Saturday, 5 October 2019

A Zeal Monachorum author who was 'Queen of Romance' - Margaret Pedler's 'big R' fictions and Devon

A passage taken from The Splendid Folly, Pedler's first novel, published in 1917.
It is not just Devon's 'Queen of Crime' Agatha Christie whose prestigious textual contribution to the genre of crime left its distinctive mark on the literary achievements provided by women writers from the author's home county. Less well-known nowadays - and admittedly, some might judge, a less 'worthy' Devon writer than Christie - was 'Queen of Romance', Margaret Pedler, whose first novel The Splendid Folly, was published just over one hundred years ago, in 1917. The novel received fair reviews from newspapers at the time, including The Western Times, which reported that 'Mrs Pedler would herself make no high literary claims for The Splendid Folly. She set herself simply to write a readable, entertaining, love story with a touch of Devonshire setting and a topical thread running through its plot'. That reviewer's conclusion may be valid; I cannot say whether Margaret Pedler would have assessed her work in these terms, but in any case over the years, as (similarly, in terms of her prestigious literary output to Christie), Pedler produced more and more novels, her fans apparently raved about her them and she became increasingly popular. As I read through some of the many reviews picked up by her work, the contemporary public acclamation of Pedler (whose works came out regularly between 1917 and the 1940s) - became evident.
Review of Pedler's first novel The Splendid Folly,
 in The Western Times, 28th March 1917

       And Pedler didn't have to wait long to achieve success, for soon after the publication of The Splendid Folly, a silent film adaptation of the book starring Manora Thew was produced by Arrigo Bocch. The film's treatment of the novel's plot, in which the repercussions caused by the jealousy of a girl (who's established a career as a famous singer) of her husband, whose royal connections she is initially unaware, unfolds against the dual backdrops of Devon and London. In part set in luxurious Capri, rather than at the rural and subdued Devon landscapes of its literary original, it may have been the film version of her story that initially propelled public interest in Pedler's writing.

Taken from a review of the film of Splendid Folly, published 
in The Bioscope, 11th December 1919.
A review of the film Splendid Folly, in The Bioscope, in 1919, noted that its stand out features included the 'enchanting glimpses of the Naples seaport'. However, the review concluded that although 'the tale is well suited for film treatment … the scenario, by Hegley Sedgwick has been somewhat clumsily constructed'. Whatever its ultimate appeal, the film version of the book must have brought public attention back to the budding author in Devon, who must have felt encouraged to pen more novels in the romance mode; as you will find if you look her up on Wikipedia, by the time of her death, in December 1948, Margaret Pedler had about thirty novels to her credit. Newspaper coverage around the time of many of their publications promotes her work in such terms that public demand must be assumed. Catchy headlines such as 'Book of the Week'; 'It's a Pedler Story'; 'Margaret Pedler Writes AGAIN for The Red'; 'New Book by Margaret Pedler'; or 'Wonderful New Romance by Margaret Pedler', appeared in a variety of nationwide newspapers and magazines. (I'll add a few images here to give you an idea of the variety of media coverage that Pedler's books received).
Vision of Desire, 'good honest romance', advert in The Scotsman, 1922.
Synopsis of The Shining Cloud in Hastings Observer 1935

Red Ashes, in Dundee Courier, 1924

          Promoting her third novel House of Dreams Come True, The Red Magazine even declared that 'Margaret Pedler is without doubt the most popular woman author of the day', which indicates that her rise to celebrity status in what contemporary C21 'Queen of Romance' Nora Roberts labels 'the big R', fictional genre, happened swiftly. Pedler's popularity evidently continued for some years, for during the interwar years several sources name her books as best sellers.

        However, the young writer had not chosen to take up writing as first choice of artistic career. One source suggests that before completing The Splendid Folly, she may already have written short stories. However, as a young and talented musician who studied both piano and singing at The Royal Academy of Music, Pedler, or, as she was born, Margaret Bass, initially composed and published classical songs. I found two of Margaret Pedler-Bass' songs held at The British Library, including 'Where we Met at Morn' (see inserted image). a traditional classical lyric, which is reminiscent of songs such as 'Linden Lea' or 'Silent Noon' written by Pedler's contemporary, Vaughan Williams.
Page taken from song Where we Met at Morn
by Margaret Bass/Pedler
       Here is a copy of the record the Academy forwarded after I requested information from them about Miss Margaret Bass:

Name: Bass, M.
Home address: Greenroyd, Teignmouth, S. Devon
London address: 35 Dorset Square N.W.
Date and place of birth: 4 August 1877, Streatham S.W.
Father’s name, address and occupation: Deceased
Guarantor’s name, address and occupation: Emma Bass, Greenroyd, Mother
Date of entrance exam: 21 September
Date of entering Academy: 25 September
Principal study: Singing
Second study: Piano
Extra studies: Italian, Sight singing
Achieved bronze medal for singing (level of attainment, not a prize)
Margaret Bass attended the Academy between 1899 to 1902.

       Interestingly, Bass/Pedler's musical passions show up in several of her later novels, either in the form of repeated refrains, which preface and then reappear throughout the text, or/and with a heroine who is an outstanding musician, either as singer, or pianist, dancer, or composer. At least one book has a plot which revolves around the dilemma faced by its heroine concerning the conflict between the demands of her musical career and the need to relinquish her own career for the sake of the man she loves. But, I'll return to that in a minute.
         As I explained in 'House of Dreams Come True', a short feature about the writer in my previous blog, I already knew a little about Margaret Pedler when I was a child growing up in mid Devon. But at the time I wrote that piece and then included a revision of it in the manuscript about Devon women writers, I'd not had a chance to look in more depth at the author's life and books. So, I decided for this blog piece I'd explore the background of her life a little more, and although Romance books per se as a genre, are not exactly my own reading cup of tea, I'd also give Margaret Pedler's novels a bit of a go. Given that she was once an acclaimed Devon woman writer, I owed her the reading-time; I'd hang-out with her books via kindle, for a week or two. (After noticing that mid-Devon featured as one of The House of Dreams Come True's important locations, I'd already skimmed that novel - the second she wrote (published 1919) - and included a bit about it in House of Dreams 1919); but, I had not then allowed myself to drift into the text, to follow the plot and get a feel for the characters.


        I knew that Margaret had married, as his second wife, William George Quick Pedler, a well-to-do yeoman farmer from Zeal Monachorum in mid Devon, whose family were well established in the area. Although she evidently spent time in London after her writing career took off, Baron's Wood was probably Pedler's Devon home for many years and its location in the parish of Zeal Monachorum is the reason I decided to feature this half-forgotten author for this concluding post of this series, A to Z of Devon women writers. As well as Baronswood and Reeve in Zeal Monachorum, in the mid C19 one of Pedler's forefathers held estates in North Tawton (Great Hole and Great Wooden - See Will of William Pedler 1841). A2A holds other files about the Pedler family which I've not had a chance to look at as yet - see Pedler Family of Zeal |Monachorum. William was cousin of William Carter Pedler, the builder of Reeve Castle. (See the previous blog-post House of Dreams Come True).

Baron's Wood at Zeal Monachorum

      Margaret Pedler appears in the 1911 Census, at Baronswood, with her husband and three servants - a cook, a parlour maid and other servant. However, I wanted to explore Margaret's own birth family to see if I could find more about her early background than the facts of her musical training. Margaret's father's name was given on online sources, which stated he was 'from Teignmouth', but unfortunately he didn't show up on any records I could find via various genealogy websites. I thought I was stuck and that Margaret's own identity was to remain elusive. However, I struck gold when, after finding he had recently given a talk on Margaret Pedler, to a local group, I contacted Dr Nigel Browne of Bow in Devon, who was very generous in providing me with fascinating new information about Margaret's birth family. I am indebted to Dr Browne for the following account of Margaret's early life:

'Margaret Pedler ... was born Margaret Bass, to Thomas and Emma Bass. Thomas was born in about 1830 in Ripley, Derbyshire, the son of George Bass, corn miller, and by the age of 21 was working for a tea dealer in Halifax, to whom he may well have been apprenticed. In 1857 he married Emma Firth of Haworth, daughter of a worstead spinner, and by this time he had established his own business in Halifax as a tea dealer. In the mid 1860s he moved to London and established a wholesale tea dealership in the City. This evidently prospered, for by 1871 he was living in a large house in Christchurch Road, Streatham Hill with his wife, four children and five servants, and his eldest son, Charles, was at Clevedon College, Northampton. He seems in all to have had five daughters and three sons, of whom the eldest, Charles, entered the Anglican ministry. / Margaret Bass was born in the third quarter of 1877, seemingly the youngest of Thomas and Emma’s daughters, and benefitted from a thorough and liberal education. She was sent to Laleham School in Clapham Park, a boarding school founded and run by a remarkable lady, Hannah Pipe, who was both a devout Methodist and a progressive educationalist, who employed some very able teachers and gave the girls in her charge a broad and thorough education. Miss Pipe herself came from the Manchester area, and many of her earlier pupils were from Lancashire and Yorkshire, and this may possibly have been a factor in Thomas Bass’s choice of school./ Laleham was a large house on the Clapham Park Estate, laid out by Thomas Cubitt with his own palatial house at the centre. The school had ample room for the 25 girls, and large grounds including a lake, lawns and shrubberies. Hannah Pipe retired while Margaret was still a pupil, but the school continued to be run on the same lines by her successor./At some time in the 1890s Thomas Bass retired from active business and moved to Teignmouth, where he died at his house, Greenroyd, Woodway Road, on 6 April 1898, leaving almost £30,000. His estate was to be held in trust to provide an income for his widow and children, with his sons Arthur and Thomas to manage the tea business'.

