Wednesday, September 18, 2013

EDITH OLIVIER, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley (1938)

Seeing as I am the world's biggest Edith Olivier fan (and for once, considering her current level of obscurity, that phrase might not be much of an exaggeration!), it's odd that it took me so long to get around to her 1938 memoir, Without Knowing Mr. Walkley.  While I'm on my second or third reading of all of her novels (I've discussed the first three here already and will hopefully get around to the other two soon), for some reason my obsessiveness failed me and I've only come to Mr. Walkley belatedly.  Which is a shame, because it turned out to be a joy—like spending a weekend with a favorite old aunt whose quirky sense of humor has a subtle but surprisingly sharp edge.

First and foremost, the book is highly entertaining—anecdotal, humorous and touching by turns, informed by Olivier's special ability to vividly regain "lost time"—perhaps because of her attention to odd and fascinating details that might have passed another writer by.

For example, Olivier's striking recollection of the village postmistress of her childhood:

In those days, Wilton post office was simply one of the ordinary small houses in the Square, and it must have been very difficult for strangers to find it. You opened the door upon a lobby measuring about two feet square, on one side of which was a window of frosted glass. The customer tapped upon this, and then it flew up with a snap to reveal the cross face of Miss Young, the postmistress. She seemed to be overcome with rage if anyone dared to buy a stamp from her, and we were terrified of her. She did, however, once unbend sufficiently to teach my mother how to open an envelope so cunningly that no one could possibly guess that it had been touched. A useful art for a postmistress.

Olivier is also interested in changes in the way ordinary life is lived over time.  For example, she focuses on how different life was in the days when people frequently walked long distances rather than riding or driving.  This might sound uninspiring, or like a cranky old man decrying how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, but it actually results in stories like this one:

He was before my day; but I well remember Mr. Inman, the Rector of West Knoyle, who fixed a telescope outside his house, so that through it he could scan the immense road which connects his village with the outer world. Through this telescope, he could recognize, many miles away, the walking figure of any of his clerical friends. The clergyman could be seen while he was still three or four hours away, yet, in that lonely neighbourhood, West Knoyle Rectory was undoubtedly the only possible destination of the inevitably approaching dot. Then Mr. Inman ran to the poultry yard to kill a chicken which was roasted and ready for dinner by the time the hungry pedestrian arrived.

I also found Olivier's discussion of poverty in her village fascinating, and there, too, the reality is brought to life by her attention to detail and the thought she has clearly given to the matter:

Mrs. Jeffery was one of the poorest. She 'lived on' the parish, or rather, she received from the Guardians a weekly allowance of half a crown and a loaf of bread, the under part of which she sold, every week, for twopence, to a neighbour who had a large family of children. She paid a rent of two shillings a week for her house in Fancy Row, an L-shaped group of quite well-built houses dating from early in the last century. They stood off the street, round a piece of garden land. Her sitting-room was of a good size, and was well-proportioned, as rooms in the smallest houses still were at that date. Here she sat, facing life on eightpence a week and the top of a loaf. Her case was not exceptional. Hers was the usual allowance given to a solitary woman; and probably the Guardians hoped, by means of this economic pressure, to induce the poor lonely old things to go into the Workhouse. There, even in those days, they would have been cared for as they never could be in their own homes, but they one and all dreaded the prospect. However few and valueless one's personal belongings may be, they make the familiar setting of one's life; and it is hard that the world should prematurely bring home to one that 'we brought nothing into this world, neither may we carry anything out', especially when it invites us to leave this world, not for a Heavenly Mansion, but for an 'Institution'. It must seem like a first and agonizing death thus to be torn from all one's little treasures; and everyone collects a few of these in the course of a long life, even though it may be a long life of unbroken poverty.

I could quote a dozen more such passages, and these interesting and entertaining reminiscences alone would be enough to make me recommend the book to anyone interested in English village life or in good writing about day-to-day life anywhere.

