Saturday, March 20, 2010

Poets in Winter in C19 Torquay: Reinstated blog-piece

(I am reinstating this blog  piece as I am unable to display it in my new template)
Torquay in the mid 1800's was a known and famous place for writers to  visit. Contemporary C19 and early C20 travel guides tell us that, known as the "Sunshine-Land", in the C18 the town had established a reputation as one of the favourite seaside towns in the country; people went to soak up its atmosphere and during the Victorian era its restorative status expanded more and more, because by then the railway had made travel to and from the capital much easier than before. Two of England's famous C19 "sister" women poets went to Torquay in order to recuperate and recover from severe illness. Christina Rossetti apparently travelled to the town several times during her life and seems to have enjoyed her experiences there, but unfortunately her predecessor Elizabeth Barrett Browning's visit ended in tragedy and disaster and she vowed never to return. Much has been written about Browning's tragic encounters with Torquay, so suffice for now to say that it was during January 1839 that the poet who was already in a state of fragile health, "suffered a sudden relapse and for two months [she] seemed to hang by a thread between life and death". This was before the trio of deaths which affected her so deeply between that month and July 1840 - that of her physician and one of her brothers culminating in the death of her beloved brother Bro who drowned in the sea at Torbay that month. Christina's visit to Torquay in late January/early February 1887, almost fifty years after that of her predecessor, was ordered by her physician because the severity of the "wild and tempestuous storms" that had been raging in London throughout December had had a deleterious effect on her already fragile state of health (she had suffered from Grave's disease since the early 1870's and would in coming years succumb to the cancer that killed her). William, her brother, wrote that he did not know "what the precise illness is", but understood that even the prospect of death did not alarm his sister - who found that possibility "on the contrary, consolatory". Her mother, with whom she had had a very close bond, had died the previous year, in April and by now, or during the following months after her return from Devon, Christina was to become the "carer" for her two aged aunts back in London - managing the house as well as looking after them. She had told her brother that she believed her aunts would likely survive her. By February 21, when she wrote to one of them, her Aunt Eliza, telling her about the town, Christina was in lodgings at 2 Beechwood, Abbey Road, for a guinea a week (although some of her friends were under the misapprehension that she had actually gone to 'la Turquie' because a French acquaintance had spread a rumour that that was to be her destination). She was looking forward to enjoying "lizard-like laziness" but must have ventured out a little, for in her letter she told her aunt that she knew her way around now "for practical purposes". She said that it was a good thing that "circumstances opposed your visiting Torquay" because "it would be out of the question your walking as far as any seaside seat from the lodging". Christina added that "I find it toilsome, and for you it would be downright dangerous". Christina evidently went to the seat and found the view from it "beautiful indeed", though she went on "yet it is not my own predilect phase of sea beauty, for the bay is so mch enclosed as strongly to resemble a lake while my delight is boundless expanse". Christina provided her aunts with a description of her surroundings: "seagulls were in sight today ... houses are perched and trees grow at all sorts of altitudes, and slopes and steps allure one or dismay one up or down as the case may be. Vegetation is as prominent a feature as in an inland situation".

Christina's visit to Torquay was not to last long because she soon became fed up with the inclement winter weather; for all that the town had the reputation of being famous for its winter visitors because of its equable climate, that particular February was bad and March turned out to be even more disagreeable. Although some of the locals told her that warm weather would be just around the corner she decided to return home and was back in London by early April. Her Torquay break was however apparently beneficial and had worked at least some of its wonders, for she told someone that she had made " a ten years' stride as to looks and feelings" and felt ready again to "bear the wear and tear of daily life".

I have not yet found any information as to whether Christina was well enough to be involved in any writing project whilst she stayed in Torquay in early 1887, but just before her trip there she had been working on The Face of the Deep, her commentary on the Apocalypse (which was eventually published in 1892), which though a prose text is peppered with poems and prayers; it is likely that that work was in her mind. One of her contacts mentioned that whilst writing this work she helped move herself forward by "reading little bits of verse" . Nor as yet have I found much about Rossetti's social involvements whilst she was in Devon; however this wasn't her first visit to the town. As with so many literary friendships and acquaintances, once you begin to research you find that the cobweb of interlocking writerly networks becomes richer and daily more complex - even if your study is concentrated on a particular locality. Torquay was full of writers in the mid C19 - for some the town was their home; for others, as with Rossetti, it was a holiday haven. She did apparently know Edith Coleridge; the year before, in 1886, Christina and her mother had reputedly been in the town - presumably shortly before the latter's death in April -so it must also have been a winter jaunt. They had met up with Edith, - who was the slightly older cousin of Christabel Coleridge, (they were both granddaughters of ST Colderidge) who also lived in the resort - and had read Edith's edition of her mother Sara Coleridge's memoirs, The Memoirs and Letters of Sara Coleridge, which had come out in its 2nd edition in 1873. One source gives Edith's address in Torquay as Eldon Lodge. Critics had accused Edith of focusing on her mother's intellectual achievements to the detriment of her life and personality, but the Rossetti mother and daughter had "enjoyed" reading the book. When she found that Christina was in the locality Edith had also called on her during her visit in 1887, apparently to try and tempt her to stay until the arrival of spring - but Rossetti had made up her mind to leave and wouldn't change her plans. It is quite probable that Christina had some contact with Charlotte Yonge, who as a distant relation to the Coleridges was involved in several literary projects with them, in particular, the production of The Monthly Packet. Another friend of Rossetti's who spent some of her life in Torquay was the writer and spiritualist Dora Greenwell; I don't know if the two women ever met up in the town but she died in 1888. More interesting perhaps apropos Christina Rossetti's writing was that her mother's cousin Anne Eliza Bray had lived in Devon, not far away at Tavistock. She had though moved back to London in 1857, after the death of the Rev. Bray her second husband, and had died there in 1883, at the age of 93. Christina Rossetti evidently was familiar with her - and her husband's work - because academics writing of Rossetti's famous poem Goblin Market point out the direct links between it and the Brays' earlier works. Anna Bray's A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy (1836) contained collected folklore and legends of the county of Devon and at a later stage Bray had adapted material from the book to include in a children's book entitled A Peep at the Pixies, or Legends of the West (1854). Rossetti had used A Peep at the Pixies as source material for her poem and the Rev. Bray's fairy tale The Rural Sisters had also been influential in Rossetti's poem, which had been published in 1862. Whether Rossetti would have had access to these texts as reader or/and through social contact with the Brays themselves is not known. She must have been aware in any case that her mother's cousin had spent much time in Devon and that the Brays' work, which had influenced her own poem, was directly inspired by the Dartmoor scenery surrounding her.