Dorothy Cowlin's biographical novels etc.

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Notes on her 4 biographical novels ( mainly for young people ):

Greenland Seas.

The story of Scoresby the whaler.
by Dorothy Cowlin
Illustrated by Ray Bailey.
Published by E. J. Arnold and Son Limited Leeds, 1965. ( 176 pages ).

There, on the top of the cliff, was the old abbey, where he and his friends went to scramble about the spiral stairs, high up in the ruined walls. There were the 199 steps climbing up to it, looking nearly vertical from this distance, like a ladder up a ship's side. There were the gravestones on the cliff-top graveyard, peering over the edge as if to see who was next to be drowned. There were the houses of Henrietta Street, all cock-eyed because the cliff underneath them kept falling. There were the brown fishing-nets laid out below on the steep grass at the foot of the cliffs.

Now the bridge swung past, with its drawbridge flaps drawn up to let the ships go past. And now the other cliff came into view, with the flag flying half-mast, to show it was half-water.

Here Dorothy Cowlin describes the departure from Whitby of the ten year old William Scoresby. He has managed to stay aboard his father's whaler bound for Greenland seas. At Shetland, William Scoresby senior tries to sail off without his son...

The narrative begins in 1800, the time of the Napoleonic wars. It is no more a celebration of killing whales than of fighting the French. After the boyish fascination of learning to be a mariner, William the younger's real interest is that of exploring and natural philosophy.

His self-made and inventive father has him first mate at sixteen and a half. And encourages his education. His first command soon follows. He has the novel idea of connecting barometer readings to the weather. He devises means of measuring temperatures of various under-water levels of Arctic currents. He notes the pastel colors in icebergs, the patterns of snowflakes ( these miniature paintings can be seen in Whitby museum ) and differentiates kinds of snow and ice, as might an Innuit.

Different temperatures of air currents create lens effects. William saw a perfect mirage of his father's ship, upside down. Making a note for checking with his father, they decided, the ship had been 30 miles away and 17 miles below the horizon.

William the elder made an improved crow's nest, to keep Arctic look-outs from freezing or falling. Like a small coach cab, with a trap-door, it can be seen in the Cook and Scoresby section of Whitby museum.
The curators, of this section and the ship models, helped Dorothy Cowlin with her book researches. She drew on William the younger's manuscript autobiography. After she returned it, the document went missing. Tho, most of the material was used in the biography by William's nephew.

The crow's nest features in a beautiful phenomenum, described in Dorothy's book:

The fog was low. Where he stood, a hundred and fifty feet above sea-level, he could look down on its upper surface.

Suddenly the sun came out behind him, and there grew on the surface of the fog a circular rainbow, with four circles, one inside the other.

The outside and innermost ones were brightest, with all the rainbow colours. The third was coloured but fainter, and the second was a silvery lilac colour. Right in the centre was his own shadow: his hat, and his shoulders, and the barrel of the Crow's Nest, with his arms sticking over the top. A funny, wooden-looking little mannikin!

William stared at the rainbow rings, so ethereal, floating on their bed of vapour, yet so vivid and alive, coming and going, as if the colours were breathing.

Robert Frost's Iris By Night describes a similar incident of standing in a circular rainbow, but caused by moon-light on a dewy night:

It lifted from its dewy pediment
Its two mote-swimming many-coloured ends,
And gathered them together in a ring.
And we stood in it softly circled round

Eventually, with only rude rebuffs from the Admiralty, William explores and charts 400 miles of largely unknown Greenland coast. One long fiord, he named 'Scoresby Sound'.
The admiralty ignored his published journal and map, sending a later expedition to re-name the headlands and inlets!

This is reminiscent of the official treatment of fellow Yorkshire and Lincolnshire man, John Harrison's invention of sea-worthy time-keepers. Dava Sobel's best-selling Longtitude was also made into a tv play on the punishment by the unworthy of persevering genius.
He and his son, like the Scoresbys, were an example of the value of apprenticeships.

Dorothy Cowlin took this reviewer to see the elder Scoresby's birth-place, set on a bend in the river Severn in Yorkshire. Nowadays, the building is a holiday home, against one of the wooded hillsides to the river basin. This is an ancient sea floor once roamed by pre-historic sea monsters, ichthyosaurs. ( Skeletal remains grace the natural history section of Whitby museum. )

The house is a limestone oblong. It is like a winter barn, where the animals would be kept below and their fodder on top, or indeed the people who looked after them. Scoresby elder was a farm hand, whose education stopped at nine years.

The garden slopes to the river's edge near a ford. Above, is a meadow bank, surrounded by mature timber. Anemones run wild. Dorothy said Shelley called them 'wind-flowers' - the literal Greek meaning of their name. She would quote Shakespeare. And despite her deafness, she identified the call of the yaffle, as the green wood-pecker is locally known. Or, she would point out a nuthatch searching for insects under the bark of tall trees.

