The Shadow of Ashlydyat
by S.M.C. (a substantial extract)
When Mrs. Wood's interesting novel 'Edina' was appearing in the pages of this magazine. The author was besieged by inquiries as to the pronunciation of this unusual Christian name, and she therefore appended a note to one chapter to the effect that the i should be given the broad sound. The title of one of her earlier works has exercised its readers in very much the same manner, being invariably rendered 'The Shadow of Ashly-dy'at,' whereas the original locality is called Ash-LYD'-yat, or rather (Mrs. Wood having altered the name for purposes of literary disguise) Lydiate Ash.
While Mrs. Wood has taken some slight liberties (to suit the exigencies of her story) with the immediate neighbourhood of the house which gives its name to the book, and therefore renders it occasionally difficult to localise places and scenes, yet so faithful to reality is every word of the story which deals with the country-town of Prior's Ash, that no one who is acquainted with it can have the least difficulty in recognising Bromsgrove. This pretty old town is situated in Worcestershire, in the very heart of that simple, pastoral scenery which the author of 'East Lynne' so dearly loved to depict, and about twelve or fourteen miles from the city of her birth. To the north and east lie the Lickey Hills, a favourite haunt of Birmingham gipsy-parties; and here, in a quiet little valley off the beaten track of the tourist, we find the Lydiate Ash.
The tiny hamlet (if so it may be called) takes its name from the large ash-trees growing at the junction of four lanes, but the epithet "Lydiate" is hard to understand; and in a hollow between the Birmingham and Rubery roads lies the interesting old house which local tradition asserts is the original of the home of the Godolphins. It lies back from the road, surrounded by magnificent old trees. From the front windows, or the broad gravel-walk where poor Thomas used to sit when the weariness of approaching death was upon him, there is a good view of the hill that the novelist crowned with Lady Godolphin's Folly, a domicile that evidently existed only in the story.
I have never seen in the neighbourhood of The Lydiate Ash anything corresponding with the curious bit of scenery connected with the Shadow - the swampy meadow and the arched bridge leading to and from nowhere - nor heard any such legend or tradition as that connected with the Godolphin estate; yet it must strike most readers that the descriptive and material part of the tradition (if not the ghostly) has an unmistakable ring of truth in it; and anything so singular and purposeless as the piece of masonry which reared its solitary form on the dark plain could and would hardly have been imagined even by the most far-fetched of romancers, let alone one who so invariably drew scenery, localities, and characters from life.
The bridge or arch has no particular connection with the tale, and the Shadow would have filled its purpose in the story just as well without it. Now it is well known that artists frequently "compose" their pictures - i.e., instead of representing a landscape just as it existed in nature, put together a group of trees from one place, a stream from another, etc., if such an arrangement accord better with the subject in view; and in like manner do authors, even the most faithful copyists from nature, blend together the various scenes and incidents that have taken their fancy, or will answer their purpose. And this, I imagine, is precisely the case with the book under consideration.
Driving, one glorious spring day, through the lanes which connect the nest of lovely old villages lying to the north east of the Faithful City, I was struck by the singularity of a bit of scenery which I came upon suddenly, after passing a mile or more of nothing but pink and white orchards. It was rather a swampy, neglected-looking field, in the midst of which was a solitary piece of masonry - an archway, much too high for an ordinary door or gateway, with the bricks broken away at the sides so as to form steps. It could serve no purpose, and, regarded as a bridge, led neither to nor from anything, but was apparently the remains of some large structure. Whether there is any legend or story attached to it, I was not sufficiently long in the neighbourhood to learn; but, on re-reading 'The Shadow of Ashlydyat' some time after, the thought of this spot flashed across my mind; and so exactly does it tally with the mysterious building connected with the death-warning of the Godolphins, that I think there can be little doubt that Mrs. Henry Wood was acquainted with it, and so introduced it into her story in connection with the family legend…
But it is time to turn away from the Lydiate Ash and give our attention to "the one street very large," as Old Leland puts it, which, with one or two little cross streets, makes up the charming old town of Bromsgrove, alias Prior's Ash…The most remarkable feature in Bromsgrove is the Church, All Saints', which plays an equally conspicuous part in the novel. This noble building, part of which dates from the twelfth century, is, with the beautiful linden trees surrounding it, the pride of the town; and well it may be, for there are not many country churches which surpass it in beauty of design, or situation, or historical interest…
There are monuments, tablets and epitaphs that delight antiquarians; but for the frivolous-minded reader of novels the chief interest centres on the churchyard, that lovely, tree-shaded "Acre of God," to which so many of the dramatic personae of our story were bourne. Here is the Lych-gate, where the bearers were wont to rest with their sad burden, and strolling along under the magnificent lindens, on the tombstones we notice many of the surnames (some peculiar to the county) with which readers of Mrs. Wood's books have been made familiar, for her nomenclature was as true Worcestershire as other more important points.
Passing out of the western gate, down two or three little flights of shallow steps, brings us into a curious little street or alley which, following its windings round the churchyard wall, takes us back to the High Street, past the Rectory, the pretty home which poor Maria Hastings left was as bright a prospect as ever opened before a bride, to be brought back after a few short years and laid, a broken-hearted woman, beneath the shadow of beautiful All Saints'.
Even the most casual reader of this story must feel that it is no imaginary stage on which the characters are made to move, but that the authoress is familiar with every inch of the ground, and this unconscious (as it were) familiarity with the subject causes her to insert many little touches of faithful local topography, which, though they do not affect the story at all, give it a natural and "living" tone that no imaginary description of scenery or places, however cleverly written, can ever impart to a novel.
It is rather an Irish proceeding to speak last of the opening chapters of the book, but it would not do to omit all reference to the scene portrayed therein, as it is one of the most characteristic local bits in the whole work. During the season the Worcestershire hounds frequently meet close to Bromsgrove, when exactly such a scene as that in which we are first introduced to the Godolphins takes place. The townspeople are as devoted to hunting as their country neighbours, and rich and poor of all ranks, mounted and on foot, are still as eager in the pursuit of poor Reynard through the remains of the dense forest which once surrounded Bromsgrove, as their ancestors were in that of the wild boars so abundant there in former ages.
Text: The Argosy, December 1895