Without Knowing Mr. Walkley: Personal Memories by Edith Olivier ~ 1938. This edition: Readers’ Union, 1939. Hardcover. 320 pages.
My rating: 9.75/10
I must say I was initially discouraged from taking up this gentle memoir by the mysterious (to me at least) reference to “Mr. Walkley”.
Edith Olivier I already had a nodding acquaintanceship with, as being the author of a number of highly regarded (though long out of print) 1920s’ and 1930s’ novels, among them The Love Child, Night Thoughts of a Country Landlady, and The Seraphim Room, as well as biographies and reports of interesting occurrences in her native Wiltshire and farther afield. But who was Mr. Walkley? Should I know this name? It didn’t ring a single tiny chime.
Luckily Miss Olivier’s first paragraph of her memoir proper set my mind at ease, and this reference is the first and last concerning the titular character, which is slightly odd (I had expected to hear more about Mr. Walkley, seeing as he features so prominently in the title), but completely indicative of the style of this meandering, stream-of-consciousness, very anecdotal, and utterly delightful book.
For your reading pleasure, here is an extended sample of the first section of Edith Olivier’s “personal memories” set down on paper. There is an eight-page italicized preamble to happily work through first, describing the setting of her first childhood home, Wilton Rectory, a pattern repeated as the settings change throughout the memoir, to Salisbury Close and Fitz House, and back to Wilton.
I used to say that if I died without knowing Mr. Walkley, I should have lived in vain. And now – I have. Or rather, Mr. Walkley died without knowing me. He was The Times Dramatic Critic when I was in the schoolroom, and in those days it was my passionate desire to become an actress. The idea was grotesque. My father thought a professional actress was as improper as a Restoration Play, and an actor was almost as bad. My brother Alfred, in spite of his irresistible charm, was never really forgiven for having preferred the stage to his seat at the bottom of the Infants’ Class in Dr. Marks’s school for Burmese Princes in Rangoon. Alfred was on his way to a post in the Burmese Civil Service, and he was put to learn the language in this humble position, when a travelling company came to the town. It was too much. He was ‘off with the raggle-taggle gipsies’ and he went through India with them, returning at last to go on to the London stage. My father minded this so much that my own secret desire was never even mentioned, and Mr. Walkley remained my one link with the world of my dreams. It was through his eyes alone that I saw most of the plays of those days, for we seldom went to London, and our only ‘theatre’ was an occasional visit to Salisbury of Mr. Benson’s Shakespearian Company. It is true that I was present at Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s first appearance on the stage, but that took place at Wilton when Lord Pembroke had invited Ben Greet’s Company to play As You Like It in the Park. It had been played there once before, when Shakespeare himself was one of the actors. It is curious that as a girl I saw so few plays, for we all loved acting. Even now I have never seen a pantomime, though I have acted in more than one; but my father never imagined that his children could enjoy what would have bored himself, and a provincial pantomime did not attract him.
It would be unfair both to him and to the theatrical profession to suggest that the stage was my father’s only taboo where his children were concerned. He saw little of them when they were small, but when they grew up, he liked them always about him. Mrs. Morrison called us the Four and Twenty Blackbirds, and said that Papa liked to think that whenever he wanted to open the pie, the birds were all there, ready to begin to sing. It is true that though he always sat alone in the study, he liked us within call. He hated anyone in the house going out to parties. The coming and going worried him. He was truly conservative. As the family party had been yesterday, so he wished it to be to-day, and to-morrow, and so on ad infinitum.
He could not therefore approve of any proposed career for his daughters, and this objection extended to matrimony. He was not actually opposed to the institution in itself, for had he not himself twice married, and entirely happily? But in the case of his children, and more especially of his daughters, his standard was too high. He had an instinctive, sub-conscious prejudice in favour of Archbishops of Good Family as husbands for them, and by ill chance, none of these presented themselves. When my eldest sister fell fatally in love with a young naval officer of blameless character, her engagement was one of those things of which it is not fitting to speak in the family circle; and she only succeeded in marrying the young man at last, by the unfailing courage and determination which persisted through four years of opposition.
I rather shared my father’s fancy for the unattainable in bridegrooms; and the consequence of the various ‘inhibitions’ (as they call them to-day) which he laid upon our youthful ambitions, has been for me a happy life spent, not upon the stage or in any of the other professions which presented themselves, not as a wife, mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother (the fate of most of my friends), but as a lifelong inhabitant of Wiltshire, which is in my eyes, the most beautiful of the English counties…
If Edith Olivier’s father was something of a stern Victorian-era patriarch, it doesn’t appear to have soured Edith’s disposition, as her references to both of her parents are both clear-sighted and loving, and the family seems to have lived in quite admirable domestic harmony, stage-struck brothers and pining-for-matrimony sisters being the exception to the father-knows-best rule. One rather gathers that there was quite a lot of rather mild, what-he-doesn’t-know-won’t-grieve-him goings-on amongst the children of the family as they entered into their adult years, for the Reverend Dacres Olivier was exceedingly occupied with his duties as Rector of Wilton, and later as Canon of Salisbury Cathedral, and his family lived a somewhat separate life, though entwined throughout with predictable rhythm of the Anglican church year.
Without Knowing Mr. Walkley is broad in scope, touching briefly but most intriguingly on Edith’s childhood, on the memorable people she came into contact with – from rustic villagers to the brightest of the Bloomsbury set – Siegfried Sassoon and Rex Whister were intimates, as was Cecil Beaton – and on vivid recollections of the Great War years, including memorable descriptions of troops assembling on Salisbury Plain.
Edith was deeply involved in establishing the Women’s Land Army corps, and received an Order of the British Empire for her services in this regard, and this memoir touches on the difficulties faced with convincing the Wiltshire farmers to accept female workers in place of the men gone off en masse to war.
Edith was also highly tuned in to what one might call the “spiritual world” – in the non-church sense – being very open to the idea of visions from times past and supernatural manifestations, and experienced her own time travel episode among the derelict standing stones of Avebury.
I was deeply pleased when, after reading this memoir, I discovered that others have also found much to admire in this very obscure little volume.
If my description Without Knowing Mr. Walkley at all interests you, please visit the following for much more, including extensive quotes and much background information on this fascinating woman and her very full life.
- Furrowed Middlebrow – Scott digs much deeper and includes photos, anecdotes and quotes.
- The Literary Sisters highly approve as well.
- As does Jane, at Fleur in her World.
- And more photos and an appreciation are here, at Lucindaville.
I will leave you with an image of Edith Olivier, photographed by her friend Cecil Beaton. This was taken before a pageant at Wilton, in 1939. Edith is representing Queen Elizabeth I. (And I must mention that at this time she was also Mayor of Wilton. She was the first woman to serve on the town council, and was then elected its first female mayor, holding the position from 1938 to 1941.)