Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Who Was the Woman-in-White of Widecombe-in-the-Moor?

At Venton, along the lanes from Widecombe-in-the-Moor, once home of Beatrice Chase. 
      No, just in case you have been following this A-Z of Devon Places & Women Writers, from Writing Women on the Devon Land, I have not missed out 'V'; but I have combined a 'V' blog-post with 'W'. V for Venton and W for Widecombe-in-the-Moor. Venton is a small hamlet rather than parish but fitted nicely for my purposes here. The two place-names are a perfect duality for one iconic woman writer linked with Devon, namely Olive Katherine Parr, alias Beatrice Chase. Unlike many of the writers who I've researched in connection with Devon, Chase is an author who is well-covered on the internet, especially when it comes to women writers associated with Dartmoor. Typifying the notion of the eccentric woman writer, Beatrice Chase represents Dartmoor's version of Exmoor's Hope Bourne. Chase's self-made legend asserts that she was directly descended from the brother of Henry VIII's last wife, Catherine Parr; that she had moved to Dartmoor to convalesce from the London slums, where she'd worked with her mother after contracting TB and that she'd had a 'great personal sorrow', which may refer to her fiancé, who had died during World War One. 

      Chase makes an appearance in the manuscript of my book about Devon's women writers and a poem about her appears in the collection Tessitura. I have also written a poem inspired by her and she features in a blog-post called Chase Over Moor, my other, earlier blog, in which I commented that, 

'like other people of her generation Chase thought nothing of walking miles and miles, and by the time she wrote Heart of the Moor, in which she mentions a secret experience, a 'vision of white', which happened to her on 'Bellever Tor, the 'central tor of Dartmoor - the core of the heart of the moor', knew the moor like the back of her hand. Chase adds that 'Only one who ever reads this book will understand the meaning of this ... and I doubt if even he knows that he alone holds, and always will hold, my heart in the hollow of his hand''.

       Chase's life, like some of her writings about her beloved moor, is in some ways still mysterious. Back in the 1950's, when we used to drive south across moor from North Tawton and ended up in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, my parents would often remark how, from the twenties through to the forties, a bike, hike or car-trip to Dartmoor's picturesque village, where Chase lived at nearby Venton, invariably meant a slight diversion out along the nearby lanes where they'd see the authoress swathed in white, at her celebrated Dartmoor window.

       Since then, I've always imagined Beatrice Chase as 'woman in white', Devon's version of the character in Wilkie Collins' famous C19 novel of that name; the passage in Chase's best known book, Heart of the Moor, which refers to the 'white vision' just emphasises the association. Apparently, I'm not the only one whose visualisation of Dartmoor's once famous author has her and her home surroundings enveloped within an aura of white. Chase features in the recent book about Dartmoor by William Atkins, Moor; Lives; Landscape; Literature. Atkins comments  

'White is the colour of Parr/Chase's story, a "white, unbroken perfection of silence",  "that white silent hour", "the whited sepulchres", "his great white friendship", "brilliant white sunshine", "the full white joy of living".'
     There are certainly similarities between the life-story of Olive Katharine Parr/Beatrice Chase, who spent much of her adult life buried away in Dartmoor's most famous archetypal village and the fictional Anne Catherick, heroine of Collin's popular mystery novel, one of the first in the mode of Victorian Sensation genre, which was first published in 1859. To begin with, for a while, both book and person became focus of intense public fascination. I'm not trying to suggest that Chase was personally directly influenced by the famous fictional character, or even indirectly swayed by the traits of the sensationalist genre. Or maybe, just maybe, her life-story in some way does link up with either the novel or/and its predominant defining features of mystery, sensation, secrecy, romance, melodrama and spiritualism. The genre was incredibly popular during the decades of the 1860s/and70s - just around the period of Olive Katherine Parr's birth, so at the very least it's fun to explore the possibilities. The inclination to make associations between the traits of the sensationalist fiction and life of this Devon-based author is tempting, especially when you look at Beatrice Chase's life-story. Always known as eccentric, both in her life and her writings, Chase seems to have left a trail of mystery in her wake; whilst in itself her backstory is intriguing.

       No, Beatrice Chase did not have a 'twin' or double out there as did Anne Catherick in Woman in White; but she did take on a kind of alter-ego in that after she moved to Devon she disowned her previous identity as Olive Catherine Parr and re-named herself with her writerly name, therefore providing with herself with both a pseudonym and new identity. It's interesting that the writer made sure that her old name was not completely rejected, frequently using it in her own tellings of her life-story and back-history, when she reiterated that through her father's ancestors she was a direct descendant of Catherine Parr HenryVIII's last wife - a fact, incidentally, which is disputed by several genealogical researchers:

Parrs in Charles Parr’s time claimed descent from the same Lancashire family that produced Katharine Parr, last wife of Henry VIII and her brother William, Marquis of Northampton. Charles’ daughter later claimed to be a direct descendant of the Marquis, but that’s impossible as neither he nor Katharine had any children that survived beyond infancy. The earliest ancestor that Burke’s Landed Gentry’s 1852 edition was prepared to vouch for was a 17th-century John Parr who owned land at Rainford, near Liverpool. (See Wright&Davis.)  

    As mentioned earlier, Chase also is rumoured to have had a mysterious past romance before her move to Devon; she was even possibly engaged. But as yet |I have not been able to verify that fact, or find any clues as to the identity of the person.

       You'll find information about Parr's/Chase's family and ancestry if you do a bit of google searching and at least two short biographies have been written about her, including The Mysterious Lady of the Moor by Judy Chard and The Real Beatrice Chase by Simon Dell. I've tried to pin-point some of the salient facts about her family gleaned from the web, just to see what comes to light. I'm not sure if I've found anything especially new, but let's see...

     Olive Katherine Parr's family evidently took in a panoply of professions and backgrounds. There were solicitors, preachers, archdeacons, explorers, vinegar manufacturers, army/naval commandants, mayors, charity-workers, artists, writers, religious converts, footballers (!) - you name it, you're likely to find one of her forefathers/foremothers or uncles/aunts, who participated in well-nigh any activity or profession! 

      You don't have to dig too deep either. Just looking at the backgrounds and lives of Olive's parents triggers a trail, a wake of mystery and fascination. It's hardly surprising that Olive (or Beatrice) gained a reputation as an offbeat and quirky character. Her father, whose professional career was a qualified solicitor, albeit briefly, was also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; both her paternal grandmother and aunt were known watercolour artists; her paternal uncle was both a Naval Officer and explorer who took part in the British Artic Expedition 1875-6; another paternal uncle became a famous footballer; a paternal great grandfather and grandmother were leading lights and instigators of The Foundling Hospital. Meanwhile, on her mother's side of the family, Olive's maternal grandfather was a Wesleyan Minister and her mother became a convert to Roman Catholicism.  

