Sunday, October 23, 2011
As It Was by Helen Thomas
Within a few minutes of meeting Simon at the National Gallery, he handed both Rachel and me a copy of As It Was by Helen Thomas, first published in 1926. Mary was also included in our blogger meet-up and the four of us jumped into conversation so my book was tucked away. I had never heard of Edward Thomas or his poetry but the reason to read this book, as I soon found out, is for Helen's stunningly beautiful and open account of her relationship with her future husband.
As a child Helen loved to watch her father smoke cigarettes and sip whisky while he reviewed books and wrote essays. When he takes David under his wing to go over his writing it isn't long before the two teens are going for long walks in the meadow. Helen felt she was his intellectual inferior but she loved to learn. David was very shy but Helen was quick to express her feelings and was quite uninhibited. Each was exactly what the other needed. Especially so for Helen when the father she adored died after contracting tuberculosis and her mother turned against her. I found it heartbreaking to read about the attention Helen's mother heaped onto male boarders while hurling insults at her daughter. There were a few choice words spinning around in my head for that woman I can tell you.
With David in her life Helen could endure anything. They shared poetry readings in sunny fields, lazy picnic lunches, letters written every day and nosegays of wildflowers presented at every turn (cowslips feature prominently hence the painting shown above by Ewa Dalecki). Their courtship is lovely and old-fashioned but eventually they become intimate. It is fairly clear that it was Helen who initiated their sexual relationship and she writes very openly about their assignations While professing not to care about convention (it's the late 1800s, after all) I did find it interesting that this aspect was kept secret from even their closest of confidants. As was likely to happen, eventually Helen falls pregnant and is anguished by David's marriage proposal, seeing it as an impediment to their sense of free love. But marry they do and the book ends with the birth of their son.
As It Was was written by Helen years after David was killed in France during World War I, as a way to deal with her loss. When you read her vivid accounts of something as simple as a picnic from years long past you realize that these moments were burned into her memory and her heart. You could swoon, I promise you!
Helen wrote another book World Without End which follows her marriage and the turmoil of David's/Edward's battle with depression. It doesn't sound as though it will be nearly as breathtakingly beautiful but if it's anything like As It Was it will be sincere and I'm really looking forward to reading it.
Thank you, Simon, for introducing me to such a remarkable book. It absolutely deserves its place on your "list of books you must read that you may not have heard about".