REVIEW. Lorna C. Beckett, The Second I Saw You: The True Love Story of Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner (British Library, 2015), 208 pp.

The chance sight of an email that I sent my military research assistant on 22 July 2014 recalls me with a start to the fact that I began researching the last year of George Calderon’s life exactly a year ago! All I can say is, thank goodness the other thirteen chapters of my biography didn’t take so long…

I actually finished writing that chapter on 15 February 2015, but I have been tweaking it ever since — sometimes substantially — in the light of the day-to-day writing of this blog. The blog’s intense focus on specific days actually led to me changing my focus in places within the longer narrative of the book.

In the year that is gone I have read dozens of works relevant to my subject. Some of them I have discussed and recommended on this blog. In the early months I relied heavily on Mark Bostridge’s The Fateful Year: England 1914 and Max Hastings’s Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914. Those are new books, and in my view unsurpassable. Another was Martin Pegler’s Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, which is invaluable for reference and marvellously evokes the mentality and ethos of the British combatants. Among ‘classic’ studies, I have read and often revisited Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War (2008) and Santanu Das’s Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (2005), and would never have been without Ian Beckett’s Ypres: The First Battle 1914 (2004) and Peter Hart’s Gallipoli (2011).

But the sub-title of my biography of George Calderon is Edwardian Genius. I am investigating the somewhat paradoxical notion of an Edwardian species of genius, and that means I am passionately interested in the Edwardian world and who the Edwardians were. Historically speaking, of course, Calderon was also a Georgian ‘genius’, because George V acceded to the throne in 1910, but let’s not go into that now.

Where the Edwardian context of my biography’s subject is concerned, I have no hesitation in saying that the most stimulating, evocative and informative book I have read in the past year is Lorna Beckett’s The Second I Saw You, which was published by the British Library and launched at the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, in April 2015. Several of my friends have read it and argued with me about it. I have read it twice. As a book, it has some quite serious technical flaws, but I will stick my neck out and say that you will learn more about the Edwardians and their values from this book than any other published this year.

Not that you will learn anything from this book about Brooke’s poetry, except perhaps that some of his letters to Phyllis Gardner display an over-interest in traditional metres and forms compared with brevity, naturalness, innovation or thought. But has anyone ever undertaken a serious critical evaluation of Brooke’s poetry?

As Chair of the Rupert Brooke Society, Lorna Beckett knows her Brooke biography inside out. This enables her always to give authoritative substance to the context of her subject — which, as the sub-title explains, is The True Love Story of Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner. This story is based on a memoir of their relationship written by Gardner in 1918 and over a hundred letters between them from 1912-15. All of these manuscripts were de-reserved at the British Library only fifteen years ago.

Phyllis Gardner’s memoir is well written. She was clearly an original young woman, an intelligent wordsmith, and a serious painter. By and large her account has a simplicity that utterly wins you over and inspires trust in its veracity. The letters of both ‘lovers’ are truly vibrant, viva voce, and full of delight, directness, passion, pain, anger, regret — a wide, youthful range. Beckett interweaves the memoir, letters, and her own commentary, extremely well, so that you get a gripping story that happens also, you are constantly aware, to be true. Her commentary itself is penetrating and psychologically wise.

The first thing to be said is that in my opinion this book does not show that Brooke was the ‘womaniser’, ‘philanderer’ and ‘woman-hating sadist’ that some reviewers have claimed. In the less than four years that his relationship with Gardner encompassed, he had partially coinciding consummated affairs with Katharine Cox, Elisabeth van Rysselberghe, and Cathleen Nesbitt. He did compartmentalise his life somewhat, but it is hardly news that poets are erotomaniacs (because they have to explore beauty), or that young people (Brooke was twenty-four in 1911, Gardner twenty-one) have to experiment with relationships before they marry. Beckett has the balance exactly right:

Brooke was a complex, intense and frequently confused young man who in many ways was trying to construct an individual lifestyle, liberated from the conventions of the Edwardian era, and in doing so was often in conflict with himself.

Brooke knew about and practised contraception and today the idea that having three sexual relationships in four years before the age of twenty-five made him a ‘womaniser’ would be laughable. Moreover, as a socialist he could hardly have opposed women’s suffrage in principle: what really made him rage against feminists, it seems, was their denial of gender difference. ‘He is out to declare that men are men and women women’, he wrote of Strindberg. ‘It sounds an easy thing to say, but it’s not. The pain of the statement nearly drove him mad.’

