Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

COLERIDGE: SPIRITUAL MARINER

The poet, critic and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite is writing a new life of Coleridge. It’s going to be called Mariner, and it will focus on Coleridge’s inner life – his spiritual quest. Malcolm’s idea is that Coleridge prefigured the pattern of his future life in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the book will take its shape from the poem. A brilliant idea, I think.

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Malcolm Guite on the shore of Ullswater: October 2014

 

There have been excellent lives of Coleridge before – Richard Holmes’s wonderful and readable two-volume biography, and Molly Lefebure’s books on Coleridge’s opium addiction and his family – but none of them has really been deeply interested in Coleridge’s religious life and ideas. Yet this aspect of life was, for Coleridge himself, the most important of all, and it conditioned everything else.

In October I spent a few days exploring the Lakes with Malcolm, visiting some of Coleridge’s haunts; and this post is going to be an unashamed flashback because I’m recalling that time, and want to put some of the pictures from it on my blog. So here we go.

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Aira Force waterfalls – maybe the most spoectacular torrent in the Lakes

 

Malcolm and I met at Penrith rail station and went south along the shores of Ullswater to Aira Force with its amazing multilevelled waterfalls. We explored the network of footpaths that wind up into the woodland around the falls. We also relaxed on the shores of Ullswater, where Malcolm – though not I – ventured into the water for a paddle.

We went on to Keswick, where we stayed at the Queen’s Hotel – only realising after we checked in that this was where the John Hatfield, the conman who posed as an aristocrat and seduced the famous Maid of Buttermere, had also stayed, in 1802.

We visited Greta Hall, where Coleridge lived from 1800 to 1803 – not usually open to the public, though you can rent self-catering accommodation there,  – see www.gretahall.net – and it has the most amazingly interesting and beautiful house with wonderful views over the Vale of Derwentwater. Profound thanks to Jeronime, who welcomed us there and told us all about the house’s history.

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Greta Hall, Keswick

Malcolm, a keen waterman, insisted we go out in a boat on Derwentwater, and generously did all the rowing, so I was able to enjoy the views and the fresh air without effort.

We stayed the next night at How Foot Lodge, my favourite hotel in Grasmere, and visited the Wordsworth Trust, taking a tour of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, including the Jerwood Centre, where Jeff Cowton, the Curator, had with enormous generosity arranged to have a number of Coleridge manuscripts out for Malcolm to examine, as well as one of the several fine portrait drawings the Trust owns.

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Bravely, Malcolm prepares to paddle in Ullswater!

 

From there we went on to Rydal Mount, Wordsworth’s home in his later years, and wandered around the gardens as well as exploring the house: not quite as dramatically atmospheric as Dove Cottage, but a fine, comfortable Victorian family home, with Wordsworth’s study right up in an attic looking south towards Windermere.

Altogether a wonderful few days in what was, I think, the last spell of fine golden autumn weather during 2014. Very good to look back on from a bleak chilly January; and of course on the other hand I am now looking forward to Malcolm’s book about Coleridge which, from what I know of Malcolm’s work, will be beautifully readable and also very profound.

Here Comes Herries!

Enjoyed a great evening at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake on Thursday, for an on-stage conversation with Eric Robson about classic Keswick author Hugh Walpole.

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Hugh Walpole, 1884-1943

The Theatre will be premiering its new dramatisation of Walpole’s novel Rogue Herries on 23 March (full details from http://www.theatrebythelake.com/) and they kindly invited us over to talk about Walpole, his work, and why the reputation of this once leading novelist has faded, so that he’s now remembered, if at all, almost entirely for his Cumberland tetralogy.

Eric is a Walpole enthusiast and expert, with an impressive collection of rare volumes of his work. He has made a fine film, Herries Lakeland  introducing Walpole by way of the Cumbrian places he wrote about and lived in. Eric has also written the introductions to the recent reprints of the novels. He suggested that Walpole’s death in 1943 had been badly timed: writers who died during the war tended to be quickly forgotten and the paper shortage meant books weren’t reprinted. Walpole was also ridiculed in Maugham’s novel Cakes and Ale as a selfish social climbing opportunist – an unfair caricature of a far more complex (and generous) man.

I made the suggestion too that Walpole, as above all a teller of rattling good stories, doesn’t fit in with the Modernist narrative of the English novel – even though Virginia Woolf and Henry James were both his close friends. Walpole is a descendant of Scott and akin to Buchan – unpretentious but highly readable, a storyteller above all, with a cinematic imagination that made him a natural when he went to Hollywood in 1934 for a spell as a successful screen writer.

