steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

A Calvinist Christmas - A Family History Centenary Special

I’ve mentioned this anecdote briefly before, but now seems the right time to give it its own space, for it happened almost exactly one hundred years ago, on Christmas Eve 1911. And besides, I’ve now got my own copy of Llewelyn Powys’s Skin for Skin, from which it comes.

On Christmas Eve just a century since, Powys and his brother Theodore were walking through the Dorset rain, on their way from Dorchester to Theodore’s house in East Chaldon – a distance of about eight miles. They passed Thomas Hardy’s house on the way: “A glimmer of light shone through the trees surrounding Max Gate. We thought of the old man in there, sitting by his apple-wood fire, brooding on God knows how many past Christmas nights.” A few miles further on, halfway through their journey, they came to the village of Broadmayne. The Powys brothers were sons of the cloth themselves, and they remembered that they knew the vicar of the place: “an eccentric, bigoted, old-fashioned Calvinist, who lived with his two daughters, whose wits, together with those of their father, had been well-nigh turned by so much reading of the Bible.”

That Calvinist bigot was George William Butler (1838-1913), eldest brother of my great grandfather Thomas, to whose assiduous record-keeping these family entries owe so much. George William has made a couple of appearances here before, first in dour guise as the enemy of fiction and of the Oxford Movement, then as the author of a macabrely comic poem. His daughters were Jane and Ellen. (There were also two sons, but they were well out of it by this time.)

It stood a little way back from the village street, a dark, gloomy vicarage with the plaster falling from its walls. On that Christmas Eve it presented to us a perfectly negative front. No light shone from any of its windows, from any of those tall black, upstairs windows, whose heavy sashes were surely never opened to let fresh air into the bare, loveless bed-chambers they sheltered! We pulled at the bell. A hollow clack-clack-clack sounded, like the falling of a tin plate on a scullery floor. We waited. We could hear singing in the village; but except for this, and the sound made by a broken gutter emptying its water into the blackness of some shrubs to our left, there was nothing to disturb the forlorn quietude of the place.

We turned to go, and then, from somewhere, from some room far removed from the lidless windows at which we gazed, we heard the unmistakable sound of a door opening. A moment later and one of the girls was at the threshold, holding in her hand a guttering candle, the light of which made visible each raindrop falling at that particular moment between our eyes and her small, soberly dressed figure. We were conducted into the kitchen at the back of the house. The old man was out, they told us. He had gone to the bedside of a dying woman. The two girls made us welcome. They put a heavy iron kettle on to a fire, made in a grate which still held the grey ashes of many previous fires. I don’t think I ever enjoyed a supper more than this one with these two extraordinary girls, whose minds had been given so odd a twist by the theological whimsies of their father, and whose demure bodies were so obviously destined never to be held in the free, unscrupulous arms of a lover. Our sudden appearance, out of the dark night, evidently excited them, and they set before us a fine feast, with toast, and bread-and-butter, and goose-eggs, and ‘braun of tuskèd swine.’ With shining eyes, and quaint mouths awry with merriment, they listened to the stories of our day’s adventures, their work-boxes and the garments they were making for the poor of the parish put away for once, on the side of the dresser. [...]

Before we left, the elder of the two put a large black-covered Bible before [Theodore], requesting that a chapter should be read. And so it came to pass that I found myself on this anniversary of Our Lord’s birth listening to my brother’s well-modulated voice intoning the sacred Scriptures. He selected to read from the sixth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Amos; and it seems to me that I can still hear the voice of this atheist, who is by his nature so profoundly religious, ‘reading a chapter’ over that kitchen table. We all four of us knelt on the uncarpeted floor. I watched a small mouse that kept running out from behind a basket of sticks. Once my eye rested on the figure of Joan [sic], who knelt before me in rudely cobbled boots, with clasped hands raised above her head. And I suppose, until I am dead, the august admonitory words that came to my ears will be associated with a little, frolicsome Christmas mouse, with a bespattered window as seen under a coarse calico blind, with the ecstatic look on a praying woman’s face. ‘Woe unto them that are at ease in Zion... that lie up on the beds of ivory, and stretch themselves out upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock and the calves out of the midst of the stall; that chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ornaments ... which rejoice in a thing of nought, which say, Have we not taken to ourselves horns by our own strength?

