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ODYSSEY OF A LIBERAL – MEMOIRS
By Freda Utley
AS THE SPARKS FLY
In my early teens, at boarding school in England, I cut out the word SOPHROSUNE in Greek letters on my pencil box. Why, I cannot now imagine, since this precept, usually translated as meaning moderation, or nothing in excess, was alien to my temperament. Far from observing the Golden Mean, I have spend most of my life recklessly committed to causes I believed in. Since I either became disillusioned or lost interest in these causes when they prevailed or became popular, I have never ridden the tide which, taken at the flood, leads to success. I should have been more prescient had I carved, “Born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” on the bright polished surface of that light colored wooden box which I can still see clearly in the eye of memory, when so much else has been forgotten. Yet in attempting to analyze the motivations which have shaped my life, I realize that in spite of always having been engage, it was the Greek principle of restraint, or balance, which compelled me to throw my weight on the opposite side of the scales when the oppressed became the oppressors, as so often happens in the course of human events.
Although I never heard of James Russell Lowell until I came to America, his lines express the feeling which has consciously or unconsciously motivated my life:
Right forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne . . .
Anatole France, with whose writings I became familiar in early youth, expressed the same idea in his Revolte Des Anges, which ends when Lucifer refuses to lead an assault on heaven by the angels whose fall was due to their compassion for the sufferings of mankind, because he foresees that:
Dieu vancu deviendra Satan; et Satan vanqueur deviendra Dieu.*
God conquered will become Satan; and Satan victorious become God.
Men are men and there is no innate virtue in the oppressed. On the contrary, as Bertrand Russell pointed out long ago when underdog changes places with upper dog he proves to be more ruthless because he has learned, while underneath, to scratch harder in the battle for survival.
Since, either instinctively or by reason of the sense of proportion which is the essence of the classical concept of beauty, I have tended all my life to throw my weight on the weaker side of the scales of power, perhaps I was not so wrong when I carved SOPHROSUNE on my pencil box when I was 14 or 15 years old.
Unfortunately in my personal life and behavior I have paid little heed to Goethe’s dictum that the essence of wisdom is to know when to stop. By expressing my views too sharply, or by carrying my arguments to a ruthlessly logical conclusion, I have failed to influence as many people as I might have done had I been more temperate or restrained and less combative. I have alienated some friends and lost potential allies by turning my back upon those, who by their refusal to go all the way with me in a battle against odds, seemed to me to be cowards unwilling to stand up and be counted when they were in reality only displaying greater political sagacity than myself. Yet despite my all or nothing attitude in the heat of controversy, I have found myself unable to remain long in the company of extremists on any side.
One’s character, no doubt, is one’s fate. But no one knows the extent to which character is determined by heredity or by environment. Nor is it until late in life that one can dimly perceive how the influences of childhood and youth have shaped one’s destiny, and continue to determine one’s philosophy and behavior until the curtain falls.
These influences in my case were liberal, socialist and free-thinking, strongly colored by the poetry of revolt and liberty and legends, stories and romances of heroism and adventure upon which I fed in childhood; not without a tincture of Gallic realism, but basically English. I was conditioned by the empirical attitude of mind inculcated in me by my father; and my upbringing , despite the absence of religious instruction, was anchored to the basic tenets of the Puritanism which produced the first English radicals in the 17th century, the Pilgrim Fathers who emigrated to New England, and the Nonconformists who founded the British Labor Party two hundred years later.
The environment which shaped me was in many respects different from that of others of my generation but I am a product of the heyday of the liberal era, reared in its faith in infinite progress through freedom from superstition and by means of the scientific discoveries and their technical application which were expected to make man master of his fate. I am, or was, a child of the age of reason – of that new age of faith when it was believed that freed from “the shambles of faith and of fear” a vista of infinite progress would open to mankind.
Thus I was imbued at an early age with a consuming desire for the emancipation of mankind, or for justice, which is perhaps the moral reflection of the desire for harmony and beauty. I believed, thanks to my rationalist upbringing, that mankind requires only freedom from superstition or from the bonds of established religion to acquire the knowledge which, together with release from a narrow regard for material self interest, could lead to heaven on earth. The libertarian values implanted in my mind which have consciously or unconsciously motivated me all my life, were to cause me to recoil in horror from the Soviet dictatorship when I came intimately to know it. It was a passion for the emancipation of mankind, not the blueprint of a planned society nor any mystical yearning to merge myself in a fellowship absolving me of personal responsibility, which both led me into the Communist fold, and caused me to leave it as soon as I learned that it meant submission to the most total tyranny which mankind has ever experienced.
Many of my contemporaries and those who came after me were to follow the Red Star because of an unhappy childhood, or frustrations of one kind of another, or failure to make a place for themselves in the competitive capitalist world. But I came to Communism via Greek history, French Revolutionary literature, and the English nineteenth century poets of freedom – not in revolt against a strict “bourgeois” upbringing, nor on account of failure to make a place for myself in the “capitalist” world, but profoundly influenced by a happy childhood, a socialist father and a continental education. I am perhaps proof of Arnold Toynbee’s contention that Communism is a “Western heresy.”
When I came to study ancient history my heroes were Pericles, the Gracchi, and Julius aesar. From an early age I could recite long passages from Shelley, Swinburne and Keats extolling man’s external striving for freedom, beauty and justice. Swinburne’s love poems I rejected as incomprehensible aberratins from the glorification of freedom and the denunciation of tyranny and superstition which I loved. I thrilled to such lines as:
Pride have all men in their fathers that were free before them,
In the warriors that begat us freeborn pride have we;
But the fathers of their spirit, how may men adore them;
With what rapture praise who bade our souls be free.
Sons of Athens born in spirit and truth are all born free men;
Most of all, we, nurtured where the North wind holds his reign.
Children all we sea-folk of the Salaminian seamen,
Sons of they that beat back Persia, we who beat back Spain.*
Today I realize that I ought not to have been so unprepared to learn the facts of political life as might seem from my account of the influences of my childhood and youth.
Like a discordant note or muted theme in the first movement of a symphony, there were other early influences in my life which should have prepared me for the disappointments and disillusionment which awaited me, not only in Soviet Russia but in later years in the Free World. In childhood and youth I have imbibed not only classical and romantic literature and the poems of Shelley and Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, and other poets who sang of freedom and inspired belief in the coming of a Golden Age when men would be freed from the chains of superstition and fear. I was also well acquainted with the writings of Shaw and Anatole France, read and enjoyed Voltaire’s “Candide” and “Zadig” and was to win a prize at school for an essay on Machiavelli.
If heredity also molds character I must take some account of the combative and adventurous spirit of my Viking freebooter ancestors, who settled in Yorkshire before William of Normandy conquered England. Utley is a Danish name derived from the words out-leigh or out-lee, meaning beyond the moor, and there is still a remote small village called Utley in the West Riding where my paternal ancestors were blacksmiths for many generations.
Many of the Utley’s had gone a’roving in their time which accounts for the fact that there are far more of them in America than inEngland.**
I knew from my father who, while at college in Manchester, won a money prize for amateurs tracing their ancestry, that in the 17thcentury four Utley brothers had emigrated to Massachusetts. Since it struck my childhood imagination I also recall that the wife of an Utley who was a cavalryman in Wellington’s army had accompanied him on the campaigns in the low countries and crossed rivers hanging on to his horse’s tail. After my 1936 book, Japan’s Feet of Clay was published in the U.S.A. I received several letters from American Utley’s including one from a man who had made a hobby of tracing Utleys and sent me a long list of them. Unfortunately I have lost this but I remember it included the name of an Utley who had been the champion boxer of the British Navy. In Chicago in 1939 when speaking for the Council of Foreign Relations at the invitation of Clifton Utley I was to find rows of Utleys in the telephone book whereas there had been only myself and one other listed in London. At this time I disabused Clifton Utley of the notion that the Utleys stemmed from Wales.
My mother, who came from Lancashire where the Celtic strain is strong, was a woman of charm and wit as well as beautiful, and may be partly responsible for the romantic streak in our characters which led my brother to voyage from England to the South Seas in a small sailing boat, while I sought a false Holy Grail in Communist Russia.
In my brother Temple’s view, it was our Utley inheritance combined with the romantic stories we had read in childhood which shaped our lives.
Writing to our mother from Suva in the Fiji Islands in 1934 shortly after the birth of my son in Moscow he said:
…Freda’s letter to me was in tone and spirit very sweet. We neither of
us seem to have found our new world. Moral – do not read your
children romantic tales in their infancy. However hard-boiled they may
become afterwards, the original taint remains. Tell Free to teach Jon
to lisp the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld as his first primary. Freda at
eleven and I at fourteen learned them too late.
The Songs the Syrens sang for us were not the same. I became a “political animal,” travelling ever Left in search of the ideal society which never was, or probably can be, on land or sea. Temple came to seek escape from civilization by venturing on perilous seas in a small sailing boat to seek his dream islands in the South Seas. He was to be more fortunate than I although he died young. While I was passing through the Valley of Despair in Russia in the early 30’s, Temple had found his Pacific Islands “just as they should be – of an incredible beauty.”
Today I find myself wanting to write about my brother before recording my own story. Perhaps because I now begin to understand that Temple and I in the drama of our lives were like strophe and antistrophe – or thesis and antithesis according to the Hegelian philosophy, eventually to be united in a synthesis of understanding.
Both of us were reared in the liberal philosophy of our time and were subject to the same childhood influences. But whereas I was to follow Marx and Lenin’s teachings, Temple’s views were more akin to Rousseau’s and Bakunin’s. He came to believe that freedom and happiness are to be found by escaping from modern industrial civilization which, even when it provides material comforts and security, deprives man of the satisfaction of basic needs of his nature. I imagined that a better organization of society could create conditions in which men would be free while voluntarily submitting to the demands of the state intended to ensure justice for all.
Our lives perhaps exemplify the split in the liberal personality between the extremes of anarchy and statism. Temple took the high road I the low, or vice versa according to one’s prejudices, in our life’s journey from the “banks of Loch Lomand.”
