Pageant of Selborne: Gilbert White’s Village
Place: Garden and Park of The Wakes (Selborne) (Selborne, Hampshire, England)
Number of performances: 2
20 July 1938 at 3pm and 7pm
Name of pageant master and other named staff
- Pageant Master: Kelly, Mary
- Producers: Mrs. Pitt; Miss Hales; Miss Knapman (Secretary of the Hampshire Village Drama League); Mrs Delves-Broughton
- Orchestra arranged by: Miss Lushington
Names of executive committee or equivalent
- President: The Rt. Hon Earl of Selborne, KG
- Vice-Presidents: The Right Hon. The Viscount Wolmer, MP; Major Sir R.H. Dorman Smith, MP; Captain J.B. Scott; Wilfred Mark Webb, FLS
- Hon Treasurer: Brig-General A.R. Burrowes
- Hon Secretaries: Miss Hales; the Rev. L.G.E. Sunderland
Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)
- Kelly, Mary
- White, Gilbert
Names of composers
Numbers of performers
Object of any funds raised
‘In aid of the Selborne Nursing Association and other village causes’.1
- Grandstand: Not Known
- Grandstand capacity: n/a
- Total audience: 2000
Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest
Admission to the grounds was 1s. and seats could be secured for either 2s. 6d. or 2s. on top of this.
Associated eventsGilbert White’s house was opened to the public.
Musical introduction by orchestra. Gilbert White and John Mulso in the dress of 1790 ride through a gap in the hedge of the wood. They discuss the natural beauty of Selborne, and Mulso asks what he learnt of the village’s history from writing his study. White replies: ‘As soon as ever I step out of Natural History into the walk of Antiquities I find my feet as it were on strange ground, but I will do my best to satisfy you.’ They discuss its origins in Saxon times, in which times it was a Royal manor in possession of Edith, Queen of Edward the Confessor. White says: ‘Such a link with the past seems to bring it clearly before one’s eyes, the mists of antiquity clear away, and one can almost fancy that one hears the hunting horns of the Saxon monarch, as he pursues the fleeting deer in the forest of Wolmer.’
Episode I. The Founding of Selborne Church, 1049
Enter pages, woman and boy as the sound of a horn is heard distantly. The King rides in followed by earls and huntsmen pursuing their quarry, a hart. The King is pensive, and decides to spare the hart, though the sons of Earl Godwin, Sweyn, Tostig and Harold mock him. The Queen enters and offers the King and others ale from a drinking horn. Edward confesses to being weary of ‘doing to death the creatures of the All-Father’ and that his soul is tormented. The Queen says he may make amends by going to Radfred the priest. Radfred is sad because no one prays, as there is no church. The King grants him land to build a church, saying: ‘Holy father, I will help thee in the building of this church, for I believe that it was for this that God spoke to me from heaven, leading me to this spot that I might hear thy prayer.’ The action then returns to White and Mulso, who then relates the history of Sir Adam de Gurdun, a follower of Simon de Montfort even after the latter’s death.
Episode II. The Capture of Adam de Gurdun, 1265
Swineheards enter. One sounds a horse. A rough unkempt man-at-arms wearing De Gurdun’s colours (red and white) leaps over the hedge, followed by others. They take the basket of the swineherds in joy. Sir Adam enters, and a boy warns him that Prince Edward and his men are in the forest searching for him. The Lady Agnes, who sent the message, warns him to make peace. Sir Adam (adopting quasi-Robin Hood reasons) refuses. The King’s men appear, surrounding them. Prince Edward arrives and fights Sir Adam, who is eventually wounded. The Prince spares Adam’s life due his gallantry, and Adam swears not to wage war and to pledge fealty to the King. The Queen enters and alights, and Adam pledges loyalty to her also. They depart to the church. Once again, the action returns to the figure of White, who introduces the visitation of William of Wykeham to the Priory of Canons Regular.
