Making Moonshine!

Recently, while cataloguing archive items with the BISC 1920’s Research Group, I chanced upon a faded mimeograph of a playscript called Making Moonshine, tucked into a battered folder dated 1957-58.[1] Its author was Verily Anderson, a name familiar from her book Castellans of Herstmonceux (1911-2010) a memoir of her childhood and young adulthood. She had spent these years in and around the Castle, because her father was Rector of All Saints’ Church (just up the hill from the Castle) from the early 1920s onwards.[2] Anderson was eight when she moved into the area and knew the last two private owners of Herstmonceux Castle, Claude Lowther MP and Sir Paul Latham, plus many of their employees, families, and friends.

The cover of the prompt copy of Making Moonshine

Her memoir is a vivid link to a past that is now pretty much out of living memory. Being the Vicar’s daughter, Anderson occupied a secure but ambiguous space in local society. Her father’s religious role cut across the usual class and economic boundaries, and allowed Verily to form relationships with everyone from Castle servants to visiting socialites and the London upper crust.  Anderson lived well into her nineties and had apparently excellent recall of the kind of trivia that is often missing from official histories, but telling of the textures of her everyday life in her unusual milieu. While Castellans of Herstmonceux can be shaky on date–it was based on oral history sessions with Verily conducted in 2008–it contains anecdotes that would have been lost otherwise, such as Lowther playfully skimming plates at his butler when the food was not to his liking, or mating her father’s champion fox-terrier bitch with a dog brought over by the Marharajah of Pittipuram, a family friend. It’s a way of life that approaches self-parody at times, with incidents that would have been cut from Downton Abbey scripts for being too improbable. The production in the 1930s of A Midsummer Night’s Dream put on in the Castle garden by Nigel Playfair was adorned by “a pair of nightingales trilling above the actors” (35), a bit Keats for comfort. Or what about the mention of Sir Paul’s “five wooden legs for different purposes: swimming, dancing, hunting, gardening, and a best one” (31)? Even Charles Dance couldn’t pull this line off without corpsing. All this is before readers even get to the time Verily bought “an orange velvet frock” from Neville Chamberlain–yes, that Neville Chamberlain–a mysterious transaction that goes unexplained. Clearly this past is a very foreign country, and they did things very differently there.[3]

Verily Anderson c. 1939 in her FANY uniform.

All that said, Verily would have been in her early forties when she wrote Making Moonshine,so I hoped it might shed further light on the 1920s at the Castle, refracted fictionally, with the added benefit of adult hindsight. It was a particularly intriguing find, because I have never seen reference to this work anywhere. Inside the folder, there are 104 single-sided typed pages of dialogue (with some handwritten corrections) and songs interspersed (“music by Lionel Thomson” is scrawled on the cover). It is probably the Director’s script or a prompt copy. Given the date, it seems likely that it was produced as am-dram at the Castle, or in the grounds, since this was the RGO period when a Drama Society run by staff thrived here.[4]

Making Moonshine is set in the present at “Swirling Castle”, a fictionalisation of Herstmonceux, with mention of the Ladies’ Bower (the huge bow window in the present-day Conference Room), Grinling Gibbons staircase (admin landing) and the Rose Garden (still there). The play is a society comedy about love, money, class, identity, and heritage that draws on predecessors as disparate as Shakespeare’s comedies, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Musicals, West End Farces, and Sussex folk traditions. The plot, such as it is, centres on the attempt by the Honourable Flavia Coke Dymmington (“a very ex-debutante”) to sell a statue of Venus to the death-obsessed Kyle of Lochlash (“ancient eccentric of Scottish descent, owner of treasure-filled Swirling Castle”), who wants it as a (highly inappropriate) memorial to him at the nearby church.[5] There are enough details of the Kyle’s dandyism and eccentricity to make it plain that he is a version of Claude Lowther and that the play really concerns the 1920s, not the 1950s: “He wears an embroidered smoking jacket, frilled shirt, fancy waist-coat, rosetted shoes. He walks with one threelegged crutch embossed and jewelled” (14). There are hints of Lowther’s possible homosexuality, such as the sub-Wildean joke about the future disposal of his ashes: “Caught in the wind and wafted down towards the lavender.  See I am caught in the wind…don’t just dump me down on the path as though you were emptying the ash tray” (40). A subplot weaves in the sputtering romance between Peter Bean (“a grandson of Kyle’s, wedded to a trumpet”) with Linnett Wendover (the local Rector’s “child-of-nature” daughter, “pretty and charming”). Linnett is an obvious (rather self-serving) fictionalisation of the author of the play, who has the aura of the Kibbo Kift, an idealistic, outdoorsy group that thrived post-WW1. Flavia, by contrast, represents modernity (It’s frightfully frightfully|Not quite the thing| To eat goulash anywhere|Washed down with gin-sling” 84) and capitalism (“you can sit in a kiosk here…selling post cards and souvenirs and autographs. Padminster [the Butler] can start his conducted tours here…and receive his tips here, and then hand them to me standing here” 82).   

The list of dramatis personae

At a key moment in the narrative, the Kyle disappears, to return in drag disguise as a gypsy fortune teller, who advises Peter to marry Linnett rather than the avaricious flapper Flavia, who has latched on to him when she realises he will inherit the Castle from the Kyle. All’s well that ends well, of course, and by curtain fall Linnett and Peter are to be married, as are Flavia and the Kyle, while the statue has been moved from the rose garden to the church to their bedchamber, having been rescued from ignominy of a purchase by Munchpool Corporation. All of this farcical action takes place against the rowdy village celebration of the “Eve of St Odd, “patron saint of home-made wine” (13), when the village makes various kinds of hooch, hence the play’s title.                 

How does study of Making Moonshine contribute to our understanding of the early twentieth century history of Herstmonceux Castle? It certainly reinforces the way eccentricity often needs money and privilege to sustain it, and dramatizes the inevitable passage of stately homes into tourist sites in the long aftermath of the 1894 Death Duties Act and the rupture of the Great War.[6] It also suggests the complex process by which previous generations pass from life to living memory into caricature. Each generation of Castellans has created its own myths up to the present day, and these demi fictions have had as much power as history itself. But above all, this drama is crying out for a first revival, acted out in the Castle where it is set….

Dr Christian Lloyd, Academic Director at the BISC.

[1] Verily Anderson and Lionel Thomson, Making Moonshine, BISC Archive, 2011. Shelf mark HC DB Box 3.

[2] Copies of Castellans of Herstmonceux (1911-2010) are still available for purchase in both hardback and paperback from Herstmonceux Castle.

[3] Verily Anderson, Castellans of Herstmonceux 1911-2010 (Bader International Study Centre, 2011).

[4] If you have ever wondered why the study room high in the south part of the Castle is called the ‘Green Room’, when it has nothing green in it, it is because this was where Royal Greenwich Observatory amateur actors went over their lines and rested between scenes.

[5] The Kyle of Lochalsh is not in fact a Scottish aristocratic honorific, but a village on the northwest coast of Scotland.

[6] For further reading on this, see THE 1930’S: THE TOLL OF DEATH DUTIES | HOUSE AND HERITAGE