A Barbellion Chronology

 
7 SEPTEMBER 1889 – Born Bruce Frederick Cummings at 14 Cross Street, Barnstaple, his parents’ home. His father, John Cummings, is an acerbic Tory columnist of Scots descent on the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette and the manager of their Barnstaple office on the ground floor of No. 14. His mother, Maria Elizabeth Cummings, née Richards, later runs a sweetshop from the same address. Their sixth and last child, he has entered “the world as a solatium to a distracted mother after the loss of her eldest child” and in infancy nearly dies of pneumonia. (His brother Arthur recalled: “He was a puny, undersized child, nervously shy, with a tiny white face and large brown melancholy eyes. He was so frail that he was rather unduly coddled, and was kept at home beyond the age at which the rest of us had been sent to school.”)

 

AGED UNDER 10 – Begins attending Rock Park School in Victoria Road about half a mile from Cross Street. Like many a nervously shy prodigy he strikes others as something of a dullard, albeit one possessed of an inquiring mind and retentive memory.

 

AGED 10 (?) – Begins attending the North Devon School at Trafalgar Lawn in the same part of town as Victoria Road. Here, after a year or two, his real qualities begin to shine through; he excels at mathematics and reveals a truly surprising gift for composition. But he is “reserved and timid in manner, ‘difficult’ to outsiders”. (A bright child seems difficult to mediocrities; for the bright child it’s the mediocrities who are difficult.)

 

AGED 13 – Begins keeping his journal. (The earliest entry in the published version is dated 3 January 1903.) At first it is devoted mainly to notes on natural history and accounts of his dissections of birds and other small animals. In due course, however, he discovers the more stimulating aspects of human biology and the work evolves into a journal intime.

 

AGED 16 – An uncle gives him Text-Book of Zoology by H. G. Wells and A. M. Davies, his “first zoological book”.

 

JUNE 1906 – Gets extracts from his journal published in The Zoologist. Further extracts appear in the January 1907 and March 1908 numbers.

 

7 DECEMBER 1906 – Spends his last day at the North Devon School – the end of a “distasteful” experience.

 

14 DECEMBER 1906 – Signs his “Death Warrant” – articles apprenticing him to the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette for five years. (A colleague from these days recalled that “among the young reporters who worked with him he was known as the ‘bug-hunter.’ He seldom attended a police court or an inquest without a volume of some dry work of science tucked under his arm, and usually returned with some new specimen of insect or reptile in a tin for subsequent dissection. … [D]espite his unusual interests and sometimes peculiar manners, he was well liked by his journalistic colleagues.” Another recalled that in “the dark old office, full of books and newspapers as any typical newspaper office of the old days was, there was his own domain, with its shelves housing his own library, which was significant enough for his tastes. … Bottles of specimens in spirits were here and there; test tubes, beakers, a dissecting knife, a tripod, the odds and ends of study.”)

 

4 OCTOBER 1910 – Takes an examination held to fill three vacancies at the British Museum (Natural History) and comes fourth.

 

11 NOVEMBER 1910 – Receives a letter offering him a temporary job at the Plymouth Laboratory of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom.

 

20 NOVEMBER 1910 – Accepts the Plymouth appointment.

 

9 DECEMBER 1910 – His father suffers a stroke.

 

10 DECEMBER 1910 – Takes over his father’s work and resigns the Plymouth appointment without having taken it up.

 

15 SEPTEMBER 1911 – His father dies.

 

10 (?) OCTOBER 1911 – Takes an examination held to fill two vacancies at the British Museum (Natural History) and comes first.

 

1 JANUARY 1912 – Takes up duties at the British Museum (Natural History). Though he has expressed a preference for working in the Bird Room, they confine him to a mouldy department where he works on Anoplura (sucking lice) and Mallophaga (biting lice), the idea being that as he has enjoyed no academic career he is unsuited to fill other posts then vacant. (Arthur recalled: “I am convinced that he would not have remained at South Kensington longer than was necessary to provide him with bread and butter. He was that comparatively rare combination – a man of science, and a man of letters. … Years before he was filled with sickening disappointment by the drudgery of his labours and the narrow limitations imposed upon him in a department of Natural History that he cared for least, he was contemplating large literary schemes, some of which he unfolded to me with an infectious ardour of hope and determination. He planned in these years a novel that was to be of immense length, with something of the scope of the Comédie Humaine, and a series of logically developed treatises on the lines of his essay, ‘The Passion for Perpetuation,’ which in his own words were to be his magnum opus.”)

 

20 AUGUST 1913 – His mother dies.

 

14 OCTOBER 1914 – Discovers the Journal of the Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff (1858–1884). “I am simply astounded”, he writes. “It would be difficult in all the world’s history to discover any two persons with temperaments so alike. She is the ‘very spit of me’!”

 

9 NOVEMBER 1914 – Proposes to Eleanor Benger, a fashion artist and distant cousin, with whom he has had a long and often troubled relationship. She declines. Since he is ill – plagued by mysterious symptoms – and in truth doubts whether he has a right to propose to any woman, it is a relief to him.

 

29 NOVEMBER 1914 – After a long silent ramble together, Eleanor promises to be his wife.

 

6 DECEMBER 1914 – Notes his intention to “prepare and publish a volume of this Journal”.

 

11 SEPTEMBER 1915 – Marries Eleanor without religious ceremony at the Kensington register office.

 

27 NOVEMBER 1915 – Armed with a certificate from his doctor in a sealed envelope, he attends a recruiting office and is rejected as soon as his heart has been stethoscoped. The certificate, therefore, is not needed. On the way home he opens the envelope and learns that he is dying of disseminated sclerosis (now known as multiple sclerosis). But he puts off telling his wife owing to her having suffered a nervous breakdown earlier in the year.

 

3 OCTOBER 1916 – Birth of their daughter, Penelope Susan Dasha Cummings.

 

6 NOVEMBER 1916 – Learns that his wife was informed of his illness about the time of their engagement: a cruel deception has been played on him and he is understandably furious at having been kept in the dark.

 

6 FEBRUARY 1917 – Notes in his journal: “Am busy re-writing, editing and bowdlerising my journals for publication against the time when I shall have gone the way of all flesh.”

 

2 MAY 1917 – Draws up a will in which he states: “I leave all my manuscripts to the care and tutelage of my wife and I rely on Guy Robson [a friend and museum colleague] to edit the same and see them through the press”.

 

19 JUNE 1917 – Resigns from the British Museum (Natural History) on grounds of ill health. Soon afterward he writes to his brother Hal about finding a publisher for the journal, which he says is “quite ready for publication – edited, bowdlerised, typed, & anonymous”. Later, acting on his instructions, Hal hands the typescript to G. H. Mair, with whom he once worked on the Manchester Guardian. Within a day or two Mair declares it quite exceptional and offers to find a publisher. Soon news comes that Collins have accepted and that publication will probably be in September 1918. Before the end of the year H. G. Wells, a friend of Mair’s, is invited to write the introduction.

 

25 DECEMBER 1917 – Writes to Hal: “When and if published I am thinking of using the pseudonym of ‘W. N. P. Barbellion’! I think it is appropriately inflated and therefore very suitable!!” The surname is that of the proprietor of a chain of sweetshops with branches South Kensington, Bond Street and elsewhere; the initials stand impishly for Wilhelm Nero Pilate – “the world’s three greatest failures”.

 

16 JUNE 1918 – Receives word that Collins wish to be relieved of their undertaking: the reader who accepted the typescript has been combed out and his work continued by a member of the firm, a godly man afraid of the injury the book might do to their reputation as publishers of schoolbooks and bibles. (So what if the author’s life has been one long series of disappointments? So what if he is now the victim of a paralysing illness? So what if he hasn’t long to live?) Mair is optimistic about getting it accepted elsewhere and immediately approaches Chatto and Windus, where another friend of Wells’s, Frank Swinnerton, is a reader. He recommends that they accept the book and by early August they have agreed to publish it.

 

17 SEPTEMBER 1918 – Chatto and Windus send him a proof of pages 1 to 64, the text Collins set up, and assure him that the remaining proofs will follow “very quickly”. Despite failing health and an unsteady hand, he corrects these proofs with characteristic thoroughness. Later in the year, on learning that two indexers have both reported themselves incapable of indexing the book owing to the subjects mentioned in it being so numerous and so lightly touched upon at times, he persuades Chatto and Windus to include an “Index of Names” instead and himself compiles a “Synopsis” of subjects.

 

1 NOVEMBER 1918 – Swinnerton writes to him, saying Wells “now definitely agrees to write” the introduction.

 

13 FEBRUARY 1919 – Receives a letter from Wells saying: “You will have seen my Preface by this time. Prefaces always devastate relationships. But I hope you didn’t think it too horrible. I had to play up to your standard of frankness.” In a reply dated 12 February – yes, the previous day – he says: “I have not yet seen the Preface, but I am not a likely person to find your frankness ‘horrible’ – coming as it would, from someone whose judgement & opinion I respect, it would be welcome!”