     Although it is not possible to take it too much further in this blog-post, any and indeed all, of these individuals are worthy of further study and investigation with regard to the life-story of Beatrice Chase. (Anyone out there wanting an idea for a PhD study?) However, I'll just make a start using various sources found online. Much of the information about the Parr family history I'm using here comes from Turner Trees, and the website Wright&Davis, but FindMyPast and other similar genealogy sites have also come in useful.

     Here is an image of Olive Katherine's parents, Charles Chase Parr's and Katherine Anne Millar's marriage, in 1872.

Marriage record of Charles Chase Parr and Katherine Millar

     Beatrice's father, Charles Chase Parr - whose middle name his daughter took for her assumed Devon identity - was born in 1847. (See Turner Trees). He was the eldest of seven children, whose father, Thomas Chase Parr, became Commandant at Karachi and was Colonel of the 2nd European Regiment during the Indian Mutiny. One invaluable internet source says Thomas rose through the ranks after surviving nearly being eaten by a tiger. (See Charles Chase Parr ). Previously, Thomas' father had died from injuries following the turning-over of a carriage in London (Charles Chase). Charles, his eldest son, was most likely born in The Foundling Hospital, which had been founded by his mother's family: Harriet Pott was daughter of Charles Pott, the hospital's Governor and Treasurer. The Potts were a wealthy family; one sources says that when Charles Potts died in 1864, his personal effects alone were worth about £70,000 (contemporary values). (See Wright&Davis). The Parrs may not have been quite so well-off as the Potts and Charles may have felt obliged to work as solicitor. He had other talents as well, as explained by Sally Davis, the writer of this online study:

If Charles Chase Parr would have preferred to be a sporting man-about-town, he wouldn’t be the only young man to have wished for such a life while not having the income to support it. He did do what he could, though: in the memoirs of Raymond Blathwayt (journalist, writer and definitely a man-about-town), Charles is named as one of a group of young men who frequented Jem Mace’s boxing saloon in St James’s Street in the early 1870s. He was also a keen cricketer, though he was a late developer at the game - he never played for his school and it wasn’t until he became a member of West Kent Cricket Club (WKCC) that his skills blossomed in the less competitive atmosphere of weekend cricket. (Wright&Davis)

      Also, as noted above, Charles Chase Parr must have had interest in esoteric, exotic spiritualism, for he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn. Sally Davis's comments again seem pertinent: in the following passage we also find out a little about Beatrice Chase's/Olive's mother Katharine: 

Behind the sporting life, however, there must have been a more sober side to Charles Chase Parr, because he married a woman with deeply-felt religious beliefs and a serious commitment to church-based social work. Katherine Anne Parr was the daughter of Joseph Millar, who at least in the early 1850s was a Wesleyan minister in Liverpool. Both Joseph and his wife Ellen were born in the Liverpool area. In 1872 Katherine and Charles were married in the Church of England church of St John the Evangelist Knotty Ash, but they had probably met in Harrow, because on the day of the 1871 census, that is where not only Harriet Parr but also Joseph Millar, Ellen, Katherine and her brother Gaskell [her mother's maiden name] were living. On that day, Joseph Millar told the census official that his main source of income was as a landowner; and that he was a Wesleyan minister but not currently working as one. I mention where Katherine and Charles were married, and that Joseph Millar was no longer employed by the Wesleyan methodists by 1871, because at some stage, Katherine Parr at least became a convert to Roman Catholicism.
       Other than her well-known Dartmoor-based books and writings - which I have not made much mention of in this post - but you can see them listed on sites such as Google Books -  Beatrice Chase is remembered in Devon mostly for founding the Crusade of White Knights and Ladies or White Knights Crusade, during World War One. (See The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism for a short commentary on the network Chase set up during the war and the texts she wrote about it.)  It is certainly tempting to assume a link between what appears to be Chase's dual fascination with alchemical traditions and religious fervour. It's as if she was combining the esotericism of her father's involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn and the conviction of her mother's conversion to Catholicism.

      But was Beatrice Chase influenced by The Woman in White? I don't have an answer, but hope this blog-post might just stir a few people's interest and that someone out there may go and investigate more. I'm sure that there is much yet to find out about the story behind the mystery author who made such an impact on the Dartmoor and Devon locals during the years in which she lived in the county. I would love to find more slots of time to pursue research into Beatrice Chase's familial backgrounds, and their potential influences on her as author and person. There are several lines of study that might just turn up fascinating material. I have wondered, for instance, if there was any family connection between the Parrs of Beatrice Chase's paternal ancestry and the popular C19 fiction writer Harriet Parr, who also used a pen-name. As far as I can yet tell there was no immediate family connection, but possibly there was a genetic thread somewhere along the line. Although Olive Katherine Parr's immediate family history shows up an array of professions and cultural interests, as far as I can tell only one - her father Charles Chase Parr - actually wrote anything. (He apparently wrote poems - see Wright&Davis). I keep wondering if there are others yet to be identified in the wider family who wrote more seriously and if so if he or she may have inspired Beatrice Chase to take up writing herself. 

     Anyway, for now at least, I have to be content to draw this piece to an end. Notwithstanding the arguments re the perhaps dubious merits of Beatrice Chase's own writings - for in the main, although her Dartmoor texts have left their mark on the county's literary repertoire, as author she is sometimes regarded as solipsistic, self-aggrandising. In her book The Mysterious Lady of the Moor, Judy Chard quotes a comment made by Enid Shortbridge, a woman who knew Chase when she lived in Widecombe: 'As a matter of fact no one really knew her, she was an enigma. Remember the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus? Katharine Parr created the image of Beatrice Chase and then fell in love with it. In all her books she is the heroine' - the woman herself was and remains fascinating. If you want to get a feel for her within the local landscape of her Devon life, then visit her grave at Widecombe-in-the-Moor.

       You can also walk along the lanes to Venton, where the house that was once home of Chase is now a guesthouse and I understand a now popular destination for Chase's fans. You can still see the sadly rather neglected chapel with its cross, once used as shrine, a place of prayer and petition for Beatrice Chase's Knights of the White Crusade.

Once-Chapel at Venton near Widecombe-in-the-Moor

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Over the A377 at Umberleigh Exploring Ancient Abbeys ...

