Moving in

Patricia Beer

  • A Poor Man’s House by Stephen Reynolds
    London Magazine Editions, 320 pp, £5.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 904388 35 2

Stephen Reynolds is coming back. There have been at least two indications of this recently. The prophet is no longer without honour in his own, adopted country, for a plaque has just been unveiled to him in Sidmouth, with the blessing of the town council and a photograph of the proceedings on the front page of the local paper. And London Magazine Editions have republished his best-known book, A Poor Man’s House, which first appeared in 1908. Both events are thoroughly justifiable.

Not, however, that Stephen Reynolds has been wholly unhonoured in these 72 years. The critical acclaim, led by Bennett, Galsworthy, Buchan and Conrad, which greeted the original appearance of A Poor Man’s House was succeeded by decades when the book was out of print, but it has been consistently praised and recommended by Professor W.G. Hoskins in the successive editions of his classic work on Devon as ‘a faithful picture of the life of ancient native Sidmouth persisting beneath the veneer that has been imposed on it during the past 150 years’. This is true, yet the book is not exactly a social history. It is not exactly an autobiography either.

Many writers have declared themselves proud to learn from those whom they regarded as their social inferiors, but not every writer has actually moved in with them. Reynolds did. It is as though Wordsworth had set up house with Alice Fell, Simon Lee and the old Leech-Gatherer. In 1906, after several visits to the East Devon coast, Reynolds at the age of 25 left his home town, Devizes, to become a more or less permanent lodger in the house of Bob Woolley and his family in Sidmouth. Woolley was a fisherman and lived with the fishing community well away from the fashionable parts of the elegant Regency town. In A Poor Man’s House Reynolds describes his own life and work during these years.

If he came to Sidmouth looking for copy, he did not act cynically. He took pains to disguise the Woolley family, calling them Widger, and referring to the town as Seacombe and placing it near the Eddystone Lighthouse. To change the location was a considerate but rather silly move, for his scrupulous and sensitive rendering of the East Devon dialect (so superior to, for example, Thackeray’s mummersettings in Pendennis) is one of the strengths of the book and would lose verisimilitude against a West Devon background. It is sad, though no doubt realistic of him, that he assumed the readers would neither know nor care.

A Poor Man’s House is an extremely interesting book, though not quite in the way that it must originally have been. The passage of time, which has made the title itself sound like a tactless phrase from a Victorian hymn, has added mysteries and complications and must evoke a different kind of applause. The first mystery is why Reynolds chose to settle in a cramped smelly house, where the whole family shouted like newspaper-boys and the food was rough and not always ready, and why he became an amateur participant in the deadly lifework of poor fishermen.

He was what used to be called a gentleman, though as his father had been in trade (bacon), his standing may have been precarious. But he was educated. Oh dear, yes, he was educated. He says himself that when living as a fisherman he simply dropped his accomplishments, yet when he is writing – and not about literary matters but about fishing – he cannot keep away long from what he has read, almost like a self-taught man. In A Poor Man’s House, having explained, quite adequately, the ambiguity of the relationship between man and the sea, he cannot resist garnishing and endorsing his remarks by quoting Baudelaire’s ‘Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer,’ which kills the atmosphere of the beach at Sidmouth pebble-dead. In Alongshore (1910), a kind of sequel to A Poor Man’s House, he sets up quite a seminar in practical criticism. The poem being considered is William Watson’s ‘Last night the sea-wind was to me/A metaphor of liberty,’ and it is shown to a longshoreman who, once the word ‘metaphor’ has been explained to him, is asked for his opinion. Being of a Johnsonian cast of mind, he replies: ‘I wonder do this fellow wake up at night every time the wind changes?’ Reynolds has a good point but a creaky way of making it.

So why should this gentleman desert his class and go where his learning was not appreciated? (His gentility, by which he himself always set great store, was appreciated, it seems, from the very first shout by Woolley’s daughter: ‘’Tis a gen’lman.’) As the book is not really an autobiography, we have to guess. His own romantic assertion is pleasing but not very convincing: ‘I want to go west, towards the sunset; over Dartmoor, towards Land’s End, where the departing ships go down into the sea.’ Even less convincing is his statement ‘that it is good to live among those who, on the whole, are one’s superiors.’ There are other possible explanations. In the introduction to A Poor Man’s House, J.D. Osborne hints at an estrangement between Reynolds and his father, and indeed there are intimations of this in the book: when Widger/Woolley weeps at the departure of his son to join the Navy, Reynolds comments: ‘Lucky George, to be so much missed.’ Osborne also suggests that the apparent failure of Reynolds’s novel The Holy Mountain played a significant part in the disruption of his life. But the novel is rather good; certainly not bad enough for the author, even on cold-blooded rereading, to lose faith in it so dramatically. If individual love entered into the situation, the book does not say so. But love and loyalty are openly declared for a group, the Woolley family. And there is love for the concept of men working together in conditions of hardship and mutual trust, a vision that Rupert Brooke might have enjoyed: the rough male kiss of tarpaulins.

