The Gay Love Letters of Edward Fitzgerald
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
The English poet and translator Edward Fitzgerald (180983) lead a split life: as the friendly local man known as "old Fitz" who socialized with simple fisher folk, and as the literary man, translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, who corresponded with Thackeray, Tennyson, and Carlyle: neither group had any knowledge of the other. His first beloved was William Kenworthy Browne, with whom he spent most of his summers from 1832, when Browne was sixteen. Browne married in 1844, and died in a riding accident in 1859. After Browne's death Fitzgerald moved to Lowestoft in Suffolk, where he walked along the beach at night, as he told Browne's widow, "longing for some fellow to accost me who might give me some promise of filling up a very vacant place in my heart." That fellow turned out to be Joseph Fletcher, called "Posh," an east coast fisherman whom he met in 1865, when Posh was twenty-seven and Fitzgerald was fifty-six. Fitzgerald was cruising in the area of Harwich and Felixstowe in his fifteen-ton schooner, originally named the Shamrock but known as the Scandal.
Posh was proprietor of a longshore punt or beach lugger, fishing for cod, haddock, shrimp, rather than deep sea fishing in a proper lugger. He immediately became Fitzgerald's protégé aboard the Scandal, and in the following year became a proper herring merchant with Fitzgerald as his partner. A year after that, Fitzgerald paid for a new boat to be built, which was named the Meum and Tuum (Mine and Yours), known all along the coast as the Mum Tum, "a queer name for a boat." Fitzgerald was "infatuated with the breezy stalwart comeliness" of his captain, but himself always went to sea in a silk top hat, with a lady's fur boa wrapped around his neck. Posh had wife and children, and Fitzgerald spent nearly every evening smoking his pipe in their cottage, or drinking with Posh at the inn. There was a quarrel between them in autumn 1869 because of Posh's habitual drunkenness; Posh asserted his independence by buying another boat without consulting his partner, which lead to another squall. Their partnership broke up in 1870; arrangements were made for Posh to become full owner of the Meum and Tuum, and Fitzgerald in his will directed his heirs not to call in the principal of the mortgage to which Posh was indebted to him. As a memento of their relationship, Fitzgerald commissioned Samuel Laurence to paint a portrait of Posh, and sent him a photo of Posh sitting on a chair, in his jersey, holding an oar, a big but handsome man (the photo survives but the portrait is untraced). Fitzgerald wrote to Laurence "I am sure the Man is fit to be King of a Kingdom as well as of a Lugger. . . . Made in the mould of what Humanity should be, Body and Soul, a poor Fisherman. The proud Fellow had better have kept me for a Partner in some of his responsibilities. But no; he must rule alone, as is right he should too." They occasionally wrote and saw one another again for several years. There was a further rift in 1873 when Fitzgerald, genuinely concerned for his friend's health, tried to force him to become teetotal. In these last years when they met Fitzgerald would grab hold of Posh's blue woollen jersey and pinch him, and say "Oh dear, oh dear, Posh! To think it should have come to this." Fitzgerald was also married, but he and his wife quickly separated, and lived apart. Posh was interviewed in 1907 (when he said "He was a master rum un, was my ole guvnor!"), and told a wonderful story of how one day he and Fitzgerald were walking along when they saw Mrs Fitzgerald walking towards them. As they came up to one another, Fitzgerald and his wife both removed their gloves and reached out in a formal greeting but Posh could swear that their hands just hovered above one another and that their fingers never actually touched.
EDWARD FITZGERALD TO JOSEPH FLETCHER
My good Fellow,
My dear Poshy,
My dear Poshy,
EDWARD FITZGERALD TO S. LAURENCE
. . . If you were down here, I think I should make you take a life-size Oil Sketch of the Head and Shoulders of my Captain of the Lugger. You see by the enclosed that these are neither of them a bad sort: and the Man's Soul is every way as well proportioned, missing in nothing that may become a Man, as I believe. He and I will, I doubt, part Company; well as he likes me, which is perhaps as well as a sailor cares for any one but Wife and Children: he likes to be, what he is born to be, his own sole Master, of himself, and of other men. So now I have got him a fair start, I think he will carry on the Lugger alone: I shall miss my Hobby, which is no doubt the last I shall ride in this world: but I shall also get eased of some Anxiety about the lives of a Crew for which I now feel responsible. . . .
. . . I should certainly like a large Oil-sketch like Thackeray's, done in your most hasty, and worst, style, to hang up with Thackeray and Tennyson, with whom he shares a certain Grandeur of Soul and Body. As you guess, the colouring is (when the Man is all well) the finest Saxon type: with that complexion which Montaigne calls ‘vif, Mâle, et flamboyant'; blue eyes; and strictly auburn hair, that any woman might sigh to possess. He says it is coming off, as it sometimes does from those who are constantly wearing the close, hot Sou'-westers. We must see what can be done about a Sketch.
My dear Laurence,
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.
SOURCE: James Blyth, Edward Fitzgerald and "Posh": "Herring Merchants" (London: John Long, 1908).