Episode III. The Visitation of the Priory by William of Wykeham, 1387
A band of boys and girls enter and celebrate May-Day, dancing and singing ‘Summer Is I-Cumen In’. A canon enters and criticize their dancing. When they ignore him, he calls the prior, who tells them of his love for Morris dancing and celebrations and blesses them. The Morris procession enters with fool, hobby horse, etc. They dance. They are welcomed to the Priory, and eventually bring the prior and canon into the dance to the music of ‘Robin Hood and Little John’. William of Wykeham enters suddenly and everyone freezes. The prior extricates himself, though he forgets to remove a May wreath. Wykeham is very angry, accusing them of being ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing, false stewards, untrue servants, fit for the wrath of God!’ The crowds disappear very rapidly. He criticizes their furred gowns and other signs of vanity. Woebegone, they go into the Priory. Moving forward to the time of White and Mulso, the two men are shown reflecting on the monks, whose repentance, they suggest, was short-lived: ‘Although William of Wykeham acted towards them as a liberal friend and benefactor, as well as a stern judge, we find that within ten years the whole of the Priory plate, vestments, relics, and title-deeds were in pawn.’ White talks about the slow decline of the Priory, finally being suppressed by the Pope in the reign of Henry V.
Episode IV. The Departure of the 77th Highlanders in 1790
The action merges into the time of the late eighteenth century, and and the departure after six months of being billeted at Selborne of the 77th regiment of Highlanders. Villagers enter and greet White. They are coming here for a feast to celebrate the wedding of Sophia Stuart (daughter of the squire) and Captain Alexander Gordon, which White has forgotten. White: ‘I am indeed distressed that I had allowed myself to wander so far into the past as to forget the present.’ The wedding party enters and the squire greets White and Mulso. The squire isn’t particularly happy about the marriage. They greet Sophia Stuart. Musicians strike up ‘Haste to the Wedding’ and all dance. A Highlander performs a sword dance. A reel follows. White and Lady Stuart discuss the virtues of the cuckoo. All dance ‘Brighton Camp.’ The captain receives orders that the Highlanders are to depart to Southampton and then to India, Sophia faints. The Squire vows that he will use his influence to transfer the captain to another regiment. The captain and Sophia are parted, the soldiers form up and march out, and the villagers sing ‘The Rout is Out’. All disappear, leaving White and Mulso who mount their horses and ride through the crowd. They hope the parting will be temporary. They then discuss the instincts and virtues of ‘Timothy the Tortoise’ wandering around the Wakes. They keep talking about nothing in particular until the pageant is at an end.
Key historical figures mentioned
- White, Gilbert (1720–1793) naturalist
- Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor] (1003x5–1066) king of England
- Edith [Eadgyth] (d. 1075) queen of England, consort of Edward the Confessor
- Swein [Sweyn], earl (d. 1052) magnate
- Harold II [Harold Godwineson] (1022/3?–1066) king of England
- Tostig, earl of Northumbria (c.1029–1066) magnate
- Gurdun [Gurdon], Sir Adam (c.1220–1305) soldier and rebel
- Eleanor [Eleanor of Provence] (c.1223–1291) queen of England, consort of Henry II
- Edward I (1239–1307) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
- Wykeham, William (c.1324–1404) bishop of Winchester, administrator, and founder of Winchester College and New College, Oxford
Musical productionThere was an orchestra, arranged (and presumably conducted) by Miss Lushington. Pieces included:
- Anon, ‘Robin Hood and Little John’
- Anon, ‘Haste to the Wedding’
- Anon, ‘Summer is i-cumen in’
Newspaper coverage of pageant
Portsmouth Evening News
Book of words
- Kelly, Mary. The Antiquities of Selborne, Shown to the World by the Rev. Gilbert White, of Selborne, in the Country of Southampton. London, 1926.
This was a reprint of the Book of Words from the 1926 performance.
Other primary published materials
- Drama 17
- British Annual of Literature
References in secondary literature
- Kosugi, Sei. ‘Representing Nation and Nature: Woolf, Kelly, White’. In Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place, edited by A. Snaith and M. Whitworth, 81–98. Basingstoke, 2007.
Archival holdings connected to pageant
- Hampshire Archives and Local Studies, Winchester: Copy of Advertising Flyer. TOP273/3/38.
Sources used in preparation of pageant
- White, Gilbert. The Natural History of the Antiquities of Selborne. London, 1789.
This pageant had previously been performed, with a modicum of success, in Selborne in 1926 (for further details, see entry for 1926 Selborne Pageant). It was revived in 1938 without revisions. Ironically for a pageant which celebrated the timeless nature of rural England, the event was now far easier to get to due to improvements in transport: an advertising flyer noted that ‘Electric trains run from London every half hour, leaving Waterloo at 27 and 57 minutes past the hour, arriving at Alton at 49 and 19 minutes past the hour respectively.’2 The audience of around 2000, surpassing that of the 1926 performance, suggests that many people may have visited from London or the surrounding commuter towns, which John Betjeman memorably described as ‘Metroland’.