A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Over the A377 at Umberleigh

Track near Umberleigh House

'A private track leading away from the A377 across the Taw floodplain, giving access to several fields'.
© Copyright  Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
     What often intrigues me when I'm out and about exploring Devon's lost literary links connected with women of the past are the occasional teasing facts which pop up unexpectedly out of the historical blue, and yet either report conflicting facts or omit tantalising details, leaving you wondering what might have been. Although through the centuries Devon has frequently played a vital role in many major historical happenings, perhaps because of its outlying position toward the western margins of our country, it is more often than not ignored - and especially in my line of research focusing on its women's past literary achievements and networks. Sometimes, like a pop of colour from a bland painting, a tiny snippet of information leaps out of a passage of information and begins to repeat over in my mind, reminding me of those bothersome earworms. I had such a revelation recently when reading about Umberleigh, in the northern part of the county, so decided to select it as the Devon parish for 'U' in this A-Z of Devon Women Writers & Places.

     I've been interested in Umberleigh since finding about its links with the Bassett family and the Lisle Letters, which I wrote about in a post in my other earlier blog - see A Tale of Two Tudor Sisters.

     As I commented in the earlier piece, if you drive along the old Barnstaple main road, the A377 route through Umberleigh now, you just would never know, let alone even imagine, that the place was at one time and for many centuries, a site of great significance and that here there was an ancient chantry chapel; a large manor; perhaps at one time even a palace ‘overshadowed by tall trees’ (see Beatrix Cresswell). A deer park is recorded at Umberleigh during the period of Henry VII and may have been in existence long before that. If you search the site out on Devon Environmental Maps you can see that Umberleigh House is marked as 'on the site of a probable pre C13 mansion.

      (Unfortunately, although I have taken photos of the area some years ago, at present I can only find one of them, so Geograph images will need to suffice - and anyway their quality far surpasses any that I might come up with!).

A377 approaching Umberleigh House
'From Fishleigh Rock Garage looking towards the point '
where SS5924 : A377 near Umberleigh House was taken.
© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

          I'm not exactly a qualified historian; my PhD was in English Literature. I don't often have time to visit archives to search out original data; for the most part my interpretations are taken from a range of online and secondary textual sources. But I did manage to scrape through history A level, so like to think I have sufficient credentials to have a go, especially when literary interests link with historical ones - and in particular, when they both focus on women who were once engaged with literature. Such is the case with Umberleigh. 

       As Beatrice Cesswell noted in her article on Umberleigh Chapel, the place appears to have been an ancient estate, 'which' she added 'in the course of its history has had [so] many feminine possessors'. Then, as is the case with the women of the Lisle family and the letters they exchanged, there are times in the estate's history when an owner was explicitly linked with written literary pursuits of the time. The period which especially intrigues me with regard to Umberleigh House/Chapel, is the C11, especially around the period of the Norman Conquest. In her piece about Umberleigh Chapel Cresswell comments that
Just before the Conquest all this property was held by Brictic Meau, Thane of Gloucester, whose tragic story has to be told so frequently in the history of Devonshire parishes, and need not be repeated here. - The Conqueror. bestowed Umberleigh upon the Abbess of the Holy TrInIty, Caen Mr O. J. Reichel suggests that the Abbess had here a rural oratory with the same dedication as her convent, and includes Umberleigh among the Domesday churches of Devon.
    Two details in this passage especially intrigue me: the reference to the 'Abbess of the Holy Trinity Caen' and the possibility of there once being an 'oratory' at Umberleigh. Other sources confirm that at the time of the Domesday Book in effect Umberleigh was entered as an alien priory, 'in the manor of the Church of the Holy Trinity Caen' (See History of Devonshire).

        The Holy Trinity, or Abbaye aux Dames, of Caen was founded as a Benedictine Monastery of Nuns in the latter years of the C11 - (possibly in 1059, or 1066) - by William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda. Works on the monastery began in 1062; they were completed in 1130. (Matilda, who died in 1083, was buried in the abbey). One source says that the first Abbess of Holy Trinity Caen (See The Early Abbesses Nuns and Female Tenants of the Abbey of the Holy Trinity Caen) was also a Matilda (which is a possible pitfall leading to confusion), who governed the abbey for 54 years (another source says 47 years) and that she must have come from an aristocratic family; she'd previously been abbess of an abbey in Liseux. Following Abbess Matilda's death, in 1113, or 1120, the Conqueror and his consort's probably eldest daughter Cecilia (who'd entered into the Abbey of Caen at a young age, probably at its founding), became second Abbess of Holy Trinity (See Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy). Cecilia died on 30 July 1126 in Caen, France; she was buried within the abbey walls. Her father was also buried in Caen. Eventually Cecilia became a powerful and highly respected figure amongst monastic women.

      It is interesting to compare these dates with the years during which the abbey of Caen was linked with Umberleigh, which, if Cresswell is correct in her statement that 

'In 1176 Bishop Bartholemew Iscanus confirmed to Tewkesbury Abbey the church of Wimberleigh which Roger de Winkleigh held on behalf of the monks for 20S'. (Umberleigh Chapel

was about one hundred and ten years, a period which takes in the abbesses periods of both Matilda and Cecilia. 

        Cresswell also concludes that it is unlikely there was any direct connection between the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Caen and its distant sub-oratory in Devon:

'It is improbable any of them [the nuns or the abbess herself) ever saw the place, and they must subsequently have parted with it, perhaps in exchange for property more conveniently situated' (Umberleigh Chapel).
        I can't help wondering whether it may be possible to question this theory that there was no direct link between Umberleigh and its 'mother' institution over in Normandy. I suppose Cresswell came to that conclusion after assuming that the rural situation of the Devon site would have made it too difficult to access and that the women from Caen would not have had any interest in visiting the far off western regions of the Saxons. I feel she was in some ways slotting into the same assessment about the northern part of the county as many earlier researchers - and once voiced in 'The Early History and Aborigines', a C19 paper by J.R. Chanter, in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol 2, 1867), in which he concludes:

The facts which have at various times been brought together concerning North Devon, tend to show that its history deserves more attention than has heretofore been shown to it.

        I'm not sure that Chanter's plea has yet received any response, even now well into the C21. But one fact is sure. At the time of William's invasion in 1066, Devon was not some god-forsaken, inconsequential county - a place which had little impact on the dramas unfolding throughout the whole country. Maybe it's quite valid to challenge Cresswell's conclusion. 

     For a time the county was the centre of the action, especially during the Exeter siege, in 1068, when Exeter was surrounded by William the Conqueror's army, and Gytha, Harold's mother, and wife of Godwin of Essex, was holed up for 18 days with other royal women. Eventually Gytha escaped, was rowed away from Exeter's water-gate, down the river Exe, and away from the town. 

