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Betjeman's Mystery Woman Revealed

Fetaure In The Irish Times By Catherine Foley
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A new exhibition celebrates the life of poet John Betjeman and lays a long-standing secret to rest, writes Catherine Foley

A much-loved poem by the English poet laureate, John Betjeman, held many secrets until a bit of local sleuthing recently yielded up the truth.

Following the centenary of the poet's birth in 1906, Joan Clancy, who runs an art gallery in Ring, Co Waterford, decided to organise a show in honour of the poet, not least because he commemorates her home-town of Dungarvan in his poetry. It was at the opening of this group show, which features paintings of the area by local artists, that she revealed a few of Betjeman's secrets, and his long association with a local family.

Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland between 1941 and 1943. Clancy recalls that, as a young girl, she had felt that "nothing ever happened in Dungarvan" and how she was "bowled over by the mention of Dungarvan in the rain…and the Square (Grattan) and the Comeragh Mountains, those places so much part of who I was".

In particular, Betjeman's poem, The Irish Unionist's Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922, is set in west Co Waterford, with each stanza closing with the line "Dungarvan in the rain". Much researched and disputed by eminent academics, it recounts the story of his unrequited love for a woman called Greta Hellstrom.

The identity of this woman has been researched by biographers, and it was found that this wasn't the woman's real name. In fact, only one family know who she was –until recently. Some individuals even claimed to be the woman Betjeman refers to as "my Swedish beauty", but no one matched the description.

CLANCY REVEALED THE identity of the mysterious Swede and the strong links between Betjeman and the long-standing family of landed gentry, the Villiers-Stuarts of Dromana House. The woman in the poem is in fact Emily Sears, who later married Ion Villiers-Stuart. Betjeman knew them both. He used to visit the Yellow House in Helvick Head, a fishing lodge, which was then owned by the Villiers-Stuarts.

Betjeman "was stunned by my grandmother's extraordinary beauty, but though he worshipped her, it was only from afar, for she was in fact in love with my grandfather, Ion Villiers-Stuart, whom she married. They did, however, remain good friends right up to the end of his life," said Barbara Grubb, a member of the Villiers-Stuart family, when she opened the show at Joan Clancy's gallery.

The poem opens with the lines: "Golden haired and golden hearted/I would ever have you be,/As you were when last we parted/Smiling slow and sad at me. "

Naming the woman as Greta Hellstrom "was a complete cover-up", according to Grubb.

The poet tries to hide the identity of the woman by describing her as Swedish when, in fact, she was American, and by setting the poem in 1922. He was at school aged 16 in that year, and he only got to know the Villiers-Stuart couple in the early 1940s.

Grubb gave insights into Betjeman's life in Ireland at the opening of the group show. "While in Ireland he attempted quite successfully to learn the Irish language," she said.

Betjeman married Penelope Chatwode in 1933 and they had two children. In 1941-1943, he took the post of British press attaché in Dublin. During his time here, he and his family stayed in Collinstown House, near Clondalkin in Dublin. "Now demolished, it was a large late Georgian house. It came with a maid called Maeve, who used to sprinkle holy water on JB's car bonnet in the mornings in an effort to make it start," Grubb recalled.

"During his time in Ireland he met my step-grandmother, Emily. He visited her both in Galway and here in Co Waterford. They spent many happy times both at Dromana and at the Yellow House at Helvick. He wrote Ireland with Emily after a bicycle ride through the Burren with her in the summer of 1943. "

In the same year, he and Chatwode returned to England. Betjeman was knighted in 1969 and he was made poet laureate in 1972. He died in 1984.

The final lines of the poem show the poet's respect and his final acceptance of Emily's decision to remain friends and never to be lovers: "You were right to keep us parted:/Bound and parted we remain,/Aching, if unbroken hearted--/Oh! Dungarvan in the rain. "

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