Thursday, December 20, 2012

Edward Thomas and Three Women: Helen Thomas

 Helen is the one who matters: her devotion and loyalty to Edward Thomas must move all but the stoniest heart.

I can't do her justice in this pre-Christmas blog and will come back to her.

Meanwhile, Happy Christmas and a Peaceful New Year to all.

Helen's Story

Helen Noble, the daughter of the journalist, James Ashcroft Noble, was born in Liverpool on 11th July 1877. Noble, who found work writing for The Spectator, moved the family to London in 1880. 

After an education at Wintersdorf School in Southport, she became a nursery governess in Rotherfield. She was quite 'bohemian' in dress and in the circles she moved in.

She met Edward through her father who encouraged his writing and their getting to know each other.

Helen became pregnant with Merfyn while Edward was an undergraduate at Oxford .( See my blogs on Oxford.) In 1896, they married and times were very hard financially. Bronwen was born and became quite ill with their poor living conditions, as Edward struggled to make a living by his writing.

Helen taught kindergarden children at Beadles, a progressive co-educational boarding school in Steep where they had moved. They had a third child, Myfanwy, who became a writer.
After the war Helen wrote about her relationship with Edward  in  1926 and 1931. The two volumes, 'As it Was '  and 'World without End' were republished with the  perfect title 'Under Storm's Wing' (from  the poem 'Interval').  Her daughter, Myfanwy, claims the books were written as a form of therapy to lift the depression which settled over her after the death of her husband. Helen  died in 1967.
It was a way of keeping Edward alive for her, and it is an intelligent, passionate work; in it Helen often belittles her intellect and wisdom, sadly, something she had probably evolved under Edward's frequent unkindness.

I depended heavily on 'Under Storm's Wing' and decided to have Helen in the first person - the voice  I give her is not that of Helen in her book - it needs to have that sense of happening in the present which Jude Morgan refers to in his 'Shakespeare'. But  I chose to have her write a memoir, 'Half a Kiss, Half a Tear' and to open and close it with scenes and phrases  taken very closely from Under Storm's Wing. Here is an extract: it is almost Christmas, 1916.            

'My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’

I knew I must live in the present, that we could at least be together like doomed lovers, doubting that they would have a future and making the most of their time. So I told the children and we danced all around the house, singing,

‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’ And in the same post came a cheque for twenty pounds, a gift from a private fund for writers. Twenty pounds – so much money! I hurried up to London and bought the best Jaeger sleeping bag, thick gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets for Edward, more presents for the children and a red dress for myself – Edward loved to see me in red. And I bought fruit, sweets, and other luxuries, even some wine.

The children collected fir, ivy and holly from the forest. We dug up a little Christmas tree from the garden and made it dance with sparkling decorations and candles ready to light.

Our Christmas Day was perfect. We woke to hear the children, Baba especially, exclaiming over presents in the lumpy stockings. Edward had crept in as usual and filled them while they slept. We always put exciting little things in them; bigger presents waited until later. Edward went down to make tea, his army greatcoat over his pyjamas, and then we all five squeezed into our big bed. Merfyn did still have a stocking, but we acknowledged his grown-up status with shaving soap, cigarettes and a new mouth-organ, and Bronwen’s with the grown-up things she liked, scent, ribbons and a lacy handkerchief, as well as a new sketch-book and crayons. Merfyn played, ‘It’s a long long trail’ on the mouth-organ while Edward wound up a grey clockwork mouse I’d bought Baba. It scuttled over the floorboards and to please her Bronwen and I duly screamed in the way women must.

As usual, Eleanor was too generous, with a great parcel of presents, each one gorgeously wrapped. Edward was happy to have the sumptuous warm Jaeger sleeping bag from me and straight away marked the name tape – P.E. Thomas.

The day passed happily. As soon as tea was over I went out and lit the coloured candles on the Christmas tree, then Edward carried it in from where Merfyn had hidden it in the woodshed. Myfanwy was entranced. She’d never seen a Christmas tree before.

After tea we sat near the fire, eating nuts and talking or reading our new books. Then Edward took Baba on his knee and sang Welsh songs and some rousing army ones.

It was just before her bedtime that I watched the two of them, Baba on a chair by the window, looking out at the snow and Edward behind her looking out too. They were hoping to see deer.

‘Shall we see any? Are they out there?’ she asked. I remember that she wondered if they were cold and frightened, out in the dark, not like her, safe in the cosy sitting room, with the lamp lit and her father’s hand on her shoulder. That was when I wept.
 The poem- of course:
And You, Helen
And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.      




  1. Hello Margareth, hope you are well.
    By now I am sufficiently intrigued to want to know, as you do not hold qualifications to be a writer, are you close enough to Mr. Thomas's family that you can publish your views of the facts? I suppose so! Could you tell us more?

    1. What a delight to have a comment, and what an interesting one!
      My sources are given in detail at the close of the book, in the 'Acknowledgements' section. I have talked to members of the family, but now I think about it I used only one snippet of information from that source, sticking to what is virtually in the public domain from published letters, scholarly biographies and discussion with members of the Edward Thomas Fellowship especially the chairman Richard Emeny who has known the family well for decades, especially Myfanwy Thomas and Edward's grandson, another Edward, both of whom died relatively recently.
      I'm not really sure what qualifications to be a writer are. Reading a great deal seems to me the best way. But I do have an English degree and a Masters, my dissertation being on Thomas's poetry, and I began writing the novel as part of a two-year Creative Writing Diploma at Oxford. I still don't regard any of these as 'qualifications' exactly - just sticking at it and being passionately keen on the subject seem more crucial.
      Thank you again for your interest.