To end the Émile Verhaeren celebrations (he died on 27th November 1916 in the railway station of Rouen, France), read this intriguing tale of a passion for the man.
by Will Stone
The centenary of the death of the great Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) has seen important commemorations and memorials taking place both in Belgium and abroad.
But at this time we have cause to also remember another centenary and celebrate the long and rich life of one of the poet’s most dedicated and dynamic admirers, his English biographer Dr Beatrice Worthing. Beatrice died at the end of 2015 aged 100, and a picture from the summer shows her proudly holding her telegram from the Queen.
She wrote her exhaustive biography of Verhaeren in the fifties but due to the poet’s relative obscurity in Britain, it was sadly never published in English, but was eventually translated into French and appeared with the Mercure de France in 1992.
Beatrice was born in 1915 in Tredegar Wales, only a year before the poet whose work she would be seduced by, met his death in a train accident in Rouen station after giving a rousing speech to Belgian exiles. Due to local contacts, exiled Belgian poets and artists relocated to Wales in 1914/15. Beatrice’s family were aware that Verhaeren himself was a refugee at nearby Castleton.
As a young woman Beatrice left Wales for London and achieved a Phd in philosophy at University College London. She became a fluent speaker of French and was naturally drawn to the culture and literature of France. After university she took up teaching and then moved into journalism. Later she worked for Reuters and other agencies.
In the fifties she spent valuable time in Paris on the left bank and later resided in Brussels where she began her voluminous research into the man whom she felt embodied the idea of the great European poet, Émile Verhaeren. Beatrice saw the need for a detailed biography of Verhaeren and set out to achieve this in her most scrupulous and determined way.
Today the legacy of her labours in this regard is evident in the boxes of countless notebooks, papers, letters and jottings which Beatrice made over many months, over years, in her quest to discern the true nature of the poet’s life and how this impacted on his work.
In the course of her travails she met many people who were in some way linked to Verhaeren or his family and with whom she made long lasting friendships in his home village of Sint-Amands and nearby Bornem. Letters written down the years bear witness to the poignancy and depth of these relationships.
We are fortunate to have some of the original type-printed copies of her opus in various stages of evolution. With their vintage purple type and pencilled margin notes these elderly pages recall an earlier more romantic age of writing and show again the sheer effort put in by the author, in order to make her work as authentic and accurate as possible.
I met Beatrice when she was 93, and she appeared altogether younger than her years, as she whisked me off to the nearest pub for lunch. Being the first English translator of Verhaeren in almost a century, she was needless to say interested to meet. We became friends, corresponded regularly and I visited her several times at her Surrey home.
I believe that the idea of a younger person equally passionately interested in the poet she had dedicated half her life to, was a tonic to Beatrice. She eagerly looked over my translations and was not reluctant to speak her mind, offering sage advice and ideas, but I felt she thought I had pulled off a very difficult job. It was a proud moment when I finally presented the book to her in 2013. Beatrice had forgotten none of her memories of Sint Amands and her time in Brussels, and she was wont to regale me with colourful stories of those years.
As an independent woman she was something of a rarity in those times, resolutely forging her own path and even into her eighties Beatrice thought nothing of setting off on exotic adventures to other continents. When she turned ninety she chose to celebrate by taking a flying lesson in a bi-plane.
Beatrice was naturally thrilled when she heard the news in 1991 that her book would be published prominently in France, for her labours had not in the end been in vain. One has to remember that this translation appeared some thirty years later, so she had been heroically patient.
There is a wonderful letter or note, (the recipient is not mentioned) dated May 1991, penned by Beatrice after she has left the publisher’s office:
Sitting at a café terrace on the corner of the Boul’ Mich after leaving the Mercure de France with “Verhaeren” accepted... Received in the first place by Mdm Gallimard... an indefinably French composure. Such amazingly nice things were said “C’est si scrupuleux, c’est très vivant”, I could hardly believe it.
It is now my intention to try to find a publisher for Beatrice’s study of Verhaeren in English, almost sixty years on from its genesis, to ensure this precious literary biography reaches those it was originally intended for, the Anglo-saxon readership who are so often left in the dark concerning this nation’s art and literature by an existing Belgian ‘black hole’.
I think such an initiative would be the only fitting tribute to the memory of a truly remarkable woman whose ‘dedicated life’ will remain a shining example of individual achievement and fortitude against all the odds and a lesson for all those who seek to focus their time and energy into a longterm creative task.
Photo: Beatrice Worthing in the 1950’s.
Read more about Émile Verhaeren in two articles from The Low Countries Yearbook:
‘Émile Verhaeren. The Only National Poet Belgium Has Ever Had’ by Luc Devoldere (2016) and ‘A Beacon for Europe Emile Verhaeren 1855-1916 (with Four Poems by Emile Verhaeren)’ by Vic Nachtergaele (2006).
Beatrice Worthing’s biography has been reviewed in our French language magazine Septentrion.