Obituary: David Wilkinson (1941-2018)

David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson died on 15 September 2018 after a short illness.  His contribution to the study and enduring reputation of Richard Aldington has been appreciated for over thirty years.

David’s interest in Aldington came about as a result of living in Malthouse Cottage in Padworth, Berkshire, his home from 1971 to 1992.  Not knowing anything about Aldington beforehand, to find that he was living in the same house as a once-well-known author had done for most of the nineteen twenties stirred his curiosity.  This led David on a journey to discover all he could about Aldington, and particularly his time in Berkshire. Remaining villagers who remembered those thinly fictionalised in The Colonel’s Daughter (1931) were interviewed by David, and along the way he amassed an unrivalled collection of Aldingtoniana which (which he later sold).  The story of this journey of discovery is told in his recent book, The Death of a Hero: The Quest for World War One Poet Richard Aldington’s Berkshire Retreat (Pen & Sword, 2016).

Making the acquaintance, at first by correspondence and then in person, of Norman T. Gates situated David at the heart of Aldington networks.  He was an attendee of the 1986 Richard Aldington Conference at the University of Reading; he became the Associate Editor of the NCLSN as its reach grew.  He introduced a reprint of Aldington’s Roads to Glory (Imperial War Museum, 1993), and contributed to the proceedings of the Montpelier Conference organised by Caroline Zilboorg and Alain Blayac for the centenary of Aldington’s birth in 1992.  (You can see a partial list of his publications on Goodreads.)  His commitment to knowledge about Aldington can be felt powerfully by looking back through the pages of the NCLSN.

I met David only once, at a commemorative gathering in Padworth organised by Aldington biographer Vivien Whelpton in 2013.  We were pleased finally to make each other’s physical acquaintance, after nearly a decade’s correspondence.  I had good intentions of making it down to St Ives, his home for the last twenty-five years; I’m sad that life intervened and that never quite came to pass.

As well as his tangible legacy in print to future Aldington scholars, less easily quantified is the value of the energy that David put in to encouraging others in their own research.  We need true enthusiasts like him, collectors who will chase every artefact and detail.  He will be sorely missed by this community, and I send good wishes to his family.

Andrew Frayn


Neil Pearson talk on Jack Kahane, May 2019

Jack Kahane

The Edinburgh Bibliographical Society has recently released its programme for the 2018/19 academic year.

Aldingtonians will be interested to note the talk on 16 May 2019 by Neil Pearson, the bookseller and collector whose face will be familiar to many British readers from his other accomplisments.  The title of his talk is ‘Jack Kahane: literature, censorship, and a very British pornographer’.

Kahane was, of course, one of the publishers of the first unexpurgated edition of Death of a Hero: 300 numbered copies were printed in Paris by Kahane and Henri Babou.  Pearson has written Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press (2007), and presented a documentary on Kahane for the BBC in 2016.

Richard Aldington’s Grave

Richard Aldington in 1955

NCLSN reader Geoffrey Taylor contributes the following:

A barn that has been converted into an estaminet at Auchonvillers seems a fitting place to be introduced to the name and works of Richard Aldington. As the village lies within the chalk moors in the district of the Somme. Here I attended a lecture delivered by Vivien Whelpton, the author’s biographer. I was on a battlefield tour with the War Poets Association, and Aldington’s Death of a Hero appeared on a list of recommended reading for the tour.

Returning home afterwards I procured a copy from a secondhand bookshop. In the space of two pages of reading, I became convinced that here is someone of a rare genius who was worthy of further investigation. Since then I have also acquired and devoured The Colonel’s Daughter, All Men Are Enemies, Seven Against Reeves, The Romance of Casanova, and Rejected Guest. Furthermore, through Charles Doyle’s biography I discovered more of Aldington’s background.

A peculiar hobby of mine is to visit places associated with favourite authors. I stayed at the Mermaid Inn at Rye, which Aldington’s mother ran. I visited Combe Martin in Devonshire where he lived before the war. I visited the Piazza Santa Croce, Firenze, where he lodged and met Norman Douglas. Last weekend, I set about in finding Malthouse Cottage, on Aldermaston Wharf, which he rented for the greater part of the twenties.

Moved by an account of local vine-dressers forming a vigil when Aldington passed away at Maison Salle, I paid a visit to the Sancerrois. It was Christmas, and having scoured the small cimetiere at Sury-en-Vaux, where he is buried. I found nothing. I became duly alarmed. Until I attended a church service, and got introduced to some useful contacts who, in turn, put me in contact with Madame Kershaw.

