Thursday, November 8, 2012

Glimpses of Helen Buckhurst

So, one of the people Tolkien gave an author's presentation
copy of THE HOBBIT to when it first came out in Sept. 1937
was Helen Buckhurst (her letter thanking him is now in the
Bodleian).* This is one of the many people among Tolkien's
friends and colleagues about whom we know relatively little.
But the little we do know is interesting; she is the probable
source for the trolls-turn-to-stone-in-sunlight motif in THE
HOBBIT, or at least the likely means by which such tales
reached Tolkien.**

This made it all the more interesting when I ran across Buckhurst's
name not once but twice in recent weeks. The first came in Wm
Ready's THE TOLKIEN RELATION (the first book-length
study of Tolkien), which I was skimming in preparation for my
Marquette talk. In his first chapter, where Ready is trying to put
together a brief biography on Tolkien from all-too-scanty infor-
mation,*** Buckhurst is given as the ultimate source for an anecdote
that reached him second-hand.  Here's the paragraph in question:

Helen MacMillan Buckhurst was an Oxford colleague of Tolkien's,
a godmother in his home. She was an Icelandic scholar, a lover
of Norse myth. Professor Katherine Ball of Toronto University
was a student of hers at Saint Hugh's during the twenties. Helen
Buckhurst told her that Tolkien, on his hospital bed after the war,
resolved to learn Language and the roots of it as his life's work,
and he did. Tolkien was a born teacher, too. Out of his healing 
time Tolkien came, ready to grow in his field.

The second Buckhurst-sighting came in a completely different
context. When reading a piece David Doughan had kindly sent
me about the history of women students at Oxford (thanks,
David!), part of my research in preparation for my upcoming
Kalamazoo piece, I was reminded about the JRRT/Mary Renault
connection. And, going back to the Renault biography David D.
quoted, which I'd read years ago, I found that right beside its
discussion of JRRT (whom Renault's roommate, Kasia Abbott,
remembered decades later as "darling Tolkien") came the following
glimpse of Buckhurst during her time at St. Hugh's, one of the
Oxford's women's colleges with wh. Tolkien was closely
associated (along with Lady Margaret Hall; he seems to have
had much less to do with Somerville, but that might just be
because of lack of surviving evidence):

   In December 1926 it was decided that an English Club 
should be formed with Miss Seaton as President. The other 
English tutor, Miss Buckhurst, gave the inaugural lecture, 
which FRITILLARY**** described as 'an amusing paper 
on Icelandic folklore', a subject very much of the moment 
in Oxford English circles since Tolkien had returned that 
term as the new Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of 
Anglo-Saxon. Although he would no longer be tutoring 
to the women of St Hugh's, they still had every reason to
be grateful for his return. He was a conscientious lecturer,
offering almost double the statutory hours in order to ensure
that his students, female as well as male, covered the entire
subject. Indeed, he was unusual in being notably sympathetic
to women undergraduates. 

Sweetman  [1993], p. 29 (the passage continues with
another page or two about Tolkien's importance in
shaping Oxford at the time)

Now I'm curious whether the centennial history of the college
mentioned by Renault's biographer***** might contain more
glimpses of Buckhurst, or indeed Tolkien. Worth following up
 on at some point. In any case, even given the scrappiness of
these two fragments, seemed worthwhile to share, since I'd
read them both, years apart, and never thought anything of
it, since this was before I knew who Buckhurst was. It's from
the accumulation and putting together of fragments that we
reconstruct what we can or lost eras.

--John R.

*according to Scull and Hammond's CHRONOLOGY (p.439),
she was also sent presentation copies of LotR in due course.
Although they don't include a separate entry on her in their
COMPANION AND GUIDE, she's mentioned several times
-- e.g., that she was Priscilla's godmother (Chr.150) and that
Tolkien directed her thesis, THE HISTORICAL GRAMMAR

**see THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT (2nd ed) p. 80-82, and
p. 110 in the revised one-volume edition of THE HISTORY
OF THE HOBBIT.  Perhaps it's fairer to say Buckhurst seems
to have drawn the motif to his attention and a few years later
the Icelandic au-pair girl have shown him that such stories
were still current, and still worked with a modern English
audience (his own children).

***and, it must be said, getting some things spectacularly wrong
--like saying Tolkien's mother and her sisters were missionaries
to the harem of the sultan of Zanzibar.  Who knows where that
came from.

****FRITILLARY: 'the magazine of the Oxford women's colleges'
(Sweetman, p.25)

EDUCATION IN OXFORD, ed. Penny Griffin. [1986]

1 comment:

Wayne and Christina said...

We added a biographical entry for Helen Buckhurst to the Reader's Guide last December in our online Addenda and Corrigenda.