Monday, 13 October 2008

The Alwyn Papers

In this second extract from his new biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, Adrian Wright discovers some crucial documents in Cambridge. But will they tell him what he needs to know?

What was it that Alwyn’s son Jonathan had said about Doreen Carwithen coming into their lives and ruining everything in the late fifties? The secret had been kept from his family for much longer. And even when we remember what Alwyn confessed in his last years (the time scale not to be trusted), and the pencilled notes in Carwithen’s diaries (whether her tutor was in a jolly mood, or asked her for tea, or kept her waiting while he scurried back from a recording session), and her recollections when she was failing of the afternoon spent in a haystack, we couldn’t hold any of this up as evidence. Alwyn had proudly proclaimed that it had been love at first sight, but when had the relationship changed from teacher-pupil to something more personal? In June 2006, I heard that Barbara Jackson had given some material to the Alwyn archive at Cambridge University. This included a batch of letters from Alwyn to Carwithen. The heart quickened. Could these at last hold the answer to an understanding of what had happened? After all, no other letters from Alwyn to Carwithen had ever been found, although I had vague memories of being told about them when she was confined in her room in a Kessingland nursing home. The archivist at Cambridge, Margaret Jones, was excited, and tantalised me with her enthusiasm. I told her that I was controlling my excitement in case they turned out to be disappointing. ‘They won’t be’ she wrote, ‘I thought they made a lot of things clearer. And I think William comes rather well out of them.’

It was a broiling morning in July when I drove over to look at the letters. My suspicion about the airlessness of the Music Room was confirmed; I was the only person brave enough that morning to sit through several sweltering hours in what was obviously Cambridge’s most elegant sauna. Perhaps the heat had something to do with it, but I turned each page of the letters with less enthusiasm. Where was the blinding light, where was the explanation I looked for? These letters left me more perplexed than before as to what had happened between Olive and Peter and Carwithen and Doreen and Mary and Alwyn. Margaret Jones obviously had a better understanding than I did; his biographer, the man who was supposed to know everything about his subject, had come away from this crucial evidence with all lights dimmed. Craftily, I wrote to her. What had she thought of the letters? I would be most interested to have her views, and I gave no hint of mine (no chance, really, as I had none). This was a dastardly way to carry on. She replied, a long letter, with all the reason that biographers need to be reminded of. And the points she made had the resonance of good sense, with a dash of detective work neatly done.

She felt for Jonathan when she realised that the letters confirmed what we had suspected, that the affair began very much earlier than the late 1950s. This is clear from the very first of that batch of letters sent by Alwyn to Monks Risborough and postmarked 21 July 1945, to ‘My dear Doreen’, with the request that next time she writes she should write ‘Personal’ on the envelope. This in itself suggests that only at this time did she start writing letters to him. A few weeks later she was holidaying in Devon (a favourite retreat) when he wrote from his mother-in-law’s home that he ‘felt very dreary after leaving you […] needless to say I was very wakeful and during the night watches thought of you sitting (I hope) through the long night’. He had been busy recording for a film, and negotiating the rent of a house he had found in Hampstead. He was thinking of her in Devon. ‘You might see some sea lions or seals (do you remember the sea lions?) – very romantic perhaps they will sing to you (did you know seals croon?) […] I went for a country walk yesterday evening and heard distant church bells ring across the woods and fields – this is a lovely world, isn’t it, dear.’

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