Common or Garden Child

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My second-hand copy of Muriel St Clare Byrne’s semi-autobiographical book Common or Garden Child, first published by Faber and Faber in 1942, contains this inscription on the flyleaf at the front:

M. A. C. are the initials of Mary Aeldrin Cullis, and, of course, M. S. B. are Muriel’s initials.  Mary Aeldrin Cullis was Muriel’s lover, and at one stage she lived with both Muriel and Muriel’s long-term partner, Marjorie Barber.

I mention this simply because it is an inscription in the book in question which, in turn, leads us to a material fact about Muriel - her sexuality.  It is relevant, in my opinion, only insofar as it is just one piece of the jigsaw that goes to make up Muriel’s life.


The more specific question here is what other pieces of the jigsaw of her life does Muriel reveal in this semi-autobiographical account of her years from childhood to adolescence?


For a start we are presented with the following statement that is printed on the inside of the dust cover of Common or Garden Child:


“This is an unusual account of a usual child—or at least, as the title denotes, that is what the author considers herself to have been.  It is not an autobiography, nor is it an evocation of a period, but an attempt, renewed at intervals over the space of twenty years, to remember—and to revive the experience of life of a small person early in this century.  Whether this was, after all, a ‘common or garden’ child the reader must judge for himself: another possibility is that every child is an exception from this category, but that only a writer of uncommon sensibility, memory and skill in expression can elicit the uniqueness of any childhood.”


Whether or not this reveals anything about Muriel, the person, or why she chose such a title, is a moot point.


Moving onto the book itself, we find that it is small: just five inches by eight inches in size, with one hundred and eighty-seven pages of text, and that it is completely devoid of photographs and illustrations.  Of course, by the time Muriel published this book, she had established herself as a master of descriptive historical narrative - with that rare talent of being able to draw the reader into, and feel a part of, the period being described.  However, in the vast majority of her other books - especially Elizabethan Life in Town and Country and The Lisle Letters - she uses illustrations and photographs to good effect, and it is slightly puzzling therefore that she chose not to do so with Common or Garden Child.  After all it is not as if she lacked the material to use - as the following photograph that she donated to the Somerville College Archive shows!

This photograph shows, from left to right: Muriel’s father, Henry St Clare Byrne, her Grandfather, St Clare John Byrne, and Muriel - in a Sailor Suit that came from Rowe of Gosport!

From the beginning, the book reveals that the two most important adults in Muriel’s young life were her father and grandfather, both of whom she idolised in her childhood, and that she was an out-and-out tomboy, although she never uses that precise term.  Her grandfather called her “Toby”, and she leaves little doubt that, in her childhood at least,  she wanted to dress up like a boy and, ideally, be one!  This inclination towards boyishness continued into the early stages of adolescence because Muriel records that then she was told that she was “getting too big to be always playing at dressing-up as a boy”.


Muriel was an only child, born into a family where, whilst overt displays of affection were not common, she was nevertheless loved and in the case of both her father and grandfather more than a little spoilt.  And of course there is nothing unusual in the that.  Her mother and paternal grandmother were, however, far more inclined to a more formal relationship with her and were apt to be quite inflexible when it came to manners and rules of behaviour.  So much so that Muriel describes at length some of the spirited ‘disagreements’ between her and her mother, often involving quite heated exchanges!  If those two ladies could have had their way, Muriel would have behaved in a far more ladylike way - but, of course, in Muriel they ultimately met their match!


She was most certainly not the child of a poor family.  Her mother did not work, and, whilst her father ‘nominally’ worked for his father, St Clare John Byrne, in his naval architect’s firm, it is hard to escape the view that Muriel’s parents were in fact in receipt of generous support from her grandfather.  As Muriel would attest in later life, her father and his brother were both work-shy and more than happy to spend their father’s money on pursuits such as golf.  And yes, the family lived in a nice house and had a servant or two, which definitely put them in the English middle class bracket and, as such, part of only twenty percent of the population of England.