However, where Edwardian mores are concerned the most pernicious aspect illustrated by this book is the extreme, controlling interference of mothers in their children’s lives. Both Phyllis’s and Rupert’s fathers were career academics deeply embedded in the Edwardian male woodwork and hardly ever feature in the book. Either they had no real hands-on interest in their children’s lives, or their wives assiduously distanced them from the latter. Phyllis’s mother, Mary Gardner, quite clearly derived a vicarious pleasure from her daughter’s relationship with Brooke. Indeed she seems to have yearned to be in her daughter’s place. She asks Phyllis pointblank: ‘Has Rupert been making love to you [not in modern sense]?’, and even writes a poem in her daughter’s persona when the affair is over. When news comes of Brooke’s death in a letter to Mary Gardner, she rushes upstairs in tears and won’t show it to her daughter for half an hour; when Phyllis is affected, she lies down on her mother’s bed. Brooke’s own mother was just as determined to live her life through her son, and had the advantage of holding his purse strings.

Add to this that Phyllis was meant to be chaperoned everywhere, or at least accountable for every minute of her day, and that Brooke found Cambridge society impossibly nosey, and you gain a palpable sense of the paranoia and secrecy that infested Edwardian society. If these were the pressures that assailed Edwardians when young, it is hardly surprising that they grew up obsessed with keeping up appearances, presentation and ‘spin’.

But the most fascinatingly awful aspect of the story is how a bone-dry conventional morality, a sterile degeneration of Christianity, blighted both young lives. Phyllis’s descriptions of them taking all their clothes off, swimming across the river at Grantchester, then drying each other with their long hair, or later divesting themselves in Edward Marsh’s flat and stroking each other, are magical, Lawrentian, unforgettable. Phyllis felt in ‘a sort of heaven’ and Brooke surely did too. They were both young, beautiful and in different ways in love with each other. So then..?

The affair was never consummated. They never made love. How on earth, one involuntarily asks in 2015, did they manage to resist it? Was there, as a Russian friend of mine used to say in such circumstances, chto-to ne to s seksom, i.e. a sexual dysfunctionality? Given the probably repressive childhoods of both of them, you might think it was as Freudian as that. But the truth, this book amply makes clear, was simpler, nobler, yet in some ways more terrible.

There came a time when Brooke knew he would not be able to control himself any longer. To quote Gardner’s memoir:

‘I must have you, here,’ he said, laying a hand over what is delicately referred to by artists as ‘the central point of the figure.’ ‘Yes — some time,’ I said. ‘It had occurred to me.’

But he knew she was still sexually naive. She was in fact piling the pressure on him herself, and conversely knew that she was ‘wax in his hands’ and might ‘surrender myself unconditionally to him’. When Brooke was staying at her parents she stole out of her room in the night, sat on his bed, then began to fear she had gone too far; but Brooke said: ‘Are you frightened?’  ‘Yes,’ said I. ‘You needn’t be,’ he said: ‘I wouldn’t do anything you wouldn’t like.’ Personally, I think this does the ‘womaniser’ great credit.

Brooke was desperately looking for the love of his life, to whom he might even get married, but suspected increasingly that he was just a ‘wanderer’. Gardner could not bear the idea of contraception, was from an exasperatingly ‘pi’ family, and believed only in marriage and the life-partner. Egged on by her mother’s utterly conventional and sterile class morality, in her conversation and letters Phyllis inveighed more and more angrily against Brooke’s perceived irreligion, hedonism and ‘German’ values. The relationship was doomed. In his own desperate disorientation Brooke was as much the victim of Edwardian convention as she was. He found emotional and sexual satisfaction with Taatamata on Tahiti, but as soon as she became pregnant he was off to England again. Phyllis’s life after Brooke was one of marriageless sexual unfulfilment, love transferred to Irish wolfhounds, and cancer. The last chapter is black. To some extent the decline of the Gardner family is as much an epitaph on the Edwardian world as Brooke’s own death.

The British Library deserve enormous thanks and credit for publishing this book, but the way it has been done (under their own imprint) leaves a lot to be desired. The proofreading is very wobbly, the design curiously amateurish, and the perfect binding not perfect enough to prevent numerous pages from falling out. Lorna Beckett makes much of the fact that this is her ‘first book’; she absolutely need not, but there are a few things in her style that, for my taste at least, should have been ironed out, e.g. her thoroughly Edwardian over-use of the adjective ‘charming’. But it is a valuable, absorbing, sometimes visceral portrait of a relationship and the last four years of a remarkable young man’s life. It deserves to be rigorously re-edited, and published as fast as possible in paperback.

PATRICK MILES

Next entry: 25 July 1915

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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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