The man who loved islands

Puffins on the Shiant Islands in the Outer Hebrides

For arm-chair explorations of the islands of Great Britain, I have one more recommendation for you: Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago by natural history writer Patrick Barkham. The structure of this quirky and engaging book was inspired by a D.H Lawrence story, "The Man Who Loved Islands" (1928). As Barkham explains:

Islander by Patrick Barkham"Lawrence's fictional hero, who is called Mr. Carthcart, buys a haven of gorse, blackthorn and granite, four miles in circumference, somewhere beyond the British mainland. For a while, he adores his island home, working alongside the thirty-odd people who are his tenants and employees. Soon, though, he realises one inescapable truth about small islands: living on a rock surrounded by the ocean is prohibitively expensive. His capital disappears in renovations. Projects fail. 'His' islanders quietly mock and exploit him.

"Our hero's solution is to downsize. He takes his most fanciful carpenter, and a widow and her daughter to keep house for him, to a smaller island. For a while he finds peace, and compiles a list of every flower in this tiny place. Things take a typically Lawrentian turn, however, for our island idealist sleeps with the widow's daughter, Flora. She has a child, and the man who loves islands realises that he has sabotaged his quest for peace. So he removed himself once more to a concrete hut on a bleak island-rock on which he no longer does anything but dream, living alongside a cat, and then alone. He sleeps, hallucinates and, eventually, goes mad and dies.

"It is a simple story of disillusionment and, like the best kind of fable, niggles away at the reader."

Herm in the Channel Islands, once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Channel Island seal

Jethou in the Channel Islands  one of the islands once owned by Compton Mackenzie

Digging into the history of the story, Barkham learns that Lawrence based its details on real life. He writes:

Compton Mackenzie"The man who loved islands, Mr. Carthcart, was a real man, a friend, fellow writer and rival. Compton Mackenzie is barely known outside Scotland these days and is not much remembered within it. The name rings a bell for those who have watched the film or read the book Whiskey Galore -- his 1947 tale of fictional islanders salvaging thousands of bottles of whiskey from a wartime shipwreck -- but I wonder why he is not better known. He was admired by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell. He averaged more than a book each year of his long life, an unceasing flow of four million published words, including ten -- ten! -- volumes of autobiography he penned in his eighties. He also played a major role in many of the great events of the 20th century -- he was a brilliant spy in the First World War, an inventor of bureaucracy, a founding father of the Scottish National Party (despite being born in England), a pioneer of music journalism, and an early entertainer on BBC radio and television. Here was a feted author and brilliant raconteur, a handsome if rather bird-like man with a mop of black hair that his friend Eric Linklater once likened to a raven shot on its nest. Sir Compton Mackenzie was clever, witty, well connected and celebrated in his lifetime. Now, less than five decades after his death, he is vitually forgotten. Are islands something to do with it?

Kisimul Castle on Isle of Barra in Outer Hebrides

Hebridean seal

"The island-infatuation of idealist, extravagant, egotistical, foolish and tragic Mr. Carthcart -- or Compton Mackenzie -- fascinated me. Why did Lawrence write so unsparingly about a friend? What became of their friendship? And how did Mackenzie's life on small islands actually unfold? I also ponder the universal truths in Lawrence's brief exploration of small-island life. His story reveals the lure of islands for idealists, the clash between dreams and financial reality, and the tension between the individual's need for liberty and his or her need for society. In Lawrence's view, the past is unusually present on small islands. They are dangerously seductive places for people seeking to escape the mainstream who swiftly discover they cannot escape themselves."

Compton Mackenzie's home of the Isle of Barra

St Barr's Church on the Isle of Barra and Sir Compton Mazkenzie with his wife, Faith.

Hebridean seal

Wondering if Lawrence was correct, Barkham travels to eleven islands throughout the British archipelago. Moving, like Carthcart and Mackenzie, from large islands to those that are smaller and smaller, he seeks to understand the dream and the reality of island life, historically and today.

The story of Compton Mackenzie is colourful, loopy, and fascinating, and Barkham tells it well. If you, too, love islands and odd corners of literary history, I recommend Islander. It is a delight.

The Shiant Islands

Atlantic Puffins on the Shiants

Puffins

Words: The passage quoted above is from the introduction to Islander by Patrick Barkham (Granta Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: Herm and Jethou in the Channel Islands, owned by Mackenzie in the 1920s; the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where he lived from the 1930s onward (and on which he is buried); and the Shiant Islands (near the Isle of Lewis), which he owned from 1925-1937. The Shiants are an important breeding place for Atlantic Puffins and other seabirds.


On the Isle of Jura

George Orwell's desk on Jura

Three years ago when Howard and I travelled up to the west coast of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, I took Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey to read on the long train ride north, and found it to be a perfect introduction to the landscape and culture I would soon be immersed in. Bunting's book is lighter in tone and scope than those previously discussed (Philip Marsden's The Summer Isles and David Grange's The Frayed Atlantic Edge), but I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. If her book has more of a travelogue quality, it's nonethess informative, perceptive, and engaging, providing a good overview of an archipelago rich in history and story.

Like Marsden and Grange, Bunting writes about the western islands from an outsider's perspective, following the footsteps of authors who've been drawn to these wild shores for generations. In her chapter on the Isle of Jura, example, she visits Barnhill, the ramshackle farmhouse where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In Orwell's day, Bunting tells us,

"there was no daily postal service, no telephone and no electricity at Barnhill. The nearest shop was a twenty-five mile round trip, the nearest doctor was on Islay. Orwell was delighted: the place was 'extremely unget-at-able' he declared. He had fled the telephone, the requests for journalism and the busy chatter of London life, he explained in letters. Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting His recurrent fear of assassination since his time in Barcelona in 1936-7 abated, although he still kept a gun at hand. But he wanted his friends to visit and gave detailed instructions for the forty-eight-hour journey from London, with train and ferry times. What resulted were some tense ménages with assorted friends and relatives, which [his sister] Avril was left to deal with when Orwell retreated to his room with his typewriter. One visitor, a young student, David Holbrook, reminisced, 'I wanted to talk to him about life, about politics, Spain and that sort of thing, but he was wheezing away about an Arctic tern.'  

"Orwell's letters portray Barnhill as a powerful emotional counterbalance to his pervasive pessimism in those years. After an autumn spent in bed in the damp house in 1947, he was taken to a Lanarkshire sanatorium for treatment [for tuberculosis] and he wrote to a friend, 'Not much use worrying about Palestine or anything else. This stupid war is coming off in about 10-20 years and this country will be blown off the map whatever else happens. The only hope is to have a home with a few animals in some place not worth a bomb. If the show does start and is as bad as one fears, it could be fairly easy to be self-supporting on the island provided one wasn't looted.' His comments owed much to that mid-20th-century British conception of islands, and the Hebrides in particular, as salvific, the last refuge. 'When one considers how things have gone since 1930 or thereabouts, it is not easy to believe in the survival of civilization,' he wrote. The first title he had considered for Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. On stormy nights in Barnhill, his sense of foreboding may have led him to think he was writing about himself....

Orwell at Work  photographed by Vernon Richards

Barnhill on the island of Jura

"Jura's remoteness was Orwell's only explanation for his decision to move there. But given his deep love of the English countryside, it was an intriguing choice. There were plenty of remote houses in England where the farming and gardening might have been more productive. Jura was a landscape unlike any other he had lived in, and it enabled him to produce a novel which was quite unlike anything else he had ever written, and at a speed, despite his illness, which he had never managed before.

"Barnhill gave him the vantage point from which to create its opposite in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Julia offers the one glimmer of hope in the book; her unabashed love of sex was 'above all what he [Winston] wanted to hear' because it was 'not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct'. Living at Barnhill gave Orwell an experience akin to Julia's 'animal instinct', of a deeply experiential, instinctive world away from abstractions.

"In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell describes people who can no longer understand freedom or truth because history has been corrupted, repeatedly rewritten in the 'Records Department', and in the process their identity and that of England has been erased. Freedom is no longer imaginable because there is no language to describe it; as the state functionary Syme says, 'Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.' At one point, Orwell's character Winston Smith can no longer remember his parents. He asks himself, 'Did his parents live in England? England was its name, he thought, or Britain.'

Orwell and goat

"Orwell was writing these lines when living amongst a Gaelic community; the neighbouring crofters with whom he shared the tasks of harvesting would never have been allowed to forget their parents, or where they had lived, given the Gaelic emphasis on genealogy and place. Did Jura and its losses -- of language and history -- creep into the background texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, providing small details in the vision of how identity -- and thus freedom -- were lost?

"Literary critics of Orwell's work tend to regard Jura as incidental, no more than a backdrop, and their focus has been on Orwell, the man. Their references to Jura have often been simply comments on its remoteness. But Orwell had an acute sense of place; he understood how it expressed history and generated identity. He used vivid evocations of both city and countryside to express his most important political ideas in books such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, and Down and Out in Paris and London. This Atlantic edge of Britain has been a battleground for different interpretations of freedom, and how history and identity create the conditions for them, as I was to discover several times on my journeys. What Orwell found on Jura were reminders of those freedoms which had been lost in urban Britain, and which sustained and inspired him."

George Orwell at Barnhill.

Bunting's book is full of vivid snapshots like this of people, places and stories throughout the Hebrides. She's a fine raconteur and a good traveling companion for readers who prefer some gentle island-hopping to vigorous journeys by sailboat or kayak, or as a follow-up to such epic adventures.

For more on Orwell and other writers on islands, follow the links in this previous post.

Small Isles Bay  Jura  photograph by William Herron

Words: The passage above is from Love of Country by Madeleine Bunting (Granta Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: George Orwell on the Isle of Jura in the 1940s.


Following the seals

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People of the Sea by writer, naturalist, folklorist and radio producer David Thompson (1914-1988) is one of the best sources we have for the selkie (or selchie) tales of Ireland and Scotland. Thomson's obsession with the seal folk started as a child, but it was not until the 1940s, after the war, that he began to wander the western coast and isles in search of their stories. People of the Sea, published in 1954, contains the lore he coaxed out of farmers and fishing folk, along with vivid portraits of the storytellers themselves and the wild landscape that formed them. The legends range from enchanting to brutal, reflecting the harsh realities of life lived on the ocean's edge.

Fellow-folklorist Stewart Sanderson describes this classic book beautifully:

People of the Sea"On one level it is a masterpiece of literary craftsman ship, the product of a disciplined literary intellect. At other levels, it reflects the author's singularly imaginative engagement with his subject, and his sympathetic rapport with the men, women and children encountered on his travels in quest of seal legends and traditions. 

"David Thompson's curiosity about the seals seems to have been aroused at a very early age through overhearing, and only half understanding, largely frivolous gossip in his grandmother's drawing room in Nairn [a Scottish coastal town]. But it was starkly reinforced a year or two later when, playing truant froma children's party and wandering the shore at dusk, he came to a remote salmon fisher's bothy. Torn between curiosity and fear, since he was trespassing where he had no business to be, he let himself in, and panicked on stumbling across something moving on the bothy floor in the dark. It was something wet but warm; he could hear heavy breathing; suddenly he felt an old man's hairy head pressing against his bear ankle. He was rescued from his terrors by the return of a Gaelic-speaking fisherman, who violently despatched a seal which had been stunned and left for dead by the rest of the bothy crew, and who got the young boy to help him drag the body to the midden. When this gruesome task was done and the bothy cleaned up, the fisherman brewed mugs of tea and talked about the selchies.

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"Killing a selchie, he said, was an unlucky thing to do. His grandfather, however, had earned his living in the old days as a seal hunter; and he showed David Thompson the old man's tobacco pouch made of a seal's paw, telling him how the hair on the skin would sometimes lie smooth and sometimes stand on end, as if it were still alive. He also told a story about another seal hunter who wounded an old seal which escaped. A stranger came to the seal hunter's door and carried him off to a land beneath the sea where he was led to the wounded seal. He was asked to heal the wound by drawing its edges together with his hand. On promising never to maim or kill a seal again, he was returned safely to his own door and rewarded with a purse of fairy gold."

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Although Thompson's family was of the professional class, a childhood accident had harmed his eyesight, causing the boy to be withdrawn from school and sent off to live with his grandmother in a fishing port east of Inverness. There, writes Sanderson,

"he became acutely aware of the social constraints which both bound together and separated his family and their servants, and which divided him from the farm workers, tradesmen and their children amongst whom he spent much of his time, helping with the horses and the harvest on a nearby farm and driving the milk cart on its daily round. Genuine friendships were of course built across the dividing gulf; but still the gulf remained, separating people whose habits and assumptions were often remarkably different from each other. This was particularly true of the inhabitants of the fisherrow, whom townsfolk and farmers in those days generally thought of as almost an alien race.

Seal"Though no doubt Thomson often felt embarrassed, not to say isolated, by these perceptions as an adolescent, the effect on his imagination and ability to empathise with all sorts and conditions of people were to prove an asset later. Folklorists need sensitive antennae if they are to win the trust, and be admitted to the confidences, of those amongst whom they work; and though sadly all too many of the people who figure in The People of the Sea -- fisherman, crofters, ferrymen and folklorists -- are, like David Thomson himself, no longer with us, he is remembered affectionately by the survivors and their families as a man who was always keen to hear stories of the seals and, in the words of Tadgh the South Kerry schoolmaster, to gather up the bits he could about them....

"The rich harvest of folklore in The People of the Sea is fascinating in itself, with its tales of seal maidens and sea views, ancient kings of Ireland and Norway, families who are descended from marriage with seals, melodies learnt from the singing of the seals while fishing in the dangerous waters round the Atlantic cliffs and skerries. But readers will be equally fascinated by David Thompson's vivid recreation of the settings in which this harvest was gathered, of the people who welcomed him to their hearths, of those who gently prompted reminiscences and stories, and of the storytellers own thoughts about the things they told him."

David Thomson's People of the Sea is an old-fashioned book, in all the best ways, and full of the sound, the scent, the magic of sea. I recommend it highly.

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

P1120608

People of the Sea

Words: The passage above is from Stewart Sanderson's Afterward to People of the Sea by David Thomson (Cannongate Classics reprint edition, 1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Jane Yolen's poetry collection The Last Selchie Child (A Midsummer Night's Press, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Last week's post on selkies, in case you missed it, is here.

