As It Was by Helen Thomas

HlThomas

I knew nothing about Edward Thomas when Simon gave me this book well over a year ago. He had waxed lyrical about it, and I felt very uneducated when I had to admit I had no clue who Edward Thomas was. Some internet searching and a leaf through my book of war poetry later, and I had my eyes opened. Edward Thomas was an intriguing figure. A writer who had only discovered his true voice as a poet just before his tragic death at the Front, he had been encouraged to write poetry by his good friend Robert Frost, with whom he shared a great love of the natural world. Thomas was a lonely and rather eccentric man by all accounts; a sufferer of severe depression and self doubt, he had a turbulent marriage and found the demands of family life difficult. He was frustrated by his lack of success as a writer, and had little faith in his abilities; the tragedy of his death was magnified by the fact that he was never to know the fame he would later achieve.

Helen Thomas met Edward when they were both teenagers; they shared homes where no one understood them, and soon formed a close and passionate bond. Helen’s mother disapproved of their relationship, and they were forced to keep it a secret for some time. Helen left home as soon as she was able, taking jobs as a governess around the country, before falling in with a bohemian crowd in Edwardian London. Here she and Edward were free to meet and sleep together, with Helen eventually becoming pregnant with their first child. The birth of this baby is where Helen’s all too brief memoir of her early relationship with Edward ends. It is an intensely vivid and passionate series of vignettes that not only illuminate Helen and Edward’s lives, but the world they lived in too. Helen’s voice is refreshingly frank; she is fearless in her examination of her own faults, as well as uncompromising in her honesty. She was quite clearly a remarkable woman.

Helen’s admiration of Thomas comes through in every line; she obviously worshipped the ground he walked on, and lived only for him. Her memories are suffused with summer days spent walking for miles amidst sunshine and flowers; in fact, Edward seems to be inseparable from the natural world in her retelling of events. Everything about their relationship was unconventional; much of it seemed to be spent in secret, walking out of doors, talking and talking about everything and nothing and taking immense pleasure in each other’s bodies. For the time, when relationships were so closely bound up in convention and conspicuity, their flouting of the acceptable social norms is demonstrative of their free spirited natures. Neither of them wanted an ordinary suburban life, filled with the trappings their parents so valued. They wanted to escape the stuffy world of the Edwardian drawing room and go back to to a simple, earth bound existence.

This is a beautifully, sensitively written memoir. Thomas has an impressive command of language; her words are simple, but she has a wonderful gift of being able to capture places and emotions with a vivid, sensual intensity that gives her prose a powerful immediacy. Outside of Enid Bagnold’s novel The Squire, her description of childbirth is the most profoundly beautiful I have ever read. Her passionate nature is evident throughout, and there is a desperation in her desire to recapture the essence of the man she loved and they life they had together. It stands alone aside from the Thomas connection; even if her husband hadn’t later become a celebrated poet, this would still be a brilliantly written exploration of the all consuming nature of love, and the importance of being true to yourself. I loved every second of reading it, despite having strong doubts about Helen’s version of events. Perhaps I have been influenced by my recent viewing of The Dark Earth and The Light Sky, but I felt there was a defensive tone throughout. There was too much insistence on Edward’s love for her; it felt like she was trying to prove something by writing this. Perhaps she was trying to convince herself, after a famously tumultuous marriage, that he loved her as much as she loved him? Was she rewriting history to soothe her grief? Or settle a score with her detractors? I’m not sure, but I definitely felt in places that I wasn’t necessarily reading the whole truth.

This is an intriguing, thought provoking and marvellously written memoir that is about far more than its subject. It has left me longing for more; I now need to track down the second half of Thomas’ memoirs, World Without End, as well as read Matthew Hollis’ much praised biography. I am particularly interested in how Helen was viewed by Edward’s friends; I gather that she was considered to be a very unsuitable and even obstructive wife by Robert Frost, which could go some way towards explaining her defensive tone in As It Was. Whatever the truth of her marriage, Helen Thomas was clearly an intelligent, passionate, creative and engaging woman who was unafraid to tread her own path in life. I feel quite inspired by her, actually, and I certainly think she has never been given the credit she deserves as an artist in her own right. My thanks go to Simon for giving this to me; once again, you were right in knowing I’d love it!

