- Mistress and Muse: Ursula – The Second Mrs. Vaughan Williams: A Biography by Janet Tennant
It was the lunch date that changed the lives of two people—forever! He was perhaps Britain’s most distinguished composer, awarded the Order of Merit a few years previously, married for over forty years and with his sixty-sixth birthday a few months off. She was a prospective writer with just a few published poems, reviews and BBC scripts to her name, had been married for five years and had just celebrated her twenty-seventh birthday.
This first meeting between Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ursula Wood, née Lock, took place on 31 March 1938. Ursula had just completed a text that she thought the composer could consider for a musical setting and wanted his opinion. Over lunch they talked poetry and literature. After lunch, they strolled by the Serpentine in Hyde Park, took in a film and walked around the West End before reluctantly parting. It seemed that both parties were totally smitten with each other and were in shock for a long time afterwards. Their lives would never be the same again.
As a writer, Ursula Vaughan Williams is now perhaps best known for her authoritative biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), which is still the major source of information on the composer’s life, even after fifty-three years. However, a recent biography of Ralph by Janet Tennant’s partner, Keith Aldritt, (Vaughan Williams: Composer, Radical, Patriot [Hale Publishing, 2015]) brings us up-to-date with newer information regarding the relationship between Ralph and Ursula, elements of which have only come to light since Ursula’s death in 2007.
So we can very much welcome this new volume by Janet Tennant as the first biography of Ursula, not forgetting of course Ursula’s own autobiography (Paradise Remembered [London: Albion Music, 2002]). In a way, this new biography of Ursula and the one of Ralph by her [End Page 183] partner, make a complementary pair, updating and filling-out our knowledge and appreciation of two significant people in twentieth-century British culture and their complex relationship. Perhaps these two recent volumes constitute the “New Vaughan Williams”?
Ursula’s life was rather like a Vaughan Williams sandwich—her relationship with Ralph providing the substantial filling, with the early and late years comprising the important contexts to hold the filling in place. However, this new biography fills out Ursula’s pre- and post-RVW lives with many fascinating details for the first time, drawing on her diaries, correspondence, and her poetry and other writings, with quotations from these poems making extremely appropriate prefaces to most chapters and which underline their autobiographical content.
Ursula’s childhood and adolescence were difficult. She was born into a serving military family with a distinguished service pedigree, and grew up as a daughter in an army family with postings to many different parts of the U.K., which must have been extremely unsettling for a sensitive girl such as the young Ursula Lock. This was compounded by her parent’s ill-concealed disappointment that their first child had not, in fact, been a boy. Again, being raised by a nanny, which of course was the norm for those of her social class, Ursula was never very close to her parents anyway—this insular existence perhaps encouraged her to develop her imagination to a much fuller extent than otherwise would be expected. One of the threads of Ursula’s early life, rightly emphasised in this biography, is that the young girl seems to have always been surrounded by adults and older people and hardly ever had the company of other children.
In the first four chapters of this fascinating biography, Janet Tennant leads us through this often complex and confusing “pillar-to-post” existence for the young Ursula, which continued right into young adulthood with periods of her living with grandparents, moving with her family from one furnished apartment to another, later attending a series of boarding...