After High Tea

John Bayley

  • Love in a Cool Climate: The Letters of Mark Pattison and Meta Bradley 1879-1884 by Vivian Green
    Oxford, 269 pp, £12.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 19 820080 3

The title sounds like a novel, and the book can and should be read like one – a very remarkable one. Philip Larkin, who had the knack of making sideways critical comments as memorable as those in his verse, remarked that ‘the first thing a novelist must provide is a separate world,’ and it is true that the world Dr Green has made out of the relationship of Mark Pattison and Meta Bradley is not exactly a separate world. It is a familiar one, familiar from memoirs and gossip and our general contemporary interest in the Victorian age, but Green has managed – perhaps quite inadvertently – to see it all from a slightly different angle.

This is partly due to the style, which is leisurely, repetitive and banal, but has its own kind of individuality. Problems loom, the year comes sombrely to an end, hopes are cruelly blasted, characters have to find alternative accommodation instead of somewhere else to live. And it is partly due to the method, which combines quotation from the letters which passed between the hero and heroine with a narrative and a running commentary by the author, who sees through their eyes and expresses himself in their manner. As the Rector of Lincoln College, and its historian, this comes naturally to Dr Green, and he probably understands better than anyone the peculiar Victorian Rector, Mark Pattison, who lived in the lodgings a hundred years before him.

Now a rare and perhaps even a threatened species, monsters were common in Victorian times, like dragons in the Middle Ages. Women – wives and daughters especially – suffered from them: yet, as the story of Beauty and the Beast shows, monsters have frequently had an appeal for attractive women. Do they expect the creature to turn into a handsome prince under their ministrations, or do they genuinely prefer a frog or a sea-monster to a prince or a Perseus? A monster’s loneliness, which has a special status and a special intensity, often appeals to an isolated woman, and that is what happened in the case of Meta Bradley and Mark Pattison.

Pattison was more than forty years the older. When they first met, he had already attracted one Andromeda in the shape of Francis Strong, a beautiful, talented and impecunious girl, a mere 27 years his junior, and they had got married. The match had surprised their friends and was to inspire no less than three novels. George Eliot borrowed it for the marriage of Dorothea and Mr Casaubon in Middlemarch; Mrs Humphry Ward gave a vivid picture of Pattison as Squire Wendover in Robert Elsmere, a Victorian best-seller; and Rhoda Broughton, the novelist who knew the Rector best, produced a cruel portrait in her slight and perfunctory novel Belinda. But this, alas, only illustrates the force of Henry James’s passionate statement to a sceptical and uncomprehending H.G. Wells, that ‘the novel makes life, makes truth, makes understanding.’ The novelists had no trouble in making Pattison’s marriage interesting, but it was not interesting in itself. Only depressing, for both parties. George Eliot’s memorable portrait is of a girl who unconsciously wants warmth, passion and sex, as well as intellectual tutelage and comradeship; and because the former is withheld the latter is too. Mrs Pattison needed none of these things. She had married for status, position, some money. Before marriage she had realised that as the wife of the rector of an Oxford college she would have a good start in becoming the acknowledged authority in her chosen field – French 18th-century painting. She now fixed her eyes on her goal, brushing aside the Rector’s clumsy attempts to secure more conventional matrimonial blisses. If clumsy, they were certainly ardent – the Rector was no Casaubon in that respect – and Francis had to fend him off in ways appropriate to their class and period. A chilly initial submission; the speedy deployment of nervous disorders which made such things out of the question; a planned withdrawal to the South of France for much of the year – these were the stages of expediency, and for good measure she told her husband that the Regius Professor of Medicine said that at his age it was bad for the health.

So Beauty took all and the Beast got nothing? That would at least have had some punch as a fiction, for Trollope perhaps, or even for James himself. But again reality was more blurred, more commonplace. The two upset each other, lived apart, tried to live together again. The Rector was stingy, and she had no other way to get money. She formed an alliance with a devoted Frenchwoman at whose little house at Draguignan in Provence she lived frugally and got on with her work. But peace was always being disturbed by rumours and gossip about the young girls whom the Rector was inviting to stay at the Lodgings. His own two nieces were the chief of these, and they ministered to him fairly willingly. But Meta Bradley was another matter. What Francis Pattison heard of this young woman seriously disturbed her. She disliked the Rector; she preferred to live on her own; but she was not going to give him up. Nor was she going to appear as a failed and rejected wife, the target of malicious gossip. Over the years she set herself to fight Meta Bradley: silently, unspectacularly, and effectively. The record of this war of attrition is in the letters – cosy, intimate, animated, sometimes passionate letters – exchanged during that time between the Rector and young Meta.

