05 February 2013

Frances Cornford. The Holtbury Idyll

Current selling price $2,000

Anyone who has read an anthology of English poetry will remember the very short poem  which contains the following lines:

             'O fat white woman whom nobody loves
              Why do you walk through the fields in gloves
              Missing so much and so much ?’

It can be found in Poems (1910) the debut collection of Frances Cornford, a member of the famous Darwin family of Cambridge (Charles was her grandfather ),who had just married a young classics don, also confusingly called Francis. He went on to write on Socrates etc., while she published further slim volumes of witty Georgianesque verse that sometimes recalls Betjeman, while the couple, distinguished only by their respective initials (hers were FCD), went on to establish at their home in leafy Millington Road, a refuge for the ‘intelligentsia’  of the sort  that seems peculiar to Cambridge.

‘Fat White Woman‘ was an instant success, but its notoriety was to plague Cornford throughout the rest of her life. Its critics attacked her for presuming that the woman she had viewed from a train was unloved. Housman and Chesterton both parodied the poem —Housman probably for academico- political reasons (Mr Cornford was a rival in classical studies at Cambridge)—Chesterton for socio-religious reasons (as a Catholic he opposed the atheism of Cambridge rationalists among whom the Cornfords moved). Even today, bloggers are divided about the poet’s view of the outside world. Was Cornford an intellectual snob who observed lesser beings from an academic ivory tower, or is there irony in her poem ? Personally, knowing the Darwin set, which still exists in an exiguous form at Cambridge, I favour the former. What is certainly known, but not presumably by the bloggers, is that Poems was not Cornford’s debut volume. This turns out to be The Holtbury Idyll (1908).

The confusion is easy to understand. Google The Holtbury Idyll and you will get nothing. A trawl through abebooks will produce nada. The title isn’t in Copac. Alan Anderson, whose 19 page Bibliography of the Writings of Frances Cornford (a cool £150 from Peter Ellis) has Poems as her debut collection. And yet, flick through Ahearne and you will find The Holtbury Idyll listed under FCD, that is, Frances Crofts Darwin. I think we should trust the word of the Ahearnes, assume that the book does indeed exist, and tick off Mr Anderson for not doing his research.

But it is a puzzle. The University of Cambridge online catalogue failed to turn up a copy. David’s, the best known bookseller in Cambridge, hadn’t heard of it-- even the man who had worked there for 25 years-- though he did say that they had a copy of Poems for sale.  When I remarked to him that a living Darwin might know of it, or even own a copy, he hinted that one who might have information was no longer around, which didn’t exactly help. I mentioned in passing that I couldn’t find a single Darwin in the Cambridge phone book so he suggested that I try Darwin College, which I did. The secretary to the Bursar was friendly and promised to get back to me if she found anyone who could help. I am still waiting.

Other books by Cornford are quite thick on the ground. There are several copies of Poems on Abe that hover at around $70. One that might be nice to have is Spring Morning, which appeared from the Poetry Bookshop in 1915, complete with wood engravings by Gwen Raverat ( another cult figure in smart Cambridge circles ). The Woolfs, doubtless guests at Millington Road,  brought out Cornford’s Different Days   in 1928.Perhaps the biggest puzzle is why the Ahearnes place such a high price on a slim volume (probably a pamphlet ) published by a poet whose work, apart from ‘Fat White Woman’, hasn’t lasted. For $2,000 you could buy a copy of John Gray’s Silver Points or Hilda Doolittle’s first book…Or a lot of other interesting firsts, for that matter.[R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin - looking out for that one. It will probably  show up in the library of a relation - a Darwin, Raverat, Wedgwood, Cornford or Keynes. Although the much liked poetry collector Quentin Keynes does not appear to have had one. 


Anonymous said...

Presumably the Ahearnes must know of a copy somewhere or have seen a report of one...

Anonymous said...

It owes its scarcity to its unbound state. Published as loose sheets mocked up to look like telegrams if I remember correctly (this is going back a few years).

Anonymous said...

Cornford owes something of her longevity to the Rupert Brooke connection. Brooke may be falling out of the pantheon of English heroes now but he was big name for a long time. Part of the same circle, Cornford wrote the "young Apollo, golden haired ..." poem about him.