A Woman in the Desert.

The Story of Gertrude Bell
by Dorothy Cowlin.
Illustrated by Penny Carey.
First published by Frederick Muller in Great Britain in 1967. ( 182 pages ).

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Like William Scoresby, Gertrude Bell was a Yorkshire-born explorer. Again, Dorothy Cowlin tried to research original documents. But someone was already working on Bell's papers, in the possession of relatives.
Currently, there is a scholarly project to digitise the entire Gertrude Bell archive, so it should be available to everyone. This is a measure of her work's historic importance.

To attract child readers, Cowlin's Scoresby biography started with boyish enthusiasm for his father's voyaging. So, Cowlin's Bell biography starts off with girlish enthusiasm for her father's blast furnaces and rolling mills.

This unfashionable lack of sophistication reminds me of the pre-war story books, much-loved by my mother, which she won as prizes from The Yorkshire gazette. M E Fraser's The Madcap of the Family might have been named after Gertrude. Tho, her wild climb, of the family mansion, was understandably provoked by scaffolding being put up. She coaxed her younger brother to follow. He fell thru the conservatory roof.

Not surprisingly, Gertrude became a mountain climber, as well as a desert journeyer. What Cowlin calls 'her flawless courage' also perhaps accounts for her many friendships, not least with Arab tribes - that, combined with her linguistic abilities, and an interest in middle eastern history, not yet shared by the inhabitants.

Her fascination with ancient ruins in the deserts would culminate in founding the Iraq Museum, she wanted to be as splendid as the British museum. She would see to it that foreign-financed archeologists did not take more than their fair share of exhibits from their excavations.

Her expeditions proved to be the ( exhausting ) ground-work, in helping to prepare for independent Arab states, which the League of Nations gave British and French mandates for. Like T E Lawrence, Gertrude Bell was trusted in this endeavor. The Arabs' 'Daughter of the Desert' had become 'Mother of the Faithful', a great distinction.

Gertrude had started-off against womens suffrage, thinking women would have to prove themselves, rather than disgrace themselves with suffragette disturbances. Blessed with a wealthy and generous father, she paid for her adventures with the books she wrote. ( She was too modest to put her name to the first. )

She could hardly endure to be house-bound for a day, let alone be in purdah.
But, as an Arab friend told her: 'real freedom is not be given. It can only be taken.' Amongst such friends, Gertrude promoted education for girls, as well as boys, to give them enough outlook to, at least, want freedom.

Gertrude Bell shared the convention that marriage and children come first. But she was unlucky in love. Later, she fell in love with a married man. Dorothy Cowlin's biography doesnt mention this transgression in Christian society, tho nothing remarkable in Eastern societies.

Nowadays, Western society gets round its own ruling, with the serial polygamy of divorce and re-marriage, for those who can afford it.

Justly famous tho Gertrude Bell became, one can sympathise for her lack of personal fulfillment.

Dorothy Cowlin's third biography was about another scholarly woman, tho their physical conditions could not have been more different. The mountain and desert darer translated the Divan of Hafiz, Persia's most famous poet. The Koranic scholar A J Arberry reckoned it the best of some twenty such ventures into English.
The title of Bell's The Desert and the Sown, widely regarded as her best writing, comes from lines by Omar Khayyam:

The strip of herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown.

Dorothy Cowlin's third subject, the mostly invalid Elizabeth Barrett was both a translator of classical languages and a famous poet in her day.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

by Dorothy Cowlin.
( Illustrated by Sheila Bewley. )
First published by Frederick Muller, in Great Britain, 1968. ( 192 pages. )

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I twice failed to watch out the film adaptation of the successful play The Barretts of Wimpole Street. To me, it was as slow and dull as the real Elizabeth Barrett's bed-ridden years must have been.
In complete contrast, I found Dorothy Cowlin's biographical novel a breeze. The simple style and vivid scenes makes it leisure reading. The acute understanding of personal relationships makes the story absorbing.
As a typical boy barbarian, this book would have bored me. I would have had no difficulty understanding the facts, as stated to me. Emotionally, I dont think I would have understood or benefited, unfortunately.

Girls, not spoiled by a mean outlook, might appreciate Elizabeth Barrett's loving nature. This was not confined to family and friends. She threw her whole being as ardently into great public causes and suffered correspondingly.

Her wilful father used her love to limit her life to his wishes. It was long before she was lucky enough to find a lover to liberate and not jealously restrict her.
Moreover, love alleviated her chronic sickliness enough for the secret flight to Italy's healthier climate, newly betrothed to Robert Browning.

