Helen Waddell, by D. Felicitas Corrigan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Until 1845 Ireland had but one University, Trinity College, Dublin. Founded in 1591 on the site of the Augustinian monastery of All Hallows confiscated under Henry VIII, its avowed aim was to conquer Popery and establish a Protestant nation — a somewhat tough proposition. In 1633, in an effort to speed up the process, Laud, Wentworth, and the Provost of Trinity, William Chappell, introduced new Anglicized statutes, inaugurated fresh acts of repression against Catholics,and imposed on the protesting Fellows a completely English style of life modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. In the century that followed, Trinity reached its peak of expansion and achievement. It saw the graduation of men who are its glory: Jonathan Swift 1667-1745; George Berkeley 1685-1753; Edmund Burke 1729-97; Oliver Goldsmith 1730-74; Henry Grattan 1746-1820; and Theobald Wolfe Tone 1763-98. With the exception of ‘poor Poll’, these sprang from the ranks of ruling Anglo-Irish Protestants, yet were all alike Irish patriot-agitators: they fought for liberty, free trade for Ireland, the reform of the land laws, and the granting of Catholic relief. The limited success that attended their efforts was pretty well cancelled out by the Act of Union of 1800, which ushered in a century of political and economic upheaval. By the early nineteenth century, Trinity had become not only an exclusive but also an expensive Protestant stronghold.

This is a lovely lovely biography of Helen Waddell (1889-1965), a medievalist from Northern Ireland (though born in Tokyo wher her grandfather was a missionary). She hit the big time in 1927 with the publication of her book The Wandering Scholars, and had several more successes in the next ten years, including a novel about Peter Abelard, before the war distracted her and, sadly, from 1950 she was no longer in mental shape to continue writing.

It’s a story with a lot of sadness. Her father and mother both died when she was a girl; she was left caring for her stepmother in a very small house in North Belfast. Two brothers died in the first world war. She was quite explicitly blocked by her gender from getting the lectureship at Queen’s that she was surely entitled to. She found love only late in her life, with her publisher Otto Kyllman.

And yet at the same time her prose breathes enthusiasm and love for her subjects which is just hugely effective. Her first book, Lyrics from the Chinese (1913) is online; in her introduction she makes it clear where her heart really lies.

IT is by candlelight one enters Babylon; and all roads lead to Babylon, provided it is by candlelight one journeys. It was by candlelight that John Milton read Didorus Siculus, and by the Third Book he had voyaged beyond the Cape of Hope and now was past Mozambic, and already felt freshly blowing on his face

‘Sabean odours from the spicie shore
Of Arabie the blest.’

It was by candlelight that the sea coast of Bohemia was discovered, and the finding of it made a winter’s tale.  Baghdad is not a city to be seen by day; candlelight is the only illumination for all Arabian nights.

One sees most by candlelight, because one sees little. There is a magic ring, and in it all things shine with a yellow shining, and round it wavers the eager dark. This is the magic of the lyrics of the twelfth century in France, lit candles in ‘a casement ope at night,’ starring the dusk in Babylon; candles flare and gutter in the meaner streets, Villon’s lyrics, these; candles flame in its cathedral-darkness, Latin hymns of the Middle Ages, of Thomas of Celano and Bernard of Morlaix. For if Babylon has its Quartier Latin, it has also its Notre Dame. The Middle Ages are the Babylon of the religious heart.

It is difficult to overstate just how big a cultural figure she was in Britain in the years before the second world war. She received honorary degrees from Columbia, Queen’s Belfast, Durham and St. Andrews (this for someone who Queen’s had failed to hire twenty years earlier), and went to lunch with Queen Mary in 10 Downing Street at the invitation of Stanley Baldwin. Curiously, she never particularly intersected with fellow Ulster exile C.S. Lewis; each of them has a couple of notes of bumping into the other at dinners or parties, but they were not friends.

Anne developed a real enthusiasm for her a couple of years ago, and now after reading this I think I’ll start reading her works as a mini-project myself. One interesting thing that I have already noticed from poking around her available work on the online second-hand market: a lot of the available copies of her shorter, rarer works are inscribed in her own hand. Here, for instance, is her sister’s copy of Lyrics from the Chinese:

Here’s in token of the day
You and I will go away,
      You and I alone.
And on some soft summer night
Through the dusk, and candle-light
      Enter Babylon.

With the aforesaid young woman’s love.
Dec. 10th 1913

I admit also that part of her attraction for me is her proximity to my own roots. As a child and young woman, she would escape Belfast to her relatives in Ballygowan House, which is on literally the next hill over from my own ancestral home. In a speech to Banbridge Academy (the school which my second cousins attended), she spoke of

“all this countryside that Banbridge lies at the heart of, names that are themselves like an old folk song or a come-all-ye, Closkelt and Ballyroney, Annabawn and Drumgooland, Loughbrickland and Donaghmore; Ouley and Ballooley, Kilmacrew and Ballygowan and Dromore; these are the names that I heard from my aunts around the fire, and these were the houses where my great-grandfathers went courting my great-grandmothers.”

Once Ballygowan passed out of family hands, her refuge became her sister’s house at Kilmacrew on the other side of Banbridge, where her brother-in-law was the local minister, and their great-granddaughter still keeps her great-great-aunt’s spirit alive. She was kind enough to be hospitable to me, Anne and Anne’s mother a couple of years back.

If the embedding has worked, you should be able to hear Helen’s voice here in a BBC talk from 1955, when she was already very ill, speaking propped up between her lover and her sister. (If the embedding doesn’t work, you can get it here.)

She eventually died in London in 1965, but rests near Kilmacrew in Magherally churchyard with her great-grandmother. The inscription is hard to read these days, but I give a transcription below, including the eccentric capitalisations.

Here resteth the remains
of her whose name in youth was
married to Ebenezer Martin
23rd Decemr. 1801
and after a short life
Pleasantly spent in the ways of
Religion, strict and tender
Attention to her near Relatives,
Departed 22nd May 1815 aged 41,
Leaving seven children
and a disconsolate Husband
Waiting to follow.

Here also resteth their great grand-daughter
Helen WADDELL, M.A., D.Litt., younger daughter of
Rev. Hugh Waddell, Tokio, Japan,
born 31st May 1889, died 5th March 1965.
Scholar, Author, Poet. She lifted A veil from the past.
her Prose Made its Saints and Scholars Live Again.
Her English verse
Made lovely lyrics of their Latin Songs.
Her life Enriched all who Knew Her.
“The Light is on Thy Head.”

The biography is, as I said, a lovely lovely book and you can get it here.

Edited to add: this BBC radio programme about her is great listening.

This was the last unread book on my shelves that I acquired in 2013, and I am really kicking myself for not getting to it sooner. I read the last unread book on my shelves acquired in 2012 in May, the last book of 2011 just over a year ago, the last book acquired in 2010 in January 2019, and the last book acquired in 2009 at the end of 2016. Finishing this opens up my 2014 lists, starting with The Company Articles of Edward Teach/Angaelien Apocalypse by Thoraiya Dyer (the shortest), Above/Below by Stephanie Campisi (the longest lingering unread sf book), Selected Prose by Charles Lamb (the longest lingering unread non-fiction) and The Inside of the Cup by the other Winston S. Churchill (both the longest lingering unread non-genre fiction and the most popular on LibraryThing).

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