Aylwin Out in the World - not completely forgotten


Aylwin by Theodore Watts-Dunton


published 1898

‘Your [name] is most unusual. I suppose it came from Watts-Dunton’s novel of that name?’

‘Yes.’ He was reminded of the lounge of his mother’s hotel and the odd selection of tattered-looking books in the glass-fronted bookcase in the lounge…. There had been – indeed, there still was – Aylwin, by Theodore Watts-Dunton.


This is from the Barbara Pym book No Fond Return of Love.

I just wrote about the book Aylwin – I was looking at the lost bestseller, a book which once sold in vast quantities, copies on every shelf, and is now almost wholly forgotten: Axel Munthe was the first author I wrote about, Theodore Watts-Dunton the second.

But there was far too much to say about Aylwin – it has spilled over into a second blogpost, looking at the way the world interacted with it… and the two posts should be read together.

I mentioned in the first post a friend whose grandmother had named a child after the book: Barbara Pym’s hero was born in 1912 – and if ever there was an author who would know about dusty bookshelves and forgotten books it would be Pym.

Her heroine is Dulcie (another name to conjure with, which we happen to have been discussing recently), and luckily she is a stalker in a nice cardi and comfortable shoes, as I like to describe her, so we know from her researches in Who’s Who when this Aylwin was born. And she chases him to his mother’s hotel: she sees the book in the bookcase, along with novels by Marie Corelli and Florence Barclay.

[Sideline: Barclay’s The Rosary is another forgotten bestseller, and gets the Clothes in Books Tosh Treatment here – and, I must just find room to add a fascinating fact offered by one of my readers/commentators, Parthenophe, in the comments on that post: the book was famous – memorable – enough in its day to feature in Seller and Yeatman’s 1066 And All That, 1930. ‘The Venomous Bead’ is said to be ‘author of The Rosary’.]

The original Aylwin, it is not a spoiler to reveal, wants to marry a young woman of a much lower social class. It turns out in the Pym book that her Aylwin’s grandfather did the same thing.

There is blog history here in the top photo, which represents Winifred, Aylwin’s beloved, dancing on the sands. (It most certainly does not represent Pym’s Dulcie in her sensible dresses & quilted dressing gown).

I found this photo very early on in my blogging days, and I said this about it:

Here we are again at the archive of the Builth Wells Historical Pageant of 1909, provided for us by the National Library of Wales, a set of photos I can never get enough of. Maybe one day I will find the book that requires as illo the photo called ‘Miss Godby dancing to the dirge’, (subtitle: ‘Queen of the Fairies foretelling the death of Prince Llewellyn’) and then I will probably think the blog can close down.

I honestly think that this IS the right book – Welsh mysticism, dancing and the Queen of the Fairies – but obviously I am not even thinking about closing the blog down, before you get your hopes up.

And more.

There is another irony: various prefaces, follow-ups and surrounding docs for the book are obsessed with treating it as a roman a clef, with many people wondering who the different characters are based on. This was obviously quite the parlour game back in the day, readers took it very seriously. The irony is that NO modern-day reader * would think for one moment that any character was rooted in reality. It would be like trying to identify the original hobbits or other characters from Lord of the Rings, match them up with Tolkien’s mates at Oxford. [even as I say that I think someone somewhere is busy…]

But the author himself has said one character is entirely based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a man not averse to digging up corpses…).

*obviously I am convinced that I am the only modern-day reader so can safely opine.

Before reading this book, the author was best-known to me for having ‘rescued’ the poet Swinburne. I cannot improve on the Wikipedia description of this matter:

In 1879 Swinburne’s alcoholic dysentery so alarmed [Watts-Dunton] that he moved the poet into his semi-detached home, The Pines, Putney, which they shared for nearly thirty years until Swinburne’s death in 1909…Watts is widely praised for extending Swinburne’s life and encouraging his enthusiasm for the landscape verse that was amongst the best of his later works. However, Watts has also been castigated for sabotaging the completion of Swinburne’s erotic sadomasochistic novel Lesbia Brandon. Even so, he was not able to wean Swinburne of his interest in flagellation.

Watts-Dunton was a lawyer, and looked after financial affairs of many of his friends, apparently very efficiently. It turns out that Ford Madox Ford, one of my favourite authors, and his family were clients, and FMF would visit the menage in Putney from time to time, making rather snarky reports afterwards.

More connections – early in the book, Henry goes on brass rubbing expeditions with his father, who takes this pastime very seriously for reasons that are never fully explained: it’s a matter that we looked at in a blogpost a while back.

The general Toshery plus the endless discussions by artists also reminded me of AJ Cronin’s The Crusader’s Tomb, mystified blogpost here.

A key location in the book is the Swallow Falls in North Wales, near Betwys y Coed:

The water drops down a chasm of great depth. If you listen to the noise of the cataract, you may hear mingled with it a peculiar kind of wail as from a man in great agony. It is said to be the wail of a Sir John Wynn, of Gwydir, whose spirit is under a curse, and is imprisoned at the bottom of the falls on account of his cruelty and misdeeds on earth. On those rare nights when the full moon shines down the chasm, the wail becomes an agonised shriek.

