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| BIRSTALL - BRIARMAINS
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HENRY WOODISS. Lady C’s Lover.
Woodiss is both author and hero of this odd work. A note on the manuscript shows that he finished it in the nineteen sixties, yet at times it reads as if he is describing events as they occur, and, moreover, that the people with him are aware that he is doing so. Woodiss said that his wife encouraged him to start writing, and bought him his first typewriter. It seems likely that the flashbacks, in which he tries to ‘set the record straight’, were written first- indeed they were the compelling reason for him to write - and then incorporated in the text of his memoir of life after he left the army.
The book reads as comic fiction, but it is based on a truthful chronicle of his life – and especially his complicated love-life - during the first years of World War Two, plus the long and detailed look-back at his love affair with his employer’s wife and the furious reaction that the affair educed.
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The main events of Woodiss’s life are well-documented and may be accepted as fact. He was born on the 4th October, 1897, in a cottage on an isolated estate in Yorkshire. He served with distinction during the Great War. On discharge he set up in business. After several years, his business failed and to make ends meet he took a temporary job as a gamekeeper.
His employer was Sir Coningsby Coningsby-Clarke. Sir Con had been severely injured during the war; he was confined to a wheelchair and was probably impotent. He had married shorty before he was injured. His wife, Edith, was described as ‘a pleasant, sweet-natured young woman, though rather plain.’ Her family was rich.
By all accounts, Woodiss was a handsome, well-built, and vigorous man. He was about twenty-eight years of age when he and Edith met. He was unmarried.
As a result of his affair with Lady Edith, Woodiss was thrust into one of the most sensational scandals of the day. Inevitably, he emerged as the villain. The newspapers characterized him as a vulgar seducer, a servant who had betrayed his master’s trust. The truth, as ever, was more complicated.
Woodiss and Sir Con already had a close relationship. Despite the wide difference in status, they had been friends since childhood. During the war - when, in a reversal of status, he was Con’s company commander - Woodiss had protected Con and saved him from disgrace.
Although the press dwelt on the couple’s sexual misconduct - a lecherous servant, a high-born lady who’d lost her head - some writers suspected that there might be more to it, and they explored some of the nuances which the press ignored. In due course, they published their theories.
Their efforts did not please Woodiss. He complained that he had been portrayed to the world as ‘a ravening sexual beast.’ He wanted to put the record straight, and, eventually, many years later, he produced his own explicit account of these events. He also described his painful encounters with Edith’s relations. In calmer mode, he told of his life with Edith after she and Con divorced, for, despite a traumatic start, the couple had developed a strong relationship. They married and settled in a house provided by her family, The Hollows, as Woodiss called it in his book. Edith’s passion for Woodiss did not diminish, and the couple enjoyed a loving and contented life together until her untimely death.
Shortly after Edith died, war broke out again, and Woodiss, a captain in the Territorial Army, was called up. The war seemed a welcome distraction, but it was not long before he was again seriously injured. To his dismay, he was discharged from the army, unfit for further service.
By his account, he found that, despite his lameness, he was preyed on by women of all ages. He fell under the influence of a millenarian sect, some of whose female members took a close interest in his history. He developed a love affair with a beautiful young spiritualist, who claimed that she received messages from his dead wife, instructing her how to comfort him.
It was his misfortune to be drawn to a young schoolteacher, a classic blonde beauty who seems to have suffered from a severe form of nymphomania. The outcome of this encounter, which Woodiss describes in painful detail, provides a dramatic climax to his story.
It is not certain why Woodiss chose to present the story of his life as comic fiction: on the one hand, as he often said, he wanted to ‘put the record straight’, but on the other, he seemed not to want people to know who the author was.
He wrote in a simple, straightforward manner, as if telling a serious story, but he presented everything as a joke. His mockery spared no-one, least of all himself, whom he depicted as a hapless buffoon at the centre of the farce.
He played games with the names of his friends and the places where he lived and worked. He was familiar with the novel SHIRLEY, which Charlotte Bronte set in a town based on the town where Woodiss lived. She called it Briarfield; perversely, Woodiss called it Briarmains, which in SHIRLEY is the name of a house. He gave some of his friends and acquaintances the names of Miss Bronte’s characters. At every opportunity he inserted a quotation from novels, poems, popular songs. He even used fragments of dialogue from Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, One his characters appears to believe that Woodiss himself is a character from that novel. His book is founded in reality, but he managed to create a surreal world: a town ruled over by a police sergeant, diagnosed by one doctor as a homicidal manic, where the Coroner presides over an inquest into the deaths of a pair of exotic monkeys, where Woodiss’s housekeeper is a hermaphrodite with a reputation as a particularly dirty Rugby League player. What Woodiss intended to do with his manuscript is not known. Until recently it was in the possession of an old man whose father was one of Woodiss’s drinking companions. It was rescued by George Dalrymple who has edited it. Mr. Dalrymple has also provided an Introduction to the work.
Woodiss had provided a title for his book, but had not included an author’s nname. Mr. Dalrymple took the view that since Woodiss wrote the book, it should be his name that appears on it.