Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Gissing and Topsham

I just stepped out before work (Wednesday is my regular day in The Topsham Bookshop) to take a moment looking over the Topsham's church wall, which overlooks the River Exe.

For some reason, I've hitherto completely missed the Victorian novelist George Gissing's reference to Topsham, and been particularly remiss in failing to spot Wayland Wordsmith's post on it: The view from Topsham Churchyard.

Anyhow, to get o the point, Gissing wrote in his strongly autobiographical The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft:
A whole day’s walk yesterday with no plan; just a long ramble of hour after hour, entirely enjoyable. It ended at Topsham, where I sat on the little churchyard terrace, and watched the evening tide come up the broad estuary. I have a great liking for Topsham, and that churchyard, overlooking what is not quite sea, yet more than river, is one of the most restful spots I know. Of course the association with old Chaucer, who speaks of Topsham sailors, helps my mood. I came home very tired; but I am not yet decrepit, and for that I must be thankful.
As WW comments, there's no evidence of Chaucer mentioning Topsham sailors, and the most likely explanation is that Gissing is confusing the Shipman of Dertemouthe who tells The Sailor's Tale in Canterbury Tales.

As Topsham has changed its name over the years - e.g. Toppesham, Apsham, Apsam - it's always worth checking these things out, but a 1964 Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries request failed to elicit anything; nor did the Gissing Newsletter:
The Ryecroft Papers: reply to Mr Daniels' queries in our number of June 1965
No more than Mr. Daniels have I succeeded in finding any mention of Topsham in Chaucer. WW Skeat's edition of the complete works (1905) and FN Robinson's (1933) contain no reference to the mysterious sailors.
- The Gissing Newsletter, Volume II, No. 1, January 1966.
George Gissing lived a fairly wretched life, largely down to a combination of poor business acumen and a series of train-wreck relationships driven by what looks like a repetitive rescue fantasy (in his teens, he ruined his academic career with a conviction for theft of money to save a prostitute, Nell). See George Gissing's grubby life, Clare Harman, The Telegraph, 15th March, 2008. But he did, it seems, find some solace in a short settled period in 1891-1893, when he lived in Exeter. The Topsham passage in The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft continues:
The unspeakable blessedness of having a home! Much as my imagination has dwelt upon it for thirty years, I never knew how deep and exquisite a joy could lie in the assurance that one is at home for ever. Again and again I come back upon this thought; nothing but Death can oust me from my abiding place. And Death I would fain learn to regard as a friend, who will but intensify the peace I now relish.

When one is at home, how one’s affections grow about everything in the neighbourhood! I always thought with fondness of this corner of Devon, but what was that compared with the love which now strengthens in me day by day! Beginning with my house, every stick and stone of it is dear to me as my heart’s blood; I find myself laying an affectionate hand on the door-post, giving a pat, as I go by, to the garden gate. Every tree and shrub in the garden is my beloved friend; I touch them, when need is, very tenderly, as though carelessness might pain, or roughness injure them. If I pull up a weed in the walk, I look at it with a certain sadness before throwing it away; it belongs to my home.

And all the country round about. These villages, how delightful are their names to my ear! I find myself reading with interest all the local news in the Exeter paper. Not that I care about the people; with barely one or two exceptions, the people are nothing to me, and the less I see of them the better I am pleased. But the places grow ever more dear to me. I like to know of anything that has happened at Heavitree, or Brampford Speke, or Newton St. Cyres. I begin to pride myself on knowing every road and lane, every bridle path and foot-way for miles about. I like to learn the names of farms and of fields. And all this because here is my abiding place, because I am home for ever.
Exeter Memories has a good summary of Gissing's time in Exeter.

- Ray


  1. Your pictures of Topsham are always so scenic and inviting, that I'm becoming suspicious that such a charming place really exists.

    But the real reason for this comment is to ask how one who is from this possibly-perfect place pronounces its name. Does everything that comes after "Top" just blur into a long "mmmmmm" or do I have to sort of muddy the "mmmmm" into "shmmmmmn"?

  2. Hi, Julie!
    It's a disputed point. Overall, by custom and usage, "Top-shmmmm" predominates. However, some older locally-born people call it "Top-smmmm", as does the clique of moneyed incomers living at the expensive end of town.

    The trouble is, the factoid that the latter pronunciation is definitively "correct" tends to get repeated in books and articles, because the local history buffs, that book and article writers consult, tend to come from that retired moneyed set.

    More on this at Placenames: prescription vs description.

  3. Of course it could be "Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch"