Dorothy's school days: The House By The River.

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An early life in novel form.

On my review page of Dorothy Cowlin's novels, I related how she ceased to become published. Rejections turned her to writing for the sake of it, about her early life. By the time she'd finished, she thought this was rather good, and decided to try and get it published -- as one does.

Her old publisher answered: It all seems so long ago.

Roundabout 1960, Britain broke with its past. It was not a good time to look back -- unless in anger.

Another publisher said that her story wasnt to the taste of the times. People like excitement and adventure. The appetite for action, as in the movies, never wanes. To appreciate Dorothy Cowlin you have to believe, as Arnold Bennett did, in the interestingness of things about one. They may seem common-place and boring, but time lends them a romantic distance.

In 1960, people may have wished to turn their back on the pre-war era. By 2002, there is scarcely any need to break with it. It is almost out of reach. As soon as we cannot have something, we begin to wonder whether we have lost things worth having. And this is likely to be true of any era, even if, on balance, we might be incomparably better off than Dorothy Cowlin's family living in very ordinary circumstances. ( Most of the world is far poorer, still, it has to be said. )

What has been lost, perhaps, is a certain simplicity and self-sufficiency. Dorothy's grand-father hadnt lost his farming roots. He supplemented the house-hold economy with a vegetable garden.

The classic movies of Dickens' novels, by directors such as David Lean have an authentic touch that it seems will never be matched. As time goes by, the past seems to become alien and unreal. Attempts to reach it are transparently our own era looking in the mirror at itself in period costumes.

Reading Dorothy Cowlin's story is essentially a novel experience. She was still wanting to write novels even when they were no longer wanted. So, she turned her autobiography into one. She was doing the same as Clive James in his Unreliable Memoirs. Memory, being unreliable, is like fiction. He said that most writers really wanted their novels to be autobiography, whereas he wanted his autobiography to be a novel.

Cowlin's and James' novelistic memoirs follow the tradition of the father of the English novel, Daniel Defoe. They are first person narratives which allow you to enter the life of another's mind. In a sense they are fiction, since we cannot do that. But also, for that reason, they project a greater sense of reality than that social historian, who gives an objective account of past living conditions.

Cowlin lives up to Defoe's legacy of meticulous attention to detail of her surroundings. Her descriptions of contemporary housing conditions, domestic amenities, all the different types of upholstery or dress fabrics provides a most convincing stage set of the mind. I doubt a social history could give more information per page or put it so well in context.
( There is more to be got out of re-reading The House By The River than the first readings of most literature. )

However, attention to detail ran away with Tolkien's story-telling. In providing so solid a back-drop that the reader, as imaginary actor, need not fear to lean against for falling out, only The Hobbit and the Ring epic got really lived out in the imagination.

Consider JRR Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings and The Silmarilion. The one is a novel, the other a myth, tho their stories coincide. Tolkien's myth has the most tenuous link with old England of the shires. It owes much to old England's own myths, particularly the first example of English literature, Beowulf.

The first part of The Rings has been likened to Tolkien's England of the nineteen thirties. For this reason, it has been claimed that Tolkien would be more at home in New Zealand, where the film was shot, than in modern England. At any rate, Tolkien's opening chapters betray a love-hate relation with pre-war provincialism. It seems as comfortable and certain as a dream. But the author is far from cosy with some of his neighbors. A cutting sarcasm is at war with their mean and petty tricks.

The departure of Frodo Baggins from his fellow hobbits is a shocking breach of the barest civility, when he literally disappears on them. He is practically saying that they are incapable of being moved by anything. He has to go out to meet the fearsome events closing in on them.

Tolkien invests the wide world with gothic glamor. Meanwhile, back in the old English shire, Lincolnshire to be exact, there remains a traditional topic for romance beyond his power to imagine, namely the mind of a growing girl.

Male writers have attempted this with well-deserved success, by assimilating research with sympathy. One might mention Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha or David Guterson's Snow Falling On Cedars, the latter involving a Japanese American girl.
All I can say is, when a woman, as introspective as Cowlin, tells it herself, it is different!

An over-worked conscience.

Cowlin's finished account, of growing-up, differs from the version I remember before 1990. She told me on the phone, with the earnest hesitation of a soul-searching puritan, that she had tried to write honestly about her girlhood.
Instead of venting a derisive bark, I just said that I'd heard of a monster of iniquity but she was a monster of honesty.

Not that she has any thing bad to say about any one. She hasnt. The characters are drawn with the observant eye of a novelist. They are real people who live and die like you and I. They go by their own names. The reflective author merely questions whether certain exhanges were quite as they might have been.

She says she was used mainly to being with older people. Her soft-hearted ex-sergeant of a grand-father is particularly endearing.
Those described are mostly adults, her aging little family circle in Grantham. She gratefully remembers their care of her. But her cloistered youth must be unimaginable to most succeeding generations of girls.

Dorothy tells of her own infatuations with her teachers, which were fashionable with the girls. There is a remarkably good characterisation of such idolatry in H G Wells' 1918 novel, Joan and Peter. It's all the more remarkable for the lack of good female characters in most of his output.

Dorothy's most searching critique is reserved for herself. Presumably, being always in her own company, she has the most opportunity for putting herself on trial -- a sort of Bleak House Jarndyce vs Jarndyce conducted against herself. In other words, Dorothy is a serious introvert. Or rather, that is the side of her character uppermost in her early memoirs.

