by BROCARD SEWELL, O.Carm
A Cell of Good Living: The Life, Works and Opinions of Eric Gill by Donald Attwater (Geoffrey Chapman 45s.) WHEN he was sixty, Eric Gill's friend, Fr. John Gray, priest and poet, said: "I hope to write less and better with time." Mr. Attwater, who is now rather more than sixty, has not been noticeably less prolific of late. but he has certainly succeeded in achieving John Gray's other ambition: to write better with time.
His earlier. shorter. study. Eric Gill: Workman, published nearly 30 years ago, though useful, is not easy reading; on the other hand, his Father Ignatius of Llanthony is an eminently readable book. His volumes on the Eastern Churches combine scholarship with a pleasant lightness of touch. But none of this previous body of work, distinguished though it is, would have prepared one for such an outstandingly excellent book as A Cell of Good LevMg.
At a time when the market is flooded with "made" biographies and "instant" memoirs -written up by this or that newspaper's "team" of "research writers," or by Americans struggling to get a Ph.D. from the University of Red Gap — it is a delight to read a biography that is written with elegance, sincerity, and understanding of its subject.
Mr. Attwater is peculiarly well qualified to write about Eric Gill. He knew him well for nearly 20 years; he first visited the Gill household, then on Ditchling Common. in 1923; from 1924 to 1928 he and his own family shared with the Gills the occupation of Fr. Ignatius's old monastery at Capel-y-ffin, near Llanthony; and again he was a familiar friend and visitor at Pigotts during Gill's final years.
No one reading this book could doubt that its writing has been for Mr. Attwater a labour of love; yet it is a candid book. in both senses of that word.
When Gill seems to have been wrong in his opinions or actions the author attempts no concealment. On the vexed question of the breakdown of the collaborative friendship between Eric Gill and Hilary Pepler he seems to me to be more just to Pepler than is Mr. Robert Speaight in his The Life of Eric Gill.
Here again Mr. Attwater has the advantage of writing from closer acquaintance with the man. There is extant a very large quantity of contemporary documentation concerning the disagreement between Gill and Pepler. Neither Mr. Speaight nor Mr. Attwater, i think, has seen these papers. When one has studied them. the conclusion at which one arrives differs hardly at all from Mr. Attwater's judicious summing-up.
He writes particularly well, too about Mary Gill, whose kind and gentle manner hid a strength of character as definite as her husband's. I wish he had said more about Bernard Kelly, a younger friend of Mr. Gill's. Kelly was a poet and metaphysician imprisoned in a bank, from which, unlike T. S. Eliot, he never escaped. He died young, after publishing a valuable small book on Gerard Manley Hopkins and a number of important articles on philosophical subjects.
I also wish that Mr. Attwater had told his readers more about the work done by Rene Hague and Eric Gill at their press at Pigotts. The methods of work which they employed, and the series of typographically distinguished books which they printed, have not yet been properly chronicled and appreciated.