John Dover Wilson (1881–1969) was a professor and scholar of Renaissance drama, focusing particularly on the work of William Shakespeare. Born at Mortlake he attended Lancing College, Sussex, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and taught at King’s College London before becoming Regius Professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh.
He was the chief editor of the New Shakespeare, a series of editions of the complete plays published by Cambridge University Press. Of those editions, the one of Hamlet was his particular focus, and he published a number of other books on the play. His What Happens in Hamlet, first published in 1935, is among the more influential books ever written on the play, being reprinted several times.
So what was his connection to Harston? Another Lancing College scholar was Godfrey Theodore Baldwin, the only son of Harston’s vicar, the Rev E C Baldwin. Although the boys were 2 years apart and Baldwin went to Hertford College, Oxford, they became great friends. In his autobiography Milestones Along The Dover Road, Wilson reveals much of his relationship with the Baldwin family. He recalls that during the long vacation of 1902, the Harston vicarage became a meeting place for himself and Godfrey’s Oxford friends. He would cycle over from Cambridge to join in their talk and the reading aloud of their favourite poets. Once or twice when the vicar happened to be away, they would sit around the oil lamp in his study with the wooden shutters closed, talking and reading all through the night until they threw open the shutters and dashed down to the river at the bottom of the garden for an early morning bathe.
An occasional member of this reading party was Godfrey’s sister Dorothy. For her 18th birthday Wilson gave her a copy of ‘Tess of The d’Urbervilles’. Dorothy had to hide the book from her parents who were ‘very old-fashioned in their views on what was proper in literature’.
In August 1904 Wilson received a telegram. It read ‘Godfrey drowned come Dorothy’. He realized not only that he must go but ‘something that had never before entered my head; I was deeply, profoundly in love’.
Godfrey was buried at Harston and Wilson stayed at the vicarage until after the funeral. The vicar had a major burden to bear in that he suspected his son was not, as he understood it, a Christian. So Wilson had to try and calm his fears which he managed to do, ‘not entirely within the strict limits of the truth’. Wilson’s own religious position was not that of Godfrey since he had never had to suffer the extremely rigid upbringing that he had.
Prior to leaving, Wilson asked Mrs Baldwin if he might be allowed to consider himself engaged to Dorothy. She not only refused, but demanded that he should break off all relations with her unless he promised a far stricter adherence to the doctrines of the Church of England than he could accept. He describes months of misery for Dorothy, only relieved by secret meetings on the river at the foot of the garden, which he could reach by bicycle and she in her canoe, while his best friend carried messages between them. It was ‘a Romeo and Juliet interlude, full of rapturous meetings and agonized partings.
In the end, the parents realized that they had lost their daughter to this
Young Cambridge graduate, and that he was not so far removed from them in opinion as he had seemed. The engagement was permitted, and they were married at the end of July 1906. The parents were becoming proud of their son-in-law, especially as Canon Baldwin was an ardent admirer of Shakespeare, and in Cambridge circles a much-admired reciter of scenes from his plays.
Meanwhile Harston became the Wilsons home whenever they were in England. Their two elder children were born there – Godfrey in 1908 and Audrey in 1911 – and even the third child, Carol, who arrived seventeen years later, was born in the house of Dr Young at Harston who delivered all three children.
He concluded that ‘I owed all this happiness in the first place to my friend Godfrey’. He wrote a poem in his memory for the Lancing College Magazine of February 1905