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James Fergusson, Raleigh Trevelyan - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

The Diary in the Attic

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From the outside it looks like a children’s book. Indeed, the dust-jacket drawing is by Charles Stewart, well known for his illustrations for Barbara Leonie Picard and Nicholas Stuart Gray. A curtain parts to reveal a humble interior – a Little Red Riding Hood figure surprises a ragged-bearded St Jerome. The saint, if he is a saint, is reading by the light of a candle; his empty dinner-plate lies on the floor beside him. Inside the book there are endpaper and other maps drawn by another Charles, Charles Green.

A Hermit Disclosed cost me £5 in George Ramsden’s Stone Trough Books in York. When I went into his bookshop before Christmas – just moved to new, more gentlemanly premises down the road from Fossgate – he had an even nicer copy. Perhaps it cost less than mine, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. I settled into the upstairs sofa, by the coal fire, to read; and then bought two more books by the same author, Raleigh Trevelyan – one of them a copy of his very well-received first book, The Fortress: A Diary of Anzio and After (1956, new edition 1972), with his tender presentation inscription.

Trevelyan began writing, or at least working on, A Hermit Disclosed before he joined the Rifle Brigade and went to Anzio. In a sense, it starts as a child’s book. During the Second World War he and his family were living in an Elizabethan farmhouse in Essex, Sawkins in Great Canfield, not far from Dunmow. Up in the attic, where the bats were, he found some buried treasure. At least it seemed like treasure to him, aged 18, for, tied up in twine beneath a pile of dead grass and straw and feathers, was a diary kept in the 1890s by a former inhabitant of the house, a figure legendary in the district and already an object of particular fascination for Raleigh and his younger brother, John. This was Alexander James Mason, ‘the Hermit of Great Canfield’, who had shut himself up in a hut, it was said, for sixty yea

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From the outside it looks like a children’s book. Indeed, the dust-jacket drawing is by Charles Stewart, well known for his illustrations for Barbara Leonie Picard and Nicholas Stuart Gray. A curtain parts to reveal a humble interior – a Little Red Riding Hood figure surprises a ragged-bearded St Jerome. The saint, if he is a saint, is reading by the light of a candle; his empty dinner-plate lies on the floor beside him. Inside the book there are endpaper and other maps drawn by another Charles, Charles Green.

