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As It Was and World Without End

by Helen Thomas
Persephone book no:

141 142 143


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AFTERWORD BY ISABEL RAPHAEL
328pp 
ISBN 9781910263327
'I remember so well that very first meeting…'

As It Was consists of two short, beautifully written memoirs, As It Was (1926) and World Without End (1931). They are about Helen Thomas’s life with the poet Edward Thomas. In the first book they meet, fall in love, make love, and get married. The second describes their life until the day Edward left to return to the trenches in France. Read together, they are a powerful love story written with extraordinary frankness for the time.

There is no doubt that there was a very strong sexual bond between Edward and Helen when they first met aged 18. Helen delighted in their sexual harmony:

… He kneeling kissed my body from my feet up to my knees, and from my knees up to my hips, and when he had kissed me and let his hand wander all over me he laid me down on the moss, and I lay with my eyes closed, just conscious that he was quickly undressing, and hearing his voice speaking some passionate name. And I knowing he was ready, opened my eyes and saw him standing there, said “Come,” and drew him to my breast.

The above eight lines were in fact cut from the original 1926 edition, which is why Persephone has used the unexpurgated 1931 edition.

Both books can be read as straight autobiography. But nearly a hundred years on, the reader has to ask  – how much is true? Some things are obviously not true: Edward’s recent biographer has pointed out that Helen misremembered where they spent their honeymoon. But that does not matter. What does matter is the truth about their relationship. It’s interesting, for example, given that the year was 1895, that it seemed not to have occurred to the two of them not to make love. There was apparently no shame or guilt, which, given what we know from fiction of the period and from social history, is very surprising. 

So there are two ways of reading As It Was and World Without End. One is as a love story, the other is something more complex: a wife’s description of a marriage which is partly ‘true’ and partly wish fulfilment. The very fact that As It Was was not originally published under Helen's name but the initials HT is evidence of  –· what? And what does it mean that in the two books she and Edward are called David and Jenny? An edition of the books, published in 1988 as Under Storm’s Wing, proudly changed the names to Edward and Helen. But the disadvantage of this was that Helen was not asked if she approved; and it was treating the two books as autobiography. Whereas by using different names, Helen Thomas was admitting that she was blending the factual account with some mild fictional embellishment, indeed writing autofiction decades before that word was invented.

When World Without End was published in 1931 Vita Sackville-West reviewed it on the radio. She said: ‘With all her apparent simplicity, Mrs Thomas is a most accomplished artist… The closing pages, when she says goodbye to her husband just before he goes to the Front, are among the most moving I have ever read. Whether you read a book because it is a work of art or because it is a most moving human story, do not fail to read World Without End.’ But the radio broadcast acknowledged that most listeners would not have read Edward Thomas’s work. He only started writing poetry in 1914 and almost all his 140 poems were published posthumously. However, in the 1980s ‘Adlestrop’ started consistently to be one of the nation’s three favourite poems, there was a successful play called The Dark Earth and the Light Sky (with Hattie Morahan as Helen) and Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas was a bestseller. A hundred years on Edward Thomas’s poetry is greatly admired and widely read in a way that Helen could never have anticipated.

Endpaper

The endpapers are taken from a dress  made in the 1930s from a hand block printed fabric designed by Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher called Vernède after the poet Robert Vernède who was killed at Arras on April 9th 1917, the same day as Edward Thomas.

Picture Caption

David Garnett, a friend of Edward Thomas's, painted by Dora Carrington in 1919.


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