Fast developments

Yesterday and the day before I did some entirely new research on correlating what documents we have about these few days of Kittie’s life. The result is, of course, still only an hypothesis, but I think it is a plausible one. For me it is a revelation. It suggests that Kittie was far more proactive than I had thought, was working much faster than I thought, and that things in the mess and muddle of this war could move far more quickly (on the home front, at least) than I had assumed.

In the Calderon archive there is a rather scrumpled letter from Percy Lubbock without a date, without its envelope, and on writing paper headed ‘4th Field Ambulance, 2nd Division, Expeditionary Force’ — which has, however, been crossed out and ‘Emmetts’ written underneath. The printed address perhaps suggests that Percy has just got back from a Red Cross trip to the Western Front. He begins:

Dear Kitty

One must go to Egypt when one is told to go, it seems — but I could wish they hadn’t arranged it so that I should exactly miss you. But there it is — and I dare say it is easier to skip off to Alexandria at two minutes’ notice than to sit and work in England.

I had assumed this was written to Kittie at the end of this week, around 20th, when we know she was staying with Nina Astley (Corbet) at Hoe Benham in Berkshire, but I had missed the fact that Percy’s next extant letter to her is from Alexandria and dated 27 June. I had also overlooked the fact that his letter from Emmetts is dated by him ‘Tuesday’. Given that it took at least a week to get to Alexandria, and Percy’s boss, Gertrude Bell, had been in touch with Kittie only on 14th, the only ‘Tuesday’ Percy could have been writing on was next day, Tuesday 15 June.

Perhaps Bell had already decided to send Percy to Alexandria on Red Cross business before she received Kittie’s letter of 13 June. It seems more likely, though, that she had decided by 15th that he was to go and look for George in the military hospitals of the city. Perhaps she did this independently, but perhaps she agreed to do it after Kittie rang her on 14th and offered to subsidise Percy to go. (It would not have been the last time she subsidised his activities.)

So the hypothesis is that the two women very quickly agreed that Percy Lubbock should sail for Alexandria and that by the time Percy was writing to Kittie on 15 June he knew she was going off to be with Nina. We know from his next letter that Kittie wrote to him on 16th (we don’t have the letter). This implies that she was momentarily in London still but that by today, 17 June 1915, she was at Hoe Benham (otherwise Percy would still have been able to see her in London). Percy himself could have embarked for Alexandria today.

Very swiftly indeed, then, Kittie had achieved her three highest priorities, given the lack of further information from the War Office about George’s fate: she had got Coote Hedley to give the War Office Casualties Section a following wind, a close family friend had been despatched to look for George, and she was with her lifetime confidante, Nina, who was uniquely able to comfort her. Nina’s house in Berkshire did not have a telephone, but it could receive telegrams, for instance from Gertrude Bell, or from Elizabeth Ellis if the latter took receipt of a new telegram from the War Office.

But neither Bell nor Kittie appears to have told Percy the specific (i.e. true?) reason he was being sent posthaste to Egypt, for his letter of 15th to Kittie ends:

If George should be there, wouldn’t that be a lark. Do write to me c/o Messrs T. Cook, Rue de la Porte de Rosette 2, Alexandria. If ever you want to telegraph to me, apply to Miss Bell, 20 Arlington St. She will be able to do so free of charge.

Rather dizzy work, life.

Yours affect.,

Percy

Next entry: The biographer blurts

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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2 Responses to Fast developments

  1. Clare Hopkins says:

    But… But… But Patrick….

    I found this an extremely persuasive hypothesis – until I got to your comment on the last paragraph of Percy’s letter. His tone seems extraordinarily, even inappropriately, chirpy. Surely Percy knew exactly why he was going to Alexandria. Is it not significant that – as an Edwardian gentleman who therefore did not tell lies – he gives no reason at all for such a sudden and potentially risky foreign trip? What a lark indeed!

    I would dare to conjecture that Gertrude had given him very specific instructions: George is either dead, missing, or so badly injured that he cannot even dictate a message to his wife. Go AT ONCE to Egypt and Find Out. But DO NOT Tell Kittie My Fears.

    So Percy here is doing his best to sound reassuringly light-hearted. As George did rather better in his masterful description of the delights of camping on the Turkish coast. The irony of course is that Kittie had asked, even paid, Gertrude to send him. And presumably he knew that she knew that he knew…

    Edwardian mores are certainly difficult to understand at times. It always seems paradoxical that Kittie was resourceful, proactive, and possessed of considerable inner strength, yet she accepted and welcomed the way all her friends conspired to protect her. On the other hand it is easy to see why this upbeat cheerfulness was comforting when she was undoubtedly worried sick. That illogical dread that if you express your fears out loud they might become true is surely timeless.

    • Dear Clare, Many many thanks for this Comment, which as always is invigorating! As you probably guessed, I deliberately split Percy’s letter and left it ‘hanging’ at the end to see if any of our followers was shocked by his insouciance (‘chirpiness’)… Your hypothesis is, of course, justified and plausible. In particular, I think you have absolutely hit the nail on the head when you describe the ‘paradoxicality’ of Kittie’s actual strength and her friends’ desire to protect her from the truth (I shall probably have more to say about that in July). What we don’t know is how much (if at all) Kittie had been in touch with Percy since receiving the news on 11 June, just after staying with his sister and parents. There is no evidence that she had — directly. My own guess is that Kittie had concentrated on dealing with Gertrude Bell directly and the two women had agreed that there was a need for someone to go to Alexandria on Red Cross business anyway, and Percy could double that with looking for George. So I see Percy’s innocent chirpiness as a reflection of the fact that he wasn’t principally going out to look for George; if he saw him, it would be a ‘lark’, if he got news about him it would be a bonus. The sequence of letters to Kittie from Percy in Egypt is quite long (27 June to 6 August) and it’s clear he has other Red Cross business whilst he’s there. It’s worth recalling that Kittie was almost as involved in the anti-suffrage movement as George, and therefore probably was already on good terms with Bell. What I’m saying, then, is that I think the two (older) women arranged things over Percy’s head so as not to alarm him with their real fears…

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