Lost Best Sellers: Aylwin by Theodore Watts-Dunton

 Aylwin by Theodore Watts-Dunton

published 1898


Oh the irony.

The reason I have just read this book was because it was one of those ‘books that were on every shelf’. Talking about Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele recently, I said it was a book almost completely forgotten now, but in its day a massive bestseller. And that meant that every second-hand-bookstore, every charity shop, and every holiday home or hotel with a bookshelf – they all had a copy of it, back in the day. A lot of readers completely understood what I was saying, and suggested other books that came into the same category. This one, Aylwin by Theodore Watts-Dunton, was the most-mentioned title in this context. Again, like the Munthe, it was a massive bestseller, going into endless editions, selling uncountable copies. Each book is surrounded by prefaces and introductions from its author. Each is now almost forgotten.

One friend wrote to me to say 'my grandmother was so impressed that she named her daughter - born 1917 - Aylwin. I always thought it was an excellent name: unusual, but not outlandish, just what you want, imho. I wonder how many other children were given it. I've never met any of them, but probably it spiked around that time.'

I decided to take on the job and read Aylwin – about which I knew nothing - and the irony is that it was really hard to find a decent copy online. The usual sources weren’t abounding in paper copies either. This book truly has disappeared… And there is surprisingly little written about it online (considering everyone has their moment now). There is one academic who writes about TD-W, Professor Catherine Maxwell of London University, who says this book is ‘a strange mixture of gipsy lore, the occult, mesmerism and romanticism.’ Fair comment.

I bought a copy (very cheaply) on Kindle, but it was badly formatted and literally hard to read. There was a copy in the Internet Archive Library, but that wasn’t easy to deal with either. I found it also on Project Gutenberg which was much clearer, but didn’t have much structure to help. So – I read this book on my laptop, with three copies of it open, switching between the screens. If I needed to search or check something I used one, to copy a quote I used another, to actually read I moved among them. It was bizarre.

This was just one of many mysteries, when I haven’t even started on the book itself – there are going to have to be at least two blogposts to encompass it all.

And I am going to give an early partial verdict:

I like to say that I am the Queen of Tosh. This book takes it to a new level, it is WTActualF Tosh, it is quite unlike any other book I have ever read. But – it is actually tremendously readable, and very entertaining.

Ready? Let’s go in.

Theodore Watts-Dunton can be viewed as a second rank writer. He was well-connected, and seen as someone clinging on to his more talented and famous friends (who must have been furious that he created one outrageously successful bestseller). He had a very strange relationship with the poet Swinburne (that’s a whole other story – In the Pines, in the Pines, as blues fans say…)

For now I will concentrate just on this book and its protagonist.

He is Henry Aylwin, sometimes called Hal, and is a younger son in a well-to-do family: not as attractive and handsome as his older brother Frank, the heir. Henry is venturesome, likes to play on the local cliffs, and eventually has an accident which results in his needing crutches – the terms cripple and crippled are freely used, although we wouldn’t say that now.

Recent interest in ‘bad parents’ (there is more to come on this subject soon) pops up here: his  mother is a very chance-y character throughout, and we get this:

Looking from my crutches to Frank's beautiful limbs, she said, 'How providential that it was not the elder! Providence is kind.' She meant kind to the House of Aylwin. I often wonder whether she guessed that I heard her. I often wonder whether she knew how I had loved her.

Young Henry becomes very friendly with a young Welsh girl, Winifred Wynne: her father is the drunken local organist, but she normally lives in Wales with an aunt as her mother is dead. When on her visits she roams around with Henry, they become the best of friends, and childhood sweethearts, over several years.

Then a number of things disrupt this happy idyll.

[there will be minor early-book SPOILERS ahead]

The older brother dies, a new doctor is found who cures Henry’s leg problems, and he becomes heir not only to his own family but to another branch of them, and probably to an earldom too.

He is still in love with Winifred, but you can be sure that people (including that mother) do not feel he should be hanging out with her: she has gypsy blood as well as the drunken father.

Henry himself also has gypsy forebears, of whom he is very proud. There is a character (his great grandmother) called Fenella Stanley – would you not assume with that name she was a debutante from Sloane Street? But no, she is gypsy royalty who married into the Aylwins.

Henry’s father, Philip, is a famous mystic, who has written important books on his beliefs, much admired round the world. He also had a first wife who died, and with whom he still feels very connected. (TW-D has said one of the major themes of the book is the ‘struggle of love with death’).

So now, Dad dies. He has entrusted to his son the job of making sure a box of treasure/secrets/letters/amulets (to do with the first wife) are buried with him: this was a sacred promise. Henry does this. These items have been secured with a curse: anyone who disturbs the tomb will suffer dramatically.

All clear so far?