Pictures: Although we've not far from the north and south coasts of Devon, we haven't been to the sea since the UK's pandemic lockdown began and must make due with fresh water here on Dartmoor. This waterfall at the edge of our hill roars with life during the winter rains, but slows to a trickle at this time of year. It's an beautiful place nonetheless to sit and dream of selkies.


On J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie & Michael Llewelyn Davies

Charles Dickens once stated that Little Red Riding Hood was his first love, and if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. For me, my first love was Peter Pan -- that charming, exasperating rascal of a boy, killer of pirates and intimate of fairies. But in my generation, we first encountered Peter as portrayed by the actress Mary Martin (in a televised version of the stage play Peter Pan), which created a certain gender confusion. Was Peter a boy (or girl) I had a crush on, or the dashing figure that I wanted to be myself? Play-acting the role of Wendy was boring, too much sewing and mothering of Lost Boys;  play-acting Peter was so much better, strutting and scheming and  fighting pirates. I dreamed of flight, and fairy dust, and Indian drums sounding in the woods; and insisted on leaving the bedroom window cracked in case Peter should appear....

Peter's creator, Sir James Matthew Barrie, died on this day in 1937. Today's post is dedicated to Barrie and to Peter, two boys who never grew up.

Captain Hook and Peter by PJ LYnchJ.M. Barrie was already a well-known novelist and playwright when he sat down to write his first and only play for children, which he completed and offered to the theater producer Charles Frohman in the spring of 1904. It was unlike anything that had ever been presented to children on the London stage before, but Frohman loved it -- except for the title, which Barrie obligingly changed from The Great White Father to Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. ("Great White Father" is what Peter is called by Tiger Lily and her companions.) Although it had roots in the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan was a wholly original concoction blending pirate stories, desert island stories, Indian adventures and fairy tales, all wrapped around a satire of family life in Edwardian London. Frohman took an enormous commercial risk in backing a play of over fifty parts and of actors wired to soar above the stage. No one knew if this preposterous play would work, especially its anxious author. On opening night, Barrie was ill with nerves, holding his breath at the critical moment when Peter asks the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. What if no one clapped at all? But the audience responded with such wild applause that the actress playing Peter burst into tears.

Peter Pan by Alice B. Woodward

The opening of the play in December 1904 is now reckoned as the date of Peter's birth, for it marks the emergence of Peter as we know him, sword in hand and Tinker Bell at his side. Yet he really first appeared two years earlier in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird. The novel's narrator is a crusty bachelor who lives close to London's Kensington Gardens, where he meets a small boy and establishes an intense relationship with him. He charms the boy with stories about fairies, and about a run-away baby named Peter Pan who lives among the birds and fairies on an island in the Serpentine Lake.

From JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham 2All babies were once birds, he tells the boy, and they still possess the power of flight. Parents, he warns, must keep their windows shut so that their babies don't fly off at night. Peter Pan is a baby who once heard his mother talk about the life he'd lead when he was grown, prompting him to fly to Kensington Gardens in order to avoid this fate. In the Gardens, he's neither bird nor baby but a creature who is "betwixt and between," glorying in his independence, determined to never grow up. Eventually, however, he tries to go back home, only to find that he's left it much too late. His mother has another baby now, and the nursery windows are firmly locked.

The Little White Bird, like most of Barrie's work, drew inspiration from the author's own life. He too lived close to Kensington Gardens, where he walked with his enormous St. Bernard dog, and where he first became friends with three little boys: George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Barrie held the boys spellbound with tales about magical goings-on in the park at night, when fairies emerged from the hollows of the trees, leaving messages for the boys to find. The first "Peter" in these stories was the real baby Peter, flying off from the Llewelyn Davies nursery to join the fairies' revels at night -- but soon a separate character emerged of the fairy-child Peter Pan, who had once been a human baby, but now lived in the wilds of the park. Barrie was an intensely autobiographical writer, mining his own life for story material to a degree that alternately charmed and exasperated the friends and family members who found themselves rendered into novels and plays. Thus to understand Peter Pan, we must take a closer look at his creator and his complicated relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Baby Peter Flies Over London by Arthur Rackham

Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, James Barrie was the frail, unprepossessing seventh child in a family of ten. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and although the family was far from affluent, they were comfortable, and good educations were provided for the Barrie boys. The eldest son, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honors in Classics; and the next son, David, a brilliant boy, was expected to do even better. James, however, was a dreamy child more interested in games and Penny Dreadfuls (adventure comics) than excelling in academics. David was the acknowledged star of the family -- but when David was thirteen and James was six, David died in a skating accident. Their mother never recovered from this blow, and James spent the rest of his childhood trying to replace the boy she'd lost. He distracted his mother by begging for stories about the Scotland of her childhood (and would later make a good living turning these stories into articles and books). David remained enshrined in memory as the perfect child who never aged or disappointed. "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much," J.M. Barrie wrote many years later.

Yet the years from ages thirteen to eighteen seem to have been the happiest of Barrie's own life, when he left his home and grieving mother to attend Dumfries Academy. Though Dumfries was co-educational, Barrie lived in a masculine world of sports, games, and intense friendships with other boys. He was small and thin, but good at football, cricket, fishing, and other sports, and especially at games of make believe involving pirates, bandits, and other stock characters from the Penny Dreadfuls. These games evolved into a Dramatic Club, establishing Barrie's life long devotion to the theater. He wrote his very first play for the club, a melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit.

J.M. BarrieBarrie knew from quite an early age that he wanted to be a professional writer, but his mother had other plans for him. He was to follow the path that David would have taken to a career in the ministry. Barrie dutifully went off to earn his M.A. at Edinburgh University, where he was miserable. He had been popular among the boys in Dumfries, but at university he was at a loss. He was an odd looking young man, barely five feet tall, and appeared much younger than he was. The women ignored him, and the men embarrassed him with coarse talk about the opposite sex. Barrie retreated into solitude, turning shy and reticent, which were traits he'd retain even when he'd become the most successful writer in Great Britain.

Barrie obliged his parents by completing his degree, but returned home still determined to be a writer, landing a job with the Nottingham Journal and sending submissions off to the London papers. The St. James Gazette began to publish Barrie's stories of Scotland in his mother's day, and with this slim encouragement he moved to London at the age of 24. He went with little money and few contacts, and yet within a very few years Barrie's work was appearing regularly in the top newspapers and journals in the country. He published three books about old Scotland -- Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in Thrums, and The Little Minister -- which turned into surprise best-sellers, elevating him in literary circles and opening society's doors. Barrie's boyhood idol Robert Louis Stevenson proclaimed him to be a writer of genius, and Barrie's circle of friends now included Thomas Hardy, Henry James, William Meredith, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse.

From Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham copy 2

Barrie then turned his hand to writing plays, scoring successes with Ibsen's Ghost and Walker, London. He loved the theater -- and he also loved to flirt with the pretty starlets of the day, although he never went beyond flirting until he met a young woman named Mary Ansell. Mary's career on the stage was undistinguished but she was lively and intelligent, and as the two grew close, the London society papers predicted an engagement. Mary waited while Barrie dithered about her. He worried that he was unsuited to marriage -- as a child he'd even had nightmares about it -- and the notes in his journals from the period show a man who is wracked with doubt. He loved Mary, but did he love her deeply? Was he capable of a steady, adult love? He worried that the answer was no, but hoped that the act of marriage would mature him -- so he proposed to Mary, married her in Scotland, and took her off on a Swiss honeymoon. The honeymoon was not a success, and Mary later referred to it as "a shock." Barrie's biographers suspect (as did many of his friends) that the marriage was never consummated -- for he seems to have been an entirely asexual man, incapable of physical passion. In a journal entry recorded during his honeymoon he makes this note for a scene in a future play:

Wife-Have you given me up? Have nothing to do with me?
Husband calmly kind, no passion & c. (à la self)

When the couple returned to London, Mary busied herself with their new house and dog, while Barrie retreated into his study and got back to work. He produced new stories, new plays, a sentimental biography of his mother -- and then began Tommy and Grizel, considered by many to be his finest novel. It's the tragic story of Tommy, a writer, who is married to his childhood friend Grizel. The marriage is not a happy one, for there's something vital lacking in Tommy -- he cannot love Grizel, or anyone else, in a physical way (or so the text implies without stating his lack of sexuality directly). He's not like other men, Tommy tries to explain, he's really just a boy who has never grown up. Barrie writes, "She knew that, despite all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love. Oh, is it not cruel to ask a boy to love?"

Peter Pan by Scott Gustafson

As Barrie's biographers have remarked, one can only imagine what Mary thought when she read passages like this in print, realizing that anything she said or did might be turned into story material. But if Mary minded, she didn't show it. She carefully, dutifully kept up the public appearance of a perfectly normal marriage. There were compensations. She was wealthy now, and her husband was a celebrated man. If she didn't have his passion, and couldn't have his children, at least she had as much of Barrie's affection and attention as he had to give until, in 1897, she began to lose even that.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies and sonsFor it was in 1897 that Barrie became acquainted with the three little boys in Kensington Gardens: five-year-old George, four-year-old Jack, and baby brother Peter, who came to play in the park each day attended by their nanny. They talked about cricket, pirates, and fairies; he dazzled them by the way he could wiggle his ears; and before long, Barrie was meeting up with boys on a regular basis. He had always found it easier to make friends with children than he did adults. They didn't mind his moods, his long silences; they enjoyed his black humor and quirky stories, and accepted him as an overgrown boy rather than as one of the grown-ups.

On New Year's Eve, the Barries attended an elegant dinner party where Barrie was seated beside the beautiful wife of a young barrister. He soon discovered, to his astonishment, that this was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of his friends George, Jack, and Peter -- while she discovered, with equal amazement, that the mysterious man who could wiggle his ears was the famous author J.M. Barrie.

Sylvia and Michael Llewyln DaviesSylvia was no stranger to fame herself, for her father was George du Maurier, illustrator for Punch magazine and author of the novel Trilby (which introduced Svengali to the world); her brother Gerald was a well-known actor; and her husband Arthur was the son of John Llewelyn Davies, a prominent theologian. Sylvia was charmed by Barrie's enthusiasm for her beloved boys, and invited him to visit them at home -- which he promptly did, reappearing there with increasing regularity.

Soon Barrie was a fixture in Sylvia's household -- to the chagrin of her husband Arthur, who could not fathom why this strange little Scotsman was so constantly underfoot, and of Mary Barrie, disconcerted by this new focus in her husband's life. Neither Arthur nor Mary had cause to believe that Sylvia and Barrie had embarked on an affair (and Mary, especially, knew how impossible this was), but the intensity of Barrie's interest in Sylvia's boys raised more than a few eyebrows. Sylvia, however, found nothing strange in it. Completely in love with her handsome husband, she saw nothing compromising in accepting Barrie's friendship, and nothing odd in his devotion to her darling sons. She pushed Arthur's objections aside, and Arthur learned to hold his tongue, accepting Barrie's presence in their lives with as much stoicism as he could muster. Barrie's wife, for her part, made a point of befriending Sylvia and coped as best she could with the awkward fact that her husband was engrossed in the lives of another woman's children.

The question inevitably rises in relation to Barrie's involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys whether he was a pedophile, or had repressed pedophilic tendencies. Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest of the boys, when asked about this after Barrie's death, dismissed the idea categorically. "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone -- man, woman, or child," said Nico. "He was an innocent -- which is why he could write Peter Pan." Writer Andrew Birkin, who spent three years researching Barrie's life for his BBC television program The Lost Boys, interviewed many who had known J.M. Barrie and conducted an extensive correspondence with Nico. Nothing he read or heard indicated that Barrie had a sexual interest in the boys. "Barrie was impotent, it's fairly clear," says Birkin (on the DVD edition of his program). "That was the tragedy of his life. Had he not been impotent, I think he would have been a womanizer — he was always falling in love with his leading ladies over the stage lights. The suggestion that he was somehow pedophilic with these boys doesn't really stand up to close examination."

George  John  and Peter Llewyn Davies

In 1900, Sylvia gave birth to Michael, who would grow to be Barrie's favorite of her sons — but for now it was still George, the eldest, who was the child closest to his heart. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird (1902) is transparently based upon his relationship with George. Captain W., the novel's protagonist, meets a charming little boy in Kensington Gardens, and he sets out to win the affections of both the boy and his beautiful mother.

Barrie and his dog PorthosLike much of Barrie's fiction, the novel is too sentimental to suite most modern tastes (though saved by the delicious bite of Barrie's humor), and the intensity of the narrator's obsession with the boy makes for uncomfortable reading in our less innocent age. But this tribute to children and childhood was exactly suited to the temper of its day. "To speak in sober earnest," proclaimed the London Times, "this is one of the best things that Barrie has written….If a book exists that contains more knowledge and more love of children, we do not know it." George was proud of inspiring the novel (even though it earned him teasing from his school fellows), and Sylvia loved it. What Arthur and Mary felt about the book is not recorded.

In 1903, Sylvia became pregnant with Nicholas (called Nico), her fifth and final child. The day before Nico's birth, Barrie started work on Peter Pan. Unlike baby Peter in The Little White Bird, this Peter would be an older boy who lived in distant Never Land (called Neverland or Never-never Land in some editions), where he'd have the adventures that Barrie had so often play-acted with Sylvia's children. Barrie set the first scene in the Darling house on a shabby street in Bloomsbury -- "but you may dump it down anywhere you like," he wrote, "and if you think it was your house, you are very probably right." The beautiful Mrs. Darling was modeled on Sylvia, and the perfidious Mr. Darling, rather unfairly, on Arthur. Barrie later explained to the Llewelyn Davies boys that Peter was made "by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce flame. That it is all he is, the spark I got from you."

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Other sparks came from Scottish fairy stories -- which Barrie would have heard or read in his youth, particularly as he was a fan of the writer and folklore enthusiast Sir Walter Scott. The fairy stories that he drew upon, however, weren't sugar-sweet Victorian confections about tiny butterfly-winged sprites, but older, darker stories about the dangerous fairies of the Scottish folk tradition. In these tales, seductive, heartless fairies lure children into the fairy realm, an enchanted world that lies at the heart of the woods, or underneath the Scottish hills. Time passes differently in that realm. A single night spent with the fairies might be a hundred years in human time -- so when the children go back home again, their parents are dead and gone.

