To sing, to dance and to cook in all languages
"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.
It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.
Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible" that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".
Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".
Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.
A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.
Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".
Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".
Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".
Matilda Talbot probably began learning Russian in the spring of 1920 on the initiative of a young lady, Ms Margot Fricker, who had come to help out at Lacock Abbey. When discussing with Margot what she might like to learn while at Lacock, Matilda said: "'I don't suppose you would care to learn Russian?' Her face lit up, and she answered that it was the language she most wished to learn, especially as her brother Guy was in North Russia at the time, attached to Denikin's Army. So, on the double ground of our disliking gardening and liking Russian, we decided to make a start". Matilda was 49 when she began Russian and noted how quickly things are forgotten: "This is the penalty for taking up a language after youth is passed: you not only learn more slowly but forget more quickly". Margot is described by Matilda as: "Gentle and attractive […] mature for her age and interested in a whole manner of things, so did not mind having to associate constantly with an older person". It appears that the pair motivated each other: "I planned the meals and also did some cooking, and we devoted all the time we could spare to learning Russian from some very helpful books that I had given me from Oxford. I should have found this impossible to do this alone, but as we were two, we could hold the book alternately, and question each other”.
Unlike the French she knew, Russian shares no latin foundation, so poor Matilida would have had to study lots of word lists, verb tables, and familiarise herself with the complexities of Russian grammar. One such word list, written in what appears to be Matilda's hand, survives. Words jotted down include: калитка - wooden gate; суслик - Siberian marmot; грачи - rooks; бахча - melonfield, etc., giving us a clue to her advanced level. Furthermore, she would have had to decipher the flourishes afforded to the Cyrillic script in the letters she received, since her correspondents rarely made allowances for the fact that Russian was not her mother tongue.
As well as learning alongside Margot, she had a few tutors who helped her on different occasions. One tutor, the Slavonic scholar Nevill Forbes was so impressed with her work, that in winter 1923 he wrote: "I was awfully sorry to get your letter on returning here yesterday at 3, and still more so to learn the cause of your hurried departure. […] I am so glad you liked the Dostoevski tale. The trouble is that most of his things are interminably long. I should advise BEDNÏE LYUDI, which was his first work, next, as that is fairly short". He concludes the letter: "The lessons were a great pleasure to me, as you proved quicker and keener than a good many men I have had to teach! Now you have got so far, you must not drop it; I am sure you will never regret it, as, even if you never go out there, it is a source of endless interest to probe into the literature, it opens up quite a new world, the Slavs are so different from us Western Europeans" .
Matilda’s passion of English literature widened into an appreciation of the Russian classics as she improved in the language. At Speddoch in Scotland, Matilda had a Russian lady staying who had a rather extreme method for helping her: "We had a Russian lady staying with us who made me read aloud to her, among other things, the whole of Tolstoy's War and Peace from cover to cover. I nearly cried at the place where Nicolas Rostov, who has gambled away a large sum of money, tells his father he is sorry".
She had a passion for people and understanding the world around her, which drove her on to study languages. She was taught French by her mother at a young age, which she put into practice during World War I while in France. She chose to learn Norwegian and Dutch in order to communicate more freely with the people there and to enrich her own experience abroad. In the case of Russian, she begins it initially to help Margot Fricker who comes to help out at Lacock Abbey, taking delight in both learning and teaching: "I have always been very fond of modern languages, and found the study of them, or the teaching of them, a great pleasure. In my girlhood, I was once asked what I would most like to be able to do; my answer was rather comprehensive: 'I would like to be able to sing in all languages, to dance in all languages, and to cook in all languages'" .
The achievements of the women of Lacock Abbey undoubtedly left their mark on young Matilda Talbot. Along with her mother and her Aunt Rosamond, who both spoke foreign languages and with whom she travelled abroad, she particularly admired Ela, the first Abbess of Lacock. She describes her as “a woman of great public spirit”, adding: “The Abbey was responsible for much good work" .The Abbess Ela would have been educated to a high level and had served as High Sheriff of Wiltshire after the death of her husband. She praises too the French governess, Amélina Petit from the time of her grandparents: "I only saw her that once, but all the same she was an influence in my life. […] She spoke Italian as well as she did her native French, and she also spoke German, which was not usual at that date" . Matilda Talbot also shares with Amélina Petit a strong religious belief as well as an enthusiasm for a great number of things: "Mme Petit was a woman of many interests, deep religious convictions and great breadth of view, so that she helped her pupils in many ways besides music, languages and general education" . Matilda was drawn to accomplished women throughout her life and in 1934 during the photographic exhibition in commemoration of her grandfather, William Henry Fox Talbot, she met Mrs. Eleonore Hünerson: "She was a most accomplished woman, speaking fluent English, German and Russian, besides her native language of Estonian". Eleonore Hünerson and her family were to become dear friends of hers. Her early apprehensions about inheriting Lacock Abbey from her uncle Charles Talbot were soon forgotten once she realised the Abbey’s true potential. Rather than a burden and obstacle to her varied interests, she quickly learned that the Abbey would provide her with everything she needed in order to carry out her duties of guardian and landlady, as well as provide her with myriad of possibilities for her varied interests: "Since her time [Aunt Rosamond] the opportunities have been many and varied, in fact, they have come so thick, one upon another, that it has been difficult to seize them; but Lacock Abbey has always been ready to adopt the role of chameleon and change its colour as required" .
Concluding her autobiography, one of her lasting impressions of ‘chameleon’ Lacock is how the Abbey’s numerous visitors from all over the world would help shape the village’s perception of foreigners: “I have noticed that in Lacock village there is little or none of that prejudice against foreigners which is found in many country places. I think possibly the fact of so many people from foreign countries coming to stay at the Abbey, and being seen in the village, has helped the local inhabitants to feel at home with them, and to realise that these visitors were just human beings like themselves".
William Goossens. BA, MA. Volunteer researcher at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
A fully referenced version of this blog is available on the Lacock Unlocked website