Saturday, 28 May 2016

Other people's authors

Do the names James and Leo Walmsley mean anything to you? Don’t worry if they don’t; you’re in good company.  Representatives of the Walmsley Society (who were present in numbers at the Alliance of Literary Societies recent conference) are well used to having to explain who they were and what they did, just as I am in the case of Barbara Pym. It doesn’t mean that other people are ignorant, simply that they haven’t as yet been fortunate enough to have come across the work of these writers.  Those that do know them, however, may feel privileged to belong to an elite group.

I should think anyone who has been to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire is likely to have come across the watercolours executed in the early 20th century by James Ulric Walmsley.  Originally an architect by profession, he lived in the area for sixty years but did not hit the big time until nearly the end of his life, when one of his paintings was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  It is his son Leo, however, who interests me more.  A near-contemporary of Sassoon, Leo was two when his family moved to Robin Hood's Bay in 1894. During the First World War he joined the Royal Flying Corps and, like Sassoon, was awarded the Military Cross for his service in East Africa.

Leo was the literary half of the father-and-son partnership.  In the 1930s he began his popular "Bramblewick" series, and produced many more books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as an autobiography and a play. His books were popular with the general public and were read far beyond his home area. The Walmsley Society was launched in 1985, nearly twenty years after Leo's death - he did not live nearly as long a life as his father.  This makes it twice the age of the SSF, and its continued existence gives me great hope for the future.

Yes, the world is full of unknown authors who should be more famous.  There is no shame in not having heard of most of them (except, perhaps, in the case of a work colleague of mine who had never heard of the Bronte sisters and was only familiar with “Wuthering Heights” through Kate Bush’s song – and he didn’t even know the tune.  But he won’t be reading this blog.)  How many delights are lost to us through not having enough time to pick up every book in the library!  And how many great novels do we read purely by chance, even though their authors never become household names?  I can think of many I’ve picked up over the years, thinking, “I probably won’t like this, but I’ll give it a go”. We love to share our recommendations, don’t we? 

Sadly, the Charles Williams Society was not represented at this year's ALS conference, and I hear it is about to be wound up, which seems a terrible shame after so many years.  Williams was one of the Inklings (oops, nearly referred to them as the Inkspots, quite a different bunch of folk!)  The society now hopes to amalgamate with the thriving Oxford C S Lewis Society, which proclaims that it "is interested not as much in Lewis as a man as in the world he inhabited and the intellectual and spiritual colleagues he knew and admired", a statement which intrigues me more than somewhat.  If ever there was another writer whose connections make his life a window on his times, it is Siegfried Sassoon, and I've always thought that is a great advantage in attracting new members. 

The fact is, however, that C S Lewis has more than one society in his name.  California and New York each have their own, and then there is the "C S Lewis Society" - called simply that - which was founded at Princeton University in 1975, not to mention the C S Lewis Foundation, an educational charity.  A writer like Lewis, or Dickens, or Tolkien, or Jane Austen, can so dominate as to have thousands of members in his/her literary society while others go from year to year with a small core of loyal members. The Richard Jefferies Society, for example, has an international but still relatively small membership, yet it has been going since 1950, and appears not to be in any danger of meeting the same fate as the Charles Williams Society.

Victorian novelist Charlotte M Yonge also has an enduring presence in the world of literary societies, despite all the author's works being out of print. They still manage to hold two meetings a year and issue a newsletter. Other somewhat obscure authors with their own societies include 19th century Dorset poet, William Barnes (an influence on the much more famous Thomas Hardy), 20th century journalist and farmer Adrian Bell, 18th century poet Robert Bloomfield, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, Elizabethan dramatist Fulke Greville, and Moonfleet author John Meade Falkner.  Put them all together and what have you got? An alliance to end all alliances, one which promises to outlive all conflict.
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