Grand-Daughter Of Glenarm: Some centenary comment on a recent biography of the mediaevalist Helen Waddell(1889—1965)


Eull Dunlop:-

In the Old Churchyard, Ballymena, there is a gravestone which will be noted by those interested in Presbyterianism in Glenarm, a topic aired in The Glynns (1981) by S. Alex Blair.

The stone records the death on 1 June 1899, at the age of 84, of Anne, daughter of John Atkinson and “relict of Rev. Hugh Waddell, Glenarm”. Which apparently means that Ballymena has some indirect grand-parental claim (via a second wife of Mr. Waddell) on the famous mediaevalist who has lately been the subject of a major biographical study by an English nun.

The claim of Glenarm, however, might well have been more direct than it was. In the later 1860s local Presbyterians hoped that their minister, Rev. Hugh Waddell (died 1873), sometime husband of Margaret Mayne Reid, would be succeeded by his son and namesake. But the younger Hugh, whose own first wife was Jane Martin of Katesbridge, had other plans. He became a missionary, first in China, then in Spain and finally, for some twenty-five years, in Japan. Nine of their ten children were born in that last country, including the youngest, Helen Jane. In 1973 Monica Blackett provided a sort of ‘portrait’ of this second grand-daughter, rather than daughter, of Glenarm, who was bom on 31 May 1889. In her “Helen Waddell” Felicitas Corrigan now presents a far fuller portrayal (363 pages) of a greatly gifted Ulsterwoman, taking us much further into the life of the scholar whom it is still not possible finally to categorise.

It is fascinating, nevertheless, to follow the development of Helen Waddell’s fruitful mind through her years at Victoria College, Belfast, and at Queen’s University, where the patronage of Professor Gregory Smyth was offset by the increasingly restrictive demands of her widowed step-mother. Surviving her husband (who had also been her cousin), Martha Waddell cost Helen her twenties, a decade of outward oppression alleviated most by the spiritual correspondence between Helen and her ‘second father’, Dr. George Pritchard Taylor (d. 1921). By the time of her release, Helen was too old to have a straightforward collegiate life (“artists and journalists are more my sort than academic people”), was turning down the hand and bungalow of some hopeful Ulsterman and was deciding not to apply for the headship of Victoria College. To Paris, instead, and large libraries, to edge towards the publication of “The Wandering Scholars” (1927), the work which made her name as a serious scholar. And yet this Helen Waddell sometimes seems almost ‘kalleeried’: “the most dormouse of mortals, as she called herself, had become a “hardened diner-out and was rather enjoying it” (p.277) among the London literary set!

What, then, of Helen Waddell and the world? Is some typical confusion evident in her description of brashly modern new York as an “island of ancient churches with high bell towers” (p.290). Take the issue a step further: if Blackett has written of the “pleasure-loving” Helen, Corrigan has described “her mind..  wrestling with the .. . problem of human passion entangling the life of the spirit” (p. 145). A whole topic in itself (p.264ff.), needless to say, was her intimately platonic relationship with the elderly publisher, Otto Kyllmann, an arrangement somewhat different in kind from her earlier, intensely cerebral exchanges with Smyth and his fellow academic, George Saintsbury.

But, for the author of Peter Abelard (1933), that “paradigm of her own life”(p.273), there was still an abstinence. “Her mind must remain perpetually unmarried in order to be ready for the work that time would reveal” (p.165). And yet later life brought immense practical problems. There is a harrowing description of her ‘futtering’ about (“Even when she had good help, she was incapable of closing her sitting-room door and getting on with her work”) and of her falling hopelessly behind literary schedule. At an early stage, her biographer remarks that the “strange rhythm of giving of her best and having it declined with thanks, because it was too good, was to mark Helen’s life” (p. 142), but how much more might Helen Waddell, ’’hag-ridden by the parable of the talents” (p.340), have achieved? Did she spend too much time helping lame dogs over stiles? Or was it her special calling to be spent thus? To display “Universal Auntiness” (p. 334), for there were many in her menage? Sometimes to be “fleeced” (p. 308) by the teller of some hard-luck tale? Or, for a Protestant, to take a controversially liberal attitude to six young men convicted in 1942 of the murder of a Belfast policeman?

This last is a political point, of course, but it still seems natural in our provincial context next to enquire how far Helen had travelled from her religious roots,which, according to Rev. Thomas West’s obituary of her father, were unexpectedly orthodox. Corrigan, for her part, suggests that the missionary son of Glenarm, newly arrived in Japan, was troubled from the outset by “the thorny problem of adaptation: how [to] present the doctrine of the Trinity to minds steeped in the Buddhist or Shinto tradition” (p. 14).

