Thursday, 4 October 2012

Hurstpierpoint, Sussex

I tried to visit Holy Trinity in April, as mentioned in my Albourne entry, but was thwarted by a wedding; this time it was closed due to refurbishment.

The exterior is not to my taste, but was built by Sir Charles Barry in 1834-5 so that might be a bit churlish, it's the interior It's the interior furnishings I'm interested in. Hopefully better luck next time.

Holy Trinity (3)

Sussex downs

Hurstpierpoint. The church built by Sir Charles Barry 1834-5 has a spire which can be seen for miles and the fine views stretch from Devil’s Dyke to Ditchling Beacon. At Wolstonbury Hill is an ancient camp.

In the church is a Norman font, two old figures on 14th-century tombs; and one of the east windows has some 15th-century medallions. One of the battered figures on the tombs is a 13th-century knight with shield and sword; the other, in armour with a lion at his feet, is Simon de Pierpoint, who was with Richard the First at the Siege of Acre.

There is a brass with a lifelike portrait of Bishop Hannington, born in the village and curate here for seven years.

In 1882 he headed a party of six missionaries to Uganda and at the age of 37 he was consecrated Bishop in charge of the Church Missionary Society’s Churches in Eastern Equatorial Africa. In October 1885 he was murdered by the natives when leading an expedition to open up a shorter route to Lake Victoria Nyanza.

At Hurstpierpoint lived Elizabeth Hitchener, a schoolmistress, who enters into the tempestuous career of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He became acquainted with her in 1811 when he paid a visit to his uncle, Captain Pilford, at Cuckfield.

With his habit of idealising his acquaintances, Shelley saw in Elizabeth a paragon of virtue, wisdom, and exalted genius, and embarked on an ecstatic year’s correspondence with her, which, opening on a high philosophical note, quickly centred about the personality of Elizabeth herself. She was 29 and Shelley was 19 and he was busy writing and talking about ‘the Necessity of Atheism and reform of society in general and his parents in particular. She was steeped in the stilted convention of the novels of the period.

From his “Dear Madam” she progresses rapidly to the dear friend, the dearest friend, and the “soul’s sister” of the poet, with whom he must share his fortune, once he attains it. She, he says, having raised herself from poverty to intellectual eminence, is his superior, and he sets himself the breathless task of emulating the simple splendour of her life.

The letters begin in June of I811; within two months Shelley has taken pity on the sorrows of pretty Harriet Westbrook, his sister’s schoolfellow, and has married her, a girl of 16; two months later he writes to Elizabeth the one full account we have of the unhappy marriage that was to drive Harriet to suicide. It does not make gallant reading.

Shelley has no secrets from Elizabeth; he discusses with her his family, his friends, his politics, and tells her the full story of the treachery of Hogg, who had been the brother of his soul. The letters grow in fervour and frequency; it is Elizabeth and not Harriet who has the bridegroom’s heart. Elizabeth, at ease in the diction of the current fiction, on reading of the baseness of Hogg, finds her blood frozen and is prompted “to forswear her kindred with mankind.”

The upshot of the correspondence is that Elizabeth must forsake her school and join the Shelley household, now including Harriet’s sister. This impossible group held together for five months and then was split by insatiable jealousies and by Shelley’s discovery that his goddess of wisdom was a very ordinary fallible creature, daily contact with whom dispels illusions and turns idolatry into indifference and indifference into hate.

The inevitable parting came, Elizabeth being compensated with a promise of £100 a year to make good the loss of her school. Shelley now transferred his affections to Mary Godwin. He was drowned in 1822, and in that year Elizabeth, then 40, published a poem on the Weald of Kent, which reflects her political opinions and fondly commemorates her friendship with the poet. Soon afterwards she married an Austrian officer, deposited Shelley’s letters and copies of her own with a solicitor, and vanished from knowledge in the country of her husband.

There is one letter of poor Harriet’s, written to Elizabeth from Dublin in 1812, which is curious enough to quote:

“I believe I have mentioned a new acquaintance of ours, a Mrs Nugent, who is sitting in the room now and talking to Percy about Virtue, while the poor of the city are drinking whiskey because they cannot afford bread and being hanged for stealing 13:4d.”

Hurstpierpoint has one of the three schools founded by Nathaniel Woodard, sister to those at Lancing and Ardingly. The huge east window in the panelled chapel has seven large lights with about 100 figures and there are six other stained-glass windows. There are benches with poppy heads and carved arm rests, a screen with a rich cornice and a pulpit with carved angels under canopies.

Intriguing, no?

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