Two Ediths and a Hermit
It is gratifying to have a book reissued after 25 years. My A Hermit Disclosed was first published in 1960.[*] At that time I was not allowed to mention the names of certain people who were then alive, or I felt it diplomatic not to do so. Therefore I used pseudonyms. Now I can say that a character I called Lady Kathleen V – was Edith Sitwell. She and I became friends eventually, but for a while I was in hot water.
It began with my discovery of the diary of Jimmy Mason, known as the Hermit of Great Canfield, in the loft of my parents’ house. I was 16 at the time, and any schoolboy would have been thrilled to read these opening words: ‘If I should be poisoned at last, and this book is found, it will explain everything. What bad fellows Tommy took up with, and encouraged him to poison his father and now trying to poison me.’ Tommy was Jimmy’s brother, and both he and Jimmy were still alive – Jimmy in a hut across the fields and barricaded behind corrugated iron. As the years went by, after Tommy and Jimmy had both died, the obsession I had developed about them turned into something other than the unravelling of a possible murder plot. I became fascinated by the little Essex community around the Masons in the 1890s when the diary was written, and by the ramifications of their own family, many of whom had drifted to the East End of London. Jimmy had been a paranoid schizophrenic, I had no doubt of that, but could I pick up any ideas about his personality from, say, descendants of an uncle, who had once been a publican but had ended up ‘in disgrace’ as a cowman?
I spent hours at Somerset House, and pored over piles of electoral rolls and census returns. The trail led me from Epping to Barking to Pooterland, and finally to Highgate, where I met a schoolmistress who had never heard of her first cousin twice removed, Jimmy Mason, and was not especially excited by the connection once it had been revealed to her. However, she was generous with information about her immediate relatives, volunteering something I seized upon at once: she had had an aunt, called Edith Woods, who she said had been a ‘companion’ to Lady Ida Sitwell, mother of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell.
This brought me to a completely different milieu, far from disgraced cowmen and barricaded huts. What sort of person was Edith Woods, I asked? Domineering and a ferocious snob. Her trump card had always been that she had had a broken engagement with a Harley Street doctor ...
I was a friend of Father Philip Caraman SJ, then editor of the Month and – as I knew – confessor of Edith Sitwell, who had recently become a Roman Catholic. He agreed that it would be perfectly in order for me to write to her about Edith Woods. To my delight, I received a long and brilliant if startling letter in reply, written from Montegufoni on Christmas Eve 1957.
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[*] The new edition, with a foreword by William Golding, appeared in July (Xanadu, 288 pp., £4.95, 0 947761 04 7).