In his final tribute, on the other hand, the minister of First Antrim (who was the son-in-law of the venerable Rev. Frederick Buick of Trinity, Ahoghill) presents the younger Hugh Waddell as a convert during the 1859 Revival who had subsequently “stood fast in the old paths of Evangelical truth as the power of God to save men of every nation”, if that latter description be at all true of Hugh Waddell, his famous daughter certainly needed far more room for mental manoeuvre. And yet, more existential choices by Helen notwithstanding, we cannot underestimate the continuing impact upon her of having been born into a veritable Presbyterian dynasty.

That clan, incidentally, is not one of which it is easy to get the lees (there’s a job for some denominational genealogist), but here is a start: Helen Waddell was the great grand-daughter of Rev. Thomas Mayne Reid (father of the novelist) who in 1800 succeeded his grandfather in Drumgooland and who was succeeded there in 1852 by another of his own sons. She had not only a clerical father and grandfather (p.302), but also a paternal uncle (Rev. Rutherford Waddell of New Zealand) in the ministry.

On the maternal side, there was Rev. J. D. Martin, the son of Tullyallen manse who was minister of Magherally, the cousin of Helen’s mother and eventually husband of Helen’s only sister. Possessed of four medical brethren, Helen was also sister to Rev. George Frederick Waddell who was ordained in Donaghmore, County Down, in March 1915, suddenly to die the following June. And was she also the sister of Rev. William John Patton Waddell who served in Buick’s old charge of Second Ahoghill for his last three years?

Helen Waddell was indeed surrounded by a great cloud of Presbyterian witnesses. Was it ever likely, then, as was feared by another of the family, that she would follow her brother Samuel (the man of the theatre, ’Rutherford Mayne’) into the Roman fold? Not so, according to the conventual perspective of Felicitas Corrigan. “The truth is that Helen never deviated a hair’s breadth from the faith of her Presbyterian forefathers, although, as she said, she would have died, had she not been able to return and drink deep of Catholic springs of devotion” (p. 327). If the mediaevalist had a more than merely professional interest in her period, was not her Presbyterianism more than merely Presbyterian? She, who “knew no frontiers other than those of the mind” (p.270), was ever individualistic, making a multitude of comparisons and connections with which the less adventurous in her ancestral community were not inevitably comfortable.

After a complicated life, whose underlying struggle Felicitas Corrigan has documented with great creative care, came the final silence, outwardly at least. “Mute, unheeding, unfeeling, blind to all beauty, a stranger to the family she had so loved, she sat day after day before a picture of Christ crucified …” In the Biblical notion of Milton, that anguished poet towards whom Helen Waddell had a contradictory attitude, the “talent lodged” had now been hid. All passion had long been spent, before the end came in 1965.

The wandering scholar to whom the Ulster countryside must surely have shown that to “get any conception of infinity is like taking the stone off the mouth of a well” (p.295) was herself laid in home ground.

Helen Waddell, grand-daughter of Glenarm was interred in her native Ulster, at Magherally, County Down. Does her lively, usually careful, biographer overlook that far from trivial final fact?




2 thoughts on “Grand-Daughter Of Glenarm: Some centenary comment on a recent biography of the mediaevalist Helen Waddell(1889—1965)”

  1. Since this was written in 1989, more has been published on Helen Waddell’s Presbyterian roots, her father’s liberal attitudes in religion and politics, beginning with Norman Vance, Helen Waddell: Presbyterian Medievalist (Belfast: Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, 1996), reprinted in Helen Waddell Reassessed: New Readings, ed. Jennifer FitzGerald (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014), pp. 147-71. See also: Norman Vance, ‘Beyond Rome and Geneva’, Helen Waddell Reassessed, pp. 215-228 and Nini Rodgers, ‘Helen Waddell and the Victorian Family’, pp. Helen Waddell Reassessed, pp. 277-98. The same volume contains a Helen Waddell Bibliography (works by and about Helen Waddell), pp. 299-327. See also a new biography: Jennifer FitzGerald, Helen Waddell and Maude Clarke: Irishwomen, Friends and Scholars (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012).

  2. I am writing a biography of Rutherford Waddell and am keen to hear from anyone who has further information about Rutherford Waddell before he emigrated to New Zealand in 1877, including the date of his birth in Ballyroney in about 1849-1853.

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