This was a place I visited as a child, though such mystic moments rather passed me by – I remember writing a poem about it, in which I rhymed ‘thicket’ with ‘pink ticket’. I did not have the sensibility of Winifred and Sinfi I fear.

There could be so much more to say – magnetism and mesmerism, which feature in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte from 100 years earlier. The obsession with gypsy lore and ways, and the idea of scholar gypsies – George Borrow (whom TW-D edited) and Matthew Arnold.

In the end - regular blog contributor Roger Allen points out, If you're still eager to read more T W-D, there's also a long poem which is a sequel or prequel.

I am not eager, tbh – the author has confidently created a world in which his characters are forever discussing books which are real and imaginary and frightfully important, a network of beliefs and connections. The Renascence of Wonder is mentioned throughout – a book TW-D wrote later, but also a subtitle for Aylwin. The Coming of Love is his book of poetry. One of the poems from it is described in Aylwin as being by Philip Aylwin.

I am going to give an example that I think will demonstrate my point about the real and imaginary books:

‘when there comes a shuddering as of wings that move in dread or ire, then such a child feels as if the bloodhounds of calamity are let loose upon him or upon those he loves; he feels that the sea has told him all it dares tell or can. And, in other moods of fate, when beneath a cloudy sky the myriad dimples of the sea begin to sparkle as though the sun were shining bright upon them, such a child feels, as he gazes at it, that the sea is telling him of some great joy near at hand, or, at least, not far off.'

Was, then, the mighty ocean writing symbols for an unhappy child to read? My father, from whose book, The Veiled Queen, [this] extract...is taken, would, unhesitatingly, have answered 'Yes.'

'Destiny, no doubt, in the Greek drama concerns itself only with the great,' says he, in that wonderful book of his. 'But who are the great? With the unseen powers, mysterious and imperious, who govern while they seem not to govern all that is seen, who are the great? In a world where man's loftiest ambitions are to higher intelligences childish dreams, where his highest knowledge is ignorance, where his strongest strength is to heaven a derision—who are the great? Are they not the few men and women and children on the earth who greatly love?'


One book, and one read of it, was enough – but I wouldn’t have missed it…

Visitors at the Gypsy Camp from the Library of Congress. 

The model examining her portrait in the studio is also from the Library of Congress



  1. There really is a lot to unpack with this book, isn't there, Moira? I had no idea that Watts-Dunton had such an interesting personal life, too. He actually rescued Swinburne, and I think that's fascinating in and of itself. It's funny how those stories are so often lost (or almost lost). As I think about it, I can see how at the same time you're glad you read this, you wouldn't read more of Watts-Dunton's work...

    1. And neither will anyone else! You are so right Margot, and I definitely feel that I have covered TW-D so others can safely think they now know enough....

  2. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers is another fictional book - or, rather, play - set in another book published at about the same time.
    It's over fifty years since I read - or skimmed- Aylwin, but if I remember rightly Watts-Dunton was pretty good at describing scenery.

    1. I do always have an interest in imaginary books...
      There is certainly a LOT of scenery description. I'm not sure I'm the person to judge whether he writes well about it. I think if I had to pick on an aspect of his writing that I like, it would be that he is 'unabashed', he is happy to assume we are all interested in his wide-ranging discussions.

  3. Thank you, Moira! You have risen magnificently to the challenge. I could easily have sent you my copy if I'd realised that you'd have difficulty getting hold of it. I bought it because it was very much related to my research on the Pre-Raphaelites and Morris and his circle, so I think I must have at least had a go at reading it, but I remember nothing about it. I do remember reading The Heir of Redclyffe, also wildly popular at an earlier period. Have you read it? Chrissie

    1. Thank you! When I was reading the bits about the artists I did think of you and your researches. And I did laugh at myself for not being able to find a satisfactory copy.
      I have not read Heir of Redclyffe - I do have another Yonge book lined up, but it's not that one. (Pillars of the House I think) The Heir always sounded too depressing? It made Jo March cry!

  4. Dulcie's Aylwin (Barbara Pym) keep his collar studs in a tooled pigskin box from Florence. Could anything be more damning?

    1. I was going to skim No Fond Return to write about Aylwin, and ended up reading it all again, it is such an enjoyable book, full of such damning details. Viola (who is really Violet, but doesn't think that's as nice, and resists 'Vi') and her red canvas shoes. The awful conference. 'Some problems of an editor'. Is the quilted dressing gown washable? It is a treasure trove, I loved every dynamite moment.

  5. Thank you for reading this book so I
    don't have to. You have sent me off on an enjoyable search and I would love to see the 1920 silent film, if a copy existed.
    Watts-Dunton was born as Walter Watts in Truro, Cornwall and worked as a solicitor before going to London to seek adventure at 40 years old. His life would make thd basis of a fascinating novel.

    1. Thank you, I feel I have succeeded!
      Yes, I would love to see that silent film. And indeed, worthy of his own novel....

  6. Aylwin Forbes's wife Marjorie also seems to be at least slightly below him in class, at least as I read it (I admit that being American, some of the finer points of the British class system tend to pass me by).

    1. I think you are absolutely correct. Marjorie and her mother are very 'suburban'. So even though Aylwin's mother is a remarkable piece of work, and not upmarket by anyone's standards, he sees himself as innately superior, I think, because of his illustrious ancestors.


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