I cannot account for what it was that induced me to stop at a stall in the Farringdon Road and hand over twenty p for a book the condition of which was derelict, the author of which I had never heard. I buy second-hand books regularly, but not ones stained, annotated and with the dedication page torn so that neither the dedicator nor the dedicatee maybe identified. Some ineluctable force drew me to this purchase.
As soon as I started reading, I felt profound sympathy with the author. I felt I must have known her. I was wrong: I had never met her or her friends. But she described so sensitively the countryside in which her love affair unfurled that I felt sure it was the area to which I had been evacuated in World War II: an unfrequented area of pre-lapserian beauty, of beech clad chalk hills, of rough commons, with ‘ricks like pale sponge cakes and barns ‘black as slabs of liquorice.’
I felt on some sort of mission to uncover the identity of ‘Loran’, her lover and her friends. Half a century had passed and there was no one living who needed protection from exposure. And I wanted to plant my feet in the ground where she had planted hers in London and the countryside beyond. I was convinced that the book, which had been out of print since 1959, deserved to be re-issued, read by a new generation for the intense flavour it gives of its time, and the conventions the author strove to ignore.
It is tantalizing to face a diary whose author conceals herself under a pseudonym, but it is also maddening; to make it accessible, it needs a glossary of the places and people referred to and a preface devoted to Gay’s life and beliefs. These I planned to provide.
‘A Prison, A Paradise’ by Loran Hurnscot, was published in 1958 by Gollancz. It is a diary with entries made on the spot without the glow of hindsight. It opens in November, 1922 and closes in February, 1958. Every individual (including that of the author), every location is concealed under an alias to protect the sensibilities of innocent players. The ‘Prison’ of the title encapsulates the passionate entombment the author ‘Loran’ (Gay Taylor) experiences in a pathological love affair with ‘Barney’ (A. E. Coppard) and recounts how ‘Loran’ fails in her attempt to realize perfection through sexual love; the ‘Paradise’ describes the spiritual revelation she eventually achieves. The pseudonym – Loran Hurnscot – is an anagram of sloth and rancour, the qualities the author most disliked in herself. But this is not a moralistic tract; it is an ardent account – often funny, always truthful – of what the author describes as a pilgrimage, published to show that from the most desperate suicidal misery one can eventually reach God and inner peace.
I discovered the real identity of ‘Loran Hurnscot’ from a variety of sources, from Kathleen Raine’s autobiography, from Sheila Lahr’s ‘Yelm’ (on the internet) and from an unpublished document written by Malachi Whitaker. I discovered much about her physical presence and psychological nature from her correspondence with A. E. Coppard.
Gay Taylor was born Ethelwyne Stewart McDowall in Pontefract, Yorkshire in 1896 and died a spinster in Hereford in 1970. Her mother was an icy Calvinist Scot who loathed her from birth and abused her emotionally, her father, a weak, unfulfilled man, did nothing to intervene. He was an architect who restored ancient sacred buildings and gave his daughter a life-long interest in ‘church-tasting’, together with distaste for organised religion.
Gay received a solid education in literature and languages. Her taste in literature was developed and she could write well and fluently, particularly about the natural world. She was alive to presence in every habitation, to form in every object, to possibility in every individual. She was a practised translator from the French. She published a spook biography, in collaboration with her friend Malachi Whitaker, and a novel based on the material of her diary, and several short stories. She was an inveterate letter writer; she and Coppard exchanged at least three letters a day during their love affair, and letters to and from her closest friend, Malachi Whitaker, revealed further insights. Envelopes with their addresses provided me trails to follow.
Gay came to London in 1917 to escape family and provincialism and worked as a secretary on the Daily Herald, whose socialist tendency equated with her own views. She quickly and innocently met and married a repressed homosexual, Hal Taylor, who had been invalided out of the army with a small pension and was running an unproductive fruit farm. Because the work entailed was more taxing than his physical health could bear – and he did not have enough money to buy himself into publishing as he would have preferred – he and Gay (and two of her women friends as unpaid helpers) decided to go it alone.
They founded The Golden Cockerel Press in 1920 in an unheated, ill-equipped wooden hut in Hal’s garden in Waltham St. Lawrence, Berks. Filled with idealism, their intention was to publish new work of literary merit by young authors. ‘A Prison, A Paradise’ relates the sad history of a failed publishing enterprise, a doomed marriage and a heady love affair between the wife and her faithless lover.
Sheila Lahr told me that Gay had been part of the circle of writers that met at the bookshop run by her father, the anarchist Charles Lahr, at Red Lion Street. Here Gay enjoyed the company of C. L. R. James, Krishna Menon, Jomo Kenyatta, Maud Gonne, Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk (self-styled claimant to the throne of Poland) T. F. Powys, Rhys Davies, Nancy Cunard and H. E. Bates among others. And two artists of the day: William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. And she had been a frequent visitor to the Lahr family home before the war when Sheila was a child. She remembered Gay as slim, with shoulder length brown hair and green eyes. Rather boyish and very charming. Drifting as she did from lodging to lodging, village to village, Gay left her limed oak chest of drawers, her single substantial belonging with the family who never heard from her again. (I have since inherited the chest of drawers; I felt a strong need to own something that had belonged to Gay as had Sheila).