It was through her late husband that Aldington was offered a bungalow there. Here he spent the remaining five years of his life. Madame Kershaw told me of the precise location of Aldington’s grave. But, on returning to the cimetiere, I soon learned why I could not find the gravestone previously. There is no headstone!—But what’s called a table-sepulchre low to the ground. Only the author’s name is engraved there, and over the years, the lettering has become shallow and begrimed.

Once I returned home to Gloucester, I contacted Aldington’s granddaughter, Florence Guillaume, asking for her permission to give the grave a clean. She lives in the Camargue. She duly acquiesced to my entreaty, as did the local mairie at Sury-en-Vaux. So, armed with a scrubbing brush, and a commemorative poppy which I obtained during the battlefield tour, I came to the cimetiere for a third time in the spring. The site is located on a gentle slope among quiet vineyards.

Alas, even though the engraved name is now cleaned, the carving remains deteriorating. Reading among the acknowledgements in Whelpton’s biography, I came across the New Canterbury Literary Society. If the New Canterbury Literary Society is interested, and if further permission from his relatives is forthcoming, I should be honoured to help arrange for a modest marker stone to be placed there with fresh lettering describing the author’s dates and profession. The Alliance of Literary Societies indicated that a small grant toward this could be obtained, but this would require written support from interested circles.

Aldington deserves a posterity in this delightful setting. Members really should go and see the place. I recommend a flight to Orly, then Sancerre is a two hour journey from the Gare Bercy. The village lies after a pleasant walk along the paths that traverse the vineyards.

Geoffrey Taylor


[I have offered to write in support of Mr Taylor’s proposal above and have extended to him the offer of any help in facilitating that I can provide.

Andrew Frayn]

NCLSN Archives


I’m very grateful to Michael Copp, an excellent Richard Aldington scholar, for lending me his full archives of the New Canterbury Literary Society Newsletter.  If you don’t know Mike’s work on Aldington, then you should look for his An Imagist at War and Imagist Dialogues in particular.  Some of his more recent work was recently featured on the blog, and I’ve been grateful since becoming editor for his ever-interesting contributions.

As editor of the Newsletter, now in blog form, I thought it was remiss that I didn’t have the full run.  Norman T. Gates, a widely-published Aldington scholar particularly noted for his Poetry of Richard AldingtonA Checklist of the Letters of Richard Aldington, and Richard Aldington: An Autobiography in Letters, first published a single, xeroxed, sheet of letter-sized paper as the NCLSN dated 1 August 1973, 45 years ago this month.

Here’s the first item, which is phrased rather charmingly, and which gives some information that’ll be new to many of you about the original Canterbury Literary Society:


The New Canterbury Literary Society consisted of a number of notable bookmen and women, and scholars of modernist literature:  Ann Bagnell, Miriam Benkovitz, Ruth Galloway, Norman T. Gates, Frank Harrington, Alister Kershaw, Selwyn Kittredge, Harry T. Moore, Sidney Rosenthal, and David Thatcher.  The ten asterisks that separated items in the Newsletter stand for the original ten members of both societies.

It’s fascinating reading back through the Newsletter and seeing the long development of scholarly projects, along with things that never quite came to pass, and finding out information that was new to me.  I’ll continue to write more about the NCLSN archives in months to come.

Andrew Frayn

May Aldington’s ‘Roll of Honour’ as a sidelight on Death of a Hero

In 1917, the year Richard Aldington saw his first active service in the Great War, his mother May Aldington published a poem in which she – roughly speaking – fantastized about his being killed in battle. This poem is interesting for the light it throws not only on RA’s conflicted relationship with his mother, but on the portrayal of Isabel Winterbourne in his war novel Death of a Hero, whose son’s death in battle becomes an excuse for the mother’s self-dramatization.

Before writing war poetry, May Aldington had some success as a romantic novelist with titles including Love Letters that Caused a Divorce, The Man of Kent and Meg of the Salt-Pans. The Westminster Review said of the last, ‘Mrs Aldington has succeeded in doing for a corner of rural Kent that which Thomas Hardy has done for his beloved Wessex’. For the bulk of her living, May ran the historic Mermaid Inn in Rye, Sussex, a frequent hangout of writers. RA was as ambivalent about her literary career as he was about his mother in general. He admired her drive (which he inherited) and acknowledged that her novels had ‘vitality’, yet despised what he saw as the vulgarity of both her fiction and her petit bourgeois atttitudes. ‘She keeps a saloon and writes inconceivable novels’, he once complained.

