Tuesday 12 January 2021

Sassoon's Surprize

 In the course of my researches, I came across this passage from Siegfried Sassoon's The Old Century and Seven More Years (1938).
Sassoon, sitting in the attic of his Kentish home, has become aware of the flutterings of a butterfly trapped behind the gauze covering the skylight... 
'By standing on a chair – which I placed on a table – I could just get my hand between the gauze and the glass. The butterfly was ungratefully elusive, and more than once the chair almost toppled over. Successful at last, I climbed down, and was about to put the butterfly out of the window when I observed between my fingers that it wasn't the Small Tortoiseshell or Cabbage White that I had assumed it to be. Its dark wings had yellowish borders with blue spots on them. It was more than seven years since I had entomologically squeezed the thorax of a "specimen". Doing so now, I discovered that one of the loftiest ambitions of my childhood had been belatedly realised. I had caught a Camberwell Beauty.'
  This vivid description of the thrill of encountering one of the most beautiful and unpredictable of our English rarities – the butterfly formerly known as the Grand Surprize – has, to modern ears, a chilling edge, as it becomes apparent that Sassoon, without a qualm, straight away squeezes its thorax, delivering a quick death and establishing possession of a 'specimen' he has long dreamt of. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
  The Camberwell Beauty is the butterfly known to Americans as the Mourning Cloak. I have only seen it in Canada, and it was one of the great butterfly encounters of my life. It is the butterfly Patrick Kurp was writing about the other day, and quoting Nabokov's poetical description

Like the Camberwell Beauty, Sassoon's Military Cross also turned up, as if by magic, in an attic (his step-grandson's). This was many years after it was thought lost. You can read the story of that 'grand surprise' here... 

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