- Running the 'Household Poems':Edward Thomas and Money
One of the enduring myths about the essayist and poet Edward Thomas (1878–1917) is that he lived in constant poverty. He spread this notion of hardship himself, writing to his friends of his financial insecurity. He wrote to the poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley on 24 July 1905:
no week–hardly a day–passes without my thinking that I must soon cease to try to work and live … I am plagued by such little thoughts as how much I shall earn this week or what train I shall catch tomorrow1
Thomas had some regular work as a book reviewer in newspapers, which he supplemented by writing critical studies and countryside wayfarer books to contract. This career energised his letters with anxieties. He saw himself, as he wrote in a 22 April 1910 letter to Bottomley, as a 'hurried and harried prose man' (LGB, p. 203). In a 27 December 1912 letter to his friend Jesse Berridge, he anticipated hardship: 'Since Swinburne I have had very little to do & still have bad prospects … Books won't keep me any longer: that seems certain.'2
Despite these worries, however, Thomas and his family were financially comfortable. When he wrote to Berridge, it was on the back of a year in which he had earned £438 from writing and was paying £25 per annum to rent The Red House at Wick Green, Froxfield.3 He maintained a mean average yearly income of £350, as he declared in a successful Royal Literary Fund application in 1914.4 A 'list of earnings' prepared in 1913 shows this mean stretching back to 1905, and it includes one year, 1906, [End Page 58] with an income of £963.5 Add gifts from friends, and £400 in wartime grants from government sources, and a secure middle-class existence emerges. The Thomases lived with servants and, as photographs show, they rented a series of attractive and often sizeable cottages. The Red House at Wick Green, where Thomas had labelled himself 'hurried and harried', especially stands out as a 'rural paradise', to use Richard Emeny's description.6
What becomes apparent is that Thomas invoked hardship to characterise his view of his career and experiences, rather than describe an actual impoverishment. Money was his general-purpose metaphor for the psychological experience of restriction. It was a metaphor tied to the contractual and generic demands of wayfarer books, which Thomas saw as requiring him to adopt a restrictive and artificial neutrality. He complained that he was expected to elide his personality from the rural descriptions he was writing. To Thomas, it seemed his marketplace denied him what George Borrow had exemplified as an author's 'courage … to be honestly impressionistic and to say what they feel instead of compromising between that and what they believe to be "the facts"'.7 This sense of restriction is underlined by his response to the reviews for his book The Heart of England (1906). On 11 November 1906, he wrote to Bottomley to attack the reviewers who had accused him of impersonating the 'cheery knowing companion' that Edwardian readers expected of wayfarer literature. 'I ought never to do colour books again', he complained, 'People can't believe there is anything in them at all' (LGB, p. 126). This literary arena, Thomas believed, had forced him into an impartiality which stopped him from thinking or writing about himself. Instead of representing himself by selecting and describing only the scenes that he enjoyed, he saw his need for a saleable narrative as having pushed him to record everything he encountered on his rural journeys.
Thomas explained the problem in In Pursuit of Spring (1914) by presenting it as a dialogue with his fictive doppelgänger, the 'Other Man'.8 The 'Other Man' appears on the road and says his job is writing wayfaring books. As these books demand 'all sorts of details', he must note down his 'undigested' impressions. That is, everything he sees, not everything 'he truly cared for':
'And you are lucky to get money for doing what you like'. 'What I like!' he muttered … his main point being that he did not...