In a later chapter, I shall have more to tell concerning my brother’s life and death. Here I only quote, with wonder at Temple’s insight, a passage from a letter he wrote when he was 35 years old on the eve of sailing from Colon to the Marquesas Islands.
There is a sort of lethal factor in us Utleys which inhabits success. Both
my father who was, and my sister who is, much cleverer than I am,
always missed it. You see they, who could have got it easily, never quite
believed in it. I, who would find its attainment much more difficult,
believed in it rather less.
Unlike my brother, I was ambitious. Although I was never able to surmount the “lethal factor” in the Utleys which inhibits us from paying the required price for success, I longed for it. And time was when thanks to my having acquired inordinate confidence in my abilities, thanks to my easy academic successes at school and college, I imagined I would be one of the “movers and shakers” of the world. My faith in human reason, inculcated in me by my upbringing, combined with what Bertrand Russell called my incurable political romanticism, impelled me to continue to believe, even when my views were most unpopular, that if only I would write well enough, I could convince the world of the truth as I saw it.
No doubt one gets what one wants most in life if one tries hard enough, but one cannot have everything. The cost of freedom comes high and one cannot expect to enjoy it, least of all in the world of letters, if one desires fame or security more. Of course, one always goes on hoping to enjoy both. There have been times when I railed against my fate and considered myself ill-used because the world failed to award me fame, fortune or influence and I found myself reviled for expressing my deepest confictions regardless of the consequences. On such occasion Edith Hamilton, who died in her 94th year in full possession of her faculties, gently reproved me for feeling sorry for myself following the failure of my 1949 book, The High Cost of Vengeance,* to win a wide circulation. “My dear Freda,” she said, “don’t expect the material rewards of unrighteousness while engaged in the pursuit of truth.” Nevertheless I often did, continuing to yearn for the success which I occasionally glimpsed but never quite achieved. Even when one of my books was a success I went off on another quest.
- Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, 1949.
Like my father, I did not “stick to one last,” as they express it in North Country England. I dissipated my energies and endeavors in too many directions, wanting to be both scholar and journalist, politician and preacher, crusader for the causes I believed in and seeker for the truth. Desirous of success but unwilling or unable to pay the ultimate price, I could not devote myself to the goddess who, although not the bitch he has been called, demands whole hearted devotion to herself alone.
Thus, I was destined to become a Communist when it was most unpopular to be one, and an anti-Communist during the years when its false promises were generally believed by Western “liberals.” Too fast, too soon. The way to success as I have painfully learned, is not to learn too much too soon. It pays to be wrong when everyone else is deluded and woe betide all Cassandras, or anyone else who learns and speaks truth before the public is prepared to listen. The best reputations are gained by those who change their opinions just before themidnight hour when it is usually too late to change the course of human events.
I might have a man’s mind – which was the compliment I most relished – but I could always be accused by my opponents or detractors of being too emotional, as perhaps I am, because I am a woman. And in the struggle for existence in which I was to be engaged at an early age, I had to shoulder the financial responsibilities of a man while also meeting the domestic demands of a woman.
Whether or not I ever deserved the following tribute paid me by Pearl Buck in her review of my 1940, The Dream We Lost,** her words are apposite to the struggle all women who strive to overcome the initial disadvantage of not being born men.
This is one of the richest books I have ever read. It is a strongly
unassailable indictment of Russian Communism. It is a strongly
dramatic story and one interesting enough to make a major novel, the
story of a brilliant mind, rigorously truthful in its working, though born
unhappily in the body of a woman. For even in the best parts of the
world a first rate mind is still hampered if it happens to belong to a
woman. Nevertheless, this mind was born, and it is to its honor that
Freda Utley has simply borne with the disadvantages of being a woman
without allowing them to influence her thinking (Asia, October, 1940)
** The John Day Co., 1940.
Temple and I were both born under our different stars just before the turn of the century, he on June 10, 1895, and I on January 23, 1898, at Number 1 Kings Bench Walk in the Temple, London. It was exceptional, if not unique, for married couples, much less children, to be permitted to live in those renowned legal chambers and take the air in the beautiful, ancient gardens above the river Thames.
My father, studying for the bar while earning his living as a journalist, had somehow persuaded the authorities to let him continue living in the Temple after his marriage. Although later my parents were to live very comfortably in large houses and luxurious Continental hotels, they remembered those years in cramped quarters, lacking most of the facilities of modern living, as perhaps the best of their lives.
Son of a Yorkshire blacksmith, my father, Willie Herbert Utley, had obtained his education on scholarships from technical secondary school to Owen’s College (subsequently renamed Manchester University) where he became an undergraduate at the early age of sixteen. With a voracious appetite for knowledge in every sphere of human questioning and endeavor, my father alternatively or simultaneously studied science and mathematics, languages and the humanities, and thus never obtained an academic degree. But his versatility and wide-ranging knowledge were subsequently to prove of greater advantage to him than any handle to his name when he got toLondon and started on a successful career in journalism. Thanks to the catholicity of his interests and his literary talent, he was able to write on scientific and economic subjects, as well as on literature, politics, art, drama and music. For instance, when Marconi first demonstrated wireless, he was assigned to Ireland to report this new scientific marvel for a number of newspapers which had no other adequately equipped reporter. Thus, my mother, in London was one of the first people in the world to receive a radiogram.
My father had secured his first journalistic assignment when he presented himself at the office of the Morning Leader, the leading Liberal newspaper of the time, and was told to sit down and write an editorial on some political topic of the day. Having done this with ease, he was accepted as an editorial writer.
When the Morning Leader subsequently merged with the Evening Star, he became assistant editor and music critic of the Star and Morning Leader. George Bernard Shaw was its drama critic but, according to my mother’s recollection, their friendship began while my father was financial editor of Frank Harris’ Saturday Review, a journal that helped make Shaw famous as one of its contributors.
Many years after his death, while doing research for my M.S. thesis at the British Museum, I was asked by the oldest of its librarians whether I was the daughter of Willie Herbert Utley. When I said I was he told me that my father had at one time translated old English medieval manuscripts in the basement of the British Museum in order to earn money, not only for himself but also to help Bernard Shaw and other impecunious friends of his when they were especially hard up.
G.B.S. and my father were both contributors to Annie Besant’s publication, Our Corner, and were friends of Charles Bradlaugh the famous free-thinking M.P. who directed the Hall of Science school on Fleet Street. Here, when he first came to London at the age of 19, Willie Utley lectured on physiography, according to an old prospectus for the session 1886087 preserved by my mother and still in my possession.
In his teens he had spoken from the same platform as Friedrich Engels in Manchester, as I learned long after his death from documents I saw at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. Subsequently, in London, he had taken part in the labor struggles of the late eighties and was arrested with John Burns in Trafalgar Square at a demonstration of the unemployed, although spared from imprisonment on account of his youth. For some months he was acting secretary of the Fabian Society founded by Beatrice and Sidney Webb and, had it not been for my arrival, he would have stood for Parliament in the Socialist interest. But M.P.’s were not paid in those days, and with two children to support he perforce abandoned a political career. Even so, in order to earn enough money for all of us, he was on the staff of both a morning and evening newspaper at the same time, besides contributing to weeklies and engaging in unpaid political activities. He worked so hard, slept so little and expended himself so generously that it was not surprising that when I was nine years old, he contracted the tubercular lung infection to which he finally succumbed ten years later.
During my infancy and early childhood my parents had gone through some bad times, as for instance when my father started his own liberal weekly magazine only to have it fold on account of the Boer War; and later, when, after having written the first “Motoring Handbook” published in England, he was compelled before publication to sell the valuable copyright of his future best seller in order to meet a note at the bank he had guaranteed for T.W.H. Crossland, a friend who, like some other well known literary figures, lacked the bourgeois virtue of paying their debts.
Following, or in consequence of these setbacks or disasters, my father turned his talents to financial journalism and business investment advice and started making so much money that my earliest recollections are of life in a big house in Hampstead with servants and governesses, first at 67 Finchley Road and later at 33 St. Johns Wood Park. (Queer that now in my 70’s I can still remember the addresses of the houses in which we lived when I was less than ten years old! It is a curious fact that as the shades of the coming night of one’s life deepen one retains a better memory of details of the distant past than of more recent events.)
The Utley’s would have become really rich had my father’s partner, a man called Hannay, been ready to go all out to back my father’s conviction that a rubber boom was coming thanks to the invention of the motor car. It was Hannay who supplied the capital for their joint venture in publishing a financial newsletter and investing other peoples money in what is today called a mutual fund but was then frowned on as a “bucket shop.”
Notwithstanding the ease with which my father seems to have made money once he set his mind to it, and the affluence which surrounded my childhood as I remember it, I was reared in the socialist beliefs which were to shape my life. A life which was also to be powerfully influenced by the impression made upon me in youth by the tender, passionate and enduring love of my father and mother for one another. Despite the Bohemian world in which I was to take my place in my 20’s, I sought to find the same rare and true love which is:
…a durable fire,
In the mind ever burning,
Never sick, never dead, never cold.
From itself never turning…*
- Anonymous 16th Century poem included in the “Oxford Book of English Verse.”
My parents had first met and fallen in love then they were 17 and my father was brought visiting to my grandfather’s house by Edward Aveling, Karl Marx’s son-in-law and translator. In old age my mother was to recall with pride that Dr. Aveling had introduced my father that first evening as “the most brilliant boy and coming man he knew.”
The course of my parents true and life-long love had not run smooth, and they were not married until many years later, mainly because of my grandfather’s opposition but also, I surmise, on account of my father’s roving, adventurous temperament which led him to spend several years wandering abroad.
My mother’s father, Joseph E. Williamson, a prosperous Lancashire manufacturer, was a free-thinker and a republican who was proud to tell that his wife’s mother had hidden the famous Chartist leader, Fergus O’Connor, under her bed while pretending to be sick when the police were searching for him. He liked to entertain the prominent or promising radical political “intelligentsia” of his time, but he was far from inclined to believe in the equality of the sexes and was also opposed to any of his daughters (he had seven) marrying an impecunious young man. He had refused to let my mother continue her education to become a doctor, as she passionately desired, and had instead set her to boiling jam in his factory to put such nonsensical ideas out of her head.
After my father came courting following their first meeting, my grandfather ordered my gentle, obedient Williamson grandmother never to leave them alone. They surmounted the obstacle of her presence by my father giving her Ouida’s romantic novels to read. These so absorbed her that she paid no attention as they sat together in the parlor of my grandfather’s mansion, The Grande, in the Manchester suburb of Stratford, whose gloomy interior I came to know well when I was in my teens.
I narrowly escaped being named “Cigarette” by my mother after the heroine of Ouida’s famous book Under two Flags** about the French Foreign Legion in North Africa, this being one of the novels which so absorbed my grandmother as to leave my teenage future parents free from her chaperonage. Maybe also because my mother was an inveterate smoker, as I, alas, was also to become after I went to live inRussia. She had first acquired a taste for smoking in her teens when promised a complete set of Shakespeare’s works by her older brother Len, is she could smoke four cigarettes in succession – a feat she accomplished although it made her sick.**
Among my precious possessions today is a three volume edition of The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelleypublished in 1881, given to my mother by my father “on her 18th birthday, October 1883.”*** Below the inscription “To Emily Williamson by W.H.U.” penned in beautiful script in India Ink, my father wrote:
A vous mes pensees
Pensees aussi a moi.
** Stein & Day, N.Y., 1966.
*** John Slark, London, 1881. “The Text Carefully Revised, with Notes and A Memoir by William
Michael Rossetti. Dedicated to Edward John Trelawny, Who loved Shelley, Traced out his corpse, and Snatched from the fire the heart of hearts, This Edition of the imperishable poems is by permission most respectfully dedicated.”
Determined to pursue her vocation if only in the secondary role of a nurse, mother eventually ran away to London to become a probationer at St. Thomas Hospital. Meanwhile, my father, despite his love for her, had gone off to Greece to be tutor to the son of a wealthy family on the Island of Andros. Here, as he told me in my childhood, he walked down marble steps to swim in the warm Aegean Sea, and had on one occasion almost drowned because of his short-sightedness, having lost sight of land one evening when he swam too far out.
Subsequently he had wandered all over the Balkans, learning to speak Turkish as well as Greek and earning his living in diverse ways, mainly as a free lance journalist. His adventures in Eastern Europe were no doubt the equivalent of my brother’s voyages in the South Seas many years later. But he had eventually been pulled back to England by his love for my mother.
My mother was exceptionally attractive – indeed, quite beautiful to judge from her photographs and she had many suitors. But she waited for my father in the confident belief that he would eventually come back to her from his roaming abroad. All of which sounds like a 19th century romance but is true. They loved each other passionately and cherished one another all their lives, in poverty as in prosperity, in sickness and in health, until parted by death. During my father’s last long illness prior to his death in 1918, she nursed him devotedly in conditions of extreme poverty in a two-room cottage in Cornwall which was so primitive that she had to fetch water with a bucket from a well and cook on a wood stove. But she never let drudgery or poverty get her down. She was still lovely in middle age, slim and supple all her life, and managed somehow to look elegant whatever her circumstances. She was loyal and loving and never reproached my father for their fall from affluence to penury during the last years of his life although, as I came to realize when I grew up, she had little fundamental understanding or sympathy for the ideas which I inherited from him.
She was all woman – more concerned with human relations than with ideas; passionate and charming, unselfish but demanding, jealously possessive in her love for both my father and my brother, but also ready to make any sacrifice for them without complaint.
We could not have been more different. Not only was I never beautiful, I scorned to be feminine. I wished I were a boy and have always felt most flattered when told I have a man’s mind. Nevertheless, it was no doubt mainly due to my mother’s influence that I was to reject second best substitutes for love. I waited long to find my own true love because I dreamed of the perfect union which my mother and father enjoyed. I could not accept any substitute for the rare love of my parents which had illumined my childhood. Puritan or romantic, or a combination of both, I was to reject the easy fly-by-night liaisons of my contemporaries in the Bohemian world in which I took my place inLondon in the 20’s.
My father’s love for my mother was as constant as her’s for him. They were lovers in every sense of the word in middle age as in youth. I possess none of the letters she wrote him, but have several which he wrote to her both in their years of prosperity before the 1914 war, and during the disastrous years which followed before he died, destitute in Cornwall, in January 1918. Writing, on October 27, 1911from our home at Ken Court, Tatsfield to mother visiting my sick grandmother in Manchester, he tells her how “dreary” life was without her and that “In my loneliness last night, I though I would play the claviole but we could not find the piano key anywhere. My dearie I love you alone and utterly and life is not life when you are away. Goodnight sweetheart. Ever your true lover, Willie.”
Other passages in my father’s letters recall the dimly remembered days of my childhood and early teens when, incredible as it now seems, we lived in such comfort that two servants did not suffice. “I am putting an advertisement in the Globe for a man and wife,” he writes, “because, Florence does not want to be a parlor maid and the girl who wrote wants only a housemaid’s place.”
Florence, whose kind, ugly face and tall angular figure I still remember, was our loyal “retainer,” more friend than servant. When bad times came she wanted to continue working for us without wages and offered her own savings to my parents to help out. Back in 1912, she was busy bottling plums and pickling cauliflowers and cucumbers and enjoying herself generally. Recalling the distant days of our prosperity before the 1914 war, Temple was to write on June 3, 1934 from Suva, after the birth of my son in Moscow:
My Dear Mother and Grandmother,
Queer to think of you as the latter, for I see you more as the Mother I
remember, carousing with Lockoff and Madame von Klockner at Arosa,
or drinking Chartreuse – French, pre-expulsion of the monks – at Ken
Court, Christmas, 1912. Those days when we were young and rich, when
property was so secure that people laid down wine cellars and the ‘lower
orders knew their places’. Little did you think that twenty-two years
later you would be grandmother to a little revolutionary in Moscow. It
is a pity Dada cannot see the joke, it would have stirred his sense of
irony. Well, dear, you have had a life; but really, on the whole, it must
have been good. I don’t think that at the age of sixty-nine I will be having
a little revolutionary grandchild, in what capital shall I suggest? – say,
Even in her old age in America Mother was to remain charming and attractive. In 1941 when she was in her seventies George Calverton shortly before his death wrote to her from the offices of The Modern Quarterly in the Village:
Just a little note to say I hope you are feeling well and spreading your
radiant personality over Westport.
I’ve missed you, those minxish eyes of yours, that fine clear English
speech, and your infectious laugh, lovely as the song of wind in gentle
Other friends in America, still alive, recall Emmie Utley’s beautiful voice and the exquisite diction of her speech which was the more remarkable since her father had denied her the education he could easily have afforded to give her.
In my late teens I came to know my Williamson grandfather as a tall, handsome patriarch who bullied the two of his daughters who had not married but had devoted their lives to looking after their parents. He had cut off my mother without even the proverbial shilling when she married my father. But years afterwards when my father was prosperous and we lived a Ken Court my grandfather had been glad to let my mother nurse grandmother in our home for six months during her fatal illness. When she died, my grandfather did not even offer to pay the medical and funeral expenses. A decade later when my father was dying of tuberculosis in poverty, my grandfather grudgingly allowed my parents ten shillings a week – no doubt well content that he had proved so right in having opposed my mother’s marriage to a man who ended his life as he began, in poverty.
Following my father’s death in January 1918, my grandfather was to cut off even the pittance he had allowed my mother during the last year of my father’s illness, leaving me to support her while my brother was fighting in Mesopotamia.
I remember my mother’s mother as a small, shrunken old lady with scanty white hair covered by a lace cap, clear blue eyes, a delicately tinted complexion and a tremulous smile, her hands folded in her lap as she sat in our garden at Ken Court with a rug over her knees. She was a sweet and gentle person who let her husband dominate her to such an extent that she had never dared to stand up to him even in order to help their daughters.
My Utley grandmother, whom I knew only from her portrait, must have been a forceful and ambitious woman. She had done everything possible to help my father surmount the handicap of poverty to secure an education. She had succeeded in spurring my Utley grandfather into raising himself from the status of contented blacksmith in Yorkshire into the ranks of the lower middle class by securing for him the management of a small hotel in Manchester.
She had failed to make him a successful inn-keeper and had died comparatively young, leaving her husband to become my father’s pensioner; but she must have had the satisfaction of knowing that her talented and energetic son would fulfill her ambitions. I imagine that it is from her that I inherited the drive, as also other unfeminine qualities and defects that have both helped and hurt me during the course of my life.
My father’s father, although poor and improvident, was a most happy man, loved my his wife and son. He may have been a financial burden and a failure but he contributed to their lives, love and gaiety and enjoyment of music and art.
He remains in my childhood memories as a hale and hearty, rosy cheeked and whitehaired, cheerful old man. His main interest in life had always been playing the violin and painting pictures of no artistic value, which no doubt afforded him the pleasure of satisfying his creative impulses.
He was so robust and healthy that he had never taken to his bed in illness until he died in his 80’s in full possession of his faculties. No doubt, I have owed to him and our Yorkshire yeomen ancestors the vigor, energy and good health I have enjoyed for most of my life. My brother, who like my father, developed tuberculosis and died young, may have derived from our Utley grandfather the sanguine temperament which, as Temple used to say, contrasted with his pessimistic philosophy.
My Utley grandfather gave me a violin when I was a child and insisted that I should learn to play it, and he also endeavored to teach me to draw and paint. Although I was never really musical I tried hard and was most happy when chosen in my teens to play in the school orchestra at my English boarding school.
I also tried my hand at painting and wrote romantic plays which my brother and our friends acted, rigged out in homemade costumes. These plays of mine usually had tragic endings, as did the one we performed while staying at the Hotel Grison at Arosa in Switzerland, in which all the main characters ended up dead on the stage. I was furious when Temple made comedy out of my tragedy by getting up before the curtain fell to sound the hearts of the other “corpses” with a stethoscope.
As I write, memories revive of days when my imagination and interests were unconfined by experience or too great preoccupation with politics. When, although I already had a “social conscience” awakened by my father’s teachings, I could indulge my romantic imagination and enjoy all the wonder of the world.
Somewhere along the line of my ancestry or environment, I acquired a Puritan streak which made me take life all too seriously, in contrast to my brother who enjoyed all the pleasures and joys life offered, but who could also laugh in the face of danger of adversity. Temple never experienced the brief religious phase I went through, perhaps induced by one of my governesses at the age of seven or eight, when I prayed every night on my knees beside my bed without, as I imagined, anyone knowing. But my reason, or the logical thought developed by my upbringing soon reasserted itself, bringing my very short “age of faith” to an end. I remember going to discuss it all with my father, telling him that I realized that a just God would not punish man for doing the evil which his Creator must foresee he would do if He were omniscient as well as omnipotent. And if God were not just, he was not God; i.e., did not exist.
As I dimly remember, my father explained his agnostic philosophy in simple terms by saying that if told there was a tiger on the roof he would go up and find out. But no one could verify the existence of a God in heaven.
I wrote stories or fairy tales from an early age and can recollect the main outline of one whose hero was called Cass. Maybe I derived his name from the French verb casser – to break – for my story started by telling how his mother and father, realizing that their children, if they lived, would surely sin and go to hell, killed them all in infancy. But baby Cass, having willfully knocked over and smashed his cup of milk, thus already committing a sin, was permitted to live. This is all I remember of Cass’s story. A psychologist could no doubt find all sorts of interesting explanations for my remembering even this much.
It was perhaps because he wanted to save me from premature preoccupation with sin and death and religion that my father gave me Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to read. I was so enthralled by the lyrical beauty of Fitzgerald’s rendering of the Persian poet’s verses that, when eleven years old, I learnt them by heart – nor have I ever forgotten them entirely. Like the poems of Shelley and Swinburne which enchanted me later, I can still recite verse upon verse of the Rubaiyat from memory.
Recently I became acquainted with Omar Abou Riche, a famous modern Arab poet who was Syria’s Ambassador to Washington in 1962. When I asked him whether any of his poems had been translated into English or French, he replied, “yes,” but went on to remark that very few translations of poems are worth reading, the great exception being Fitzgerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat which, he said, is not properly speaking a translation, but a free rendering of the spirit and meaning of the original.
As I learnt only then from Omar Abou Riche, it was Swinburne, my favorite poet, who acquainted Fitzgerald with the works of the great Omar and induced him to give the Western world knowledge of the Rubaiyat in verses as immortal as the original Persian text.
Perhaps it is no accident but kismet – the Arab word for fate – which, by bringing me recently in contact with new friends from the ancient but reborn Middle East, has helped to revive memories of my childhood and youth when the Greco-Roman heritage we share with the Arabs colored and inspired my imagination.
Since he died before my twentieth birthday and long before I learned the facts of political life through experience, I do not know whether it was disillusionment or his love for my mother and desire to give her and their children a good life, which caused my father to devote his talents to making money soon after I was born. But it is clear to me from my memories of him and from the fragmented record of his life, which is all I possess, that like William Morris he was in revolt as much against the sordid ugliness of industrial civilization as against the iniquities of the “Capitalist System” of his time.
He loved music and poetry and beautiful things; was a connoisseur of wines; spoke several foreign languages fluently; loved to swim and sail, and enjoyed driving fast cars although this made my mother very nervous. In general, he had a great zest for living, and revelled in the athletic, as well as the intellectual pleasures of life. My earliest recollection of him is of a slim, trim man of medium height with broad shoulders, fine soft golden hair brushed back from a high wide forehead; clear flue eyes behind gold-rimmed pince-nez glasses perched on an aquiline nose above a reddish drooping moustache partially concealing a full lipped smiling mouth with prominent front teeth. And my happiest memories are of summer holidays in Sussex or Devonshire when Temple and I swam with him and he taught us to row and sail small boats.
I cannot remember ever having now known how to swim and read, but can recall being forbidden by my mother to read in bed, lest I “ruin my eyes” – an injunction which I cannot have paid much attention to because I have a distinct memory of lying in bed, early in the morning, reading a “told To The Children” illustrated version of Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare.
Among the illustrations I can still dimly see Rosalind and Touchstone in the Forest of Arden. Perhaps because Rosalind, disguised as a boy and behaving like one, in contrast to the womanly Ceilia who aroused my contempt, appealed to me who du ring my childhood longed to have been born a boy.
Apart from shortsightedness my eyes have never troubled me. Mother used to insist that I take off my glasses in company in order to look pretty. She also insisted on putting my straight hair in curl papers at night. I remember an evening when she reproached me for having caused a quarrel between her and my father – a most unusual occurrence – because I had appealed to him to stop her forcing me to endure this discomfort. Also my father telling me in an endeavor to use his influence to support my mother: “Il faut souffirir pour etre belle,” and myself in tears in a tantrum yelling “I don’t want to be beautiful,” which of course was not true. But my reaction to my mother’s emphasis on my handicaps: shortsightedness and straight hair, as against her perfect sight and lovely naturally curly hair was, of course, to pretend that I was not interested in my appearance. At that early time perhaps I really did not care, being far more concerned in keeping up with my brother in sports and studies in spite of being a girl and younger.
Temple, two and a half years older than I, received a letter on his 18th birthday which conveys some idea of our father’s personality and philosophy.
From our home at Ken Court, Tatsfield Surrey to Temple at Trinity Hall, Cambridge on June 9, 1913, he wrote:
My dear Boy,
May this, your eighteenth birthday, be a happy one, not because of
anything material that may come to you upon it, but because you feel that
you are making progress toward the responsibilities of manhood, because
you feel your own powers developing within you, because your inward
vision is embracing a wider view of the two worlds, the one which is inside
and the one which is outside yourself. You are practically a man already,
though for me always my dear boy, and I am happy to see you developing
your own personality and being yourself. Whatever may come to you in
the future, whether it be of good or ill, this is the greatest of all, to be
yourself and no copy of anyone else at all times under all conditions. But
for one’s own satisfaction it is necessary that the self you are shall be such
a self as you can be proud of yourself to yourself, not to other people. “Il
faut cultiver son jardin” is the French phrase. The garden to be proud of
is the garden that produces beautiful flowers, abundance of fruit, a
sufficiency of humble necessary vegetables (without which you won’t be
able to cultivate your garden) and the fewest possible weeds. Alas! There
is no garden quite free from weeds. The mistake is to take them for
beautiful flowers and it is a mistake quite easy to make both for young and
old. It is also a good exercise in philosophy, ethic and aesthetic, to examine
what is a weed, what a beautiful flower and what a choice fruit.
I have very confidence in you, dear boy, and in your future. I won’t
say to you: “think high thoughts,” but rather: “Think deep and wide
thoughts and to clean deeds.” Cleanliness is far above Godliness.
So long, old man. I shall be glad to see you at home again. It seems
a very long time since you went away.
My brother’s and my upbringing was unusual; mine in particular, since as a child I attended the same boy’s school as Temple: Peterborough Lodge on Finchley Road in Hampstead. The headmaster’s daughter, Cynthia Linford, and I were the only girl pupils. I don’t know how her Father had been persuaded to take me but it was Temple who had insisted that I enjoy the same advantages as himself. As I remember, or was told later, he had found I was being very poorly taught at my girls’ school: “Memorizing the names of headlands on the West Coast of Scotland when she doesn’t know that a headland is,” had been his indignant comment.
When I was nine years old my father, who had contracted tuberculosis, was ordered to Switzerland and we all went with him to Arosa. There and in Italy for two years, we children had a wonderful time skating, skiing, and bobsledding in winter, climbing mountains and swimming in the lakes and sea in summer. We spent part of each spring and summer on the Italian lakes and Riviera, where we “discovered” Portofino, as yet barely known to tourists. There the fishermen’s wives and daughters sat outside their whitewashed houses on steep narrow streets in the bright sunlight making the exquisite laces my mother loved to buy. Also there was San Frutuosa, lost little town approachable only by sea. One glorious summer we spent two months in Corsica travelling about that wild, romantic island in a horse-drawn carriage, but spending most of the time at Ajaccio where Temple and I swam naked on a deserted beach to which we walked along a road lined by marble tombs.
Rapallo, Santa Margharita and Sestri Levanti, Genoa and Milan, Pisa and Livorno, Lupano, Como and Lake Maggiore; driving by carriage and walking long stretches over the Simplon Pass from Domesdossela, whose hotel had, I thought, the unique name “Run to the Post” (courir a la Poste) but actually must have been Couriers of the Mail.
Bright unforgotten distant years of my most happy childhood spent in some of the loveliest places in the world, giving Temple and me lasting memories of beauty to carry with us the rest of our lives.
We attended no schools but were taught for an hour or two a day in winder by an old German-Swiss tutor in Arosa. Our father spending his days on a chaise longue on the veranda was always there to answer our questions and impart knowledge which we could never have obtained from a formal education. We read books and we listened and learned from the talks and discussions of our parents with friends and acquaintances from many lands in the cosmopolitan atmosphere in which my multilingual internationally minded father fitted so well. Since we were never repressed but only taught good manners Temple and I had no inhibitions to make us feel awkward or shy and speechless in the presence of our elders.
Unforgettable among my father’s friends in Arosa were Herr Lockhoff, a jovial Dutch artist and the dainty fair and smiling Baroness von Klockner from Dresden, who herself resembled one of that city’s famous porcelain statuettes. Lockhoff whose tuberculosis was incurable was to die soon after we returned to England. Irene von Klockner lived long but disappeared without trace in the senseless Anglo-American bombing of the open city of Dresden in 1944 which burned alive more civilians then the atom bomb dropped onHiroshima. Just before the Second World War, Mother and I were to meet her for the last time in London.