          So, here was a wonderful way of entry into the genealogy websites to see if I could stumble upon and expand the information concerning Margaret Pedler's parents' families, the Basses and the Firths. Interestingly, what I found apparently slightly contradicted the facts about Thomas Bass's birth place and family. After following the census of 1871, which, though it confirmed Thomas, Tea Dealer, in Christchurch Road, Streatham (and married to Emma with their four children, governess and servants) - also stated Thomas' birth place as being Langar, in Nottinghamshire - rather than in neighbouring Derbyshire. Out of curiosity, I whizzed back along the archives to see if there was a matching birth for a Thomas in the parish of Langar. Sure enough there was, a Thomas baptised there in 1829, but the entry opened up more questions than it answered because it noted Thomas' mother as Amy Bass - and no father's name was given. After that I only came up with blanks - no easily found facts about who Amy (Margaret Pedler's paternal grandmother) was. One of the Bass daughters (one of Margaret's elder sisters) was christened Amy, which perhaps confirms Thomas' mother's name. I'm including this about Thomas just in case any one else decides to research Margaret Pedler's life; there may be more confirmation required as to the background of her father's family. 

      I had a little more luck when it came to finding Margaret's maternal family; but again, what I found apparently branched a little from the information so far obtained. On the 1871 census in London, the record states that Margaret's mother Emma, born Firth, came from Sowerby Bridge, in Yorkshire, which is just west of Halifax, already mentioned in connection with Emma's parents and about ten miles south of Haworth. Sure enough, an Emma is recorded baptised at Sowerby in 1839, daughter of Thomas Firth and Ann. Emma appears also in the census 1841, three years old, and in the 1851 census, 'scholar', twelve years old, where the family are at 'Green Terrace', Halifax and Thomas, 65, is listed as 'Retired Yarn Agent'. Thomas is listed as coming from Rastrick and his wife Ann from Worley. A Thomas, son of Joseph Firth is baptised in Rastrick in 1786; he may well be one and the same as Margaret's maternal grandfather. Other Firths are recorded in Rastrick during this time, which suggests the family were based in the area over a long period.

       The following may be a red herring, but it is possible there is a connection between Emma Firth's father's family and a Quaker family of Firths who, during the C18/19 owned an estate called Toothill, in Rastrick. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but the names listed as owners of the house are also Thomas and Joseph. If this family should be related to Margaret Pedler's maternal ancestors then these sources will be valuable for anyone who wants to find more about the author's background. I have a feeling there is more out there to find when someone has time to pursue the Firths. 

         But time constraints meant I had soon to take my leave of Margaret Pedler's family, so reluctantly I closed the genealogy websites and opened up my kindle to begin reading her own books. To be honest, other than showing up more Devon-links-as-locations in her novels, I expected to be bored; I assumed my 'big R' read would be more duty than anything else. This time around, after I'd downloaded from Kindle (free or very cheaply) four of Margaret Pedler's books from the early group - including the first, The Splendid Folly, and House of Dreams Come True, Moon out of Reach and Lamp of Fate, then spent a few hours for a day or so in their company, I was agreeably surprised. In each case, once I'd swiped through the pages of the first few chapters, and once I'd accepted the pat-formulae of the plot construction, and the completely contrasting-with-our-own moral universe within which the novels' plots unfolded, I found I was drawn in to the characters' worlds and actually, wanting to find the heroine's 'fate', felt quite compelled to know how they panned out. Noticeably, Pedler's command of language impressed me. Several times, with each novel, I found I needed to resort to kindle's word definition tool; here was someone who had a sophisticated vocabulary and more to the point, knew full well how to employ her understanding to its best advantage. Not to be scorned in our own day and age I thought, given the prolific drip-feed of new often self-published fiction available out there, much of which is hardly worth picking up, or downloading on kindle.

