Friday, June 07, 2013

Master Drawings IV: A Seated Girl

Amongst the paperbacks which were once kept in the basement of our house, and which belonged to the collection which my father and uncles and aunts had read when they were little, there is a book, first published in 1957, by Gillian Avery, entitled The Warden's Niece

It is what first came to mind when I looked at the drawing "A Seated Girl" by the Welsh painter Gwen John, amongst the other works in the Ashmolean Museum's Master Drawings exhibition.

The book is, fittingly enough, set in Oxford, and describes it quite as reverentially and as much in the absorbing fourth dimension [i.e. time in the sense of its historical states of being, which are tied into its contemporary presence] as, for instance, Elizabeth Goudge's Towers in the Mist. Though published after the Second World War, it is set in the 1870s and begins by exploring the heroine's unpleasant stay at a boarding school for young ladies, then following her escape to Oxford and specifically to her uncle's home at the university college where he is Warden. His neighbour and friend, Professor Smith, has three sons around Maria's age; the youngest of these, who is something of a troublemaker, is about to embark on Greek and Latin under a tutor, and so Maria joins him. At the time women in higher education were a rarity, as the book emphasizes without diverging into comment; but whether it is through progressive convictions or through indifference to matters outside the sphere of their own scholarly research, no one bothers to throw up serious impediments to Maria's learning. (At least, no one consciously does; prohibitions on straying from home for any purpose do interfere a little with scholarly exploration.)

Setting the plot — which is well described elsewhere, so I will content myself with the general adumbration above — in the Victorian Age seems to have been a rather peripheral element in the novel, since aside from its prolific traditionalist detail of cucumber sandwiches, dragonlike housekeepers, pre-Daimler travel, and the singularity of feminine education, it could fit quite as well into the 20th century.

Illustration: "Portrait" (c. 1915) by Gwen John (1876-1939)
From Wikimedia Commons.

When I was little I found it an enigmatic, strange and somewhat cold book; the descriptions of old churchyards and aged portraits of dead children and fenced-in houses were menacing. Now I think it was a silly impression. The world it describes is still perhaps an insiderish one, though the book hasn't aged too badly. When I went to see Oxford at around the age of twenty in 2005, I had the impression that the heart and soul of the university campus is 'Keep Off The Grass'; whether I was imposing ill-assorted North American ideas or not, this experience is similar to the one of limitations which lies within The Warden's Niece. I suppose I also saw the magic in similar places: the Saxon tower, the façade of the Sheldonian Theatre, the lawn of Christchurch (?) College, and particularly in the courtyard and amongst the Roman busts and Saxon-remnant-filled vitrines of the Ashmolean Museum.


The Warden's Niece, by Gillian Avery (United Kingdom: Penguin, 1963)
Originally published in 1957.

"The warden's niece by Gillian Avery - Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists" [Goodreads]
"Gillian Avery" [Wikipedia]


Due to a sudden access of humility or cowardice, I will omit to describe the drawing or Gwen John herself. In its expressionist way this article by Anne Enright in the Guardian does it much better than I could: "My hero: Gwen John," (The Guardian; Saturday, October 2, 2010).


After the name caught my eye in the front pages of The Warden's Niece, I looked up the publishing editor Kaye Webb on the internet, to discover that her life and personality are a well recorded story in themselves.

She was a presiding genius at the Puffin imprint — which is a subsidiary to Penguin Books — from 1961 to 1979, and besides luring authors like Roald Dahl, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc., to the imprint she evidently conferred the spark of publishing success upon books like Watership Down. Previously she had worked at Lilliput, a literary magazine, and as such came to correspond with George Bernard Shaw and other figures who remain quite as interesting today as they were then. (Pleasingly enough from a feminist perspective, her predecessor and first Puffin editor was also a lady; Eleanor Graham, explains Wikipedia, "saw the brand through the 1940s and the struggles with paper rationing" and besides was responsible for publishing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Charlotte's Web.)

FAMOUSLY she began the Puffin Book Club. It thrived also thanks to the particular interest of (as she described) her old boss, Sir Allen Lane, whose encouragement proved irreproducible even though Yehudi Menuhin took up the presidency afterwards. I wrote a letter to Puffin in the early or mid-90s, hoping to join the club but aware that the book which carried the advertisement was a little dated by now, and the reply explained that the club was then restricted to groups. Perhaps the publishing climate has changed too much, especially by now, to recapture its halcyon era.

Kaye Webb died in 1996, but there are many lively and detailed articles and interviews in the British media archives if one is willing to dig for them.

"Kaye Webb - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia" [Read May 31, 2013]
"Puffin Books - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia" [Read May 31, 2013]

"OBITUARY: Kaye Webb" [], by Julia Eccleshare (January 18, 1996)
"Desert Island Discs - Castaway : Kaye Webb" [BBC] Interview host: Sue Lawley (May 30, 1993) [Read and listened to May 31, 2013] (I downloaded the interview since streaming it seemed impossible.)

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