In late summer Temple and I climbed quite high mountains alone with a Swiss guide, once reaching the peak of the Aguille de Tour, ten thousand feet above sea level. In winter, besides skiing and skating and playing ice hockey, we took part with adults in the two and a half mile races on our bobsled named Mephistopheles, clad in white wool jerseys with red flannel devils on our chests and caps. Templesometimes steered, but we won our notable victories when piloted by Mrs. Moreland, the sporting wife of a New Zealand doctor, withTemple and me as crew and a man called Bray as the “break.” I still have in my possession a silver beaker inscribed with our names on the memorable occasion when, in 1909, we won the Lucy Challenge Cup, to the amused surprise, friendly applause or outrage of the competing adult teams.
I cannot have made much, if any, contribution as “crew” to our triumphs, far out as I see myself leaning in an old photo as we rushed around the most dangerous corner of the course; or by energetically throwing my slight weight backward and forward to help accelerate speed on the straight. It was probably due to my brother’s insistence that I was permitted to participate in these races which actually filled me with a dread I never admitted to Temple, whose belief that anything he could do, I could do, too, spurred me on.
Writing to me a quarter of a century later from the Fiji Islands to congratulate me on the birth of my son in Moscow, Temple recalled my “winning that ice-axe for me” at Champex, where I had outraced the Swiss girls who competed in the two mile race around the Lake.
When my father was sufficiently cured to return to England Temple and I were left at school on the Lake of Geneva. The original intention had been to leave only Temple, but as usual I wanted to do whatever he did. As I recall, at Sestri Levanti on the Italian Riviera in 1909, I had become more and more restless, so that one evening after the usual happy day swimming and basking in the sun, I solemnly informed my parents that it was high time for me to go to school and start studying. Maybe it was the first stirrings of what my brother used to call my “Puritan conscience.” Or perhaps it was simply because the joyful, easy, carefree life we children had for so long enjoyed had begun to pall. As Swinburne wrote in Temple’s favorite poem, Faustine, To feed a while on honeycomb is sweet,” but man tires of the repetition of accepted rhyme.
So, when eleven and a half years old, I became a pupil at La Combe, Rolle on the Lake of Geneva, with my brother at school half a mile away across the fields at the Chateau de Rosey. By special dispensation I had the run of this school where I went for fencing lessons as well as to visit my brother.
The first summer of our separation from our parents I spent three weeks with Temple and the boys of his school in the Swiss Alps, dressed in boy’s clothes and climbing the same mountains as teenage youths. Mixing with English, German, French, Swiss, Italian, and other nationalities, soon learning to speak French fluently and German fairly well, I was little aware of national barriers. I acquired an international outlook which neither my father’s influence nor theoretical socialist teaching alone could have given me.
So long ago and far away and yet so well remembered, the two years I spent at school in French Switzerland were one of the happiest periods of my life.
At first I was the only English girl at La Combe and later one of two. I was also the youngest. The majority of the pupils were German girls in their middle or late teens “finishing” their education by studying the French language, literature and culture. The atmosphere was not unlike that of my home environment; studious, tolerant, kindly and with equal emphasis on study and physical fitness. We skated in winter, swam and rowed on the Lake of Geneva in summer; bicycled and went for long walks, picked narcissi in the fields near Montreux on spring expeditions to such historic sites as the Chateau de Chillon. For a fortnight each year the whole school moved to the Alps, where we climbed mountains and trod the lovely green valleys studded with flowers between the mountain peaks, picking Edelwiss on the few occasions we found this rare flower and chanting French songs. Indelibly imprinted on my mind is a vision of the glories of an Alpine sunset as I stood shyly among my new companions somewhere in the mountains, on the first evening of this happy holiday tentatively attempting to join in the singing.
Sport at La Combe was regarded as a pleasure, not a duty, and study – really hard study – was expected of us all ensured mainly by pride in achievement. Most of the girls came from middle-class German Rheinland and Ruhr families which had made sacrifices to give them their year or two of “finishing school” in Switzerland. In contrast to the English school where I went later, it was considered shameful at La Combe not to work hard and take advantage of the opportunity afforded us to learn all we could from teachers who loved to teach and whom one hated to disappoint.
The headmistress of La Combe, Mademoiselle Marthe Dedie, was a cousin of Monsieur Henri Carnal, the headmaster of my brother’s school, and everyone expected them to marry. A handsome woman, I remember her best for the marvel of her long, lustrous and luxuriant black hair which reached almost to her feet and which she braided in thick coils in a crown on top of her head. Perhaps she was too strong-minded and independent for Monsieur Henri who was himself as handsome as a movie star and eventually married an American heiress.
The Chateau de Rosey in later years was to become a favorite school for gilded youth from all over the world, including the present Shah of Iran and other royal personages, besides sons of wealthy American families. In my day it had only one American pupil, a youth of about seventeen whose name I have forgotten, but whom I remembered because of the various troubles he got me into. He took me riding in his newly acquired automobile and promptly ran us into a stone wall. On another occasion he so outraged me by kissing me that I seized his best Panama hat and doused it in the fountain in the Chateau de Rosey courtyard. Once he induced me by the bribe of a carton of Nestle’s Swiss chocolate bars to carry a note from him to one of the girls at my school.
This shameful episode is the more inexcusable because, when Temple and I were first left at school in Switzerland, our parents arranged credit for us at the grocery store in Rolle. Unlike Temple, I had refused this opportunity to buy chocolates or anything else, not wishing to enjoy special privileges denied to the other girls at my school. Yet in my second year I succumbed to the lure of a dozen large chocolate bars as the price for delivering a love note, or maybe an invitation to an assignation, to one of my classmates from a rich, young American. I never really liked him but he tempted me and I fell.
This incident is one of the most painful recollections of my childhood because of the feeling of guilt it gave me for long afterwards. I realized that I had betrayed the trust reposed in me by Mademoiselle Marthe who, because my brother was there, permitted me, unlike the other girls at La Combe, to visit the Chateau de Rosey whenever I wished.
My favorite among Temple’s classmates was Jimmy Reiss, an intelligent witty and sophisticated Jewish boy from Manchester who was to remain my friend for many years. I still have a photo of him in a Chateau de Rosey performance of “Le Chapeau de Paille d’Italie” – a musical farce, two lines from which I was to remember all my life when enjoying myself too much. “Mon cher mais c’est atroce/Nous faisons touses Les jours la noce.” Which roughly translated means: My dear it’s terrible, we’re having a ball every day!
A decade and a half after our school days in Rolle, I was tempted to marry Jimmy because I was very fond of him and he was well-to-do, while I by that time was exceedingly poor. Temple used to say how nice it would be to have a brother-in-law with a wine cellar, and Jimmy and I had much in common. But in the 20’s in London I had not given up my hope of romantic love. Besides, Jimmy seemed too “bourgeois” for me much as I enjoyed his company. He never did marry and probably had grave reservations in courting me since he thoroughly enjoyed his foot-loose life. But he was to give me help and comfort when I returned from Russia in 1936 with my political hopes and personal life alike shattered.
La Combe today, although still a more modest establishment than the Chateau de Rosey, has likewise become a fashionable modern school, as I found when I briefly revisited it in 1953 when driving through Switzerland from Germany to Italy with my son. The bedrooms now have running water and there are plenty of bathrooms, whereas in my day we each of us took our turn once a week for a hot bath in a cold outhouse. But the same solidly constructed, cream-colored, two-story, many windowed building still stands looking out upon the same distant view of the Lake of Geneva shimmering in the sunlight. The same sentier leads along the railroad line to the Chateau de Rosey along which I trod or bicycled so often.
There is the same tinkling of pianos in practice rooms; the same calm, studious atmosphere; the same lovely gardens shaded by ancient trees; the same flagstoned terrace in front of the main building where we sat in late afternoon embroidering or stitching as we listened to reading aloud of French classic literature. And, no doubt, there is the same curriculum demanding the same conscientious study and endeavor as in the days of my childhood, when we walked up and down in the early morning in the open air learning our grammar lessons from Larousse or memorizing French prose pieces, before classes began.
I can still recite the opening passage of the piece by Alphonse Daudet which begins: “Les chevres de Monsieur Seguin s’en allez tous dans la montagne,” telling the tale of the beautiful little white goat who, despite the love and care lavished on her, was eventually gobbled up by a wolf because like Monsieur Seguin’s other goats she would not stay in his lush pastures but sought adventure in the mountains.
So unchanging, widespread and influential are the disciplines of French education and the patterns of French culture that, in Algeria in September 1963, driving in the countryside where goats abound and conversing with my young Arab Moslem chauffeur, I started to quote the above passage and found that he, too, had learned by heart the same Daudet story about Monsieur Seguin’s beloved little white goat!
Our places in school each week were determined by the “Dictee” which started classes. By my second year I was often at the top, and always near the head of the class, being able to take French dictation almost without spelling mistakes. I had perforce learned French fast since during my first year there was only one other girl who spoke English. Her name was Gretel Muthmann and her mother was an Englishwoman who had married a German velvet manufacturer from Crefeld in the Ruhr. Gretel helped me and cherished me like an older sister and we have remained close friends until today, in spite of the two wars which split our worlds into contending halves, and in which she suffered both physical and mental anguish.
Whenever I now cross the Atlantic to Europe I visit Gretel, my oldest friend in all the world. During the Second World War she lost her husband and was twice bombed out of her home in Cologne where she practiced as a dentist. After taking refuge with relatives inEast Germany she fled before the Red Army with her teenage daughter who was wounded by machine gun fire from an American plane. At the Elbe, in 1945, like so many other thousands of German women and children seeking escape from the Communist terror, they had waited in vain for permission from the U.S. Army to cross over. Luckier than most, thanks to being able to claim kinship with relatives in England, Gretel and her young daughter were eventually permitted to cross over the Elbe to safety. And her English relatives helped them with food packages to survive the hunger years which followed during the Allied Occupation.
Gretel’s daughter, Liligret, is today the only woman musician in one of West Germany’s most famous orchestras. Gretel herself is slowly dying from an incurable disease, having been finally laid low after her long and gallant fight to survive the vicissitudes of her life.* Today I remember her best in the role of Cyrano de Bergerac as performed at La Combe before an audience which included the staff and boys of my brother’s school, the townsfolk of Rolle and leading representatives of the landed aristocracy of the vicinity. Gretel gave a superb and unforgettable performance as the swashbuckling Gascon hero of Rostand’s famous play, shocking some of her audience by her fluent colloquial use of French swearwords which she added to the text. The play was not in any case one calculated to uphold the chaste principles of a school for young daughters of the respectable middle classes. Gretel, carried away by her exuberant interpretation of her role, and fortified by champagne, made it even less suitable. But she brought the house down in roars of applause.