When, in 1917, the small volume Roll of Honour and Other Poems was printed in Rye, its attitudes were not only bourgeois but decidedly dated. May Aldington’s verse retained the patriotic, clean-limbed view of war that had greeted the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. It showed little contact with the three years of grim reality that had subsequently passed. May’s portrayal of a girl who wants only ‘to be a British Soldier’s bride’ shows an almost childlike naivete:

while you fight, I’ll knit and sew,
And love, the hours will quickly go.
(‘Love in War-Time)

As does her idealized portrait of an officer:

when the blessed word of peace
Shall be proclaimed, and this war cease,
He says, he will at war still play,
Because it makes a holiday.
(‘To a Major’)

This type of verse had been satirized in The Egoist, the radical magazine of which RA was literary editor. Reviewing poetry written in the first, optimistic phase of the war, RA’s fellow imagist John Gould Fletcher had roundly criticized its jingoism and false rhetoric. A rhyming lampoon, probably by RA himself, lamented ‘the little poets we hoped were dumb’ who nonetheless came, ‘at the sound of the drum’, to inflict their verses on the public.

The most striking part of Roll of Honour, however, was its title poem:

Roll of Honour

He was born on a summer’s day,
Just as a lark awoke to singing,
Soft in the bend of my arm he lay,
And the bells of Heav’n were ringing.

Brave he grew, as men are brave,
Swift to hear the big drum rolling,
Forth he marched to the bugle’s call
And the fifes of the Scots carolling.

“Killed in action,” this do they say?
With the fifes and the drums still calling!

Soft in the bend of my arm he lay,
These are tears of pride now falling.

This poem is an idealized rewriting of RA’s own military career. The speaker’s son is ‘swift to hear’ the call, marches off amid the atmosphere of a Boy’s Own story, and dies so heroically his loss can’t even be reckoned grief. In contrast, its author’s real-life son, though sharing the summer birthday of his fictional counterpart, was not an eager recruit. RA enlisted only in 1916, after debating whether to plead conscientious objection, and in two years at the front conspicuously failed to get killed or even wounded. ‘Roll of Honour’ contains little of what the son in the poem might have experienced at war. The son is portrayed simply as a fulfilment of the attitudes of his time and class, and his death as an occasion for the mother to display her own patriotism by declaring it a matter of ‘pride’ rather than loss.

‘The death of a hero! What mockery, what bloody cant!’ wrote RA in his 1929 novel Death of a Hero, the antithesis and satire of the attitudes exhibited in his mother’s verse. In the novel, the character of Isabel Winterbourne is based on May Aldington. Isabel’s son, George, is killed in the final days of the war. Readers know, while Isabel does not, that his ‘heroic’ death is actually suicide. When Isabel receives the news, she’s with a lover (‘Sam Browne’), and the scene becomes one of pulp melodrama in which the posturing of both participants takes precedence over the suffering of George:

In low moaning tones, founded on the best tradition of sensational fiction, Mrs. Winterbourne feebly ejaculated:
“Dead, dead, dead!”
“Who’s dead? Winterbourne [Isabel’s husband]?”
(Some apprehension perhaps in the attendant Sam Browne – he would have to propose, of course, and might be accepted.)
“They’ve killed him, those vile, filthy foreigners. My baby son.”
Sam Browne, still mystified, read the telegram. He then stood to attention, saluted (although not wearing a cap), and said solemnly:
“A clean sportin’ death, an Englishman’s death.”

Later, when relaying the news over the telephone, Isabel sobs theatrically to ensure the telephone operator recognizes her grief. ‘The tears Mrs. Winterbourne shed were not very natural,’ comments the novel’s narrator, ‘but they did not take long to dry.’ He might have been thinking of the tears of pride that close ‘Roll of Honour’, just as Isabel’s reliance on ‘sensational fiction’ for her emotional cues recalls May Aldington’s career as a romantic novelist.

In the days that follow, death lends flavour to Isabel’s life:

She found it rather exciting and stimulating at first, especially erotically stimulating. She was a woman who constantly dramatized herself and her life. She was as avid of public consideration as an Italian lieutenant, no matter what the quality of the praise.

In RA’s final blow, the ‘erotically stimulated’ Isabel sleeps with her lover while ostensibly bedridden with grief.

Despite their very different attitudes to war, ‘Roll of Honour’ and Death of a Hero reference shared themes. Both have a semi-autobiographical framework into which is inserted a death that is not biographical, an alternative fate for RA himself. That death provides a vehicle for a mother to dramatize her bereavement through patriotic sentiments, in which her maternal sacrifice is given precedence over the suffering of her son. In May Aldington’s poem, those sentiments are presented positively. Her son’s novel satirizes them as an example of the ‘cant’ on which it blames the slaughter of the war. Whether or not RA was responding specifically to his mother’s poem when he wrote the scenes of Isabel Winterbourne grieving, ‘Roll of Honour’ was a piece of cant that hit especially close to home.

