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Between Two Worlds: The Diary of Winifred Coombe Tennant 1909-1924

From the publisher’s website: Between two worlds: the diary of Winifred Coombe Tennant 1909 – 1924 reveals the inner thought of the life of a woman who combined high politics, campaigning and love during a troubled historical period.

The diary of Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) is an extraordinary document. Its daily entries (1909-55) amount to one and a quarter million words. They document the writer’s intense inner life alongside her acute observation of the outside world through a period of unprecedented upheaval.

Winifred struggled all her life with a tension between her metaphysical beliefs and the practicalities of changing the social order. She was the most closely studied spiritual medium of her time, and the lover of Gerald Balfour, cabinet minister and brother of the former Prime Minister. Subsequently she became an intimate of Lloyd George and a frequent visitor to 10 Downing Street, where she witnessed momentous events such as the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. She was a suffragist, stood for parliament, and was the first female British delegate to the League of Nations. As a patron of young painters, she became a central figure in the Welsh art world.

This annotated edition of the diary presents the most intense and eventful years of both her public and private lives. It may be read as literature, for the story of a spiritual journey taken against a background of personal tragedy and public endeavour. For the academic community, it reveals important new information and personal insights into events affecting the fields of women’s studies, political and social history, and psychology. 

First Author: 
Peter Lord
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) was a compulsive diary-keeper for most of her life, the total amounting to about a million and a quarter words.  Of this vast quantity, Peter Lord has selected entries from the years 1909-24 for reproduction here, and the results (200,000 words) represent just over a third of the original for that period.  Editorial interpolations bridge the gaps and orient the reader, essential given the complexity of Winifred’s life and times.  Lord, author of a companion volume, Winifred Coombe Tennant: A Life through Art, has done a huge service in bringing Winifred to a wider audience, and his annotations to the entries are informative and even-handed.  The text is enhanced by a wide range of photographs, many taken from the family collection, supplemented by items drawn from the Tennant papers in the West Glamorgan Archives.  He tops and tails the volume with a potted biography of Winifred’s early life and a brief envoi describing her life after 1924.

The diaries are useful background reading for anyone interested in the cross correspondences and the early history of the SPR.  Lord has excluded much of the material relating to Winifred’s mediumship as being too complex, but he provides some fascinating context against which to read books like Signe Toksvig’s Swan on a Black Sea: A Study in Automatic Writing – The Cummins-Willett Scripts (1965) and Archie Roy’s The Eager Dead (2008), and papers in the SPR’s Proceedings such as Gerald Balfour’s ‘Some Recent Scripts Affording Evidence of Personal Survival’ (1914) and ‘A Study of the Psychological Aspects of Mrs Willett’s Mediumship, and of the Statements of the Communicators Concerning Process’ (1935).

For those who know Winifred primarily as ‘Mrs Willett’, the more rounded character that emerges from the diaries will come as a surprise.  For those who know her  primarily as a major figure in the distasteful exercise in ‘spiritual eugenics’ known as The Plan, as expounded in The Eager Dead, she will surely be a more sympathetic character than the one Roy presents.  That is not to say she did not have major flaws.  One again feels sorry for the collateral damage of her adulterous relationship with Gerald Balfour: Lady Better Balfour, whom Winifred strangely adores until the rupture with Gerald after the death of her son Christopher; and her husband Charles, invariably referred to in her diaries baldly as “CCT”.  Her pathologically self-absorbed mourning at the loss of her infant daughter Daphne in 1908, amply demonstrated here, must have been a trial to all round her, at least until she largely switched her obsessive grief to Christopher, killed in 1917 on the Western Front, and she gives no sense of an appreciation that Charles too must have suffered at losing two of his children.

Poor Charles clearly could not gain his wife’s full love, divided unevenly as it was not only between him and Gerald, but also the long-dead Edmund Gurney, who was in regular contact from the Other Side.  One is hard put to determine whether Charles was kept in ignorance or was complaisant during the affair with Gerald.  Winifred was good at keeping secrets, as the revelation of her identity as Mrs Willett only becoming widely known after her death, in the obituary published in the SPR’s December 1956 Journal, attests.  C D Broad in his foreword to Swan on a Black Sea quotes her son Alexander saying that a favourite motto of hers was “Never give unnecessary information!”.  Significantly Charles’s Who’s Who entry stated that he had two sons (ie Christopher and Alexander) which implicitly indicates his acknowledgement that Henry was not his.

Even so, it is a shock to realise that Charles was in residence at the time Winifred became pregnant by Balfour, and bizarrely, on the very day she conceived, Charles asked Balfour if he would be the Coombe Tennant’s children’s guardian, to which request Gerald “agreed with pleasure”.  Whether ignorant or choosing to look the other way, Charles seems to have generally tolerated his wife’s frequent absences as she pursued her various activities (there is just one incident recorded of him losing his temper, over a trivial incident which was probably stress-related).  One gets the impression that he spent a lot of time at the Tennant family home in London, perhaps his way of dealing with a difficult situation.  Winifred found him dull and narrow-minded, but one longs to hear his side of the story.  The impression is that Charles symbolised restrictions against which she chafed but it is hard to know because he barely figures in the diaries, partly because they led separate lives for much of the time, and partly because she did not find much about him worth recording.

For her part, possibly Balfour’s wife Lady Betty was happy for Winifred to ‘entertain’ her husband.  There is a telling entry (9 August, 1909, before Winifred and Gerald commenced their affair) in which Winifred says:

"I had a little talk with Lady Betty and wept in her arms.  She is a noble and great woman.  She told me she so wanted the bond between Gerald and me to be a source of strength and peace to me, and not an added sorrow ... Lady Betty told me to make use of Gerald to the utmost and that I should always find him the same, unchanging."

Three days later she writes:

"Received divine letter from Betty Balfour.  She says ‘Gerald’s friendship for you is a great new joy in his life – a great new tenderness.  I rejoice in it’, and she wants me to think of Fisher’s Hill [the Balfours’ residence] as a home where I can come to have ‘free and unfettered intercourse with your friend.’  Wrote to her.  I deeply honour her."

However much she dressed it up with frequently-used terms such as honour and nobility, it did not stop Winifred from carrying on with Lady Betty’s husband and taking liberally the injunction to make use of him to the utmost and have free and unfettered intercourse with him.  When Winifred writes of Balfour on 15 September 1911 that “Our love is compact of purity and therefore wrongs no-one”, a natural reaction is one of astonishment at such self-serving self-delusion that ignored anyone peripheral to the self-absorbed pair.  When Betty had a baby in 1912 Winifred was devastated by what she saw as a betrayal of her – Gerald having sex with his wife – melodramatically outlining the day in the diary in black, but somewhat comforted by Gerald’s declarations that he had no interest in the child whatsoever.  Yet even after Betty knew about the liaison and Henry’s paternity, she accepted the situation, and remained on friendly terms with Winifred, partly as a result of their shared interest in women’s suffrage (surely ironic for someone so passive in her domestic arrangements).  One wonders if Betty was grateful to have Gerald’s attentions turn elsewhere as he and Winifred do seem to have been two of a kind.

In one way the adulterous relationship was good for Winifred.  After Daphne’s death she became obsessed with the idea that her own life was essentially over, and all she longed for was to join her daughter.  The mediumship was essentially a way to reinstate he relationship with Daphne and develop her love affair with Edmund Gurney, for whom Balfour was to an extent a proxy (though overlaid with a more earthly element, even if dressed up as The Plan).  This allowed Winifred to sublimate her death-drive, though never erase it, in her desire for Balfour.  One obvious question is why Winifred and Gerald did not divorce their unsatisfactory spouses and marry each other.  They did discuss the possibility but decided against it.  Obvious reasons would be the difficulty of divorce and the scandal, especially an issue given Gerald’s brother Arthur’s political career and their own social standing.  But there is also the sense that the semi-clandestine nature of the liaison appealed to Winifred’s sense of self-dramatisation.

In these early years Winfred does not appear to be the self-confident figure of Roy’s book, or indeed of Broad’s foreword to Swan on a Black Sea,in which he characterises her as “a somewhat formidable lady”.  She is frequently diffident, unsure of herself and prone to hero-worship, whether of Gurney and the equally deceased Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers, or Sir Oliver Lodge and later Gerald, when writing about whom in the early years she seems to dissolve and positively gush; you know their relationship has turned a corner when she refers to him as “Gerald” rather than the habitual “belovèd”.  Gerald, reading between the lines, comes across as a seducer from the start, pressing Winifred’s emotional buttons.  He cites Dante’s Vita Nuova, which Winifred gladly accepts as symbolic of their relationship, even though the courtly love quickly transformed into a physical one, overlaying any professional relationship based on the cross correspondences.

Her recorded activities turn away from the SPR after the First World War, mainly to politics, but even those whose interest in her primarily revolves around psychical research will find her later life fascinating.  The diaries help to project her as a many-faceted person rather than simply one of the names involved in the cross correspondences.  She clearly exhibited a great sensitivity to the suffering of others, perhaps a reason for her identification with Gurney, who had felt the same.  She cared deeply about the plight of children, and disliked injustice in all its forms.  At one point she discovers that an old couple had been given notice to quit their cottage on the Tennant estate because they could not afford the rates and taxes, and she paid them herself.  Perhaps typically she can write, after noting that the estate is geared to maximising profit: “I can hardly eat my own good food or look at my comfortable house when I think of where it comes from and how it is paid for!”, while continuing to enjoy the lifestyle that the estate’s income provided for her and her family (the Afterword notes the extent of her picture-buying in her later years so clearly her disposable income was considerable, and she could not have engaged in public life without private means).

