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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

Mary Stuart Boyd
The Fortunate Isles

Few people have not heard of the Fortunatum insulae - the Islands of the Blessed - but where exactly were they? An early forerunner, the Elysian Fields, were said to lie near the river Oceanus at the earth’s furthest extremity, a smiling land which knew nothing of snow, cold or rain. It was also where favoured heroes were granted the dubious blessing of eternal life. Neighbouring Hesperia, the Far West or ‘Land of Vespers’, contained a garden famous for its golden apples, over which the beautiful Hesperides stood zealous guard with their pet dragon. As geographical knowledge of the Mediterranean expanded, later poets decided to transfer Elysium to a group of mysterious Blessed Isles or makarõn nesoi - from which we derive present-day Macaronesia, including the Canaries, Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde islands. Plutarch set the fabled archipelago beyond the Pillars of Hercules, taking his cue from ancient mariners who had stumbled upon the Canaries. Recent investigators have identified them with a string of islands along Turkey’s Aegean coastline - Lesbos, Chios, Samos and Rhodes - which according to Diodorus Siculus recovered rapidly from a devastating prehistoric flood. Back in 1911 a satisfying compromise was reached between the eastern and western candidates when Scottish writer Mary Stuart Boyd bestowed the name on the idyllic Balearics.

Ibiza was indeed fortunate to be noticed by the Boyds. Whereas neither Gaston Vuillier nor Margaret d’Este were established figures when they visited the forgotten archipelago, the cultivated Glaswegians were well known to London’s cultural lions. Mary’s career as a writer had received a flying start in 1900 with a travel book about Australia and New Zealand, Our Stolen Summer, which was followed first by A Versailles Christmas-tide (1901) - like its predecessor containing illustrations by her husband - and then by a string of eight novels. The last, The Mystery of the Castle, was in the press in October 1909 when the Boyds set off south to gather material for a third travel book. Alexander Boyd, Mary’s husband of thirty-one years, was a leading illustrator for Punch and The Graphic and also a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy. At their St John’s Wood soirées, guests would mingle with the cream of artistic London - luminaries such as Sir James Barrie (whose Peter Pan was first staged in 1904) and the great Rudyard Kipling himself - while bibliophiles could happily rifle through Mrs Boyd’s impressive collection of signed first editions. Bret Harte, the popular American short-story writer, was another close friend and correspondent.

Shortly after arriving in Palma the Boyds boarded the mule-drawn tram-car and alighted near the house of the American Consul, to whom a friend had written a letter of introduction. In the event, it was the Consul’s wife who tipped them off about Casa Tranquilla in nearby Son Españolet. The previous tenant a British Major, had left things ticking over nicely: apart from an exemplary housekeeper and laundress, there was early morning delivery of rolls and ensaimadas, fresh milk twice a day (cow or goat, as preferred) and a comprehensive assortment of fruit and vegetables when the greengrocer dropped by at noon. The locals hard-working and picturesque, electricity was cheap and the climate perfect. As if all this were not enough, rose bushes obligingly flowered all winter and the neighbours allowed them first pick of poultry ripe for the pot. “As a place of winter residence for those who like sunshine and are not enamoured of society,” chirps our subject, “Palma could hardly be excelled.” It seems churlish to disagree.

The Fortunate Isles turned out to be the couple’s final joint venture and in it Alexander’s illustrations provide the crowning touch - eight colour plates and fifty-two pen drawings. A successful lifetime of first-class draughtsmanship underlies each one - with the possible exception of Vuillier’s, the finest ever made of the archipelago. Whereas a photograph seems too mundane for a travel book and an engraving has passed through too many different hands, a pen drawing can provide the perfect visual complement. Never does this artist falter in his handling of line or shadow while the placing of details is unerring. Each one is nothing less than a graphic poem.

Similar qualities are evident in Mrs Boyd’s prose: beguiling simplicity, frequent flashes of straight-faced humour and a keen interest in everything to hand. Here she is on their arrival before Ibiza in April 1910:

Then, out of the darkness arose the vision of a town piled on an eminence - a town of unexpected beauty for, from the tranquil waters of the almost landlocked bay to the highest point it was sparkling with lights. It was Iviza, the one important town of the main island. To the hoarse grating of her anchor chain the Lulio swung to, and through the darkness the vague outlines of rowing boats could be seen approaching. The young boatman who was the first to accost us secured our custom, and we stepped down the accommodation-ladder into the swaying boat. Half a dozen natives followed, carrying their belongings in big cotton handkerchiefs, a form of Balearic travelling case that to me always seemed peculiarly alluring, for when not in actual service, the handkerchief-portmanteau could be folded and stowed in the pocket; or even, did occasion require, be put to other uses.

