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Frederick Matthias Alexander: Review by Rose Bronec.

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Alexander Technique
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Frederick Matthias Alexander – A Family History is a must read for Alexander Technique teachers. Author, J. A. Evans, does an admirable job of placing FM within the context of his time, and she has provided us with answers to questions regarding his family, his relationships, and his son. In purchasing the book, we obtain a contextual timeline of events beginning with the Alexander family of Ramsbury, England, and ending with FM’s death in London on October 10, 1955. Through the text, Evans provides us with an encyclopedic equivalent of characters in FM’s life. Names we recognize, yet are unsure of their place and time in FM’s life, Evans identifies and describes, therefore clearing up the mysteries and the myths.

Jacqueline Evans is the great, great grandchild of Matthias Alexander who was deported, along with his brother Joseph, to Van Diemen’s Land in 1831. Part One (approx. 60 pp.) covers the history of the Alexander ancestors who lived in a village in southern England for over 300 years, to the events which resulted in the Alexanders of Table Cape, Tasmania. “Fortunately, the Alexander brothers were resilient; they accepted life as it came. Perhaps more importantly, they were enterprising men.” Following their pardons, the brothers pursued independent lifestyles with Matthias purchasing the property which eventually became Alexandria.

Part Two (approx. 70 pp.) covers the history of FM’s family in Tasmania and Australia. Matthias’ son, and FM’s father, John, “was a man endowed with considerable common sense, innate practical ability and expertise with horses.” FM’s mother, Betsy, “was a most creative and artistic woman who designed and made all the clothes required by her family and everything else that was needed in the home.” FM was the oldest of eight out of ten children, who lived to adulthood. The picture that Evans paints of her great grandparents, her grandmother (FM’s sister Amy), and her grand uncles and aunts, particularly FM and AR, within this still rather desolate area of Tasmania during the late 1800’s, is winsome. We begin to understand the combination of events and talents, schooling and experiences, which provide FM with the qualities of observation and fortitude necessary for his unique discoveries and insights.

It is also in this section of the book that we are introduced to two themes that run throughout FM’s life – his love of horse racing and his family financial responsibilities. “All of the family rode horses,…” , “. .  . AR was an excellent horseman who rode races regularly for his father, . . ” , and we learn that Amy “had a serious accident” while riding her pony, “. . . her leg was so damaged that she could not walk properly.”By now, FM was convinced “of the value of his methods and this encouraged him to continue teaching instead of pursuing a career as a reciter.” He realized that Amy would need “the very best medical advice” and concludes “that he must give recitals, prepare a printed brief on his teaching methods and advertise his work.” Eventually, AR joined FM in Melbourne, and shortly after, Amy also moved there. Since her problems were never fully corrected by the medical profession, FM began teaching Amy his “methods”, which resulted in correcting her leg problems, and her beginning to teach, too. As a closing note to this chapter, we learn that due to circumstances at home in Wynyard, FM’s mother, two other sisters and youngest brother come to live in Melbourne.

The final chapter of Part II provides us with more exacting information on FM’s development of his “methods”, the expansion of his teaching to Sydney, and the introduction of his first serious writing. He joins with other performers to stage “entertainments”, and establishes the friends and contacts which eventually support his move to London. We hear more about AR and Amy’s pursuits with teaching, the overall close familial ties, and their view of what they referred to as “the Work”. It is in this atmosphere of success, coupled with heavy financial responsibilities, that “luck” enters, sending FM to London.

Part Three (approx. 100 pp.) covers the years of 1904 to 1955. Divided fairly evenly into seven chapters, the author covers FM’s career and personal life with respect and tact. The story of how FM established himself in London, bringing first Amy, and then AR, to London to help teach, is fascinating. The logistics and complexities of family and career increase as World War I begins, affecting further decisions and creating greater financial responsibilities. The introduction of Ethel Webb, Irene Tasker and Margaret Naumburg to “the Work” is good reading. The initiation of annual teaching trips to the United States provides the sequence of events which led to the development of teaching in this country. FM marries and adopts a daughter. Dewey enters the picture, and the publication of FM’s books begins. All of these events are portrayed against the horrifying background of WWI, and yet life continues.

The second two chapters of Part Three cover the 1920’s and the1930’s. The trips to the United States ceased for the time being, the “little school” was created, and FM and AR buy homes outside London in Sidcup. The information relayed about the “little school” was particularly enjoyable Evans wisely gives us a taste of the school in a teenage girl’s submission for “Mr. FM’s Competition – Means Whereby”. The title of her piece, “Means Whereby of Grooming a Pony”, opens with “Inhibit the desire to groom a pony” , and closes with, “If you can’t control yourself, you can’t control your horse.” As we read on, we learn more about FM’s personal life, which I won’t spoil by giving too much away. The advent of the training course is covered with gracious descriptions of those attending. The next two books are described as “well received” although in general “the Work” was both criticized and acclaimed. AR , “whose great sense of humour often defused a tense situation” on the training course, responded to the market in the United States and “by early 1935 he was well established teaching in Boston”. These chapters close with verbal snapshots of FM’s work and leisure.

The chapter devoted to World War II was particularly disturbing in light of current events. Evans’ portrayal of how the war affected everyday life, the eventual need for FM and the school children to flee to the United States, and the effects of the London bombings, were descriptions that made me feel both pain and admiration for those who endured that period of history. FM is described as “the incorrigible optimist”. There are several quotations from his letters to those who remained in England. “But it is little use to grumble. We have just to see it through to the bitter end now.” On the brighter side, I found the pages given to Coghill very satisfying to read, and the descriptions and photos of life at Stow, Massachusetts, a pleasure. At the end of the chapter, we see FM returning to London in 1943, the War not yet ended.

“The South African Case” chapter is full of traumatic experiences ranging from further bombings near home and work, to the trial in Johannesburg, to the death of AR. “The loss of his dearest brother, the man who had supported him so loyally all his life was devastating.” The care Evans gives to relaying the details leading up to the trial, the trial itself, and its outcome, are helpful. The extent to which FM supporters extended themselves speaks highly of their dedication to FM and his Technique. Also in this chapter is one of my favorite passages, too lengthy for this review, but you can find it on p. 229, pertaining to John Skinner. It’s a wonderful account of one person’s sacrifices to train as a teacher.

The final chapter, “Final Years”, touches on the sensitive “problems associated with teachers wishing to secure the future of the Technique”, thus providing insight as to how the factions within the profession originated. FM outlived most of his family members and close friends. Evans’ history of FM relays both his humanity and his humaneness.

Additional material in this book consists of a Foreword by Jackie Evans’ aunt, Marjory Barlow, which I found disappointing in its brevity, and a “Legacy” chapter by John Gray which includes details about the Technique following FM’s death. The maps and photographs throughout the book convey more than words as we view the locations, scenery and portraits – the beauty of Amy and the handsome AR as examples. In her Introduction, Jackie Evans states: “It was felt by the Alexander family and a number of senior teachers that an accurate record of the background, family and life of Alexander was required. At the time many inaccurate articles, letters and books were circulating and producing a very biased view of Alexander and his family. I hope that this book will set the record straight and will interest a wider audience than already committed Alexanderians.” In my opinion, I think Ms. Evans can consider the record set straight.

© Rose Bronec. Reproduced with permission.

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