March 11th, 2020

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tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's inspiration for Lúthien: the “gallant” Edith Bratt, by Nancy Bunting

Second paragraph of third section, plus footnote:
Dresden House is a historic landmark in Evesham, Warwickshire, an important market town on the River Avon, both then and today. Located on the High Street, the name of this 1692 townhouse comes from Dr. Baylies, who married Elizabeth Cookes, the daughter of the builder of 'the Mansion', thereby becoming its owner. After her death, he settled as a physician at Dresden, where his skill led Frederick the Great to send for him in 1774 to reside in Berlin. He died in Berlin in 1789. Mrs. Cooper was the first to manage a Young Ladies’ School in the Mansion and gave it the name 'Dresden House' because of its connection with Dr. Baylies.32
32 http://www.valeofeveshamhistory.org/articles/dresden-house. Dr. Baylies was a memorable character. In an early interview with Dr. Baylies, "the Emperor remarked to him that to have acquired such skill he must have killed a great many people, and that the doctor replied, 'Not as many as your Majesty'.” A smooth bon mot did contribute to his job security.
This fascinating 185-page article about Edith Bratt, wife of J.R.R. Tolkien, was published online by the Journal of Tolkien Studies a couple of weeks ago, almost immediately withdrawn, I guess because the presentation was marred by some editing and formatting errors, and then republished with one of the original authors removed. There's probably a story there, but it's none of my business. I read it over an insomniac night, and it did not help me to go back to sleep. It's a schlarly article rather than a monograph, but I am counting it as a book anyway.

Most Tolkien fans will be familiar with the received version of the history of the writer and his wife (as depicted in the recent film starring Lily Collins as Edith, which incidentally I loved). They met as teenage orphaned lodgers in Birmingham; she was a couple of years older, and a Protestant; Tolkien's guardian, a Catholic priest, forbade him to have any further contact with her until he reached the age of 21 in 1913; when he got back in touch she was engaged to someone else, but broke it off to be with him and they married in 1916, just before he was posted to France for war duty. You may have seen the recent biopic, which I watched on my last transatlantic flight (and enjoyed).

When I reviewed John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War, I commented that "I would like to know more about the effect of Tolkien's relationship with his wife Edith, who he was courting and marrying at this time [the war years], on his writing. Perhaps there is little to say, or to be discovered." Well, it turns out that there was plenty to be discovered and to say.

Bunting looks in intense geographical and genealogical detail at Edith's Midlands background. She was the daughter of a businessman and his wife's maid; much of her childhood and early adult life revolved around evading the stigma of illegitimacy (she did not even tell Tolkien until after they were married) but she also inherited her father's fortune and so was able to support Tolkien during their early married life, until his academic career took off.

The authors make a compelling argument that previous writers (notably Carpenter and Garth) have neglected the importance for Tolkien's life and writing of Edith and their relationship, concentrating instead on his male friends. Indeed, my father, commenting on Carpenter's biography, wrote in 1980:
...the relationship between Tolkien & his wife [b]egins romantically, in their waiting 3 years for each other. Yet she wasn't really suited to be a don's wife. She disliked his friendship w CS Lewis, & he evidently told her to lump it. She was happy only at the v. end, when they lived in Bournemouth. Yet through it all he was fond of her - & presumably she of him, tho' the author doesn't offer evidence on this.
Thanks to their research, it becomes clear just how important the early separation from Edith, and their reunion, were for Tolkien's creativity, and how his emotional state translates into his early work (seeing Warwick - of all places! - as a mythical city). There are some other fascinating insights as well - his mother's mental lapses in the final stages of her illness perhaps informing some of the depictions of dissociation in Tolkien's work; also a reference to someone else's research on the inspiration for the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith. Also this led me to the research of Seamus Hamill-Keays on the Welsh inspiration for Buckland.

The whole thing is forensically researched and illustrated. Utterly absorbing if you are interested in Tolkien, and I think probably even if you are not you'll find it a nice piece of biographical research on the life of a young woman born at the end of the nineteenth century.