Edgar Mittelholtzer - a Wife's Memoir

By Pointer, Jennifer | Contemporary Review, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Edgar Mittelholtzer - a Wife's Memoir


Pointer, Jennifer, Contemporary Review


'Two elements have always lived within me . . . The Idyll . . . The Warrior . . .' Edgar Mittelholzer, A Swarthy Boy.

I met Edgar on the coach on the way to the Writers' Summer School in Derbyshire. 'Is this seat taken?' he asked, and I replied: 'No.'

Our first conversation was about graveyards and old churches, reincarnation (in which we both believed) and writing. He told me how he liked to make the characters in his novels 'a little nutty', for he felt that this would excuse any extraordinary views they expressed or any extraordinary incidents he invented. In The Weather in Middenshot, for example, there is an old man who believes - or pretends to believe - that his very living and present wife is dead. Whenever he needs to communicate with her, he stages a spiritualistic seance. And in A Tinkling in the Twilight (which Edgar had just published, in 1959, when I met him) many ideas about which the author was really quite serious are put across in a mocking fashion - yoga, reincarnation, and views on crime and punishment.

Was it the down-to-earth side of him, or was it an inconsistent lack of sureness, which made a person who usually wrote and spoke with such conviction use this mocking cover? Either way, he cannot have been content to let his beliefs rest with this light-hearted tone; for later came the outspoken The Piling of Clouds, The Wounded and the Worried and The Aloneness of Mrs. Chatham.

I remember being impressed by the way Edgar (who, in that year when I met him, had fourteen published novels and one non-fiction work, With a Carib Eye, to his credit) behaved at the summer school with all the modesty of a beginner.

Born in Guyana (then British Guiana) in 1909, he was living in London, Maida Vale, when I met him. He had four children by his first marriage, but was divorced. His first wife was a Trinidadian. After World War II, when he was demobbed from the Trinidad Naval Reserve, he lived for six years in Trinidad. Then he managed to come to England where he worked for the British Council, helping in a 'typing pool', until he began to try to live entirely by his writing.

In Georgetown, Guyana, he had once worked as a meteorologist. He was fascinated by weather, and at home we had a number of charts, thermometers, barometers and hygrometers. One sees his interest in weather in many of the novels. The Weather in Middenshot and The Weather Family are obvious examples.

He had always had a chequered career with his writing. His first novel to be accepted, Corentyne-Thunder, was published only after a series of 'ups and downs'; and there was an interval of nine years before the appearance of his next published novel, A Morning at the Office, in 1950.

Although he became known as a leading 'West Indian novelist', he never liked the label. In fact, he used to point out that Guyana is not, strictly speaking, part of the West Indies. All his later novels were set in England but one of his own favourites among his novels was a Caribbean one - Shadows Move Among Them.

Edgar had always felt he would be more at home in England than in his native country. He had been educated to think of this as the mother country, and therefore, in a sense, the homeland. Also, he preferred the British climate to the tropical one. Yet, after a while in England, he seemed as if he thought he would be even more at home in Germany. The trace of the German in him seemed to conflict with everything else, trying to come out stronger - or his idea of what was German in him. It was the contrasts in Edgar which made him so interesting as a man - and as a writer.

For the five years of our marriage we lived in a rented flat over a store-room in the grounds of a larger house. We used to collect wild flowers. We did not have a garden of our own, although in the time of our first landlady we were allowed to use part of the garden. Edgar planted some of the wild flowers in a pot at the top of the steps just outside the flat. …

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