A Very Trevelyan Christmas

Trinity College Library is home to the archive of poet and dramatist, Robert Calverley Trevelyan and his Dutch wife Elizabeth, a musician. Robert and Elizabeth Trevelyan, who married in 1900, had a wide circle of friends from many countries, including writers, musicians, family, and members of the Bloomsbury Group. Many items in the collection of their papers in Trinity College Library show that Christmas was a time in which bonds of friendship were re-affirmed and strengthened.

These include Christmas cards, such as one showing a world map, sailing ship and steam train framed by holly, ivy and mistletoe, bearing the legend ‘From Friend to Friend Across the Sea’.

RCT/23/121/4

A pencil line seems to have been drawn from Great Britain to Italy, perhaps indicating that it was sent to the Trevelyans on one of their winters spent in warmer climes. A Forces card comes from John Luce, stationed in the Faroe Islands, in December 1942, which has a ‘V’ for Victory and an oystercatcher (the national bird) on the front (RCT/4/152).

RCT/4/152

E. M. Forster and his mother (RCT/3/25) send one with Christmas and New Year’s good wishes. Veronica Wedgwood’s cards are printed by the political and literary review “Time and Tide”, with a line drawing of the magazine’s offices on the front (22/99-100).

RCT/3/25
RCT/22/99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many letters in the Trevelyan collection were written around Christmas time, often shedding light on traditions of friendship and celebration. In 1918 Robert sends a letter from France, where he is working with the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, to his eight-year-old son Julian (RCT/15/9). He thanks Julian for his Christmas card, poem, and present of a notebook, and wishes he could ‘fly over in an aeroplane’ to visit him.

RCT/15/9
RCT/15/9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RCT/23/129

A 1921 letter from the Maharaja of Chhatarpur, Vishwanath Singh (RCT/23/129), thanks Robert (who stayed with him in India in 1912) for his Christmas card with the ‘nice and promising attempt of the young painter [Julian]’. The Maharaja also asks where ‘our friend’ Bertrand Russell is, since his own card to Russell has been returned.

Maria Germanova

Maria Germanova, a Russian actor living in exile in Paris, writes in 1937 (RCT/16/143) that she is looking forward to seeing Robert there soon, but notes that she will be at church in the morning of 7 January (the Orthodox Christmas) and the next day (sacred to the Virgin Mary). She and her husband, anthropologist and art historian Alexander Kalitinsky are also celebrating what they call the ‘European’ feast day, though they feel lonely without the young ones [her son André and his wife].

Robert began sending poems to his friends in pamphlet form as a Christmas card in 1941. The first was called “A Dream” when perhaps the dark days of the Second World War impelled him to offer some philosophical comfort. After a few years halt, perhaps due to paper shortages, another Christmas booklet appeared in 1944, named “From the Shiffolds” after the Trevelyans’ home in the Surrey hills. Further pamphlets containing poems and translations by Robert were sent out each following year until his death in 1951. Many letters in the collection are written to express thanks for the poems, as well to share news and Christmas/New Year best wishes. Frances Cornford, to whom one of the copies of “From the Shiffolds” in the Library was sent (Pam.c.95.82), writes several, commenting on the poems each time. In 1948 she sends a ‘joint effort’ by her and her son Christopher as thanks, presumably a card illustrated by Christopher, an artist (RCT/21/70).

Tet Htoot, a Burmese scholar working for the BBC, writes with thanks for the ‘magnificent Christmas card’, saying that he has been reading the poems to friends; he sends some Turkish delight as a present (RCT/23/37). There is another Trevelyan Christmas story relating to Tet Htoot: in 1940 as Robert writes to Julian and his wife Ursula (RCT/15/105) Tet Htoot was due to come to the Shiffolds on Christmas Eve, but mistakenly caught a train to Oakley in Kent rather than Ockley; Robert hopes that he will arrive today – Christmas Day – ‘in time for the turkey’ and thanking Julian for the tin of lychees.

The writer Olive Heseltine says she has already read, in the ‘dim December light’, the poems in Robert’s ‘most welcome Christmas card’ (RCT/23/63).

RCT/23/63

Ralph Vaughan Williams was a friend and near neighbour of the Trevelyans, and several letters (in his hard-to-read handwriting!) thank Robert for “From the Shiffolds”. In the letter shown below he jokes that none of Robert’s translations of Greek poetry sent in 1946 are ‘quite up to the poem to Ursula’ [later his wife] which had featured in a previous collection (RCT/16/186).

RCT/16/186

Another author, botanist Dorothea Eastwood, writes with praise of Robert’s translation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, adding that as a child she used to think Persephone had been gathering ‘lords and ladies’ (the arum lily) when she was carried off to the underworld, and for that reason would not pick them ‘in case the legend might be repeated in Hampshire’ (RCT/21/86).

A particularly sweet letter comes from Walter Laffan in 1945 (RCT/18/57). Laffan has been reading Robert’s poems to his wife ‘in front of the fire’; he also mentions their ‘huge tree & many other candles and decorations in the best German fashion’, and the Christmas card which his children have given him. At the end of the letter, he types out a poem by his five-year-old son, ‘”A Christmas Song” by Rolf to Daddy’, and says ‘the last two lines touch me’. We hope they, and the warmth evoked in these other pieces from the Trevelyan collection, touch you too.

RCT/18/57
RCT/18/57

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the Christmas and New Year period these items can be seen on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.