Mar. 15th, 2011

lady_branwyn: (Niphredil)
Tolkien called her his "Luthien," and the headstone they share in Wolvercote graveyard is inscribed "Beren and Luthien." Early in their marriage, she was not only his inspiration but also an assistant who typed his manuscripts and, at least vicariously, took part in his world-building. Later, they seemed to drift apart, as he retreated to his study and she to the nursery that held their growing family. The drafts of the LOTR were shared with Tolkien's son and his male associates, not his wife.

She was born Edith Bratt and bore her mother's surname. If she knew her father's name, she never told her children. Her own family was reasonably well-off, and she studied music with the goal of becoming a music teacher or even a performer. Yet after she finished her schooling in her late teens, her guardian seemed unsure what to do with her and found a place for her in a boarding house. It always struck me as odd that she was left unchaperoned in the care of strangers. Not surprisingly, she struck up a friendship with the younger residents of the boarding house--Tolkien and his brother Hilary.

She and Tolkien became engaged in 1913 but did not marry until 1916. Away at university, he spent much of his free time with close male friends. None of them even knew of Edith's existence until the couple was wed. Why the secrecy? Was he ashamed of her relative lack of education and social standing? Was he afraid that he would no longer fit in with his circle of bachelor friends?

Yet the marriage would have much less impact on his life than on hers. He would still have his studies and his companions, but in some respects, her world was greatly narrowed after the marriage.

She was a member of the Anglican Church, and Tolkien demanded that she convert to Catholicism (which at that time was required if they wanted to marry within the Catholic Church). With some misgivings, she complied. She had to give up her position as church organist and leave behind the lively social life of her Anglican congregation. In later years, she expressed disatisfaction with her new faith and resentment about the forced conversion.

In the early years, the household was frequently on the move. That and the arrival of the children precluded the serious pursuit of music, though the family does remember her playing.

Though Tolkien clearly loved her, it is doubtful that he considered her his peer. Letters often referred to her as "little one," and Tolkien was of the opinion that, in general, women did not share the intellectual capacity of men. (Which is very odd since he collaborated for years with a female French academic.) Major household decisions seem to have been unilateral. One of their houses was purchased without her seeing it beforehand!

Tolkien loved conversation and company, but Edith was by nature very shy. She avoided socializing with the other faculty wives. The women soon learned that "Mrs. Tolkien does not call." Certainly, her illegitimate birth would have made the inevitable discussions of family background very awkward, but her reluctance to become part of the university community cannot have helped advance her husband's career.

Perhaps it was inevitable that she and Tolkien would grow apart, for they had very different personalities and the social roles of the day isolated them within their own areas of responsibility. She seems to have felt ill at ease in her prescribed role, yet they remained deeply devoted to each other and to their children. Many years later, Tolkien acknowledged that he had expected many sacrifices from her during their marriage. When they retired, he chose the town of Bournemouth--a genteel resort town where Edith was gloriously happy and Tolkien was utterly bored. He figured that she had earned it.

[If this rambles, I apologize--I was up late last night due to a plumbing emergency. One of the joys of being a homeowner.]

[Edit: A house guest will be arriving tomorrow for a visit, so the next entry may be a day late.]


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