    Then, three years after the initial invasion, north Devon became central to the main historical narrative when another significant battle, that of the Battle of Northam, took place in which Brian of Brittany defeated an army headed by two sons of King Harold. The battle site is thought to be between Northam and Appledore, in the north of the county (and so, not far from Umberleigh).

     There is also is the question of the once-sites of female occupied religious institutions. The focus of historical attention apropos Norman monasteries/convents and abbeys linked with women tends to be directed towards the famous ones such as Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire; but I have sometimes wondered if this is to the detriment of other now lost or forgotten nunneries, which may have existed further west in Devon - and not that much further onwards westward than Wilton. Sometimes when I read about the social, cultural and literary achievements of women during the C11 onwards for several centuries, it is as if they all congregated at Wilton and didn't venture any further westwards. Devon, as we now call it, hardly seems to have existed. It seems generally assumed that Devon religious institutions of the time were of little consequence to our national cultural heritage as it fed into the development of women-centred literature. But to counter that theory, there are several places in the south-west known to have had such female-centred establishments around or during the one hundred years following the time of the Norman invasion. For instance, in Durston, in Somerset, Buckland Priory (also known as Minchin Buckland Preceptory or Buckland Sororum - "Buckland of the Sisters") - was established around 1167 and was the only house for women in England of the Knights Hospitaller. It is known that girls were sent to Buckland to be educated. Then at the end of the C13 there was Canonsleigh Abbey, at Burlescombe, which was important enough to hold at least one copy of The Ancrene Wisse, one of the medieval age’s most significant and famous religious manuscripts (See The Mystery of The Ancrene Wisse).

      As far as I know, Umberleigh was the only Devon site that Caen was linked with? But I may be wrong in this assumption. What really puzzles me about Umberleigh's connection with the important and shiny new monastery of nuns at Caen is why? Why would a place that in the C11 must have been even more remote than most Devon parishes be selected as fit for purpose to align with one of the then most important new French religious institutions? Was Umberleigh already of special significance before 1066? If we take a step back to look at Umberleigh before the Norman conquest, there are tantalising - though unproven - suggestions that the site had been prestigious long before. According to Wikipedia,
Immediately prior to the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 the manor of Umberleigh had been held by Brictric, as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. He was probably the great Saxon thane Brictric son of Algar.[3] A person named Brictric was also the pre-Conquest holder of the single possession in Dorset of the Church of the Holy Trinity of Caen, the post-Conquest holder of Umberleigh [3]
      Prior to that, one tradition says that during the C10 King Athelstan built a special palace at Umberleigh (see, for example, The North Devon Handbook). Athlestan is said to have 'built at Umberleigh a palace and next to it a chapel dedicated to the Blessed Trinity, which served the royal family and household' (Wikipedia). (Athelstan's court was known to be meeting-point and melting-pot for culture and learning for various parts of the British Isles and the continent). According to this tradition, Umberleigh remained an appendage of the crown for centuries. 

    The legends retreat even further back, for one source says that traditionally, pre-Athelstan, Umberleigh was supposed to have been the special residence of the chief of the Celtic Druids of North Devon. (Godfery Higgins, The Celtic Druids, quoted in the paper by J.R. Chanter in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, vol2 1867).

       But, as so often happens re supposed facts about this mystery place, there have equally been other historians who are cynical about Athelstan's military accomplishments in Devon and therefore, about his alleged close links with Umberleigh:

Unfortunately, however, the accounts of his reign which have been preserved are all too scanty; and, as is usual with national heroes whose careers have not been adequately recorded, tradition has been busy with his name, and has ascribed to him deeds which he probably never performed and never even attempted to perform ...Various traditions have added other incidents, such as Athelstan’s triumphal entry into Barnstaple, and the erection of a palace for him at Umberleigh, “which he bequeathed to John of Gaunt.” (See The Athelstan Myth).

     As you may imagine, it is unlikely that I can provide any new evidence either way as to the probability or not of Umberleigh having once been a south-west royal palace; but I do tend to think there must be something in these rumours and that it was perhaps because Umberleigh had already become a pre-eminent Saxon estate that at the time of the Norman invasion it was gifted to the monastery of nuns at Caen. 

     Neither can I establish the truth as to whether there was an oratory at Umberleigh at the time of its possession by Caen. Skimming the sources which are easily available via google searches, there are various reactions to this possibility; they're not always in agreement. One source turns oratory to nunnery - referring to a once Norman nunnery sited at Umberleigh. Others are not so sure. Maybe there was not an oratory here.

     Nevertheless, there is no doubting the facts of the association between Umberleigh and Caen. And there are other local examples of such smaller cells established in Devon during the period of William the Conqueror. In St Nicholas Priory Exeter a cell was built at the charges of the parent monastery (See Monasticon Anglicanum).

Track near Umberleigh House

Looking right from where SS5924 : Track near Umberleigh House was taken. SS5924 : A377 near Umberleigh House shows the A377 just over the hedge on the right.
© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

      Why in any case is the possible link between Caen and Umberleigh of interest? You might well ask. My chain of inferred links may well turn out to be a historical-literary red-herring. A far-fetched and obscure theory. Quite likely perhaps, but I hope one day - if there are any useful sources in existence - someone out there might explore the necessary archives and help to confirm, or kybosh, my hunch.

        One researcher in this field who has helped direct my thinking about Umberleigh is the writer/academic Elizabeth M Tyler, whose various writings about royal and aristocratic women of the Saxon to early Medieval period establish again and again how important were the social, family and cultural interconnections of these women in terms of their contribution to the development and spread of literature of the period. In particular, apropos this blog post, Tyler's work in this area explores the impact of the nunneries - where many of the royal women were educated and spent much of their lives - on the proliferation of all kinds of texts into the cultured communities. In her paper 'Crossing Conquests: Polyglot Royal Women and Literary Culture in Eleventh Century England', Tyler notes that during the 'intensely creative period' of the eleventh century, both 'court' and 'cloister' became 'location[s] of innovative literary culture'. Nunneries 'functioned as schools and as places to put royal daughters', whose learning became 'impressive'.  As far as I know, Tyler's work does not focus at all on Royal-women's Devon links, nor does it feature any female religious establishment west of Wilton - the famous convent where so many of these royal women spent much of their lives. However, what she does discuss makes me wonder if there may have been interconnections between places such as Wilton and other convents or priories or nunneries - whose presence and histories are long ago forgotten - which were sited westwards of Wilton. 

