Monday, 22 June 2009


Regarding the name Aubrey Trefusis (previously) I have to admit that "Trefusis" is one of my cringe words (as "moist" is for others - see Language Log). This stems entirely from memories of the writings of Nellie May(s) - anyone else remember her? - who around the late 1960s / early 1970s attracted about equal praise and ridicule for the ludicrous purple-prose nature descriptions in her letters to the Daily Mirror Live Letters (its now defunct N&Q-style column run by the fictional Old Codgers). "Trefusis Rocks" still sticks in my mind as one of the locations she obsessed about, Trefusis being the name of a farm and promontory at the mouth of the Penrhyn River estuary, opposite Falmouth (and - to the point of overuse - of any number of roads, houses, suburban developments, etc).

It's also a vanishingly uncommon 1 surname, though currently getting exposure in fictional form through Stephen Fry's Professor Donald Trefusis, who featured prominently in The Liar and whose career continues posthumously through his dongle. With Fry and Wodehouse before him both well au fait with 20th century literary and social figures, it seems most likely their characters were named after the real-world Violet Trefusis (who is well-documented online: see Scandalous Love - The Life of Violet Trefusis and elsewhere). Emily Trefusis, heroine of Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, probably just sprang from names familiar to the Torquay-born author.

Prior to these, there have been a number of others, such as some of the Barons Clinton; Katherine Trefusis-Forbes, first Director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force; and Robert Trefusis, Suffragan Bishop of Crediton. But none of them attracted such adulatory press as "Molly Trefusis":

Molly Trefusis

"Now the Graces are four and the Venuses two,
And ten is the number of Muses;
For a Muse and a Grace and a Venus are you,--
My dear little Molly Trefusis!

So he wrote, the old bard of an "old magazine:"
As a study it not without use is,
If we wonder a moment who she may have been,
This same "little Molly Trefusis!"

She was Cornish. We know that at once by the "Tre;"
Then of guessing it scarce an abuse is
If we say that where Bude bellows back to the sea
Was the birthplace of Molly Trefusis.

And she lived in the era of patches and bows,
Not knowing what rouge or ceruse is;
For they needed (I trust) but her natural rose,
The lilies of Molly Trefusis.

And I somehow connect her (I frankly admit
That the evidence hard to produce is)
With BATH in its hey-day of Fashion and Wit,--
This dangerous Molly Trefusis.

I fancy her, radiant in ribbon and knot,
(How charming that old-fashioned puce is!)
All blooming in laces, fal-lals and what not,
At the PUMP ROOM,--Miss Molly Trefusis.

I fancy her reigning,--a Beauty,--a Toast,
Where BLADUD'S medicinal cruse is; 2
And we know that at least of one Bard it could boast,--
The Court of Queen Molly Trefusis.

He says she was "VENUS." I doubt it. Beside,
(Your rhymer so hopelessly loose is!)
His "little" could scarce be to Venus applied,
If fitly to Molly Trefusis.

No, no. It was HEBE he had in his mind;
And fresh as the handmaid of Zeus is,
And rosy, and rounded, and dimpled,--you'll find,--
Was certainly Molly Trefusis!

Then he calls her "a MUSE." To the charge I reply
That we all of us know what a Muse is;
It is something too awful,--too acid,--too dry,--
For sunny-eyed Molly Trefusis.

But "a GRACE." There I grant he was probably right;
(The rest but a verse-making ruse is)
It was all that was graceful,--intangible,--light,
The beauty of Molly Trefusis!

Was she wooed? Who can hesitate much about that
Assuredly more than obtuse is;
For how could the poet have written so pat
"My dear little Molly Trefusis!"

And was wed? That I think we must plainly infer,
Since of suitors the common excuse is
To take to them Wives. So it happened to her,
Of course,--"little Molly Trefusis!"

To the Bard? 'Tis unlikely. Apollo, you see,
In practical matters a goose is;--
'Twas a knight of the shire, and a hunting J.P.,
Who carried off Molly Trefusis!

And you'll find, I conclude, in the "Gentleman's Mag.,"
At the end, where the pick of the news is,
"On the (blank), at 'the Bath,' to Sir Hilary Bragg,
With a Fortune

Thereupon ... But no farther the student may pry:
Love's temple is dark as Eleusis;
So here, at the threshold, we part, you and I,
From "dear little Molly Trefusis."

- Henry Austin Dobson

Notes and Queries 146, October 13th 1900, goes into some of the background; Austin Dobson's verses were

founded on a single stanza which is quoted in the late Lord Neaves's little book on The Greek Anthology in Blackwood's Ancient Classics for English Readers, and which is said to have formed part of a poem published in "an old magazine"

N&Q wonders if the stanza - dedicated to "an accomplished Cornish lady" - refers to the Cornish poet Elizabeth Trefusis (1763-1808) but concludes not, on grounds of radically different biographical outcomes (the latter never married into a fortune). The most detailed biosquib comes from the Rev. William Beloe in The Sexagenarian (1818) 1:368-70, 175-83, but it comes across as rather hostile, presenting her as a complete divvy. Alexander Dyce, in Specimens of British Poetesses, says "the account of her in that work, I have good authority for stating, is extremely incorrect".

The poem itself appears to have been reworked into a story - "The Junior Lord's Romance" by Francis Gribble - in the Pall Mall Magazine, 1910, pp.1075-1081. Moved to a modern London setting, it features "the Honourable Algernon Brooklyn, the youthful member for Bude Haven" and Mollie Trefusis as a chorus girl ("Mollie Trefusis of the Propriety — a brilliant ornament of the chorus of that theatre, at which so many matrimonial links have been forged"). Currently it can't be retrieved from Google Books.

1. National Trust Names, for instance, doesn't map "Trefusis" because it falls below the threshold of 100 names in the electoral register.
2. Bladud, the mythical founder of Bath.

PS: 1. Lordy! Looking back at this post, I think I'm channelling Cecil Torr. 2. You'd think Austin Dobson could have wrung at least one more verse out of that rhyme. Perhaps:

But though wed, she stayed lonely and sad on the shelf,
Subjected to many abuses,
Condemned to sit day-long at home by herself,
While her husband fired bullets at mooses.

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Mmmm... take a bite!
    Pink crumbs full of juices!
    Red wine, not white!
    With sweet 'n' tasty Miss Molly Trefusis.