Peter Pan by Michael HagueIn changeling tales, the fairies snatch infants and pretty children from their beds, whisking them off to fairyland as pampered pets, companions, or slaves. Sometimes a fairy is left behind, glamored to look like the stolen child: a bad-tempered, sickly, hungry creature who is a plague to the human parents. The lost children in changeling tales don't always find their way back home. Sometimes they stay under the hills, losing all memory of the mortal world -- just as John and Michael Darling forget their parents while living in Never Land.

Barrie's Peter Pan is human-born, not a fairy, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a fairy as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral, like the fairies of the old Scots tradition. He's a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them; both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. He is a classic trickster character -- kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of fairy lore. He's a liminal creature, standing on the threshold between fairy and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan and Captain Hook by Michael Hague

Peter's last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy.

Peter playing the pipes by Michael HagueIn the ancient writings of Servius we find this detailed description: Pan is "formed in the likeness of nature with horns to resemble the rays of the sun and the horns of the moon; his face is ruddy in the imitation of ether; he wears a spotted fawn skin resembling the stars in the sky; his lower limbs are hairy because of the trees and the wild beasts; he has the feet of a goat to resemble the stability of the earth; his pipe has seven reeds in accordance with the harmony of heaven; his pastoral staff bears a crook in reference to the pastoral year which curves back on itself; and finally he is the god of all nature." Pan's young namesake does not have goat legs or horns, but he does ride on the back of a goat, and he plays the pan-pipes, an instrument Pan invented from hollow reeds.

Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he's quick to anger if he's disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs -- but these "Lost Boys" are a wilder crew than Peter's, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or "panic"). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god -- and here the comparison must end, for Peter's wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it's sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he's specifically determined to avoid. ("You mustn't touch me. No one must ever touch me," Peter tells Wendy.)

Wendy by Scott Gustafson

Barrie added three girls to Peter's story (over the Llewelyn Davies boys' initial objection): Wendy Darling, the fairy Tinker Bell, and the Indian princess Tiger Lily. "Wendy" was a nonexistent name at the time. It came from a child named Margaret Henley who referred to Barrie as her "friendy" -- but she couldn't pronounce her "f"s and "r"s, and so the word came out as "Wendy". (Due entirely to Barrie's play, Wendy soon became a popular name for little girls.) Tinker Bell was originally called Tippy in the earliest drafts of the play, and Tiger Lily's tribe is called the Piccaninnies -- a name mercifully left out of modern renditions. (Barrie's Indians are fantasy Indians, "savages" imagined by Edwardian children, and have as much to do with actual Indians as Nanna the dog has to do with actual nannies.)

Captain Hook comes directly from the make-believe games that Barrie played with George and his brothers, as well as from the pirates in the Penny Dreadfuls that Barrie loved as a child. Hook was first portrayed on the London stage by Gerald du Maurier (Sylvia's brother), who brought such menace to the role that children were carried screaming from the stalls. "How he was hated," recalled his daughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, "with his flourish, his poses, his dreaded diabolical smile! That ashen face, those blood-red lips, the long, dank, greasy curls; the sardonic laugh, the maniacal scream, the appalling courtesy of his gestures." Hook's villainy was never entirely played for laughs -- he was allowed to be a truly menacing figure, saving the role from pure camp and adding gravity to Peter's story.

Captain Hook and the Crocodile by David Wyatt

While Barrie was busy with the enormous task of making this extravagant fantasia work on stage, Arthur Llewelyn Davies made a sudden move and relocated his family to Berhamsted, twenty-five miles away from London. Barrie still came to visit them, but he could no longer be a daily presence. Instead, he wrote wistful letters to the boys as he hovered anxiously around the theater, watching his actors learn to fly and Peter Pan come to life. Peter himself was played by a young starlet (Nina Boucicault in the first London production, Maude Adams in New York) -- largely because of labor laws preventing child actors from working after 9 pm, but also because of the British pantomime tradition in which the Principal Boy was always played by a girl. Great secrecy surrounded the Peter Pan rehearsals, which of course made the press and the public all the more eager to learn what Barrie had up his sleeve. 

On opening night (December 27, 1904), Sylvia and the boys came into town to accompany the nervous author to the theater. Back in New York, producer Charles Frohman waited to learn if he had a hit or a disaster. Finally a cable came. Peter Pan was an overwhelming success. The critics were charmed, and (more importantly to Barrie) an audience full of children had been enthralled. So many little children were injured, however, by going home and jumping from the furniture that he hastily rewrote the opening scene to explain that fairy dust was required to fly.

The announcement of the first performance of Peter Pan

With this new success, Barrie was busier than ever. He visited Sylvia and the boys as often as his schedule would allow -- but the family was happily settled in Berkhamsted, and Barrie was busy back in London with new stories, new plays, and a variety of political and charitable causes.

Then, in 1906, disaster struck. Arthur was diagnosed with cancer, requiring an operation that would remove half of his jaw and palate. Barrie was immediately at his side, dropping everything to put himself at Arthur's assistance, as well as quietly picking up the cost of his expensive medical treatment. When the operation was completed, Arthur's face was a ruin and he could barely speak. Barrie remained posted at his bedside -- nursing him, reading to him, conversing with him (as Arthur slowly communicated by writing). Arthur found Barrie kinder and wiser than he expected, and the relationship between the two men changed. When Arthur came home from the hospital, Barrie was a welcome (and necessary) presence in the household. The two families spent their summer holidays together, and everyone insisted that Arthur was getting better, but by autumn the tumor had spread, and by the following spring, Arthur was dead.

The Lost Boys by Trina Schart HymanArthur left little money behind, so now Barrie took over the family's support. He had earned a small fortune from Peter Pan and insisted it was theirs as much as his. Sylvia brought the family back to London, to a house near Barrie and Kensington Gardens. "And here, I think, Sylvia did succeed, gradually, in regaining something of the zest for life," wrote Peter Llewelyn Davies, years later, about his mother. "The boys were a fond amusement and distraction for her, relatives came frequently, and the dog-like J.M.B. still living at Leinster Corner and in constant attendance… Everything must have been done, by all who had the care of us and above all by Sylvia herself, to shut out the imp of sorrow and self-pity from our young lives."

From Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Daily life went on. Barrie continued to write, and Peter Pan continued to cast its spell, becoming the most famous of Barrie's works. The tale of Peter Pan as a baby, originally published in The Little White Bird, was now available in a separate children's book edition, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The script of the play was published under the title Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story of the play in a book titled Peter and Wendy. He ended this volume with a brand new scene in which Peter comes back to Wendy's window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy's daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself where her mother can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Flying Above London by Scott Gustafson

Meanwhile, Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family took its inevitable toll on his marriage, and he learned that his wife was having an affair with a young writer named Gilbert Cannan. He begged Mary to break it off, but this she had no intention of doing. Cannon had pledged to marry her, and she wanted a divorce. Barrie disappeared to Switzerland while the scandal raged in the London papers, then returned to London in October for the ordeal of the divorce proceedings. Two days after the case was over, Sylvia collapsed at home. Now she, too, was diagnosed with cancer, in a form impossible to treat. As was the practice of the time, she was not allowed to know how ill she was, though as the illness went on and on and on, she suspected that she was dying. She remained in bed until the following spring, seemed to be improve a little in the summer, and insisted on taking her sons on a fishing holiday to Devon. While the boys fished, she grew weaker and weaker. The children were not told she was dying. She passed away on August 27th, with her mother and Barrie in the room, and Barrie was left to break the news to the boys as they returned from the river.

Barrie now assumed all responsibility for the boys. The elder three were at Eton by this time, where their school fees had long been paid by Barrie, but Michael and Nico remained at home supervised by their nanny, Mary Hodgson, with Barrie living close by. Barrie was now an extremely wealthy man and he lavished money on his young wards -- on clothes, books, sports equipment, and extravagant summer holidays; nothing was too good for them that might the ease the grief of losing their parents. Michael was the most like Barrie of all the boys -- a dreamy, fey, creative child, and Michael was as excessively attached to Barrie as Barrie was to him. At Eton, Michael wrote to Barrie every day. There were more than two thousand letters between them -- most of them later burned by Peter (the family archivist), who was embarrassed by their sentimentality.

Arthur Rackham  from JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Barrie's literary star continued to rise, and he was awarded a baronetcy in 1913 in recognition of his status as one of the best loved authors in Britain. George started university that year, where he remained on close terms with his guardian, but Jack, who was in the Navy now, and more independent than his brothers, resented the dominant role that Barrie had taken in their lives. The following year, Barrie took all of the boys except Jack to Scotland for a fishing holiday (Jack was on a ship in the North Atlantic), and it was there that they learned the news that England was now at war with Germany. George and Peter, like so many young men, immediately signed up to defend their country, and by December George's battalion was posted to the Western Front. With The Little White Bird packed in his kit-bag, he departed for the trenches of France, sending fond and cheerful letters back to Barrie and urging him not to worry. In March, George sent a letter from the Front saying, "Keep your heart up, Uncle Jim, & remember how good an experience this is for a chap who's been very idle before. Lord, I shall be proud when I'm home again, & talking to you about all this. That old dinner at the Savoy will be pretty grand…." By the time the letter reached London, George Llewelyn Davies had been shot and killed.

Captain Hook & Peter by Scott Gustavson"I have lost all sense I ever had of war being glorious," Barrie wrote in one of his last letters to George, "it is just unspeakably monstrous to me now." Sylvia's brother Gerald (the original Captain Hook) also died that year in the mud of France; and Charles Frohman drowned shortly thereafter in the sinking of the Lusitania. Barrie despaired, fearing the war would swallow everything and everyone he loved -- but peace was declared before Michael came of age, and Jack and Peter came safely home. Peter never fully recovered from horrors he witnessed at the Front; he struggled with depression for the rest of his life, and died by suicide many years later. For now, however, life went on. Jack married a girl he'd met while stationed in Scotland. Nico, the youngest, left home for Eton. Michael started at Oxford University, where he cut a dazzling figure. His close friend (and probable lover) Roger Stenhouse introduced him into Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury set, where Strachey pronounced him "the only young man at Oxford or Cambridge with real brains." Michael was handsome, brilliant, a gifted writer, and seemed to have the world before him. And just before his twenty-first birthday, he drowned in a boating accident.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David WyattLike his mother, undone by the death of her son David, Barrie never fully recovered from Michael's loss, particularly since it came on the heels of losing Arthur, Sylvia, George, Gerald du Maurier, and Charles Frohman. He aged visibly, and for a long while barely had the will to go on living. But go on he did, supported by his affection for his three remaining "Lost Boys," and eventually for their children too -- a brand new audience to charm with stories of pirates, Indians, and fairies. He continued to write, to socialize, to travel, to stay active in charitable and political causes, until he died in 1937, with Peter and Nico at his bedside. "To die will be an awfully big adventure," Barrie once wrote in the voice of Peter Pan. In his will, he left the Peter Pan royalties to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

When Barrie commissioned the Peter Pan stature by Sir George Frampton that stands in Kensington Gardens to this day, he hoped it would allow Peter to be remembered long after his play was forgotten. But one hundred years later, Peter is just as popular as ever, and there are few children who don't know his story -- through picture books, or the Disney animation and other films, if not directly from Barrie's play or the pages of Peter and Wendy.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens by Sir George FramptonPeter's story has inspired several works of fiction for both children and adults (see the Further Reading list below), and Barrie's life has inspired two dramatic productions: the excellent BBC television series The Lost Boys, and the film Finding Neverland.

Finding Neverland is a charming but heavily fictionalized concoction, playing fast-and-loose with the facts of Barrie's life in order to tell a simpler, more romantic story. Here, Arthur is conveniently dead before Barrie meets Sylvia, and Sylvia's mother is turned into a villain, attempting to keep Barrie and Sylvia apart. The boys are reduced from five in number to four, and are portrayed as older when they first meet Barrie. (In real life, Peter was just a baby.) In the film, it's Peter (not the eldest, George) who is portrayed as Barrie's special friend; and Peter again (not the middle boy, Michael) who shares Barrie's dreamy temperament and interest in writing. The biggest change is that handsome, charismatic Johnny Depp plays the part of the Scottish playwright, depicting him as a gentle, fey dreamer, rather than the odd little sharp-edged man that he actually was. But the movie has moments of magic, the period sets and costumes are lovely, and overall it is worth seeing, provided it's taken with many grains of salt.

Peter Pan by Charles VessAndrew Birkin's television series The Lost Boys, on the other hand, is specifically based on the known facts of J.M. Barrie's life, drawn from a vast array of surviving journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with those had known James Barrie. The last of the Lost Boys, Nico Llewelyn Davies, read and advised on Birkin's script -- and when the final production was broadcast, Llewelyn Davies phoned up Birkin in tears, "undone," he said, by the way actor Ian Holm had turned into his Uncle Jim. (The series is available on DVD, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Birkin's web site, where he generously makes a treasure trove of Barrie material -- journals, letters, story notes, photographs, etc. -- freely available to fans and scholars.)

James M. Barrie was a boy who couldn't grow up, and out of this conundrum he gave us Peter, the boy who wouldn't grow up -- a character so vivid, so universal, and so emotionally true that he seems to belong to folklore now, not to one author's imagination. One hundred years later, children still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they'll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to turn from children into grown-ups.

Some years ago I knew a little boy who referred to adults, like me, as human beings. "Aren't you a human being too?" I asked.

With a look of scorn for the stupidity of my question, he answered, "I'm not a human, I'm a child."

When I pointed out that one day he would grow up to be a human too, he shook his head and insisted, "No. I'm going to stay a boy."

J.M. Barrie would have perfectly understood the desire to stay a child forever -- and advised him to keep his window open, so that Peter Pan could find him.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David Wyatt

Credits: The art comes from a variety of sources and is credited in the pictures captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see the captions.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and author.

Some further reading, nonfiction: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin (Yale University Press reprint, 2003), J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image by Janet Dunbar (Collins, 1970), The Peter Pan Chronicles by Bruce K. Hanson (Carol Publishing, 1993), "The Boy Who Couldn't Grow Up: James Barrie" by Alison Lurie (in Don't Tell the Grown-ups, Back Bay Books reprint, 1998), Barrie: The Story of J.M.B. by Denis Mackail (Ayer Co. reprint, 1977), Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M. Barrie, edited by Bold & Nash (Scottish Literature International, 2014). and Letters of James M. Barrie by Viola Meynell (Norwood Editions, 1942).

