My Clare Summer

An introduction to the original article from Newsletter No. 6:

From time to time one comes across articles in newspapers and magazines on aspects of John Clare's life and writings, and locally a fairly regular contributor has been Alice Essex, a Society member from Stamford in Lincolnshire. We are indebted to Miss Essex for her personal memoir, which gives a fascinating and unique link with the world of John Clare over sixty years ago. It is here printed in full.

My Clare Summer

When I recall the summer of the year 1918 I call it my Clare Summer. I was twelve years old living on meagre rations, wearing worn out clothes and knowing nothing of luxuries such as sweets or a day by the sea. But I had two simple pleasures - not even a World War could take these from me - for I loved reading and cycling. My reading was mainly volumes of Scott's and Dickens's works lent to me by a retired teacher. But at the beginning of my summer holiday she handed me a slim volume with the title 'The Village Minstrel', and the writer was unknown to me, John Clare.

From then onwards I read every poem, some I copied into an old exercise book, and some I learnt by heart. There was a child-like quality which made a great appeal to me and I found the simple rhythms easy to understand. The poems were about things familiar to me - flowers, birds, insects, small animals all carefully observed. At that time my brother's class teacher was Mr. Clare Billing and I nagged my brother into taking me to call on him. As he was a descendant of the poet I listened enraptured to the story he told me. He showed me several of Clare's possessions including a miniature painting of the poet as a young man.

Clare Billing mentioned Patty, the wife of John Clare. I had a school friend from Pickworth, the home of Patty and I was amazed when she told me she was related to her. As proof she showed me the family Bible and there I saw recorded "1801 Birth of Martha Turner". All the other entries had the marriages and children recorded but there was no entry of Patty's marriage as she had been disowned by her parents when she married Clare.

I spent one morning wandering in the vale where Patty had spent her young days. Then I decided I would cycle to Helpston. On the way I gathered a posy of beautiful wild flowers to lay on Clare's neglected grave. I was overjoyed when I stood before the memorial erected to his memory. There was an old man in the churchyard and I asked him the way to the cottage where John Clare had lived. He directed me and then he said "It's up for sale for fifty pund", and no wonder, as it was a tumbledown cottage with a mouldering thatch.

Later I visited Northborough. Northborough is a village I like very much and I found it difficult to understand why John Clare was so reluctant to move there as he had a new cottage with a garden. On my way back to the church I spoke to an old lady standing at the garden gate. She told me that when she was a child her mother and widow Clare were friends. She remembered the family of William (Clare's third son) as she had grown up with them. The Clare graves were at the back of the church. I read the inscriptions and thought of Patty's heartbreak as she watched four of her children die of the dreaded consumption. The only book I had been able to find on Clare's life was by Martin and it was written in 1865. I felt it was too much 'gloom and doom' as Clare's poetry was joyful poetry and only a happy man could write poetry like that. Patty bore her many sorrows alone as for twenty-five years Clare was an inmate of an asylum. She is the one to pity.

As I look back over sixty years I feel that attitudes have changed. To-day there are many scholarly, well researched works on Clare. Peterborough Museum now houses the collection bequeathed by Clare Billing and a Trust maintains the Helpston Cottage. Clare's grave is well kept and visited by admirers from all over the world. The last link in the chain has now been forged - the founding of the Society.

Alice Essex
JCS Newsletter No. 6 (November 1983)
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