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.
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.
Under Storm's Wing.
Helen Thomas - using Helen's words.
The problem with Helen is of course also the bonus - she had written her account of her life with Edward in the moving and still widely read works, As It Was and World Without End, 1926 and 1931 collected as Under Storm's Wing.
(I was interested to read that the major Thomas scholar Edna Longley came to Thomas 's poetry after reading Helen's work.)
Helen's 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 was dedicated to keeping Edward's name and work to the fore, but she also developed a wide circle of friends in the arts, especially music and ballet. She recorded and introduced Edward's poems at the age of 88, and died in 1967.
'Under Storm's Wing' 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 referred to in his commentary on 'The Secret Life of William 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 set in Leddington:
Helen's voice: She wrote many hundreds of letters and if I tried to emulate her voice it is the voice of the letters, not because they were contemporary rather than retrospective (after all 'Half a kiss, half a tear' is meant to be a memoir) but because they are less polished, more spontaneous and so more easy to contemporary ears than Helen's prose in Under Storm's Wing. Sometimes it is rather too fulsome and I do try to capture that from time to time. But mostly it is sincere, vivid and moving and I know I can't attempt to equal it . Look at this on their final parting:
"I sit and stare stupidly at his luggage by the walls. He takes a book out of his pocket. 'You see, your Shakespeare's Sonnets is already where it will always be. Shall I read you some?'; He reads one or two to me. His face is grey and his mouth trembles, but his voice is quiet and steady. And soon I slip to the floor and sit between his knees, and while he reads his hand falls over my shoulder and I hold it with mine.'Shall I undress you by this lovely fire and carry you upstairs in my khaki overcoat?' So he undoes my things, and I slip out of them; then he takes the pins out of my hair, and we laugh at ourselves for behaving as we often do, like young lovers.
I hide my face on his knee and all my tears so long kept back come convulsively. I cannot stop crying. My body is torn with terrible sobs. I am engulfed in this despair like a drowning man by the sea. My mind is incapable of thought.
So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and what had been amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other, and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other's arms we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows."
Here is part of a letter to Robert thanking him for succeeding in getting Edward's poems published in America. It was written near the time Edward was killed:
Late at night
What a bit of luck to get your letter at all. I thought all the mails had gone down in the Laconia, but evidently not. I'm so excited & happy about your splendid news, & I've already written to the dear man & told him, & to John Freeman to find out about those 'insists'. I feel sure it will be all right. I'm not at all sure that Edward Eastaway will consent to be Edward Thomas, but I will add my 'insists' to yours & hope for the best. Also I like the idea of your preface & feel sure he will too. It's all very good news & you sound as pleased & you knew we would be.
By now you will have heard from him. He's at Arras & expecting a hot time presently. I don't suppose I can tell you much about him may I. He's at present at head quarters as adjutant to a ruddy Colonel whose one subject is horse racing & jockeys & such & with whom our man gets on so well that the he's longing to be back at his battery, he's afraid the Colonel has taken a fancy to him & will keep him. It will probably mean promotion, but Edward wants the real thing & wont be happy till he gets it & what is one to do with such a poet. In a pause in the shooting he turns his wonderful field glasses on to a hovering kestrel & sees him descend & pounce & bring up a mouse. Twice he saw that & says "I suppose the mice are travelling now". What a soldier. Oh he's just fine, full of satisfaction in his work, & his letters free from care & responsibility but keen to have a share in the great stage when it begins where he is.
At first after we'd said 'Goodbye' & we knew what suffering was, & what we meant to each other, I did not live really, but just somehow or other did my work, but with my ears strained all the time for his step or his coo-ee in case he came back. But the one can only wait & hope & not let panic take a hold of one, his happy letters & the knowledge that all is so well between us, are making life life again, & the Spring helps too & the feeling that the end is near-must come soon, & that that end will be-if it is at all-a beginning again for us with such knowledge of each other as nothing can ever obliterate, nothing can ever, that is what we know & what makes life possible now.
I must tell you that [the] last evening we were talking of people of ourselves of friends & of his work & all he'd like done. And he said "Outside you& the children & my mother, Robert Frost comes next." And I know he loves you.
She enclosed one of these photographs taken by Merfyn, probably the High Beech.
I've kept & kept this letter & just have not had the opportunity to add to it. You've heard by now I expect from Edward & perhaps from Mr. Ingpen too. Eastaway will not be Thomas & thats that he says, but all about the 'insists' you'll have heard from others. Edwards letters are still full of interest & life & satisfaction in his work. He's back on his battery now in the thick of it as he wanted to be, firing 400 rounds a day from his gun, listening to the men talking, & getting on well with his fellow officers.He's had other times of depression & home sickness. He says "I cannot think of ever being home again, & dare not think of never being there again" & in a letter to Merfyn he says "I want to have six months of it, & then I want to be at home. I wish I knew I was coming back." Oh if only I knew that too!*Poem: It has to be this, which I think was a valediction to Helen and shows as much love as Edward was capable of showing.
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.
Episode 1 Don't forget! I was interviewed as part of this but whether or not - it will be marvellous. Matthew hugely insightful and Robert MacFarlane reading Thomas's poems.
1/3 Matthew Oates follows in the footsteps of the writer Edward Thomas.
- Next Friday 15:30 BBC Radio 4