I’m very glad to have this account of the Broadmayne festivities, although I wish Powys weren’t quite so Lawrentian about the lovers who would never share the women’s beds. His calling them girls, when they were actually in their mid-thirties and almost ten years older than him, grates a little, too.

Of the two daughters, Ellen died first. Her wits did indeed turn, and I am told that she was carried to the asylum crying "Hurrah! Hurrah! Three cheers for the Holy Trinity!”, much as might have been expected. Jane, however, lived to a good age. My mother remembers visiting her in the mid-1950s, and finding her a quaintly old-fashioned woman. What struck her most forcibly was that, in conversation, Jane referred to someone in the village as “a lady”, and then corrected herself – “or I should say, a person”. It wasn’t a slight, my mother decided: she was simply following what she had learned as correct usage, which reserved “lady” for a certain social rank. (I always think of this exchange when I read about Coleridge and his “person from Porlock”.) To my mother, university educated, London based and then in her early thirties, this niceness seemed faintly ridiculous. The sixties hadn’t happened yet, but they were on their way.

I have no picture of Jane and Ellen as adults [EDIT now I have, of Jane anyway], but here they are with their two brothers. Jane is on the left, with the basket, and Ellen is seated. I have to say that both they and the younger brother, Edward, look decidedly odd.
G W and Elizabeth Butler's children
A few years later, they’re definitely improved, though in the light of later accounts it's hard not to read a certain fey intensity into their surpliced stares... First Jane...
Jane Lucy Butler
Then Ellen...
Ellen Butler049
Of the older Jane, I can show only a short letter written by her to my father, which, although trivial in itself, shows something of the same, precise, polite mind. (The year on it is 1975, which can’t be right as Jane died in 1962. 1955 is more like it.)

Jane Lucy Butler to Thomas ButlerJ L Butler to Tom Butler

I love the clues that even utilitarian notes such as this can yield about their writer’s world – from the antiquated salutation to “Cousin Thomas”, to the fact that she refers to meeting “acquaintances” rather than “friends” (that social precision again). There’s even a hint of the old Calvinism when she talks about their plan to meet having been “over-ruled”, apparently by God’s causing my father to miss the bus, and thence her cold germs.

Why do I spend time gathering together such things? Letters I’d be inclined to throw away if I received them in the post tomorrow, I hoard and analyse when they have acquired the faintest patina of age. Is it a kind of temporal parochialism?

Our dates are brief, and therefore we admire
What thou dost foist upon us that is old,
And rather make them born to our desire
Than think that we before have heard them told.

I plead guilty, I suppose: I’m a perennial sucker for Time’s mountebankism. But if Shakespeare has a good point about the distortions caused by perspective, perhaps he has another when he alludes to time’s cyclical nature. We are diners in a revolving restaurant, are we not? One that moves so slowly that it seems not to move at all, although if you look up between courses you’ll find the view quite changed – and eventually quite familiar again. If Plato had lived to see the Post Office Tower, I think that’s the analogy he would have gone with when writing the Timaeus.

There’s also the sense of community, though. My mother is now older than Jane was when she met her. Jane would have known my great-great-grandfather well, and he in turn knew Weeden, the periwigged patriarch of my house. “So few lives divide us”, as the poet says. In fact, I’ll quote the whole poem. It’s short, obscure, and although not up to standard of the Man of Stratford distils an attitude towards the past that says much about my own motives for writing these entries. And it will give me a way to shut up.

So few lives divide us; a hundred years
Carry three lives, and when the party's over,
The century drained dry, it yet appears
For patient spade suddenly to uncover,
Frail, and a little chipped, the perfume gone
Of the dead wine. But in the bottle yet
We see the vanished ruby that glowed and shone
During those faded years when the wine was set
In those three glasses. Thirty men at most
Fill out a thousand years, each with his glass,
Laughing at table, no unbodied ghost
But a friend speaking, though the hours pass
So swiftly from the bottle to the tomb;
Their faces shine within my shadowed room.
(attrib. Henry Marsh)

And so, goodnight. God bless us, every one.
Tags: family history
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