If, for whatever reason, Reynolds needed to move down his own self-appointed social ladder, he had already slipped a few rungs, for The Holy Mountain is not, as I had assumed before reading it, about the gentry or possibly the aristocracy, but about the inhabitants of Mr Polly’s world: the dyspeptic grocers’ sons and their flat-footed lady friends who work in drapery establishments. But that was not low enough.

For Reynolds was no leveller. Low is how he really thought of it; at one point he uses the expression ‘pigging it’ of his life chez Woolley. In his books it is de haut en bas from cover to cover. He can, according to modern notions, perhaps any notions, be dreadfully patronising. In the letter to Sam Woolley which serves as introduction to Alongshore he mentions all the professions that Uncle Sam (I nearly wrote Uncle Tom) might have graced had he not been a longshoreman, but then – and how sad – he would not have had his uses as dear old Uncle Sam. ‘I’d rather bathe a poisoned finger in your elderflower water than have you knife it as a surgeon.’ In one point of behaviour Reynolds really should have known better, for Dickens had given it a blistering glance: the middle-class habit of addressing one’s inferiors by nicknames of one’s own invention – e.g. Tattycoram. Unable, Reynolds says, to remember the names of two little Woolley girls, he calls them Straighty and Curly.

Yet simultaneously – and the inner strain must have been intense – Reynolds attempted a total identification with the working classes, scorning the efforts of every educated man except himself to understand their point of view or enter into their lives. In 1911, he published Seems So which is subtitled ‘A Working-class View of Politics’ and is presented as the joint work of Reynolds and Bob and Tom Woolley. Reynolds claims that it is a genuine and thorough collaboration, and every time he says ‘we’ he means the workers.

There really is extensive agreement in the opinions of the gentleman and the fishermen, and it is not too surprising. His views are reactionary and theirs have never been sharpened by contact with large-scale industrial organisations. On the subject of education, for example, they think alike. The fishermen feel it is a waste of time for working people: ‘If you got to live your life wi’ your nose to the grindstone the sooner you learns to put it there the better.’ Reynolds entirely agrees, deploring both the fact and the nature of education for the workers. He describes Bessie Woolley as ‘fresh from the twaddle that they put into her head at school’, an item of which twaddle is an aspiration that seems to infuriate them all: a wish to play the piano. On the subject of the suffragettes they agree for another reason: they are all men. ‘I tell thee what, ’tis sweethearts they wants. There’s nort like it for a girl as is kicking up a buzz.’

Whether or not Reynolds was as firmly integrated with working-class society as he imagined is speculative, but I should suppose not. Like a British Communist of the Thirties dropping his aitches at the dock gates, he has the habit of breaking into dialect when conversing with the workers: ‘That we’ll do together, when ’tis fitty and we’m up for it.’ It rouses both one’s hackles and one’s suspicions.

It may well be that the undeniable strength of A Poor Man’s House lies partly in this social tension. The sympathy which contemporary critics picked out and praised as total seems to modern readers to shine only intermittently, but when it does it is luminous. We have become so used nowadays to portrayals, especially on TV, of the bustle and solidarity of the Edwardian servants’ hall that it is novel and moving to contemplate, as Reynolds invites us to do, the plight of the solitary girl in service, deeply and perhaps permanently confused in speech and manners by living and working according to a code which is alien to her, without any support from the one by which she has been brought up. Reynolds does not like her very much; he goes out of his way to say that he does not fancy her; but he does, I think, understand her. He certainly should. He may not realise it, but it is, in reverse, his own story.

Contemporary critics also raved about Stephen Reynolds’s prose, a reaction which might suggest the existence of purple passages, but, in fact, there are none, or very few. As might be expected, there is an abundance of natural description; he portrays the sea at every time of day and in every kind of weather, but only occasionally does he use a self-indulgent adjective or a contrived simile. It is a precise honest record and not a meretricious attempt at loveliness. In his approach he recalls Dorothy Wordsworth with her day-to-day factual commentary on the lakes near her home: ‘A fine solemn evening. The wind blew very free from the island and at Rydale. We went on the other side of Rydale, and sat a long time looking at the mountains, which were all black at Grasmere and very bright in Rydale – Grasmere exceedingly dark and Rydale of a light yellow green’. Here is Reynolds’s description of setting out fishing one evening:

The November sun went down while we rowed, an almost imperceptible fading of daylight into delicate thin colours and finally into a shiny grey half-light. More and more the cliffs lowered above us. They lost their redness except where a glint of the sun burned splendidly upon them; coloured shadows, as it were, came to life in the high earthen flanks, lifted themselves off, and floated away into the sunset, until the land stood against and above the sea, black and naked, crowned with distorted thorn bushes. Very serene was the sky, but a little hard.

Stephen Reynolds died at the age of 38 in the flu epidemic of 1919, at Sidmouth.