Wednesday, 4 April 2012

William Adams: The Old Man's Home

Pursuing a continuing thread about little-known Isle of Wight authors, in The Autobiography of Elizabeth M. Sewell (1907, Internet Archive autobiographyel00unkngoog) I just ran into a reference to the clergyman and author William Adams (1814-1848).  Adams was an acquaintance of Miss Sewell in the final six years of his life; he retired to Bonchurch suffering from tuberculosis, and died there at the age of 33. He's buried in the churchyard of the Old Church, Bonchurch (see page 69, Illustrated Handbook to the Isle of Wight, Volume 1, Edmund Venables, 1860). There's a blue plaque at his Shore Road house, Winterbourne - see Open Plaques - where, incidentally, Dickens wrote part of David Copperfield and the watercolourist Myles Birket Foster stayed when he painted On the beach at Bonchurch.

During his final years, Adams wrote a series of "Sacred Allegories", which were well-received in their day. While their didactic religious style tends not to be to modern taste - each section is followed by a concordance explaining the allegory - they're nevertheless classifiable as fantasy novelettes, and interesting in that light: see William Adams' Sacred Allegories in Jessica Amanda Salmonson's excellent "Weird Review" series.

image of Undercliff from 1882 Rivington edition

The most successful (and most accessible) of the Allegories was The Old Man's Home, which is set in the Isle of Wight, and begins on a cliff path near the village of B— (undoubtedly Bonchurch):
There is a scene on the coast of the Isle of Wight with which I have long since become familiar, but which never fails to exercise a soothing influence on my mind. It is at the eastern extremity of the landslip. Large portions of the cliff have fallen away, and formed a dell so broken and irregular, that the ground has the appearance of having at one time been agitated by an earthquake. But Nature has only suffered the convulsion to take place, in order that afterwards she might bestow her gifts upon this favoured spot with a more unsparing hand. The wild and picturesque character of the landscape is now almost lost sight of in its richness and repose. The new soil is protected from the storms of winter by the cliff from which it has fallen, and, sloping towards the south, is open to the full warmth and radiance of the sun. In consequence of this, the landslip has, as it were, a climate of its own ; and often, when the more exposed parts of the country still look dreary and desolate, is in the enjoyment of the blessings of an early spring. Such was the season at which I first visited it. The grey fragments of rock which lay scattered on the ground were almost hid by the luxuriance of the underwood, and countless wild flowers were growing beneath their shade. Below, the eye rested upon a little bay, formed by the gradual advance of the sea ; and all was so calm and peaceful, that as I watched the gentle undulation of the waters, I could fancy them to be moving to and fro with a stealthy step, lest they should disturb the tranquillity of the scene.

I have said that a visit to this favoured spot never fails with me to have a soothing influence. I feel as though I were treading on enchanted ground, and the whole scene were allegorical; for it reminds me that, in like manner, the wreck of all our earthly hopes and plans may but lay open our hearts to the influence of a warmer sunshine, and enrich them with flowers which the storms of life have no longer power to destroy. But I cannot now tell whether these thoughts have their origin in the scene itself, or in an incident that occurred the first time I visited it.

It was on the evening of the 18th of April, 1843. I had been long gazing upon it, and had imagined that I was alone, when my attention was arrested by a sigh from some one near me. I turned round, and saw a venerable old man seated upon a fragment of the fallen cliff ...
The man, a benign but somewhat confused 93-year-old called Robin, says he is "on his way home" and wants to get to B—. The narrator helps him toward the village, where a group of men unexpectedly take Robin into custody: he is an escapee from the asylum at the nearby town of N— (Newport) and, his minders say, has been mad for more than 50 years.

The narrator decides to investigate Robin's background, and the next day - with a strong intuition that Robin's "going home" is actually a metaphor for his impending death - goes to N— asylum and enquires.  Robin has indeed died (peacefully) overnight, and the asylum superintendent tells the narrator his story; that Robin was a formerly violent inmate who in old age had acquired a kind of saintly calm through the continuing delusion that he had a wife and family "at home", and would soon join them. This belief had proved infectious, with a calming effect on other patients, as well as on the superintendent's young daughter, Annie, who it turns out is seriously ill and later dies.

Finally, the narrator, determined to save Robin from a pauper's grave, pursues the only clue: a Bible belonging to Robin and dedicated to a Susan Wakeling. He enquires around the village of B—, and eventually finds an elderly widow who has very vague recollections of a Wakeling family. She does, however, strongly recall an epidemic of fever many years previously, and suggests that the narrator look in the churchyard. There he finds a tombstone that explains both the old man's destination on their first meeting, his firm belief in having a family, and the cause of his insanity: his wife and three children died in the epidemic 60 years previously. Robin - whose real name was Robert Wakeling - is finally "home" with his family.

While pious and sentimental, it's actually a rather good investigative and psychological mystery story: a plausible account of a benign delusion told in a highly realistic setting, so realistic that you suspect Adams of having built the story around a real person. But as Edmund Venables wrote, concerning the Old Church, Bonchurch:
It may not be unnecessary to inform the readers of "The Old Man's Home" that they will search in vain for the tomb of "Robert Wakeling" and his family, who are entirely creations of the author's fancy.
- p214, The Isle of Wight, A Guide, Edmund Venables, 1860
... and Adams himself was obliged to give a disclaimer in the preface to the third edition of the standalone volume of The Old Man's Home:
The Author is induced to annex this statement to the present Edition, in consequence of an erroneous impression which has prevailed, that the Old Man's Home is a true story. He trusts that he may look upon it as a sign that the picture of poor Robin has not been overdrawn; he enjoyed very peculiar advantages in the delineation of its outline, from having been long in the habit of hearing his father speak of the softened form which mental disorders assume under a gentle system of treatment, and at times accompanied him in his visits to Hanwell Asylum.

With respect to the local allusions which the narrative contains, he was led to introduce them from his affection for the scenes in the midst of which he wrote; and indeed the broken, yet rich and luxuriant, scenery of the Undercliffe seemed to have a kind of natural harmony with the Old Man's character.
image from 1882 Rivington edition
The Old Man's Home, William Adams, Fourth Edition, 1847 -  Google Books full view.
Sacred allegories, William Adams, 1849 - Google Books full view.

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