But it's clear that Olivier was much more than a charming, funny, eccentric writer—though she was certainly all of those things too—and I think the apparent simplicity of this memoir might be deceptive.  From her novels, it's clear that Olivier was a woman who questioned and examined "reality" in striking, if subtle, ways, and I think there is evidence of greater depth here as well.  Perhaps this is most clear in the frequency with which her most entertaining stories turn around varying—or outright faulty—perceptions and memory.

This is evident in how brilliantly she recalls her own childhood perspectives.  I'm not sure any other writer has ever brought that out for me so vividly.  For example, she describes the difference between children's and adults' sense of the size of a house:

Then there were numbers of cupboards in the walls, in which we spent our afternoons when it was too wet to go out. In every house, an immense amount of space is lost to the grown-up people who never sit in cupboards. We had first of all the big nursery cupboard where Mildred and I played houses, each on her own shelf, for we were not sophisticated enough to call them flats. There was the vast cupboard in Mamma's room where one could walk about on the floor, as well as clamber on the shelves among her hats. In the attic was the Bird Cupboard, called from a painting of magpies which surrounded it. It was like a long low room, and we heaped pillows at its two ends and pretended to go to sleep in it. And then there was the tiny cupboard high up in the dark wall on the back stairs. It could only be reached fry someone who was very small and very agile. I was both, and so I often got into it, and remained lost for hours. When I remember Wilton Rectory, I think of it as larger by all these cupboards than it ever could have been for  my parents, who only sat in the rooms.

I remember doing exactly the same things in a variety of houses I lived in or visited in childhood, but I hadn't remembered it in decades until reading Olivier's description. 

Then she recalls the glorious sound of practicing with the church choir—until the whole-hearted vocalists are abruptly interrupted by the horrified organist:

But every few bars, this joyous abandon was interrupted by the organist taking his hands off the keys and clapping them smartly. The basses were always enjoying themselves with such tremendous force, that they sang on for several bars before they realized that they had been left in the air without support from the organ. When they stopped, at last, there came an angry shouting voice from the side of the chancel. From where we heard it, it had a doubled, echoing sound. Mr. Ridley, the organist, was expressing his horror at the discords which had sounded to us so magnificent; and the choir had to 'Go back to Letter A'. There was a flutter of paper, and then they sang again. No music has ever had for me quite the same quality as those Handel choruses, swinging boldly along, sharply interrupted, and then gradually falling to pieces, one voice breaking off after another, till a solitary tenor was left suspended on a high note, quite out of his reach, from which he suddenly came down in panic.

But faulty perception or memory is also the precinct of adults, and Olivier seems to have a particular interest in it.  For example, her father's fond recollection of encountering Wordsworth:

Wordsworth was of course our Grasmere hero, and my copy of his Poems is still filled with flowers which I picked in the garden of Dove Cottage in the firm belief that every tree and plant in it had been planted by him or by Dorothy. Papa often thrilled us with the story of his first visit to the Lakes, when he saw the poet himself at the gate of his house at Ambleside and found him not at all forthcoming. Then one day, when we were looking at Wordsworth's grave in Grasmere churchyard and saw written upon it the date '1850', Papa suddenly exclaimed: 'Why, he died years before I ever came here.' So ended a legend; and I wonder how many of the memories in this book are as imaginary as my father's recollection of the poet Wordsworth.

Then there is Olivier's sister Mildred's attempt to collect memories from the elderly of the village produces this entertaining tale about questionable historical perspectives:

Meanwhile, Mildred asked Mrs. Jeffery if she could tell us her real age.

'I were barn', she said, 'in the year afore were all that there hanging and killing.' .

She was exasperated when my sister could not recognise this date.

'You know!,' she said. 'It's in the Spelling Book.'

We hopefully thought of the French Revolution. But no, that would make Mrs. Jeffery at least a hundred and twenty. We guessed again and again, showing ourselves in the old woman's eyes as complete half-wits, and at last found that 'hanging and killing' was Mrs. Jeffery's impression of the Battle of Waterloo.