The rural nostalgia of the inter-war period has been extensively documented by historians, and the 1938 Selborne Pageant is an excellent example of the desire to preserve England’s natural and historical beauty, as well as the folk traditions of the countryside.3 Some two years after the first performance of the pageant at Selborne, Clough Williams-Ellis, the famous architect-owner of Portmerion in Wales, published England and the Octopus (1928), an impassioned denunciation of the expansion of suburban England and the commuter railways, roads, and tourism that were destroying the last vestiges of organic folk culture. This was a cry that had some affinities with those raised by William Cobbett in the 1820s and George Sturt in the early twentieth century (figures familiar to the local area of Surrey, Berkshire and North Hampshire); it was also one that would be taken up by a host of writers and artists from F.R. Leavis to W.H. Massingham and John Nash. Pageantry, it is fair to say, has been an ideal bedfellow to expressions of rural nostalgia and the projections of a bucolic ‘deep’ England, unspoiled by the motorcar.
While there is a contemporary tendency to dismiss much of this lament as misplaced (the demise of rural England has been proclaimed since Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516), the Selborne pageant went beyond mere handwringing at the state of things. Mary Kelly (1888–1951), the author of the pageant, was the key force behind the Village Dramatic Society, which performed the Selborne Pageant. Kelly had founded the Village Dramatic Society in 1919 in her native Devon, though in its early years the society performed mostly religious plays often in local dialect and preserving folk traditions. The Selborne Pageant was Kelly’s first foray into pageantry—and only one performed outside the South West—followed by others at Rillington (1927), Bradstone (1929), Launceston (1931), Bude, and Exeter Cathedral (1932).4 She also wrote the book How To Make a Pageant (1936), drawing on her own experiences, which presented the pageant as a disappearing tradition thanks to the lure of modern commercial mass entertainment.
The Selborne Pageant did not fall on any anniversary in White’s life, focusing on White’s commitment to retired study and avoiding upheavals and excitements. The publication of The Natural History and Antiquaries of Selborne coincided with the French Revolution of 1789 and the height of the enclosures of English lands which impoverished many of the poorer Hampshire farmers and irrevocably changed the face of the English landscape. White’s book, which is framed around a number of letters to various naturalists, records the topography, flora and fauna before going on to sketch key events from the history of the village. It was an unlikely success, and has remained in print ever since, enjoyed by millions. In the same year as the pageant, the noted rural preservationist, H.J. Massingham, and the painter of British landscapes, Eric Ravilious, produced an illustrated edition of the book which restated its importance in the face of the world of the motor car.5
White’s long discussions with his friend John Mulso form an excellent backbone to the drama, creating a sense of double perspective: the audience watches White and Mulso who themselves watch the unfolding scenes on horseback. The pageant also featured members of the Alton Dramatic Society and the Hampshire Hunt (in Episode IV).6 By creating a sense of historical distancing, their presence reduces the sense of melodrama depicted in the other events in the Pageant. The episodes presented by the pageant, such as the eventual capture of Adam de Gudrun, Wykeham’s chastisement of the monks, and the lament over the newly-wed Sophia, are thus put into perspective against the progression of time, stressing above all the continuities of the village and its community. Thus, in the final scene, where the festivities of the nuptials are shattered by the Napoleonic War, the symbol of ‘Timothy the Tortoise’, whose slow-paced life exceeds the brevity of human experience, emphasises the timelessness of nature.
The pageant deviates from the ideal of a bucolic ‘Merrie England’ both in this episode and in the third episode, in which a fairly innocuous May-Day celebration, ubiquitous throughout pageantry, is interrupted by William of Wykeham. Thus the notion of medieval harmony, combining feasting and piety, is disrupted. It is unclear whether the audience ought to sympathise with the rather too worldly monks or the archly austere Wykeham—though the scene can be read in the context of White’s remarks that the order was suppressed some twenty years later (notably, one of the pageantry movement’s few references to dissolution not connected to Henry VIII). Mick Wallis suggests that the ‘coexistence [of] the ostensibly “non-political” Kelly of royalist sentiment on the one hand and enthusiastically progressive—to some extent democratic—impulses on the other was not unusual in the inter-war period’.7
The British Annual of Literature, reviewing the Pageant, praised the village drama movement and revelled in the beauty and simplicity of the performance. It also reported that ‘Heaven smiled on the occasion, the sun shone out brilliantly after some weeks of rainy weather.’8 The journal stressed the importance of local drama in no uncertain terms: ‘It goes to the heart of the matter, revives the creative spirit that mechanised amusements conspire to kill, and affords the best antidote to the materialism of the age in the country districts, where that materialism, if left unchallenged, would have the most devastating results.’9
A number of commentators have linked the Selborne Pageant to Virginia Woolf. Woolf wrote on White a number of times, notably in her essay ‘White’s Selborne’ in the New Statesman and Nation on 30 September 1939.10 It is uncanny that her last novel, Between the Acts (1941), which is about the performance of a pageant staged by a female Pageant Master, should have been written so shortly after this essay and within a few years of the second staging. Sei Kosugi asks: ‘Why did this symbolic encounter between Mary Kelly and Virginia Woolf occur at a specific moment of history (the late 1930s) and at the Hampshire village of Selborne?’11 One novelist, Susan Barrett, in her novel Making a Difference, has conjectured that Woolf herself visited the pageant in 1926, though no evidence for this exists.12 The important cultural phenomenon of pageantry and the obsession with the preservation of the folk culture and the historical traditions of rural England, so well-depicted in Gilbert White’s Natural History of the Antiquaries of Selborne, explain the bond between the imaginations of Woolf and Kelly, and for that matter writers such as E.M. Forster whose Abinger Pageant (1934) and England’s Pleasant Land (1938) pursue many of the same themes.
In 2000, a ‘Selborne Story Pageant Group’ was awarded £800 in Lottery Funding to stage a ‘community pageant which will look at 1000 years of the history of the village. The award is for material for costumes, the hire of sound and lighting equipment, printing, publicity and insurance, props and additional staging materials and hire of a hall for rehearsals.’13 The pageant, which was eventually staged in 2003, was written by Arthur Stowell, a Trustee of the Gilbert White Museum, which opened in 1974.14
- Portsmouth Evening News, 13 June 1938, 2.
- Pageant of Selborne, copy of Advertising Flyer, Hampshire Archives and Local Studies, Winchester. TOP273/3/38.
- Jeremy Burckhardt, Paradise Lost: Rural Idyll and Social Change Since 1800 (London, 2002), esp. chapters 1, 8–9 and 11–12; Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London, 2010); Georgina Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester, 1993); Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: The Past in Contemporary Britain (London, 1985) and The Village that Died for England: The Strange Story of Tyneham (London, 1995); Peter Mandler has criticized this rural nostalgia in ‘Against Englishness: English Culture and the Limits to Rural Nostalgia’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 7 (1997): 155–175.
- Mick Wallis, ‘Kelly, Mary Elfreda (1888–1951)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 7 January 2016, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/69833?docPos=1 ; Mick Wallis, ‘Drama in the Villages: Three Pioneers’, in The English Countryside Between the Wars: Regeneration Or Decline? ed. Paul Brassley, Jeremy Burchardt and Lynne Thompson (Woodbridge, 2007), 102–115. See also the interesting blogpost by Julie Sampson, accessed 7 January 2016, http://scrapblogfromthesouth-west.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/mary-kelly-devons-c1920-village.html.
- Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (London, 1938).
- Manchester Guardian, 8 July 1926, 12.
- Mick Wallis, ‘Kelly, Mary Elfreda (1888–1951)’.
- British Annual of Literature, 1938, 1: 34.
- Christina Alt, Virginia Woolf and the Study of Nature (Cambridge, 2006), 159–60.
- Sei Kosugi ‘Representing Nation and Nature: Woolf, Kelly, White’, in Locating Woolf: The Politics of Space and Place, ed. A. Snaith and M. Whitworth (Basingstoke, 2007), 89.
- Susan Barrett, Making a Difference: A Novel (Victoria, Canada, 2006), 297.
- ‘Selborne Story Pageant Group’, accessed 7 January 2016, http://gotlottery.uk/heritage-lottery-fund-selborne-story-pageant-group-10-61982.
- Chris Pines, blog post, accessed 7 January 2016, https://alresfordmemories.wordpress.com/2015/02/.
How to cite this entry
Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Pageant of Selborne: Gilbert White’s Village’, The Redress of the Past, http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/1185/