People Places

In the Company of Friends Old and New

July 8, 2017

Definitely one of the highlights of my summer with Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough was the day I went to Easton Glebe, the one-time home of H.G. Wells.  You might recall from an earlier post regarding Margaret Sanger’s papers, I briefly mentioned that the girls had gone to Mr. Wells’ house for lunch one day – a heady and (not surprisingly) embarrassing experience for them, as it turns out.

“Father had met H.G. Wells in Switzerland a year or two before the war… My pride in my parent increased considerably when [H.G.Wells] wrote inviting us all to spend Sunday at his country place.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

In 1922, the year of the girls’ trip, H.G. Wells and his family were living at Easton Glebe, a graceful Georgian home on the Easton Lodge estate, which belonged to Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick.  This home would be the setting for his novel, Mr. Britling Sees it Through, and Emily would later recall in her writings that when she stepped from the house onto the terrace and walked through the garden, she felt as if she were walking through the novel.

The girls’ day at Mr. Wells’ house is one of my favorite parts of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and I wanted to get as close to their experience as possible (minus the humiliations they both suffered while they were there).

In the spring, I had learned that in 1950 the Easton Lodge estate had been broken up into pieces, and that the Countess of Warwick’s great manor house had been almost completely torn down (strangely, one wing of the house had been left standing, and had been converted into a home of its own).  But blessedly, Mr. Wells’ Easton Glebe still stood.

Going on the premise that it never hurts to ask, I wrote to the current owners of Easton Glebe, explaining my project and asking if I might imposition them with a visit to the house.  Quite quickly, I received a very kind reply from Vincent, inviting me to come for lunch one day when I was in England, and he and his wife Diana would be happy to show me around.  I was over the moon!

I had the exact day in mind for my visit:  Sunday, July 9th.  The obsessed, geeky part of my brain had pretty much worked out that this would have been the day the girls went to Mr. Wells’ home 95 years ago, given the “clues” they offer in the book regarding their timeline (and thanks to the calendars from 1922 and 2017 matching exactly, the 9th of July fell on Sunday in both years – how is that for synchronicity?).

Unfortunately, Vincent and Diana already had plans for that day, but were happy to host me on Saturday, July 8th.  So exactly 95 years (minus one day) after Cornelia and Emily visited Easton Glebe, I was arriving in that same driveway, pulling up to the lovely Georgian house that H.G. Wells could recognize today as the one he’d lived in.

It was all a mirror image of the afternoon 95 years ago which Cornelia and Emily described – the beautiful, sunny day, the ride through the enchanting countryside, turning in at the gate marking the entrance to the house.

Sometimes life is perfect.

Vincent and Diana were warm and welcoming, and immediately put me at ease.  I presented my hosts with a first edition copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, along with a bottle of wine, and a framed copy of that photo from Margaret Sanger’s collection, of her standing between Otis Skinner and H.G. Wells.  Diana offered me something to drink, then took me on a tour of the house before we sat down for lunch.

Passing through the rooms which Cornelia and Emily had written about made my blood rush – this was the closest by far I would get to the girls, as well as Otis and Maud Skinner.  I did my best to stay in the present, to make conversation, and cover the profound reaction I was having, but I felt as if I was as much in the room with H.G. Wells and Margaret Sanger and my girls as I was with Diana.  I didn’t dare try to explain this to my hostess – certainly there was no need to have Diana worry that she had invited a crazy person into her home.

After she had shown me the house, we stepped out onto the terrace Emily had mentioned, and Diana pointed out the building which had once been the barn.  This is where the girls had played “the Wells game” (a version of volleyball), and Cornelia had inadvertently smashed the ball into the face of the Great Educationalist,

“…who was on my own side and no further from me than a couple of feet.  It was the only time during the course of the day his face changed expression… I was too horrified at what I’d done even to apologize.  After going over his face with his fingers and making certain his features were still there, the eminent worthy changed places with the person furthest from me, and the game continued…”  – Cornelia Otis Skinner

That’s the sort of embarrassment one doesn’t forget.

When the estate was divided up, the barn had been separated from the Easton Glebe property and was made into a home.  A wall with a gate divided the two properties, and peeking through the wrought iron, I could just make out the fountain area and steps where Cornelia and Emily had been photographed in 1922.

We then had lunch in the same dining room where Emily had gotten her turn at being utterly humiliated.  As she had stood to leave after their lunch that day, Emily somehow had become ensnared in a servant’s bell cord which was attached underneath the table, ripping it loose from its mounting.  To her bewilderment, the cord wrapped around Emily’s leg, and Mr. Wells had to crawl under the table and untangle it from her.  The rest of the party had sat in silent mortification, all except Cornelia, who had smothered her face in one of the curtains to silence her peals of laughter.

As Diana, Vincent and I enjoyed our lunch, I once again attempted to splutter out my gratitude for my hosts’ unbelievable kindness and hospitality, in letting a virtual stranger barge into their home.  Vincent and Diana explained that they’ve had a number of Wells enthusiasts come to the house over the years, including the H.G. Wells Society, and I told them about enlisting the society’s help in my attempt to solve the mystery of the Great Educationalist.

We dined on coronation chicken and salad made from Diana’s garden, followed by strawberries and cream – again, fresh from the garden.  Delicious, and all so marvelously, quintessentially English.  It was simply sublime.

After lunch, we sat in the sunshine on the terrace for a little while, where Diana worked out that the photo of Otis, Margaret Sanger and Mr. Wells was taken in front of the doors to Mr. Wells’ study.  She was intrigued that in the photograph, there appeared to be a pergola that had framed the study doors, which was no longer there.  She and Vincent felt that this was a very smart idea, as the study faced west, and that room often became intolerably hot in the afternoon.  They seemed most pleased with the idea that they would put in a pergola like the one which had been there before.  This gave me a good deal of satisfaction – after all of their kindness towards me, I was able in return to give them a bit of practical history that could prove useful to them.  It was a drop in the bucket compared to what my wonderful new friends had given me on that lovely Saturday afternoon, but at least it was something.

Below, top row:  Arriving at the house; the elegant Georgian dining room; new friends Vincent and Diana.

Bottom row:  Mr. Wells at play; the best photo I could get of the barn, with Siggy, one of my two canine hostesses; above, the doors to the study, where the pergola once stood and below, Otis, Margaret Sanger and Mr. Wells.

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