Will We Yet See the Return of the Wilfrids?

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (November 2010)


There have always been changes in the popularity of children's names. In England in recent years there has been a return (among the English) of the names popular at the end of the 19th /beginning of the 20th century. For girls the jewel and flower names are back, such as Ruby, Rose and Lily, although not Myrtle, Iris or Ivy and George and Arthur have returned for boys. In the 19th century there was a revival of Saxon and Norman names. After centuries of children named Mary Ann, John or William after their parents (and grandparents) the names Cuthbert, Edith and Winifred re-appeared in the baptismal registers. 100 years later we have a revival of Alfie (diminutive of Alfred) Matilda and Millicent (usually shortened to Milly) But not all names of that period have caught the imagination of the modern parent.

Will we yet see the return of the Wilfrids or Wilfreds?

As a Saxon name it has a good pedigree. Meaning 'Will peace' in Old English it is the name of two English saints. The great St Wilfrid 633 to 709, Bishop, missionary, supporter of the Roman system of calculating Easter at the Synod of Whitby, and from the next generation, Wilfrid II, Bishop of York.

"It's not a name you imagine for a romantic hero" I said. My daughter reminded me of a recent hero named Wilf. Wilfred Mott from TV science fiction series Dr Who and played by Bernard Cribbins is the grandfather of one of the Dr's companions, Donna Noble. And he is a fine, upstanding brave and loyal man, ex Parachute regiment. But at his age he is the last of the early 20th century Wilfreds, not a revival. No, Wilf is a name for an old man, although they must have been young once, just as Darren and Sharon will grow old.

Then I remembered there are in literature two more obvious romantic 'heroes' of that name. One is the eponymous hero of Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe (Wilfred of Ivanhoe). The other is a relatively minor character in two of the later novels by John Galsworthy which are collectively known as The Forsyte Saga.

Ivanhoe is rather an interesting book for the modern reader. Sir Walter Scott fancied a change from novels about his native Scotland and decided to write about England, a foreign country during a much earlier period than his usual practice. The novel is set in the late 12th century during the reign of Richard I. His source material was Shakespeare's King John (written over 400 years later) and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, (written a mere 200 years later) The good guys are the Saxons and the Jews; the bad guys the French and the Normans. But perhaps because Scott was a Scotsman he can get away with describing the Saxons as brave but gluttonous and not particularly bright and endowing the Jews with the same reputation for care with the finances often attributed to the Scots.

In his descriptions of mediaeval England can be seen the root of later works and films glamourizing chivalry and the courtly joust. He makes full use of the Robin Hood and Richard Coeur de Lion tapestry of myth and history.

The strangest aspect to me is why the book is entitled 'Ivanhoe' at all. The characters we get to know and empathise with best are Cedric the Saxon (Ivanhoe's father) Gurth and Wamba his swineherd and jester respectively; Cedric's ward the Royal Saxon Lady Rowena and the Jewish family who are Isaac of York and his daughter the gifted physician Rebecca.

We meet Wilfred twice without knowing it is he. Disguised as a pilgrim he saves Isaac's life and has a conversation with his father and Rowena his true love about himself without either noticing who he is. His love for Rowena, heir to the Saxon crown, is why his father sent him away on crusade. He then defeats all comers at a joust as an incognito knight (on the same team is Richard the Lionheart also incognito) but is wounded. Rebecca nurses him and falls in love with him.

The only sizable passage where we see Wilfred talking and showing any emotion is with Rebecca. They are imprisoned in the castle of Torquilstone which is under attack. Wilfred is too weak to even watch from the window so Rebecca describes the events to him in a chapter which anticipates the first radio live commentary of a football match by some 120 years. Throughout it is emphasised that despite her enormous qualities her being Jewish makes her a most inferior person in the eyes of the Christians.

