Dweller in Shadows: A Life of Ivor Gurney
by Kate Kennedy
Published June 2021
Princeton University Press
I’ve long admired the songs of Gloucester born Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), so was more than delighted to cross paths with this first comprehensive biography of the man. He was unique in that he forged a dual career as a war poet and composer but, sadly, from early on in his life he began to show signs of mental illness. The subject, exploring the relationship between madness and creativity, is sympathetically and sensitively approached by Kennedy but, a warning, you’ll find it tragically sad and extremely moving at times. I read somewhere that “the life of Ivor Gurney began in purgatory and ended in hell”. This just about sums it up.
Born in 1890, he was the son of a tailor father, David, and seamstress mother, Florence. She was a highly-strung and unstable woman. Whether she passed these traits on to her son remains speculation. Ivor’s talent for music showed itself early, and he became a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral from 1900 to 1906. There he met Herbert Howells who became a lifelong friend. Ivor Davis, later known as Ivor Novello, was another acquaintance. In 1908 he met the poet F. W. Harvey, who also provided an enduring friendship. In 1911 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Charles Villiers Stanford, who considered him an exceptional talent, but a “stubborn and opinionated pupil”, who thought highly of himself.
World War 1 interrupted his studies and he enlisted as a private with the Gloucestershire regiment in 1915. Thus began two years in the trenches of the Western Front. Now poetry rather than music took precedence in his thoughts. His work became imbued with details of trench life. Kennedy provides a vivid and eye-opening commentary on life and conditions in the trenches. Eventually Gurney was shot in the arm and then gassed. He returned to Blighty, and his first collection of poems, Severn and Somme, was published whilst he was recovering in hospital. When war ended he returned to his music studies at the Royal College of Music for a while.
The musicologist Marion Scott (1877-1953) became a significant figure in his life. The two met at the Royal College of Music in 1911. She had a tendency to form passionate relationships with men she cared for. One such was composer Ernest Farrar. News of his engagement to another woman resulted in the “lonely and embittered Scott” resolving never to speak to him again. Gurney sensibly kept the relationship purely on a business and platonic footing, referring to her respectfully as ‘Miss Scott’. Nevertheless, she became his strongest advocate and their friendship endured for the rest of Gurney’s life despite their differences in age and social standing. Whilst Gurney was in the trenches he would send her his poetry. She provided encouragement and acted as editor. After the war, she continued as an ardent champion of his poetry and music. She went on to support him when he was committed to the asylum, acting as his advocate in dealings with his doctors. She took him on day trips and provided financial support. She safeguarded his manuscripts after his death and continued to promote him until her own death in 1953.
Gurney’s most significant love affair was with Annie Nelson Drummond, a Scottish V.A.D. nurse at the Edinburgh War Hospital, where he ended up in September 1917 after being gassed (he never saw active service again). He was careful not to reveal his feelings to Scott. It was Gurney’s wish to settle down with Drummond and, for a while, they met up and exchanged letters. However, it wasn’t to last. She wanted an equal partner, not someone who needed nursing. The eventual break-up triggered an episode of severe depression in Gurney. He sent letters to her throughout the 1920s, but she had relocated to Massachusetts with her new husband, another of her patients.
The third section of the book, a deeply harrowing account, deals with Gurney’s last fifteen years when, due to the machinations of his brother Ronald, he was certified insane in 1922. He eventually ended up in the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, known as Stone House. Whilst there he was placed on suicide watch and tried, on several occasions, to escape. He became convinced that machines under the floor were torturing him and, for one period, thought he was Shakespeare. It was, however, an artistically fruitful time; he wrote more than 650 poems, 200 musical compositions and a handful of plays. Most have languished unpublished in an archive for decades. He received visits from Marion Scott, Ralph Vaughan Williams and very occasionally from Howells and Harvey. By 1937, he had succumbed to tuberculosis, and died on Christmas Eve. Although he was only forty-seven, “his body was that of a haggard, elderly man”.
The biography is handsomely produced, with a text running to 385 pages. Black and white photographs are scattered throughout, all of which are relevant and enhance the text. I found the two appendices especially beneficial. The first is a chronological catalogue of Gurney’s musical works, the second of his literary works. Kennedy gratefully acknowledges the work of Philip Lancaster who has collated and dated many of the manuscripts. Although vast swathes of Gurney’s work remain unpublished, this is claimed to be the most accurate record, to date, of that which is extant and that lost. The book concludes with 36 pages of end notes and an index.
All told, this is an impeccably and thoroughly researched biography, carefully analytical and elegantly presented. Kate Kennedy has left no stone unturned in her endeavours. It certainly makes for rewarding reading. Although Gurney has long dwelt on the shadowy periphery of musical life, this outstanding biography does much to redress the balance. It has to be one of the most heart-rending books I’ve ever read.