Gemma Bristow

From Our Own Correspondent: Richard Aldington

Richard Aldington in 1955

The BBC’s Paris Correspondent, Hugh Schofield, speaks in the final piece of the From Our Own Correspondent of 5 May 2018.  You can still hear this piece via the iPlayer on the BBC Website (the section begins at 22:20).  I wrote previously about having talked to him prior to the piece being broadcast.  Mr Schofield regularly stays near to Sury-en-Vaux, where Richard Aldington is buried, having spent the final years of his life in the adjoining hamlet of Maison Sallé.

In the piece Schofield reflects on the fleeting nature of literary fame: it is true that RA achieved critical acclaim as part of the Imagists, and that the fame and infamy that Death of a Hero brought him perhaps his highest point of commercial success and public visibility.  The recently-cleaned gravestone indeed makes a neat metaphor.  The prognosis that he will become “Richard Who?” feels rather doomy – in academic circles at least, where modernist studies thrives and Aldington should be, at the very least, a figure noted in discussions about the vital network of London in the 1910s.

If you came to Aldington via this piece, it’d be great to hear from you.  We’re always interested to know how new readers found the site, and what particularly appeals to them about Aldington.

Richard Aldington and Edward Marsh

Correspondent Michael Copp writes to note the following reference to RA in Christopher Hassall’s Edward Marsh: A Biography (Longman, 1959).  This message was sent in April 1932 via Derek Patmore, the son of Brigit Patmore:

‘Do give Richard my love, also, if you think fit, a modest request that he won’t slog quite so hard and, I think, indiscriminately at his rotters. To be really disgusted with them it is essential one should believe in their existence, which one can’t do if he plasters them with incompatible defects.’ (p. 575)
The contrast in viewpoint between Aldington’s belief that the horrors of the First World War couldn’t be exaggerated, and Marsh’s measured, establishment viewpoint is palpable.
Brigit Patmore’s memoir My Friends When Young (Heinemann, 1968) has an intro by Derek Patmore; both discuss RA engagingly.

Recent scholarship on Aldington

Books by Richard Aldington, 1928-33.

I’m pleased to see that there have been a couple of recent academic articles directly discussing Richard Aldington by an Italian scholar, Elisa Bolchi.

In a 2015 issue of the journal Textus, Bolchi published the article ‘“Italy means most to me”: Richard Aldington, Politics, and Translation in Two Italian Archives’.  The article engages with Aldington’s correspondence with his Italian translator Alessandra Scalero, highlighting the care he took in dealing with translations, and his love for Italy.

Bolchi has also written recently for the journal Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism a piece entitled ‘Darkened Lands: a post-pastoral reading of Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero.’  The essay reads Aldington’s great war novel in terms of the experience of war as anti-pastoral, while noting that in times of war pastoral conventions are often employed.

It’s great to see some more scholarship specifically on Aldington appearing.  Please do let me know if you’re writing about Aldington, or if you’ve seen scholarship that I might not have come across.


Aldington’s grave, Sury-en-Vaux

Richard Aldington is buried in Sury-en-Vaux, which is not exactly on the tourist trail – I’ll confess that I haven’t yet been to pay my respects.  I talked a few weeks ago with Hugh Schofield, the BBC’s Paris Correspondent, who had come across RA as a result of the following article in La Voix du Sancerrois, about an enthusiast who has done just that.

The article is available via, including some excellent images.  If you read French, excellent; if not, you can right click on the article, then select “Copy”, which will allow you to copy the text to paste into your favoured translation engine.

Mr Schofield tells me that he may write a broadcast piece touching on issues of the transience of literary fame via this very concrete example; I’ll post it here if and when that comes to pass.

If Mr Taylor is reading and would like to write about his trip to Sury-en-Vaux, I’d be glad to hear from him at a[dot]frayn[at]

Norman Nicholson on Aldington

Norman Nicholson, Man and Literature (1943)

In this post we’re remaining with critical assessments from the 1940s: it seems fair to say that Aldington’s reputation was not at its peak at the time.

This time we’re with the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson, in his Man and Literature (1943).  The book, based on lectures to the Workers’ Educational Association, was his first major publication.  He writes in his brief introduction that:

This book is not an attempt to measure modern literature by a Christian yardstick.  It is not, fundamentally, literary criticism at all.  It is rather an enquiry into the assumptions as to the nature and purpose of Man which underlie much of modern writing. (p. 1)

The book was published only three years after Nicholson’s Anglican confirmation at the age of 26.  He remained a practising Christian; the context of the Second World War is also worth considering in the need to discern value in the relationship between man and literature.

He goes on to say:

It seems to me very significant, therefore, that such important writers as Eliot and Joyce, and so many of the younger men, should be reasserting a view of Man which is in strong contradiction to that held by those who have been a dominant influence in the literature of the earlier years of this century.     (p. 1)

As you’ll see from the index page, H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence are uppermost in Nicholson’s mind when he makes this comparison.

Contents page of Norman Nicholson, Man and Literature (1943)
Contents page of Norman Nicholson, Man and Literature (1943)

Nicholson concludes his chapter on George Bernard Shaw with the following comparison:

It must be allowed of Shaw, however, that he did not at the same time both deny the importance of sex and fill his books with it, as such later writers as Richard Aldington have done.  He never wasted his time by writing of what to him did not seem to matter, and as a result his characters never have the purposelessness which is so noticeable in much modern fiction.  (p. 31)

While Amis’s assessment has a grain of hard truth about it, it’s difficult to recognise this technicolor version of Aldington.  The notion that he denied the importance of sex is remarkable: interpersonal and romantic relationships are vital to Aldington’s characters, as they were in his life.

Nicholson sees Aldington’s fiction as exemplifying what he defines as the Natural Man.  The Second World War context comes to the fore in his definition:

In the writers whom we must now consider there was a swing over from the assumptions and beliefs of the realists.  Instead of Pelagian Man, we get Natural Man; instead of Liberalism, Totalitarianism.  Since I have defined the Pelagianism of the realists as the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin, it may be as well to consider Natural Man, in the same terms.  Natural Man, then, is Man in his first innocence, before the Fall.  If a Fall is envisaged at all, it is believed not to have taken place in Man’s nature, but merely in society.  The return to the state of the first grace, the return to Eden is to be achieved, therefore, by the revolt against society and institutions and by the return to the primitive.          (p. 62)

He goes on, having discussed other major examples, to discuss Aldington following on from Huxley.  Nicholson puts Aldington alongside Charles Morgan, an author little read now, and perhaps best known for his Cold War play The Burning Glass (1954).

Nicholson blames the need for such novelists to appeal to a wide audience:

The middlebrow novelist depends for his sale on subscription lending libraries, which draw their clients largely from the suburban classes, especially from married women.  While it is obvious that the real Natural Man will have no scruples about lying, thieving or killing, such attributes do not commend themselves even to the daydreams of the suburban housewife.  Living in comfortable circumstances and surroundings, she does not sympathise with anarchist or anti-social tendencies.                (p. 103)

This remarkable assessment leads, then, finally to Nicholson’s brief discussion of Aldington.

Both of them [Aldington and Morgan] are skilled novelists; both poets and men of wide reading.  Both, in fact, use a good deal of conscious artistry to give an effect of high literary “tone.”  Quotations from the poets most fashionable in advanced circles are displayed like “arty” pictures to impress the visitors.  Aldington came forward in the direct line of descent from Lawrence.  In All Men are Enemies he tells a story of the aftermath of the War, in which he seeks in particular to emphasise and romanticise the sense of touch.  In later novels he has become more cynical.  To a certain extent he may be satirising those people and institutions who frustrate Natural Man in the fulfilment of his desires.  But I think the cynicism is due more to realisation, perhaps not fully conscious, of what the acceptance of Natural Man would really lead to.  Those who had started by seeing Natural Man as Lawrence had seen him were beginning to see him as Montherlant sees him.  This, I think, is the cause, or part cause of a good deal of the pessimism and cynicism of the ’20’s.  (Another cause, of course, was the disappointment of hopes for a better social order which had been raised during the War and immediately before it.  In the minds of many people during the ’20’s there was therefore a sudden loss of faith in both Natural Man and Liberal Man.)    (pp. 105-6)

Nicholson gets close to giving Aldington credit, and the assessment that the later novels aren’t so strong is not unfair.  To me it’s particularly interesting that Nicholson identifies Aldington as a disenchanted writer particularly in a post-war context.  It’s also worth noting that he engages with Aldington only as a novelist, just as with Amis’s assessment; there’s little sense here that either later critic has any sense of Aldington the poet.

Please keep your eyes open for Aldington references and let me know if you find particularly good or interesting ones!