Saturday, 31 January 2009
Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're on a diet
Even if you’ve never heard of Frances Cornford, you may have come across her most frequently anthologised poem, ‘To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train’, originally published in 1910, with its memorable opening lines: ‘O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,/ Missing so much and so much?/ O fat white woman whom nobody loves,/ Why do you walk through the fields in gloves…’
Pictures of Frances Cornford reveal her to have been dark-eyed and slender; the opposite, in fact, of a pale portly lady. She was born in 1886, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin (whose bicentennial birthday will be celebrated this month), and the only daughter of Sir Frank Darwin. Like her grandfather and father, Frances suffered from debilitating episodes of depression; her first breakdown occurred at 17, after the death of her mother, and lasted for several years, though by 1909 she had recovered sufficiently to marry Francis Cornford, a young Cambridge Classics don.
The Darwinian tendency to melancholy – entwined with a puritanical attitude to eating – is revealed in the account of a family picnic to celebrate Frances’ marriage. Her cousin, Gwen Raverat, described the dismal outing in a memoir, accompanied by a sketch of various gloomy Darwins in a field, with a scant amount of food: “… the climax came when it was found that [the tea] had all been sugared beforehand. This was inexpressible calamity. They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’… at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us…”
Poor Frances endured further breakdowns, but it remains unclear whether her depression was worsened by G.K Chesterton – a famously large man – in his scathing riposte, ‘The Fat White Woman Speaks’: ‘Why do you rush through the fields in trains,/ Guessing so much and so much./ Why do you flash through the flowery meads,/ Fat-head poet that nobody reads…’
If the lonely fat lady doesn’t keep you on a diet, perhaps it’s for the best; after all, as Cornford’s life amply demonstrates, thinness isn’t necessarily conducive to happiness, for sometimes we need sweetness and light.
Note: I've posted the link to the photograph [above], which is owned by the National Portrait Gallery. I love this picture, by Janet Stone, for several reasons. I like to think she's drinking a cup of tea, rather than coffee, and who knows whether it might have a spoonful of sugar in it? It was taken in later life, thereby proving that Frances Cornford survived her dreadful bouts of depression and mental anguish. And she has such a wonderful, questioning expression on her face... almost like a bird of prey.