Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

29. Vera

The first important matter was his work. In Madrid he had met John Walter of the Times and gathered that that paper was looking for a special correspondent for Spain and Portugal. As soon as he reached London Filson went to see the Times Foreign Editor, H.Wickham Steed. It emerged that the Times was so anxious to get Filson that it was prepared to share him with the Daily Mail so long as he wrote different copy for each paper – they didn’t yet know that the Mail had made him redundant. But they knew him well of old and were very careful not to commit themselves to a contract that he would be able to exploit financially. Wickham Steed told the Manager of the Times, Howard Corbett: ‘Filson Young … is a difficult and grasping man to work with’. The Editor, now known as Geoffrey Dawson, told Corbett: ‘From former dealings with him … I am quite clear that we shall get into trouble if we enter into definite relations with him’. Dawson told Northcliffe, who now owned the Times as well as the Mail, ‘I think we ought to be rather careful about the terms we make with him. He is rather a difficult man to deal with, and we should not tie ourselves up so that it would be difficult to get rid of him’. Northcliffe replied that so far as he knew Filson had made trouble with every paper he’d been connected with. Filson, unaware of these discussions, held out for a very high salary. Finally Dawson instructed Corbett:

When Lord N[orthcliffe] asked me my views about Filson Young as our correspondent in Spain I sent him a message to say that I thought him the best man, but that it was necessary to be careful in dealing with him. He always makes trouble. Personally I think the suggestions sent on in your telegram quite out of scale. We don’t pay as much in Paris! or Washington! both infinitely more important posts. But the main point is that we shouldn’t tie ourselves up too much with Filson Young. In my experience, and that of everyone else for whom he has worked, we shall want to get rid of him before long. He is only temporarily useful. (149)

On May 28 Corbett wrote to Filson to confirm an arrangement which could be terminated by either side at a month’s notice, but but that in effect guaranteed him more money than he’d had from the Daily Mail before they reduced his salary. This was good news, because in eight days’ time he was due to marry Vera North.

Vera was at this time [?about] 28: smart, vivacious, flirtatious, intelligent, beautiful, artistic. Her background was army and county, her parents so monumentally respectable and dull that her friends wondered how they could have produced such an unconventional daughter. Her maiden name had been Rawnsley. One of her father’s cousins, Canon H.D.Rawnsley, battled for the foundation of the National Trust and inspired Beatrix Potter to publish her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. There was also a family link with Oscar Wilde. In her early twenties she married a painter called Stanley North and had a son, Paul, but this marriage was so brief that in later life her son (five when she married Filson) could hardly remember his father. In later years Stanley North helped decorate Queen Mary’s famous dolls’ house at Windsor castle. He became an expert on the restoration of old masters. He also seduced one of the mistresses of Vera’s eventual third husband, the writer Clifford Bax as well as various well-connected married women.

Vera later claimed she had first seen Filson when she was about sixteen, in Egypt maltreating his first wife Minnie, but while Minnie’s second husband certainly took her to Egypt, there is no evidence that Filson was ever there during his marriage to Minnie or at any other time. In any case, it is not credible that a man like Filson should have set foot in a country like Egypt without writing about it. Less incredible, in the light of later events, is the suggestion that he may have been ‘maltreating’ his wife. Judging from his letters to Vera, his relationship with her had begun before he left for the Western Front at the end of 1916. After he came back they grew very close, and his last act before he left London for his first tour of duty in Spain was to send her a note:

Darling, this is just a little line to say goodnight, and to tell you I shall be thinking of you as you read it; and that you are to be [as] happy [as] you have made me, how different my life is since I have had you, and in what different spirits I go away because of all you have done for me. It is like a new window opened in life. So sleep well, my beloved, and be cheerful, and keep well until I come back. (150)

Soon he was writing from Spain that she was deeply in his heart and in his life and that he had never felt so ‘faithful’ (his own quotation marks) to anyone he’d been away from. A few months later he described another woman he had found attractive – the underlining seems to have been done later by Vera:

Today we are going out to lunch at the golf club, which I haven’t seen yet; it will be jolly to get out of the town. We are taking with us such a pretty woman – Countess de Foucot – French, thank goodness, with a quite extraordinary air of being English; and she speaks English in a way that makes one think she couldn’t speak French if she tried. She looks 24 and is 37, and had five children in the first four years of her marriage, from which she has now happily escaped. After attending to her daughter’s marriage she is, I think, going to be married again here to a Spaniard. She is delightful to look at, just a suspicion of a bore, but on the whole a great treat to me, being civilised in a high degree as to clothes, speech and general finish – and you know what pleasure I take in all those little appurtenances of women! I don’t feel such an outcast when she is about … what a horrid description! She is really quite nice, and quiet. (151)

By the time he was back in Spain after a short trip to England in March-April 1918 they had decided to get married.

