June 1, 2010

Edith Bratt Tolkien

"But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth Beren came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at a time of evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the children of Iluvatar."

Arthur Reuel Tolkien, son of John Benjamin Tolkien and Mary Jane Stow, was born Feb 1857 in Handsworth, Staffordshire, England. He did not follow his father into the traditional Tolkien trade in pianos, which many of his London cousins did; instead he became a bank clerk and moved to Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State (now part of South Africa), where he became manager of the Bloemfontein branch of the Bank of Africa. He was later joined by his fiancée, Mabel Suffield, daughter of John Suffield and Emily Jane Sparrow. Mabel was born Jan 1870 in Birmingham, England.

They married in Cape Town, South Africa on 16 Apr 1891. After the birth of their two children, John Ronald Reuel (3 Jan 1892) and Hilary Arthur Reuel (17 Feb 1894), Mabel felt the English climate would be better for the boys' health and returned to England with them in 1895. Arthur remained in Bloemfontein, where he died of severe hemorrhage, following rheumatic fever, on 15 Feb 1896. His death left Mabel and their children without a source of income. At first, they lived with her parents in Birmingham and then moved to Sarehole (now in Hall Green), a Worcestershire village.

Mabel tutored her two sons, and J.R.R. (or Tolkien, as he was known in the family) was a keen pupil. She taught him a great deal of botany and awakened in her son the enjoyment of the look and feel of plants. But his favorite lessons were those concerning languages, and his mother taught him the rudiments of Latin very early. She also taught him how to write, and her ornate script influenced her son's handwriting in his later life.

Mabel Tolkien died of acute complications of diabetes on 14 Nov 1904 at "Fern Cottage" in Rednal (where they were renting). She was about 34 years of age, which was about as long as a person with diabetes mellitus type 1 could live with no treatment (insulin would not be discovered until two decades later). For the rest of his life Tolkien felt that his mother had become a martyr for her faith, which had a profound effect on his own Catholic beliefs.

John Tolkien Reuel Tolkien married Edith Mary Bratt, daughter of WHO and WHO. She was born 21 Jan 1889 in Glouchestershire, England. By 1908 Edith, a talented pianist, had become an orphan. She first met Tolkien that year, when he and his brother moved into the same boarding house. At the time, Tolkien was 16 years old and Edith was 19.

According to Humphrey Carpenter, "Edith and Tolkien took to frequenting Birmingham teashops, especially one which had a balcony overlooking the pavement. There they would sit and throw sugar lumps into the hats of passers-by, moving to the next table when the sugar bowl was empty. With two people of their personalities and in their position, romance was bound to flourish. Both were orphans in need of affection, and they found that they could give it to each other. During the summer of 1909, they decided that they were in love."

Before the end of the year the relationship had become known to Tolkien’s guardian, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan of the Birmingham Oratory. Viewing Edith as a distraction from Tolkien’s schoolwork and bothered by her Anglican religion, he forbade any contact between them until Tolkien became a legal adult at 21. Tolkien grudgingly obeyed this instruction to the letter while Father Morgan's guardianship lasted. However on the evening of his 21st birthday, Tolkien wrote a letter to Edith, who had since moved to Cheltenham. It contained a declaration of his love and asked her to marry him. She replied saying that she was already engaged but subtly implied that she had become so out of a belief that Tolkien had forgotten her. Within a week, Tolkien had journeyed to Cheltenham where Edith met him at the railway station. That day, Edith returned her ring and announced her engagement to Tolkien instead.

Following their engagement in January 1913, Edith announced that she was converting to the Roman Catholic Church at Tolkien’s insistence. As she was heavily involved in her local Anglican parish, she resented Tolkien’s demands. They were married in the Catholic Church of Saint Mary Immaculate in Warwick, England, on 22 Mar 1916.

In 1916 the United Kingdom was engaged in fighting WWI and Tolkien volunteered for military service. He was commissioned in the British Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers and served as a signals officer at the Somme, participating in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge and the subsequent assault on the Schwabel Redoube. On 27 Oct 1916 he came down with trench fever, a disease carried by the lice common in dugouts, and invalided to England that November. He spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties, being deemed medically unfit for general service.

During his recovery, he began to work on what he called The Book of Lost Tales. Throughout 1917 and 1918 his illness kept recurring, but he had recovered enough to do home service at various camps. It was at this time that Edith bore their first child, John Francis Reuel Tolkien.

When he was stationed at Kingston upon Hull, he and Edith went walking in the woods at nearby Roos, and Edith began to dance for him in a clearing among the flowering hemlock: "We walked in a wood where hemlock was growing, a sea of white flowers." This incident inspired the account of the meeting of Beren and Luthien, and Tolkien often referred to Edith as my Luthien. Tolkien wrote several versions of their story, the latest written in The Silmarillion (1977). But he was best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (1948).

Those friends who knew Tolkien and Edith over the years never doubted that there was deep affection between them. It was visible in the small things, the almost absurd degree in which each worried about the other's health, and the care in which they chose and wrapped each other's birthday presents; and in the large matters, the way in which Tolkien willingly abandoned such a large part of his life in retirement to give Edith the last years in Bournemouth that he felt she deserved, and the degree in which she showed pride in his fame as an author. A principal source of happiness to them was their shared love of their family. This bound them together until the end of their lives, and it was perhaps the strongest force in the marriage. They delighted to discuss and mull over every detail of the lives of their children, and later their grandchildren.

Tolkien was very dedicated to his children and sent them illustrated letters from Father Christmas when they were young. Each year more characters were added, such as the Polar Bear (Father Christmas's helper), the Snow Man (his gardener), Ilbereth the elf (his secretary) and other minor characters. The major characters would relate tales of Father Christmas's battles against goblins who rode on bats and the various pranks committed by the Polar Bear.

After his retirement during the 1960s, Tolkien decided to move with Edith to a location near Bournemouth, which was then a resort town patronized by the British upper class. Although his status as a bestselling author gave them easy entry into local society, Tolkien was never comfortable in Bournemouth and missed the company of his fellow intellectuals. Edith, however, was at last in her element as a society matron, which had been Tolkien's intention in selecting their new residence in the first place.

Edith died on 29 Nov 1971 in Bournemouth, Hampshire, England where Tolkien had the name Luthien engraved on her stone at Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. When he died 21 months later, on 2 Sep 1973, he was buried in the same grave with Beren added to his name.


Anonymous said...

That is one of the most inspiring things I ever read.

classicmuses said...

Thank you so much!