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A Country Matter
A love affair between the wife of a Yorkshire baronet and the baronet’s gamekeeper, developed into one of the most celebrated scandals of the nineteen twenties. The law at the time forbade newspapers from reporting the evidence in divorce actions, nevertheless details of the case became widely known, and to their discomfort, the lovers became notorious. The gamekeeper, in particular, found the publicity hard to bear; worse, from his point of view, the case proved a source of material for several writers. Some saw the lovers as symbols of social change, others picked up and enlarged on hints of what lurked in the background. One concentrated on the husband’s alleged complicity in his wife’s adultery, purportedly to give her the child he could not father. In another version the husband’s supposed indifference was attributed to an attachment to his manservant, and this provoked speculation on whether or not the marriage had been consummated. There was a suggestion that the keeper was not the father of the child the lady was carrying, and that there were sinister reasons why the identity of the true father should not be revealed. One famous author ignored the complexities and concentrated on the character of the gamekeeper, whom he depicted as a primitive creature of immense sexual potency. In his fictionalized memoir, AND WOODISS GETS AWAY WITH IT, the gamekeeper complained that, more than anything else, this portrait had ruined his life.
was Edith Coningsby-Clarke. She was still – by a matter of months - in her twenties, slightly younger than her husband, a little older than her lover. Hers was a mixed background in which the highborn fused with the humble and was blessed with great wealth. By birth, her father was Welsh, the son of a Baptist minister, yet despite these handicaps he had married into one of the richest families in England. In his youth, Ellis Jones had shewn great promise. He was a handsome man, a gifted musician; his settings of the poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox were greatly admired. He possessed a good baritone voice and had appeared in productions of the Savoy operas; one critic - George Bernard Shaw, in The Pall Mall Gazette - was of the opinion that Ellis Jones was the most complete Pooh-Bah ever to appear on the London stage. Sadly, neither his looks nor his musical talent passed to his children, and in all that was written about Edith she was never described as good-looking; her singing voice was not mentioned. Edith’s mother was the daughter of Alfred Topbottom, sometime Liberal MP for Wem Valley, a loyal supporter of Lloyd George and one of the most enlightened men in politics. His enthusiasm for profit-sharing, workers’ welfare and similar advanced causes had not affected his companies’ dividends, however. After a spell as Harbourmaster-General in the wartime government, he was raised to the peerage and became the first baron; he styled himself Alfred, Lord Topbottom. His wife, the daughter of an earl, already enjoyed a courtesy title.
Before her marriage, Edith had been accorded a fair amount of freedom. She trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, where she was a contemporary of Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. During her lifetime she produced a vast amount of work. Most of it is worthless, but her anatomical drawings are a different matter. Her studies of her lover, posed naked in the woods, are regarded as among the most striking produced by any English artist in the twentieth century. If accurate –and it is understood Edith always kept suitable measuring instruments to hand - they reveal that the gamekeeper possessed remarkable physical attributes. Most of the drawings executed before she left her husband were removed from Coningsby Hall with other of her personal possessions, and are still held by the Topbottom family. Surely, after a lapse of more than seventy years, there can be no reason why they should not be made public, and it is hoped that the present Lord Topbottom may be prevailed upon to facilitate this. Edith was deeply loved by her family and remained so despite the problems which ensued from her affair with the keeper. She was perceived as a sweet-natured and tractable woman, straightforward in manner, albeit somewhat dreamy – a quality ascribed by her family to her artistic bent. Yet it was the unshakable obduracy of this gentle young woman that caused so much trouble.
In the spring of nineteen eighteen, Edith married Coningsby Coningsby-Clarke, son of the fifteenth baronet. Mercifully, he chose to be known as Con Clarke. He was intended for a career in the Diplomatic Service. At the outbreak of war, unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not rush to volunteer, and it was late in nineteen seventeen before he joined up. Soon afterwards he became engaged to Edith. When he was ordered to France they married. On joining his battalion, then in rest camp after heavy fighting, Con was relieved to find a familiar face, a man he had known all his life. This was Henry Woodiss, the son of his father’s gardener.
had been born in a cottage on the Coningsby estate. A year or two before, his mother had nursed the future sixteenth baronet. As boys of similar age – the only ones on the isolated estate - they had played together, and although the gardener’s son was the younger and in status immeasurably the inferior, his knowledge of the countryside and stronger character made him the leader. For both boys the relationship went deep and endured from infancy to beyond adolescence; until the affair with Edith came to light, in Con’s eyes at least, they were still friends. For Woodiss it was not his affair with Edith which destroyed their friendship. He was already resentful because he believed that Con had dropped him whilst they were teenagers, but it was an incident which occurred just before they went into the line that changed his feelings for Con forever.
At the outbreak of war, Woodiss, who had just left grammar school, had enlisted in a local infantry regiment. By the time Con joined him, he could look back on his service with pride. Before he was twenty-one he had been grievously wounded twice, and after leaving hospital, returned to duty; he had been decorated for distinguished conduct. Despite his protests, he had been ordered to take a commission. Now the gardener’s son was Con’s company commander.
At considerable risk to himself, it seems, Woodiss, though scandalized by Con’s misbehaviour, used his rank to protect Con, who thereby escaped a court-martial and certain disgrace. Although he vowed to himself never speak of the event, Woodiss referred to it in his memoir and raised hopes that he would reveal the full story. He could not bring himself to do this, but he provided sufficient hints to enable the perceptive reader to form an opinion of what happened.
Whatever embarrassment either man may have felt was not prolonged. Within a couple of days of going into the line, Con was on his way home, severely injured. After many months in hospital, during which time his father died and he succeeded to the title, he returned to the family home where he and Edith settled. Given the nature of his injuries it is likely he was impotent. Certainly he was confined to a wheel chair. Life in Yorkshire cannot have been exciting for either of them but thanks to Edith’s money, it was comfortable.
Woodiss soldiered on until the end of the war and served for a year beyond that. In nineteen twenty, aged twenty-three, he set up in business as a nurseryman and market gardener. He kept his head above water for several years, but as the economy faltered he found it increasingly hard to make a living; he laid off his men and called it a day. Unable to find work he went to live with his father on the Coningsby estate.
Whether or not Woodiss asked Con for work, or Con offered it is not clear, but before long Woodiss was working as a gamekeeper. Con had no interest in sport and only fitfully preserved his game. No doubt he was relieved to find someone who was competent and trustworthy, and Woodiss was glad enough to take the job until something better turned up. Con saw nothing strange in the arrangement. He was comfortable with servants: he paid them to perform certain jobs, and could separate this function from any personal relationship. Woodiss saw things differently. To him, they could never be simply master-and-man, their lives were too entwined. He also felt keenly that after ten or eleven years during which he had distinguished himself as a soldier and then been his own master, he was now a servant, and a badly-paid one, for Con had not been generous: Woodiss’s wage of seventeen shillings and sixpence a week and as many rabbits as he could eat, was low, even by the standards of the time. How far his animosity towards Con was a factor in his affair with Edith is uncertain; if it were, he did not acknowledge it. What is known, is that Edith was aware of the men’s relationship, and there was a suggestion that her jealousy influenced her conduct. In later years, she admitted she was jealous of Woodiss’s friendship with her brother, George.
After she and Con divorced, Edith married Woodiss. Her family supported her and provided a house in an out-of-the-way spot where the couple would be invisible. They lived together contentedly until her early death.
Grieving deeply, Woodiss saw the outbreak of war as a welcome distraction. As an officer in the Territorial Army, he was called to the colours. He was again injured, so badly that he was discharged, unfit for further service.
