convincing worlds.

This is something that is easily misunderstood, and it took me some time to grasp explicitly. Fiction reveals imagined worlds and their inhabitants in ways that are truthful in. Integrity and authenticity are key objectives. The setting may be a medieval Russian monastery, a London secondary school, or a planet with two suns, but it must ring true for the reader. Its special characteristics will add depth and texture to the narrative, but above all, they will be dynamic – informing, shaping, adding drama to the characters’ behaviour/situation/dilemmas. This requires considerable research and construction work by the writer, but with the caveat that, at the end of the process, only the writer ever needs to know all this stuff. The reader wants only the most telling details, the ones that, like literary hyperlinks, will take them straight into that special place and engage them wholeheartedly with the characters’ lives. (A fine example of this is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where she uses historical, social and political contexts to reveal the life and times of Thomas Cromwell.)

To achieve this level of ‘reality’ requires the writer to have strong reasons for telling a particular story. As I’ve said, creating a story from start to finish requires drive and stamina. Passion, pain, compassion and anger are great spurs, but their energy needs to be channelled judiciously. (No ranting or heavy-handed moralizing required and the writer’s self should keep well out of the way). The research part of the project may also demand a whole new reading schedule (encyclopaedias, atlases, internet content, telephone directories, newspapers etc) and, where possible, physically immersing yourself in the places where the story is set.

This is all about knowing your territory as an expert guide would know it. Only then can the alchemy begin. Or perhaps shape-shifting is a better analogy. Because this is one of the most important of all the things I have come to learn from the practise of being a writer: the writing must come from the inside out; writers must inhabit their character’s minds, shoes and underpants; whatever it takes to get inside their skin. For me, this usually means starting with the feet rather than the knickers department. When I wrote about a street girl called Jessicah, she was conjured by a ‘feeling’ in the balls of my feet as she tramped in thin-soled shoes through the African highlands. Years later I can still summon that particular sensation and know it is Jessicah, and start seeing the world again through her eyes. All of which is very strange when you think about it, and probably the reasons why most writers keep writing. For the final truth is that even well-published writers struggle to make a living from book sales alone. Writing then, first and foremost and anyway, has to be done for the love of the thing.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Tish Farrell writes short fiction to entice unkeen teen readers to read in the Shades series at Ransom Publishing. She also writes for Heinemann Junior African Writers, Zimbabwe Publishing House and Phoenix Publishers East Africa. Her short story Flight came third in last year’s International Bath Short Story Award.

 

Writerly Reflections

Caught inside a Kikuyu garden: a memorial to Karen Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton

Denys Finch Hatton obelisk Ngong Hills

This was not supposed to happen. In fact you could say it adds insult to irony:  that a man so steadfastly dedicated to an unfettered life in the wilds should, in death, end up hemmed in, and so very domesticated within this small Kikuyu shamba. Yet here it is, the mournful stone obelisk, marking  the grave of Denys Finch Hatton,  son and heir of the 13th Earl of Winchilsea, Great White Hunter, and lover of two women far more famous than he is: writer Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and aviator  and race horse trainer Beryl Markham (West with the Night). 

Finch Hatton's grave on the Ngong farm

Yet another woman, the one whose shamba this is, shows him a new kind of love, taking care of the garden around the obelisk.  If you want to visit the place it is not easy to find – either her little smallholding on the Ngong Hills, or the grave within. When we visited years ago we found only a hand-painted signpost nailed to a tree. We parked in a paddock outside the farmhouse door and were charged a few shillings. We could have bought a soda too, if we’d wanted. We could not see the grave though, and soon found that it was deliberately hidden from view by an enclosure of  old wooden doors. More irony here of course. More symbols of shut-in-ness. 

Denys spent most of his life in Africa avoiding any kind of confinement – out  in the Tsavo wilderness, running shooting safaris for the rich and aristocratic. His clients included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) . In fact it was during the safaris for the Prince in 1928 and 1930 that Finch Hatton began to promote shooting on film rather than with a gun.

His lover, Karen (Tanne), Baroness von Finecke-Blixen lived in a small house below the Ngong Hills, some twelve miles outside Nairobi. By the time she started her affair with Denys she was divorced from her charming, but philandering husband, Bror, although they always remained friends. Her family had invested a great deal in the couple’s coffee farm, and Karen struggled to make a success of it. But the location was entirely wrong, and in the end she was forced to sell up and leave Kenya. It was during the period of selling the farm that she heard news of Denys’s death.

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Looking towards the  Ngong Hills from inside the veranda at Karen Blixen’s house. The house now belongs to Kenya’s National Museums.

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Denys Finch Hatton’s untimely end may be put down to his passion for flying. For those of you who remember Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, some of the most elegiac moments of the film are when the celluloid version of Finch Hatton  (Robert Redford)  takes Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)  into the skies above the Rift Valley.  Denys died in his Gypsy Moth in 1931, and in unexplained circumstances. He was taking off from the airstrip down in Voi in southern Kenya when his craft exploded. He and his Kikuyu co-pilot were killed. Denys was forty four.

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View towards Nairobi from Denys Finch Hatton’s Grave, and overlooking another Kikuyu smallholding.

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By the time of his death, his relationship with Karen was  well on the wane, and he had already started an affair with the younger Beryl Markham. His biographer,  Sara Wheeler says in Too Close to the Sun, that there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Beryl was pregnant with Denys’s child, but that she then had an abortion. To have known this would have truly broken Karen Blixen’s heart: her letters show that she had longed to have a child with Denys.

With yet another twist of irony, it was with his death, that Karen somehow reclaimed him, remembering that he had told her of his wish to be buried in the Ngong Hills. The spot he had chosen was one that Karen had decided on for her own grave.

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Denys Finch Hatton

Karen Blixen with her deerhound Dusk

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There was a place in the hills, on the first ridge of the Game Reserve, that I…had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while we sat and looked at the hills from my house, he remarked that then he would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: ‘Let us drive as far as our graves.’ Once when we were camped in the hills to look for buffalo, we had in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look. There was an infinitely great view from there; the light of the sunset we saw both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there.

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The obelisk was only put up later by Denys’s brother. During Karen’s last days in Kenya she had the site marked with white stones from her own garden, and as the grass grew up after the long rains, she and Farah, her Somali house steward, erected a pennant of white calico so she could see the spot from her house, some five miles away.

Sometime after she had returned to Denmark she received a letter with some strange news about the grave:

The Masai have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave in the the Hills. A lion and lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time…After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there thy can have a view over the plain, the cattle and game on it.

Out of Africa

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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Tish Farrell is an award winning writer for young people. Her latest novella is on Amazon Kindle (5 star review):

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy – a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales set somewhere in East Africa. For young adults and adults alike.