The Fortunate Isles, p. 290-1

A galaxy of paraffin-lit windows and the special portmanteau of Ibiza: two vignettes which rarely appear in the official guidebooks. In fact, hardly anywhere in the four chapter allotted to our isle (Menorca got two) can a slighting remark be found, so perhaps Vuillier’s observations really did ensure VIP treatment for his successors. The fonda was “delightfully situated”, their quarters “the best in the house” and even if the food “revealed a lack of inspiration”, one feels the landlord was working on it: early coffee was brought up to their private balcony, allowing the visitors from the drab north to soak up a little local colour:

Then for the first time we awoke to the picturesque charm of the Ivizan’s choice of material and love of colour in dress. The fishing boy wore plush trousers of a lovely pinky-fawn shade. His companion’s were moss-green, and his waist scarf was scarlet. A crew of fishermen, their garments a kaleidoscope of gay hues, were breakfasting in their boat near. And along the beach beneath, a boy clad in faded blue velvet was carrying in one hand a basket of beautiful rose-coloured fish and dangling a hideously suggestive octopus in the other.

p. 293

One half expects the ‘natives’ to burst into song. The chromatic range of the island in former times has generally been left out of the graphic record - black-and-white photographs - so full marks again to the Boyds for reminding us about it. And now to Señor Wallis, as in Ignacio: it was a mere five years since Spain had acquired its English queen (whose birthday had been celebrated in Palma with bunting in every street), so el corte inglés (‘the English cut’ - the shop dates from 1890) was still the rage:

Walking back along the ramparts we noticed a gentleman who, though personally unknown to us, yet bore a remarkable racial resemblance to many people we had known in Britain. He was well dressed after the English fashion, wore fawn kid gloves, and though the sky was cloudless, carried a neatly rolled umbrella.
))))“That is Señor Wallis, a member of an illustrious family here. They all speak English. Shall I introduce you?” asked the padre, seeing that we were interested.
))))To our gratification the Señor Wallis not only spoke English admirably, but also understood it perfectly.
))))“My grandfather came here as British Consul,” he explained. “He married and settled here. My father was Consul after him. We have always spoken the English language at home.”
))))Here then was a family, living in a remote island where they might not hear English spoken once a year, who because their ancestor had been English carefully maintained the language and traditions of their forbears. As the Boy said afterwards, it reminded one of Kipling’s tale of Namgay Doola!
))))A little farther along, a massive figure, joyously arrayed in a suit of maize-coloured corduroy, a lilac-check shirt and a green hat, gladdened our vision.
))))“That is the present English Consul,” said the padre, who seemed to be on good terms with everybody. “I shall introduce him to you.”
The British Vice-Consul blushed when presented to genuine natives of the country he represented. His knowledge of the language was rudimentary, and after a few tentative efforts the conversation lapsed into Spanish. As the Boy said, it was quicker.

p. 297-8

There is so much in this work which merits our attention, but as usual we have run out of space and dozens of other books are clamouring for attention. To wrap up the story, the ‘Boy’ - their only child - became one of the ten million casualties of the First World War. Appalled and sickened by the carnage of Flanders, the Boyds decided to emigrate to New Zealand in 1920, where they soon took on a leading role on Auckland’s cultural circuit. Their house at Takapuna brought a touch of the vanished world of St John’s Wood to the local artistic scene. Mary died on July 31st 1937 at the age of seventy-six, seven years after her husband. We will complete our trio of Edwardian travel writers next month with the scholarly and intrepid J.E. Crawford Flitch; for now I will leave you with a thought-provoking juxtaposition - Mrs Boyd and the blind Bard of Chios:

Our experience of the remote island that we had approached with doubts had been a thoroughly delightful one, and when we steamed out over the placid water we watched the lights of Iviza sink in the distance with the feeling that we left real friends among the kindly islanders. Though it lacks the savage grandeur of some parts of Majorca, Iviza has beautiful and romantic scenery, and life in the lovely island is sweet and simple and wholesome. There is little money in circulation, but more is not needed. The ground is fertile, the climate gracious, the water-supply is unfailing, and fish may be had for the catching. So food is plentiful and cheap. House rent in the town of Iviza may be counted at about half less than in Palma, and when the townsfolk speak of the cost of living in the smaller towns, such as San Antonio, they hold up their hands at the amazing cheapness of it. This, then, was our impression of Iviza, the remote island about which such extravagant tales are circulated. That fire-arms and knives still play a part when the interests of rival lovers clash is openly acknowledged. But during our visit the course of true love must have run smoothly, for no echo of pistol shot or clash of weapon marred the peace of our stay. As we found the people of that forgotten isle - honest, courteous, generous and hospitable, quaint of dress and soft of voice - so have I written.

The Fortunate Isles, p. 327

Men lead there an easier life than anywhere else in the world, for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow, but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men […] Not by winds is it shaken, nor ever wet with rain, nor doth the snow come nigh thereto, but most clear air is spread about it cloudless, and the white light floats over it. Therein the blessed gods are glad for all their days.

Homer, The Odyssey, Books 4 & 6

Martin Davies



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