Some further reading, fiction: Peter Pan & the Only Children by Gilbert Adair (Dutton, 1988), Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry (Disney Editions, 2004), The Lost Girls by Laurie Fox (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Second Star to the Right by Mary Alice Kruesi (Avon, 1999), Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press, 2007), After the Rain by J. Emily Somma (Daisy Books, 2003), and Wendy by Karen Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 2004).


The myths we make, the stories we tell

Bluebells 1

In her early memoir Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton (1912-1995) recounted the experience of buying and renovating a late-18th century house in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire, where she crafted a life dedicated to poetry, nature, and solitude. At a time when selfless commitment to marriage and family was still the standard measure of a woman's virtue, Plant Dreaming Deep celebrated the pleasures of independence, self-reliance, and living alone. 

Its author, mind you, was not a hermit. Sarton's days were amply stocked with friendship, romance, travel, adventure, and the international web of connection arising from a long literary career. She spent time with lovers and friends in Boston, she taught, she travelled around the country giving readings...but she did her best work in solitude, and work was her priority.

Bluebells 2

A woman living alone and unmarried by choice, privileging her writing over other social bonds, was rare enough when Plant Dreaming Deep was published in 1968 that the book caused something of a stir. "Sarton chose the way of solitude with all its costs," wrote feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun (in an essay published in 1982), "and heartened others with the news that this adventure, this terrible daring, might be endured."

This was a message that many in Sarton's generation hungered for and Plant Dreaming Deep was a popular success, appealing particularly to women who had given up their own creative work after marriage and children, and who had little solitude themselves. They romanticized the life she led, imagining a tranquil idyll of poetry and music and flowers from the garden -- not the hard labor and professional ups and downs of life as a working writer.

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Sarton herself came to feel that she'd painted too rosy a picture of her sojourn in the country -- and so her next memoir, The Journal of Solitude, aimed to set the record straight. In this volume she recorded her doubts, her creative struggles, her professional frustrations, her poignant loneliness. The woman who emerges from this text is prickly, moody and exasperating, compared to the narrator of Plant Dreaming Deep, but also thoroughly human. Sarton's rigorous honesty throughout the book is astonishing, brave, and unsettling.

Bluebells 4

I recently dipped into these two volumes again, re-reading Sarton's reflections on solitude in light of the global pandemic that has isolated so many. Like Sarton, I have a taste for solitude, so days of semi-isolation are easier on me than on those of a more extroverted stamp -- but solitude chosen freely is a different beast than solitude imposed by crisis. My temperament is generally steady, and yet I, too, have been strangely moody of late. My heart soars as spring unfolds around me, plunges with the horror of the daily news, rises in my peaceful studio, and falls again as the world crowds in. Each day I ground myself in work, finding strength and purpose in language and paint; each night that ground crumbles underfoot as worry and fear move through my dreams.

In Plant Dreaming Deep and Journal of Solitude, Sarton acknowledges both aspects of self-isolation: the deep pleasure and concomitant pain of retreating from the wider world. It's the mixture of the two that makes this time, for me, feel so surreal.

Bluebells 5

Plant Dreaming Deep

In Plant Dreaming Deep, Sarton reflects on the difference between an "isolated" and "quiet" life, in words that echo my initial experience of the current lock-down:

"In that first week [in the farmhouse] I felt I was running all the time. There were hundreds of things I had in mind to do, things about the house, things about the garden, besides the spate of poems that had been pushing their way out. But I imagined that, as time went on, this state of affairs would calm down and I myself would calm down, to lead the meditative life, the life of a Chinese philospher, that my friends quite naturally imagine I must lead here, way all alone in a tiny village, with few interruptions and almost no responsibilities.

"But in all the eight years I have lived here, it has not yet become a quiet life. It is a life lived at a high pitch. One of the facts about solitude is that one becomes as alert as an animal to every change of mood in the skies, and to every sound. The thud of the first apple falling never fails to startle the wits out of me; there has been no sound like it for a year....The intense silence magnifies the slightest creak or whisper.

"But more than any such purely physical reasons for staying on the qui vive, there are inner reasons for being highly tuned up when one lives alone. The alertness is also there toward the inner world, which is always close to the surface for me when I am here, so it may be a mouse in the wainscot that keeps me awake, but it may just as well be a half-formed idea. The climate of poetry is also the climate of anxiety. And if I inhabit the house, it also inhabits me, and sometimes I feel as if I myself were becoming an intersection for almost too many currents of too intense a nature."

Bluebells 6

In Journal of Solitude, she speaks of the darker side of seclusion: the fears that arise, and the courage required to overcome them and keep on making art:

"I have said elsewhere that we have to make myths of our lives, the point being that if we do, then every grief or inexplicable seizure by weather, woe, or work can -- if we discipline ourselves and think hard enough -- be turned into account, be made to yield further insight into what it is to be alive, to be a human being, what the hazards are of a fairly usual, everyday kind. We go up to Heaven and down to Hell a dozen times a day -- at least I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. It literally keeps one from falling on one's face....

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth."

Journal of Solitude

By acknowledging both sides of solitude, Sarton helps me understand why my experience of pandemic self-isolation varies so widely from day to day, or even hour to hour. The joy I feel as the world slows down, and the deep anxiety that this produces, are just two sides of the same coin.

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Knowing this, I'll continue to value the quiet hours the lock-down gives me -- and make my peace with the fretful, fearful dreams that are part of it too. 

Make a myth of your life, says Sarton. Learn what hardship has to teach you, and use in your art.

 I am making myths, and telling stories, and trying to do just that.

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Words: The quotes above are from May Sarton's Journal of Solitude (W.W. Norton, 1973). The poem in the picture caption is from Sarton's Letters from Maine (W.W. Norton, 1984). All rights reserved by the authors estate. Pictures: The bliss of bluebells.


Jane Yolen: The Everyday-ness of Writing

Jane Yolen

In anticipation of International Women's Day (coming up on Sunday), here's a third post on the theme of women in myth and folklore. This time I've focused on one of our greatest writers of contemporary mythic fiction....

For many years Jane Yolen's friends have theorized that she is the possessor of a magical stop-watch: an eldritch device formed of spells and runes with which she can stop the motion of time. One click of the watch and the world comes to a stop; we all stand frozen between one breath and the next; all of us, that is, except for Jane, the Master of the Watch, creating secret hours in pockets of time that seem like mere minutes to us. How else, friends ask, is it humanly possible that Jane gets so much done?

Once Upon a Time by Jane YolenShe has published close to four hundred books. She has edited, inspired or supported the publication of many more. She has written for comics and animation. She had a book turned into a Showtime film. She teaches and lectures. She sings ballads, tells stories, and is an authority on folklore and fairy tales. She's won the Caldecott Medal, two Christopher Medals, the Regina Medal, the Kerlan Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Golden Kite Award, the Skylark Award, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, among numerous other honors. She was on the Board of Directors for the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, president of S.F.W.A. for two years, and a founding member of the Western New England Storytellers Guild, the Western Massachusetts Illustrators Guild, and the Bay State Writers Guild. She has a BA from Smith College, an MA from the University of Massachusetts, and six honorary doctorate degrees. She's the mother of three, grandmother of six, and good friend to more than I can possibly count. She lives in two countries, and her books are known the world over. She writes (and shares) a poem every day. So if she doesn't possess a magical stop-watch, then how on earth does she do it?

Sister Light Sister Dark by Jane YolenHaving known Jane for over thirty years now, I know the real answer to that question. She works, and she works, and she keeps on working. Steadily and hard, but also with joy. "I love writing," she says simply. "There are a lot of writers who hate writing. They love having written, but they hate writing. They feel like they’re bleeding onto the page, and I think that’s an awfully messy way to write."

For Jane, writing is both Art and Craft -- and the craft is built on discipline, practice, and a quality she calls everyday-ness:

"Just as I do my morning exercises to get these old bones moving, I write every day. Every single day. Sometimes it's a chapter, sometimes it's a poem. Sometimes I make lists of things: nouns, verse to revise, ideas for new books, suggestions for stories with my children... Even if I am ill, traveling, caring for a sick husband, running around a convention, walking the Royal Mile -- even then I will manage to write something. Because being a writer means that kind of commitment. It doesn't have to be something for publication (though what does get published is almost always a surprise). It is something to get the brain, the heart, the imagination, and the fingers coordinated, working together. Not strangers but a good team."

Snow in Summer by Jane YolenBorn in 1939, Jane grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her father worked as a journalist, writing columns for the New York newspapers, and her mother (a former social worker) wrote short stories, crossword puzzles and acrostics. "Since both my parents were writers," she says, "I assumed all adults were writers, no matter what other jobs they held." Her parents were also great readers, passing their love of books to Jane and her younger brother, Steven. "I loved the Andrew Lang fairy books," she recalls. "I loved anything Louisa May Alcott wrote. I loved anything Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. I read every horse and dog book that ever existed, every book about King Arthur that ever existed. I love Charlotte's Web, The Wind in the Willows, The Back of the North Wind, The Secret Garden, Make Way for Ducklings, Ferdinand...the list goes on and on and on."

Jane started writing at a very young age, but she had other creative interests too: she loved to sing, and she studied dance at Balanchine's School of American Ballet. In her 13th summer, her family moved out of the city to Westport, Connecticut. Jane attended junior and senior high school there, then went on to study literature at Smith Collage in Massachusetts. Upon graduation, she returned to New York intending to be a journalist and poet. She soon discovered that journalism didn't suit her, and and turned to editing instead, working her way up from editorial assistant at Gold Medal Books to associate editor at Rutledge (a children's book packager), to Assistant Editor of Children's Books at Knopf.

Owl Moon by Jane YolenMeanwhile, she tried her hand at writing children's books herself (publishing her first at the age of 22), while also participating in the vivid folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s.  She lost her heart to David Stemple (a pioneer of the computer science field), married him, sold five more children's books, then left Knopf so that she and David could spend a year traveling in Europe. She was pregnant when they came home again, so they settled in an old farmhouse in Massachusetts. Three children followed (Heidi, Adam, and Jason, all of them now writers themselves), and a steady output of books as astonishing for its quality as its quantity.

Jane writes for both children and adults, moving fluidly between genres and literary forms -- but what ties her work together, as one reviewer has noted, is that "all Yolen's stories and poems are somehow rooted in her sense of family and self. The Emperor and the Kite, which was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1983 for its intricate papercut illustrations by Ed Young, was based on Yolen’s relationship with her late father, who was an international kite-flying champion. Owl Moon, winner of the 1988 Caldecott Medal for John Schoenherr’s exquisite watercolors, was inspired by her husband’s interest in birding."

Favorite Folktales by Jane YolenHer passion for folklore and fairy tales is another thread woven throughout her work. In the role of teacher and scholar of children's literature, she eloquently championed the value of traditional tales during years when many teachers, librarians and editors were hostile to such stories. "One of basic functions of myth and folk literature is to provide a landscape of allusion," Jane pointed out. "With the first story a child hears, he or she takes a step toward perceiving a new environment, one that is filled with quests and questers, fated heroes and fetid monsters, intrepid heroines and intrepid helpers, even incompentent oafs who achieve competence and wholeness by going out and trying. As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes more fully populated with memorable characters. These are the same folk that the child will meet again and again, threading their archetypal ways through the cultural history of our planet. "

Touch Magic by Jane YolenShe also argued for the value of fantasy in the days when that genre, too, was considered suspect by the same brigade of realism-only educators. "In fantasy stories we learn to understand the differences of others, " Jane noted; "we learn compassion for those things we cannot fathom, we learn the importance of keeping our sense of wonder. The strange worlds that exist in the pages of fantastic literature teach us a tolerance of other people and places and engender an openness toward new experience. Fantasy puts the world into perspective in a way that 'realistic' literature rarely does. It is not so much an escape from the here-and-now as an expansion of each reader's horizons....A child who can love the oddities of a fantasy book cannot possibly be xenophobic as an adult. What is a different color, a different culture, a different tongue for a child who has already mastered Elvish, respected Puddleglums, or fallen under the spell of dark-skinned Ged?"

When Jane first crossed the line between children's books and adult fantasy (with her Mythopoeic-Award-winning novel The Cards of Grief in 1985), there was no recognized field of Young Adult Fantasy as we know it today. That is not to say that such books didn't exist. They did. They were generally published as children's books (in hardcover editions), or slipped into adult science fiction lists (in paperback) -- for in those distant, pre-Harry-Potter days publishers still did not believe that YA Fantasy could sell enough to be a genre of its own. Jane was one of the writers who refused to accept that the line beween stories for children and stories for adults was quite as impassable as popularly believed, or that stories with teen protagonists could only be read by teens. By crossing that line, by trodding it into dust, she helped to create a space for the Young Adult Fantasy writers who followed after, from J.K. Rowling to Holly Black to William Alexander.

Briar RoseWhen it comes to her role as folklorist and re-teller of fairy tales, so influential has this been to a whole generation of writers and scholars that it is no overstatement to say that the modern resurgence of fairy tale literature rests upon her ground-breaking work as much as it rest on Angela Carter's or Tanith Lee's. Jane's novel Briar Rose is a classic of the form; her folklore compilations are essential reading for scholars in the field; and her essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood is as vital today as it was when the book was first published the early Eighties. Jane has been called the "Hans Christian Andersen of America" by Newsweek and the "modern equivalent of Aesop" by The New York Times...yet she has also had her books censored, denounced, and burned. Perhaps this, too, is proof of their power, for if they were trivial, people wouldn't fear them. They are not. They are deep and true.

I'll end with one more quote from Jane that gets right to heart of the Art and Craft that she has been practicing for all these years:

"I believe that culture begins in the cradle," she says. "Literature is continuous process from childhood onward, not a body of work spring full-blown from the heads of adults who never read or were read to as children. Further, I believe that that the continuum of literature is best maintained by those tales of fantasy, fancy, faerie, and the supra-natural, those crafted visions and bits and pieces of dream-remembering that link our past and our future. To do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity's past, is to have no star map for our future."

