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Saturday, 25 July 2015


My grandmother May Salter née Castle died before I was born, and yet it is through her that I have some of my best ancestral material. She was close to her widowed aunt Ada, and often visited her at Frome Lodge in Bristol. When Ada’s last surviving daughter Mary died in 1940, May was one of Mary’s executors. She inherited the writing case belonging Mary’s father, May’s uncle Charles Castle, which contained a hundred letters written by family members in the mid-nineteenth century. When May died in 1950, the case passed to her son my uncle John; and after John’s death in 1984 his widow gave the contents of the case to me, along with a wealth of May’s own correspondence and photographs.

So May is very much alive to me, although I know very little of her life beyond her role as wife to my grandfather. I have childhood letters between her and her brothers. But what was her education? How did she spend her time before her marriage at the age of thirty-five?

Eleanor May Castle (1880-1950), centre, and friends, c1900

One source I have for clues is her books, many of which I found in my father’s library after his death in 2008. He idolised his father at the expense of his mother, whom he once described to me as “a jumped-up grocer’s daughter who married above herself.” But his bookshelves contained many volumes once owned by her or given by her to his father. People of my grandparents’ pre-television generation were in general better read than we are today, but it looks as if my father’s literary education owes at least as much to his mother as to his solicitor father.

Her interests were broad. I know she liked contemporary literature in the form of the Russian authors newly translated into English; and contemporary verse such as the emerging Georgian poetry movement. Her brother Tudor was himself a poet and friend of the Bloomsbury Group, and it was through Tudor that May met her future husband Fred Salter. You could say that it was a marriage founded on poetry.

In contrast to her modern tastes, May also owned a beautiful edition of a book first published in 1650. More than any other of her books it hints at her character, inasmuch as it is a pious book of instruction for moral living. It is The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living by Jeremy Taylor, still regarded as one of the finest examples of prose writing in the English language more than 350 years after it first appeared.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), title page of the 1900 JM Dent edition of The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living

Jeremy Taylor was chaplain in ordinary to Charles I (in other words, official chaplain in the king’s household), a position which got him into trouble under the puritan regime which followed the Civil War. He was imprisoned several times both before and after the publication of Holy Living, but produced a steady stream of work throughout those years. Eventually he was allowed to live quietly, a safe distance from power and influence in London – first in Wales and later in Ireland where, after the restoration of the monarchy, he became bishop of Down and Connor, and vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin.

I’m no literary critic, no theologian, not even a Christian; but Taylor’s text flows easily. It is prescriptive but not thunderous, firm but compassionate. On chastity for example he writes:
Chastity is either abstinence or continence; abstinence is that of virgins or widows, continence of married persons. Chaste marriages are honourable and pleasing to God; widowhood is pitiable in its solitariness and loss, but amiable and comely when it is adorned with gravity and purity; … but virginity is a life of angels, the enamel of the soul … ; and being empty of cares, it is full of prayers; being unmingled with the world, it is apt to converse with God.

May Castle’s copy of The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living

May signed and dated her copy “EMC Easter 1905”. It’s a two-volume edition produced by J.M. Dent in 1900, and printed in Edinburgh by Colston & Co Ltd. Colston deserve some recognition. There had been Colstons trading as stationers and printers from the same address at East Rose Street in Edinburgh since at least 1715, and they continued to trade well into the twentieth century. If May’s copy of Taylor is anything to go by, they were excellent craftsmen: her two volumes are bound in beautiful olive-green leather embossed in gold with an owl, the symbol of wisdom. The spines are dried and cracked with much use and contemplation, but the fine lettering spelling out the title and author is still legible 110 years after May first read them.

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