18 January 2017

Long Live Great Bardfield: The Autobiography of Tirzah Garwood


During my last trip to London I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Ravilious exhibit.  Knowing very little about the man, my interest in his work springs from its pleasant blending of English countryside, soothing colours, and war art.  When Persephone Books announced they would be publishing his wife's autobiography I ordered a copy.  To be perfectly honest, reading about Tirzah's life was meant to be a way of gleaning more information about Eric.  Now that I've mournfully turned the last page of Long Live Great Bardfield my interest has been completely turned around...and how could it not be?  While a picture may be worth a thousand words, to read Tirzah's thoughts on art, family, love, sex, and the war with such honesty is to feel as though you've been been welcomed into this sphere by Tirzah herself.

Tirzah Garwood was born into a life of privilege in 1908, although this shouldn't be misunderstood as 'stuffiness', although anything appearing to be 'common' is greatly avoided (and usually quite comic).  For every mention of something such as a man arriving to wind clocks there are chickens, bunnies, dogs, foraging, and a passion for collecting things like birds' nests and beetles.  Such passions can have their downside...

'My mother was unfortunate enough to have been married when the fashion for pewter pots was at its height.....'

Art figured prominently in Tirzah's family with both her mother and father taking up pencil and brush.  Mr Garwood's eye for sketching nudes from photography book caused no small amount of embarrassment.  In fact, there were many instances when Edwardian values turned to carefree adventure.  Aunt Rose arranged for the eldest three Garwood children to experience a ride in a seaplane while the younger two were compensated with a lunch out.  On the surface, Tirzah was mesmerized by the way the pilot's hair moved in the wind but a hand stained red from the ticket reveals a bit of anxiety.  And who could blame her?

Another fascinating aspect of this book are the references to health conditions and how they were treated during this era between the wars.  Eating too much can bring about a liver attack, another woman apparently went deaf because a bag had been popped behind her, and quinine is recommended towards the end of pregnancy.  At one point, while Tirzah is in hospital, she writes about a twenty-two year old woman who has been under observation for thirteen weeks because she has grown a beard.  It's obvious to us in 2017 that this is a hormone issue but there's another glaring point...today you wouldn't be admitted for half that time if you required a heart transplant.  And I did laugh at an ineffective way to beat sunstroke....

'It was a very hot day and my mother went bathing, which she occasionally did, wearing a voluminous alpaca bathing dress with a longish skirt.  She was always very careful to wet the top of her forehead first when she went in, I think her mother had told her always to do this.  It seemed a poor sort of reward for years of such caution that she should in spite of this get sunstroke, but there it was, she came home with her memory completely gone and kept offering Joe more helpings of rice pudding for lunch.'

As you can see, at barely a third of the way into Long Live Great Bardfield there is already much to recommend it.  By the time Tirzah's writing has moved on from her childhood to concentrate on her relationship with Eric Ravilious, my heart had been lost to her.  

Every book I read over the next eleven months will be judged against this one.  Each page comes alive with the minutiae of Tirzah's relationships and marriage, England's art scene during the thirties, and village life.  It's also the story of a woman who bravely faces the many challenges of raising a family with an often absent husband, having her creativity put on hold, standing up to others when she is firm in a decision and facing cancer as a young woman.  There's a remarkable lack of complaining despite situations, such as Eric's affairs, when it would have been perfectly understandable to unleash a tirade.  I'm left with the sense that Tirzah knew her value, kept a bit of her heart for herself, and admirably dealt with certain dire situations with an incredible amount of decorum.

To anyone interested in a long list of topics such as the interwar period, artists, social history, women's rights, village life, domestic history, World War II, England, etc., I can not recommend this book highly enough.  Also, for anyone contemplating a good read for a book group this would make a wonderful choice.  As I mentioned before, I knew very little about Eric Ravilious and nothing at all about Tirzah but was completely swept away.  A final bit of advice - have a box of tissues nearby for the last chapter.

 Duffy Ayres, portrait of Tirzah Garwood (1944)

16 comments:

  1. Wonderful review! I felt as though I needed a box of tissues by the end of your review (from laughter as well as tears)let alone the end of the book. I have this standing by but, despite all my good intentions about focussing on one book at a time, I already have too many books begun & several more that I can't wait to read. Working fulltime does get in the way of my reading... However, I plan to try to read all my unread Persephones this year & this will be the next one.

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    1. One of the many things I loved about the structure of the book is that you never knew what was around the corner...or next page. It's a difficult book to leave alone! Enjoy, Lyn!

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  2. This is on my bedside table. I really want to read it but I'm also thinking it's a book that deserves exactly the right reading mood.

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    1. You're in for a treat, Jane! Hope the mood strikes soon.

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  3. It's on my stack too. I've heard nothing but wonderful things about it!

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    1. You're going to love it, Audrey...I'm so glad you have a copy!

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  4. I'll be adding this book to my to-read list then! Thank you for a lovely review!

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    1. You're welcome...and thanks for stopping by!

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  5. It's here beside me, and I'm even keener to get to it now after reading your review, Darlene.

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    1. Glad you have a copy, Karen! It's such a wonderful bit of social history with immense amounts of 'nosy' pleasure. I'm looking forward to your review!

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  6. Well, this seals the deal for me. I've been pondering what to read next and this book was up for consideration, though I thought it might be too sad. But your review makes me think it's joyful too so I am going to dive right in. I just love Garwood's wood engravings, especially The Train Journey.

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    1. The Train Journey is lovely. I'm thoroughly impressed with wood cuts as an art form and can't imagine how much patience it must take. I hope you find all sorts of joy in this book, Anbolyn...it's not all kittens and rainbows but you're in for a treat, nonetheless.

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  7. I've got this waiting on my pile - I can't wait to read it now! You've made me absolutely desperate to get started - but it's going to have to wait until I've got some course reading done. I shall look forward to it immensely on the strength of your recommendation! Hope you're well - need to reply to your email and I'm sorry for taking so long about it! x

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    1. I was playing with Kip the other day while listening to you and Simon on your podcast. I laughed when you said you were a bit nosy so you are going to be in heaven with this book, Rachel! There's all sorts of tidbits and brutal honesty within the pages...so get stuck in!

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  8. That sounds wonderful, Darlene - so looking forward to reading it.

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    1. It won't be soon enough, Mary, but it's worth the wait.

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