‘On an oak chest which David (Thomas changes the first names throughout) had made, near to the fireplace, stood the cradle. Round the huge fire on a fireguard I hung a complete set of baby clothes to air. If I had been laying an offering on the altar of my God, I could not have felt a deeper ecstasy than in that simple act. It was humbleness, pride, joy, wonder, tenderness, and seriousness, combined into an overwhelming emotion, lifting my soul nearer truth than it had ever been before, or ever will be again. I cannot recall what I thought, but I believe in that moment I took on my motherhood.’

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24 comments

  1. Yay! So pleased that you loved it – I was sure it would strike a chord with you. And, good news, World Without End is even better! Although be prepared to have your heart torn apart a little bit – the final paragraph is one of the most moving things I have ever read.

    I so agree with you, btw, about her prose style – somehow both simple and totally beautiful.

    1. You know me so well, Simon! I am desperate to read the second half now…though I can tell it’s going to be a tear jerker!

      Absolutely – her prose is just lovely. I wish she had written more!

  2. Count me among the people who had no clue about the existence of either this book, Helen or Edward Thomas prior to having a friend or blogger point them out. You’re the blogger in my case.
    I’m really intrigued by your description of this memoir. The historical context is fascinating per se, and the brief fragment you shared makes it obvious what a talented writer Helen Thomas was. Hopefull I’ll read this someday.

  3. Simon kindly gave a copy to me on that same day, Rachel, and my experience was very much like yours with Green’s ‘Loving’. I thought I would scan the first few lines and before I knew it half an hour had gone by. More than a year later it’s still a book I find myself thinking about when I’m just strolling around with the dog. Glad you enjoyed it but then again…how could you not?

    1. What a lovely description, Darlene – I feel quite the same about it! It’s the sort of book that stays with you…Helen’s personality is so vibrant and her observations so timeless. I loved her sensibilities…she and I would have been kindred spirits, I think!

  4. Lovely! You might like Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways – he talks a lot about Edward Thomas, and Helen, and explores their love for the land, and the old paths that cross it. Thomas walked and immersed himself in nature to cope with his depression, apparently. I’ve just finished it, it’s beautifully written and very engrossing!

    1. I’ve had that sitting on my shelf for ages, Matilda – I think I would definitely love it now you’ve told me about the Thomas connection. Thank you for reminding me and I shall get to it as soon as I can!

  5. Isn’t it interesting how tastes change? I was going through my uncle’s WW1 poetry books from his schooldays this morning (mostly from the forties) and Rupert Brooke seemed to be the one that was taught in schools at that point. I’m very fond of Farjeon’s poetry and always loved her children’s book called The Little Bookroom and her autobiographical Nursery in the Nineties. She wrote a book about the Thomases and stayed close to Helen didn’t she? She’s buried in the Hampstead C of E Church I think, but haven’t managed to find the grave yet! More excuses to pop up there sometime!

      1. Oh you’re right! You and Rachel could have fun looking again anyway :) I think the family actually lived more in Belsize Park – at least that’s where the father died.

    1. I want to read more of Eleanor Farjeon’s stuff, Donna – I love the idea of nursery in the nineties! I shall make sure Miranda takes me to the church! :)

  6. Edward Garnett was a correspondent of Edward Thomas’s and published his letters after the latter died. I have been looking for a used copy for several years now, but all the copies I’ve seen are too steep for my budget. I can always read the library copy but since I write in almost everything I read, I’d really like my own copy. And now I would love to also find a copy of this book by Helen Thomas heading off to search alibris/amazon but before I go … I think I first read about All Passion Spent here — and I am now halfway through it, loving it, and am thanking you for pointing me in that direction. It’s a wonderful book.

    1. I shall keep an eye out fot you, AJ – and for myself! That sounds like a brilliant book. I hope you can get hold of Helen Thomas’ biographies and I am SO glad you are loving All Passion Spent – it really is a magnificent little novella!

  7. I think her memoir sounds beautiful, and I think this review is one of your best. I can’t put a finger on exactly what I like about this review (not too long, not too short, give enough of the background but doesn’t dwell on it etc), but I think maybe because it’s so clear-eyed, simple and precise shows how much you enjoyed it.

  8. There is something so sad and poignant about the War Poets. They are not my favourite bunch of writers, but I must admit their poems are really shocking.

      1. What makes it worse is that they were happily fighting for their country, completely ignorant of what they were facing and then (if) they returned home, they would be marked for life. Too sad. Breaks my heart.

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