      Here is my line of thought. I'll begin by going back full-circle to where I started this piece; it's what is left out of the existing tantalising factual fragments that need to be explored. It seems to me that the linking of Umberleigh with the female community at the Holy Trinity at Caen, - the 'Abbey of Women' - which, in those times, was apparently such a prestigious religious site, ought to be investigated further. For the women associated with Caen were also connected with some of the literary highlights of the early Norman period. Cecilia, the Conqueror and his consort Matilda's abbess daughter, for example, was the recipient of several important literary texts. Some have called her 'patron of poets' and one source notes that she visited London regularly and carried out surveys of her abbey's lands (See Magistra et Mater). It is therefore not inconceivable that Cecilia and other women within the royal network travelled further into the south-west corner of the country to assess and explore sites connected with their family lands. In any case, regarding alien priories held by French religious houses, I understand that frequently the parent church sent a monk or nun over to manage the property. If so, it is surely possible that the abbess travelled down to Devon to keep an eye on proceedings there.

       Certainly, although it wasn't until two years after her husband accomplished the invasion, Cecilia's mother, William's consort Matilda herself visited Devon. It is said that Matilda was keen to see her new kingdom and take possession of her landed wealth, including her rich estates in Devon. Matilda was one of a chain of female consorts who held Devon land during the Anglo-Norman period. Many of them were blood relatives of the west-Saxon royal-line and genealogical study had become one of the special literary trends of the day for women of the aristocracy. It was common for royal women to express curiosity about their family history and to commission genealogical charts; as Tyler explains in Crossing Conquests, they were educated and actively engaged in the 'cultivation of dynastic memory'. 'Who do you think you are' is not a new phenomenon! 

      So, for anyone who's had the patience to follow me this far, if, back in the early days following William the Conqueror's invasion, there was an oratory or small cell-chapel sited at Umberleigh attached to the important mother Caen church over the Channel, in Normandy then, in my re-envisioning imagination, there could have been a footfall of female visitors travelling over from France via other religious establishments (such as the alien priories or nunneries scattered throughout the Wessex region). One or two of them may have been women from the top of the cultural hierarchy who were involved in the pursuit, study and circulation of some of the time's foremost literary achievements. Or perhaps they were actively engaged in the tracking of their own extended family history. Perhaps, for instance the women were out and about in the south-west, re-visiting the haunts of their own predecessors and ancestral kin. William the Conqueror's grandfather Richard II Duke of Normandy, for instance, was sister of Emma of Normandy, (Queen Consort of England, wife of Aetheldred the Unready and Cnut), who'd held extensive lands in Devon and it said he made many visits there. Meanwhile, Matilda of Flanders, William's consort, through Alfred's daughter, Aelfthryth, was a descendant of King Alfred the Great and the old Saxon House of Wessex.

      Yes, I know this is all rather obscure and tentative and that Caen's holding of Umberleigh for the hundred or so years following the conquest could simply be a matter of monetary benefits. As far as literary interests are concerned I could, or should, instead be focusing on the connections between women and literature that are already established and for which there is plenty of evidence. But, when it comes to the centuries before say the C15/16, documentation about female engagement with literary achievement is just not out there. Nowadays, various researchers working in the field of rediscovery apropos the missing contributions of women to our national and local literary heritage, are beginning to reassess and formulate plausible theories about what may have been.They're trying to pinpoint a particular place, a woman (usually royal or aristocrat), or a group of women who, during the time in which they lived, may have played a part in what Elizabeth Tyler, in her book English Royal Women and Literary Patronage c1000 -1150, calls 'the cultivation of literary culture'.

       It is not implausible to suggest that an active network of women from the incoming Norman aristocratic community, who'd been educated at one or other of the various female monastic establishments in Normandy or England had considerable impact upon literary developments of that early Norman period, and given the few facts that are out there indicating a connection between these people and the site at Umberleigh, neither is it completely out of place to suggest that several of these women may have had some direct link with the place.

Fields near Umberleigh House

      In what must then have been an intensely pastoral location, set in the northern region within the ancient land of the Dumnonians, which we now call Devon, perhaps, just for a few years, the quiet site beside the river Taw became a little still-centre - one of the few in the county - where women gathered to commission new texts and to share, exchange views, ideas and responses to a variety of then circulating literary texts.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Talking about Tavistock: Mary Maria Colling; A C19 Maid-Servant Poet

 A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Tavistock canal

Talking about Tavistock:
Mary Maria Colling
a C19 Maid-Servant Poet

...Green as an ivy you may be,
Though not to be compared with me
If I'm admired as thus I'm seen,
Tis not because my dress is green:
Know then, I'm more admired than you,
Because I'm green and fragrant too'.
('The Ivy and the Myrtle', Mary Maria Colling).

Mary Maria Colling
frontspiece from Fables

     Performance Poetry is not just a C21 phenomenon. Back in the late C18, a woman poet (who we'd now consider obscure and obsolete) regularly drew a crowd of admirers to the town of Tavistock, some of whom had travelled for miles to see and hear her pronounce her poems. Mary Maria Colling was a maid-servant who became protégé of the more well-known Anna Eliza Bray, wife of the then vicar of Tavistock. 

The Old Vicarage in Tavistock

      In a Literary Christmas 1836, Ann Pulsford relates that Anna recorded in her Autobiography (published posthumously in 1884), that she had first noticed Mary Colling at church; she was intelligent, of neat appearance and had written some poetry. Mary, then 25, was employed as a domestic servant in a house near the river not far from the vicarage, owned by the Hughes family. Bray collected and published Colling’s poems in 1831 as Fables and other Pieces in Verse, which according to one recent commentator ‘comprises a series of Aesop-style fables’. (See Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent": (Romantic Mentorship and Mary Colling's "Fables", in Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 59 (2010).

Title Page of Fables

In her piece Pulsford notes that Colling was buried in Tavistock church graveyard and that the headstone remains in the churchyard in front of St Eustachius Church in Tavistock, but does not mark the original grave. (Photo alongside: taken from the contents list of Fables)
     I’ve not studied Colling's work or looked too deeply into the circumstances of her quirky writings as they interconnect with Anna Eliza Bray and the meeting points of their lives in Tavistock (and I might have missed other commentaries already written), but thought I’d jot down a few of my own observations about the two women. I’ve taken as my starting-point a passage from a paper by Meagan Timney, Mary Hutton and the Development of a Working-Class Women's Political Poetics, in which she comments:
What do we know about the working-class women who wrote poetry in the Victorian period? As so often happens in the study of non-canonical writers, their biographies exist in fragments, a miscellany of facts with very little cohesion. We may know that a writer was a "factory girl" or a "domestic servant"; however, we often know little of the circumstances in which she wrote, her family history, or the particularities of her work. It seems that the lack of extant working-class women's poetry lies in the historical (de)valuations surrounding their lives; the difficulties in recovering their texts is, in part, linked to the unavailability of biographical information. Perhaps deemed too unimportant by the establishment for a record of their lives to be kept, nineteenth-century working-class women poets all but disappeared from historical record, and we are only now in the process of rediscovering them.