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Eric Robson – farmer, film-maker, writer, Walpole buff

Read the witch-drowning episode in Rogue Herries, the burning of Fell House in Vanessa  or the bleakly terrifying duel between Uhland and John Herries in The Fortress if you want to see Walpole at his dark and terrifying greatest. Or order Tarnhelm: The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole from Tartarus Press.

I think we gave a lively and balanced view of Walpole, and we had great fun doing it, and meeting old friends and new upstairs in the Theatre bar afterwards. Do come if you can to see Rogue Herries at Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake. And if anyone from BBC or Granada TV is reading this, why don’t you think about a full-scale dramatisation of the Herries novels? The world’s best locations are there waiting for you, and you could have a Lakeland Downton on your hands.

Buy Walpole’s Brackenburn – but read his books too

Odd coincidence. I was just writing a chapter on Hugh Walpole, the Lakeland novelist, for the forthcoming third volume of Keswick Characters, edited by Patricia Howell and Brian Wilkinson, and I clicked on Google to find an image of Walpole’s house, Brackenburn, above Derwentwater. What came up was an estate agent’s picture: the house has just gone on the market. http://www.findaproperty.com/for-sale/property-12240824

Brackenburn, Hugh Walpole’s house, 1923-41: looking over the garden towards Derwentwater and Skiddaw

Built in 1909 of local stone and perched on the fellside near the south end of the lake, Brackenburn is a beautiful place, even if its design (like Walpole himself) has a slight touch of suburbia about it. Walpole moved there in 1923, and wrote his famous family saga, the Herries Chronicle, there – in between frquent trips to London to enjoy theatre and parties.

He enlarged the house and developed its fabulous gardens, which have been well cared for by the present owners, who I gather have had the house for 22 years.

Walpole’s reputation has flagged since his death in 1941, but his Herries novels are still worth reading. They have big faults, certainly: there is virtually no plot: the passage of generations of farmers, merchants and landowners with their accompanying feuds, obsessions and antagonisms generate a semblance of motivation, and that suffices. Historical accuracy is flouted: Walpole lacked the patience for research, consoling himself during the writing of Rogue Herries that ‘no one knows very much about the eighteenth century really, or only a few do. I can be venturous.’ But Walpole is a dab hand at fantasy, the horrific, the bizarre. In this realm his imagination is of splendid fertility, and he has a masterful gift for the visually grotesque.

One of his finest opassages is the horribly convincing crowd-scene in Rogue Herries, where Mrs Wilson, a mentally-confused and infirm old woman servant from Herries’s household, tries to visit a dying friend in a nearby village and is taken for a witch.

‘Men and women, close together as though for protection, were gathered together at the end of the cobbled path. They stood, huddled together, not speaking, staring at her. Although she could not see well and was so deeply frightened that it was though her heart were beating in her eyes, yet certain faces were very distinct to her.’

She is stripped, stoned and thrown into a river, where she dies. The episode is seen from the victim’s point of view and is cinematic in its constant restless movement and shaky, off-balance shifts of vision. Walpole was a natural screen-writer, enjoying a successful stint in Hollywood scripting David Copperfield and Little Lord Fauntleroy for David O. Selznick.

He demonstrates it repeatedly in the Herries novels, in both crowded set-pieces (feasts, fights, markets, travelling-theatre shows) and episodes of fast-moving, claustrophobic horror like the burning of Fell House in Vanessa, where Adam Paris, confused by smoke, searches on the wrong floor for his daughter’s room until the fire traps him.

Perhaps the finest scene in the Herries tetralogy is also the grimmest. It occurs in the third novel, The Fortress, where John and Uhland Herries, cousins who have cherished a lifelong loathing, make their separate ways through dense mist to meet at Skiddaw House, a desolate shepherd’s bothy on the north slope of the mountain. Uhland is lame, John crippled by an obsession with his own cowardice, which he overcomes to confront Uhland. Uhland shoots John, then turns the gun on himself. Walpole heightens the scene to a painful vividness by the use of banal detail – the dusty wax fruit on the windowsill of the neglected room, the child’s drawing on the back of the crumpled scrap of paper which is all Uhland can find for his suicide note. The result is a scene worthy of Conrad or Hardy.

Walpole still deserves to be read. And if you have £1,750,000 to spare you might like to buy his wonderful house and garden too. It really is quite a special place.