08 November 2023

Love, unrequited love,
and a village wedding
in the poetry of
John Betjeman

‘How new its weathered stone appears / When vows are made in Heaven’ … reading the poetry of John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For decades, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984) was Britain’s best-loved poet. Since Betjeman’s death, his statue at Saint Pancras Station – which he campaigned to save – has become a popular wedding venue.

He was the Poet Laureate from 1972, and was known for his television appearances and for his love of architecture and churches. He was a life-long friend of the artist John Piper, known for his Baptistry window in Coventry Cathedral and his East Window, ‘Christ in Majesty’ (1984), in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, and Betjeman and Piper worked together on the series of illustrated Shell Guides to English counties.

Betjeman was born in London in 1906. He had an interest in poetry from an early age and his interest in churches and architecture was kindled at the Dragon School, Oxford. He was part of the ‘literary set’ at Magdalen College, Oxford and after Oxford he was determined not to join his father’s business but to carve out a literary career instead.

Betjeman was married to Penelope Chetwode, the daughter of a former commander-in-chief of the Indian army. They were married for 53 years and had two children, Paul and Candida.

But Betjeman also had lengthy affairs with many women, including a lifelong affair with his muse Lady Elizabeth Cavendish (1926-2018) of Lismore Castle. They first met in 1951, and she was a daughter of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire. Betjeman also had a four-year affair with Margie Geddes in the 1970s.

John and Penelope Betjeman rented Garrard’s Farm in Uffington in 1934. They soon became immersed in village life and entertained many famous friends there. Their son Paul was born in Uffington in 1937, and their daughter, Candida, was born in Dublin in 1942 while they were in Ireland.

Betjeman was the press attaché to John Maffey at the British Embassy in Dublin from 1941 to 1943, and during that time the family lived in Collinstown House, near Clondalkin in Dublin.

Betjeman wrote a number of poems inspired by his experiences in Ireland. ‘The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922’, is set in west Waterford, with each stanza closing with the line ‘Dungarvan in the rain.’ The poem recalls the story of his unrequited love for a woman called Greta Hellstrom. It opens with the lines:

Golden haired and golden hearted
I would ever have you be,
As you were when last we parted
Smiling slow and sad to me.

The woman Betjeman refers to as ‘my Swedish beauty’ was, in fact, Emily Sears, an American who later married Ion Villiers-Stuart of Dromana House, near Cappoquin, Co Waterford.

Their granddaughter Barbara Grubb, who now lives at Dromana, said in recent years that Betjeman ‘was stunned by my grandmother’s extraordinary beauty, but though he worshipped her, it was only from afar, for she was in fact in love with my grandfather, Ion Villiers-Stuart, whom she married. They did, however, remain good friends right up to the end of his life.’

The final lines of the poem show the poet’s respect and his final acceptance of Emily’s decision to remain friends and never to be lovers:

You were right to keep us parted:
Bound and parted we remain,
Aching, if unbroken hearted –
Oh! Dungarvan in the rain.

After World War II, the family moved to Farnborough in 1945, then to Wantage in 1951. One of Betjeman’s poems set in Farnborough, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song, is one of Betjeman’s best-known love poems. The narrator, a junior army officer, is beguiled by the doctor’s daughter, attractive and athletic young Joan Hunter Dunn. The young officer is defenceless in the face of ‘strenuous singles’ with her on the tennis court.

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I'm engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The real Joan Hunter Dunn (1915-2008), later Joan Jackson, was a daughter of Dr George Hunter Dunn, a GP in Farnborough, Hampshire. Her grandfather, Andrew Hunter Dunn, was Bishop of Quebec in 1892-1914, and her uncle Edward Dunn was Bishop of Honduras and Archbishop of the West Indies.

Betjeman saw her for the first time in December 1940 while he was working in London for the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, based in the Senate House of the University of London, where she worked in the canteen. Although married for seven years, he was struck by her beauty, he fell in love, and composed his 44-line poem fantasising about them being engaged and playing tennis together. To him, she was ‘A girl to lean against for life and die adoring.’

When Betjeman left for Dublin, he continued to think of her. She married Harold Wycliffe Jackson, a civil servant in the Ministry of Information, in January 1945, in Saint Mark’s Church, Farnborough. Betjeman was invited, but did not attend.

As Poet Laureate, Betjeman also wrote a poem, ‘For A Royal Wedding, 29 July 1981,’ to mark the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

When Betjeman died at Trebetherick in Cornwall on 19 May 1984, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish was at his side. Joan Hunter Dunne attended his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, and died in 2008.

Later, his daughter Candida and her husband lived again in Uffington, and she donated many of her father’s papers to the museum.

Perhaps the best wedding poem he wrote was written for the wedding of Sally Weaver, who had been a childhood friend of Candida. The poem ‘Village Wedding’ blends imagery of natural beauty, a rain-purified atmosphere, church bells and a festive occasion that spans the generations.

It seems as if the entire parish of Uffington is brought together into the ancient church to witness a sacrament that binds together not just a young couple but all the living and dead with the timeless communal rituals of Christian faith.

Village Wedding by Sir John Betjeman

In summer wind the elm leaves sing,
And sharp’s the shade they’re shedding,
And loud and soft the church bells ring
For Sally Weaver’s wedding.

With chasing light the meadows fill,
The greenness growing greener,
As racing over White Horse Hill
Come bluer skies and cleaner.

The chalk-white walls, the steaming thatch
In rain-washed air are clearing,
And waves of sunshine run to catch
The bride for her appearing.

Inside the church in every pew
Sit old friends, older grown now;
Their children whom our children knew
Have children of their own now.

The babies wail, the organ plays,
Now thunderous, now lighter;
The brighter day of Sally’s days
Grows every moment brighter.

And all the souls of Uffington,
The dead among the living,
Seem witnessing the rite begun
Of taking and of giving.

The flying clouds! The flying years!
This church of centuries seven!
How new its weathered stone appears
When vows are made in Heaven!

Dromana Gate Lodge and Bridge … Betjeman’s ‘Greta Hellstrom’ was Emily Sears, who married Ion Villiers-Stuart of Dromana House, near Cappoquin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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