An Object of Female Desire
For a man who affected a lack of interest in sex and for long periods claimed to be impotent, Woodiss enjoyed a varied and colourful love life. He was looked on with favour by women of all ages: from a teenage housemaid through whom he tried to acquire a pair of drumhead grey monkeys, to an aging Irish widow who hoped he would persuade her son, a dissolute Glaswegian doctor, to enter the priesthood. He was the victim of a mysterious large-hipped woman who climbed into his bed and had her way with him before he could call the police. There were two petite, dark-haired women whom he especially admired, who came to blows over him - one of them a prospective parliamentary candidate with radical political views, the other a spiritualist who claimed to be in direct communication with his dead wife - but his most traumatic encounter was with an evangelical Christian school-teacher, a classic blonde beauty, who seems to have suffered from a severe form of nymphomania. At the time, Woodiss was on the point of joining the well-known millenarian sect, The Company Of The Hopeful. How far his interest stemmed from an access of religious feeling or the prospect of being put in charge of the slaughter of the sacrificial goats, is not established. All Woodiss’s amorous encounters were described graphically and more or less tastefully, and his descriptions sometimes included interesting snippets of horticultural history which gardeners will cherish.
AND WOODISS GETS AWAY WITH IT
Woodiss completed his book in the nineteen sixties when freedom of speech was still permitted in this country, and he expressed views which would now be unacceptable and for which he could be prosecuted. His comments on the Scots and Welsh are distressing to read, though he was at his most venomous on the subject of his fellow Yorkshiremen. (He would be aware, of course, that Yorkshire people are always glad of an opportunity to take offence, and perhaps his comments need to be read in that light.) His disparagement of the disabled will offend many readers who will be shocked that obesity and the prostate problems of hermaphrodites should be the subject of mockery.
Woodiss would have been outraged that Englishmen tolerated any restriction on their freedom to write what they wanted. On the other hand, he had lived long enough to see his views on personal and sexual freedom for both men and women start to become accepted. Whether or not he took satisfaction from this is not known, but it is obvious that he still espoused the ideal of total personal freedom and those who tried to restrict it still aroused his wrath.
The manuscript as first presented was a large untidy bundle of ill-typed ramblings, and it has taxed the skill of the Editor to produce the coherent work now published. Woodiss told his tale simply. He wrote in plain serviceable prose, without pretence to style and with a lamentable disdain for the rules of grammar. The Editor has tried to preserve the rough, home-spun quality and the charming naivety of the original, but in order to make Woodiss’s meaning clear it has been necessary to add some punctuation and correct his most egregious spelling mistakes. The grammatical failings are his, of course. What Woodiss did with the manuscript when it was finished is not known. Until recently it was in the possession of an old man whose father, one of Woodiss’s drinking companions, is mentioned in the text. It may be that Woodiss realized that he had revealed intimate information about several women - one of whom had become a national figure – who would be identified, even though he had disguised their names. For some reason he also adopted another curious deception. He called the town he lived in by a name invented by an eminent nineteenth century woman writer, one of whose novels was set in a town loosely based on Woodiss’s town. Perversely, the name Woodiss chose for his town, was the name of a house in the novel. He invented some names for his characters, or gave them the names of characters in the Bronte novel and other works. In a cruel prank he inserted in his text quotations from a wide variety of sources - novels and poetry, the Bible, music hall songs and soldiers’ songs of the Great War - knowing that many readers would suspect they had stumbled across a quotation and then suffer prolonged discomfort because, in their ignorance, they could not identify it. The Editor, with his extensive knowledge of the culture and history of the period, has so far identified over a hundred of these references, but it is feared there may be more. The events Woodiss described occurred at least seventy years ago, nevertheless two or three of the people he wrote about are still alive. Happily, they are too senile to take offence. It would have been most unfortunate if they had been able to interfere with publication for it is surely in the public interest that this text, which throws much light on life in England in the first half of the twentieth century, and which has absorbed so much of the Editor’s time, should be available to everyone and – most importantly – that it should be preserved for posterity.
Editor of AND WOODISS GETS AWAY WITH IT
© George Dalrymple