Sunday, September 10, 2023

Tolkien and A.E. Coppard

I have long wondered whether Tolkien had ever read anything by A.E. Coppard. In the rear of my anthology Tales Before Tolkien (2003), I included a note on Coppard in the final section, “Author Notes and Recommended Reading.” It reads:

Coppard, A[lfred]. E[dgar]. (1878-1957)

British writer, who specialized in the short story, many of which fancifully describe rural England. While Coppard published numerous collections, his own selection of his best work, The Collected Tales of A.E. Coppard (1948), was very successful, and it provides a good introduction to the author’s writings. (p. 429)

In his Foreword to his Collected Tales, Coppard noted that the short story “is an ancient art originating in the folk tale, which was a thing of joy before writing. . . . The folk tale ministered to an apparently inborn and universal desire to hear tales, and it is my feeling that the closer the modern short story conforms to that ancient tradition of being spoken to you, rather than being read to you, the more acceptable it becomes.” It is a view with which Tolkien would have felt some affinity.

Recently, Andoni Cossio discovered a photograph of Tolkien at an Oxford party for the writer A.E. Coppard. It appeared in The Tatler and Bystander of  Wednesday, 11 February 1953. We haven’t have an exact date yet for the party, but it was in honor of Coppard’s 75th birthday on Sunday, 4 January 1953. Oxford would not have been in session that early in January, and the Hilary Full Term actually began on 18 January 1953, so the party would seem to have been sometime in late January or early February (before the 11th, when the photograph was published).  

There are actually four photographs published from the event, accompanying the “Talk Around the Town” column by Gordon Beckles in that issue of The Tatler and Bystander. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)


In one photograph, we see Tolkien standing with Richard Hughes, who reviewed The Hobbit favorably in 1937, and who would provide a blurb that would be used on the flaps of all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Other literary figures seen in the photographs include Enid Starkie, Louis Golding and C. Day Lewis. The caption to the photograph with Tolkien notes it was taken in the Beckington Room at Lincoln College, Oxford, presumably the place where the reading and reception took place.

Coppard did not study at Oxford, but he lived in the Oxford area from 1907 through 1919, when he was a clerk and an accountant at the Eagle Ironworks. In Oxford he met for the first time other people interested in books, and he began writing. His first of many books of short stories, Adam & Eve & Pinch Me, was published in 1922 by the Golden Cockerel Press.

There is some correspondence files, held at Texas A & M University, of the American poet and academic David Louis Posner (1921-1985) from the time when he was at Wadham College, Oxford. Apparently, he was responsible for planning a dinner for Coppard, probably separate from the public reading and reception. There are a number of cards and letters sent to Posner at Wadham dating from 1 December 1952 through 24 January 1953. Jonathan Cape, who had over the years published a number of Coppard’s books, was the first to accept, writing on 1 December 1952 and suggesting other people to invite. Those who declined the invitation included Leonard Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Robert Gibbings (who had joined the Golden Cockerel Press in 1924, and who had published a number of Coppard’s books), and Christopher Sandford (who took over the Golden Cockerel Press in 1933, and published one further Coppard title, Tapster’s Tapestry,  in 1938). The final letter in the collection declining the invitation to the dinner was dated 24 January 1953, so the dinner and the public reading seem to have been not long afterward. We can narrow this down a bit further owing to the discovery of an article on the “Short Story” in the Liverpool Daily Post for Monday, 2 February 1953, which mentions the “birthday tribute paid during the past week by Oxford University to a famous short story writer on reaching the age of seventy-five” (Coppard is later named as “the recipient of the Varsity honour”). The “past week” would have been from Sunday the 25th to Saturday the 31st of January. (Readers of the Liverpool Daily Post may have seen this article as a follow-up to one “Remembered Veterans” by “Brother Savage”, from 3 January 1953, in which it states, “the approach of his [Coppard’s] birthday on January 4 has prompted Cecil Hunt, a literary colleague, to suggest that there must be many who would wish this milestone in Coppard’s life to be ‘garlanded by gratitude for the pleasure his work has released.’”)  At present, the week of January 25th is the closest we can get to the specific date of the event.

What short story did Coppard read?  It would be interesting to know, but so far there is no firm evidence on the matter. That Posner kept a single Coppard autograph manuscript with his  letters about the dinner might suggest that he obtained the manuscript from Coppard at this time. The story is catalogued as “Chinfeather,” dated 3 November 1939, and comprises eleven leaves, heavily corrected. It was published in the Coppard collection Ugly Anna and Other Tales (1944).   

If Coppard had read a recently completed story, then the likely candidate would be “Lucy in Her Pink Jacket,” written in a few versions between 18 November 1952 and 17 January 1953, when the latest draft was typed. It was published in Esquire in December 1953, and collected in an eponymous volume in 1954.

Of course it needn’t have been either story, which are here entertained merely as possibilities with some slight circumstantial evidence. Hopefully, future research will fill in the gaps about this occasion.

Thanks to Andoni Cossio (ORCID: 0000-0003-2745-5104) and John Locke for assistance on this piece.

1 comment:

  1. I will have to check out Coppard as I have never heard of him. I like his thoughts on the short story. While I focus on writing novels, I can't help but write short stories from time to time. There's just something about them.