Based on a talk given to the Sabine Baring-Gould Appreciation Society at Lewtrenchard, October 14th 2012, and published in the ‘Transactions’ of the Society for 2013.
Despite the rather academic title (especially for a Sunday morning), this is not an academic paper, because I am not an academic. I am a writer, and my response to Sabine Baring-Gould is that of a fellow writer, one who feels a strong affinity with the man and his work, in particular his love for his native Devon and its traditional culture, and for anything old, odd or out-of-the-way, as well as his rambling style and fondness for going off at tangents, and into anecdotes and digressions. I have also noticed that when I talk or write about him, I tend to fall into doing this myself, no doubt in homage to his influence.
My original idea was merely to show how looking at Baring-Gould against the background of European Romanticism helps us to understand his approach to the collecting of folksongs, the aspect of his work which I probably know best, having for many years been part of a show performing songs and readings throughout Devon and Cornwall, telling the story of his encounters with his village song men and women. I did this with well-known folk musicians Mick Bramich and Les Noden, sometimes joined by others.
But, as I researched the subject, re-reading whatever I had about Baring-Gould, including the three main biographies, I realised that putting him against a wider European background also helps us to see him more fully and accurately, and to appreciate more deeply his achievements. So often he is presented as a rather eccentric figure, the English parson-antiquary with the magpie mind; even those who admire him tend to be a little apologetic on his behalf, admitting that he wrote too much too quickly, and relied too much on memory. Then there are those who chide him for precisely those characteristics that make him special, the approach that says ‘what a pity he didn’t have a proper education’ (i.e. at an English public school), or ‘what a shame he didn’t concentrate on just doing one thing really well’ (though it is true that he himself rather regretted not having had a more normal education). But in seeing him as a European figure, rather than a purely English one, this slightly patronising image falls away, and that deadly word ‘eccentric,’ reached for so automatically in England when faced with anyone not easily pigeon-holed, is revealed as just a lazy refusal to engage with his complexity.
So much about him, after all, was not typically English for the time anyway, despite his impeccably landed family background, not least his proficiency in languages (between six and nine, according to the source you are reading). So thinking of him in a wider, European context, helps to rescue him from the persistent, if not exactly ‘enormous,’ ‘condescension of posterity,’ to use the famous phrase of E P Thompson. I am certain, anyway, that had he received a more usual education for one of his class, or focussed on just one or two fields of endeavour, he would probably today be just another almost forgotten Victorian, and certainly would not have a society to perpetuate his name, meeting every year to raise a glass and celebrate his life and work (except, perhaps, purely as a family gathering).
His youthful travels, in France, Germany, Italy, and beyond, cannot be over-estimated in the making of his mind and character. His vast knowledge of the byways of history, folklore and tradition, as revealed in his travel books and guides, and in such collections as Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Curiosities of Olden Time, Strange Survivals and A Book of Folklore, are literally continent-wide, and owe much to these boyhood journeys, as does his understanding of landscape and geology and their effects on the cultures built upon them. From this came, amongst other things, his keen perception of the differences between Catholic and Protestant societies, the contemplation of which helped to lead him to his own high Anglican position, which he felt was the best compromise possible.
Then there is his profound knowledge of architecture. It is often said that Pevsner was the first to put English architecture into a European context, but S B-G was doing it, in his guides and topographical works, at least fifty years earlier. When he looked at the landscape of his beloved Dartmoor, he had knowledge of terrains from the Alps to Iceland with which to compare it; likewise when one of his village labourers taught him a song or scrap of local belief, he could immediately place it in relation to similar examples from myriad sources. His love of the gothic and medieval, his fascination for tales of ghosts, vampires, werewolves and the like, are equally European in scale.