       Taking into consideration the spirit of our age, when there is common consensus that we need to dig deep and look out for forgotten women from all fields, with Mary Maria Colling there’s an opportunity to take a closer look at the poet’s Devon background. I thought I’d do a little probing into the circumstances of the brief spell of Colling's intense celebrity in the popular Devon town which lies in the heart of Dartmoor

Photo: Tavistock abbey ruins
        Historically, since the time that its abbey was first founded, many centuries ago, Tavistock has been a central Devon site of learning and culture. I wonder if an intangible Genius Locii has drawn literary people there ever since, for as well as the C19 Anna Eliza Bray and her protégé, Mary Maria Colling. there are a number of women writers linked with the parish and its surroundings. I've already written about Elfrida daughter of Ordgar and brother of the abbey’s founder Ordwulf, in Writing Women on the Devon Land (see this extract from Royal Women; Devon Lands) and my poem about her titled 'On Whitehorse Hill', appears on Poethead website. No, there are no written documents connecting this important cultured early queen with Tavistock but given her close family associations with the place it is feasible to consider such links. Elfrida was one of the earliest of a chain of literary Tavistock women. Much more recently during the C19, a little band of women-who-wrote have clustered in the town. Journalist and poet Sophie Dixon gets more than a mention in the blogger post On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads around Okehampton. Although sources say Dixon was from Plymouth, I’m not sure; her journals often feature Tavistock. More research is needed regarding this important C19 journalist and poet. Then there was Rachel Evans, school-teacher and author who also lived in the town during the mid C19. She also appears in On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads. Elizabeth Rundle Charles was another of this mid C19 group of not to be forgotten C19 Tavistock born authors. She was mentioned briefly in an old blog post in Scrapblog a Writer from the South West. One day I hope to return to revisit her old haunts and textual contributions to our Devon literary heritage.   
                                                                              Tavistock Abbey ruins

      But here I must return to the focus of this post, Tavistock's maid-poet. For me, though missing the religious slant, the public furore which accumulated round Mary Maria Colling is reminiscent of the public acclaim instigated by another Devon woman, self-proclaimed prophetess Joanna Southcott, whose texts and rhymed prophecies and public proclamations quickly hooked in over one hundred thousand followers (the equivalent of today’s million Twitter followers). Southcott (whose family were from the east of the county) died in 1814, when over in Tavistock the budding poet was about ten years old. But there is something about the commonality of the women’s eccentric texts and their similar rural backgrounds – they were both from the lower social class and both worked in domestic service. Perhaps, also there is a parallel in the dark ending of these two women’s lives: Colling the poet died in obscurity after apparently succumbing to some kind of mental break-down, possibly Tourettes; Southcott, the prophetess, died in bizarre circumstances, after having self-identified as pregnant at the age of 64. However, whereas Southcott’s life and religious texts have left their mark, those of the servant-poet from Tavistock have more or less disappeared into the vacuum of non-entities. For the most part, if she or her poems appear in any literary forum, it is in connection with Anna Eliza Bray, the woman who took her on, mentored her, then it would seem as quickly, dumped her. However, I know you can find a bit about Colling via google searches and there is at least one significant paper written about her. 

      Maybe I’m being unfair here. Certainly, without Bray’s influence we would never have read Colling’s poems, let alone heard about her life. But from our more egalitarian C21 stance, the barely concealed social superior condescension evident in the appraisals Bray penned about her protégé are hard to stomach. 

Get an idea of the flavour of Bray's assessments from the extract in the photo, a short passage taken from Bray’s extensive letter- introduction to Fables and Other Pieces in Verse, which she wrote in the form of letters to her own literary mentor, the poet laureate Robert Southey.

  The volume of published poems within Fables is ordered so that Bray’s letters take precedence to the poet’s ‘Poems Inserted in the Letters’, thus ensuring that any reader - and indeed the poet herself – is/was reminded of the default hierarchy, of mentor and protégé. Some of the poems appear as insets in the main narrative, rather than as stand-alone lyrics in their own right. There are also intercepted annotations to the letters, which have the effect of lessening the impact of poems themselves. From the preamble to the very first letter Colling, the ‘poor girl’, is presented as a social outsider, ‘agitated’ and ‘artless’, ‘of the humbler class’, whose literary talents can only come to the fore after the kind and older, established author Mrs Bray has reached out across the social order networks and extended the hand of patronage to the girl of lesser social-standing. You can read more about how Bray’s preface to the text ‘textually subjects Colling to her patrons’, thus ensuring the social/literary pecking-order, in Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent": (Romantic Mentorship and Mary Colling's "Fables", in Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 59 (2010). Collings ‘knows her place in society … her talent is couched as attractive naivete’ (Obey).i Bray also takes it on herself to assess the ‘errors of her[protégé’s] poetry - (though ‘not many’, they ‘consist mainly in bad rhymes, such “morn” and “storm”) – thus dismissively undermining her apparent and initial approval of them as worthy of publication.

         Colling’s moment of performance-poet fame was probably instigated by Bray herself after the latter persuaded poet laureate Robert Southey to write up a review of Maria’s work which was, I guess followed up with newspaper accounts (though I have not yet had a chance to research these properly), thus drawing attention to the young girl, as though she were freak object to be ogled at.
Bourgeois tourists congregated at the local inn to hear Colling recite from her prodigious memory or extemporise verses – after she had completed her household duties. (Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent").

         Putting aside the problems which the differences in the two women’s social position lead into when assessing the younger poet’s work, one of the threads that probably drew them together in the first place was their common interest in local gossip. Mrs Bray is known for her fictional and historical reinventions of a number of stories based on legends, folk-tale and local history and it seems that the young Mary was a fount of wisdom concerning local wives tales and of ghostly hauntings; she is said to have told her literary mentor the story about the infamous Lady Howard. 

