The compilation of an annual Tolkien studies bibliography often catches in my net listings for articles which, until I read the full article myself, I can’t tell if it has enough on Tolkien to be worth listing.
A 30-page biographical article on “Dickie” Reynolds – who was one of Tolkien’s masters at King Edward’s School in Birmingham and, much later, the friend for whom he wrote the “Sketch of the Mythology” that was the seed for all later versions of the Silmarillion – has less to say about his relationship with Tolkien than does the entry on Reynolds in Scull & Hammond’s Companion & Guide, so it’s not going in the bibliography. But it’s such an interesting portrait of Reynolds’ life that I want to write about it here.
Written by Martin Ferguson Smith, it was first published in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly – why such an unusual venue, we’ll get to – in 2017, and is collected in Smith’s book In and Out of Bloomsbury (Manchester University Press, 2021). Most of the essays are about that literary circle, though there’s also two on little-known parts of Dorothy L. Sayers’ pre-collegiate career.
Reynolds retired from King Edward’s School in 1922 due to ill-health, and moved to Capri in hopes of improving his own health and also that of his wife. He thrived but she died. Reynolds stayed on, home-schooling his three daughters who grew into talented young women, and becoming involved in the circle of expatriate English writers in Capri. It was during this period, in 1926, that Tolkien sent him the lays of Beleriand and the “Sketch” to give them context.
But in 1935, things went very badly for the Reynolds family. The eldest daughter had married but she died after childbirth at the age of 23. Two months later, the youngest fell off a seacliff and was killed, in front of the horrified eyes of her remaining sister. She was 20. A few months after that Reynolds, now in his late 60s, remarried to a widow of his own age, but she died only three months later. Reynolds spent the war years with his remaining daughter and her family in Chicago, then returned to Capri and died at the age of 80.
But Reynolds’ later years, fascinating though they may be, are as nothing to the remarkable story of his parentage. Standard sources say only that he was born in Liverpool and moved to Birmingham at an early age. That doesn’t even begin to tell the story.
The official records say that Dickie was the son of a married couple named Daniel and Annie Reynolds, but while Annie was in Liverpool, Daniel was a lawyer in the U.S. state of Arkansas, and he died when Dickie was 4, leaving Annie a widow. But only about half of this is true.
Annie was a widow, yes, but she wasn’t Daniel’s widow. Daniel wasn’t dead. He was Dickie’s father, yes, but Annie wasn’t married to him. Annie had been married in Liverpool in 1853 to a man named William Franklin. They soon emigrated to a small town in SE Arkansas where William went into business. They got to know Daniel when he helped William out with some financial dealings. But William died in 1860.
Daniel owned no slaves (as far as I can tell from the article, neither did William), but he was pro-secession, and joined the Confederate Army in the Civil War, ending up a brigadier general. He stayed in touch with Annie, and – except for one leg which he left behind – he returned to Lake Village after the war. There Daniel – still unmarried – and Annie had an affair and she became pregnant.
Annie returned to Liverpool to have the baby, evidently hoping that Daniel would follow and marry her. He didn’t. He stayed in Arkansas and soon married a younger and wealthier woman. Annie, taking the name of Reynolds in place of Franklin, moved with Dickie and her daughter by William to Birmingham, to be with her brother and his wife.
Did Annie even tell Dickie the full story of his origins? We don’t know. The answer might be in the memoir he wrote in his old age, but his descendants have that and Smith wasn’t able to see it.
But comparing this with the equally complex origins of Edith Tolkien, it gives a notion of how many secret stories lie in people’s backgrounds that the Victorians were reluctant to make known.
Martin Ferguson Smith, “The British Connection: The Secret Son of Brig. Gen. Daniel Harris Reynolds.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 76 no. 2 (Summer 2017): 144-76. Reprinted as “The Secret Love-Child of an American Civil War Commander: The Strange Story of Tolkien’s Schoolteacher.” In and Out of Bloomsbury: Biographical Essays on Twentieth-Century Writers and Artists (Manchester University Press, 2021): 238-71.