Jane and Tilly

The last photograph: Jane and Tilly here at Bumblehill. To learn more about Jane and her books, please visit her website. Related posts (with quotes on folklore, fantasy, and writing from Jame)Stories lean on stories, The eye and the ear are different listeners, On a misty morning in the Devon hills, Tough magic, Words that matter, and Magic at daybreak.


On Hans Christian Andersen

Anastasia Arkhipova

It's commonly supposed that all fairy tales are stories from the folk tradition, passed through the generations by storytellers since the dawn of time. While it's true that most fairy tales are rooted in oral folklore, to a greater or lesser degree, many of the best-known stories actually come to us from literary sources. In a previous post, we looked at the literary fairy tales of 16th century Italy (written by Straparola and Basile) and the salon fairy tales of 17th and 18th century France (by Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, etc.). In this one, we turn to 19th century Denmark, where Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) penned some of the best loved fairy tales of all time: The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Nightingale, The Tinder Box, The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Red Shoes, The Fir Tree, The Snow Queen (his masterpiece), and many others.

Hans Christian Andersen's own life had aspects of a fairy tale, for he was born the son of a poor cobbler and he died a rich and famous man, celebrated around the world, the intimate of kings and queens. Although today Andersen is primarily known as a writer of stories for children, during his lifetime he was also celebrated for his other literary works, including six novels, five travel journals, three memoirs, and numerous poems and plays. The modern image of Andersen (as portrayed in the sugary 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye) is of a simple, innocent, child-like spinner of tales, a character from one of his own stories. Letters and diaries by Andersen and his contemporaries, however, draw the picture of a very different man: a sharply intelligent, ambitious writer with a hardscrabble past, a love of high society, and a tortured soul. Likewise, Andersen's fairy tales, when read in the original Danish (or in good, unabridged translations), are far more sophisticated and multi-layered than the simple children's fables they've become in all too many translated editions, retellings, and media adaptations. The writer was no innocent naïf recounting fancies whispered by the fairies; he was a serious artist, a skillful literary craftsman, a shrewd observer of human nature and of the social scene of 19th century Denmark.

Storyteller

Reading Andersen's prose after growing up with abridged and altered versions of his stories can be a surprising experience -- much like reading J.M. Barrie's sly, subversive Peter Pan in the original. Both Andersen and Barrie wrote children's stories into which they carefully, skillfully embedded comedy, social critique, satire, and philosophy aimed at adult readers. Andersen pioneered this style, and writers like Barrie are indebted to him, as are numerous children's writers today — including Jane Yolen, Roald Dahl, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling -- whose works are beloved by adult readers. "I seize on an idea for grown-ups," Andersen explained, "and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds." His fairy tales can be read simply as magical adventures, but for the discerning reader they contain much more, bristling with characters drawn from Andersen's own life and from the many worlds he traveled through in his remarkable life's journey.

Hans Christian AndersenLike the Ugly Duckling, born in a humble duck-yard yet destined to become a swan, Andersen was born the son of a poor cobbler in the city of Odense, where the family shared a single room and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. There was always food, but never quite enough; there were books on the shelf, but no money for grammar school. Andersen was sent to the Poor School instead, and expected to learn a trade.

Tall and gawky, ill at ease with other children, the boy spent his time reading, dreaming, sewing costumes out of scraps for his puppet theater, and haunting the doorway of the city's theater when traveling players came to town. Odense, at that time, was a provincial city still rooted in its rural past, with a living tradition of Danish folklore and colorful folk pageantry. In The True Story of My Life, Andersen relates how he learned Danish folk tales in his youth from old women in the spinning room of the insane asylum where his grandmother worked. "They considered me a marvelous clever child," he recalls, "too clever to live long, and they rewarded my eloquence by telling me fairy tales, and a world as rich as that of The Thousand and One Nights arose before me." The Arabian tales of The Thousand and One Nights also fired the boy's imagination, for this was one of the few precious books owned by Andersen's father.

Andersen began writing at an early age (an unusual preoccupation for a boy of his class), but his true ambition was to go on the stage as an actor, dancer, or singer. He memorized scenes from plays and poems and loved to declaim them to anyone who'd listen; he also possessed a fine singing voice (he was know as the Nightingale of Odense), and this talent in particular began to open doors for him. The boy received invitations to sing at dinner parties in rich men's houses, where his precociousness, combined with his shabby appearance, provoked as much amusement as admiration. This was Andersen's first taste of superior society (as it was called in those days of rigid class demarcation), a taste that he never lost as he subsequently climbed into Denmark's highest circles.

The Snow Queen by PJ Lynch

When Andersen was 11, his father died, leaving the family more destitute than ever, and the boy was sent off to factory work, at which he lasted only a few days. In 1819, at the age of 14, he left home and Odense altogether, traveling alone to Copenhagen to make his fame and fortune. Determined to join the Royal Theater, he presented himself to the theater's director, who bluntly advised the uneducated youth to go home and learn a trade. Undaunted, the boy sought out a well-known critic, then the city's prima ballerina, both of whom turned the scruffy urchin out and told him to go home. Growing desperate, running out of money, Andersen pestered every luminary he could think of until he turned up on the doorstep of Giuseppe Siboni, director of the Royal Choir School. Christoph Weyse, an accomplished composer, happened to be dining with Siboni that day. He had risen from poverty himself, and he took pity on the boy. Weyse promptly raised a sum of money that enabled Andersen to rent a cheap room and to study with Siboni and others connected to the Royal Theater.

The Little Mermaid by Edmund DulacThus began a new period in Andersen's life. By day he studied and loitered in the theater, rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous men and women of Denmark's Golden Age; by night he lived in a mean little room in one of the city's most squalid neighborhoods, often going without meals and spending what little money he had on books. As in Odense, the boy was called upon to sing and recite at distinguished dinner parties -- and once again the smiles of his hosts were often at his own expense. The aid he received for the next three years was sporadic and precarious, never quite enough to keep hunger from the door, bestowed with a mixture of generosity and condescension that left lasting marks on Andersen's psyche. (He would draw upon this experience years later when creating tales such as The Little Mermaid, in which the heroine submits to loss and pain in order to cross into another world -- only to find she'll never be fully accepted, loved, or understood.)

Yet despite the hardships he endured, and the humiliations he suffered through, the young Andersen was thrilled to be on his way to a theatrical career...or so he thought. He practiced scenes from famous plays, he tried his hand at writing a tragedy, and he began to study dance at the Royal Theater's Ballet School. But by the age of 17, his voice had changed; his gawky physique had proven unsuited to ballet. He was dismissed from school, informed that he had no future on the stage.

Anastasia ArkhipovaAnother youth than Hans Christian Andersen might have crumbled under this blow, but throughout his life he possessed a remarkable (even exasperating) degree of confidence and never lost faith in his worth, no matter how often he faced rejection.

Determined to find success in Denmark's theater but barred from a performance career, Andersen focused on his remaining talent: he'd become a writer of plays. He'd already submitted one play to the Royal Theater, which had promptly been turned down. Now the boy dashed off another play, this time an historical tragedy. It, too, was turned away. Yet the play had shown a glimmer of promise, and this brought him to the attention of Jonas Collin, a powerful court official and the financial director of the Royal Theater. Collin perceived what everyone else had perceived: the boy was badly handicapped by his lack of formal education. Collin, however, decided to do something to solve the problem of Andersen, arranging an educational fund to be paid by the King of Denmark.

Kay and the Snow Queen by Angela Barrett

Andersen was sent away to grammar school in the town of Slagelse, 57 miles from Copenhagen in the west of Zealand. He was six years older than his fellow students, far behind them in general education, and temperamentally unsuited for long days sitting in a classroom. Nonetheless he persevered, determined to prove himself worthy of Collin's interest, the King's patronage, and the faith of his small circle of supporters back in Copenhagen.  

But life as a grammar student would prove to be especially difficult, even for a youth whose life had hardly been easy to this point. Andersen's headmaster was a pedagogue who could have stepped from the pages of a Dickens novel, fond of using ridicule, humiliation, and contempt to bully his students into learning. He was particularly vicious to dreamy young Andersen, determined to crush the boy's pride, conceit, and especially his high ambitions -- and to teach him that his place in the world (due to his origins) must be a humble one. In particular, Andersen was strictly forbidden to "indulge" in any creative work such as creative writing -- a deprivation that the boy, who'd been writing since he was small, found particularly hard.

The Story of a Mother by Adrienne SegurFor four years, Andersen endured this tyranny, suffered, worried that he was going mad, and wrote despairing letters home -- which Jonas Collin calmly dismissed as adolescent self-pity. In 1826, at the age of 21, Andersen's emotions came to a boil; he defied his headmaster by writing a poem titled "The Dying Child."

Based on a common nineteenth century theme (in the days of high infant mortality rates), this poem was unusual in being told from the child's point of view, and it evoked a haunting sadness fueled by the author's own misery. Andersen's headmaster pronounced the poem rubbish (it became one of the most famous poems of the century) and heaped such abuse on Andersen that a young teacher became alarmed. The teacher spoke to Jonas Collin directly, and Collin swiftly pulled Andersen out of school. Andersen remained haunted by nightmares of his headmaster for the rest of his life.

Andersen was now allowed to return to Copenhagen, where he lived in a small, clean attic room, studied with private tutors, and took his meals with the Collins and other prominent families, in rotation. His particular attachment to the Collin family solidified during this period and would become a steady source of both joy and pain in the years that followed. Jonas, he loved as a second father; the five Collins children were as dear to him as brothers and sisters; and the Collins, in turn, grew used to this odd young man sitting at their hearth. Much has been written by Andersen scholars about the complicated relationship he forged with the family, who were pillars of Danish society and moved in the highest court circles. Jonas Collin's support of Andersen was both generous and unwavering, and Collin's household provided the young man with the family and stability he craved. But although they opened their home to him, included him in family gatherings, and assisted him in countless ways, Andersen was never allowed to forget that he was not entirely one of them, for he was not a member of their class. Even in the days of his world-wide fame, when he was home with the Collins family he was still the cobbler's son from Odense...the Royal Theater's charity boy...the Little Match Girl with her nose pressed to the glass of a rich family's window.

The Little Match Girl by Natalia Demidova

Most complicated of all was Andersen's relationship with Jonas's son Edvard, who was not only Andersen's closest friend but also (Andersen scholars now believe) the great love of Andersen's life. Edvard's response to Andersen, by contrast, was stolid and unsentimental. He expressed his loyalty to Andersen with tireless acts of practical assistance, yet always held a small part of himself back from his friend. This was symbolized by Edvard's refusal to use the familiar pronoun Du, insisting on the formal De instead. "If you will forget the circumstances of my birth," Andersen wrote to Edvard poignantly, "and always be to me what I am to you, you will find in me the most honest and sympathetic friend." It did no good. Edvard stuck to the formal De for the rest of their lives.

A year after his return to Copenhagen, Andersen sat down in his little attic room and wrote his first book, A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of Anger. Though the title sounds (purposefully) like a travel book, this clever and fantastical work, written when he was just 22, follows a young poet through the streets of Copenhagen over the course of a single night. Unable to interest a publisher, Andersen scraped together the means to publish it himself -- and the book was a hit, quickly selling out its entire print run. He then wrote a play, which, to his delight, was accepted at the Royal Theater. Titled Love on St. Nicholas Tower, it proved to be a popular success.

Vladislav Erko

Now Andersen left his studies for good (after passing two university exams), and he concentrated on writing and publishing his first collection of poems. Despite this bright beginning, the early years of his career were rocky ones -- full of lows as well as highs and marred by unsympathetic reviews in the Danish press. It was not until his books and poems began to excite attention abroad, particularly in Germany, that critics started to take him seriously in his native land. This mixture of praise (from abroad) and censure (at home) was hurtful and confusing to Andersen, as were the intermingled messages of acceptance and rejection he received from his upper-class friends. He grew a protective armor of wit, but kept a tally of each hurt, each blow; and in later years, no praise was ever enough to balance the scorecard. He grew into a man with two distinct and conflicting sides to his nature. In his talents he was supremely confident, speaking candidly of his high ambitions and rhapsodizing over each success -- which made him something of an oddity to his friends (and a figure of ridicule to his enemies) in a social milieu where displaying signs of personal ambition was frowned upon. Yet Andersen could also be sensitive, emotional, and hungry for approval to a debilitating degree. This made him, at times, an exasperating companion, but many found his friendship worth the trouble, for he was also capable of great warmth, humor, kindness, and moments of surprising wisdom.

The Tinder Box by Vladislav Erko

We see this side of Andersen most clearly in his fairy tales, which he began to write at the age of 29, with great excitement. A volume containing his first four tales (The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida's Flowers) was published in May, 1835, followed up by a volume of three more tales the following December. Andersen's earliest stories are more clearly inspired by Danish folk tales than his later works -- yet none are direct, unadorned retellings of Danish folk stories. Rather, these are original fictions that use Danish folklore as their starting point and then head off in bold new directions, borrowing further inspiration from The Thousand and One Nights, the salon tales of seventeenth century France, the German tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and the fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffman, among other works.

It's impossible today to fully understand the sensation these little stories caused, for nothing quite like them had ever been seen in Danish literature. The tales were revolutionary for several reasons. Across Europe, the field of children's fiction was still in its very early days and was still dominated by dull, pious stories intended to teach and inculcate moral values. Andersen's magical tales were rich as chocolate cake after a diet of wholesome gruel, and the narrative voice spoke familiarly, warmly, conspiratorially to children, rather than preaching to them from on high. Despite the Christian imagery recurrent in the tales (typical of nineteenth century fiction), these are remarkably earthy, anarchic, occasionally even amoral stories -- comical, cynical, fatalistic by turns, rather than morally instructive. And unlike the folk tales collected by the Grimms, set in distant lands once upon a time, Andersen set his tales in Copenhagen and other familiar, contemporary settings, mixed fantastical descriptions with common ordinary ones, and invested everyday household objects (toys, dishes, etc.) with personalities and magic.

Angela Barrett

Even the language of the stories was fresh and radical, as Jackie Wullschlager points out in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller:

"The raw and unpolished Danish of these first stories was so radical as to be considered vulgar at a time when literary convention demanded rigorous, high-flown sentiment of the sort practiced by the playwright Heiberg. Andersen, by contrast, was deliberately direct and informal."

