In late August 1967 the writer Rosemary Manning had been to visit her friend Alyse Gregory in Morebath, having just presented her with the manuscript of her own book, A Time and a Time - which she had dedicated to Gregory. In her book A Corridor of Mirrors Manning tells how she left Alyse at Morebath just after six: as she drove back to Dorset the ‘blazing sunset [had] flared in the sky behind me and Bach’s B-minor mass was being sung on the radio’; when the telephone went early the following day she ‘knew what [she] was going to hear’. Alyse had taken an overdose; she died on 27th August.
Compilations from Gregory's journal were published in 1973 as The Cry of a Gull. The journal fragments suggest a mind tortured with the past and preoccupied with an agonised inner battle which eventually, sadly, she succumbed to when she took her own life ten years after she moved to Devon, in search of solitude:
Shall we have the courage … the courage to live? the courage to die? Where? How? … I continually ponder on consciousness, life, death, exactly as I used to do forty-five years ago. All is but a flash and a flowing away, a magic lantern slide.
The American writer had come to Devon (at the age of 73) at the suggestion of another friend, Rosamonde Rose, who, apparently trying to provide them both mutual help in their old age, had unfortunately herself died shortly after Manning's move. Even the proximity of Alyse’s other local neighbour, writer Oliver Stoner/Morchard Bishop doesn’t seem to have helped her in these last tormented years.
Alyse’s first visit to Devon had been much earlier in her life, when she travelled to the county with her husband Llewellyn Powys; her diary records how they had landed in Plymouth, on returning from an American trip and had looked out of the train at the ‘green fields of Devonshire’ and the ‘suave, gracious, intimate landscape, like an old print – from the train windows cowslips growing up the dusty embankments and my heart moved … I had left my natural home, the home of my forebears, my friends … yet now I felt too that I have come home’.
Her journal reveals how she had by this time developed a deep affinity with her adopted country. And a deep love for her husband.
There seem to be no texts by her from her time in Morebath – most of her books were published before this, even her Journal ends in 1948. Manning relates how her friend’s journal entries gradually peter out about three years before her death, becoming more and more fragmented, as though even the therapy of writing was losing its power to sustain her in her final retreat from life. However, Alyse retains her power of observation and delight in nature; in one entry she records how out the window the ‘garden this morning [is] glittering with frost’.
As she grew older and had to cope with the infidelities of her husband Gregory seems to have betrayed her own significant writerly skills, so as to devote her time to aiding him in his work and after his death to further promoting publication of his work; she ‘was dedicated to Llewellyn’s literary fame and did everything she could for his memory’. She was working on the volumes of letters between the Powys brothers and ‘immersed herself in John’s letters to Llewellyn and found them a revelation’. One is left with the impression that during these years she was buried in her re-memorising of the past and her past life with Llewellyn.
The absence of her own work could of course also be interpreted as a consequence of the ill health – including deep depression – that overcame her at Veltham’s cottage in Morebath, her last home (after all she was already 73 when she first moved there). That said, those who knew her said that she knew as soon as she had moved that the place was not right for her after her beloved Dorset: for one thing Morebath was too far from the sea and for another, although the ‘countryside around the village is ‘luxuriant, hilly and with a wealth of trees … it also gives a feeling of oppression, of a boxed-in landscape … Her house of grey stone was rather austere’.
Rosemary Manning conjures up Alyse’s special personal qualities in Corridor of Mirrors: her ‘rare qualities brought her a wide circle of friends … [and] many people found it difficult to visit her in this remote spot’; Alyse’s move had taken her away from the wide community of support that had previously sustained her.
Manning must have found the loss of her friend especially hard to take; she had also contemplated suicide not long after her first meeting with Gregory and it had been Alyse who sustained her during that tumultuous time. Alyse had written to her (presumably from Devon), after Rosemary had told her what she had planned; her words indicate that her own suicide had been a preoccupation for many years, but still they take on extra ironic poignancy, given that in late August 1967 she was not able to take to her heart the compassion and comfort in her own words of advice to her friend:
I have just read your letter and feel shattered not only because it brings home to me most penetratingly how much your presence in the world means to me but because I suffer with you in this abysm that seems to yawn so wide and that must seem to black and inescapable to you. Is death too easy an escape for us poor mortals? …I have planned it so often myself and of course, still do … Stay alive for my sake – you don’t know what your friendship has meant to me and to so many others and I feel so anxious, so when you can send me another line.
(info. in quotes other than detailed is from J.Peltier, Alyse Gregory: A Woman at her Window, Cecil Woolf Publishers, London 1999.)
Do read the fascinating feedback provided by Jacqueline Peltier in the responses below: