Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 09 Jun 2017

Woodbrook by David Thomson

I suspect that David Thomson is a rather forgotten figure now. Woodbrook is his extraordinary memoir of life as a tutor in the Anglo-Irish Kirkwood family from 1932 to around 1942. It is an elegy to a particular style of colonial upper class life in rural Ireland, to his youth, and in particular to Phoebe, the young girl – just eleven when Thomson first came to Woodbrook aged eighteen – whom he was engaged to teach.

Thomson was evidently a troubled man – intensely shy, lonely one suspects, and despite his own colonial upper middle class background, something of an outsider. He worked for more than twenty-five years as a BBC radio producer and wrote a series of children’s books, two other memoirs and some widely acclaimed retellings of folk myths. But it is for Woodbrook that he will be remembered.

Intensely personal – and sometimes astonishingly frank – passages are interspersed with often cuttingly critical analyses of Anglo-Irish history: the troublesome history which, he says in the book’s final sentence, sometimes seems “to have been boiled down and its dregs thrown out, leaving their poisonous concentrate on these six counties.”

Personally I find some of Woodbrook’s Irish history indigestible and skip here and there, but to Thomson it is evidently vitally important – a recognition of the lives of ordinary people and an acknowledgement that the evictions and brutal clearances that preceded the Great Famine were raw and immediate family memories to some in the early-1930s. His aim seems to be to set the record straight and reveal the full infamy of centuries of English colonial oppression in Ireland. But what I read the book for, and I’m sure the reason for its enduring popularity, is Thomson’s almost hallucinatory recall, his sensuous description of an utterly vanished world, and in particular of the strange and intense love he has for Phoebe.

It is probably also true to say that there will be few contemporary readers who are not troubled to at least some degree by this aspect of the book. Don’t get me wrong. This is not Lolita. Nothing is described beyond a chaste kiss or a companionable embrace but it is clear that as much as Phoebe represented a bewitching, irreplaceable ideal, Thomson also ached physically for her. And while at times he acknowledges the strangeness of his infatuation he also likens it to the great doomed romances of classical literature – to Dante’s Beatrice and to Abelard and Heloise. On the other hand he also admits that her mother gently (and reluctantly, according to his account) insists that he and Phoebe must adopt a more conventional child-tutor relationship. There is a moment much later in the book – Phoebe is perhaps seventeen – where he seems to suggest that his love was or in other circumstances could have been reciprocated, but this may be wishful thinking (and he seems to recognise this too).

What gives the book its extraordinary emotional charge is the fact that Phoebe died when she was just eighteen. She contracted an unspecified illness some time in late-1942, just a few months after Thomson left Woodbrook. (The market for thoroughbred horses, the estate’s primary source of income, was largely destroyed by the war and the great house was put on the market.) Thomson made one pilgrimage back to Ireland more than twenty years later, but by this time most of the people he had grown to love were dead or dispersed and Woodbrook much diminished, its lands sold off and parts of the house demolished in an effort to render the remainder habitable.

We’ve written elsewhere here of books that are treasured because of the ‘lost worlds’ they record – somehow enchanted, enclosed, perhaps as with this one, shadowed with a foreknowledge of their decay and disappearance. Woodbrook is certainly one of these books. It is not without its flaws, but Thomson’s ability (and willingness) to recall a past life in all its beauty – and sometimes its shaming misery too – is certainly exceptional. The question, I suppose, is whether in our current age the book and its central love affair – its gentle, restrained eroticism – can still be read with the innocence with which one feels it was written. Readers will have to make their own minds up.

Thomson died quite suddenly in 1988, his later life plagued by mania and depression. A first – and one suspects last – biography was published a couple of years ago.

Alun Severn

June 2017