The first six books of the Forsyte Saga are about the middle class Forsyte family, the later three books diverge during the 1920s into the story of the aristocratic family of Michael Mont who Fleur Forsyte marries. Fleur, a cool and self-centred girl is thwarted in her desire to marry her cousin Jon Forsyte and quickly seeks solace in marriage to Michael Mont a rather nice young man and heir to a baronetcy. His best man is the Hon. Wilfrid Desert, war hero and tortured poet. I always imagine the intellect of Wilfred Owen in the body of John Gilbert. He also falls in love with Fleur and she plays with him, an aristocratic poet being such an asset to her literary salon. However ultimately Wilfred cannot betray his best friend and comrade and he departs for the east.

Several books later he returns and meets Michael's cousin Dinny Cherrell. In my opinion Dinny, for her humour, decency and sense of duty is one of the most attractive young women in English literature, up there with Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet. They become engaged and this is the point where what I intended as a light-hearted piece of fluff takes a turn for the serious. While exploring in Darfur Wilfrid had fallen into the hands of followers of the Mahdi. To avoid death he submitted to Islam, taking the view that as he believed in nothing he might as well say that he believed in anything. News of his conversion at gunpoint travels out of the Sudan and Dinny's friends and relations are aghast. She is so highly esteemed that she cannot be allowed to marry someone who has let down the standard of an Englishman so badly. After soul searching and some unfortunate incidents Wilfrid again leaves England and a woman he loves for foreign parts. The Middle East is closed to him so he goes to the Far East. A year later he drowns crossing a river in Siam looking for a remote hill tribe. Among his effects is a letter to Michael asking him to tell Dinny that he is at peace with himself and he wishes the same for her.

The matter of conversion from the faith of ones ancestors is also one of the most powerful themes in the Ivanhoe story. Isaac and Rebecca fall into the hands of the Knights Templar. Isaac is quite happy to pay a vast sum of money to avoid torture, but when the safety of his daughter is at stake he is willing to undergo anything the Templars can produce to protect her.

Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert desires Rebecca. He cannot marry her, but were she to become a Christian his order would turn a blind eye to her becoming his mistress. Rebecca is firm; if he will not leave her in peace she will leap from the parapet of the tower where she in imprisoned. De Bois-Guilbert perseveres. He does not torture her, threaten her or offer her gold and jewels. He offers this grave and learned young woman joys of the intellect. As his mistress she will have entry to the great universities and schools of Europe; an introduction to the greatest scholars of the day. Rebecca remains faithful to the beliefs of her ancestors. As she tells Rowena on the final page, "I may not change the faith of my fathers like a garment unsuited to the climate in which I seek to dwell; and unhappy, lady, I will not be. He to whom I dedicate my future life will be my comforter, if I do His will."

The Templars declare de Bois-Guilbert to be bewitched and Rebecca is tried as a sorceress. A fire and stake are prepared for her execution. She claims trial by combat and de Bois-Guilbert is commanded to fight her champion. Wilfred is not yet recovered from the earlier wounds but he rises to the challenge. Before combat can begin de Bois-Guilbert drops dead from either a heart attack or a stroke. King Richard and Robin Hood reveal themselves and the King sends the Templars packing. Wilfred and Rowena marry. The Saxons are reconciled to the rule of King Richard. Rebecca goes to the Holy Land to devote herself to the sick.

The contrast between the courage shown by the Jews who are faced with torture and/or a horrible death and Wilfrid Desert who, having no faith to support him, could not face a quick death from a bullet is striking.

"Mind you," said Michael, "there's a streak of the heroic in him. It comes out in the wrong places. That's why he's a poet."

Dinny is very ill after the news of Wilfrid's death but she recovers. Eventually she marries her sister's lawyer. As her Uncle Adrian says "She'll be carrying on, she'll have children and she'll count."

Her husband is a good man, with an old name, that of another saint popular in mediaeval England, which will also never have a romantic image - Eustace.

Coming soon; The rehabilitation of the Ruperts.



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