Filson spent the weekend before the wedding with his mother and sister Ben (Isabel) at their home at Bramhall in Cheshire. On the Sunday – June 2 – his mother wrote to Vera, whom she had not yet met:

My dear Vera, It is sweet of you to write as you do, and to care so much that I should sympathise with you in your happiness. Like you I want to say much that I cannot write or even express in words; but from what Filson tells me I think he has found one who will be a sure and safe anchor for him, and who will make a really happy home for him in the years to come. He suffered terribly in his first marriage from one who failed utterly to understand his deepest needs, and to appreciate what was the very best in his character. It caused me more disappointment and grief than I could ever tell you, and his father too, who loved him so dearly.

For those who do not expect the impossible, and who are ready to share one another’s life in the fullest sense of the word I, who can speak from an experience of forty-six years of close companionship, can wish nothing better for you than what such a marriage brings.

Of course we all want to see you very much, and from what Filson says I think we shall soon be able to feel that you are a real daughter and sister, and are prepared to take your little boy to our hearts as well – his photo is charming.

We shall all be together in spirit on Wednesday and wishing the best of all blessings for you and my dear son. (152)

On the same day Filson also wrote to Vera:

Dearest, I am thinking so happily of you and of Wednesday, my precious little darling, when you will be my very own for always. Isabel and Mother are very happy too, I think, and are so looking forward to seeing you: you are to come here as soon as I go away. They see that I am quite sure of what I am doing, and they know from that that they will like you!

A daunting prospect for a new wife, days after her wedding, to leave her husband and go and stay with a mother-in-law and sister-in-law she has never met. Next day, Monday, Filson wrote again:

I have been sitting out in the garden all day reading and talking and watching the little week-old chickens running about in the grass. Yesterday evening I drove with my mother 3 miles to the little country church where my father is buried, and we sat for a little while in the sunshine by his grave. It was my mother’s wedding day, 48 years ago; and the sight of that little old figure sitting there, and the thought of that day so long ago, filled me with unutterable, heart breaking thoughts. Why is it only the beautiful things that make one so sad? Their life was one long close companionship in love and hope and sorrow and happiness. And as she turned away she laid a little bunch of pansies on the grave and said ‘It seems only yesterday that he took you in his arms and baptised you.’ Such a long way we have come from that day! And I am beginning the tale of the generations again. I can only pray, my darling, that some of the sweetness that was in them may be brought to you by me, to make up to you for all you have missed, and all that you have so beautifully and valiantly suffered. Surely you deserve some real happiness – and shall not want it if I can give it to you. (153)

They were married at a register office [where? see marriage cert] on June 5 (Filson’s forty-second birthday) and had six days together before Filson had to start back to Spain to take up his new job as special correspondent for the Times – and continue his Intelligence work for the Admiralty. Vera saw him off on the train from London to Southampton. During the Channel crossing he wrote from his ‘cabin de luxe’:

Your little blue figure vanishing among the crowd was a symbol of what has come to be an will remain all the brightness of my life … You have wrapped me round with such love and happiness and comfort that it will take a long time for it to wear off … I have to turn my face forward now to work but my memories and my heart stay behind with you. P.S. None of all his sings is forgotten! (154)

Next day he wrote again, from Paris:

I am one big ache of missing you. The journey has been hustling and struggling, although I sat alone on deck all the way across and looked at the sunset, and was peaceful … I want you to write me a diary every day, just putting down the trifles your day consists of. (155)

In Paris he lunched with Vera’s father, Colonel Claude Rawnsley, and they agreed that the allowance Rawnsley paid his daughter and her son should continue, but that Filson would refund half – ‘so long as I can’, Filson confided to Vera. He was now writing from Biarritz (‘a very civilized St Ives’), where he was stuck because of a muddle over a permit to cross the frontier into Spain. He passed the time at the Hôtel du Palais:

The only person I know in this hotel is Princess Dolgourouki (she was a Wilson) who is old and vain; she lives in San Sebastian in the summer. She made me give her a full description of what you were like, and then showed me royal autograph letters until I was screaming with boredom, and fled to my pipe and bed! (156)

Soon he was rescued from this aristocratic ennui by a British diplomat from Spain with a car, and by June 28 had reached San Sebastian on his way to Madrid.


149 H.Wickham Steed to Howard Corbett, 15 May; Geoffrey Dawson to Corbett, 16 May; Dawson to Northcliffe, 18 May; H.G.Price [who was he?] to Corbett, 20 May; Corbett to FY, 22 May; Dawson to Corbett, 23 May (all 1918).

150 FY to Vera, 21 Aug 1917.

151 FY to Vera, 10 Feb 1918.

152 Sarah Young to Vera, 2 June 1918.

153 FY to Vera, 3 June 1918.

154 FY to Vera, undated [11 June 1918].

155 FY to Vera, undated [12 June 1918].

156 FY to Vera, 18 June 1918.

Be Sociable, Share!