By the way, this is the only part of her life story she wished to publish. C S Lewis said it is always by far the best part: Lewis' law, as I have called it elsewhere. He refused to go beyond his youthful memories, in Surprised by Joy.

Dorothy is definitely not the Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes when Anita Loos has the two gold-diggers visit Dr Freud, who advises the blonde to pick up some inhibitions.

At Kesteven and Grantham Girls school, we hear more about Dorothy's best friend than any of the other girls. ( And even that relation was started by Dorothy's uncle considerately arranging the matter with the best friend's father. )

Living in her mind, rather than others' society may have had to do with her easily excelling in her lessons. She doesnt sound much fun. You perhaps wouldnt guess her cheerful disposition. It's only a toned-down version of the arch humor, evident from a school girl's essay, Dorothy doesnt quote.

If any thing makes you smile, in her life story, it is the abnormal sensitivity of childhood and youth to trivial embarrassments, naive indiscretions and irritating follies. Tho, this becomes fateful error of judgement in choosing the subject for the scholarship she won.

Dorothy Cowlin, nature poet.

Dorothy Cowlin quotes a little of her first lines of poetry, the worst of it. It is perhaps typical of her that she doesnt show the best of it, not even the good bad poetry of inexperienced ambition with talent, from which her enthusiasm for words is infectious. Apparently beyond the pale was her prize-winning translation of a poem by Lamartine, given by head-mistress and incomparable ice-skater, Miss Williams.

Dorothy's talent as a nature poet is again evident in The House By The River. The river was the Witham and the house's quiet garden reaches first brought out the unskilled poet. I 'commissioned' ( that is, more or less begged ) her to do verse versions of her described awakenings to natural beauty.

I suggested one of these awakenings be called The March Hare Discovers Contemplation, because it began with her haring about on the hockey field, as usual without getting anywhere near the ball. Dorothy was hopeless at all sports and an odd one out of team selections. Sent down to the lower field to practise dribbling, she absent-mindedly discovered with a shock that elm trees flower. In the distance was the cathedral-like spire of St Wulfram's...
She was considered unworldly, bookish and impractical.

Oddly enough, an outcome of these memoirs was a rare personal poem about Aunt Adelaide. The poem cut her free from her prosaic life of hardship and made her into a legend.

She was an aunt in name only, till she married Dorothy's uncle, who fostered her. The biography is a memorial to him, William Exton.

Dorothy's early life story is a data-dense historical source. Better than that, it is a substantial prose poem. Two of my favorite passages follow. The first occured on the day she was due to take a spoken French examination:

It was a perfect summer's morning, hot and still, with a band of almost purple sky along the horizon, like a sediment filtered down to the bottom of the great dome of lucent blue. The cuckoo's season was nearly over, but as I climbed Hall's Hill I heard one stammering his goodbyes, from a little copse of ash trees. Cows stood as if bewitched, knee-deep in buttercups and sorrel.

Along the top of the hill ran the old Roman road unmacadamised, soft to the foot with creamy lime-dust, patched with blue shadows of beeches overhanging one side. Half way along the road was a small abandoned limestone quarry, and for no particular reason I turned in at a broken fence to have a look at it.

Scarcely had I stepped inside, when I felt myself, as it were, soaring upwards on a column of wonder.

This was only an old quarry. All there was to look at was a semicircular wall of limestone, a blue sky, and a few hardy little hawthorns, poised on the edge of the cliff as if about to throw themselves over.

But the colour of the stone! The fierce, incandescent creamy-white of it, against the intensity of blue within blue within blue of the sky! More than that -- a sort of breath-held stillness and expectancy, such as sometimes came at the bottom of the garden -- but never so strongly as now. Something, surely, was about to happen?

Something did happen. A yellowhammer alighted on a branch of hawthorn, and began to declaim.

I had heard plenty of yellowhammers before, and had duly been instructed by my uncle that they were singing -- "A little bit of bread and no cheese!"

But I had never before seen one in the act of singing. And I had never before seen a yellowhammer like this one: surely a bird fresh from the hands of its Maker, ready for Paradise?

I stared, watching its little soft throat of gold vibrating with the thrust of its song, and the way it turned its head every now and then between staves, to dip its beak into its blazing plumage.

This was no song of "bread and cheese". Nothing so prosaic could come from such a throat.

I stared and listened, lost in my eyes and ears, til the bird jumped from its perch, leaving the branch gently bouncing, as if meditatively weighing the infinitessimal burden lifted from it.

Then I looked at my watch, and was stricken with dismay.

The next and final quotation is near the end of the story, when Dorothy is in transition to adulthood. She could not remember the vision of the owl, some thirty years after her first written version of the book, and came to doubt its authenticity. All I can say is if it didnt happen, it should have happened:

My parents found a newly built house at Swanpool, on the outskirts of Lincoln, with a view across fields of the Cathedral...

I loved being able to walk straight out into a field from the front door, and to cycle along white, unmetalled, almost traffic-free lanes, very like the old Roman road at Grantham. There was a large pool a few fields away, with a fringe of willows, and a rich fauna of dragon-flies of many colours: small, filmy blue ones, large peacock green, or homely brown ones, and some with bodies of metallic pink. You could hear larks first thing in the morning. At nights the windows were beseiged by hosts of plush-winged ruby-eyed moths. Once an owl came and sat on top of my open casement window, staring at me in my bed.

Richard Lung.
May and 21 October 2002.

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