She had a deep love for Wales and its cultural life, took a sophisticated interest in politics and social reform, local and national, was a firm supporter of women’s suffrage, and was one of the first female magistrates.  Firmly Liberal in inclination, she disliked authoritarianism in politics and expressed anti-monarchist sentiments on occasion.  Her administrative work was admirable – the list of committees on which she served during the Great War is extensive and she was to train travel what the frequent flyer is to aircraft.  She took an active interest in Tennant estate business at a time when such a role was uncommon for women, spurred on by Charles’s loosening grip, and was clearly a capable administrator.  She might have become a Member of Parliament, standing unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Forest of Dean, and doubtless would have done the job well given her energy and attention to detail and shrewd grasp of politics, domestic and international.  She was a member of the British delegation to the League of Nations at Geneva and a close friend of Lloyd George.

Of course she had a certain narrowness of view common to her class; it is amusing to read about her shopping for clothes and feeling exhausted (admittedly pre-war), or a sense that her clearly comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle was onerous.  She frequently complains about the grind of organising the household, yet enjoys the luxury of a chauffeur-driven car and a full-time nurse for the children.  Servants are often a trial, and as she points out after the death of an unsatisfactory land agent, “If one has no agent, underlings try and mount the high horse.”  She wrote to the Times in 1935 about the importance of service as training for married life, perhaps not appreciating that its absence in her own life had not done her any harm and that its presence would hardly have caused her to treat Charles more kindly.

In short, she comes across as someone not, as the title of this book indicates, situated between two worlds, but someone who saw herself within two worlds, able to shuttle between them almost at will, and comfortable in both.  Small details only to be found within the intimate confines of a diary cast side-lights on her public persona, and little snippets, such as A W Verrall’s bad arthritis, SPR administrator Alice Johnson looking old, Winifred’s own extensive dental problems, her active dislike of her sisters-in-law Eveleen (F W H Myers’s widow) and Dorothy, help to make more human names familiar from the publications and histories of the SPR.

Hopefully the full diaries will eventually be made available to researchers who want to examine the fine detail of her life not available in an abridgement, and follow the trail after 1924:  the Darwin Correspondence Project may be a suitable template for Winifred’s diaries.  As an example of Between Two Worlds’ limitations, Lord supplies a paragraph following the entry for 12 October 1917, when Winifred had received a letter from Sir Oliver Lodge, which states: “Winifred seems to have had no contact with Lodge since their disagreement nearly three years before.  The rapprochement marks the beginning of an estrangement from other SPR colleagues and their methods.”  After the first sentence there is a footnote which says: “See the Diary for 6 December 1914.”  This is clearly a pivotal moment in her association with the SPR, and as Lord indicates, it marks a diminution in the number of references to psychical research in the diaries thereafter; in fact the entry for 14 October 1917 is highly critical of the SPR strategy of keeping mediums involved in the cross correspondences rigidly separated, and argues for a more collaborative effort (“A clearing house of SPR stuff is what is wanted...”).  So one turns eagerly back to the entry for 6 December 1914, to find that the diary skips from Saturday 5 December to the following Tuesday, the 8th.  There had been a passing reference to her irritation with Lodge for exerting pressure on her to produce scripts when she was not in a suitable frame of mind, but no sense of a rupture between them.  He slips from view as her priorities change, so it is a surprise to read that they had had a serious disagreement that affected their relationship.  The full text may hold useful information for the specialist concerned with such matters.

Despite her varied and often high-profile activities, it is easy to forget that until recently Winifred was largely unknown outside the confines of psychical research.  The Times did publish an obituary on 1 September 1956 focusing on “A life of Service in South Wales”, even though for much of her life she lived elsewhere, and referring to her as “Mrs Charles Coombe Tennant”, but she was generally neglected outside discussions of mediumship.  The Daily Telegraph obituary of Henry, or Dom Joseph as he became (28 November 1989), has no mention of his Coombe Tennant parentage whatsoever, something that certainly could not happen today.  Winifred is a figure of some significance in the history of the early twentieth century, and Lord’s skilful editing has given psychical researchers and historians of the period access to an important primary source.

Reference Information: 
Between Two Worlds. National Library of Wales, May 2011. ISBN-13: 978-1862250864