Andersen carefully crafted the narration of his tales to evoke the power of oral storytelling, yet the narrative voice is a distinctive one, not the impersonal voice of most folk tales. He perfected his stories by reading them aloud within his social circle, and many a dinner party ended with children and adults alike clamoring for a story. As Andersen's fairy tales became known and loved, he found himself much in demand as a dinner guest, and he also began to receive requests to read his work in public. (3) Though he hadn't been destined for an acting career, his youthful theatrical training served him well. George Griffen, an American diplomat, wrote of Andersen's performance:

"He is a remarkably fine reader, and has often been compared in this respect to Dickens -- Dickens was in truth a superb reader, but I am inclined to think that Andersen's manner is far more impressive and eloquent. Both of these men have always read to crowded houses. Dickens voice was perhaps better suited for the stage than the reading desk. It was stronger and louder than Andersen's, but nothing like as mellow and musical. I heard Dickens read the death-bed scene of Little Nell in New York, and I was moved to tears, but I knew that the author himself was reading the story; but when I heard Andersen read the story of the Little Girl with the Matches, I did not think of the author at all, but wept like a child, unconscious of everything around me."

George Griffen was not the only adult reduced to tears by Andersen's tales -- which were startling, fresh, and urgent in ways that we can only image, now that Andersen's stories have acquired the patina of age and familiarity. Nineteenth century readers were particularly affected by the way the tales gave voice to the powerless -- the young, the poor, the very old -- and imbued them with special strength, wisdom, and connection to the natural world (in opposition to the artifice of reason or the follies of society). Gerda, for instance, goes up against her rival (the rich, dazzling, coldly intellectual Snow Queen) armed only with her youth and compassion; in The Emperor's New Clothes, a child displays more wisdom than the King. We find this theme in traditional folk tales (the good-hearted peasant girl or boy whose kindness wins them riches or a crown), but Andersen gave such figures new life by placing them in contemporary settings, layering elements of sharp social critique into their stories.

  Gerda by Edmund Dulac

Wullschlager places this aspect of the fairy tales in context, noting that:

"Andersen was a product of his times -- of Romanticism, of the revival of the imaginative spirit and of the growth of democratic ideas -- in addressing himself to the child in the adult through a shift in perspective, by allowing the child, or toy, or later farmyard animal, to speak with his or her own voice and feelings. In doing so, he joined the wider movement of cultural decentralization, which was beginning to dominate in Europe and America in the early nineteenth century. In Denmark, Blicher gave voice to Jutland peasants for the first time; in Britain, the rural themes and regional speech and images of peasant life in Sir Walter Scott's novels shaped the Victorian novel; across the Atlantic, James Fenimore Cooper painted pictures of pioneer and American Indian life on the prairies. Suddenly the disposed and the poor were acceptable literary subjects. The crucial contributions of Andersen and Dickens in the 1830s and 1840s were to focus on children, another traditionally mute and oppressed group. The urge to speak out, to claim equality of talent and emotional need...was a driving force for the new nineteenth century writers who did not come from genteel urban classes, and none came from so deprived and uneducated a background as Andersen."

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger copy

When Andersen was 33, the specter of poverty was banished from his life forever when the King of Denmark awarded the writer an annual stipend for life. Now he no longer depended on friends, or on the fickle whims of the reading public; now he was free to write as he liked -- and for a time he put aside the writing of novels, which had been his bread and butter, and concentrated on fairy tales and works for his beloved theater. Andersen wrote two hundred and ten fairy tales in all, published over the course of his life. The tales were translated across Europe, then made their way around the world, making him the best-known Scandinavian writer of his age. The doors to noble houses opened to him, and he wandered from country manor to country manor, returning periodically to Copenhagen, to the Collins and to the Royal Theater.

He also traveled abroad extensively, unusually so for a Dane of his day, and he published several popular books about his travels. He was particularly fond of southern Italy and of Weimar (now part of Germany), and he enjoyed a close, important friendship with the literature-loving prince of Weimar. In Cassel (also part of Germany), he introduced himself to folklorist Jacob Grimm, then ran away mortified because Grimm had never heard of his stories. Wilhelm Grimm, who had read Andersen's tales, later sought him out in Copenhagen, and Anderson grew quite friendly with the Brothers Grimm and their Cassel circle of folklore enthusiasts.

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

Andersen made his first journey to England in 1847. His tales had appeared in English in four different volumes in 1846, and, despite uniformly poor translations, they were greatly loved by Victorian readers. Charles Dickens was an admirer, and he made a point of meeting Andersen, gifting the Danish writer with signed copies of his collected works. The two maintained a warm correspondence until, on Andersen's next journey, Dickens invited him to his country home in Kent. The visit was a disaster. The timing was atrocious, for Dickens's marriage was on the verge of collapse, and Andersen -- never noticing the tension in the household -- proved to be a needy guest. Dickens placed a sign on the guest room wall after Andersen's departure: "Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks which seemed to the family AGES." Andersen himself never understood why he never heard from Dickens again.

Part of the problem was that Andersen spoke virtually no English ("In English, he is the Deaf and Dumb Asylum," Dickens sneered to a friend), which led London society to view the writer as something of a simpleton. Also, his tales had been rendered into the English language by translators with limited literary skills, working from German texts, not the original Danish. Thus the versions of the tales that were best known to English readers (a problem that persists in some modern editions) were simpler, sweeter, less comic and ironic, than the ones that Andersen actually wrote.

Hans Christian Andersen Reading by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

This lack of sophistication in the English text caused Andersen to be labeled as a writer for children only, contrary to his broader reputation in the rest of Europe. His quiet, confused demeanor as he traveled through England (due to his inability to communicate) made the clever and witty Andersen appear as naive and child-like as his tales -- and a myth was born, later portrayed on film by the actor Danny Kaye. Andersen himself railed against the notion of being viewed as a man who'd spent his life with children when he objected to the designs for a statue surrounding him with a circle of tykes. "I said loud and clear that I was dissatisfied...that my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature -- that naiveté was only part of my tales, that humor was what really gave them their flavor."

Though Andersen's humor is indeed a salient characteristic of the tales (when they are well translated), what many readers remember most about Andersen's work is its overwhelming sadness. The Little Match Girl dies, the Little Mermaid is betrayed by her prince (4), the Fir Tree lies discarded after Christmas, sighing over past glories. Even tales that end happily -- The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Wild Swans -- are heart-wrenching in their depiction of anguish endured along the way.

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

As a child, I found reading Andersen's tales a particularly wrenching experience -- and yet I read them over and over, both attracted to and disturbed by their unflinching depiction of pain. In a wonderful essay titled "In a Trance of Self," Deborah Eisenberg discusses the experience of reading Andersen's The Snow Queen:

"The febrile clarity and propulsion [of the story] is accomplished at the expense of the reader's nerves. Especially taxing are the claims on the reader by both Kay and Gerda. Who has not, like Gerda, been exiled from the familiar comforts of one's world by the departure or defection of a beloved?

"And what child has not been confounded by the daily employment of impossible obstacles and challenges? Who has not been forced to accede to a longing that nothing but its object can allay? On the other hand, who has not experienced some measure or some element of Kay's despair? Who has not, at one time or another, been paralyzed and estranged as his appetite and affection for life leaches away? ... Who has not, at least briefly, retreated into a shining hermetic fortress from which the rest of the world appears frozen and colorless? Who has not courted an annihilating involvement? Who has not mistaken intensity for significance? What devotee of art has not been denied art's blessing? And who, withholding sympathy from his unworthy self, has not been ennobled by the sympathy of a loving friend?"

The Snow Queen by Vladislav Erko

Passion repressed is another theme found just below the surface of Andersen's fairy tales. We see this theme most clearly in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, written in 1838. Joan G. Haahr writes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales:

The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Adrienne Segur"The story is unusual among Andersen's early tales, both in its emphasis on sensual desire and in its ambiguities. Blind fate, not intention, determines all events. Moreover, the narrative questions the very decorum it praises. The tin soldier's passive acceptance of whatever happens to him, while exemplifying pietistic ideals of self-denial, also contributes to his doom. Were he to speak and act, the soldier might gain both life and love. Restrained, however, by inhibition and convention, he finds only tragedy and death. The tale is often read autobiographically, with the soldier viewed as symbolizing Andersen's feelings of inadequacy with women, his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes, or his sense of alienation as an artist and an outsider, from full participation in everyday life."

Andersen himself was a physically awkward and homely man ("I shall have no success with my appearance," he once wrote, appraising himself with blunt honesty, "so I make use of whatever is available"), and he was prone to harboring passions for people he could never have. Publicly, Andersen courted two women during his lifetime: the sister of a student friend, who soon became engaged to another, and the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who could offer him only friendship. (He wrote his lovely tale The Nightingale for her.)

The Nightingale by Edmund Dulac

Privately, he was more deeply obsessed with men: first with Edvard Collins, then with a young theology student, and finally in, his later years, with a handsome young ballet dancer -- the later of whom returned his interest, at least to some degree. This was an aspect of his life that was long ignored by Andersen scholars until Wullschlager explored its impact on the writer's work in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storytelling, noting how the pain of his hidden, socially-unacceptable homosexuality added to the many psychological burdens the poor man carried.

Andersen's life was tragic one in many ways -- and yet, like a character from one of his own tales, he had the gift of turning straw into gold: transforming the sorrows and joys of his life's journey into stories we still love today.

In 1867, when he was 62 years old, Hans Christian Andersen returned to Odense. A choir sang, and the entire city was illuminated in his honor. "A star of fortune hangs above me," Andersen once wrote. "Thousands have deserved it more than I; often I cannot understand why this good should have been vouchsafed to me among so many thousands. But if the star should set, even while I am penning these lines, be it so; still I can say it has shone, and I have received a rich portion."

Andersen died in 1875, and his stories live on.


Hans Christian Andersen 2

Pictures: Artists are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: The Jackie Wullschlager quotes are fromHans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (Knopf, 2001). The Deborah Eisenberg quote is from her essay "In a Trance of Self," published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, (Random House, 1998). Both books are highly recommended. This essay was first published in The Journal of Mythic Arts and Realms of Fantasy magazine (2003). All rights reserved by the authors.


Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth GoudgeOne of my favourite books in the world is The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, written in 1946 and set in a magical version of Devon. I dearly wish I'd known it when I was young, for Goudge's brand of magic (gentle, wind-swept and rain-kissed) would have perfectly suited the child I was. Instead I read it three years ago, fell entirely under its spell, and then spent a whole winter devouring all of her other books for both kids and adults. (I was sick in bed for some of those months, and Goudge was the perfect companion.)

In an excellent essay on Goudge, Kari Sperring writes: 

"With the exception of her children’s books, most of her work is not what most people would think of as fantasy. The children’s books are all set in a version of our real world, too, though her towns and landscapes in them are imaginary. Yet in all her work the boundaries between worlds are thin. Folklore and poetry, transcendent experience, and glimpses of the immanent pervade them, and her characters -- especially the youngest and the oldest -- slip between these worlds easily. Her characters channel folktales and legend through their lives and their connections with others.

Books by Elizabeth Goudge

From ''The Secret of Moonacre''"This is most clear in her children’s books, in particular, her three best known -- The Little White Horse, Henrietta’s House, and Linnets and Valerians (recently retitled The Runaways). In TLWH, which is the most directly fantastical of Goudge’s books, the protagonist Maria must explore the history of her family and their ancestral home via a blend of fact and magic -- the injustices done by her forefather Sir Hrolf were real enough, but their context and consequences belong as much to the realm of magic and the liminal as to reality. A white horse and a giant dog come and go throughout the history of her family -- and her own experience -- guiding, observing, and sometimes leading Maria to the discoveries she needs to make. The dog -- another Hrolf -- is real enough but seemingly immortal, but the horse is a unicorn and a creature of the sea and not to be grasped or owned. The story sounds soppy, and the recent film (titled The Secret of Moonacre) tried hard to make it soppy by replacing the very real magic of Goudge’s writing with sentiment and gloss, but in the book, it is not. Rather, everything is tied together by extra-mundane bonds, so that Maria’s friend and ally, Robin, is at first a boy in dreams who becomes real, and the white horse brings not only Maria but the book’s main antagonist to a solution to the ancient problem they face that is partly realistic, yes, but rooted in liminal experience."

Elizabeth Goudge at her writing desk

Four books by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge was born in 1900 in the cathedral city of Wells, where her father was a clergyman and theological scholar. His career took the family to Ely and Oxford (two cities she loved and would later write about) -- but his early death meant the loss of their Oxford home and sudden impecunity. Reeling from the loss, Elizabeth's semi-invalid mother announced they would take a month's holiday in Devon. Her elderly Nanny, now a permanent part of the family, was to come along too. In her autobiography, Elizabeth writes:

Elizabeth's autobiography"Devon? Why Devon? We knew no one there and where could we stay? But my mother had seen an advertisement in the paper. A small wooden bungalow could be cheaply rented for a summer holiday at a village called Marldon, and she was quite certain that was where we must go. So Nanny and I dragged ourselves out of the ooze of our exhaustion and we set off, driven by a friend who had a large comfortable car and said he knew the way. More or less he did and very late in the afternoon we found the wooden bungalow and inside it our unknown landlady, who kept a guest-house next door, had lit a glowing fire.

"For it was what those who do not love Devon call 'a typical Devon day'; that is to say it was raining, that steady relentless rain that lifted the Ark about the primeval flood, and at the same time, since the day was windless, a thick mist covered the earth. We could know nothing of our surroundings except that the bungalow seemed poised upon the summit of a hill and that its wooden walls did not look very weather-proof.

Elizabeth Goudge and her mother in Devon

"It was felt that food would be reassuring and Nanny and I began quickly getting some sort of meal together, but the friend who had brought us down took me away from the preparations for a few moments to the western-facing window. 'Look,' he said, 'what do you think is out there?' The downpour was slackening at last and no longer drummed on the roof. A small wet green lawn sloped from the window and appeared to fall into the mist as though it was green water sliding over the edge of a precipice. We could see nothing through the mist yet we were aware that behind it was the westering sun, and also it seemed to fill a deep valley and rising beyond the valley was -- what? 'Something grand,' said our friend. 'You'll know in the morning.' A tremor went through me, and I think through him too, for we seemed to be sharing one of those inexplicable moments of expectation and intimation that come sometimes when a small earthly mystery seems to be speaking of a mystery beyond itself.

