Happy New Year!
Today the writings and visual art works of creators who died in the course of 1943 come out of copyright in Britain and the other EC countries. (This does not apply to any of their works that were first published posthumously, nor to translations that were published more recently, or were made by translators who are still alive, or who died less than 70 years ago.)
I have a brief but vivid memory of visiting the public library with my mother when I was four. I am running to find my mother, full of excitement, holding out a little squarish book that I know, from the pictures (I do not know how to read yet), is about the adventures of two mice. My mother is browsing the shelves in an alcove nearby; she is outlined against a big window glazed with frosted glass, through which the winter afternoon sunlight slants in a blaze of deep gold.
The book I'd found was The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter (b. 1866). I am pretty sure I already had several Beatrix Potter books of my own at home, but I never possessed a copy of that one, which is probably why I was so excited to find it. I know that as a child I had copies of Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, The Flopsy Bunnies, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Squirrel Nutkin. I also have clear memories of reading Jemima Puddle-Duck, Jeremy Fisher, Pigling Bland and Mr. Tod, but some of those, at least, came from the public library at some time or another.
My favourites were The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. I still have copies of those two, though not the ones I owned as a child; those descended to my brothers, and if there was anything left of them after that, I expect they were long ago sent to some charity shop or jumble sale.
Squirrel Nutkin was the one I loved most of all. This had a lot to do with the riddles scattered through it. These are all from oral tradition, and were recorded in older sources, though not always with quite the same wording as the versions used by Potter.
Riddle me, riddle me, rot-tot-tote!
A little wee man, in a red red coat!
A staff in his hand, and a stone in his throat;
If you'll tell me this riddle, I'll give you a groat.
(The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, p. 18)
When I was about nine or ten, my parents bought a set of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. I was already addicted to poetry and I mined the poetry sections systematically, acquiring in the process an extensive knowledge of English patriotic verse: 'And ever aloft on the palace roof the old banner of England blew!' (Tennyson: 'The Defence of Lucknow'). Mee was born in 1875. His immensely successful Children's Encyclopaedia was first published as a part work, beginning in 1908. It went through many editions. Secondhand book dealers shudder when anyone offers them a set. (Seriously.)
I borrowed The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (b. 1880) from Minehead Public Library in late summer 1970 while I was on holiday with my family. I smuggled it back to the cottage where we were staying and read it in secret when everyone else was asleep. I thought my parents might well have heard of it, in which case there would have been a terrible row, with lasting repercussions. Ironically, I knew of the book's existence from an article on lesbians I'd found in one of my mother's magazines. (Very daring subject for a mass-market women's magazine c. 1969-1970.)
I was passionately in love with another girl (she didn't know). I had very little idea what this might mean for me, and there was a social conspiracy to keep me ignorant. I secretly scavenged knowledge wherever I could, in a battle to stay sane and in control.
From The Well of Loneliness, and especially from its ending, I learned that my emotional future was bleak. Not cheering, and fortunately not true.
Some other 1943 deaths:
- Annie S. Swan (b. 1859) [Annie Shepherd Swan, aka 'David Lyall', aka 'Mrs Burnett Smith'], Scots author, mainly of romantic fiction; very prolific. I have never read any of her books, but my mother owned a number of them, so I deduce that they are squeaky clean.
- W. W. Jacobs (b. 1863) [William Wymark Jacobs]; prolific short story writer, remembered chiefly for his horror story 'The Monkey's Paw'. I read it at an impressionable age and it scared the hell out of me.
- Elinor Glyn (b. 1864), the author of the scandalous erotic novel Three Weeks (1907) and other works. I have never read any of her books and I am sure my mother would not have touched them with tongs.
- E. M. Delafield' (b. 1890) [Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood], chiefly remembered as the author of Diary Of A Provincial Lady (no, haven't read that either).
- the poet Laurence Binyon (b. 1869), now chiefly remembered for a single stanza from his 1914 poem 'For the Fallen':
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Scholars who died in 1943 include:
- the Wordsworth scholar Ernest de Selincourt (b. 1870)
- the classicist F. M. Cornford (b. 1874), a friend of Gilbert Murray and Jane Harrison. One of these days I'll get around to reading my copy of The Origin of Attic Comedy.
- the historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood (b. 1889); his book Roman Britain was one of the sources used by Rosemary Sutcliff for her Arthurian novel Sword at Sunset.
Beatrice Webb (b. 1858), the political activist and author, was outlived by her husband Sidney (1859–1947), so their many joint works are still in copyright. But her memoir My Apprenticeship (1926) has now come out of copyright, and so has her early social journalism.
Richard Hillary (b. 1919), who wrote about his experiences as a Battle of Britain pilot in The Last Enemy (1942), was killed the next year on a training flight.
And another casualty of the war: the young poet Sidney Keyes (b. 1922) was killed in Tunisia after just a fortnight's active service with the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. He was not yet 21 years old. His first book of poems, The Iron Laurel, was published in 1942. A second volume, The Cruel Solstice, was ready for publication at the time he died and was published later in 1943. His Collected Poems appeared in 1945.
I was sixteen, coming up seventeen when I came across Keyes's poetry. Again it was in a public library while I was on holiday with my family: this time in Bude, Cornwall. It had a particularly good poetry section, that library; besides Sidney Keyes I gorged on Laurie Lee and Lawrence Durrell; also Charles Causley, if I remember rightly. I copied as many of Keyes's poems as I could into a notebook, but if I still have that, damned if I know where it is. I bought a secondhand copy of the Collected Poems many, many years ago. These two poems were both published in The Iron Laurel:
No room for mourning: he's gone out
Into the noisy glen, or stands between the stones
Of the gaunt ridge, or you'll hear his shout
Rolling among the screes, he being a boy again.
He'll never fail nor die
And if they laid his bones
In the wet vaults or iron sarcophagi
Of fame, he'd rise at the first summer rain
And stride across the hills to seek
His rest among the broken lands and clouds.
He was a stormy day, a granite peak
Spearing the sky; and look, about its base
Words flower like crocuses in the hanging woods,
Blank though the dalehead and the bony face.
Cock stubble-searching pheasant, delicate
Stepper, Cathayan bird, you fire
The landscape, as across the hollow lyre
Quick fingers burn the moment: call your mate
From the deep woods tonight, for your surprised
Metallic summons answers me like wire
Thrilling with messages, and I cannot wait
To catch its evening import, half-surmised.
Others may speak these things, but you alone
Fear never noise, make the damp thickets ring
With your assertions, set the afternoon
Alight with coloured pride. Your image glows
At autumn's centre—bright, unquestioning
Exotic bird, haunter of autumn hedgerows.
Sidney Keyes (1922–1943)