Beowulf, (1948) by Bryher (2023)

Beowulf, (1948) by Bryher (1)I came across this marvellous book in one of those weird and wonderful 21st century ways that Bookish people have come to enjoy. It was mentioned in passing on some podcast I was listening to, and when I searched for it I found it listed at Furrowed Middlebrow by way of Mrs K Investigates. Since then, I’ve also found it at Neglected Books.

The Introduction by Susan McCabe in my Kindle edition of Beowulf, a novel of the London Blitz, tells the extraordinary story of this unconventional novelist, poet, memoirist, and magazine editor, born Annie Winifred Ellerman but convinced from childhood that she was meant to be a boy. She took the name Bryher (which comes from one the smallest inhabited islands of the Isles of Scilly) because she wanted to be independent of her father’s name. Before WW2 she wrote two very early accounts of gender dysphoria —Development (1920) and Two Selves (1923) — and went on to write 13 more novels, as well as poetry and non-fiction.

She was widely travelled and was in Europe to witness the rise of Nazism. Her lover the modernist poet HDHilda Doolittle escaped back to England along with her child Perdita Aldington, but Bryher delayed in Switzerland until the occupation of France forced a perilous journey back through Italy and Spain, to rejoin HD who had been in London since the start of the Blitz.

Beowulf the novel is written as a series of linked vignettes, each chapter introducing new characters whose story we learn. All of them are grieving, one way or another, for a life that is gone, because even if the war ended in an hour, there would always be a rift, a sense of loss.The genius of this novel is the way it sees the inner heart and soul of Londoners outwardly stoic. The book’s title comes from a plaster British bulldog in the teashop, the setting which links the stories. The dog is named Beowulf, after the hero of the Anglo-Saxon epic. He symbolises tenacity, honour and courage, and represents triumph over evil.

Chapter 1 begins with Horatio Rashleigh, an elderly painter used to better days but now very hard-up because people no longer send hand-painted Christmas cards to each other. His cousin Agatha grudgingly sends him a monthly cheque but she isn’t always punctual and sometimes he runs short.

Living in poverty with no means of earning an income, and pitifully cold in London’s bleak winters because he can’t afford heating, Horatio is disturbed each morning by Eve downstairs who puts on a bit of swing as she gets ready for work. When he gently remonstrates, she claims to keep the wireless down low, but the noise is worse than a dozen roundabouts.The war affects Horatio as an inconvenience rather than as an existential threat. He hates the blackout because he can’t sleep with his curtains open as he used to, and at his age, he thinks he may as well be killed by a bomb in his bed as catch pneumonia down in a bomb shelter. He is, after all, a lonely old man now, bereft after 30 years of domestic happiness. There’s nothing for him to look forward to anyway. Poignantly, he worries that he might be too frail to visit the National Gallery by the time they bring the paintings back from storage safe from the bombs.

Horatio braves the cold to buy some tea, where he is patronised by Mr Dobbins who is cranky from a noisy night of it.Colonel Ferguson, who is welcome in Dobbins’ shop because he can afford to buy tea in pounds not ounces, admires Dobbins. It was wonderful the way these wardens had tackled the crisis. Colonel Ferguson has his own troubles… he has returned to Britain in its hour of need but he misses the warmth and colour of Lausanne.

England had changed. It was less familiar, certainly less friendly, than the Continent. There were still the old colours in the fabric; people stood up nightly to the raids as if they were merely thunderstorms, but there was a new, ugly, bureaucratic class without guts and without what he called “empire imagination.” They laughed at his fifty years of service as if he had been some petty tax collector. He was still fuming over yesterday’s interview. “I don’t understand, sir, why you returned to London,” the official had said, pursing his lips as if he nibbled a pencil permanently. “You have been domiciled abroad ever since you left India and you are well over military age.” Colonel Ferguson had not even troubled to reply, “To offer my services.” After half a dozen young men in as many different Ministries had turned him down in varying tones of boredom and icy politeness, the logical part of his mind was saying “Why?” to himself. (p. 62).

My favourite character is Adelaide Spenser, gently mocked by the author when she checks her hat in the reflection from a shop window because it is so essential these days not to lower one’s standards! She does not argue with people because it’s bad for the complexion, and the best way to deal with relatives, she had found out by long experience, was to sit quietly, say nothing, and treat herself to a good dinner afterwards.

Adelaide had opportunistically stocked her pantry with sixty pounds of marmalade, which she’d been able to barter for eggs so that her bad-tempered husband Thomas should have his usual breakfast at a time when luxuries could be obtained with ease but eggs had almost disappeared. She privately credits these jars of marmalade with Thomas getting a promotion so that they didn’t have to evacuate.

“Dear me, no! I always preferred a florist’s window to a garden, and I positively hate cows. I suppose the war has made a lot of difference to you? How are things getting on?”

The correct answer should have been “Splendidly, thank you,” but Selina hesitated, in spite of her resolution. “We mustn’t grumble, of course, but the times are a little trying.”

“Unnecessarily so,” Adelaide’s voice was firmer than she intended, “when you think that we could have stopped the whole affair in 1933 with a thousand British policemen.”

“It was hard to know what to do for the best,” Selina ventured cautiously. It was an unbreakable rule, always be neutral with customers. “But I am sure that the Government meant well,” she added loyally, “all of us wanted peace.”

But it isn’t a static thing, Adelaide longed to reply; it isn’t the name of a virtue to be copied out in coloured inks and hung in a school hall. (p. 71).

I loved this book though the ending broke my heart.

Highly recommended.

In memoriam: This is my father’s cousin Joan Hill, who died aged 19 in the Blitz on the 8th October, 1940. Joan’s mother Ellen was widowed by WW1: her husband Thomas from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers had been killed on active service in 1915.

A month later, another cousin Ronald (Ronnie) Stanley Watts was killed in the Blitz on 16th November 1940 aged 22.

Joan Ellen Hill c1926
Ronald Stanley Watts c 1930

These are not the only casualties from WW2 in my family history, just the civilians.

Author: Bryher
Introduction by Susan McCabe
Title: Beowulf, a novel of the London Blitz
Cover design and illustrations by Evan Johnston
Publisher: Schaffner Press, 2020, 180 pages, first published in French in 1948; in English in 1956
ASIN: B09R346B9M, Kindle edition

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