Thursday, January 4, 2018

Prize money for books

‘My prize money was value of 15/- [.] I chose with this JW Mackail’s translation of “The Odyssey” 5/- & 7 vols of Chiswick Shakespear.’ This is from the diary of Alfred Edgar Coppard, a British short story writer working from the first half of the 20th century, who is largely forgotten today. Having started work from the age of nine with no subsequent education, he read avidly (entering sports competitions to buy books with the prize money) and taught himself how to write in a literary way. Eventually, he was able to live from the income of his published short stories. There has been no biography of the man, but an American philosophy doctoral student, Frank Edmund Smith, wrote a thesis on Coppard - available online - which includes many extracts from a diary the writer kept in the early 1900s.

Coppard (known as Flynn to his friends) was born on 4 January 1878 into a poor family in Folkestone. They moved to Brighton when he was five. After the death of his father, he left school aged nine to work, first as a street vendor's assistant, but many other jobs followed. In 1905, he married Lilly Anne, daughter of a Brighton plumber, and in 1907 they moved to Oxford where he took up a post as confidential clerk at the Eagle Ironworks. An avid reader, Coppard also belonged to a literary group, the New Elizabethans, who met in a pub to read Elizabethan drama. In 1919, he decided to try and make a living as a writer. His first collection of short stories, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, was published by Harold Taylor who had recently launched the Golden Cockerel Press.

Coppard received early praised from Ford Madox Ford, and many similar collections of short stories followed through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. They often featured misfits and outcasts, and were set in the countryside which he wrote of with a lyrical voice, reminiscent of Thomas Hardy. Some stories contained elements of supernatural horror or allegorical fantasy. During the 1920s, he also produced several poetry collections, although these were never given much critical attention. Coppard’s first wife died in 1932, and he then married South African-born Winifred de Kok, with whom he had two children, and who would go on to become a TV expert on family problems.

In 1946, Coppard garnered some commercial success in the US when the Book of the Month Club of America issued his Selected Tales to a vast membership. He died of a heart attack in 1957. There is not a great deal of biographical information online about Coppard (nor have any biographies been written), but what there is can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required). Also, see Shaun Belcher’s Searching for A. E. Coppard for a more personal and interesting view of the writer. Very soon after his death, Methuen issued an autobiography: It’s Me, O Lord!: An Abstract & Brief Chronicle of Some of the Life with Some of the Opinions of A. E. Coppard, Written by Himself.

There are also a few biographical details in Frank Edmund Smith’s 1973 PhD dissertation Flynn: A Study of A. E. Coppard and His Short Fiction (1973) - which is available online thanks to Loyola University Chicago eCommons and Core. (Smith is now Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Harper College.) And it is through this dissertation that some information about Coppard’s diaries is also available online. In researching his thesis, Smith came to England, met Coppard’s wife, Winifred, several times, and was given permission to read and use Coppard’s diaries (1902-1906). In his introduction, Smith describes the diaries as ‘covering closely’ the years 1902-1903 with a few entries from 1904, and one entry for 1906.

After explaining that his own sketch of Coppard’s young life does not describe the real man struggling to find self-identity through the reading and writing of literature, Smith goes on to give this description of the diary: ‘One partial testament to this struggle (“adventure” might be a better word) is the Diary that Coppard kept, unevenly, from 1902 to 1906. It is the journal of an amazingly active young man recording, mostly in the period 1902-1904, a great variety of activities: professional running and billiards tournaments (both with handicaps, scores, wagers, prizes, participants, strategies), marathon walks around Brighton, sketching, photography, reading, writing competitions, art exhibits, and concerts, plays, and operas attended. There are many descriptions of the land and of the people of the land. The young Coppard describes the seasons’ changes in their effects on the land, mostly the plowed fields around Brighton. He also describes flowers, clouds, and birds seen on his frequent hikes.

The Diary contains almost no introspection and no direct entry into the mind of Coppard. He rarely talks about his self. Although one can see in the Diary a strong romantic inclination toward life and literature, there are only the lightest suggestions of his own developing love of Lilly Anne. His wife-to-be appears in many entries as “Dick,” but there is little to suggest that they are about to be married. The young Coppard got along well with others - his many friends and acquaintances appear throughout the pages, and some of the incidents that he describes show that he could make friends rapidly. Yet, his greatest enjoyment is long walks alone.

A great portion of the Diary is a record of Coppard’s reading as his literary consciousness grew. He meticulously records book purchases, always with prices, describes his response to the books he reads, and quotes long passages from favored prose and poetry. He is attempting to write, too. His descriptions of the land around Brighton are, especially at the beginning, sentimental, forced, mawkish, overdone, although they do improve from 1902 to 1906. Not all of his descriptions, though, are set scenes. He already has a fascination for listening to and telling tales, and, when he records persons in action - dialogue, features, movement - he is excellent. He lets the scene carry itself while his sharp eye picks out the comic, the unusual, the bizarre.

In the Diary he has already begun to devise the writing process that he was later to perfect - the continual recording of details that would finally emerge as a complete dramatic portrait. All during his life he carried with him notebooks in which he kept descriptions of scenes and events and records of odd names.’

