Troy, and then Standen

There are many good reasons for enjoying the Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum. Some remarkable ancient artefacts, some fine Victorian paintings, and so on.

But what filled me with delight was in a small section devoted to Troy and Gallipoli. Under a a painting of the landing a small book was open. It was Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s copy of A Shropshire Lad, and on its endpapers he had written out his ‘I met a man this morning’. He wrote the poem at Imbros, while preparing to return to the peninsula; it ends:

Achilles came to Troyland

     And I to Chersonese:

He turned from wrath to battle,

     And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,

     So very hard to die?

Thou knewest and I know not—

     So much the happier I.

I will go back this morning

     From Imbros over the sea;

Stand in the trench, Achilles,

     Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Seeing this in Shaw-Stewart’s neat handwriting thrilled me more than all the pottery of ancient antiquity, and even more than the monumental first edition of Chapman’s Homer.

I suppose it’s because the First World War is the subject I know well; the rest may be of great general interest, but this to me is special.

Something similar occurred last weekend when a friend took Marion and myself to Standen, a splendid Arts and Crafts house in Sussex, built in the 1890s for the cultivated Beale family. It’s a large one, but not a grand one. Its scale and style are domestic and comfortable. The furnishings are mostly by Morris and Co., and the whole house expresses the cultivation of civilised and prosperous people in the first half of the last century.

Marion and our friend Paula enthused greatly over the Morris wallpapers and the elegant furniture, but my eyes were most happy when examining the crowded bookshelves. The collection is what one might expect a civilised and liberal family to have accumulated in the first half of the last century. A lot of Galsworthy, sets of Barrie and Hugh Walpole. Much Kipling. A good range of children’s books. I nodded approval. But then, in the morning room (where an elderly man was at the clavichord, playing music composed by Prince Albert) I noticed, among a row of mid-century fiction – this.

Family from Vienna (1941) is the first novel Rose Allatini wrote under the name Eunice Buckley. It is about a Jewish sympathetic depiction of Austrian refugees in London between the Anschluss and the outbreak of war. It’s one of her best novels, leavening the depiction of the refugees and their anxieties with a great deal of comedy, as the English branch of the family struggle to cope with an influx of persons both like and unlike themselves.

Writing my little book on Rose Allatini, I often wondered who her readers were. Seeing this copy of Family from Vienna in situ among the books of a cultivated, civilised family – not highbrow, judging by their library, but in tune with the times and interested in the world – gives me a sense of how she might have appealed to such a readership.

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted December 5, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed you (discursive) post as ever George. I am finally reading The Iliad (aged 60+) – in the Fagles translation, which is wonderful poetry if anyone is wondering which translation to choose from – and have been struck by what fickle, manipulative, self-serving tyrants the Ancient Greek gods were. Each battle is a set piece controlled by gods supporting one or other side, involving many violent but wasted deaths on both sides, with a seemingly forgone and predictable conclusion, and it went on for years and years. It sums up the Western Front perfectly and is a lesson to all of us, especially politicians, about war.

    • Sally Parry, Illinois
      Posted December 9, 2019 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      Your description of The Iliad reminds me of the play J.B. by Archibald MacLeish in which God and Satan use human beings in the same sort of way, almost as game to amuse themselves.

  2. Paul Norman
    Posted December 5, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Forgot to add my details to earlier post!

    • Posted December 5, 2019 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this, Paul. I must try the Fagles translation.
      My go-to version of the poem is the partial, altered and unreliable War Music by Christopher Logue.
      It’s not Homer, I guess – but he’s the only poet I know who can (sometimes) attain an epic grandeur.

  3. Tom Deveson
    Posted December 5, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating as ever, George – thank you!

    My mother’s letters from London to her family in the USA go from 1938 to 1945 with hardly a break, and give a very vivid account of one Austrian Jewish refugee and her experiences post-Anschluss to the war’s end.

    I owe my knowledge of Allatini entirely to you.


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