Francis Pattison won in the end, if victory can ever be said to describe what happens in such cases. The Rector wanted Meta, and she wanted him, even more fervently, but he was not going to risk his routines and his reputation; he was solid for caution. Meta’s father, the Rev. Charles Bradley, a difficult and tyrannical ex-schoolmaster living in London, who improbably possessed a sizeable yacht on which he liked to spend much of his time, disapproved of his daughter’s relations with the Rector and finally forbade the correspondence. He had been worked on by Mrs Pattison and other friends, but he was quite disagreeable enough to do it anyway. His second wife, Meta’s stepmother, a good-natured amiable woman wholly under his thumb, could do nothing. Nor could Meta. She had no training, no money, and nowhere to live but at home.

What sort of a woman was she? The short answer is, very unlike Francis Pattison: if the Rector had met her first, things would have gone better. Or would they .... One of the ways in which this fascinating book is like a novel – a good novel – is that the characters have a disturbingly ordinary capacity to move about, in and out of what seem to be their stereotyped selves. The detail and the repetitiousness, sometimes boring, are an aid to speculation and displace our preconceptions of the Victorian world. This is the sense in which Dr Green shows us things from an unusual angle, and the reason this is triumphantly not a period piece. Undoubtedly this odd pair loved each other, but love got much of its rewards, its poignancy, even its comfortableness, from not being able to find a way. Had Meta been able to marry the Rector, or live with him, things might quickly have gone bad. Or they might not. Certainly Meta would not have minded sex, and would have made the Rector feel a complacent he-man, instead of a miserable affronted lover and husband.

Pattison himself was clearly very unlike the portraits drawn by the three novelists. Whoever does resemble in actuality the literary image they have evoked? The significant thing was that he did evoke, and that he made a decided impression on his contemporaries, both men and women, but women more emphatically. Like many ‘great scholars’, he came to be taken for granted as a great scholar on the basis of his personality, legend and reputation, rather than by reason of his actual achievements. His speciality was other men of learning, and he planned works on Scaliger and Casaubon. George Eliot made a shrewd point in presenting her Casaubon in Middle-march as an undoubted scholar but one not likely to get anywhere. And yet Pattison was a remarkable figure, not only in the depth of his knowledge and the variety of his scholastic tastes, but in his instinct for the paramount importance of such things in the life of a university. As John Sparrow and others have pointed out, and as Dr Green exhibits, Patti son was the champion of a university not as a training ground – ‘a school for young men who have outgrown school’, as he put it – but a place where learning really mattered, and one which provided a civilised and congenial atmosphere for its discussion and exchange. It is generally agreed that Pattison’s view of the matter lost out, that the organisers and cosmeticians who still run education today triumphed in the person of his friend and rival Jowett, a very capable administrator and a natural schoolmaster, with whom, as Pattison remarked, ‘youth is put in possession of ready-made opinions and ... taught to regard them as real knowledge.’ The key to Pattison’s failure was his dislike of academic business, and of the lobbying and in-fighting which attend policy changes in any big corporation.

Except in one respect he was not a sociable man. He greatly preferred the society of impressionable young women to that of his academic peers and colleagues, and was never happier than when after high tea (he loathed High Table) he could read to or with a sympathetic lady or two, make jokes, be mildly flirtatious. Rhoda Broughton, the spinster novelist who lived with her sister in Holywell, was a vivacious and reliable guest until they quarrelled, not because she had put him into Belinda – he rather liked that, and announced himself as ‘Professor Forth’, the hero of the book, when he went to call – but because he came to suspect her, quite falsely as it seems, of writing anonymous letters about his relations with Meta Bradley. Written in the perennially modish continuous present, Belinda has all the smart and forgettable air of a modern novel, but her earlier books had given Rhoda Broughton a reputation – she was a friend of Henry James – and made her a best-seller. She was one of those sharp-tongued gossipy ladies who are fundamentally kind and respectable, though they like to be thought of as a bit diabolic. Unlike May Laffan, the Dublin novelist and another of the Rector’s friends, she got on well with Mrs Pattison, who tolerated her husband’s little ways with martyred and self-regarding composure.