"I was woken the next morning by a sound I had not heard for a long time, a cock crowing in the garden, across the lane, eastward where the sun would soon be rising. Had the mist lifted? When later I pulled the curtains it was still there, but the morning sun was shining through it and turning it to gold, and every bush and tree that lined the lane was glistening with diamond drops.

Sheep and gorse

"It was what lovers of Devon call 'a typical Devon day,' that is to say, a morning of clear shining after rain. Because of the slope of the land the hill seemed higher than it actually was; it seemed high as Ararat, with the wooden bungalow perched like the Ark on its summit. The valley below was even wider and deeper than I had realized the night before and it seemed to hold every beauty that a pastoral Devon valley knows, woods and farms and orchards, green slopes where sheep were grazing, fields of black and white cows, and where there were fields of tilled earth it was the crimson of the earth of South Devon and looked like a field of flowers. And along the eastern horizon lay the range of blue hills called Dartmoor.

"I felt I had come home. I have never felt so deeply rooted anywhere as I was in the earth of Devon. Or rather I did not so much put roots down as find roots that were already there. And yet I had not been born in Devon, I had been born over the border in Somerset. I could not understand it then and I do not understand it now. The only tremor was the realization that in a few weeks time we should have to leave this earthly paradise."

Marlsdon

Marlsdon

But in fact, they did not leave. World War II began and the family stayed in Marldon -- where Elizabeth lived for the next twelve years. She wrote some of her best books there, paying the bills with the steady work of her pen. A deep love of Devon shines through every single page of The Little White Horse...as well as through Linnets and Valerians, and her quietly beautiful adult novel The Rosemary Tree.

Apple crop

apples

The village of Marldon is not far away from us, just on the other side of the moor, so I wanted to go see those hills for myself -- especially since learning that Moonacre Manor, the enchanted setting of The Little White Horse, was inspired by Compton Castle: an old manor house in Marldon parish. South Devon has changed since Elizabeth's day; it's now less remote, more heavily populated, but still full of orchards, woodlands, and farms, and Marldon itself has retained its old charm. I wanted to see the lanes she once walked, the bungalow where she lived, and her old village church. I especially wanted to see Compton Castle, now a National Trust property.

I finally made the journey last year at this time, as autumn colored the hedgerows and fields, in the company of four other writers who also love Goudge: Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Liz Williams and Veronica Williams. We started with lunch at Marldon's Church House Inn, where Ellen read us some relevant passages from Goudge's autobiography...

The Church House Inn

Ellen reads from Elizabeth Goudge's memoir

...and then made our way through the winding lanes to the gates of "Moonacre Manor."

Comptom Castle, a fortified manor house, was the seat of Sir Maurice de la Pole during the reign of King Henry II. It passed into the de Compton family, and then, through marriage, to the Gilbert family. The house was enlarged in the mid-14th century, fortified in 1520, and then sold in 1785 -- after which, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it fell into ruin. A descendant of the Gilbert family bought the property in 1931, began the castle's restoration, and then gave it to the National Trust -- on condition that the family would continue to occupy the house, which they do to this day.

Compton Castle  Marldon  Devon

The Little White Horse's Kingdom of Moonacre

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Map of Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

Compton Castle is considerably smaller than Moonacre Manor in The Little White Horse -- but the soaring main hall, the kitchen gardens, the orchard full of vivid red apples and the emerald-green hills full of fleecy white sheep, all hold the magic she drew upon to create her timeless story.

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

We were thrilled to discover a kitchen well just like the one at Moonacre Manor. Sitting beside it, I could almost believe that Goudge's story was real after all, and Serena the hare would come tumbling over the grass, followed by the noble dog Hrolf.

(Her talent for creating distinctive animal characters was second to none.)

Compton Castle

The famous well at Moonacre Manor

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

In a recent essay for Slightly Foxed, Victoria Neuman has this to say about Goudge and her work:

In the doorway of Compton Castle"Whether she is describing a young child climbing over slippery rock steps from a sea cave or uncovering the glories of a tangled garden in Devon, she is one of the only modern prose writers to capture the spirit of the 17th-century mystic Thomas Traherne:

"'The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which should never be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things...'

"Like Trahern Goudge was an ardent Anglican. But although religion can be an oppressive presence in her adult novels, in her children's books it manifests itself merely as a sense of embracing safety. One of her obituaries quoted Jane Austen's famous line from Mansfield Park, 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.' Her fictional world is devoid of malice...Loyalty, kindness, affection, the wonder of nature, the smells of good, plain English cooking, a hot bath and clean clothes, the appealing personalities of pets: these are the things she celebrates. In Goudge's children's books, to use Louise MacNeice's phrase, there is 'sunlight on the garden' and the equation always comes out."

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

I should note that unlike Neuman I don't feel oppressed by the Anglican threads within Goudge's work. As the daughter of a clergyman, she was writing about the world she knew best. I enter it as I do any other unknown culture, trusting the writer as my guide, and her generous, mystical, nature-based version of Christianity allows even a wooly old pagan like me to feel welcome within her tales. Goudge, as Kari Sperring writes, "never preaches, nor lays out moral parameters, and, to paraphrase Louisa Alcott, she does not reward the 'good' with gilded treats and the 'bad' with dire punishments. Indeed, I’m not sure she deals in good and bad at all: she writes rather about compassion and understanding and resolution through empathy. Her work is not showy and it is not melodramatic. It is, however, often surprising and sometimes startling. And she rarely if ever does what the reader expects."

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

P1500044

"As the world becomes increasingly ugly, callous, and materialistic," Goudge once wrote, "it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself."

That statement sums up why I love Elizabeth Goudge, and why I continue to read and re-read her. She, too, believes beauty is vital in a troubled world, and the promise of hope. Her work is old-fashioned, quiet, and slow. I say this without apology, for these qualities have genuine literary value in an our loud, aggressive, and fast-paced culture.

If you'd like to read more about Goudge's life in Devon, here are two previous posts on the subject: A Sense of Otherness and The Magic of Moor and Hill. To learn more about Compton Castle, go here. (You can even stay overnight at the castle, in its charming Watch Tower.) To learn more about the author's life and work, visit the Elizabeth Goudge Society. Or better still, go read her marvelous books if you haven't already.

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

Compton Castle

The Little White Horse

The Little White Horse in Devon

Words: The text quoted above is from "Elizabeth Goudge: Glimsping the Liminal" by Kari Sperring (Strange Horizons, February 22, 2016), The Joy of Snow: An Autobiography by Elizabeth Goudge (Hodder & Stoughton, 1974), and "In Search of Unicorns" by Victoria Neumark (Slightly Foxed, Winter 2018), all of which I recommend. A good biography of Goudge has yet to be published.

Pictures: Marldon and Compton Castle,  South Devon, with thanks to my lovely companions on the journey. The photos are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Hen Wives, Spinsters, and Lolly Willowes

Vladislav Erko

In the colored fairy books of Andrew Lang (The Red Fairy Book, The Blue Fairy Book, etc.), there is a figure who has always intrigued me: the Hen Wife, related to the witch, the seer, and the herbalist, but different from them too: a distinct and potent archetype of her own, an enchanted figure beneath a humble white apron. We find her dispensing wisdom and magic in the folk tales of the British Isles and far beyond (all the way to Russia and China): a woman who is part of the community, not separate from it like the classic "witch in the woods"; a woman who is married, domesticated like her animal familiars, and yet conversant with women's mysteries, sexuality, and magic.

The Hen Wife by Helen G Stevenson

Writer and mythographer Sharon Blackie describes the Hen Wife like this:

"If you look up the definition of ‘henwife’ in most dictionaries, you’ll find it given as something along the lines of ‘woman who keeps poultry’. But that isn’t it at all: a henwife is so much more than that, as so many folk and fairytales from Ireland and Scotland show. In those tales, the henwife is often a herbalist or a healer, and is Dazu stone carving of a Chinese Hen Wifealways synonymous with the Wise Old Woman archetype: the Cailleach personified. Think, for example, of the fine Scottish tale ‘Kate Crackernuts,’ about the henwife and her cauldron of wisdom. Or the old Irish tale about three sisters, ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling.’ The fact that the henwife also keeps hens is part and parcel of this archetype, but although the heroine of the story may go to her looking simply for eggs, she always comes away with rather more than she bargained for."

Colleen Szabo, writing in Cabinet des Fées, views the Hen Wife through a Jungian lens. She is, says Szabo, "a combination of the old bird goddesses and the figure we now call 'witch'; a crone or wise woman who knows of the inner life, of natural processes and developments, of all their alchemical magic. She is also a keeper of knowledge about a woman’s sexuality; the old tradition of a 'hen’s night' is currently being revived. In that tradition, the night before a wedding, older and wiser hen-wives teach the wife-to-be about sexuality, including pregnancy, all of which falls within the overall category of creative power, of course. Whatever our creative genres might be, their products can always be symbolized by the metaphor of the child, including our creative efforts to renew and transform ourselves."

Charles Sims

My favorite depiction of the Hen Wife is in this gorgeous passage from the novel Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978):

"Laura never became as clever with the birds as Mr. Saunter. But when she had overcome her nervousness, she managed them well enough to give herself a great deal of pleasure. They nestled against her, held fast in  Nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Cranethe crook of her arm, while her fingers probed among the soft feathers and rigid quills of their breasts. She liked to feel their acquiescence, their dependence upon her. She felt wise and potent. She remembered the henwife in fairy tales, she understood now why kings and queens resorted to the henwife in their difficulties. The henwife held their destinies in the crook of her arm, and hatched the future in her apron. She was sister to the spaewife, and close cousin to the witch, but she practiced her art under cover of henwifery; she was not, like her sister and her cousin, a professional. She lived unassumingly at the bottom of the king's garden, wearing a large white apron and very possibly her husband's cloth cap; and when she saw the king and queen coming down the gravel path she curtseyed reverentially, and pretended it was eggs they had come about. She was easier to approach than the spaewife, who sat on a creepie and stared at the smoldering peats till her eyes were red and unseeing; or Rima Stainesthe witch, who lived alone in the wood, her cottage window all grown over with brambles. But though she kept up this pretense of homeliness she was not inferior in skill to the professionals. Even the pretence of homeliness was not quite so homely as it might seem. Laura knew that the Russian witches live in small huts mounted upon three giant hen's legs, all yellow and scaly. The legs can go; when the witch desires to move her dwelling the legs stalk through the forest, clattering against the trees, and printing long scars upon the snow.

"Following Mr. Saunter up and down between the pens, Laura almost forgot where and who she was, so completely had she merged her personality into the henwife's. She walked back along the rutted track and down the steep lane as obliviously as though she were flitting home on a broomstick."

Mother Goose

 I first discovered Sylvia Townsend Warner's fiction through Kingdoms of Elfin (a collection of the adult fairy stories as dry and fizzy as the best champagne), but Lolly Willowes, when I first read it back in my 20s, seemed altogether different. I'm embarrassed now to admit that I found the novel slight and unmemorable, almost twee, and it wasn't until a later re-reading that I finally understood it as the masterpiece it is. I had been too young for Lolly Willows the first time,  and Sylvia Townsend Warnertoo ignorant of the social context in which Townsend Warner was writing in the 1920s:  the restricted lives of "spinisters" in Victorian and Edwardian England.

"The issue that the novel tackles head-on is that of gender," explains another Townsend Warner fan, contemporary British novelist Sarah Waters: "In the 1910s and 20s British sexual mores were shaken up as never before: the war saw women taking on new jobs, gaining new responsibilities and freedom, and, though the majority of the jobs were savagely withdrawn with the return to peace, many of the liberties remained; in 1918, partly as a recognition of their contribution during the years of conflict, women were at last granted the vote. For the first decade of its life, however, the new franchise was an incomplete one, available only to women over 30 who were also householders or married to householders (which meant that single women such as Laura, middle-aged but financially dependent on male relatives, remained without it), and there was still huge pressure on women to conform to social norms.

"The recent tragic loss of so many young male lives had inflamed existing tension over the idea of the 'surplus woman' and, with postwar anxiety about British 'racial health' prompting celebrations of family life and maternity, the spinster -- a benign if dowdy figure in 19th-century culture -- was being subtly redefined as a social problem. The popularisation of Freudian ideas about sexual repression only added to her woes, pathologising elderly virgins as chronically unfulfilled. Many novelists of the period responded to this – some, such as Clemence Dane, with representations of emotionally vampiric single  women, which reinforced the new stereotypes, but others, such as Radclyffe Hall, Winifred Holtby  and Vera Brittain, with more sensitivity to the pressures faced by ageing, unmarried daughters, and more sympathy for them in their efforts to follow non-traditional paths. Two fascinating novels that particularly resemble Lolly Willowes, and which Townsend Warner could be said effectively to have rewritten, are W.B. Maxwell's Spinster of this Parish (1922) and F.M. Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924).

Lolly Willowes, first edition, 1926

"Like Townsend Warner, Maxwell and Mayor chose as their subjects unmarried women of the late-Victorian age -- that is, the final generation to have assumed as a matter of course that its single daughters would remain in the family home, dutifully servicing the needs of senior relatives. Again like her, they produced novels that are intensely alive to the contrast between the unglamorous exteriors of their 'old maid' heroines and the women's actual, deeply passionate, emotional lives. But the titles of the three novels reveal a significant difference. As phrases, 'spinster of this parish' and 'the rector's daughter' testify to the ways in which women are often occluded by social and familial roles. Lolly Willowes, by contrast, is a statement of individuality. Laura's journey, too, is very different from that of Maxwell's and Mayor's heroines, the former of whom spends decades as the unacknowledged mistress of a celebrated explorer, and is finally rewarded by marriage to him, while the latter dies after a short but 'useful' life, with her passionate love for a clergyman unfulfilled.

