Your Aunt Nellie and I

November 7 2014

In December 1906, [the writer] had been staying with a pair of distinguished scholars in the persons of his uncle Paget Toynbee (vivebat A.D. 1855-1932), the author of A Dictionary of Proper names [sic] and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante [footnote: Oxford 1898, Clarendon Press.] and his aunt Helen Toynbee (vivebat A.D. 1868-1910), [footnote: Née Helen Wrigley, of Bury, Lancs.] the editor of Horace Walpole’s letters. At the close of an agreeable and stimulating visit, in which the boy had unselfconsciously disclosed historical interests embracing the Assyrians, the Fourth Crusade, and whatnot, he was chilled by a piece of parting advice which his uncle gave him out of the kindness of his heart. “Your Aunt Nellie and I”, the Dante scholar had announced, “have come to the conclusion that you have been dispersing your interests too widely, and our advice to you is to make your choice of some single subject and to concentrate hereafter on that.” In A.D. 1952 the writer had a still freshly vivid recollection of his own instantaneous conviction that this advice was bad, and of his likewise instantaneous decision not to follow it; and his uncle subsequently gave him reason in retrospect by amiably sacrificing his own pernicious intellectual principles on the altar of personal affection when his wife’s literary work was cut short by her premature death. From that day onwards, her loving survivor took her Walpole, as well as his Alighieri, under his wing in order to complete her edition of the letters as a labour of love. [Footnote: Paget Toynbee was handsomely rewarded for an unprofessional human piety that had taken for its counsellor an unerring heart instead of a fallible head. For one thing, he became almost as highly distinguished in the field of scholarship bequeathed to him by his wife as he had long since been in his own field. But his most gratifying reward was that, when he had made room in his quiver for Horace Walpole’s works beside Dante’s, he found himself armed with an unfailing store of apt quotations. It was hardly possible for there to be any event in the news which a scholar who had thus made himself a double hāfiz could not illustrate by a passage from one or other of the two authors whose works this intellectual archer now knew by heart. On the slightest provocation he would shoot a letter, containing a quotation from either Walpole or Dante, at the editor of The Times; and, as the quotation was always attractively felicitous and the covering letter always discreetly short, the literary arrow usually went home and, in the course of years, the deft archer scored a prodigious tale of hits. Thus, thanks to his unprofessional addition of a second string to his academic bow, Paget Toynbee succeeded in lodging in the columns of The Times a quantity of letters [1908-31] that can hardly have been equalled by any of his contemporaries.]

If Arnold Toynbee had been less inclined towards family piety, one might find something condescending in the last sentence, though not, of course, in the term “unprofessional”, which was entirely one of approbation. DNB, CM Ady, rev. Diego Zancani, quoting an obituary in The Oxford Magazine: “For Toynbee, Dante was a ‘treasure house full of obscurities and difficulties which needed elucidation and solution, and he spared no pains to provide them’. Although he confined himself to the accumulation and elucidation of facts, making no attempt at literary appreciation, his exhaustive memory and tireless energy won him a worldwide reputation as a Dantist […].”

“After his wife’s death in 1910 Toynbee took up her unfinished task of editing Walpole’s letters, and Horace Walpole, to whom Dante was ‘extravagant, absurd, disgusting, in short a Methodist parson in Bedlam’ (letter to William Mason, 1782), from then on shared Dante’s place in his activities, which resulted in three supplementary volumes of Letters (1918-25) and the Correspondence of Gray, Walpole, West and Ashton (2 vols., 1915). Toynbee was described as being both physically and mentally ‘ponderous and forceful’ in later life, as if ‘he intentionally limited his field of activity in order to probe deeper into it’ (Oxford Magazine, 722). After 1910 Toynbee, who had no children, and who suffered the consequences of typhoid fever, lived the life of a recluse at Fiveways, the house which he built at Burnham, Buckinghamshire, in 1907.”

Where was he living in 1906?

In two letters to The Times he manages to mention both Dante and Walpole.

July 20 1923:

Paget Toynbee, July 20 1923

January 13 1928:

Paget Toynbee, January 13 1928

His last letter, August 15 1931:

Paget Toynbee, August 15 1931

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

One Response to “Your Aunt Nellie and I”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Sightings of birds – the first cuckoo in spring, the first swallow in summer – were part of the tradition of letters to The Times.


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