Gretel, whose married name was Mohr, died after the type was set for this book.
It is not possible to remember what one was like in childhood. Nor are the memories of old friends reliable since they are prejudiced in one’s favor. But perhaps one’s best aspirations are mirrored in what one would like to believe is true according to their recollections. When visiting Gretel in Braunschweig in 1960 I asked her to help me understand myself and the course of my life by telling me what kind of a child I was. She said: “Even as a little girl, you seemed to me to be motivated by a passion for justice.” Which reply, I realize, may be due not so much to Gretel’s recollection of me at La Combe, as to the books I have written.
Gretel was not the only friend of my childhood days in Switzerland whom I still know, or with whom I have renewed contact in recent years. Following the publication of The High Cost of Vengeance** in the U.S. in 1940 and in Germany two years later I received many letters from Germany thanking me for having written this book in which I pleaded for justice and mercy for the defeated Germans and argued that only the Communists would profit from the dismantlement of German industry. Among the hundreds of letters I received from Germanyseveral said: “You must be the Freda Utley we once knew at La Combe.” Thus, forty years afterwards, I renewed contat with German friends of my childhood.
** The Henry Regnery Co. Chicago, Noelke Verlag, Hamburg.
Best of all was to receive word from Madmoiselle Marthe Dedie, already in her eighties, congratulating me on the publication of The High Cost of Vengeance, and telling me she was proud that I had been one of her pupils when I was a child.
On the other side of the ledger, I was attacked and smeared as “pro-German” or even as an apologist for the Nazis, by most “liberal” and even some conservative publications in America. It was then considered outrageous to insist that the Germans were no more inherently wicked or aggressive than other peoples, nations or races. I, with my experience of the kindness of my schoolmates at La Combe could not believe in the myth of German beastliness, and I knew too much history to accept the theses of Germany’s
Peter Blake, himself of German Jewish origin, (and today editor of Architectural Forum in New York) game me much consolation when he wrote in Don Levine’s Plain Talk: “It is said that cruelty is the result of fear; perhaps Freda Utley’s great compassion is the result of her courage.”
I should like to think this is true but in fact my compassion for the Germans arose from my own experience. Having myself not so long before lived under the shadow of terror in Stalin’s Russia, I understood how dreadful had been the situation of the Germans under Hitler. Unlike most Americans or English I knew that the subjects of a totalitarian state cannot revolt, without outside help, and that the Germans during the war had had no choice but to fight for their country under the Nazi regime, or submit to Communist conquest. “There but for the Grace of God go I” was a precept I could never forget after my experiences of the terrible compulsions exerted on its subjects by the modern totalitarian state.
In 1952 and subsequent years when again visiting Germany, I found some of the dimly remembered friends of my childhood in comfortable circumstances, while others had barely survived the Nazi era, the war, and its aftermath. But our class of 1911 still managed to meet, occasionally, at some place on the Rhine. Moving spirit of these reunions, until she died in 1959, was the fair haired, blue-eyed and still comely Liselotte Euler, from Bielefeld, who had written in my “Birthday Book”:
Tout change dans ce monde
Vie, plaisir, climat
Seul, mon amitie pour toi
Ne changera pas.
Liselotte’s son, at the age of sixteen, had been mobilized during the last months of the war and taken prisoner by the French, who sent him to do forced labor in the Lorraine coal mines where he was overworked and underfed for two years before being set at liberty. Visiting her together with my Prussian friend, Count Joachim Kalckreuth who had for four years been a starved prisoner of the Russians in worse conditions, we both vainly tried to persuade Liselotte’s son that he should adhere to the West. He repeated the German equivalent of the American expression, “I’ve had it. Don’t talk to me about democracy, or try to tall me there can be anything worse than being a prisoner of the French.”
In contrast to Liselotte’s bitter young son, there was Else Wollstein-Stolberg, who had been my companion at weekly riding lessons in Geneva, and who being Jewish, had suffered terribly during the war. She and her non-Jewish husband, who stuck by her, had survived, thanks to peasants, who hid them in a “fowl house,” to use her own English description of their refuge. I was deeply moved when Else thanked me for having written The High Cost of Vengeance and glad to learn that her husband had been reinstated in the important job in the Cologne Municipality from which he had been ousted by the Nazis.
I was in my thirteenth year when, in 1911, I left La Combe to return to England. The four years I had spent on the Continent at an impressionable age were to have a lasting influence on my outlook. They were golden years of happy memories of a time when the world had seemed a most friendly place and I was little aware of national barriers created by ignorance, price and prejudice. Never in the future would it
be possible for me to think that my own country, or any other country, was the repository of all virtues, or to believe that “my country right or wrong” is an admirable sentiment. “Menschen sind menschen,” as t he Germans say – meaning that humanity the whole world over is much of a muchness. In short, my “Continental Interlude” had for good or ill given me an international outlook for the rest of my life. Like Tom Paine, who said, “Where liberty is not, there is my country,” I came in later years to identify myself with those struggling for freedom and justice anywhere or everywhere on the globe.
No doubt I was spoilt at La Combe. Not only because I was a precocious child among teenagers and for most of the time the only English girl. There was also the fact that my parents were then rich, or seemed to be so, since my father spent his money as easily as he them made it. No other parents in those days came to visit their children in Switzerland in an automobile driven across the continent. As Gretel has told me, my handsome father and my beautiful mother dressed to perfection, made a terrific impact on La Combe, which gave me a special status of which I was totally unaware.
I remember only that the special privilege I asked for, by cable to my parents during my first days at La Combe, was that I should not be compelled to consume soup or drink wine at dinner!
How strange this sounds today when I like nothing better than wine with my meals! In those days on the continent half a century ago the purity of water was not taken for granted even in Switzerland, and wine, or wine and water, was the customary drink for young and old.
My father and mother, besides ensuring my freedom from alcohol later interfered with the disciplines of La Combe by objecting to the system which was so effective in forcing us all to learn French. This system seemed abhorrent to my liberal parents because it entailed “spying” and “denunciation.” There were some dozen “billets” which one passed on to anyone one heard speaking their native tongue – meaning generally German but in my case English. Anyone in possession of one of these tokens at mid-day dinner time was kept in to write in full every conjugation of a French verb – which task, including I, thou, you and it as well as we and they in every tense, took most of the afternoon.
My parents’ moral objections to this most efficacious system for forcing us all to learn French eventually persuaded Mademoiselle Dedie to abandon it for a short time during my last year. Instead of a hectic scramble to get rid of the “billets” before noon, we were put on an honors system of reward. Once a week, anyone who could get up and say “Je jure devant tout le monde” – swear to the world – that she had not spoken anything but French for the past seven days, received a cheap paper copy of some master piece of French literature. By this time French had become almost my native tongue so that it was all too easy for me to collect a book every week, thus acquiring a small library of French classics. The rules were therefore changed in my case to ensure that I should speak German, which I spoke very imperfectly. This created such confusion that the new system was abandoned before I went home to England.
Temple had not been as happy at the Chateau de Rosey as I at La Combe. He had come “to hate the food, the cold and the discomfort” and with the departure of Jimmy Reiss and his Latim master, Mr. Hammond, he would have “no one in the whole world to talk to.” Suggesting that Hammond be engaged as his “tuteur” Temple then aged fifteen wrote:
I find him one of the nicest men I know, he is very interesting and very
well read, an atheist, a liberal and his socialism is the same as ours, and
he is not at all fast. He does not want at all a big salary. This is my
suggestion, not his.
Following our return to England our situations were to be reversed. I was to endure four generally unhappy years at boarding school inEngland. Temple escaped a “public school” education and was tutored at home before enjoying a year at Cambridge University before the 1914 War.
MY ENGLISH SCHOOL
The plunge from Switzerland into the frigid, unkind and alien atmosphere of an expensive English boarding school no doubt helped to lay the psychological foundations for the militant communism which, a decade later, was to supplant the vague academic socialism of my early youth.
Prior’s Field, Godalming, Surrey, had been founded by Julia Huxley, granddaughter of the renowned Dr. Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, niece of the poet Matthew Arnold, wife of Leonard, son of the famous Thomas Huxley, and mother of Aldous and Julian Huxley of future fame.* Mrs. Huxley was dead, but her school headed by Mrs. Burton Brown, had been selected by my parents on the confident assumption that it would provide as congenial an atmosphere as La Combe, where I had been educated beyond my years while uninstructed in several basic subjects. Instead, it proved to be no better than a British “public school” for boys.
There was no “fagging” nor infliction of corporal punishment by seniors on juniors, nor hazing of the weak by the strong. Instead there was mental, or perhaps one should call it social, bullying equally effective in enforcing conformity. Such offenses as studying hard, showing originality in dress or any peculiarity of speech or behavior, were punished by mockery or contempt and, worst of all, the loneliness which comes from alienation from the community, particularly hard to bear when one is homesick. Realizing I was having a bad time my parents offered to remove me during my first year, but, thinking that Prior’s Field was typical of English schools, I saw no point in this and decided that I must endure it.
- In Ronald W. Clark’s book, The Huxley’s, McGraw Hill 1968, there are many pages about Prior’s
Field where Aldous Huxley was a pupil when seven years old together with the original six girls.
I was handicapped from the start by my slightly foreign accent as well as by my un-English upbringing. My “r’s” were French “r’s” and I recall my acute embarrassment when made to stand up to say “stirrup” over and over again, unable to pronounce it in an English accent while the whole class laughed.
Other disadvantages due to my lopsided education abroad had to be overcome. At La Combe there had been no mathematics classes, only optional bookkeeping courses for older girls. So although I had a wide-ranging acquaintance with French and English literature and considerable knowledge of European and ancient history, when it came to arithmetic I did not even know what LCM (Lowest Common Multiple) or HFC (Highest Common Factor) meant. And with regard to geometry and algebra, I had to start from scratch. Since I also knew no Latin, I was assigned during my first term to the lowest form with the youngest girls in the school.