 

16 FEBRUARY 1919 – Receives a proof of the introduction from Chatto and Windus and spends the day buzzing over it “like a famished bee”.

 

11 MARCH 1919 – Writes to Wells: “I have now read the preface … and I feel impelled to write to you again to thank you for your sympathetic words.”

 

27 MARCH 1919 – Exclaims in his journal: “I’ve won! This morning at 9 a.m. the book arrived. C. and W. thoughtfully left the pages to be cut, so I’ve been enjoying the exquisite pleasure of cutting the pages of my own book.”

 

31 MARCH 1919 – The Journal of a Disappointed Man is published with an editorial note in brackets after the final entry: “Barbellion died on December 31 [1917].” “The fact is,” he says later with a whimsical smile, “no man dare remain alive after writing such a book.” During the weeks that follow publication it is greeted with undisguised contempt, damned as immoral, acclaimed a work of genius, hailed as a masterpiece, dismissed as a work of fiction and described as “a wonderful record of a great spirit and a great fight”, “a merciless examination of self that Rousseau might have envied” and “one of the most extraordinary human documents that have ever been penned”. One critic even declares it “more complex and more opaque than a Greek tragedy”, adding that “like the ‘Medea,’ in manner if not in degree, this Journal should leave us enriched and better tuned to the infinite”.

 

12 APRIL 1919 – A critic on the Westminster Gazette, unable to trace the diarist in “ordinary books of reference”, hints that Wells may have written the entire book.

 

16 APRIL 1919 – Wells replies in the pages of the Westminster Gazette: “I wish I was a quarter as clever as that. Barbellion is, of course, a pen name, if only on account of the wife and other people who figure so vividly in the diary; the date of his death also is incorrectly given. But that is the only camouflage about this moving and remarkable book. It is a genuine diary.”

 

19 APRIL 1919 – Writing in the New Statesman, Arnold Bennett declares the Journal “emphatically the book of the day”.

 

25 APRIL 1919 – The Journal goes into a second impression.

 

14 MAY 1919 – Admitted to a nursing home in Eastbourne.

 

3 JUNE 1919 – Makes his final journal entry. About this time the Journal is published in New York by George H. Doran and widely discussed in the American press.

 

4 JUNE 1919 – Admitted to another nursing home, the one he was at having been unable to give him the attention he needed. Later he is admitted to still another. But the charges incurred rapidly consume the family’s resources and by early September he has returned home. (Authors’ books may sell but publishers get the lion’s share of the profits.)

 

11 JULY 1919 – The Journal goes into a third impression.

 

23 JULY 1919 – Chatto and Windus write to inform him of an enquiry from an agent about the possibility of a French translation. About this time he corrects the proofs of his second book, Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains, which he does not live to see published.

 

22 OCTOBER 1919 – Dies at Camden Cottage (now a restaurant), Tatling End, Gerrards Cross, his home for the past two years.

 

23 OCTOBER 1919 – His identity becomes public knowledge when obituaries of him appear in a number of leading papers. The same day a reporter from the Daily Sketch has the audacity to turn up at the cottage and interview a laconic Hal in the sitting room. “My brother’s life story has now been given,” Hal says, “and I do not like the idea of attempting to add to it. He would have been the first to condemn any attempt at the sentimental or the slightest suggestion of public advertisement.” About this time Wells writes to Hal, expressing regret that he did not go to see Barbellion but explaining: “I am a shy man”.

 

25 OCTOBER 1919 – Cremated at Golders Green. His ashes are subsequently deposited in niche number 2232 in the Crematorium’s East Columbarium.

 

15 DECEMBER 1921 – Eleanor marries one Edwin Abbey, who later abandons her.

 

26 NOVEMBER 1979 – Eleanor dies aged 89.

 

27 MARCH 1980 – Penelope removes her father’s ashes from Golders Green.

 

15 MAY 1980 – His and Eleanor’s ashes are interred together in the grounds of St Mary’s Church at Old Basing, the Hampshire village that has been Penelope’s home for a little over a decade. The site is today marked by a small stone slab bearing the following inaccurate inscription:

 

BRUCE FREDERICK

CUMMINGS

WRITER W. N. P.

BARBELLION

1888–1919

ELEANOR ABBEY

ARTIST

1890–1979