A Hermit Disclosed cost me £5 in George Ramsden’s Stone Trough Books in York. When I went into his bookshop before Christmas – just moved to new, more gentlemanly premises down the road from Fossgate – he had an even nicer copy. Perhaps it cost less than mine, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. I settled into the upstairs sofa, by the coal fire, to read; and then bought two more books by the same author, Raleigh Trevelyan – one of them a copy of his very well-received first book, The Fortress: A Diary of Anzio and After (1956, new edition 1972), with his tender presentation inscription. Trevelyan began writing, or at least working on, A Hermit Disclosed before he joined the Rifle Brigade and went to Anzio. In a sense, it starts as a child’s book. During the Second World War he and his family were living in an Elizabethan farmhouse in Essex, Sawkins in Great Canfield, not far from Dunmow. Up in the attic, where the bats were, he found some buried treasure. At least it seemed like treasure to him, aged 18, for, tied up in twine beneath a pile of dead grass and straw and feathers, was a diary kept in the 1890s by a former inhabitant of the house, a figure legendary in the district and already an object of particular fascination for Raleigh and his younger brother, John. This was Alexander James Mason, ‘the Hermit of Great Canfield’, who had shut himself up in a hut, it was said, for sixty years, and been seen by hardly a soul since. What had happened to Jimmy Mason? Was he deformed? Was he the victim of parental abuse? Did he have inherited syphilis? Or had he, as local rumour had it, been jilted by a woman? Shortly after Trevelyan discovered the diary, in January 1942, the Hermit of Great Canfield was found dead in his hut, surrounded by back numbers of the Christian Herald. He was 84. Trevelyan plotted and worked on his book on the hermit, on and off, for eighteen years. Tipped in at the end of my copy is a review from the Times Literary Supplement for 18 March 1960. It is unsigned but (says the TLS Centenary Archive) is by Julian Symons, who compares the book to his brother A. J. A. Symons’s ‘experiment in biography’, The Quest for Corvo. A Hermit Revealed is Akenfield nine years before Akenfield. Ronald Blythe wrote a study of a Suffolk parish, Charlsfield, near Wickham Market, disguised and composite, with false names and general truths (see SF, No.11). Raleigh Trevelyan seeks a solution to a mystery that is tied up in the history of a similar parish, not far to the southwest, by systematically interviewing the survivors – who appeared, even in 1960, to be the last in their line. The families of Great Canfield, still a largely agricultural community at the beginning of the twentieth century, had hardly moved for hundreds of years. They intermarried, swapping names and houses; the furthest they ever went was the next parish. In confronting, posthumously, the oddity of Jimmy Mason, Trevelyan traces the typical course of an old Home Counties village just as many of its inhabitants have finally decamped to London and Londoners have usurped them, making Great Canfield yet another anonymous commuter dormitory. His book falls into two main, and equally enthralling, parts. The first is an account of the diary, kept between 24 March 1895 and 22 December 1897, a very affecting document. What was the matter with Jimmy? What went wrong? He lived at Sawkins until his father died. But then he built himself a hut in the grounds where he spent his days; at some point he started spending his nights there too. What drove him to do this? Was it the neighbours, a rum bunch with medieval names (Ednere, Erbete, Gertram)? Was it PC Cutter, who broke into Jimmy’s hut when he wasn’t there, on the night of 20 August 1891? Was it the day his brother, Tommy, tried to poison him? And why did he spend so much time watching, secretly, by the pond, tossing apples and walnuts over to his favourite passers-by, but never speaking to them? Why did he leave, in baskets hanging on the fence, fruit, and money, and letters, sometimes for certain women, sometimes for anybody who happened to look? Who was Fanny Bell? Was she the girl who jilted him? The second part of Trevelyan’s book is his ‘Quest’ – so titled by him in homage, no doubt, to A. J. A. Symons’s work of twenty-six years before. It is a tantalizing combination of direct research – Trevelyan says he conducted interviews with 200 people and exchanged letters with ‘a few score’ more – and peripheral anecdote. There is, now, a period flavour not only to the interviewees but to the interviewer himself, as he makes the pilgrimage at the weekend or, reluctantly, in the week, after ‘office hours’, in pursuit of a goal he can’t himself immediately define. His accounts of named interviewees, his many witnesses in his search for Jimmy’s secret, seem, half a century on, sometimes frankly patronizing: it is as though he would never have expected them to read the book he told them he was writing. Yet this is strangely refreshing, making their testimony, and his, seem less varnished, more honest. It produces utterly bizarre material, bewildering details of parish life from a hundred odd years ago, but it is also peculiarly modern in giving a voice to the voiceless. Jimmy Mason was educated, after a fashion, but simple: he records data exactly, if often phonetically, but fails to draw normal conclusions (was he autistic, perhaps?). Julian Symons in the TLS noted the difference between A Hermit Disclosed and The Quest for Corvo – ‘the witnesses [Trevelyan] so pertinaciously pursued were not literary and literate people, but country characters little disposed to confide in strangers or to co-operate in literary ventures’. The pertinacious author in the 1950s laboured in Somerset House, too, and provincial newspaper offices, chasing down dead ends in the hope of small rewards. All this he recounts, entertainingly and with good humour. These days, of course, he could get much of this information sitting at his keyboard. Where Raleigh Trevelyan slogged away to identify the characters in Jimmy’s diary, employing researchers and expending weekend after weekend on public transport, I can sit at my desk idly turning the pages, on screen, of the 1891 Census, seeing  who Jimmy’s neighbours were, identifying the beastly Albert Easter, noting the birthplace of Frederick Bacon of the Griffin Inn. How interesting that in that Census, the year after their awful bullying father died, it is not Jimmy who is given as the head of the household at Sawkins, but his younger brother, Tommy: what does that signify? And how poignant that one can now see, and print out, the householders’ own forms from the 1911 Census, four years after the Masons’ mother died, and five after, harassed by creditors, they sold the farm to Mr Noakes of Rotherhithe for £450. Here is Jimmy in his new hut at Wood Mead (the field nearby that they then bought for an exorbitant £200), occupation ‘Gardener’, and here is his brother Tommy, in another hut not far away (Tommy was his gatekeeper, the custodian of his privacy), occupation ‘Poultry Farmer’. The brothers were both proud, as their martinet father had been: in 1871, when Jimmy was 13 and Tommy 11, Richard Mason, 63, had given his occupation to the Census officials as ‘Chelsea Pensioner and Landowner’; Sawkins ran, he boasted to the 1861 Census, to a princely six acres. The Times reviewed this extraordinary book on 17 March 1960, and the anonymous reviewer was again, surely, Julian Symons. ‘But for the dates supplied,’ reports the reviewer, ‘one might almost be reading some carefully reconstructed account of rural life in the fourteenth century; on the other hand, the records of sudden death, suicide, incest, religious mania and suspected murder, so diligently unearthed by the chronicler, recall the gloomier and more improbable fantasies of such “rustic” novelists as the late T. F. Powys.’ A Hermit Disclosed is now, undeservedly, out of print, but easily obtainable second-hand. The edition you are most likely to find is not the Longmans edition of 1960, but that put out by Xanadu in 1985, for which William Golding wrote a new introduction: ‘As we follow the track of the people Jimmy knew in his youth,’ he reflects, ‘the question comes very much into focus as to whether their choice and what they made of it in later life was really more sensible, more intelligent than his.’ If there is a mystery about Jimmy, says Golding, ‘it is a mystery common to all hermits who have left the world in response to a call it cannot understand’. Raleigh Trevelyan’s book has enjoyed a curious secondary life beyond the printed page. In 1963 a play based on A Hermit Disclosed, by James Saunders, Next Time I’ll Sing to You, was put on in London. One of the actors in it was Michael Caine; the play brought him to the West End for the first time, and on the basis of it he was offered the part in Zulu that led him to film stardom. And one of the play’s reviewers – before ever he had a play of his own staged in London – was the 25-year-old Tom Stoppard. He still cites it as an influence.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 26 © James Fergusson 2010


About the contributor

James Fergusson deals in old books. He was founding obituaries editor of The Independent, 1986–2007.

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