Friday, 18 February 2011

Gurney's true love: Margaret Hunt

During the last few days I have been finalising the catalogue for the poetry and appeals written between September 22 1922 and the end of 1923, double checking the rationale for the dating of those manuscripts and making sure the catalogue entries are complete. Just occasionally one gets thoroughly diverted in the act of cataloguing and starts reading something more fully than intended. The poem that grabbed me as I was reading it through yesterday was written in (possibly late-) February 1923 and is titled 'On a memory'.

I have been totally engrossed by the poem, which, putting it into biographical context, is all about Margaret Hunt - a woman about relatively little is known (although Pam Blevins is currently on her trail, notably hoping to find a photograph of her), but who was a great inspiration to Gurney, encouraging, with her sister Emily (both private music teachers in Gloucester, playing violin and piano), his music making, and introducing Gurney to the Cotswolds.

It is known that Gurney fell in love with Margaret, and is said that Gurney wanted to marry her, but we have no correspondence with her, and Gurney only occasionally mentions her in his correspondence. However, Margaret is the dedicatee of numerous works by Gurney - works for violin and piano, as well as the song 'Lights Out' and the cycle Ludlow & Teme.

However, Margaret's place in Gurney's life is described in this long poem. He describes all she meant to him, inspirationally ('it was she who ruled my Making'), the pain of their being apart once he went to London ('But love can carry across a hundred miles'), her many letters - writer of many letters both whilst in London and at the front - 'bright patches of love', (how very sad that we have none!) and then her end in 1919, when, having been ill for some time, she died on 3 March:

'She was iller now, but dear, but dear, and her name
Thrilled still on lips. My work was meant for her.
I turned to work, and returned to playing there
The piano as of old - then her ending came.
I stood by her coffin, and smoked, there was no shame.
Now after four years, I look back and see that she
Has been best inspiration, or that beauty she loved [...]'


'I did not go visit her cemetery grave,
But walked in quiet places that she loved,
Or on hill roads far from crowds or noise removed.
The spirit of green wood, the heart of music was she.'


It is remarkable to know how very much she meant to him; a love and inspiration which is otherwise unspoken except obliquely in those several dedications. It leaves one wondering how the nurse to whom Gurney was engaged in late 1917, Annie Drummond, fitted into all of this. Was she just a passing thing, or did Gurney seek solace elsewhere, his love being unrequited by Margaret Hunt? Perhaps we shall never know, but we can now put Margaret in her rightful place as Gurney's muse.

1 comment:

Pamela said...

Thank you for this, Philip. You remind us of how important Margaret Hunt was to Gurney and that even into the asylum years his feeling for her were still close to the surface. On A Memory stands as Ivor's one love poem, marks Margaret as his muse and seems to point to her as the woman he loved above all others. I wrote as much as I could at the time about their relationship in chapter 7 of my book (Song of Pain and Beauty, 2008), but I have since learned more about Margaret that has given me insight into her but still not as much as I would like. In addition to On A Memory, Margaret is either the subject of or makes appearances in other poems: The First Violets in which Gurney takes us inside her Wellington Street home; The Room with Two Candles with his references to her kisses. There are references to her in Chance to Work, Music Room and elsewhere. Severn & Somme is dedicated to her and, as you point out, he dedicated music to her as well.

I believe that Ivor and Margaret were strongly attracted to each other and that each fell in love with the other in his or her own way: Margaret in the way that older women sometimes fall in love with a young man -- impractical in developing into anything with a future but real nonetheless; and Gurney, as a teenager, who initial infatuation turned into an idealized love that ran as a strong current throughout his life. For all her feelings for Ivor, and I believe that were deep, Margaret perhaps knew that any relationship beyond friendship was unlikely. She was nearly 16 years older. What would the reaction have been if a woman of 36 married a man of 20? There is also the issue of Gurney's stability. Margaret knew him very well, and was acutely aware of his dramatic mood swings and his periods of what she called lethargy. His well being always worried her. Would she have chosen to be a life partner with someone who was unstable, no matter how deeply she cared for him?

Annie Drummond was a more realistic possibility than Margaret. She came along at a time when Gurney was lonely, away from home, ill and vulnerable. Gurney might have seen a reflection of Margaret in her. In both Margaret and Annie, Gurney saw women who would stand by him, nurture and encourage his dreams but he did not seem to consider what he would do for them! As attracted to Gurney as she appears to have been, Drummond was looking for an equal partner not someone to nurse and support. I think that the rose fell from the bloom early for her when she realized that Gurney's intentions for her were impractical and one-sided and that he was not exactly a pillar of stability. He held both Margaret and Annie close to his heart after both were gone from him. I believe they became idealized visions of lost love.

There is another issue -- money. How could Ivor realistically expect to support a wife when he had no real prospects for work in his student years when he spent a great deal of time with Margaret, or later as a soldier during the period he was with Annie? Ivor thought that Annie Drummond had money. She came from a comfortable background but she was not rich -- her mother was a successful businesswoman and property owner and her father was a steadily employed miner. Margaret Hunt's father was a prosperous Oxfordshire landowner and farmer while her mother came from another prosperous Oxfordshire farming family. Both Annie and Margaret might thus be put into the position of supporting Ivor, both financially and emotionally. This is not to suggest that he was interested in them because of their money, because his feelings for them came first and knowledge of their financial state came later. What it does suggest is that Gurney sought women whom he could love but who would also take care of him and provide everything he needed in order to follow his dreams, create his art and be loved.