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Word from Wormingford

06 May 2009

Ronald Blythe enjoys Henry James the not-too-observant walker

NEAR-BLUDGEONED to death by didactic Starkey history, I find my copy of Owen Chadwick’s Reformation to get my head right before falling asleep.

I read: “Linacre, the physician of King Henry VIII, had been rector of four parishes, a canon of three cathedrals, and precentor of York Minster before he was ordained priest. He was receiving payment for his medical services by this variety of rectories and prebends.”

Cowed as I am at this moment, the listener-viewer in the pew (on the sofa) will be in dire need of some quieter intelligence in order to get his head straight. Thus Owen Chadwick in his small masterpiece The Reformation. It provides not so much the required pinch of salt for much telly-history as a brief spread of the full canvas, the invention of printing and all.

For me, it was really the invention of the printed book which did it, not those often manic efforts of an ill king to establish his line. His subjects were coming to that point when they would adore literature more than anything else in the world. And so, when Henry commanded that an English Bible must be placed in every church in the land, he would all unknowingly lay the foundations of that Englishness which would express his people’s soul.

Against this mighty achievement, all else is little more than dashed male vanity, bad gynaecology, early gifts gone to rot, and his having one foot in the old discredited magic and the other in the new science. And when he fathered poor Anne’s disinherited daughter, he had no way of knowing that she would be the monarch he could not be. What the viewer needs is Owen Chadwick’s still, small voice. Have you noticed how David Starkey talks like a Tudor? It would not surprise me if he finds himself in the Tower one of these schedules.

To calmer matters. Henry James, no less. These days, our country walks come peppered with hard facts. See that nice patch of bird’s-foot-trefoil; look — there’s a blackcap; let us visit the church with its famous long-and-short work. And now let us accompany Henry James, who doesn’t walk very far or see very much. Or, to be fair, see what we see.

It is after luncheon in 1877, and there is grass in the middle of the lane, and never a car in sight. And he has no knowledge of wetlands, or Perp. and Dec., or botany, or segmented-headed windows in the Hall. All the same, as this walk was taken so long ago, he tell us things, being an American, about England which we have forgotten or will no longer be able to see.

This is why it is so delightful to walk in Warwickshire with him. The social classes are distinct. Labourers’ children giving him a bob. Almshouse folk reminding him of Trollope. Well-bred beauties on the tennis court, who are the perfect stock for his heroes and heroines, the flushed whiteness of the girls, the white goldenness of the boys — something you would never find in New York. Soon they will wed and provide patriots for the Western Front.

It usually rains when Henry James walks in Warwickshire. On Sunday afternoons, he accompanies his hosts to evensong, and sits with them in a box pew. But no description of the service. His heaven is a gentleman’s park, and he is scathing about an earl who prefers London’s gaming clubs to his country seat. Henry walks to it. It hides behind a wall of ivy. In the park, he muses on cathedrals and castles, and is barely informative, but entrancing.

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