Tuesday, 19 June 2007

J. M. Barrie and George Meredith

J. M. Barrie, the Scottish author and playwright, died on June 19, 1937.

Today, 70 years later, perhaps a handful of people will write something in commemoration of his death. For my part, I should like to show you a place which was very special to Barrie from the age of 25, and to give you part of his memoir on it, including a piece which he wrote in commemoration of the passing of one of his literary friends, the English poet and novelist, George Meredith. Were it not for Meredith, Barrie might never have visited Box Hill, in Surrey.

Composite picture of Barrie and Meredith

From an early age, Barrie had been a great admirer of Meredith, perhaps his greatest. In 1886, when still a London-based journalist for the St James's Gazette, his employer, Frederick Greenwood, instructed him to visit Meredith at his home on Box Hill and write an article about him; that visit was to spark a mutual friendship which lasted until Meredith's death 23 years later, and Barrie was to pay many visits to Flint Cottage. In fact, Barrie had already been there of his own accord about a year earlier, as he explained, writing in the third person, in 1930 in The Greenwood Hat, Being A Memoir Of James Anon 1885-1887:

'He [Meredith] was royalty at its most august to Anon [Barrie], whose very first railway journey on coming to London was to Box Hill to gaze at the shrine' 'There is a grassy bank, or there was (for I go there no more), opposite the gate, and the little royal residence is only some twenty yards away. Even to Anon that day it seemed small but very royal. He sat on the grassy bank and quivered. Presently he saw a face at the window of a little sitting-room he was to be very familiar with in the hereafter. He knew whose face it was. Then the figure stood in the doorway, an amazing handsome man in grey clothes and a red necktie. He came slowly down the path towards the gate. It was too awful for Anon. He ran away'. 'Something I wrote made him ask me to visit him, and after that I was often at Flint Cottage for stretches of time until he died in 1909. I loved this man more every time I saw him. The last time, when he was very frail, I said I thought he had a better colour, and he replied with a smile, 'Yes, a pretty green.'

Green, the healthy kind, is all around Flint Cottage. Trees of many species, including rare box trees (after which Box Hill was named), stand on the upper levels of the expansive, steeply sloping hills here. Low-growing grasses and herbs bedeck the downland much of which is grazed by sheep. I'm very pleased to say that Barrie's 'grassy bank' remains intact and ungrazed to this day. Not only that, but also it is now marked on the local National Trust map as 'Barrie's Bank', and its survival well into the future seems assured. Situated on the lower slopes of the North Downs it supports typical chalk downland flora and fauna, and to sit knowingly on this bank, among the orchids, the bees and Chalkhill Blue butterflies, is to wear Barrie's suit for a while – the suit of a young writer who has yet to make his name as an author and playwright.

Extract of The National Trust's current map of Box Hill

Barrie's Bank

Barrie's Bank
View from the road outside entrance to Flint Cottage

Flint Cottage
Barrie's seated view of 'the shrine' perhaps?

Flora on Barrie's Bank in June

Meredith moved to Flint Cottage in 1867. He lived there with his second wife, Marie, and their children, and he entertained many visitors, including George Gissing, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson and, of course, James Barrie; and the critic and caricaturist Max Beerbohm lived there for a time during the Second World War.

Flint Cottage still retains its 'round'

George Meredith loved nature and kept fit by walking the Surrey countryside regularly, usually with his dogs. He probably knew every inch of Box Hill and every tree thereon: 'I am every morning at the top of Box Hill - as its flower, its bird, its prophet. I drop down the moon on one side, I draw up the sun on t'other. I breathe fine air. I shout ha ha to the gates of the world. Then I descend and know myself a donkey for doing it.' Meredith kept a donkey, named Picnic, which had its own shed.

Picnic's shed

As I wrote in my previous post, Meredith was envious of the Barries because at their summer home at Black Lake Cottage they were surrounded by pine woods. He loved all trees ... but pines had a special place in his heart. Today, not at all expected on the chalk downs, we can see a few mature pines growing in the garden of Flint Cottage, including one either side of The Chalet which was built by Meredith and was where Meredith did his writing. I judge these pines to be about 100 years old, and I'm prepared to wager that Meredith not only planted them there but that their origin was within sight of Black Lake Cottage.

Flint Cottage and part of garden, including The Chalet

The Chalet
Note the pine trees on either side

The timber-boarded chalet was used not only for writing but also occasionally for relaxing and sleeping: 'Anything grander than the days and nights in my porch you will not find away from the Alps: for the dark line of my hill runs up to the stars, the valley below is a soundless gulf. There pace like a shipman before turning in. In the day with the south west blowing I have a brilliant universe rolling up to me.'

Upon hearing of Meredith's rather sudden death on May 18, 1909, Barrie made straight for Flint Cottage to be with Meredith's relatives. As we read in Denis Mackail's The Story of J. M. B., he 'stood by, mourning and helping, in the unmistakable character of the hero's closest surviving friend.'

Barrie also busied himself in two significant ways. Again quoting Mackail: 'It was he, also, who joined in organising the request – which is said to have had royal support – that the hero's ashes should be laid in Poet's Corner. The Dean [of Westminster Abbey], however, had strange but dogged doubts, and refused. So Meredith was buried, by the side of his second wife, in Dorking Cemetery, and the world of literature must gather to honour him there. Barrie amongst them; and three days later the well-known tribute - presently to be published by Constable's, and again, long afterwards, in The Greenwood Hat – appeared on the green pages of the Westminster Gazette. Neither Dorking nor the Abbey was its heading, and the skill that went into it has seldom been equalled – by this or any other author – and never surpassed. It was terrific, and Barrie knew it. In the midst of his grief he could still see, and more than appreciate, the perfection of his own art.'

