My friend the Heresiarch once accused me of ‘living in a medieval never-never land’, and it’s true that, when the music emanating from the little ghetto blaster in my university bedroom wasn’t Siouxsie and the Banshees, it was the Walkman Classics recording of the Carmina Burana. I remember calling up from the Bodleian’s bookstacks the great facsimile edition of the Carmina and musing on what the original would be like. A lot of my actual studies concerned the Middle Ages, though none of it, necessarily, medieval poetry. That was decoration, or, more strictly, a deeper layer.
In the middle of this time I heard a programme on the radio: the Wednesday Feature on 24th May 1989, it seems, in which Brian Redhead profiled Helen Waddell. She was, I learned, the translator of the Carmina (in fact, only some of those lyrics), a figure of great intellect who never quite achieved what she should have done, and whose academic career was curtailed at its outset by the demands of an invalid stepmother, and at its end by illness. The Wandering Scholars was her masterpiece, bringing to the public a world of medieval lyric whose existence the generally informed person had barely suspected before (it was only several years after its publication in 1927 that Carl Orff began setting selections from the Carmina to music, but there doesn’t seem to have been any connection). Only intermittently attached to any university, Waddell trampled the boundaries between disciplines as though they were of no relevance: she was a poet, historian, novelist, dramatist, editor, translator. She melded into my sense of the Middle Ages, a sweet concoction which was being fed by other streams, including music a little more accurate than Carl Orff. The mingled scent of blood and roses. Brian Redhead didn’t talk about her Christian faith a great deal, as I remember, but that phrase used about her by a relative which gave her first biography its title – that she bore The Mark of the Maker – was evocative enough to stamp itself into my mind.
Years later I came across a copy of that book, written by Waddell’s friend Monica Blackett in 1973, and yet didn’t read it. It’s mainly composed of letters and has an unintriguing misty reticence about it – despite its date it seems to come from an era twenty years before, never defining, for instance, the relationship between the writer and her unhappily married publisher Otto Kyllmann (it was a non-physical love affair that led to their sharing a house until Helen became too ill). And Waddell herself retreated into the recesses of my mind.
What brought her back out again recently? I think it was just that I wanted to clear my mind with some biography and took The Mark of the Maker off the shelf. That led me to Dame Felicitas Corrigan’s fuller account of Waddell from 1986 which had also been mentioned on Radio 4, though I can’t say that I heard about it then.
It’s hard to exaggerate the literary superstardom which Helen Waddell enjoyed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, all the more stunning for the fact that she, and so many of the people that meant much to her, are now almost completely forgotten. Nobody, including its author, expected The Wandering Scholars and its companion volume Medieval Latin Lyrics to take off the way they did; the reception for her novel Peter Abelard was near-rapturous. For a few years she was one of the most feted figures in the kind of high society that liked to sprinkle a few academics around to transmute the tinsel of glamour (and power – Stanley Baldwin became a friend) into the more precious metals of knowledge and culture.
And there was weight enough there to do it. Waddell knew her stuff, for sure, but what made the difference was that she could write her stuff. Combined with a tremendous breadth of range which could bring apparently disparate facts and artefacts to bear on a single narrative and tease out nuances which a less magpie mind might miss, she had a deep imaginative sympathy with her subjects, whatever they were, even when – as with John Milton – she found them fundamentally uncongenial. She could breathe in a topic until, like a kind of menthol, its scent suffused her and out of that she wrote. Recovering from fever and tended by the sisters of the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1924, she underwent a strange experience in which she became the ill-fated lover of Peter Abelard, Heloise, not as a young woman but in her old age as Abbess of the Paraclete, with Abelard twenty years dead. This vision, if that’s what it was, enabled her to take on the business of writing their story, finally emerging in the novel of 1933, with all the emotional near-drowning that entailed. It was a hazardous undertaking which made great demands of her and left her exhausted, but what fruits it bore.
I now read Waddell’s prose, even the letters Sister Felicitas quotes, and find myself almost scorched by that incandescent passion, that tremendous love of souls, both the ones she knew in life and those she touched through her studies. At times I want to give up any writing at all, so bright hers burns. Through it all was threaded her faith: she never left the Ulster Presbyterianism that raised her, but combined it, tensionless, with a Catholic spirituality – how could so sensitive a medievalist do otherwise? I could joke that such a mixture makes her a sort of honorary Anglican.
From the late 1940s Waddell’s memory began to fail her and that towering intellect succumbed to what we would now automatically term dementia. And here Sister Felicitas (no milk-and-water nun herself, by all accounts) produces the most Christian gloss of that cruel disease I know, so I quote it in the hope it may be useful:
In a world delirious with the invention of more and more powerful weapons …, filled with hoarse noises, … is it not at least conceivable that the Creator of man should, so to speak, demand hostages to overpass time and space, and to dwell beyond the reach of intellect …, in silent solitude in God’s presence? These tithes given to God are called to cease being workers and thinkers, and to plunge instead into the deep silence of their own incommunicable selfhood and spirit to encounter the living God, entirely other yet mysteriously immanent at the inmost centre of every human heart He has created.
One of Helen Waddell’s last translations had been the deathbed prayer of another scholar, King Alfred’s tutor, great Alcuin of York, written as the English Dark Ages dawned into the Middle:
Beside the shore of the sail-winged sea
I wait the coming of God’s silent dawn.
Do thou help this my journey with thy prayer.
And there are no better words to conclude than those, which are both his, and hers.