And I can’t resist throwing in this amusing tidbit about a perception lost even despite being recorded in Olivier's diaries:

This scrap of conversation is very unintelligible:

He said: 'How's your mother?'

I said, most sarcastically: 'Quite well thank you.'

But that delicate sarcasm has evaporated.

Perhaps it's a stretch—though it's a stretch I'm willing to make—but I think that these stories, apart from their charm and entertainment value, could be seen as calling into question—in ways one might more readily expect to see in "highbrow" modernist writers like Woolf or Joyce—the nature of our ability to perceive any definitive reality.

It might seem contradictory, then—or perhaps it fits in perfectly?—that Olivier seems to have no trouble at all in accepting various experiences—her own and those of people she knew—as supernatural.  Olivier's friend Charlotte Moberly and her friend Eleanor Jourdain had become famous as a result of their experience in the Petit Trianon gardens at Versailles, which they subsequently wrote about in their popular book An Adventure (1911—Olivier wrote an introduction for a later edition). It's an interesting story, and if you're curious, you can read more about the "Moberly-Jourdain incident" here. At any rate, Olivier accepts this experience without doubt, as she does the prophetic vision her friend Lady Bath has of patients on stretchers being evacuated from the burning hallway of her house, several years before such a fire actually occurred—and several years before the war which resulted in her house being converted into a hospital even started.

Finally, we hear about Olivier's own experience / hallucination / whatever-you-want-to-call-it, involving the standing stones at Avebury, in which, driving late at night, Olivier found herself in an avenue of stones which had vanished generations before and witnessing a fair that hadn't been held in more than a century.

Fascinating as these stories are—and who doesn't love a good tale about visions of the future, time travel, or ghosts?—I retain some skepticism about them.  But I wonder if perhaps Olivier's wholehearted acceptance of them may go hand-in-hand with her ability to recapture lost perceptions of childhood and to imagine so vividly the characters and events of her novels.

Speaking of her novels (which I can't do enough of), there are some intriguing connections between people and events described here and those which occur, in varied or distorted form, in Olivier's novels.  In particular, she seems to have a fascination with multiple selves, in which one side dominates the other.  She describes the head of her school, the aforementioned Miss Moberly, who is also a family friend (and the friend of Marie Antoinette, apparently, judging from her Versailles experience…)

Beneath the portraits of her two very opposite-looking ancestresses, Miss Moberly sat, reading, writing, or playing the piano, and looking up to greet a visitor with a sudden very brilliant smile. She had a fascinating, mellow voice, with an amusing crack in it. Her colour and the contour of her face resembled those of the stern grandmother, but the welcoming smile must have come from the lovely mother. Miss Moberly had been born with a prejudiced and extremely biased nature, but she had told herself that the head of a college should possess wisdom and impartiality, so she made herself develop those qualities. But the old Adam would sometimes peep irresistibly out.

More importantly, and more significantly for its influence on her fiction, she describes her father:

My father used to tell us that when he left Oxford, he decided that he disliked his handwriting, which was ugly, irregular, and illegible. He therefore changed it, making it firm, clear, and very balanced. So it remained. This too was himself.

There were in my father two people—the natural man, and the man formed by reason, judgment, and a religion based on the Church Catechism, and centred round the duty towards God, and the duty towards my neighbour. He did not ask from the faith which he so firmly kept, any mystical consolations: he demanded a definite line of conduct. Probably the fundamental traits in a character are never wholly obliterated, but by the time I knew my father, the Old Adam in him had become as completely sublimated as was his handwriting. He had adapted himself to the mould which he had made.