Even to this day the legend about the ghost of this notorious Tavistock lady can send chills down peoples’ backs and you’ll find all sorts of accounts of her story out there on the web’ they usually mention a ‘phantom carriage’ and a ‘black dog’.
Lady Howard was presumably a person of strong will and imperious temper, who left a deep and lasting impression on the people of Tavistock: 

Photo: Remains of Gatehouse of Fitzford, in Tavistock
She bore the reputation of having been hard-hearted in her lifetime. For some crime she had committed (nobody knew what), she was said to be doomed to run in the shape of a hound from the gateway of Fitzford to Okehampton Park, between the hours of midnight and cock-crowing, and to return with a single blade of grass in her mouth to the place whence she had started; and this she was to do till every blade was picked, when the world would be at an end. (Baring Gould)

     Incidentally, I think sometimes the creepy goings-on of the ghost-story mean that the facts about this iconic C16 Devon woman, a flesh and blood C16 aristocrat, related to the highest of the land, become side-lined. Lady Howard was not just a ghostly phenomenon; she was born into the midst of a complex network of prominent aristocratic families, some of whom are still remembered for their involvements in literary activities of the period. This is not the time and space for me to get diverted away from the C19 poet but just to note that the real woman was Mary Howard daughter of Sir John Fitz and his wife Bridget. Bridget was daughter of William Courtenay 3rd Earl of Devon and his wife Elizabeth Manners. 

          But ... to return to the main concern of this post, Mary Colling and Anna Bray. To be fair on the latter, some passage of her report on her protégé in the preface to her poems do somewhat redress the balance and lessen the impact of her apparently condescending approach to the poet; though on the other hand, the general effect is to just emphasise the patron’s own preoccupation with social status and prestige. For example, Bray mentions that Mary Maria Colling’s paternal father was a ‘highly respectable yeoman’ from a long-established comfortable farming family, who had come up against some misfortune, thus leaving them to a ‘state of distress’. Her grandfather had had ‘all the bells tolled at his funeral’, which indicated ‘he’d been a person of some note’, whilst her father ‘is a very worthy honest man’. 

     There are suggestions as well that Bray was rather in awe of the younger woman; one or two of the prefacing letters, indicate she was almost mesmerised by her protégé’s naive charms: 

 ‘I should never have guessed the animating interesting being she could become in conversation … when I looked on the beautiful expression of her countenance … I could not help entertaining for her a degree of admiration that was not unmixed with reverence and regard'. (Letter in Fables)

     Indeed, the intense focus of detailed commentary, which the older writer has provided in her letter prefaces to the poems per se, indicate a degree of obsessive preoccupation, an emotional identification with the younger woman.ii

         The intricate detail of Anna Bray’s account, albeit patronising, does reveal much about her protégé’s background. In other words, without the intervention of Bray, whose own literary reputation was soon to make her one of the C19 most acclaimed writers, not only would the writing of the servant-woman from the lower rungs of the C19 social pecking-order never have surfaced, but her life-story would, like most others of her status, have been obliterated. Ultimately, Mary Maria Collings is quite fortunate in having left us more than a memory trace.

        The first letter in Bray’s account of Colling begins by relating how she first noticed the young woman in Tavistock church, where Bray’s husband was vicar. 

Photo: taken from one of the letters in Fables

Bray evokes the young poet’s presence quite vividly: she was ‘dressed exceedingly neat, and remarkable on account of the intellectual character of her countenance, who used to sit amongst several poor women immediately under the reading desk of Tavistock church’. Later in another letter Bray remarks that Colling, a ‘perfect country girl’, wore a ‘straw bonnet‘ and her ‘features are regularly handsome, especially the forehead, eyebrows and eyes’. We are informed that on 4th March 1831 Colling posted a sample of her poems to the vicarage and asked Bray to give an opinion on her work. We find Colling’s friends’ names, Mary Beauford and Charlotte Bedford. We learn about her prestigious memory and about her marvellous spelling feats. We are told that the young girl had often to skip school to stay home and nurse her mother and care for her siblings. At the age of 13 she had to leave school and a year later went into service with Mrs General Hughes, a ‘kind protectress’, who she stayed with until the end of Hughes’ life – and whose son later was kind to the young servant (she may even have remained in his service, Bray is not clear about this). There are hints in Bray’s account that even in these early days the young girl began to suffer from some kind of ‘severe illness’ herself. We find she was fond of flowers and that the garden of the house where she worked lay beside the river Tavy. 

          In the midst of her letter prefaces Bray also provides a long drawn out imaginative re-telling of Colling’s family background, a mysteriously romantic tale, which Bray had absorbed first-hand from her protégé (though, given Bray’s own propensity for richly embroidered historical reinventions, how much of the story is an exact reproduction of what the poet had told her is open to question, so we cannot be sure that this a true rendition of the young woman’s early life). However, much of the biography is related as though in the voice of the subject, ie as though we hear Mary Maria speaking to Bray, which apparently provides confirmation that this is the ‘real-deal’, not ‘fake-news’.

      Bray’s elaborated version printed in one or two national papers must have hooked in a few of the poet’s followers to go to Tavistock to gape first-hand at Devon’s new literary wonder-woman. The letters relate the mysterious background concerning Mary Maria’s maternal grandmother, wife of her grandfather George Philp - who had left Tavistock to join the navy; she had been focus of her granddaughter’s intense love (and possibly had instigated the girl's poetic gifts) until her death, when the child was only five. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

Photo: excerpt from one of Bray's Letters in Fables

Mrs Philp’s origins (we are told her maiden name was Mary Domville) contrary to the other immediate ancestors of the poet, were not local; she came from some unnamed place away from Devon and the implication is she was ‘well-bred’, ‘gentlewoman’, that her background was from another higher social class than that of her granddaughter – perhaps even aristocratic: she ‘did not talk like Devonshire people’ and according to Bray’s account, left a trail of mystery, sparking intrigue within the Tavistock community.

     I thought I’d dabble in the archives and see if I could fish out anything else about Mary Maria Colling to fill out gaps in her life-story or/and contradict anything of the biography as written by Anna Eliza Bray. I soon found Colling’s baptism record courtesy of one of the online family-history websites. Mary Maria Colling was born August 20th, 1805 and baptised on September 30th that year.

Baptism record of Mary Maria Colling
    Mary Maria appears in the 1841 census at St Matthew Street, in the home of her probable employer, Francis Hughes (he is 70, she is 36). And she is in the 1851 census, living at 87 Ford Street in   Tavistock, with her father Edmund Colling, 84, a labourer, her mother Ann, 76, Mary is then 45. It seems she died some three years later, on August 11th, in 1853, at the age of 49. 
                                   Photo: Death record of Mary Maria Colling        
     The death record says at the time of her death she was at Bannawell Street, which may be the site of what was once the Tavistock Union Workhouse, which first opened in that street in 1837. That fact fits the story that Colling’s last years were spent in an asylum: 

Before public mental asylums were established in the mid-nineteenth century (and sometimes even after that), poor persons who were mentally ill and mentally handicapped were often sent to be cared for in the workhouse. (Tavistock Workhouse Deaths)

     However, one account says that Colling was taken to an asylum in 1945, some years before her death; perhaps she was only visiting her parents at the time of the 1851 census. 