‘A Prison, A Paradise’ was reviewed on publication: Francis Watson in The Listener found the book ‘astonishing’ and noted the author’s sense of style, her humour and her ‘radiant sensibility to natural beauty’. The TLS review, which carried no by-line, was less than ecstatic; unknown to Gay, who was devastated by its contents, it was written by the Roman Catholic poet and mystic Elizabeth Jennings who flinched at the claims made by Kathleen Raine for Gay’s mystical experiences and the expression of them: she did not consider they could rightly be compared with those of Dame Julian of Norwich or Saint Teresa of Avila. Kenneth Allsop in The Daily Mail wrote: ‘Here is one of the most moving, searing confessions I have ever read’. Curious as to the identity of the author, the husband and the lover, Allsop’s review was designed to provoke someone in the know to reveal all three. It did.
The first step I had to take was to establish the precise location of the press, for the author states that the lover, ‘Barney’, was living ‘twenty miles away (from it) on the other side of the hills’. I made a circle on an ordnance survey map to establish the width and breadth of the area I would need to explore, much of it on foot and bicycle as Gay had, some by car. An entry in the diary refers to an eighteenth-century bridge with ‘shell mouldings capping its piers’. I could find neither photograph of this bridge nor any written description, but walking the towpath along the Thames eventually spotted the embellishment on the bridge at Henley. Now my compass was set and I was able to take further bearings.
I thought it likely that ‘Hodmer’ woods, where ‘Loran and Barney’ established their love nest, was somewhere in the vicinity of Skirmet, miles from a bar of soap, a loaf of bread and a postage stamp at the time. I imagined a modest brick or timber structure on the estate of the big house; I knocked on the most imposing house which stands in grounds and asked permission to explore but treks through the woods produced no evidence. It was the farmer at ‘Happy Hens’, from whom I bought eggs, who suggested I contact a ninety year old game keeper living locally. I struck gold: there had been a hut in the woods I had been exploring; his daughter had a photo of it! But it had been burnt down years ago. The photo revealed something more substantial than a bodger used, but less than a herdsman expected: disappointingly, something on the lines of a portaloo. But more extraordinary was where the hut had been set down: two hundred yards from the clearing in which my husband and I had been picnicking for years: my husband’s preferred site from which to sketch.
I went on to find the farms nearby where ‘Loran’ and ‘Barney’ bought their meagre provisions, the pubs in which they drank, the ruined chapel in which a desolate ‘Loran’ wept over watercress sandwiches while ‘Barney’ played cricket and football, Morris danced and pursued other married women. And the isolated cottages and farm houses in which Gay took rooms.
Gay Taylor’s writing owes everything to her lively powers of observation; it is no coincidence that one of her few, successful means of earning a modest living was with Mass Observation. Another possible source of an exiguous income was from astrology; she fervently believed that the celestial bodies with their distinct personalities exert forces both on individuals and world events and several people consulted her. There were others for whom she prayed, but for that service she would not have accepted money. And so it remains something of a mystery how she kept herself alive. She was not lazy but she fostered the idleness required for a creative life choosing to restrict its force to the creation of her soul. Some have suggested she was a sponger. According to Malachi Whitaker not only she but other friends all offered Gay small sums of money, and one well-known philanthropist (Richard Rees), not wanting to become embroiled with someone he regarded as ‘difficult’, provided a generous sum anonymously. Hal, who died in 1925, left her £50. And then there was some social security…
Exhausted by the depredations of physical love in ‘Prison’, ‘Loran’ revived in ‘Paradise’. She read Schopenhauer, Georges Bernanos, Kierkegaard and others. She looked into joining an Anglican community at Peakirk. She consulted Ouspensky. She was looking for security and silence. Eventually, the ascetics of Swedenborg beckoned and she took to isolation where she believed she would most successfully learn to understand herself and what God wanted of her. She died alone in 1970 of pancreatic cancer. She weighed five stone.
With my glossary of thirty places mapped and all Gay’s friends and sources of inspiration identified, I approached several publishers with my Preface and glossary. I argued that Gay had been a trail-blazer, a ‘one-off’, a’ New Woman’ who replaced Victorian woman ‘that sham manufactured by men for men’ – one who deserved to be remembered.
However, whereas everyone showed interested in her story, none was prepared to go with it to print.
Gay Taylor was unconventional, unmaterialistic. She struggled in poverty and ill-health, preferring to buy books rather than a meal. She was a failure in love with men but a success in friendship with women. She drank too much Perry and was an embarrassment to some, but everyone agreed she was a life-enhancer even if her obsessions left others cold. Her goal had been to make something of her life: a modest ambition in which I believe she succeeded.