Because I had acquired the habit of study, and was blessed with an excellent memory, I quickly caught up and rapidly advanced from class to class winning more prizes than anyone else, and arriving ahead of my time at the sixth, or top form.
My scholastic achievements counted for less than nothing in the opinion of my classmates, who gave me the nickname of “Brainy,” in no complimentary sense. After I was chosen for the tennis and swimming teams which competed with other schools I was tolerated, if never fully accepted, as a member of Prior Field’s “ruling class.” But I continued to be a non-conformist. I won a prize for botany because collecting specimens of wild flowers enabled me to go for walks and escape playing cricket. La Crosse, which was played in winter, I enjoyed, but I only made the second team. I had from the first refused to wear a black or brown ribbon to bind up my hair, preferring a colored one to match the smocks which we wore over the regulation white blouses and skirts into which we changed each evening from our daytime grey tunics.
Accustomed at La Combe to associate with girls older than myself on terms of equality, I had no inkling of my social misdemeanor when, at the beginning of my residence at Prior’s Field, I talked at length with two older girls sitting together on the “horse” in the gym at a Saturday night dance. This “horse” I should explain, was a leather upholstered contraption above which we vaulted with varying degrees of success during our daily mid-morning’s gymnasium exercises which included climbing up bars and ropes besides marching and running in step. All of which muscle-building and posture exercises were one of the best sides of the curriculum.
My sins against the social code, at first unconscious, became deliberate. The spirit of rebellion was awakened in me as I opposed the social hierarchy and the conventions of my school. In later life the girls of Prior’s Field came to symbolize for me the “imperialist British bourgeoisie:” class conscious, insensitive, sublimely self-assured, scornful of learning, and confident in their divine right to order the universe.
The profound changes brought about by two World Wars and England’s loss of her Empire have since my day transformed the atmosphere of English private schools, as also the composition and outlook of English ruling circles. But, “the Establishment” as it is now called, endures.
I made some friends but they were either rebels like myself or passive non-conformists, or victims of ‘the system,’ whom I tried to help or protect after I had myself achieved the status of a prefect. One among the former was Margaret Waley, cousin of Arthur Waley, the famous sinologist whose translations of Chinese poems are widely known. Margaret, however, was one of those rare characters who are impervious to their environment. She walked alone and did not care whether she was popular or not, whereas I yearned to be liked and appreciated, although unable to make the concessions necessary for social acceptability.
Among other friends there was Nora Buchan-Sydserf – an unforgettable name – who, being Scotch, was better educated than most English girls, and had an amused contempt for the “sassenach” hierarchy which ran our school. Small and wiry with beautiful long, naturally curly golden hair and bright blue eyes, Nora’s appearance was marred by a brace on her front teeth, prominently displayed as she laughed in unconfined enjoyment of her mimicry of the silly pretensions of the “tyrants” who dominated our lives. Tough, intelligent and witty, and still alive today, she was one of those who, in Voltaire’s phrase, see life as comedy because they think, instead of as the tragedy it seems to those who mainly feel.
Another well remembered friend, with whom I have kept some contact over the years, was Dorothea Bluet from Buenos Aires. A short, fat girl with mousey straight hair and pale round face with no pretensions to beauty except for large sparkling black eyes, she was to marry a rich rancher and is today a happy grandmother in the Argentine. Neither “brainy” nor athletic, Dorothea was amiable and full of fun and uninhibited either by her teenage roly poly figure or her inferior status as “colonial” British. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, dumpy, small body shaking with laughter, white teeth gleaming, eyes twinkling and moon face crinkled with mirth as our small group sat on the grass in a secluded corner of the playing fields on the edge of the woods sheltering violets, bluebells and primroses, in Surrey in the springtime after lunch. Here we played the “truth” game, asking each other searching, embarrassing questions which one was honor bound to answer unequivocally.
Others I remember are the older girls who befriended me during my first year at Prior’s Field, Beata Crook and Phyllis Vickers. Beata who looked rather Rossettish inspired me to make such efforts in my attempts to play the violin that I became a minor member of the school orchestra – an achievement which filled me with greater pride than my success in classes, although each time I played my heart palpitated with the dread engendered by my consciousness of my inadequacies as a musician.
Phyllis, after a brilliant career at Cambridge University became a Factory Inspector in the Labor Ministry and was a most helpful friend in my days of poverty in London during the 1914 war.
I was on good terms with Margaret Huxley, sister of Julian and Aldous. I remember her brothers only as young men who, on the rare occasions when they spent a weekend at the school from which they derived their income, sat in state at the headmistress’ table at Sunday dinner.
As I write and call to mind these and others who were my friends at Prior’s Field, I wonder whether my years there were really as unhappy as I used to think.
During my last year I even became friendly with the girl we called “Carrots,” a tall superbly built redhead with a freckled face, snubnose, bright blue eyes and engaging smile displaying perfect teeth, who was both the all round athletic champion and head girl. Her name was Mary Cooper, and I had originally hated her as the “boss” of the school and embodiment of all I most disliked at Prior’s Field. Carrots, whose leadership I had for long defied, was extremely nice to me after the descent of my parents from affluence to penury. This is perhaps not so strange because today I can appreciate the virtues as well as the defects of the erstwhile British ruling class. As my brotherTemple was to write two decades later from Suva, despite our being “intellectuals” we both liked “the barbarian English from the best schools.”
Let me not forget in recalling my school impressions of half a century ago, my tennis partner, Marjorie Clemence Dane. A tall, sturdy blond girl with few, if any, intellectual or political interests, but with a good brain and a headstrong and romantic temperament, she was to become my close friend years later in London.
The only child of a “widow of high degree” – at least in her mother’s own estimation – Marjorie had never met the “lower classes” until I stayed with her one summer in Sidmough in Devonshire in the early Twenties. Accustomed from childhood to fishing and sailing whenever I could, I naturally made friends with the local fishermen, and Marjorie and I spent many a night “mackerel drifting,” and helping to haul in the nets at dawn.
To me this was just the kind of sea-going holiday I had enjoyed in childhood. But to Marjorie it was romance. She fell in love with a fisherman who was squat and dark and muscular and almost ugly except for his large, black, long-lashed eyes – inherited perhaps from some Spanish ancestor cast upon the Western shore of England after the defeat of the Armada.
“Ern” Jenkins was not very bright and his political opinions of the day depended on whether he had just read the Conservative “Daily Mail” or the Labor “Daily Herald.” He was far less interesting and attractive than “Stan” Harris who could neither read nor write but who had opinions he had thought out for himself, and whose physique was that of a legendary Norseman or Greek God. Stan was married to a wonder girl called Kathie who was pretty and witty and well educated and who never let the hardships of a fisherman’s wife get her down. They had a charming child called Peggy and theirs was a happy, life-long love. Both of them recur often in my story since they became and remained dear friends long after Marjorie and Ern had parted.
Marjorie’s mother called in the Bishop of London to try to stop the marriage and took her on a sea voyage round the world on a luxury liner to cure her of her infatuation. It was all in vain. Although, as my brother observed at the time, if Marjorie’s mother had not skimped on this voyage and had taken her on a P. & O. instead of a Japanese boat, she might have met a man who would have made her forget poor Ern.
Marjorie had 500 pounds a year of her own – a not inconsiderable income in those days. She could afford to play at the simple life in a comfortably appointed cottage in Sidmouth after she married Ern. He, unfortunately, had all the “petty bourgeois” prejudices of the respectable British working class and this ruined their marriage. Marjorie had fallen in love not so much with him as with his way of life. But as soon as they were man and wife, he stopped her going out fishing with him at night, insisted on her wearing a hat and stop wearing shorts or slacks, and in general made her life so dull that she yearned to return to London.
Eventually they divorced with Ern keeping the house and being paid quite a bit of “alimony.” Marjorie later married my college friend, Robert Ryan, a clever, sensitive and poetical Irishman in delicate health. This proved to be a most happy marriage, but he dies soon after.
I owe much to Prior’s Field. Not only did my experience there temper and steel me to resist and defy the powers which at all times and places in all societies endeavor to enforce conformity by one means or another. The teaching was also excellent. The trouble was that neither the headmistress nor the staff, with the exception of the games mistress, had much influence outside the classroom.
History, which was my favorite subject, was particularly well taught. At Prior’s Field in my early teens I learned more history, ancient, medieval and modern, than most American college students. We were also given some understanding of political realities and the facts of power, so conspicuous by their absence in liberal academic circles today. For instance, it was impressed on me that Magna Carta which in later centuries came to be the Great Charter of English freedom, was nothing of the sort in 1215, at Runnymede. It marked instead, as I learnt at Prior’s Field, the success of the feudal aristocracy in wresting back from a cruel and foolish kind its own special privileges – then called “liberties” – curtailed by Norman kings seeking to establish a strong central government ensuring law and order and the protection of the weak against the strong. It was not until many centuries later that Manga Carta was transformed into a charter of liberties for all Englishmen. (In parentheses, I must here remark that a minor lesson impressed on me at Prior’s Field is nover to mix Latin and English by calling the Great Charter Magna Charta – a mistake so general that typists or typographers almost always get it wrong.)
History as taught in most American schools and colleges only briefly scans, or passes over as dark ages of little or no interest to the modern world, the millenium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Rennaissance and Reformation. This general ignorance of medieval history seems to me the main reason why Americans in general, despite their good will and desire to help, fail to appreciate the problems of government in “underdeveloped” or backward countries. “Democracy” in such countries almost inevitably entails giving a free hand to the rich and powerful, just as in Thirteenth Century England, Magna Carta meant restoring to the Barons their “liberty” to oppress their vassals and serfs without fear of the Crown oppressing them or bringing them to justice.
Many years after, lessons I learned at Prior’s Field, and subsequently at London University, enabled me to realize that China in the aftermath of the war against Japan was at about the same stage of political development as England and France in the Middle Ages, when the great need was for a strong government to enforce law and order and defend the country against its external enemies.
