The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2017 is undoubtedly right to intone the mantra ‘edit, review, revise and then edit again’, but when you have read your 420-page typescript as many times as I have in the last six months, and made over a thousand changes, you need some specific stimulus to make you read it closely yet again.
A fortnight ago, that stimulus came along in the form of the discovery of the Visitors Book for Acton Reynald, the nineteenth century home of the Corbet family in Shropshire. A sensational find! Lady Caroline (Nina) Corbet had first met Kittie when they were very young, they became inseparable as teenagers, it was known that Kittie stayed at Acton Reynald many times until Nina remarried in 1913, and Nina got on well with George.
Visitors Books are invaluable to biographers. The one for Foxwold (q.v.) exists, and Mr John Pym deserves a medal and my undying gratitude for having copied out for me every entry for the Calderons from 1912 to 1940. If only the Visitors Book for nearby Emmetts existed too, as the Calderons were regular visitors and it would help date, for instance, George’s Cinderella: An Ibsen Pantomime, which was first performed there.
The Acton Reynald Visitors Book has a very special significance. I had worked out long ago from circumstantial evidence when Kittie and, I presumed, George, stayed there. For instance, it was clear from the envelope of a letter written by William Rothenstein to Kittie after settling George on his ship to New Zealand in a delicate nervous state in 1906, that Kittie did not see George off herself, she left for Acton Reynald to stay with Nina Corbet. Similarly, a letter from George at St Andrews in December 1909, following the Glasgow premiere of his translation of The Seagull, reveals that he and Kittie are off to spend Christmas with the Corbets at Acton Reynald. On other occasions, for example the funeral of Nina’s husband Walter on 23 December 1910, I had assumed both Kittie and George were present, and in the latter case stayed on until New Year as they had the year before. But only the Visitors Book could confirm such things and supply firm dates.
I cannot thank the descendants of Walter and Nina Corbet warmly enough for finding the Acton Reynald Visitors Book, copying out every entry for Kittie and George from 1893 to 1913, and supplying me with images of many of them. It is an amazing document in itself. Clearly the Corbets welcomed a steady stream of guests. Many of the names in the image below are familiar. For instance, G. Ormsby Gore, below George’s signature, is 3rd Baron Harlech, Sir Walter’s commanding officer in the Shropshire Yeomanry. The mysterious Mr Jones, placed between Kittie and George, is their dog.
A page of the Acton Reynald Visitors Book for 1902
The first entry for Kittie (with her mother) is Christmas 1893, two years after Walter Corbet inherited the baronetcy and moved into Acton Reynald. In August 1894 she stayed there with Archie Ripley, who was to become her husband the following year. However, Ripley never visited Acton Reynald again before his death in October 1898, although Kittie did, both alone and with her mother. (Bear with me, this may be significant.)
George first stayed at the Corbets’, with Kittie, in September 1901, ten months after their wedding, then again in 1902 and 1903. After that, though, I discover from the Visitors Book that the pattern changed somewhat. I had assumed they both attended Lesbia Corbet’s christening on 18 March 1905, but in fact only Kittie (one of the two godmothers) did. Kittie’s next visit to Acton Reynald was as George was leaving for New Zealand/Tahiti in April 1906, when she stayed (with Mr Jones) for over a fortnight. In 1907 both Calderons were at Acton Reynald in August, but George absented himself for a week on a lone walking holiday. The only other occasion — according to the Visitors Book — that George and Kittie were together at Acton Reynald up to January 1913 was the Christmas of 1909, whereas Kittie visited on her own four times and probably more.
What struck me first from the Visitors Book is that, contrary to my assumption, George never accompanied Kittie on any occasion that was particularly personal for Nina, viz. Lesbia’s christening, Walter’s funeral, or Nina’s second wedding at the Corbet family church in January 1913. It is extraordinary that George did not attend the funeral of Sir Walter, whom Kittie described as ‘nice to look at and nice right through’ and whom George, as far as I can see, liked. Kittie stayed with Nina afterwards for a fortnight. This took in the whole of the Christmas season 1910. So where was George? He had been at Acton Reynald with Kittie the Christmas before, but that was his last recorded visit ever.