    Going back a few years, there is the banns/marriage record of the poet’s parents, Edmund Colling and Ann Philp. I think I might even have found the marriage record of Colling’s maternal grandmother. The names, dates and circumstances seem as though they may fit with the details as provided by Bray. A George Philp, Mariner, mariner, from the HMS Thunderer, married a Mary Dumbrell on 3rd March 1763. Dumbrell is not the same as Domville but in her letters Bray says that Colling was not sure of the spelling of her grandmother's name. She was resident in the parish of Alverstoke. The passage below is from an account about HMS Thunderer (taken from Kent History Forum). The date matches that of the marriage of George and perhaps suggests he met his mysterious bride after the ship returned to Portsmouth at the end of the Seven Years War

      The British maintained a close bloackade of the French Atlantic coast and after their defeats at the Battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay 1759, the French had been reluctant to attempt breaking it. On March 9th 1760, two French ships, L'Achille of 64 guns and the frigate La Boufonne of 32 guns escaped from Brest and despite being chased and engaged by HMS Rippon (60), the two ships escaped and made it to Cadiz. HMS Thunderer in company with the ex-French HMS Modeste (64), HMS Thetis (44) amd HMS Favourite (16) were sent to prevent the two French ships leaving Cadiz. On the 14th July 1761, the two French ships got out of Cadiz and were chased by the British squadron. On the 17th July, HMS Thunderer finally caught up with L'Achille and the two ships exchanged broadside fire until HMS Thunderer came alongside L'Achille and the French ship was taken. During the engagement, one of HMS Thunderer's aftermost upper gundeck guns exploded and destroyed part of the stern, causing most of the 17 killed and 114 men wounded during the action. Captain Proby was amongst the wounded. The Bouffonne surrendered to HMS Thetis and both enemy ships were taken into Gibraltar.
    On the 10th February 1763, the Seven Years War was ended by the Treaty of Paris and in March, HMS Thunderer returned to Portsmouth and was paid off. The ship was recommissioned as a Guardship at Portsmouth and in September, received a new commander, Captain Samuel Hood. He remained in command until the ship paid off in July 1766 to be fitted as a troop ship, to carry troops to North America to try to restore order with the increasingly rebellios colonists, who were protesting about the imposition of new taxes intended to help pay off the mountain of debt arising from the Seven Years War. Captain Hood left the ship in North America and was appointed Commodore and Commander-in-Chief of the North America Station, flying his command broad pendant in the 50-gun ship HMS Romney. HMS Thunderer returned to Woolwich and paid off into the Woolwich Ordinary.

      The Philp's couple’s daughter Ann, Mary Maria Colling’s mother, was baptised in Tavistock in October 1776. There were other siblings, born before her, including George, whose baptism is recorded in the year 1764. There are a variety of other records about the Philp family in Tavistock available, indicating that they were well and truly established in the town. 

           I can’t help but wonder if the downturn in fortune and health of Mary Maria Colling’s last years, which have received scant attention by those who have written about her and her life, may have been helped on their way by the attentions of her patron Anna Eliza Bray and the consequent sensationalism of the brief period of public attention showered on the young woman. Perhaps this Devon poet was an early C19 victim of the phenomenon we consider to be a C21 manifestation – celebrities who’ve ‘lost it all’. Bray labelled her protégé as ‘mazed’ (Devon, ‘mad’) from their earliest encounters’; she is called thus in the Fables’ Preface. Obey does hint at such, when she comments that Bray’s suggestion that the young poet’s gift stems from ‘aberration’ or ‘disease’ may have been ‘foreshadowing Colling’s death in an insane asylum’. And in Dennis Low’s The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets, the author includes part of a letter sent by Southey to Bray in which the poet laureate recommends a tempering of the outpouring over Colling. In other words (other perhaps than Mrs Bray herself) people at the time must have sensed the fragility of the young poet.

        I guess from the sensibilities of our modern age, our contemporary assessment of the poetry of this Devon C19 working-class female poet would not be too positive. We might agree with the conclusion of one of the reviews of the time – (published in the Monthly Review, vol 126), which noted that ‘there is scarcely a large village or town in the kingdom, in which one or more than one person might not be found capable of writing verses quite as good as those of Miss Colling, if not a great deal better’. 

     That may be so, but from the standpoint of feminist reassessments of forgotten women’s literature of the past (and especially from a local point of view, those originating in Devon),  it is doubly brilliant that these inventive and eccentric poems have lasted the test of time AND that they were ‘saved’ for posterity due to the keen interest of another Devon woman writer (albeit partly due to her own condescension and self-benefiting reasons). And additionally, it is fascinating to consider, as the critic Odey suggests in her paper on Bray and Colling, that left to her own devices Mary Maria Colling’s writing may have developed in other directions than the fables which have defined her minor long-lasting inclusion in Devon’s women literary chronology. Apparently, in her original notebooks, Colling used a number of self-invented names (including Meary, Marianne, and Marinna) pre-empting a strategy of modernist women writers, suggesting that she viewed herself as having several different identities. The young poet may have preferred to write about biblical themes and abstractions and perhaps, without intervention from her persuasive mentor, might have gone on to pen other more sophisticated poems. But then, if so, these imagined 'preferable' poems would probably would not have been published. I guess we should be proud we can quote the name and place of origin and even maybe recite a few lines of our Devon maid-poet, whose eccentric lyrics, like Devon landscapes and people, are idiosyncratic and unique.  

    You reading this might complain I have not included more from the original poems as written by Mary Maria Colling. I'd love to write another post one day and take a look at them in more depth but meanwhile if you head over to Google books you can read the collection of Fables and Other Poems at leisure. And please feel free to say what you think of them in a post comment.
i As far as I am aware at the time of writing Obey’s fascinating paper is the only one that has been written about this forgotten Devon poet.
ii In her paper Obey reflects that Bray was perhaps fascinated with the similarity between her own past as woman who’d lost her significant male and identified with the situation of Mary Maria’s abandoned grandmother – seeing her granddaughter’s work as redemption of family tragedy.

Tavistock from path on old viaduct