It seemed to me absurd and self-defeating for America to demand “democratic” government in China, when the real need was for an effective administration able to curb the centrifugal forces and enforce reforms. As I wrote in my book, Last Chance in China:*
To call the Kuomintang Government “Fascist” is the very reverse of the
truth. Its powers are not limitless but far too limited. In war it lacks
entirely the simian efficiency of the Nazi, Japanese and Soviet States.
It interferes with the individual too little, not too much. Its sins of
omission are far greater than its sins of commission. Its gravest fault
is the ineffectiveness of its administration, and its failure to force
through necessary reforms. It is too soft, not too hard.
Naturally, my political realism in writing that “an economically and politically backward country such as China requires an authoritative administration,” called down on me the opprobrium of American “liberals” who accused me of a preference for tyranny even while they themselves were equating willingness to collaborate with Communists as the hallmark of a “democrat.”
Owing to this confusion or the ignorance of most Americans of history prior to 1776, we “lost” China. This is a later story which I tell in my 1951 book The China Story.** Here I have digressed to show that in spite of my own foolishness in drifting into the Communist camp in the late Twenties, I never quite forgot fundamental historical lessons learned half a century ago at Prior’s Field.
* Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1947.
** Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1951.
On the other side of the ledger, so to speak, I remember a talk given to us in 1913 by Mrs. Burton Brown, in which she compared Lloyd George’s reforms with those of the Gracchi who had been murdered for their attempt to remedy social and economic injustice and thus ‘save the Republic.’ Conservatives who fail to see the need for change and the remedy of abuses pave the way for dictators who abolish all our liberties.
“B.B.,” as we called our headmistress, was a great teacher and a scholar who related the lessons of the past to the present. She was a liberal in the true and original meaning of that much abused word, but also a realist without illusions concerning the facts of power and the basic motives of men, ancient, medieval or modern.
Few among her pupils appreciated her great qualities or liked her much. She was a big, heavy, majestic woman with a rugged masculine countenance, thick eyebrows and heavy jowels, who inspired awe, not affection. She was too remote to know how little effect either her teachings or her personality and high-minded precepts had on the conduct of her pupils. We were all afraid of her, and it was with a beating heart that we obeyed a summons to her book-lined, chintz-curtained study whose French windows looked out on a garden glorious in early summer with deep blue delphiniums and other brilliant flowers. Even I, one of her favorite pupils, vividly recollect that to be called to B.B.’s study in the early morning made my heart palpitate with nameless dread.
B.B.’s daughter, Beatrice (whose shortened name of Bice we pronounced bitch) was a thin-lipped spinster with an artificial smile who was actively disliked for what we instinctively recognized as only a veneer of sweetness, light and charity covering her lack of warmth and humanity, and the conceit which then as now is the besetting sin of class conscious liberal intellectuals.
“Bice” gave me individual instruction in Greek to enable me to acquire sufficient knowledge within a year to pass the Cambridge“Little Go.” She spent most of the time trying to inspire me with a vision of Socrates in the false image of a non-conformist parson. The fact that I actually passed Cambridge University’s entrance examination at the age of sixteen, in Greek as well as Latin, was due to my excellent memory. I memorized the English translation of Plato’s Apologia and Zenophon’s Anabasis, and learned just enough Greek to recognize which passages had been given for translation. However, I owe it to “Bice” that I learned by heart some lines from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates in the original Greek, which I can still recite by rote.
My knowledge of Latin, unlike my Greek, was not synthetic. I really learned Latin at Prior’s Field, thanks mainly to our Classics teacher, Miss Richards. She was a neat, small, reserved woman with a well-developed sense of humor who never curried popularity, or like the games mistress and some others, sought to stimulate endeavor by arousing inordinate affection – a “pash” to use our word for the unhealthy, adolescent adoration of pupil for mistress in our exclusively feminine society. I remember Miss Richards although I have forgotten the names and faces of other mistresses at Prior’s Field, because she was an inspired teacher who could make even Latin grammar and composition interesting, and the reading of Roman poetry and prose an absorbing pleasure instead of a chore.
I can no longer read it with ease, but my good grounding in Latin syntax and logic, and the clarity of expression required by the exigencies of the Latin tongue, together with my earlier French education, taught me to endeavor to express my thoughts succinctly and logically instead of taking refuge in the verbosity and ambiguity, or mushiness, which in our day and age enables many writers to hedge on their convictions. I do not pretend that my writings have measured up to classical standards, but I have always endeavored to express my meaning clearly and unequivocally.
Long before I want to Prior’s Field my thoughts and aspirations had been colored by Greek and Roman myths, legends and history.
One of the first books Temple and I read was an abridged version of Chapman’s translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, with illustrations by Flaxman copied from Greek vases. The garden of the Hesperides, the siege of Troy, the wanderings of Ulysses and Aeneas, the battles of Marathon and Salamis – the whole beauty and wonder of Greek myth, legend and history, had given me visions from childhood of a lovely land of marble temples and sunlit seas where men first dispelled the mists of superstition, ignorance and fear.
But until I came to Prior’s Field I had no more than a romantic vision of the glory that was Greece or of the lasting contribution made by Rome to the foundations of Western civilization.
Thanks to Mrs. Burton Brown, I also acquired some appreciation of the connection between art and religion, politics and philosophy, truth and beauty. One evening a week in the winter and spring terms, “B.B.” lectured to us on Greek, Roman, and Renaissance art. Her lectures were illustrated by slides, and although I can recollect little of what she said, I can still visualize some of the photographs of temples, statues and pictures shown to us on the screen. Mrs. Burton Brown gave me the small measure of understanding of art of which I am capable, together with a deep and enduring appreciation of the Greek genius and its lasting influence.
Temple always said that my artistic tastes depended on my political and ethical values, meaning that I had no pure aesthetic appreciation of art. Which is no doubt true and explains why I have no appreciation of most ‘modern art’ which to me conveys only confusion. Seeking and admiring clarity of thought and expression, I can see no sense in pictures without meaning, or whose meaning is deliberately obscured.
The classical influences of my childhood and youth stayed with me all my life. For some twenty years, until her death in 1963 at the age of 93, I was privileged to count Edith Hamilton among my friends. This outstanding American classical scholar comforted and encouraged me in Washington decades after I was a child at Prior’s Field when I was cast down by the failure of my best books. She chided me gently, saying that if one is determined to “witness to the truth” as one sees it, it is inconsistent to yearn for the fruits of the transitory success which come to those who seek popularity. “The excellent becomes the permanent,” she wrote, quoting Aristotle, in her inscription to me in one of her last books.
Edith Hamilton also tried to instruct me as to how to get my views heard by a wiser presentation than was my wont.
Mrs. Burton Brown’s lectures on history and art compensated for much else lacking at Prior’s Field. Now that I am much older than she was when I listened to her with rapt attention, I recognize my debt to her teaching and can forgive her for having failed me at a critical period in my life.
I was one of her favored pupils, not because she had affection for me, but on account of my scholastic record. I won more prizes each year for proficiency in more subjects than anyone else. I even won a prize for Divinity, although I was a free th inker, exempted from church attendance. I acquired a leather bound volume of Meredith’s poems, which I still possess, for general knowledge of the Bible, in April 1913, when I was fifteen years old and in class VB. (Lower Fifth) The following term, summer 1913, I won the school “Essay” prize for a dissertation on Machiavelli. This time the book given me was Cary’s translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” which was a more fitting choice as my reward than Meredith’s “Poems” may seem as a Divinity prize. In my essay on Machiavelli, I argued that there was not really such a disparity as generally supposed between the Florentine’s advice to tyrants, as expressed in his “Prince,” and his eulogy of Republican Virtues in his “Commentaries on Livy” – the Roman classical historian. As I saw it, when fifteen years old, men are usually ready to condone, or even approve, actions taken by their state or country which they condemn when taken by an individual, so that what seemed admirable “virtue” in the Romans was regarded as wickedness in an individual Italian prince.
I wish I still had this old essay of mine. All I can now remember is its main argument that Machiavelli’s precepts for Princes – his description of how tyrants maintain their power, which came to be called “Machiavellian,” – was not different in essence to the precepts and practices of the Roman Republic or modern nation states.
Mrs. Burton Brown, expecting that I would reflect glory on Prior’s Field by future academic achievements at CambridgeUniversity, gave me special facilities for study. She lent me books and during my last year installed me in a room of my own in the hospital annex where I could read late or early instead of being subject to school rules. But in the end she let me down so badly that she did more to awaken my budding revolutionary outlook than anyone else in my early life.
When the war5 came in 1914, my father was ruined. I was sixteen and had just passed the entrance examination to CambridgeUniversity. Mrs. Burton Brown, confident that I would win laurels for Prior’s Field, gave me a year’s free schooling. I began working in theCambridge “Higher Local,” an additional examination which women candidates were also required to pass, but it soon became clear that I should not be able to take advantage of the scholarship which I was almost certain to secure, because my father would be unable to contribute anything to my support. Instead of arranging for me to go to London University – where, as I learned years later, I could have obtained a scholarship sufficient to enable me to continue my studies – “B.B.” cast me off, as no longer of any interest or value to Prior’s Field. Nor did she let me down gently.
She made it brutally clear to me that my presence at Prior’s Field was no longer desired, and caused me acute shame by letting it be known that I was at school free because my parents could no longer afford to pay my fees. When I passed the Cambridge “Higher Local” with flying colors “B.B.” reserved her congratulations for the girl who had passed with lower marks but had the financial means to continue her education.
Today, six decades later, I remember the shock and disillusionment of the discovery that Mrs. Burton Brown had never had any personal regard for me, having all along been concerned only with the academic laurels I was expected to win for her school. After I was precluded, on account of poverty, from being of any value to Prior’s Field, she cast me off without compunction or compassion.
Thus in the summer of 1915, I left school with few regrets and some bitterness, thanks to the personal experience which taught me that the social system could fling one into poverty from security, and prevent one from continuing one’s education whatever the proof of one’s mental qualifications.
(For continuation please go to http://fredautley.com/pdffiles/book05.pdf )