Of course, there could be practical reasons why he was not with Kittie in 1905, 1910 and 1913. In 1910 both he and Kittie may have been committed to spending Christmas with the Lubbocks at Emmetts, Walter Corbet died after a short illness on 20 December, the day Kittie arrived at Nina’s side, and perhaps they had agreed that one of them, at least, should keep the Lubbocks’ invitation. In January 1913 George may have been ill. However, there is no obvious reason why he could not travel to the christening in March 1905.
Naturally, I don’t wish to compose a spoiler to my book, but the relationship between Nina Corbet and Kittie vis-à-vis Kittie’s two husbands is a vital thread in it. Nina and Kittie’s relationship long predated Kittie meeting Archie Ripley and George Calderon. It seems to have been about as close as friends can be. They had often slept in the same bed together as children and teenagers, but there would be nothing unusual at the time about that. When Kittie was depressed, Nina promised to ‘coodle you up, and up and up’, which was presumably Edwardian for ‘give you a really good cuddle’, whatever that involved. Even after Nina married, Kittie would accompany the couple on tours as a companion and chaperone, and when accommodation was divided by gender they again shared a bed. However, in letters that were meant to have been burned after Kittie’s death but miraculously turned up in another part of the country six years ago, Archie Ripley makes it clear that he has to draw the line at vacating the marital bed for Nina when she comes to stay after their marriage. Kittie insisted on telling George all this before they agreed to marry, which is probably why George was afraid Nina would ‘dissuade you [Kittie] from loving me’; but Nina didn’t. The biggest problem Kittie had during George’s courtship of her was his physical passion compared with Ripley’s, who seems to have been transiently homosexual.
Caroline ‘Nina’ Corbet, c. 1890
So did George accept Kittie’s very close relationship with Nina Corbet? The evidence is, yes. He understood that Nina needed Kittie; she needed her for comfort, advice, understanding and joie de vivre in all kinds of (documented) situations after entering into what was essentially a dynastic marriage of convenience. I don’t think George was always happy with the situation, any more than Ripley was, for obvious reasons, but George decided he must respect that side of Kittie’s life and let her pursue it freely. You will have guessed, then, that what I feel the newly discovered Visitors Book demonstrates is that George decided to leave himself out of the relationship at Acton Reynald whenever he could. The closeness of the two women’s bond, incidentally, is movingly borne out by another discovery made at the same time. They had always called each other ‘My T’other’. On an unknown New Year’s Eve Nina addressed an envelope ‘For my T’o.’ and enclosed a card in French with a pansy on (for pensées) and a French phrase meaning ‘My last thought is of you, 31 December 11.59 p.m.’. In a word, all this new material suggests that Kittie’s relationship with Nina was even more exclusive than I had thought before and the Calderons’ marriage more ‘open’ on that side than I had suspected.
The key document here is George’s letter of 17 August 1902 to his friend the French Slavist Paul Boyer; a letter that Boyer, in his reply of 15 November 1902, described (in English translation) as ‘a veritable moral diagnosis, which I shall preserve as a precious document exposing the “state of mind” of the English of our day’. A key document…which unfortunately has not survived in Boyer’s archive in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
It is not difficult, however, to work out from Boyer’s letter what George had told him. Boyer had asked George ‘an indiscreet question: one of those that we are sometimes rather embarrassed to ask men of your nation’, viz. about English sexual mores and ‘hypocrisy’:
I think you are absolutely right and your analysis of the English character in this matter is perfectly just, viz. that (1) they display “modesty”, (2) they have a secret “tother-thing”. Personally, from what I know of England and the English myself, I don’t share the opinion of so many continentals that the English are essentially hypocrites. What some call English hypocrisy is in reality merely their natural reserve. […] I am very touched by the frankness of your reply.
