Tag Archive | Mary May Elles

Graveyard Greek

…was the heading The Times gave the letter Armand D’Angour and I wrote to them, a response to their article on a “puzzling” Greek inscription on the tombstone of Cecil Headlam, a successful author and cricketer, in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Hothfield, Kent. Since Greek script is incompatible with The Times’ computers, our answer to the “mystery” is lacking some detail, so I’ll set it out properly here. You’ll have to work out what in it is Armand’s and what mine, and I’ll kid myself that you’ll find that difficult.

Letter-in-Times.jpeg

Here is a good image of the inscription from Kent Online, where the story seems to have started:

As we said in the letter, a couple of observations are necessary before one can set about interpreting the text. Patrick Kidd, quoted in The Times article, spotted the misspelling in the second line, ΣΓΝΕΙΧΕΝ for ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ, and Armand and I (and no doubt countless others) realised that the L in what looks like ΚLΙΝΗΝ in the third line cannot be right as L is not a Greek letter. It’s Ε, and the word is ΚΕΙΝΗΝ, “that woman” or “her”. It’s hard to be sure from the photo how Ε has become L, but it may be erosion of the stone, lichen concealing the upper arms of E, or another mistake in the carving like the Γ in ΣΓΝΕΙΧΕΝ.

A final piece of useful information is that Cecil Headlam’s wife was named Mary May.

This leaves us with the following text:

ΖΕΥΓΟΣ ΕΡΩΣ ΕΥΜΟΡΦΟΝ ΑΕΙ

ΤΑ ΜΑΛΙΣΤΑ ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ

ΩΣ ΕΦΙΛΕΙ ΚΕΙΝΗΝ

ΩΣ ΤΟΤΕ ΜΑΙΑ ΦΙΛΕΙ

Set out as

ΖΕΥΓΟΣ ΕΡΩΣ ΕΥΜΟΡΦΟΝ ΑΕΙ ΤΑ ΜΑΛΙΣΤΑ ΣΥΝΕΙΧΕΝ

   ΩΣ ΕΦΙΛΕΙ ΚΕΙΝΗΝ ΩΣ ΤΟΤΕ ΜΑΙΑ ΦΙΛΕΙ

this is more obviously a piece of verse, an elegiac couplet standard for an inscription of this kind.

Decapitalising, we have:

ζεῦγος ἔρως εὔμορφον ἀεὶ τὰ μάλιστα συνεῖχεν

    ὡς ἐφίλει κείνην, ὣς τότε Μαῖα φιλεῖ.

We translate this as “Love always bound together the lovely union to the utmost:/ as he loved her, so in turn May loves him.”

The most difficult part of the text is the τότε, “then”, “next”, as discussed on Twitter here. But the gist of the inscription remains perfectly clear, and it’s a touching expression of love, not a puzzle or code.

I’m not at all sure what follows will cast any light on τότε or any other aspect of the inscription, but I discovered a bit more about Mary May and Cecil Headlam while pondering this epigram, and it makes for some interesting social history.

Mary May Headlam, née Fraser (on 16th July 1874, I think, in Inverness), was first married, to Edmund Hardie Elles, on 30th November 1897 at St John’s Church in Peshawar, on the North-West Frontier (a building I tried and failed to visit last summer). They lived thereafter in Peshawar, Kolkata and various places in southern England. On the death certificate of one of her daughters (from as recently as 2004) Mary May is described as a book indexer and Edmund as a stockbroker.

But The Times has been concerned with Cecil and Mary May before. On 19th November 1912 it reported on Edmund Elles’ petition for divorce:

The co-respondent [Cecil Headlam] first met the parties in 1904 and became an intimate friend. In 1911 the petitioner [Edmund Elles] became suspicious of the co-respondent’s relations with the respondent [Mary May], who admitted affection for him and promised not to see or correspond with him. The petitioner left shortly after on a business visit to India. On his return to England he discovered that the respondent had left their children and was living with the co-respondent at the Grand Hotel Cosmopolite du Golfe at Wimereux, in France… Mr Justice Bargrave Deane pronounced a decree nisi, with costs against the co-respondent, and gave the petitioner the custody of the children of the marriage.

Divorce in 1912 (the decree nisi was granted on 18th November) was a very big deal indeed. There is an account of “Le Divorce, Edwardian Style” here, and the divorce of Edmund and Mary May Elles exemplifies what Evangeline Holland describes. Cecil and Mary May’s adultery was a scandal. As it happens, the census of 1911 seems to capture Mary May Elles at home with her two daughters, 9 and 5, Edmund Elles absent and presumably in India, shortly before her departure for the Pas de Calais. One wonders if she ever saw her daughters again.

Mary May and Cecil were married in 1913 (Edmund remarried in 1915). Cecil died at Hothfield on 12th August 1934, after which Mary May becomes quite hard to trace. Cecil’s elder brother Horace was married to another Mary whose dates are exactly the same as Mary May, which doesn’t help. But I think she dies at Worthing in 1959.

Does that further information have any bearing on our interpretation of a Greek epigram? It gives it some kind of context, I think, and that’s probably where I should leave it: this “lovely union” would not have seemed so to many of the Headlams’ contemporaries. But I’ve an impulse to see in the τότε, and the peculiar expression of the second line, some reflection of the experience of a married woman loved but unable to return that love until marital breakdown meant she could.

Maybe someone else can do better.

Pesh fire engine2