( One minor point: the Brownings' meeting with the medium, 'Hume' was actually Daniel Douglas Home. Robert Browning's animosity to him was not shared by his wife or his contemporaries. Indeed, Browning's reactions have been considered none too creditable. Nor was Home 'later thought to be a fraud.' Dorothy never thought much of spiritualist claims. )

Of course, Elizabeth's father was a pathological case in cutting off all his children, who dared to marry. He was a jealous household god, even by the standards of the Victorian patriarch. But he was still an object of filial piety, as Mr Dombey is to his daughter Florence, in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son.

Dickens had a dislikable side that forsook his wife for a secret affair. But, in Florence Dombey, he knew about the pathetic endurance of a child's undeniable love. Again, even by Victorian standards, Elizabeth Barrett gave a full measure of devotion. Unlike the fictional Dombey at last, her father was never reconciled to his once favorite daughter.

Dorothy Cowlin doesnt excuse the stress Mr Barrett unwittingly created in his household, by never consulting his children on his intentions. Tho he favored the great Reform Bill, he was not 'parliamentary' towards them. He was paternal enough - too paternal, perhaps, when parents cannot ever conceive of their offspring as anything but children.

From the age of six, when he jokingly called her ' Poet Laureate of Hope End', Elizabeth's father encouraged her precosity. Scholarship and literature took up her long years of confinement.
In the nineteenth century, the novel became as much a woman's work as a man's. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a forerunner of those British writers who would earn women equal recognition with men as poets.

These pages are a study of Dorothy Cowlin as one such poet. So, it is of interest to quote her assessment of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Born with a generous, passionately loving heart, and a fine brain, cruelly pent up in the frailest of bodies, she had put up a gallant fight for at least forty of those fifty-five years, and come at last to most of what her heart had desired.

On the day of her funeral the shops near Casa Guidi were all closed in mourning. The Florentine newspapers announced her death as that of 'the greatest living woman poet, and a true friend of the Italian cause'.

The first item in this praise would have delighted her somewhat less than the second.
...too often the praise was for a woman poet...
She is remembered chiefly as the female partner in the most famous love affair in English literature.

Certainly a great deal of her poetry looks, to the twentieth-century eye, more than a little facile, sentimental and 'dated'. But there are many flashes of original, striking, even startlingly modern imagery, some daring experiments with rhyme and metre, much humour and much wisdom, for the careful reader.

Aurora Leigh, some of the shorter lyrics, and most of Sonnets from the Portuguese are well worth a look.

And there are no love-letters in the English language quite like hers...

Dorothy Cowlin shows how, against all the odds, love found a way with Robert and Elizabeth ( who called herself 'the Portuguese' because of her looks ).
The novel form allows our sympathies to participate in this romance, which is nevertheless true and instructive.

Note on spiritualism of Rupert Brooke.

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You only have to compare the Brownings' lasting relationship, of reciprocated ardor, with an affair in 1912, not uncovered till march 2000. The British Library released the letters of Rupert Brooke to the artist, Phyllis Gardner, and her memoir of the poet. ( The relationship featured in their 2000 exhibition, Chapter and Verse: 1000 years of English Literature. )

Brooke describes himself as a 'wanderer' who belongs to nobody. He is the classic 'lady-killer' or serial lover. She is over-whelmed by him and holds out for marriage. He is under-whelmed and must be perfectly free.
( From article by Andrew Wilson, Daily Telegraph, 11 march 2000. )

Wilson comments that Brooke's death seems to have 'unhinged' Phyllis. A more likely explanation is that the lovers had an agreement that if Rupert died, his apparition might visit her: ' the sign was to be if I actually saw a waking vision of him.' Credence is lent to this interpretation by Brooke's poems such as Hauntings and 'Sonnet' ( Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research ).

Young Dorothy Cowlin's 'pin-up' was Rupert Brooke ( called, by Yeats, the handsomest man in England ). When the poet of '1914' did die on a hospital ship in 1915, Churchill ensured he was buried in the nearest 'foreign field', a Greek island.

In Cowlin's novel, The Slow Train Home, she quotes Brooke:


Down the blue night the unending columns press
In noiseless tumult, break and wave and flow,
Now tread the far South, or lift rounds of snow
Up to the white moon's hidden loveliness.
Some pause in their grave wandering comradeless,
And turn with profound gesture vague and slow,
As who would pray good for the world, but know
Their benediction empty as they bless.

They say that the Dead die not, but remain
Near to the rich heirs of their grief and mirth.
I think they ride the calm mid-heaven, as these,
In wise majestic melancholy train,
And watch the moon, and the still-raging seas,
And men, coming and going on the earth.

This is another sonnet influenced by spiritualist ideas, to grand effect.

Brooke was only 26 yet had achieved mastery of this difficult form. He projects his lucid feelings on the night clouds, as surely as the sun projects its light on the moon. But he does so, observant of how clouds actually behave. This lends a dignified restraint that prevents romance from becoming merely effusive.