Perhaps not surprisingly, as an only child, Muriel became quite adept at entertaining herself.  Yes she had school friends whom she played with outside school hours, and she also seems to have got on quite well with the family’s servants, one of whom seemed particularly willing to spend time ‘playing’ with Muriel.  And then there were times, particularly when she was quite young, when her father would take her to the ‘office’ where she would meet ‘the governor’ - her grandfather the renowned naval architect for whom he ‘worked’.  There were also times when her father would take her to less formal venues like the golf club and the pub.  It is hard to escape the view that whilst she was in the company of her father and grandfather she was not treated or looked upon as a ‘girly’ sort of person.  For a lot of the time, though, she was content to play on her own, and it wasn’t all that long before she developed an insatiable love for literature.  It is worth quoting here a relevant passage from the book:


“I like Literature and History and Essays best; then Latin (specially the Aeneid), then Historical Geography (which is called George, which is rather a joke), then French, and then Scripture (because it includes reading aloud and essays).  I would like to like Geography and Drawing better than I do; but nothing in the world will ever make me like Geometry and Algebra.  When we read poetry my mother generally gives me a complete volume of the works of the poet; and she wants me to ask for that kind of book now, when anyone says, What do you want for a Christmas or birthday present?”


By not mentioning dates, and only rarely referring to her age, Muriel makes it quite hard to pin down when, precisely, certain events occurred in her development, but she must have been not much older than eleven when she records that:


“At school we are doing Richard II; and I have learnt the whole of it by heart.  I like Richard’s soliloquies best; and I get quite a lot of him to read in class.  But the one perfectly lovely thing which has happened to me is, that I have been taken to see Ellen Terry in Captain Brassbound’s Conversion.  They said I would probably never have another chance, and it would be a pity for me not to have seen her.  They said the play was above my head and that I would be bored by it; but I wasn’t: I found it very exciting.  And Ellen Terry is the most wonderful person in the world.”


Muriel’s mother, mindful of her daughter’s growing interest in things literary, took Muriel to a lecture on Shakespeare given by Maude Royden at the Town Hall.  Muriel, who must have been of an age between thirteen or fourteen then, records that she was “held entranced” by Maude’s lecture and she goes on to say:


“Heard for the first time, this was revelation—the revelation of power in literature.  It is probably not necessary to recapture that excitement a second time in one life.  It gave me the key to a new universe, to be entered by way of the battlements of Elsinore.  I had, at last, learnt how to read.  I did not know then that it had also committed me for life.”


This, all from a girl, who was then at most fourteen!  Small wonder that her aunt persisted in describing Muriel as “brainy” - a term that Muriel admits she found embarrassing!


By that time Muriel had clearly reached a stage in her life where she is able to record that:


“I have formed a definite opinion about myself and my family, and our future relationship.  My family is neither reasonable nor logical; it is capricious in its dealings with me; and in lots of ways it annoys me a great deal.  I know now what I must do; and I know that this is my opportunity.”


She was equally emphatic when she went on to say that she knew “beyond all possibility of argument that my education must be taken seriously”.  It is not surprising to find therefore in the closing pages of this book that a determined and very able Muriel managed to persuade her widowed mother to entertain the argument that she should  leave her local school in Hoylake, at the age of fourteen, and move to what was then Liverpool High School.  So successful was Muriel’s campaign, in fact, that her mother ended up by actively encouraging this move!


And so we return to the title - Common or Garden Child - and why Muriel chose it.  Certainly there is little in this book to support an argument that Muriel was in fact an ‘ordinary’ child.  Of course she got up to lots of things that normal, ordinary children do in the first fifteen years of their lives, but she went to schools that were “above the average” and achieved results that were far from common or garden.  As an only child, she developed an independence of spirit and mind that was far from ordinary, and she went on to achieve extraordinary success in her adult life.  So, perhaps the choice of title, whilst puzzling, is nothing but a distraction?


As an interesting postscript, Muriel struggled to find a publisher for this book, and so she asked her great friend Dorothy L Sayers for help.  As a result, Dorothy introduced Muriel  to T S Eliot, who was a Director of Faber and Faber, and he agreed to publish!

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