Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Edward Thomas and three women, Edna, Eleanor and Helen

Still Life, Basket on Chair

                   Edna Clarke Hall

A blog-reader commented that I had left hanging a reference to Edna and my discomfort about what I've made of her in the novel.
It's true that the Edna episodes are by far the most speculative, based chiefly on poems of Edward and Edna. Then belatedly my speculations were to some extent confirmed by Matthew Hollis who had access to Edna's journals of the period. But whether she actively tried to seduce Edward - well, I can only say I think it quite likely, and likely that she would not have succeeded.

Edna's Story:
Edna – slender, extraordinarily beautiful, with a mass of chestnut hair and expressive eyes, was so talented an artist that she was accepted at the Slade at fourteen. She didn’t need to attend drawing class – there was nothing she needed to learn – so she developed her own way as a painter, especially as a water-colourist.  

It was William Clarke-Hall, a lawyer friend of her father’s, who had persuaded her parents to send her to the Slade. In her mind Willie was of their generation, twice her age. She was grateful to him but she’d never regarded him as a lover. When he proposed marriage she was too young to know herself, her feelings, and his nature. The marriage was unhappy from the beginning. Edna was nineteen, Willie thirty-two, she was open, honest and forthright with her feelings, he was reserved and formal, but he had been, for a time, overwhelmed by Edna’s beauty.

Edward had been in his last year at Oxford, already a father at twenty-one and married, though not yet living with Helen. A close friend of his, a law student, knew William and liked to talk about legal matters with him. Edward went on these visits, but spent the time talking to Edna. It was ‘them and us’, as Edward said – the lawyers and the artists.

Edna was glad to have someone who understood her, because already her new husband constantly criticised her behaviour and indeed her thoughts; he blamed her for her introspection or what he called self-absorption. Worse, she was young and wild, wanting to sleep out under the stars and climb the high elms around their house. She went out barefoot in simple cotton dresses and Willie said she looked like a gypsy.

Along with her wildness was the problem, for Willie, of the informality and spontaneity of her painting. Her art suffered; she managed to exhibit once in a group with some old Slade friends, but nothing more. All her promise seemed to have disappeared. She found what inspiration she could in Wuthering Heights, identifying herself with Catherine and her yearning for passionate love, something that she felt was cruelly denied her. She’d said a little, even at that early time, to Edward to hint at her unhappiness but she’d restrained herself from too much complaint then. 

After Oxford and a year in London the Thomases’ life took them away into the country, to Kent and Hampshire, and the friendship faded. Fifteen years passed. Edna had two children. Her old teacher from the Slade persuaded her to exhibit in a one-woman show early in 1914, and in the Saturday Review she was described as a sensitive and expressive draughtswoman. Her sense of colour, the reviewer said, was individual and instinctive. 

None of this altered Willie’s attitude towards his wife. 
In 1915 Edward's posting at Hare Hall camp, Romford, meant that he was near enough the Clarke- Hall home, Great House, Upminster, to visit and renew the friendship with Edna.

What 'happened' then between them we don't know, but Edward's poems of the period tell us that a real woman  or 'Woman' preoccupied his thoughts.
I have a book of Edna's poems kindly sent to me by Alison Thomas, a scientist at Cambridge who, for reasons I've never sought out, knows about Edna and other artists of the period. 'Portraits of Women', Alison Thomas.
The poems - well, I do wonder whether Edward was asked to read them and if so what he would have said. They are almost all full of pain, all about Love, Desire or Death.

The poems were published in 1926 and none are dated.

Edna hated the war and was in effect a pacifist - she painted very little during the war years. Somewhere around 1918 she had a serious mental breakdown. Her therapist persuaded Willie, her husband, to  respect her and her art more.
 She had a studio and gallery in London and continued to paint.

Love said unto my soul.   1930

In 1930 (aged 51) she was drawn by Augustus John.

Her gallery, studio and most of her extant work was destroyed in a bombing raid in WW Two, and she ceased painting. Edna lived till she was a hundred, dying in 1979.

   Thomas's poem, written 4th March 1916


Thinking of her had saddened me at first,
Until I saw the sun on the celandines lie
Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame,
A living thing, not what before I nursed,
The shadow I was growing to love almost,
The phantom, not the creature with bright eye
That I had thought never to see, once lost.

She found the celandines of February
Always before us all. Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world; and I was happy too,
Seeing the blossoms and the maiden who
Had seen them with me Februarys before,
Bending to them as in and out she trod
And laughed, with locks sweeping the mossy sod.

But this was a dream; the flowers were not true,
Until I stooped to pluck from the grass there
One of five petals and I smelt the juice
Which made me sigh, remembering she was no more,
Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.      

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