Boyer, surely, could not have known the significance for George of that particular spelling ‘tother’. In cruder times, ‘tother-thing’ may sound uncomfortably like ‘a bit on the side’. But I think this is to underestimate the other word, ‘secret’ (i.e. reserved). By ‘modesty’, I think, George is referring both to fidelity to the contract of marriage and continence in extramarital relationships. Perhaps he even meant it is a single, exclusive extramarital relationship, as in the case of Kittie. And this is kept not only ‘discreet’ but ‘secret’. Within the Edwardian marriage, then, there would be no hypocrisy, just an acceptance of the ‘t’other’. The trouble is, of course, that we think of this as the classic Edwardian vice of ‘keeping up appearances’. Yet for the Calderons, say, or the Newbolts (a live-in Lesbian and heterosexual threesome), there were no appearances to keep up: everyone involved knew the situation, accepted it, and regarded it as nobody else’s business.
An acquaintance with the volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu set in the Edwardian period suggests that Boyer was probably amazed by the difference between British and French sexual mores, just as one might be today on learning of the French ‘5 to 7’!
If the above was George’s belief about English arrangements within marriage, did he have a secret ‘tother-thing’ himself? I used to think not, because of the unfailing love and tenderness of his letters to Kittie. However, I know of at least four women in their twenties with whom George inimitably flirted when he was in his thirties and older; but no Edwardian would have paid any attention to the age difference, as it was normal for men to marry in their thirties women who had just reached twenty-one (the Corbets, and the Wrens in The Fountain, would be cases in point). There is absolutely no evidence that George’s relationships went beyond flirtation, but then there wouldn’t be, would there? Two sentences in his anti-suffragist pamphlet of 1908 have always intrigued me:
We men, with few exceptions, are all Mormons at heart. We have made the great sacrifice of monogamy, and much must be forgiven us.
Is there a touch of guilt about these assertions? The idea that we are ‘all’ potentially promiscuous, and there is a lot we must be forgiven, might suggest it. And what if women too had made ‘the great sacrifice of monogamy’?
Yes, the Edwardians were masters of ‘discretion’ — what today we might call secrecy, spin, disinformation, or downright hypocrisy. They were so successful at it that for decades their descendants believed the bulk of Edwardians were paragons of monogamous familial rectitude. We have been naive about the Edwardians in this respect, as in so many others. If what George said to Boyer about the ‘tother-thing’ was widely true, the Edwardians’ attitude to amorous and sexual arrangements was far less hypocritical than the Victorians’: it was actually a ‘reserved’, un-self-advertising recognition of gender reality.
So the discovery of the Acton Reynald Visitors Book, related material, and previously unknown testamentary documents of Kittie’s, has led to my tweaking dates, facts and statements throughout my biography. This may not amount to much new text, but the shift in presentation of George and Kittie’s marriage is significant. And re-reading my whole text, I was struck for the first time how the penultimate chapter, which recounts Kittie’s life 1915-22, is actually the most visceral, because it includes the impacts of both George’s and Nina’s death on her.
* * *
Paragraph three of my ill-starred but now settled Introduction tells readers ‘There has been a popular interest in the love life of Edward VII and his courtiers, say, or the Edwardian elite’s open display of wealth, and even the life of the Edwardian working class, but the life of the Edwardian professional class is relatively unknown to the nation.’ Even as I wrote it I wondered whether ‘a popular interest in the love life of Edward VII and his courtiers’ was still true, because Anita Leslie’s classic Edwardians in Love was first published in 1972, the TV dramas about Edward’s mistresses Lily Langtry and ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’ also date to the 1970s, and even Diana Souhami’s Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter is twenty years old. But then, last year, the following was published by Biteback:
Click the cover to find this book on Amazon.
Sure enough, the blurb assures us that ‘For Alice Keppel, it was all about appearances’… Keppel was a mistress at managing those, as well as the King. ‘Both intriguing and astonishing, this book is an unadulterated glimpse into a hidden world of scandal, decadence and debauchery.’ From the publishing point of view, the author also has the advantage that Mrs Keppel was the great-grandmother of the present Duchess of Cornwall.