A Late Victorian Afternoon

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They seemed reasonable enough requests. Don’t lie on the bed naked in case passing servants catch an eyeful. Also, in mixed company, could he try to swear only in French?

Modest pleas made by Theodore Watts-Dunton to the poet and ex-libertine Algernon Charles Swinburne when they first set up home together. It was 1879 and Swinburne’s relish for brandy and flagellation had reached a critical point. In the nick of time, Watts-Dunton, the gallant walrus-moustached solicitor-turned-author, had plucked his friend from the depths and carried him off for a spot of detox in Putney.

The house to which they retreated for the next thirty years lends its name to a witty and evocative book about their lives together. At the Pines by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1971, tells, in discursive and observant prose, the story of an intimate if unimpeachably platonic alliance which blossomed in high-ceilinged, over-furnished rooms between two Victorian bachelors.

A contributor to The New Yorker for fifty years, Panter-Downes was a Londoner whose pithy reportage of wartime life in the capital first established her reputation as wielder of the skilful phrase and the sardonic punch-line. Although she is nowadays somewhat unjustly forgotten, her considerable body of work (poems, short stories, novels) almost unfailingly invites the reader to relax into the subject in question, assured that this is a writer as able to hold her audience on the metaphysics of rationing as she is on the household by-laws of late nineteenth-century domesticity.

Indeed, domesticity of the most reassuring kind is a leitmotiv that runs through every episode of life at The Pines. No surprises or sudden jolts disturb this secluded spot where London’s roar fades into the spacious murmur of Putney Hill. Instead we are presented with a veritable demi-paradise wherein Panter-Downes tucks away her two leading characters ‘seated side by side, like a couple of hermit crabs of indefinite antiquity’, living the quiet life.

Quiet in more ways than one, for both were hard of hearing, and Watts-Dunton’s careful stewardship of their tranquil existence (visitors admitted by prior appointment only) ensured that Swinburne’s former notorious rambunctiousness had now been reduced to little more than ‘the cooing of a dove’. That, at least, was how one of their dinner guests, Max Beerbohm, described the poet’s manner of speaking. Seated at table with his hosts in the spring of 1899 he observed Swinburne lost in meditative silence until, once pudding had been served, Watts-Dunton gave his friend the cue to entertain by enquiring how his daily walk had gone. Actually, the enquiry seems to have been more of a bellow, this being what it took to pierce Swinburne’s deafness. It appears to have worked, as all present were then treated to a lyrical description of the various natural wonders Algernon had beheld that morning.

Panter-Downes makes young Beerbohm’s visit to The Pines the centrepiece of her opening pages, and his nervous anticipation before entering the world of his illustrious hosts would, over sixty years later, find parallels in Panter-Downes’s own palpable giddiness at stumbling upon the place quite by chance. Situated, in its early 1970s manifestation, next to a dentist’s surgery and a launderette, The Pines’ resolutely implacable exterior is likened to ‘a widow who has outlived two husbands’, with only a commemorative blue plaque pinned to her matronly frontage as a mark of distinction.

Using what one imagines to have been redoubtable powers of persuasion, Panter-Downes soon arranged to go inside and have a look round. Although the interior had by then been split up into flats, there were still some delightful ‘incrustations of fustiness and mustiness’ which enveloped the place along with ‘little clues to the past [which] shyly jogged one’s elbow here and there’. In nearly every room she d

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