Meta and Pattison met where they could: in London, walking in Kensington Gardens; at friends’ houses; for an occasional week at the Lodgings when the Rector’s wife was away and one of his nieces or another young friend could act as chaperone. Dr Green is well aware that his readers will want to know if they went to bed together, and does his best to answer the question. A novel has to do so or let its readers down, and it is one of the advantages of real life, when reconstructed in so sympathetic and meticulous a manner as this, that it does not suffer from having to leave the question open. Inculcated moral respectability was strong on both sides, although both Meta and the Rector felt themselves to be emancipated from the usual Christian principles and bourgeois prejudices. More important, their letters suggest that they had already gone beyond the need for it. In their snug scrawling intimacy (they usually wrote every day) they felt completely at home with each other. The Rector longed to put his arms around her ‘with infinite possibilities of kissing’. She responded as warmly, and this was no doubt implemented at meetings: anything further might have been anti-climax. Besides, in their stand against the world they depended on injured innocence; they were not doing anything wrong; the inevitable gossip was false and heartless.

Neither fought very hard when Meta’s father forbade the correspondence. But he died, and they resumed it with as much pleasure as before though perhaps less intensity. Meanwhile Mrs Pattison cultivated her relation with Sir Charles Dilke, and we do not know what happened there either. Her big moment came when the Rector fell gravely ill and she carried him away to his native Yorkshire. Her letters show what a good nurse she was and how dependent he became on her; his old passion returned and she was his darling or dear one every minute, between outbursts of terror and fury at the approach of death. He left her everything, of course, except for a legacy of £5000 to Meta Bradley. Francis was furious and tried to stop it, but Meta adroitly arranged for its immediate payment. It gave her a measure of the independence she never had while the Rector was alive.

Francis in any case had other things to think about. She was now engaged to Sir Charles Dilke, and they were only waiting for a decent interval to elapse. But then the Dilke scandal broke. Donald Crawford and his young wife Virginia had been friends of the Pattisons and of Meta’s friends too: Bradleys (including F.H. the philosopher and A.C. the Shakespeare scholar), Toynbees, Tuckwells and others were all connected in that close web of the new cultivated metropolitan middle class. Virginia Crawford gave her famous evidence about the trio in the bed, and Dilke’s denials did not convince. Ironically his air of guilt probably had its origin in other pecadilloes, not in any relation with Mrs Crawford, who seems to have casually destroyed him in order to shield her real lover. (Henry James wrote to a friend that ‘the whole thing is a theme for the novelist – or at least for a novelist.’) In any event, it was Francis Pattison’s finest hour. Still fresh from her last ministrations to the Rector, she telegraphed to Dilke her conviction of his innocence, and her wish for their immediate marriage. They led a blameless and happy life together, only partly overshadowed by Dilke’s political eclipse.

The Rector had regarded his relations with his wife as he did his university and college business: in both cases it was like ‘descending into the arena to fight with beasts at Ephesus’. Francis used a more contemporary metaphor in her account of the battle.

Do you remember the American parrot who was shut up with the monkey? They found her without a single feather even in the tail. She remarked as the door opened, ‘Oh, I’ve had a Hell of a time,’ and then proceeded beak and claws undaunted to go it again ... I don’t know whether she got the better of the monkey but I think she deserved to. May I deserve it?

Poor Meta lacked a particle of this kind of determination. She was more of a Gilbert and Sullivan character – ‘what is called a silly but she answers pretty well’. She provided what sweetness there was in the old man’s life and his confiding affection answered her own hunger. In later life she took to good works and was remembered by her nieces as a kind, tire some, harum-scarum sort of creature. She certainly wrote good letters, and letters can be a substitute for a drama or a novel – sometimes a more interesting one. From the photograph where she stands in her shapeless dark dress (even the Rector criticised her clothes), her big hands folded, her broad face and wide-apart eyes worried but guileless, no novelist would be likely to receive inspiration for a contemporary heroine. Today’s monsters are of a different species, and its Meta Bradleys are exploited in a hundred bedsits, serve the conceit of militants, tramp uncomplainingly to demonstrations. Perhaps their fate a hundred years ago was not so much worse after all.