Saturday, 23 August 2014

Hardy in Corton

I have just co-invented (I think) a new phrase for use by Thomas Hardy Society members - "a Wessie bag". Wessex was of course the Hardys' pet dog and well-known to Siegfried Sassoon when he visited the elderly writer who had become such a dear friend.  So naturally, when I asked for a doggie bag in which to take home a piece of the delicious cake we had been offered for tea by our hostess, Barbara Saunt, it was quickly re-christened.

Barbara is a member of one of the Hardy Society's regional groups.  In this case, they are informally led by the redoubtable Mervyn Scamell, who brings them together several times a year, normally in one another's homes or some other congenial location such as a pub or restaurant, and their next meeting will be their 100th.  I was thrilled to be invited to speak to them about Siegfried Sassoon, although I had to think of a different slant on the Sassoon-Hardy relationship from the short talk I gave at Dorchester only a few weeks ago.  Before the meeting, we were given a delicious lunch by Barbara and her husband Alex, who had very kindly put me up in their house the previous night.  The icing on the cake, if you'll forgive the pun, was the discovery that Alex's father was the first cousin of Hester Gatty, Siegfried's wife!

Alex had not known of the relationship until after he and Barbara moved to Corton (a charming village about two miles from Heytesbury) in the 1990s.  At that time, George Sassoon was still resident at Heytesbury House, but one of his favourite watering-holes was The Dove, which is almost next door to the Saunts' home.  Thus, when Alex exchanged pleasantries with George in the bar, neither of them ever realised that they were related.

One thing I feel sure of is that Sassoon became attracted to the rolling Wiltshire landscape through his visits to Hardy and Lawrence, and this was the reason for his decision to settle at Heytesbury House in 1934. Despite his preference for solitude, he would become an active and respected member of the local community and never seems to have considered leaving it, even after the break-up of his marriage.

As I researched this talk, new insights into the Sassoon-Hardy relationship came to light.  In particular, I noted how Siegfried became protective of Hardy as he aged.  The older man was already in his seventies when they first met in 1918.  Siegfried paid him a visit at Max Gate, initially to take him a copy of The Old Huntsman, which was dedicated to Hardy.  They met again at J M Barrie's home in London shortly afterwards (coincidentally, another of Barrie's London homes was 23 Campden Hill Square, where Sassoon would later reside with the Turners), and it was in relation to this occasion that the Sassoon memoirs first note Hardy's remarkable vigour and energy for a man of his age, qualities that inevitably began to wane during the following decade.

Thomas Hardy's funeral - or, to be more accurate, his two funerals - distressed Siegfried Sassoon considerably, as indeed it upset many of Hardy's friends.  Barrie, together with Sydney Cockerell, a mutual friend, were determined that he would be buried in Westminster Abbey, which was not the quiet resting-place his family had in mind.  Another of Sassoon's friends, T E Lawrence, felt that the Establishment was getting its own back on Hardy, saying that he "was too great to be suffered as an enemy to their faith; so he must be redeemed".  Hardy's friend Alfred Noyes described it as an occasion of "bleak irony".

Siegfried was doomed to lose all his father figures in the course of his long life.  Fortunately, he also finally grew out of the need to adopt surrogate sons (like Stephen Tennant?) through having a son of his own. Younger friends like Dennis Silk came, I think, to occupy a more comfortable place in his huge circle of acquaintance.

To return, just for a moment, to the subject of my talk at Corton, I found the questions from the Hardy group leading me down varied and interesting paths, and it struck me that a study of Sassoon's life and work is like doing a kind of jigsaw puzzle, symmetrical, intricate and satisfying in its conclusion - not that I would claim to have concluded mine as yet.

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