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

A-Z of Devon Places & Women Writers

V and W for Venton and Widecombe in the Moor

At Venton, along the lanes from Widecombe-in-the-Moor, once home of Beatrice Chase. 
      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 instead combined ‘V’ 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 once famously 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 amply covered on the internet, especially when it comes to women writers associated with Dartmoor. Typifying the notion of the eccentric woman author, for me 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 the loss of her fiancé, who had died during World War One. 

          My poem about Chase appears in the collection Tessitura 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 1920's to the 1940's, a bike, hike or car-trip to Dartmoor's picturesque village, where Chase lived at nearby Venton, meant a slight diversion out along the nearby lanes where they'd invariably see the authoress swathed in white, at her celebrated Dartmoor window.

           Since then, I've always had this picture of 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' emphasises that 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 that of 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 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.

         Beatrice Chase did not have a 'twin' or double out there as did Anne Catherick in Woman in White; but Chase 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 literary name, therefore providing with herself with both a pseudonym and new identity. It's interesting that BC ensured 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 Henry VIII'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 I 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, a qualified solicitor, albeit briefly was also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; a paternal grandmother and aunt were known watercolour artists; one 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 copy of the 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). Eldest of seven children, his 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 an attack by a tiger. (See Charles Chase Parr ). Previously, Thomas' father had died from injuries following the incident of an upturned carriage in London (Charles Chase). Charles, his eldest son, was most likely born in The Foundling Hospital, which had been founded by Harriet Pott, his mother's, family: Harriet was daughter of Charles Pott, the hospital's Governor and Treasurer. The Potts were a wealthy family; one sources says that when Charles 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 Blathway (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 an 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, who apparently held deep seated religious beliefs: 
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 only mentioned in passing 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 very 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 also if there is ever more 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 regarding the perhaps dubious literary 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 and self-aggrandizing. 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 followers and 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

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