Now, drunken Wynne, the girl’s father, gets wind of the valuables but not the full threat of the curse, and steals a wonderful valuable cross from the coffin. There is a landslip and the mausoleum is falling under the sea, and the curse comes upon Wynne and he dies. Does the curse now pass on to his daughter? Can the curse be reversed, can the cross be returned to the coffin to save the future? Where is the coffin?

There is still a long way to go – we’re less than a third of the way through.

Everything goes wrong now: there is illness, and Winifred disappears. Henry goes to live with the Romanies in Wales, is searching constantly for the young woman, and makes friends with the tribe, who recognize him as one of their own. He also has artistic sensibilities, and gets involved with some artists who are forever painting the gypsy women. There is a huge questionmark over where exactly Winifred is.

Eventually, just when he thinks he has found her, and can undo the curse -





-       he hears the terrible news that Winifred is dead.

But the story is not over by any means….

Aylwin is a complete jumble: a belter of a novel, full of mediaeval mysticism. To illustrate the writing I can only give examples:

  •        “The CURSE!” I murmured and clasped her to my breast. “Kiss me Winifred.”
  •       ‘Your heart is thumping under my ear like a fire-engine.’ ‘They are all love-thumps for my Winnie’
  •       Ah! Mother, the cruelty of this family pride has always been the curse of the Aylwins      
  •     For good or ill you must dig deep to bury your daddy [editorial note: in this particular book you would not be sure if this was symbolic or literal]
  •        At one moment I felt—as palpably as I felt it, on the betrothal night—her slim figure, soft as a twine of flowers in my arms: at the next I was clasping a corpse—a rigid corpse in rags. And yet I can scarcely say that I had any thoughts. 
  •       all the superstructure of Hope's sophisms was shattered in a moment like a house of cards: my imagination flew away to all the London graveyards I had ever heard of; and there, in the part divided by the pauper line, my soul hovered over a grave newly made, and then dived down from coffin to coffin, one piled above another, till it reached Winifred, lying pressed down by the superincumbent mass; those eyes staring.

At one point they are climbing up Snowdon, and Henry says ‘Ah, that ascent! I wish I had time and space to describe it’, and the disrespectful reader is thinking ‘thank goodness he doesn’t’. He goes on a bit. But honestly, you do keep reading, anxious to know what will become of them all and what outrageous bit of affectation will come next.

And, when it comes to judging descriptions of digging up bodies I have form – see my Guardian piece on the topic – and this one has the genuine frisson, a lot of splendid scenes centring on dead bodies one way or another.

I’m not honestly claiming that you should all go out and read it, but I am very glad I did so, and feel it is good to know what our recent ancestors were reading.

Edith M Thomas is a now-forgotten American poet of exactly the era of the book, and with a similar sounding mysticism: the top pic is an illo by Henry Hutt for a collection of her poems. ‘She was romantic in her emphasis on the self, [with] an aura of sentiment and pathos’

Women in Conversation from Library of Congress 1899 [Women in conversation] | Library of Congress (loc.gov)

A gypsy arguing with a priest, by FC Yohn, also LOC.

 It is difficult to find pictures of gypsies (Romany, travellers) that don’t look staged. Some of them just say ‘X dressed as a gypsy’. I tried to find a picture that is authentic, and this one does seem to show a gypsy family – in Maryland in fact – in 1888.

Studios, galleries, models and portraits feature a lot in the book - picture from the Library of Congress.


  1. "Theodore Watts-Dunton can be viewed as a second rank writer."

    There's a blue plaque on Putney Hill where The Pines used to be. If you're still eager to read more T W-D, there's also a long poem which is a sequel or prequel.

    1. Aylwin was written when what is now tosh was taken seriously - Societies for Psychic Research were newly formed and had respectable scientists in them: William James in the USA and Oliver Lodge in the UK, for example. Arthur Conan Doyle and Kipling could write stories revolving around the ideas.

    2. Your first comment made me giggle a lot. I saw a picture of The Pines - such a solid house.
      Get this: when I was a very young reporter, I interviewed a very old lady who was one of the fairy girls - you know the photographs that took in Arthur Conan Doyle and others? She finally admitted they were fakes and gave a few interviews.
      Up there, in the chain of history stakes, with having worked with an older man who when a young actor had been very friendly with Dorothy L Sayers.

  2. Wow! Yes, I can see why you call this WTFTosh, Moira! And yet, as you say, people must have wanted to read it, because it sold so many copies. And that's what fascinates me, actually. It was a huge blockbuster in its day, but has more or less disappeared. Now, I'm going to go have a lie-down; I'm exhausted from keeping up with the story...

    1. Your comment made me giggle too! Sometimes having a lie-down is the proper response.

  3. "I read this book on my laptop, with three copies of it open, switching between the screens"

    That's dedication.

    1. I know, I impressed myself with this one. But I really didn't want to give up, I did want to carry on reading, even though it was such tosh.


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