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.

17 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

Love the detail about the shock of sugar already in the tea - do you have picture of her?

Justine Picardie said...

I don't have a picture, annoyingly -- very little has been written about her. The person who may have a picture is Henri Llewelyn Davies, who introduced me to Frances Cornford in the first place. I'd read the fat lady on the train, but nothing more than that, and then Henri and I were waiting for a train in Cornwall, after doing an event together at last year's du Maurier festival in Fowey, and while we were sitting on the platform of Par station, in the May sunshine, she told me that I should read more of Frances Cornford. So I did, thanks to Henri.
I've searched google images, but nothing comes up apart from her grave, her husband, and Rupert Brooke (who was a friend of hers); and the poems I have are scattered in anthologies rather than in a collected volume. I did discover one photograph of her as a fierce yet frail old lady, but it's not available to scan and post on my blog.
If anyone comes across a freely available picture, please let us all know!

Justine Picardie said...

PS. I've posted the link to a National Portrait Gallery picture by Janet Stone, and also added it to the blog. It's such a great picture...

Gondal-girl said...

Great picture, she certainly looks very plucky. Looks like a coffee cup, perhaps she had by then done away with tea, after some stronger stuff, away from the depravity of the 'hollowness'...what a thing to say to someone.

Justine Picardie said...

And what is in the bowl on the tray? Biscuits or something inedible?

Gondal-girl said...

forgot to add - great background to you discovering Frances....

also read somewhere that Jill Dawson's new book is about the very handsome Rupert Brooke...

and love the National Portrait Gallery, one of my fav. museums ever. Co-incidentally posted an image from their on my blog about a rumoured family ancestor...

Gondal-girl said...

soup, or could it be bowl of sugar afterall, look at that spoon -?

Justine Picardie said...

Am hopping over to your blog now.

Barbara Joan said...

Justine - 'the family picnic' - the puritanical attitude to eating' I laughed! I am reminded of Barbara Pym's book 'Quartet in Autumn' where one of the women has to dispose of a wine bottle that has been left her house. It is so amusing and so English ...

Justine Picardie said...

I've never read that Barbara Pym, but I must add it to my list. In fact, I should do a bibliotherapy column on one of her books. Which is your favourite?

JaneGS said...

I have been driving myself crazy trying to listen to the BBC Radio 4 pieces you've linked to, but to no avail. I've tried the Help button, but end up going in circles. Any thoughts on what I'm missing or are they expired or only for UK ISP types.

Justine Picardie said...

I'm sorry -- maybe they've expired, or maybe it's some technical glitch. Wish I could be more helpful!

Jean said...

Jane -I'm in Australia and also tried to link to them but they do expire after a certain time - I think only a week or two.

Ross said...

I really enjoyed this entry about the Cornford poem.

My mom, 83, passed this past Weds. She was an artist in Chicago and in about 1976, at about age 50, she'd done an abstract nude quasi self-portrait wearing those long yellow Rubbermaid gloves you use for household cleaning of toilets and ovens and what not. When I asked her about it, when I was the ripe young age of 16 as it went up on the wall of our dining room where it is still displayed to this day, she merely said:
"fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves".
And at the time I just didn't get it and didn't inquire further.

Well, with her gone, I asked my dad this morning about it and he said that back in the 40s, right after the war, he and my mom took a core foundation class at Northwestern University for their Medill School of Journalism major, and the Cornford poem was one they both knew and remembered well.

I had no idea about it or its much parioded and probed history. I've taken a photo of it and when I get home to Texas I'll post it to my FaceBook page and then provide a link for your readers' enjoyment. I'm not sure exactly where she was going with it, but since she marched to the beat of a different drum beat, often perhaps made fun of by the more conventional types of our world for being somewhat different and seeing things differently, I suspect that she felt for the woman in the field, and perhaps as a non-conventional artist, housewife, homemaker she's put a new twist on this one with the addition of the Rubbermaid long yellow housework gloves...

Cheers, Ross Blair, of Flower Mound, TX

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