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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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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 discerns the ghostly strata of days gone by, while out in the garden it feels as if, had she arrived a moment earlier, she would have witnessed those two old friends taking a turn round the flower-beds. No wonder the spirits of Theodore and Algernon refused to leave. This was the house in which they were for so long free to tend their passions and preoccupations in harmonious seclusion, with only the servants and Watts-Dunton’s sister dancing attendance. Here Watts-Dunton was able to beaver away at his novel Aylwin, a book so bad as to be almost hallucinogenic (but which, nevertheless, became a contemporary bestseller). Likewise, here Swinburne, the former freethinking enemy of the ‘Galilean serpent’, whose erotically charged Poems and Ballads had prompted an anonymous correspondent to threaten him with castration, was free to fire off regular letters to the newspapers castigating the French, the Russians, Irish Home Rulers, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Long gone were the days when this diminutive former libertine could be spotted around town tucked under the arm of Sir Richard Burton. By now, Algernon’s booze ration was limited to one bottle of beer at dinner. The steadfast Theodore had weaned his friend off the hard stuff. Not that Watts-Dunton was simply the straight man to Swinburne’s poetic madcap. He was as capable of overpowering ardour as the next man. How else to explain the incident in which he once hid in a hired cab in order to follow a well-known Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’kneeling in the vehicle in case she turned round and spotted him? Such dalliances are, however, as nothing beside Watts-Dunton’s passion for gypsies, even the mention of whom brought on a mistyeyed stupor. This fascination seems to have had its origins in a chance encounter with some Romany travellers when he was a boy, and eventually developed into a belief that he was in some way an ‘honorary’ gypsy himself. All this talk of gypsies tended to bore Swinburne. Panter-Downes pictures him with eyes glazing over as his friend launches into another extended eulogy on the merits of the Romany life. Not that the tedium flowed all one way. Algernon was a Dickens fan and enjoyed nothing more than giving an after-dinner recital, systematically structured so as to run through the complete works over the course of a recurring three-year cycle, acting out the parts as he went along (Mrs Gamp a speciality). One member of the audience who is on record as having found this especially irksome was a certain Mrs Clara Watts-Dunton. Perhaps a young relation by marriage of the distinguished bachelor? In fact, somewhat astonishingly, Clara Reich, as she originally was, had, by 1905, become Watts-Dunton’s 29-year-old wife. The circumstances surrounding this seismic event are dealt with by Panter-Downes in a wry yet poignant account of a mutual attraction unfettered by age or circumstance. As Clara herself was keen to emphasize in her memoirs, this was no passing crush or gold-digging exercise. Since first accompanying her mother to The Pines as a 16- year-old, Clara had been in love with the courteous old gentleman nearly 44 years her senior. With the admission of a new member to this exclusive old gentleman’s club, it might have been expected that the whole edifice of life at The Pines would crumble. In fact, Swinburne by all accounts accepted Clara from the start. As he got older the poet’s childlike ingenuousness seems to have become more and more pronounced so that, in contrast to the empathic bond he enjoyed with Watts-Dunton’s young nephew Bertie, most of the other hazily familiar beings he encountered in and around The Pines seemed to form a vague but kindly penumbra of adults around his own second infancy. As Panter-Downes tells it, everyone got on swimmingly. Of course, that entailed some give and take. For every new fixture or fitting Clara introduced, there was a reciprocal obligation to reaffirm Swinburne’s right to spout Dickens to the assembled household at six each evening. Household harmony all the way then, until one day in 1909 Algernon went out for his walk and caught a cold which quickly turned into double pneumonia. His death followed soon after, and Watts-Dunton was left as sole heir to his estate. There followed the inevitable skirmishes with the poet’s surviving relatives over this posthumous snub. Theodore’s detractors came to see him as the philistine gaoler of a poetic genius – a mean and superficial assessment of the real story, according to Panter-Downes. In any case, by 1914 Theodore himself was past caring, having died that year, and Clara followed her husband at a demure distance in 1938. As soon as they’d all gone, the entire contents of the place were sold off at knock-down prices to a market which had little respect for or interest in their stuffy Victorian provenance. I first came across At the Pines in a local library over thirty years ago. At the time the title sounded to me like some lumberjack’s memoir or Scandinavian travelogue. Consequently, it remained on the library shelf and we studiously ignored each other for years. Then one day I picked it up and both of us wondered why it had taken so long. Now it’s a book I climb back into from time to time, whenever I want to fetch up in the dainty ambience of a late Victorian afternoon. With Mollie as my formidable guide we pad around the old place unseen by Watts-Dunton, lost in the book-lined thicket of his study, or by Swinburne, back from his daily tramp on Putney Heath and resting (clothed, as per the agreement) on the couch in his room. At the Pines is a wonderful book: skilfully written, funny and wryly observant, as well as an ever-ajar door into another world.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © Mark Jones 2009


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