Notable People

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Margaret Llewelyn Davies (1861-1944) was, from the 1890s to the 1930s, an inspirational campaigner for women’s causes who has, quite undeservedly, been allowed to slip almost into oblivion. Fortunately, a new book, Margaret Llewelyn Davies: with Women for a New World by Ruth Cohen, has just been published which sets the record straight. So what did Margaret do that we should remember her?

Margaret as a young woman: attractive, energetic, persuasive and with a great deal of charm; her friend Virginia Woolf remarked that she could ‘compel a steamroller to dance.’ 

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James Henry Leigh Hunt, to give Hunt his full name, was one of those people who everyone who was anyone in either politics or the arts knew, or at least knew of. In 1808, aged only 24, he, together with his older brother John, set up The Examiner, a weekly political paper which prided itself on its political independence; it was liberal and reformist in its opinions and it attacked, ferociously, whatever Hunt felt deserved it.

Leigh Hunt by Benjamin Haydon, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

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The story of Nathaniel Bentley, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Dick’ is a curious one. He was born in 1735, or thereabouts, into a well-to-do City of London merchant’s family. His father owned a successful hardware business with a house, a shop and a well-stocked warehouse in Leadenhall St in Bishopsgate, and he saw to it that his son was given a good education, as befitted his status as a gentleman. Mr Bentley, senior, died in 1760, when Nathaniel was about twenty-five-years old, leaving his son a successful business.

Nathaniel Bentley, also known as ‘Dirty Dick’

So far, so good.

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March 17th is St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland and, this week, I’m looking at a couple of places in Northern Ireland which he visited. St Patrick, whose family was Romano-British, was born in about AD 370, somewhere in Western England between the Severn and the Clyde. His father, a Christian, was a man of some standing in his community and owned a small estate. When he was about sixteen, Patrick was captured by pirates, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave and became a shepherd. Six years later, he escaped and, eventually, found a ship to take him home.

St Patrick’s Protestant Cathedral, Downpatrick. The poet John Betjeman declared it Britain’s loveliest small cathedral.

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I have long loved the stylish and witty novels of Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) and I know that I am not alone. The actor, playwright and composer, Noël Coward, also enjoyed her novels and admired her technique – especially her clever use of irony. The novelist A.S. Byatt itemized why Heyer’s Regency novels were so successful: ‘Paradise of ideal solutions, knowing it for what it is, comforted by its temporary actuality, nostalgically refreshed for coping with the quite different tangle of preconceptions, conventions and social emphases we have to live with. Which is what good escape literature is about.’  Heyer did her research properly; her Regency world may be limited in its social range but she undoubtedly had the gift of drawing her readers in, holding them spellbound, and making them laugh and feel better.

The Quiet Gentleman by Georgette Heyer 1951

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Every now and then my local library has a book sale and some years ago, whilst eagerly scanning the book titles, one of Virago’s familiar dark green covers caught my eye. It was High Albania by a woman I’d never heard of, Edith Durham, (1863-1944). First published in 1907, it was an eye-witness account of her hair-raising travels in the mountains of Albania. Intrigued, I bought it.

High Albania by Edith Durham

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This year is the poet William Wordsworth’s 250th birthday. So why should we celebrate him?

From a 21st century point of view, the problem with William Wordsworth (1770-1850) is that it’s difficult to label him neatly. He was an early Romantic poet who held radical views. His fellow-poet contemporaries, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron, who knew him personally, all predeceased him by at least twenty-five years. We cannot know how Byron, Keats and Shelley would have turned out if they had lived, but Wordsworth, unromantically, became an Establishment figure, one of the nation’s most loved and respected poets, and ended up as Poet Laureate.

William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1842. The poet is standing under the brooding mountain, Helvellyn, as darkness falls. Photo, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. 

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I have often wondered where the archaeologist Howard Carter, of Tutankhamen fame, actually stayed whilst excavating in the Valley of the Kings on the trail of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922. I imagined a dusty tent, perhaps with a flickering hurricane lamp, and mosquito nets over an uncomfortable camp bed somewhere nearby.

 Howard Carter (1874-1939) Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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The short but tumultuous life of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), one of the greatest of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century, shows him to have been a man of contradictions. He disapproved of matrimony – but married twice; he was a vegetarian (rare at the time), a republican and a Radical. He was thrown out of Eton for expressing atheistic views. But he was also intelligent and highly imaginative and has been described as ‘the poet of volcanic hope for a better world’. At his best, as in his sonnet Ozymandias, he is inimitable.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) by Amelia Curran, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very Heaven!’

So wrote the poet, William Wordsworth, about his arrival in Paris in 1790 when he was young, in love, and an ardent supporter of the French Revolution. But Wordsworth’s words could equally describe being young in the 1960s, a similarly heady period when the old social mores were chucked out, and a revolutionary, youth-led counter culture in fashion, ideas, music, and much else, swept in.

Swinging London; note the new Post Office tower – with a slowly-revolving restaurant at the top

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