6 November 1922 |
Ronald Blythe (born 6 November 1922) is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.
Family background and early life
Blythe was born in Acton, Suffolk; he was to be the eldest of six children. His father, who had seen action in the First World War at Gallipoli and in Palestine, came from generations of East Anglian farmers and farm workers. His mother was from London and had worked as a VAD nurse during the war. Blythe can remember as a child seeing the sugarbeet being farmed by men in army greatcoats and puttees.
He was educated at St Peter's and St Gregory's school in Sudbury, Suffolk, and grew up exploring churches, architecture, plants and books. He was, he said, "a chronic reader", immersing himself in French literature and writing poetry.
Early cultural connections
Blythe briefly served during the Second World War and spent the ten years up to 1954 working as a reference librarian in Colchester, where he founded the Colchester Literary Society. Through his work at the library he met Christine Nash, wife of the artist John Nash; she was looking for the score of Idomeneo. Christine Nash introduced Blythe to her husband, inviting him to their house, Bottengoms Farm near Wormingford on the border of Essex and Suffolk; he visited first in 1947. She later encouraged his ambitions to be a writer, finding him a small house on the Suffolk coast near Aldeburgh.
For three years in the late 1950s Blythe worked for Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival, editing programmes and doing pieces of translation. He met E.M. Forster, was briefly involved with Patricia Highsmith, spent time with the Nashes, and was part of the bohemian world associated with the artists of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End near Hadleigh, run by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines. "I was a poet but I longed to be a painter like the rest of them," Blythe told The Guardian. "What I basically am is a listener and a watcher. I absorb, without asking questions, but I don't forget things, and I was inspired by a lot of these people because they worked so hard and didn't make a fuss. They just lived their lives in a very independent and disciplined way."
Career as a writer
In 1960 Blythe published his first book, A Treasonable Growth, a novel set in the Suffolk countryside. His The Age of Illusion, a collection of essays exploring the social history of life in England between the wars, appeared in 1963. That book led to his being asked to edit a series of classics for the Penguin English Library, beginning with Jane Austen's Emma and continuing with work by Hazlitt, Thomas Hardy and Henry James. There were short stories and book reviews, and Blythe later prepared a number of anthologies, including The Pleasure of Diaries (1989) and Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War (1993).
In 1969 he published Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, a fictionalised account of life in a Suffolk village from 1880 to 1966. Blythe based his book on conversations with the people of the community in which he lived. "When I wrote Akenfield," Blythe said, "I had no idea that anything particular was happening, but it was the last days of the old traditional rural life in Britain. And it vanished." The book is regarded as a classic of its type and was made into a film, Akenfield, by Peter Hall in 1974. When the film was aired it attracted fifteen million viewers; Blythe made an appearance as the vicar. "I actually haven't worked on this land but I've seen the land ploughed by horses," Blythe told The Guardian in 2011. "So I have a feeling and understanding in that respect – of its glory and bitterness."
In the 1970s Blythe nursed John Nash in ill health. His book The View in Winter is a consideration of old age. In 1977 Blythe inherited Bottengoms Farm from Nash, who had bought the Elizabethan yeoman's house in 1944. He later published a book, First Friends (1999), based on a trunk of letters he found in the house that recorded the friendship between the Nash brothers, John's future wife, Christine Külenthal, and the artist Dora Carrington.
His life at Bottengoms and the landscape around his home became the subject of Blythe's long-running column, Word from Wormingford, in the Church Times. These meditative reflections on literature, history, the Church of England, and the natural world were subsequently collected together in a number of books, including A Parish Year (1998) and A Year at Bottengoms Farm (2007). A compilation of his work, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960–2010, appeared in 2010.
Blythe continues to live and work at Bottengoms. He never learned to drive and does not use a computer.
Positions and awards
Blythe is a Reader in the Church of England and a lay canon at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been president of the John Clare Society since its foundation. His book, At Helpston, is a series of essays on that poet. In 2006 Blythe was awarded a Benson Medal for lifelong achievement by the Royal Society of Literature.
- A Treasonable Growth (1960)
- The Age of Illusion (1964)
- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969)
- The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age (1979)
- From the Headlands (1982)
- Divine Landscapes (1986)
- Word from Wormingford (1998)
- Talking About John Clare (1999)
- Out of the Valley (2000)
- The Circling Year (2001)
- Talking to the Neighbours (2002)
- A Country Boy (2004)
- The Assassin (2004)
- Borderlands (2005 and 2007)
- The Writer's Day-Book (2006)
- A Year at Bottengoms Farm (2007)
- River Diary (2008)
- The Bookman's Tale (2009)
- At the yeoman's house (2011)
- Village Hours (2012)
- Under a Broad Sky (2013)
- The Time by the Sea (2013)
- Decadal (2015)
Works as editor
- Emma by Jane Austen, edited, with an introduction by Ronald Blythe (1966)
- Selected Writings by William Hazlitt, edited, with an introduction by Ronald Blythe (1970)
- Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, edited, with an introduction by Ronald Blythe (1978)
- The Awkward Age by Henry James, edited, with an introduction by Ronald Blythe (1987)
- Components of the Scene: Stories, Poems, and Essays of the Second World War, introduced and edited by Ronald Blythe (1966), republished as Writing in a War: Stories, Poems, and Essays of the Second World War (1982)
- Each Returning Day: The Pleasure of Diaries (1989), also published as The Pleasures of Diaries: Four Centuries of Private Writing, New York (1989).
- Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War (1991)
Portraits of Blythe
The National Portrait Gallery has two portraits of Ronald Blythe, a 2005 C-type print by Mark Gerson and a 1990 bromide print by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies. A 2014 terracotta head by Jon Edgar is featured in his 2015 collection of poems, Decadal.
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- "Dora Carrington: a difficult virus to get out of your system", The Independent, 24 October 1999. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- Vincent, David. "Amazon review: First Friends by Ronald Blythe", Amazon.com. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- Clee, Nicholas. "Travellers' tales and home thoughts", The Guardian, 16 December 2006. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- Taylor, DJ. "Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960–2010", The Independent, 19 November 2010. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- Blythe, Ronald. A Year at Bottengoms Farm, Norwich: Canterbury Press (2006), author biography.
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