Walter Dendy Sadler

"For the first half of Townsend Warner's novel, Laura looks set to follow their example. A tomboy in childhood, she is soon 'subdued into young-ladyhood,' and after the death of her parents she joins the London household of her unimaginative brother, Henry, where she becomes the spinster 'Aunt Lolly,' slightly pitied, slightly patronised, but 'indispensable for Christmas Eve and birthday preparations' -- an embodiment, in other words, of an old-fashioned female tradition for which her up-to-the-minute niece, Thomas CheesmanFancy, who has driven lorries during the war, has fine, flapperish contempt. But Laura has depths unsuspected by her deeply conventional relatives, and with her move to Great Mop she grows ever more subversive. She quietly rejects her family. She refuses to be defined by her relationships with men. She breaches the social barriers between gentry and working people. And, though she enjoys being part of the Great Mop community, her intensest pleasures are solitary ones. Again looking forward to Virginia Woolf, the novel asserts the absolute necessity of 'a room of one's own', and Laura gains a clear-sighted understanding of the combined financial and cultural interests that serve to keep women in domestic, dependent roles: 'Society, the Law, the Church, the History of Europe, the Old Testament . . . the Bank of England, Prostitution, the Architect of Apsley Terrace, and half a dozen other useful props of civilisation' have robbed her of her freedom just as effectively as have her patronising London relatives. It is this analysis that informs her conversation with Satan near the end of the novel, in which she unfolds her memorable vision of women as sticks of dynamite, 'long[ing] for the concussion that may justify them.' If women, Townsend Warner implies, are denied access to power through legitimate means, they will turn instead to illegitimate methods -- in this case to Satan himself, who pays them the compliment of pursuing them and then, having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone." 

I highly recommend reading Water's full essay, "Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer," published by The Guardian.

Walter Crane

I think if I was teaching Lolly Willowes today,  I would first ask students to read Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, an absolutely engrossing book about single women in Britain between the wars, which I can't recommend highly enough. (All of Nicholson's books on social history are just terrific.) Singled Out It's also interesting to read Townsend Warner's fiction with some knowledge of her fascinating life as a feminist, leftist, and lesbian (she was in a long-term relationship with fellow writer Valentine Ackland) at a time when this was far from the norm for respectable "lady writers." She loved living in the countryside, and some of her best stories take place in rural settings -- but they are so much more than charming tales of villages and vicarages; beneath the mannered surface they contain a biting wit, deep wisdom, and sharp social critique, à la Jane Austen. For those who would like to learn more about the writer, there's a good biography of Townsend Warner by Claire Harman, various volumes of the author's lively and erudite correspondence, plus a lovely memoir by Townsend Warner's wife (or so she'd be acknowledged today), Valentine Ackland: For Sylvia: An Honest Account.

And this brings us back to the Hen Wife -- that figure of magic who dwells comfortably among us, not off by the crossroads or in the dark of the woods; who is married, not solitary; who is equally at home with the wild and domestic, with the animal and human worlds. She is, I believe, among us still: dispensing her wisdom and exercising her power in kitchens and farmyards (and the urban equivalent) to this day -- anywhere that women gather, talk among themselves, and pass knowledge down to the next generations.

And Hen Husbands? What is their role in folklore, fairy tales, and daily life? I confess I do not know. Those are Men's Mysteries, hidden and ancient, and not for the likes of me to speak of....

Samurai Chicken Defender by David Wyatt

Words: The passage by Sharon Blackie is from "The Henwife" (The Art of Enchantment, October 2014). The passage by Colleen Szabo is from "Katie Crackernuts: The Hen-Wife and her Cauldron of Wisdom" (Cabinet des Fées, July 2011). The passage by Sylvia Townsend Warner is from her novel Lolly Willowes, first published in 1926. The passage by Sarah Waters is from "Sylvia Townsend Warner: the neglected writer" (The Guardian, March 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in February 2015.

Pictures: a folktale illustration by Vladislav Erko; "The Hen Wife" by Helen G. Stevenson (circa 1930s); a Danzu carving of a Chinese hen wife; "The Hen Wife" by Charles Sims (1872-1928); a nursery rhyme illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915); "Baba Yaga" (from Russian folklore) by Rima Staines; a Mother Goose illustration, artist unknown; a photograph of Sylvia Townsend Warner; the first edition of Lolly Willowes; a stereotypical Victorian image of a spinster by English painter Walter Dendy Sadler (1854-1923); an 18th century spinster by  Thomas Cheesman (1760-1834) - reminiscent of the fact that the term was once used for all women who spin, card, and weave, rather than as a pejorative term for unmarried women; a decoration by Walter Crane (1845-1915); and "Samurai Chicken Defender" by my Chagford neighbor David Wyatt, from his "Mythic Village" series. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.


The House by the River

The frontispiece for William Morris' ''News from Nowhere''

A few weeks ago I joined two of my oldest friends -- harpist/composer/filmmaker Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and artist Marja Lee Kruÿt -- for a road trip to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the country house of William and Jane Morris, their children...and, for a time, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It wasn't my first visit to the beautiful old place, but I hadn't been back in several years and we wanted to catch the exhibition there on Mary Lobb, the companion (and probable partner) of May Morris, the youngest of the Morris daughters.

There are so many reasons to love Kelmscott: the quiet loveliness of its riverside setting; the timeless atmosphere created by corbels and gables of golden Cotswold stone; the garden of trees, fruits, and flowers which inspired so many Morris designs; and the drama of the lives that unfolded here in the waning years of the 19th century.

The following passage from Jan Marsh's excellent book The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood gives a taste of what those years were like:

"Kelmscott so fitted Morris' character and enthusiasms that the house has ever since been indelibly associated with his name -- and not without reason, since it played a major role in both his life and his vision of a post-industrial and socialist utopia. It is often forgotten that its first purpose was a holiday home for Jane, the girls and Gabriel. [Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had fallen in love at some point in the late 1860s.] Much as Morris liked the house, it was Jane who elected to spend most time there, and who succeeded at the very end of her life in purchasing the property. Whether it was leased with the intention of providing a retreat to share with Gabriel without causing gossip is a nice point that cannot now be resolved; certainly a join tenancy between Morris and Gabriel was the only way she and Gabriel could sleep under the same roof together without scandal."

Kelmscott Manor

"Morris gave one explanation in a letter to Faulkner. 'I have been looking about for a house for the wife and kids,' he wrote, describing Kelmscott and adding, 'I am going down there again on Saturday with Rossetti and my wife: Rossetti because he thinks of sharing it with us if the thing seems likely.' Gabriel presented the plan a bit differently. 'Morris and I been had for some little time in search of a place to take jointly in the country,' he told his uncle, 'when this one was discovered in a house-agent's catalogue -- the last place one would have expected to furnish such an out-of-the-world commodity.'

Kelmscott Manor

Autumn rose

Rossetti moved into Kelmscott Manor in the summer of 1871, followed by Morris, Jane, and their daughters Jenny and May -- Morris staying just long enough to settle his family in, and then departing for an extensive trip through the wilds of Iceland.

"It is hard to believe," writes Marsh, "that the arrangement was not deliberate."

Kelmscott Manor

"Divorce," she explains, "was out of the question for Jane, as it was only possible by proving she had committed adultery and that Morris had not condoned her behaviour. There was no such thing as mutual divorce, and the respondent was denied access to the children, on the grounds of moral corruption and ritual punishment; as a divorcee Jane would have lost Jenny and May as well as her reputation as a respectable woman. In addition the scandal would have made remarriage to Gabriel difficult and dangerous, threatening his career and earning power. This is not to say that she considered this option; rather she adopted the best alternative.

 "Her behaviour, and her husband's, puzzled and disturned many of her contemporaries, and later commentators found the arrangement at Kelmscott to be outside the agreed bounds of propriety, but could not, nevertheless, identify anything manifestly improper about it....

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

"It seems undeniable," Marsh continues, "that Kelmscott was meant as a place where Jane and Gabriel could be together, and that Morris, reluctantly, agreed. Their excitement at the forthcoming holiday is evident in Gabriel's letters during June; among other plans he ordered a complete set of William Scott's novels for Jane to read in the country. As for Morris, the repeated words from Iceland, 'Please dear Janey be happy,' suggest he was well aware of what Kelmscott meant to her."

Pre-Raphaelite women

Kelmscott

Kelmscott village, off the beaten track even now, was extremely remote in the 1870s.

"All services and supplies had to be ordered from Lechlade or Farringdon," writes Marsh, "and there was little local transport or through traffic. Installed in her new domain at the end of the first week of July 1871, Jane set about furnishings and improvements. 'I am getting the fireplace set straight in the dining room, the one with the broken mantleshelf,' she wrote to Phillip Webb, back in London, asking him to send six dozen tiles from the firm's workshop in Queen's Square: 'Will they look best of various patterns or all alike? They must be all blue. The mantleshelf is stone I find, so I am making the masons scrape off the former drab paint. The next thing to be thought of is a grate.' "

Kelmscott

"Rossetti and Jane spent the summer very pleasantly. A punt was acquired for outings on the river, and a pony-and-trap was considered. In the evenings, there was reading and embroidery. Gabriel wrote some new poems, painted a replica of Beata Beatrix, did chalk drawings of Jenny and May and a picture of Jane called Water Willow, showing the river, the punt, the church, and the manor in the background. It is one of the sweetest, softest, calmest, and least mannered of his paintings of her, quite without the brooding intensity of other studies and subjects, and seems to reflect happy days at Kelmscott.

A sketch of Jane Morris embroidering by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting palette

''Water Willow'' by Rossetti  and his cartoon of Morris' return to Kelmscott

"In the autumn, Morris returned from Iceland, "bringing with him a pony named Mouse for his daughters to ride. He stayed only a night or two, taking the punt on the river for a day's fishing and prompting Gabriel to a cartoon illustrating these lines:

Enter skald, moored in a punt
And jacks and tenches exeunt."

When winter came, Gabriel and Jane returned to their respective homes in the city, and the house (cold and damp at that time of year) was shut up until spring.

Kelmscott Manor

''The Blue Dress'' by Rossetti

The lovers saw each other (more circumspectly) in London, and made plans for the months ahead -- but their summer idyll was never to be repeated. Gabriel's mental health, always unstable, took a turn for the worst that winter under a combination of pressures: lingering guilt over the death of his wife (she had overdosed on laudanum, either accidently or deliberately); the social tensions caused by his relationship with Jane; a pointed attack on his work by poet and critic Robert Buchanan; and an addiction to chloral, a sedative prone to causing paranoia and hallucinations. Although friends prevented him from contacting Jane during the first bad months of his breakdown (many unfairly blaming her), by September he was back at Kelmscott, and lived there for the next two years.

Kelmscott Manor

Drawing of Jane by Rossetti

Jane continued to love Gabriel -- but could no longer spend long periods of time with him, her attempts to nurse him back to health thwarted by chloral at every turn. Morris rarely ventured to Kelmscott himself since Gabriel had become a permanent fixture -- and by 1874 Morris had enough, withdrawing his share of the rent for the house. It wasn't long after that, however, that Gabriel's mental health spiraled down even further, requiring his return to London (where he was looked after by his other long-time model and mistress, Fanny Cornforth).

Kelmscott

Now the Morris family took over the manor and the old house began to fulfill Morris' dream: becoming a true country home for Jane and the children, a source of inspiration for his writing and design, and a place where their artist and socialist friends could gather together to work, play, and inspire each other to change the world through art, beauty, craftwork, stories, and education for all.

Morris and Jane grew close again, having weathered many trials together, and Kelmscott was their joint work of art: an ever-changing canvas on which to explore ideas of Romantic design and Romantic living.

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

Jane Morris

After Morris died in 1896, Jane managed to purchase the house outright and lived there with her daughters until her own death, almost twenty years later. The couple are buried together in a simple grave at the edge of the Kelmscott churchyard.

Kelmscott Church

Grave of William & Jane Morris grave

Kelmscott then passed to Jenny and May. Jenny was, sadly, a life-long invalid; but May followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a textile artist and designer in her own right, and a leading member of the local socialist party. With her bold, cheerful friend Mary Lobb at her side, May made her own journeys to Iceland, went on rough camping expeditions around the British Isles, raised goats and other animals, and worked hard to preserve her parents' legacy -- all while creating influential art and craftwork of her own.

There is currently an exhibition on May's work and life at The Red House in London, running until January 2018 and well worth seeing.

Edward Burne-Jones  William Morris  and their families

May, Jane, and Jenny Morris,with Jenny's nurse

May Morris at Kelmscott

May Morris and friends

Embroidered tapesty by May Morris

Although the Pre-Raphaelite house aesthetic looks quaintly old-fashioned to us now, it is important to remember how fresh and modern it looked at the end of the 19th century, when most Victorian homes were dark, fussy, and overstuffed with furniture, draeries, and decorative objects. By comparison to High Victorian interiors, Morris design was simple, clear, well-crafted, inspired by patterns found in the natural world, and celebrated craft-workers and artisans (potters, dyers, tile painters, metal-workers, etc.), elevated to the status of artists -- which was not then common.

Morris didn't quite achieve his dream of making beautiful objects for the home accessible to everyone. His innovative firm, Morris & Co, made gorgeous objects indeed -- but the slow hand-crafting methods Morris championed (and his socialist obligation to pay his labour force well) resulted in high price tags for his goods. His hand-blocked wallpapers, hand-embroidered textiles, hand-painted furniture, and hand-printed books were simply beyond the reach of most. It was up to the next generation of artists in the Arts & Crafts movement (Gustav Stickley, for example) to take Morris' original vision of Art for All into the world...but that's a story for another day.

This one is at an end.

Kelmscott Manor

May Morris' childhood bedroom at Kelmscott

"If I were asked to say what is at once the most important production of Art and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer: A beautiful House."

- William Morris

Windrush design by William Morris

"When we can get beyond that smoky world, there, out in the country we may still see the works of our fathers yet alive amidst the very nature they were wrought into, and of which they are so completely a part: for there indeed if anywhere, in the English country, in the days when people cared about such things, was there a full sympathy between the works of man, and the land they were made for."

- William Morris

Kelmscott Manor

The apple tree

Kelmscott Manor

The last white roses

This post is dedicated, with thanks, to my road-trip companions, Marja and Elizabeth-Jane.

Marja and EJ

William Morris' ''Bird and Trellis'' design in progress

The passage quoted above is from The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood by Jan Marsh (St. Martin's Press, 1985); all rights reserved by the author. The various photographs and artworks are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) For more information on the Pre-Raphaelite movement, see this previous post: "On Fantasy & the Pre-Raphaelites."