Brooke's metaphor makes an earnest point, whether or not one chooses to regard it as a supernatural fancy. This explicit message does not detract from the scenic description but transfigures it with potent meaning.


Queen of Egypt.
A biographical novel by Dorothy Cowlin.
First published in Great Britain ( 1970 ) by Wayland ( Publishers ) Ltd. ( 144 pages. )

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Fanny Davenport as Cleopatra

Little is known about the legendary Queen of the Nile. This novel version is told from the woman's point of view. It is a good corrective to the male-centred dramas of Shakespeare and Shaw. Also, Cowlin's version follows events more closely than dramatic neatness would allow.

The purpose of 'faction', a blend of fact and fiction is not so much to make things up about historical figures we dont know properly. Educated guesswork does come into it. The author is trying to reconstruct what life was like for the characters. The reader is put in their shoes. She shares their experiences and follows where they go. She has to make the same life-or-death decisions.

Dorothy Cowlin does this as well as the best of them, James Michener, 'the professor' himself. Duties of state, religious observances, climate, food and dress, manners and customs, economics, battle tactics are not presented as a chronicle but as enjoyment and ordeal.

This kind of reading is education, in the best sense, for the whole person. It is suitable for adults and children at secondary school age. ( Tho, some younger children, who like reading, might enjoy it, too. ) Like Cleopatra, Cowlin's biography doesnt show its age. Certainly, it would be worth re-printing as an informative introduction to one of the most famous women in history.

Plutarch describes Caesar's Gallic campaign as bringing the treacherous to civility. To do this, he stormed above eight hundred cities, killed a million in battle and took as many prisoners.
Roman Imperialism came home to roost in chronic civil war. Dynastic ambition and treachery characterise the age. Mark Anthony's alliance with Cleopatra was tested, when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra alone ( formally ). And Cleopatra was in turn tested, with an offer of 'every reasonable favour' if she would put Anthony to death.

Do You Remember? Pickering 50 Years Ago.

60 pages. Blackthorn Press. 2000.

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This is a selection of 25 articles from The Malton Gazette & Herald. Malton is a small Ryedale town, mentioned in Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies. It boasts a Dickensian connection, because the great man stopped there on his Yorkshire trip.

Dorothy Cowlin's collection of nostalgic journalism continues her biographies. For, it is a recollection of local people and places, centred on Pickering, circa 1950. Her husband taught there and at Thornton Le Dale. Dorothy started as a teacher before becoming a professional writer.

The change in the provisions for schooling and shopping are commented on, as are the people who provided them. For recreation, Dorothy might have said, but didnt, that people entertained themselves, as well as were entertained. But, apparently, there wasnt much local interest, then, in concerts.
( Dorothy doesnt say she played the piano and has played with other amateur musicians, privately. ) There were amateur dramatics. Festival and fair are freshly remembered.

The Helmsley pageant was scripted by Sir Herbert Read, the poet and art critic. A local man, his gravestone also testifies to his being an 'anarchist'. This is not in her social history. But Dorothy took me to see, and that is the best way of confirming facts.

She consulted her diaries and local people, as well as her memories. At least one mistake in her articles was corrected by readers of the paper, before the booklet came out. This was useful, because it is essential to check one's facts for a printed record.

Dorothy describes this period with her husband and young daughter as the happiest years of her life. In faraway corners, as the feet tread, they would stop for rustic teas, a rare treat in those years of austerity. 'The House in the Wood' is the story of how they found a lonely homestead, they later learned was where William Scoresby the elder was born.
Her biography of his son is reviewed above.

We've had poems on the under-ground. Perhaps, some publisher will anthologise the poems resulting from train journeys. On another page, I discussed closely Larkin's The Whitsun Weddings. Several of Dorothy Cowlin's poems are seen 'from a train', including her prize-winning Pennine Tunnel.

Her short introductory article, 'To Pickering By Rail' is a beautiful poem in prose. She picks out the oddities and distinctive character of the period. She does not need to strive to be authentic as nostalgic film sets do.

'The angel in marble' is seen by the sculptor, cutting with the grain of the wood or seem of the stone.
Sometimes, poets, like sculptors, may cut too much. At any rate, a poetic evocation of an event may not exhaust its interest. The born stylist Simon Armitage wrote a poem called The Tyre, in his collection Cloud-cuckoo Land. Even he felt the need to re-tell the story, with personal back-ground, in his first collection of prose, All Points North.

Back-grounds to some of Dorothy's poems can be gleaned, for instance, the one she wrote about a newly discovered Roman floor mosaic. A workman at Malton museum assured her it would be the sight of a lifetime - rightly as it turned out.

The article on Pickering Castle is less like the recent past than a fairy tale and an idyll. It wouldnt be out of place in a collection of poetry.

Richard Lung

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