The identity of the ‘ quiet woman‘ who wrote A Democrat’s Chapbook (1942), a hundred page long commentary in free verse on the events of the Second World War up to the time when America joined the Allied forces, was only revealed when Anne Powell included two passages from it in her anthology of female war poetry, Shadows of War (1999 ). However, those who had read her volume of Georgian verse entitled Songs from the Sussex Downs ( 1915), a copy of which was found in the collection of Wilfred Owen, might have recognised the style as that of ‘Peggy Whitehouse’, whose Mary By the Sea also appeared under this name in 1946. All three books were the work of Mrs Frances Mundy –Castle (1875 – 1959).
Thanks to her son Alistair, we now know a little more about Mrs Mundy-Castle. We know, for instance, that she came from a wealthy family and that at the age of sixteen she published a volume of her poems. She then married Mr Mundy-Castle, who managed a local brickworks, and the family settled down at Cage Farm, an early eighteenth century house on the eastern outskirts of Tonbridge. Here she seems to have held a sort of salon for local writers and artists, among whom was the cult artist and writer Denton Welch, who lived a mile or so away and was friends with her daughter Rosemary. In his later years, according to his biographer, she was ‘a frequent target of his malicious humour ‘, despite the fact that it was she who had given him the idea of writing his first book.
The author calls her book a ‘ chronicle ‘, but it is less a narrative and much more a testimony in a modified stream of consciousness style owing something to Eliot and Auden, of her fears for the future of European civilisation under the brutality and philistinism of Fascism. As such it is a remarkable record of an educated, well read, woman’s response to the dangers posed to the civilised values of Europe, which as a democrat, she shared.
The poem begins with the writer contrasting her settled existence of middle class rural bliss in Kent where love and contentment rule, with the nihilism of ‘the real world’ of European carnage.
Because I am a lazy woman who has nothing but beauty in her
And the rites of nature’s observances,
So that for me life is the going- out of days; the coming-in of
The due approach and the staying and passing of seasons:
The procession of days, so variable and yet so secure:
The silent feet of evening in the hall;
The blue bloom of the unnamed flower where the Cross lies:
The jewelled legs of the bee in the yellow calyx:
Scents across lawns.
…Because death and terror are far from me, even where there is death
Because my life lies so securely in the roots of woods
And birds invade it with their only armies
Lower than the cloudpuffs of the shells above Kent,
Flying startled from trees ( as they will always fly), as I look up:
And going back into the house I remember other wars:
Other shocks: changes; deviations: but have suffered only the shock
To the soul in myself:
The common shock: saved for us, and penetrant,
Where ever we move: wherever we live.
Because I am not maimed.
My roof stands over my head, still.
The days come and go with the cattle lowing:
Crows in green barley fields, blue crows in the oaks..
Because, long ago, my life spoke to me of an adventure
And I was not disappointed:
I will sing the song of England at war…
‘Peggy Whitehouse’ lived into her early eighties, but doesn’t appear to have published much in her later years. Cage Farm has survived, but much of the local landscape she described so lovingly in A Democrat’s Chapbook has been swallowed up by the modern housing of outer Tonbridge.