This kind of "double personality" may well have provided the inspiration for Olivier's debut novel The Love-Child, but here she describes the influence of her father's personality on her second novel, As Far as Jane's Grandmother's, and in the process sheds more light on her family home life:

I liked this subject. The autocratic grandmother was a type I knew well in my father and his sisters. It is a character which charms me, mostly because I could never be at all like it myself. Such characters are rare to-day. They suggest a life lived in a secure and unshakable setting. The tides of varying opinions may sweep to and fro outside it, but all the time it remains completely watertight. The house of such people is indeed built upon a rock. Fashions and opinions may change, the world look this way and that, uncertain what to believe or how to act, but within those impenetrable walls, life goes on as before. The master of the house remains its master. A personality such as this sounds harsh and forbidding, and it may be so at heart, but in the case of my father, I had seen it veiled in an outer garment of courteous old-fashioned manners, which simply made him impossible to argue with. If one ever attempted such a thing, he could always finally and definitely place one in the wrong. The longer one knew him, the more one came to see that his system worked. He had made his own conception of life as he had decided that it should be lived, and he continued to live in that way, whatever the world around him said, thought, or did. The first reaction of youth was naturally to rebel against this overmastering authority; but in order to rebel successfully, the rebel must have his own conception of life, equally complete and equally believed in. Not many people possess this.

I'm fascinated by the conflict here, which also features prominently in the novels.  She acknowledges here and elsewhere how difficult her father was, and the realities of day-to-day life in his house sound pretty unmitigatedly dreadful to me, and yet she clearly retains not only the affection one might expect, but an admiration for his autocratic nature as well.  This may help account for the peculiar depth of some of Olivier's darker characters—while she may seem on the surface like a sweet, peculiar little authoress with very traditional, conservative values from her canon father, her sympathies are never completely clear.  There is nothing less interesting for me than a pureblood villain with no redeeming qualities, so this may be one of the reasons I love Olivier so much.

Dacres Olivier, Edith's father

Interestingly, while she admits that she used her father in part as a model for Jane's grandmother, she makes no mention of her father in relation to the last of her major novels and my personal favorite, The Seraphim Room, which features a father who is not only harshly autocratic with his two daughters (echoes of Edith and Mildred?), but may actually be causing the death of one of them (not to mention having already caused the deaths of both of his wives!) with his rigid refusal to allow modern drains to be installed in his house. All things considered, it's perhaps understandable that Olivier would not explicitly acknowledge the similarities between Mr. Chilvester and her father—particularly in light of the fact that the former meets a particularly messy end (quite literally)…

Finally, I can't resist commenting on another section of the book that produced some powerful fantasizing on my own part.  Olivier describes living with her father and sister for several years in The Close next to Salisbury Cathedral, with a full view of the cathedral outside their windows.  Having visited Salisbury last year and fallen in love with it, and particularly with the cathedral itself, I would see this as a dream come true.  And yet, as Olivier is so good at pointing out, our experiences are always relative and personal, and for her those years were dark—in more ways than one:

Our time in The Close included the four war years, followed by my father's long illness, and then his death. Perhaps that is why, when I try to remember that house, I think first of darkness. It was a dark house. We were overshadowed fry the cathedral. We had a magnificent view of it, its whole length spread out before our windows. But it prevented any direct light from falling on to my needlework as I sat in the little white morning-room in the winter, except between the hours of twelve and two. Life there had always a shadow upon it—the shadow of the cathedral, of the war, of illness, or of death…

But her descriptions of the cathedral and The Close are wonderful—in particular her memories of a major flood that made a lake of the cathedral's nave.  And for better or worse, my fantasy of life in Salisbury survives intact!

Flooded nave of Salisbury Cathedral


  1. Oh Scott, what a wonderful review. Thanks for those exceprts, too. The hidey holes all over the house make me think of the Hons Cupboard of Mitford legend, plus, D E Stevenson's little bolt-hole, between 2 pieces of furniture in the attic, I think. (I haven't got the book with me on vacation, 3 time zones from home.)

    And really... a useful art for a postmistress, indeed.

  2. Thanks, Susan. You can perhaps tell that I found the book very quotable? I got a little carried away!


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