During my last trip to London I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Ravilious exhibit. Knowing very little about the man, my interest in his work springs from its pleasant blending of English countryside, soothing colours, and war art. When Persephone Books announced they would be publishing his wife's autobiography I ordered a copy. To be perfectly honest, reading about Tirzah's life was meant to be a way of gleaning more information about Eric. Now that I've mournfully turned the last page of Long Live Great Bardfield my interest has been completely turned around...and how could it not be? While a picture may be worth a thousand words, to read Tirzah's thoughts on art, family, love, sex, and the war with such honesty is to feel as though you've been been welcomed into this sphere by Tirzah herself.
Tirzah Garwood was born into a life of privilege in 1908, although this shouldn't be misunderstood as 'stuffiness', although anything appearing to be 'common' is greatly avoided (and usually quite comic). For every mention of something such as a man arriving to wind clocks there are chickens, bunnies, dogs, foraging, and a passion for collecting things like birds' nests and beetles. Such passions can have their downside...
'My mother was unfortunate enough to have been married when the fashion for pewter pots was at its height.....'
Art figured prominently in Tirzah's family with both her mother and father taking up pencil and brush. Mr Garwood's eye for sketching nudes from photography book caused no small amount of embarrassment. In fact, there were many instances when Edwardian values turned to carefree adventure. Aunt Rose arranged for the eldest three Garwood children to experience a ride in a seaplane while the younger two were compensated with a lunch out. On the surface, Tirzah was mesmerized by the way the pilot's hair moved in the wind but a hand stained red from the ticket reveals a bit of anxiety. And who could blame her?
Another fascinating aspect of this book are the references to health conditions and how they were treated during this era between the wars. Eating too much can bring about a liver attack, another woman apparently went deaf because a bag had been popped behind her, and quinine is recommended towards the end of pregnancy. At one point, while Tirzah is in hospital, she writes about a twenty-two year old woman who has been under observation for thirteen weeks because she has grown a beard. It's obvious to us in 2017 that this is a hormone issue but there's another glaring point...today you wouldn't be admitted for half that time if you required a heart transplant. And I did laugh at an ineffective way to beat sunstroke....
'It was a very hot day and my mother went bathing, which she occasionally did, wearing a voluminous alpaca bathing dress with a longish skirt. She was always very careful to wet the top of her forehead first when she went in, I think her mother had told her always to do this. It seemed a poor sort of reward for years of such caution that she should in spite of this get sunstroke, but there it was, she came home with her memory completely gone and kept offering Joe more helpings of rice pudding for lunch.'
As you can see, at barely a third of the way into Long Live Great Bardfield there is already much to recommend it. By the time Tirzah's writing has moved on from her childhood to concentrate on her relationship with Eric Ravilious, my heart had been lost to her.
To anyone interested in a long list of topics such as the interwar period, artists, social history, women's rights, village life, domestic history, World War II, England, etc., I can not recommend this book highly enough. Also, for anyone contemplating a good read for a book group this would make a wonderful choice. As I mentioned before, I knew very little about Eric Ravilious and nothing at all about Tirzah but was completely swept away. A final bit of advice - have a box of tissues nearby for the last chapter.
Duffy Ayres, portrait of Tirzah Garwood (1944)