      As far as my own research about women writers with important links with Devon is concerned, Pedler's novels held much of interest. What soon occurred to me was that most of the books I read - or browsed - pinpointed Devon (or if not Devon, other westcountry places) locations as meaningful sites, each one important for the plot's unfolding. So, although, other than the fact her father had retired to Teignmouth in Devon, genealogical research tells us that Margaret Pedler's family background was apparently not closely associated with Devon, the county appears to have become a beloved home territory for the writer. Admittedly I must qualify that statement, as at least one out of this early groups of novels - Moon Out of Reach - features Cornish rather than Devon sites; but it is still safe to conclude that for Pedler the westcountry became a favoured place of retreat and source of creativity.   

       Even DoveGreyReaderScribbles, Devon's popular bookblog, is apparently unaware of our county's once famous romance-writer, (although maybe DoveGrey does not feature books written in the 'big R' genre). However, Pedler's books have caught the attention of at least one recent book blogger, whose assessment of the C20 writer is unfortunately dismissive, scathing and distinctly unfavourable. LeavesandPages's piece on Pedler's novel Bitter Heritage - which came out in 1928 - describes 'A hugely predictable melodrama about a young woman whose father has disgraced himself' and judges it 'of “period piece” interest only, and forthwith shelved accordingly.' 

       As I've already said, I'm not a huge reader of books written in escapist fictional/romance genre, but I believe that this blogger's judgement of Pedler after reading only a sample of her books is rather cursory and hasty. Although, by default Pedler's novels are judged as 'middlebrow', exemplars of popular mass market fiction, with predictable plot lines and somewhat stereotyped characters, they are worthy of scrutiny. It wasn't for nothing that Pedler became an acclaimed novelist during her lifetime, when (as already noted in the previous blog-post), her reputation was compared to other then sought-after women romance writers such as Ethel M Dell and Ruby M Ayres, and sometimes her novels' titles featured as 'books of the week' with such notable authors as Lawrence Durrell. (See for instance Bournemouth Graphic in 1935, which names her latest title The Shining Cloud as 'Book of the Week' alongside his new novel).  There are other indications of the contemporary popularity of Pedler's work: it was often serialised in popular literary magazines (see for example, The Red, 1919, where one headline states that 'Margaret Pedler writes for The Red'); and during the 1930s her books were often held in school libraries. 

      Pedler's work, like so many of our country's half-forgotten women writers, deserves our attention, especially for what it can inform the C21 reader about the ways in which, during a time when women's place in family and wider circles was rapidly changing, early to mid C20 women novelists depicted issues about female lives and roles in society. For someone who is fascinated with westcountry (and specifically Devon) territories, her books can also be telling in their representation of local landscapes - and particularly the ways in which the author interweaves Devon settings with experiences and concerns from her own life. 

Cosdon on Dartmoor from near Zeal Monachorum
        Time constraints and an already over long blog-post mean I need soon to bring this piece to an ending, but as an example of what I mean, Pedler's first novel The Splendid Folly is an excellent book to consider. Ostensibly, in several ways the novel's plot matches its author's own life trajectory. Similarly to the young Margaret, its heroine, named Diana Quentin, whose 'adopted' home is at the rectory in 'the primitive [and'tiny'] Devon village of Crailing', where she was brought up by its rector, her guardian Alan Stair, is building an established career as musician, a singer. As the book begins, Diana is dividing her life between Devon and her boarding-house in London and back down in Crailing, which frequently appears in the novel as a place of reflection, refuge and safety.  The Devon locations in the novel (just as others that appear in other and later novels by Pedler) are fictionalised; but there are reasons to assume that they are sometimes, if not all, based on the author's own life in the county and therefore are places with which she was familiar.  It is tempting to guess and match the imaginary locations with the real-sites - although of course Pedler may well have simply cast them all from her writerly imagination! (I've already conjectured in my previous blog-post House of Dreams, that the house in House of Dreams Come True, her second novel may be modelled on nearby Reeve Castle). 

      In The Splendid Folly Devon's familiar and famous Dartmoor landscape pops up as a place where Diana and her beau Errington take long pleasurable drives, 'tramping ... with the keen moorland air, like sparkling wine, in their nostrils...'. Dartmoor is unmistakable, but other locations in the novel are more uncertain.
Of course, there could be other such apposite examples, but when I read about the 'Crailing' rectory entrance as the narrative describes it, my imagination sped to such a door leading to the old rectory in North Tawton (the neighbouring parish to Zeal Monachorum in rural mid Devon):

'The little wooden door, painted green and over-hung with ivy, was never bolted...The little green door innocent of lock and key, stood as a symbol of the close ties that bound the rector and his flock together...' 

However, quickly we learn that the fictional church is square-towered (so not North Tawton), that Crailing is a 'tiny fishing village', full of thatched roofs, that 'it straggled down to the edge of the sea in untidy fashion', where the 'bold headland of red sandstone, Culver Point, … thrust itself into the blue of the water'. A mid-Devon rural location is therefore out of the question (unless, which is also quite possible, the author mixed and matched her imagined real sites). The red cliffs may take us down to Dawlish, which was once a small fishing-village. The Dawlish area also makes sense for the main Devon setting of this first novel in accordance with the last home of Margaret's father at nearby Teignmouth, where presumably after their move during the 1890s the young Margaret must have spent much time in between school and college terms. It is at a headland site named 'Culver Point', 'which thrust itself into the blue of the water like an arm stretched out to shelter the little village nestling in its curve from the storm of the Atlantic', where 'great red cliffs … reared up against the sapphire of the sky', that Diana experiences heightened emotion, danger, revelation and drama. A dramatic location, it establishes and reflects the novel's emotional tone, crucially as the site of the climatic scenes of its heroine's passionate love encounters. Perhaps Culver's scenery with it 'numerous little bays that fringed the foot the great red cliff' is based on the coastline around Teignmouth, between Hope's Nose and Holcombe. 
         Even more interesting, in light of the writer's own life and career - especially with regard to our current obsession with the place of women in the early C20 - it's fascinating to look at the way in which Pedler's first novel tackles some then topical gender issues, especially apropos woman's role in the contemporary world. Specifically, as the narrative explores its heroine's journey-to-find-her-self, the fiction probes the conflict regarding a woman's individual career with her 'duty' as wife. It's hard not to read the story as a take on Pedler's own young self as she negotiates the conflicting needs of her own developing vocation (first as musician, then as gradually highly successful author), with contrasting societal expectations, which demanded that a married woman forfeit her own talents and careers for the sake of her husband's needs. In The Splendid Folly Diana first relinquishes her own rapidly burgeoning career as singer in favour of her new husband; but then she decides to return to her abandoned profession and to find that lost self. Given that the book is defined by its romance novel mode, its heroine's fate is curiously uncertain, for at the ending the narrative strays from its expected happy-ever-after certainty. Its title's potential is shown to be apposite. Is she wise in her choice to leave? Will she regret her decision? We do not know. In keeping with its title, Diana's soon to be future to follow 'love', join her husband in a foreign country, which will take her far away from the professional environment of her singing career, leaves us with suggestively sinister connotations as to her possible 'folly'. It is left to her long-term male singing master to warn:

For long he argued and expostulated upon the madness, as he termed it, of Diana's renouncing her career, trying his utmost to dissuade her. ..
You haf not counted the cost! he fumed at her.
But Diana only smiled at him.
Yes I have. And I'm glad it's going to cost me something - a good deal, in fact - to go back to Max. Don't you see Maestro, it kind of squares thing the tiniest bit? .... and it's such a little price to pay - for love.' …
'So, then, the most marvellous voice of the century is to be wasted reading aloud to a Grand Duchess! Ah! Dearest of all my pupils, there is no folly in all the world at once so foolish and so splendid as the folly of love'.

         Given the contemporary C21 fascination with women from our past apropos many disciplines, it seems to me that it is so important not to cast literary-linked names aside as if their achievements were inconsequential to our heritage and as though, because their writings were categorised within genres considered 'non-literary' - 'trivial', 'populist' - their accomplishments were therefore less worthy than those whose books became exemplars of literary endeavour. When I took a little downtime to read a selection of Pedler's novels I found them a true breath of fresh air. Not only was it intriguing to try and work out where the various fictional Devon places in the narratives were really located. Given the current ultra sophisticated online world and unstable cultural milieu with its chaotic and fluctuating moral compass, these novels provide a means to an escapism to a more stable world, where (although occasionally tedious when viewed from our C21 lens and where a woman's own role in society is sometimes questioned) self control, self sacrifice and moral integrity are held up as standards to be emulated. Once you discard your initial annoyance with their predictable narratives, it can be healing and restorative to take a few hours out and revel in these novels' company; ideal perhaps for someone needing to reduce their online social-media, news-obsessed screen-time to wallow instead in the camaraderie of individuals, who greet us, as though drop-ins from another parallel universe. 

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.