Here are several examples of Coppard’s diary, as found in Smith’s narrative (including Smith’s occasional square bracket additions).

28 April 1902
‘Each field & road & hedge were charged with clamour & thunder of the great wind which bored into you with a fierce splendid power. But on this bright day the constant motion of the shining grass was wonderful to see, & slipping up over the hill the land seemed living. At one point I stood back to the wind, face to the sun, & the tall greenmeat went scurrying away like myriads of tiny beasts galloping in panic until they reached a little hilloc; over there they lost form & it all looked like a lot of water boiling furiously. So on to Bevendean, past the roaring wood, & behind the barn where all was quiet & warm. I saw 2 red & black butterflies. Further on, sitting on a sheltered bank, I watched the rooks trying to beat into the wind, but each had to drop down & travel close to the earth.’

15 May 1902
‘When the late mr Reason was killed in Australia a big subscription was made by the men in order to buy something which could be placed in the new factory as a memorial of him [.] About £25 was collected & it was foolishly resolved to buy a drinking fountain to be placed in the courtyard. When at length the fountain appeared there was great disappointment it was so small, ludicrously small. At noon when the men came out for dinner they found some sacriligious wag had tied a notice to the paltry thing, “No bathing allowed here”!’

24 May 1902
‘Sports at the Reason Ground (annual) [.] I won 4 third prizes viz. 120 yds, mile, 1 mile, & throwing cricket ball. I was really third. in long jump, but a mistake by the Judges “outed” me. My prizes were a fearful walking stick, a set of carvers of which the knife refuses to perform the only duty one asks of a carve - to carve & 2 of the most medally silver medals God ever permitted a man to make. The value of the lot is about £1. I swear when I think of the books I could have bought with the money.’

22 June 1902
‘On the way home over the lonely hills I told Symonds some of Poe’s tales.(sic) ‘The Maelstrom’ ‘The Pendulum’ & ‘The Mesmerized Corpse’ made him quite uncomfortable.’

6 July 1902
‘Coming home I beguiled Symonds with some more terrible tales, & rather unnerved him again to my great joy.’

18 January 1903
‘My mother’s gossip grows voluminous, she’s quite a character. “You know Alf when I was up there, I used to tell them gals so, whatever it was [.] They used to say ‘Why Coppard’s a jolly old witch, that she is’. And s’elp me bob, its just the same with politics [.] “ Her[e] her garrulity develops [.]? “I says to Mis Hillman, well, I says, so & so, and so & so & there it is. Yes, I see, she says [.] Ive never ‘ad it put before me in that way before. She’s a Roman Catholic but I says there’s nothing to beat a good ole Liberal” (at this point I shut my book & exhibit a sort of rebellious interest) [.] “I was just the same when I first got married, but your poor ole dad, he used to get me up in such a corner & fair beat it into me ‘e did; he used to drive me clean off me rocker & make me understand all about it” (I make a comprehending inclination of my superior head, & suffer mutely) [.] “The things never used to be so dear: when ole Gladdy was in he made everything cheap & paid up all the Natural debts & saved any amount of money, any amount that there ole Gladdy saved. And then the Queen must go and send for that beautiful Beaconsfield, & what with the wars & the things, he spent every blooming farthing he did that poor old Gladdy ‘ad saved, Alf. And the country kicked up bobs-a-dying, & was in such a uproar that the Queen had to send for old Gladdy to come back. But e wouldn’t go; e said he wouldn’t go, & move e never did” (a pause, chockful of unearthly things) [.] “There was, Sir “Something” Bright, too, e rebuked the corn bills, & give us a cheap loaf”. (the latter achievement constitutes a transcendental feature of all her favorite statemen) Sir Somethings “rebuke” assaulted my reserve & I subsided.’

27 May 1903
‘My prize money was value of 15/- [.] I chose with this JW Mackail’s translation of “The Odyssey” 5/- & 7 vols of Chiswick Shakespear.” ’

22 November 1904
‘To Bevendean This was a day of days. A storm all over England last night. The morning came with a little fall of snow -no great matter - but in favourable places on the hills & over ploughed land it lies light on the dry dead grass & cowers on the loose furrows [.] It assumes the aspect of things around a miller’s habitation. The atmosphere is crystalline & thrilling although under grey skies, for a big shattering wind clears all unlovely mist away from here & the sharp lace of the bare trees [.] It is now indeed the season of the whirling leaf. The cold snow brings an increased loneliness to the old sweet lonely places the farm laborers wear great coats old fashioned & tattered [.] A week ago the stubble was crowded with half-budded pimpernel with here & there a poppy. They must be dead as the year is, today.’

12 March 1906 [final entry]
‘at Burdock Farm: Following a bright morn the Northwest wind, for an afternoon, filled the weald, &, leafing towards the Downs kept a blue unhampered sky, & upon sodden field bare hedge thicket path & brook renewed an ancient beauty. But as early as 4 o’clock shadow was filling up the scars on the north side of the Downs; the clarity of the day & the glowing distance to the hills were bent almost as soon as seen to their vicarious decline [.] Day closed later under a wall brilliant with piercing stars; tall trees swinging viciously in the blast [.]’

No comments: