Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Angela Brazil, her brother, and the child prodigy pianist

Reading about J. M. Barrie and his infiltration of the Llewelyn Davies family has reminded me of a chilling little story that I read about in The Schoolgirl Ethic: Life and Work of Angela Brazil by Gillian Freeman.

The victim in the case was a boy called Gilbert Morris; the villains were the schoolgirls’ fiction writer Angela Brazil and her brother Walter.  Angela appears to have been the main driving force, decision maker and giver of orders in this affair: it is likely that Walter just followed her lead and went along with her wishes.

Gilbert Allan Morris was a child prodigy, a professional pianist who made his first public appearance at the age of six. He was born in 1901 and came to the attention of the Brazils when he was 12 years old; Angela was in her 45th year at the time and Walter in his 52nd.

The Brazils took Gilbert up, railroaded him towards a career that they believed would bathe them in reflected glory, raised his hopes then pulled the rug out from under him. They gave with one hand and took with the other; they made plans and arrangements on his behalf without informing him. He became enmeshed in the tentacles of their household and was driven by their pressure to the edge of destruction.
How it started
It all began when Walter Brazil, a highly respected doctor and himself a pianist, wanted to buy a piano for his new home. He went into a piano showroom where Albert Morris, Gilbert’s father, was working. Walter heard Gilbert playing and was so impressed that he asked Mr Morris to bring his boy to the new house to perform for Angela. The two Brazils lived together for much of their lives; their sister Amy was also part of this household: the three siblings came to be known in the neighbourhood as ‘the holy trinity’.

Mrs Morris in the meantime was taken ill; Walter was sent for, he diagnosed appendicitis and Mrs Morris was sent to hospital where she had a successful operation. From that time on, Walter was the Morris family doctor. 

Angela and Walter decided to become patrons of the gifted Gilbert: she had always believed in the fostering of talent in the young. Mr Morris had been a concert pianist himself, so the primary need for outside assistance was probably financial.

The Brazils' house became Gilbert’s second home. He spent a holiday with members of the Brazil family and became friends with Angela’s nephew John Walter, known as Jack.

Jack Brazil was the son of Clarence, the oldest Brazil sibling; he was an invalid and died at the age of 16. During his final meeting with Gilbert, Jack said, “You know I’m going to die? I’m not afraid. It will be wonderful…” This sounds remarkably like Peter Pan’s much-quoted remark “To die will be an awfully big adventure”.

How it went on
Gilbert was pressed into service at many of the Brazils’ social gatherings: this was the Brazils' way of getting some return on their investment in him. He was also expected to take on professional engagements in addition to coping with the usual demands of school.

In 1917, Walter and Angela told Gilbert that they were going to make him their heir; Walter then approached Mr Morris and offered to adopt Gilbert. That way, he would not have to struggle to make his way in the world financially. There was a condition: Gilbert must take the name Brazil. Both the parents and Gilbert himself rejected the offer. Angela and Walter were not pleased about this; they carried on in some ways as if the setback had never happened.

One day Gilbert was missing from school. A search party found him sitting on a canal bank in a catatonic state. It is likely that the strain caused by having the Brazil’s concentrating on him and driving him on with their willpower were responsible for the breakdown.

Gilbert recovered, became music master at a school and built up a good practice with private pupils. The Brazils then decided to send him to Paris to study with a renowned teacher. Gilbert was led to believe that he would have a full year in Paris, six months’ break, and then a second year. He went with Amy Brazil and her god-daughter, who intended to study art for six months. Both young people were devoted to Amy and very much enjoyed their life in what they believed to be the very centre of creative activity. They thought that they were on the edge of a productive and fulfilling future. Gilbert received nothing but praise from his teacher, who regarded him as a brilliant pupil.

When the time came for Amy and her god-daughter to return home, Walter ordered Gilbert to return with them as 'there was no more money in the fund’. This was the first time that Gilbert had heard of any fund, and he was shocked and horrified. Angela was earning a lot of money from her books by this time.

Why would they sever him from his studies and step between him and opportunity? Why would they disregard the shattering effect this had on his personal feelings? Why would they negate some of their investment in this manner? Revenge, subconscious or otherwise, because Gilbert had not danced to Angela’s tune, cannot be discounted. There is also a possibility that Angela pulled the plug once she had enough information, ‘copy’ and local colour for her new book: she used much of her real life experience in this way.

The renowned teacher arranged a recital tour in the USA for Gilbert, on the condition that someone would underwrite the first concert. The Brazils, strangely, refused to be his guarantors.

Six months or so after his premature return to England, Gilbert was knocked off his bicycle by a car. His right hand was badly damaged and it was nine months before he was able to play again. Life did improve for Gilbert eventually: Angela found a studio for him and Walter gave him a small car. Gilbert met the young woman who later became his wife.

How it ended
In 1927, Angela made arrangements for some people to meet Gilbert at a small tea party after his first London recital. His parents too had arranged something without informing him. After the concert, Angela became enraged because he was considering leaving her for his parents and commanded,“You’re coming with us!”

The celebration was not the success Angela had intended: Gilbert had divided his time between his two commitments; he was not well and felt miserable. The relationship cooled and things were never the same again. Gilbert sensed unspoken disappointment and disapproval. He lost heart and never realised the high hopes that he and his French music teacher once had.

Gillian Freeman said that Angela probably felt that Gilbert had let her down; I think that she is right in her diagnosis.

Cause and effect
It may seem that Gilbert Morris got off relatively lightly and was a victim of nothing more than thoughtlessness, selfishness and lack of consideration. Many people are unaware of the damage that they inflict on those close to them and never look objectively at the cumulative effect of their actions. Some people cannot put themselves in others’ places.

Perhaps we should make allowances for creative people and accept that they are different and special and can’t be expected to abide by rules and standards that apply to the rest of us. Many live in their imaginations rather than the real world.

However, people who are evil, and/or creative, and/or stuck and infantile can have a malign influence on vulnerable people when they target and concentrate on their victims for various reasons. Using people as food and fuel for fantasies and making them stars of internal scenarios can do a lot of damage, and the results can be counter-productive.

Coincidences, connections and matters arising
Many memories and ideas came into my mind after reading this book. They are interesting but probably not very significant.

Angela Brazil and J. M. Barrie: some similarities
Gillian Freeman tells us that Angela had a Peter Pan complex. Angela herself said, “It is a mistake ever to grow up! I am still an absolute schoolgirl in my sympathies."

Angela was describing herself in this description of one of her schoolgirl heroines, now an adult:

“Peggy… is still capable of climbing a tree…”

J. M. Barrie said, “If growing up means it would be beneath my dignity to climb a tree, I'll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up! Not me!”

Angela was obsessed with fairies and the world of faery. Fairies are the most important of the magical inhabitants of Neverland.

J. M. Barrie’s brother died after being knocked down while skating and fracturing his skull on the ice. It is an interesting coincidence that as a young child, Angela witnessed the funeral of a local boy who had drowned by falling through the ice. In “My Own Schooldays”, Angela describes the achievements of her brothers’ college friend, a young musical genius. It was an education for her to know him.  He might have made a great name for himself, but he drowned at the age of 20 in the dark waters of Lake Geneva after falling through thin ice while skating on the lake.

Angela had a big adventure while on holiday when she was four years old: she, Walter and Amy together with two local boys were almost cut off by the incoming tide and marooned on an island of sand. She put similar incidents into five of her books. This reminds me of Peter Pan being in danger of death by drowning when he was trapped on Marooners’ Rock in the lagoon.

The Brazils and the Alcotts
Gillian Freeman informs us that Angela was the only Brazil child to resemble her mother, whose own mother was Spanish. They were both dark and Latin looking. This immediately made me think of Louisa M. Alcott, who was the only Alcott child to resemble her mother: they could both have passed for Spanish or Italian. Angela’s birthday was November 30th; Louisa was born on November 29th.

Certain deaths in the Alcott family are of interest here too.

Angela Brazil and Marie Corelli
The tea party incident described above reminded me of another selfish writer who arranged events to show someone off and was offended when the guest of honour, otherwise the victim, did not want to go along with the plans - for good reason. The Victorian novelist Marie Corelli invited Mark Twain to visit her at Stratford on Avon. She laid on a special train, arranged a huge reception committee and organised several events at which he was to be the guest of honour. 

When he pleaded to be let off, citing his age and the long journey, it had no effect.

Mark Twain described his 1907 visit with her as “the most hateful day my seventy-two years have ever known.”

“Seduction by confectionery”
Gillian Freeman says that Gilbert Morris was probably fed with cakes and chocolate on his first visit to the Brazil home, as Angela had the habit of giving to children the foods she liked best. Sweets and other goodies are featured in her books: children do love sweet things and she reflected and catered to their preferences.

However, I know how addictive sweets can be and how much damage they can do to vulnerable people. Sweets are one of the best ways to attract children and make them like someone. Sweets can have sinister associations, the witch and her gingerbread cottage in Hansel & Gretel for example.

Gilbert Morris was found sitting on a canal bank in a disturbed state; towards the end of her life Angela Brazil was found sitting on the edge of the pavement in a confused state.

Angela’s mother Angelica suffered greatly when she was sent to an English boarding school. She was brought to the verge of a nervous breakdown. She told Angela all about it, and Angela put it into The Fortunes of Philippa, one chapter of which is included in the biography. It is very painful to read, and reminds me very much of what happened to Charlotte Brontë and her sisters – and Jane Eyre - at their dreadful schools.

Hearing this story from her mother could have made Angela decide to be extra careful never to push anyone beyond their capabilities; instead perhaps she picked up and passed on some family unfinished business, doing to Gilbert Morris what had been done to her mother and saving her sympathy and understanding for characters in her books.

Family matters
Was there some kind of psychic glue holding three of the Brazil siblings together? Did Angela exert some kind of psychic stranglehold on two of her siblings? Perhaps she was trapped in the magical world of childhood and clung to the others so that they could not move on. Walter lived for only another four months after Angela died. This reminds me of Louisa M. Alcott’s death only two days after the death of her father.

Unlike his brother and sisters, Clarence Brazil married (at the age of 50) and made a separate life for himself. Angela did not approve of this marriage, perhaps because she thought his wife was beneath him or perhaps because he had the audacity to marry at all. The ‘holy trinity’ never spoke of Clarence: they seem to have dropped him as they did their Brazil cousins, who were in the grocery trade: Brazil’s Sausages were well known at the time. Not only did Clarence’s son and only child Jack die, but his marriage may have failed too: apparently they separated for a time and he went to South Africa.

Angela took an intense, possessive interest in an unidentified girl who was the daughter of a widower, a doctor who was a friend and colleague of Walter’s. There is a suggestion that Angela had seen her young friend’s father as a prospective husband.

When the girl told Angela that she was engaged, Angela humiliated the young man and treated the whole thing as a joke. This girl never married.

Family records
I noticed that the book gives Angela’s birth date as 30th November 1869, whereas Wiki has 1868.There is a website called Freebmd that contains information about births, marriages and deaths that I sometimes use. It is incomplete, contains duplications and has some transcription errors; it records first names inconsistently; it shows registration dates as opposed to actual dates but it is free to use and much better than nothing.

I found the births and deaths of the four Brazil siblings. Angela’s birth was registered in the first quarter of 1869, which fits the late November 1868 birthdate.

I found Clarence’s marriage and Jack’s birth: these were registered in Lambeth in London, quite a way from the Midlands where the rest of his family lived. There is a definite connection between some Brazils and Lambeth: I thought at first that I had made a huge discovery when I found that a marriage for a Walter Henry Brazil had been registered in Lambeth in 1894, as had one for an Amy Brazil. I soon realised that this must be two of the sausage manufacturing cousins. It seemed that unlike his siblings, Clarence was involved with them and went to live near them. 

It was Angela’s loss as much as it was her cousins’.