In his fanciful essay Barrie imagined the old man sitting on the crest of the hill which rises from Barrie's Bank, in front of Flint Cottage, chuckling at the sight of his own funeral cortege solemnly accompanying an empty coffin to the cemetery at Dorking.


Neither Dorking nor the Abbey

later published as

George Meredith 1909

by J. M. Barrie



May 22, 1909

All morning there had been a little gathering of people outside the gate. It was the day on which Mr. Meredith was to be, as they say, cremated. The funeral coach came, and a very small thing was placed in it and covered with flowers. One plant of the wall-flower in the garden would have covered it. The coach, followed by a few others, took the road to Dorking, where, in familiar phrase, the funeral was to be, and in a moment or two all seemed silent and deserted, the cottage, the garden, and Box Hill.

The cottage was not deserted, as They knew who now trooped into the round in front of it, their eyes on the closed door. They were the mighty company, his children, Lucy and Clara and Rhoda and Diana and Rose and old Mel and Roy Richmond and Adrian and Sir Willoughby and a hundred others, and they stood in line against the box-wood, waiting for him to come out. Each of his proud women carried a flower, and the hands of all his men were ready for the salute.

In the room on the right, in an armchair which had been his home for years – to many the throne of letters in this country – sat an old man, like one forgotten in an empty house. When the last sound of the coaches had passed away he moved in his chair. He wore gray clothes and a red tie, and his face was rarely beautiful, but the hair was white and the limbs were feeble, and the wonderful eyes dimmed, and he was hard of hearing. He moved in his chair, for something was happening to him, and it was this, old age was falling from him. This is what is meant by Death to such as he, and the company awaiting knew. His eyes became again those of the eagle, and his hair was brown, and the lustiness of youth was in his frame, but still he wore the red tie. He rose, and not a moment did he remain within the house, for “golden lie the meadows, golden run the streams,” and “the fields and the waters shout to him golden shouts.” He flung open the door, as They knew he would do who were awaiting him, and he stood there looking at them, a general reviewing his troops. They wore the pretty clothing in which he had loved to drape them; they were not sad like the mourners who had gone, but happy as the forget-me-nots and pansies at their feet and the lilac overhead, for they knew that this was his coronation day. Only one was airily in mourning, as knowing better than the others what fitted the occasion, the Countess de Saldar. He recognized her sense of the fitness of things with a smile and a bow. The men saluted, the women gave their flowers to Dahlia to give to him, so that she, being the most unhappy and therefore by him the most beloved, should have his last word, and he took their offerings and passed on. They did not go with him, these, his splendid progeny, the ladies of the future, they went their ways to tell the whole earth of the new world for women which he had been the first to foresee.

Without knowing why, for his work was done, he turned to the left, passing his famous cherry-blossom, and climbed between apple-trees to a little house of two rooms, whence most of that noble company had sprung. It is the Chalet, where he worked, and good and brave men will for ever bow proudly before it, but good and brave women will bow more proudly still. He went there only because he had gone there so often, and this time the door was locked; he did not know why nor care. He came swinging down the path, singing lustily, and calling to his dogs, his dogs of the present and the past; and they yelped with joy, for they knew they were once again to breast the hill with him.
He strode up the hill whirling his staff, for which he had no longer any other use. His hearing was again so acute that from far away on the Dorking road he could hear the rumbling of a coach. It had been disputed whether he should be buried in Westminster Abbey or in a quiet churchyard, and there came to him somehow a knowledge (it was the last he ever knew of little things) that people had been at variance as to whether a casket of dust should be laid away in one hole or another, and he flung back his head with the old glorious action, and laughed a laugh “broad as a thousand beeves at pasture.” Box Hill was no longer deserted. When a great man dies – and this was one of the greatest since Shakespeare – the immortals await him at the top of the nearest hill. He looked up and saw his peers. They were all young, like himself. He waved the staff in greeting. One, a mere stripling, “slight unspeakably,” R. L. S., detached himself from the others, crying gloriously, “Here's the fellow I have been telling you about!” and ran down the hill to be the first to take his Master's hand. In the meanwhile an empty coach was rolling on to Dorking.


Holly Golightly said...

You are wonderful, MY Robert (yes, you are mine) and I am so proud of you!!!
Guess what? I also wrote a little text for him... and a letter that won't be published...

Atticus said...

Er ... I'm not sure how to respond, Holly, but thank you. I know how much the various Barrie places mean to you, and so I am pleased that you liked this post. Yes, I have read your text - on http://rosesdedecembre.blogspot.com/ today folks - a delightful piece.

marie.l said...

les photos me remplissent de joie même si je ne comprends pas beaucoup au texte, et je sais que notre très chère Holly doit être dans tous ses états ! merci Robert pour elle, pour moi, pour tous vos lecteurs !

et pardon encore de n'écrire qu'en français alors que tu fais l'effort de ma langue chez moi

Lamousmé said...

help holly!!!!!! ;o)

Atticus said...

Thank you, Lamousmé. Mais je pense que Holly n'a pas besoin de mon coup de main. Ou peut-être je ne t'ai pas compris correctement?

Lamousmé said...

hihi robert là c'était moi qui avait besoin d'aide pour tout traduire!!! ;o)

Atticus said...

Ah, bon, Lamousmé. J'espère que Holly t'a aidé, mais je pense qu'elle est très occupé à ce moment - Venise s'appelle... :-))))