Wednesday, March 25, 2009

M. P. Willcocks was a Writer from the West



Some time ago I posted extracts from a cluster of poems of mine inspired by one of the novels and the life of the Devonian writer Mary P. Willcocks who was born in 1869 140 years ago. Some ten years older than Mary Webb by 1908 - by which time she had completed two novels - Willcocks had established a status as an esteemed national writer of fiction. The writer was born and spent most of her life in Devon and there is some justification for a consideration of her writing as being as significant to Devon as was Webb's to Shropshire; it is in any case quite possible that Webb was influenced by Willcocks' work whilst she was completing the first of her novels (The Golden Arrow). Willcocks' novels - though they are not restricted to the county - do on the whole focus around the Devonian scapes of moor and sea and her stories are awash with local (late C19/early C20 ) and mostly rural characters. As a Devonian I would love to have had the opportunity to read her novels some years ago. During times when I have turned to Mary Webb, looking for someone who was able to bind external landscapes to internal manifestations of personality and plot - and finding in her just that ability to capture the timeless essence of a particular scene and mould it so as to transform her characters into seemingly real people one could have met at the time and inevitably drawing one to make visits to the Shropshire places which inspired her - it would have been even better if Willcocks' novels had been available because in them more local Devon scenic representations are there to be cherished and identified with. In them a contemporary women reader would have found strong female characters who again and again re-affirmed their links with the maternal past of the 'corner of earth' from their origins in the southern part of Devon.


It is always fascinating to keep an eye on the way that fashion (the literary canon) changes according to whim and taste as the decades go on, and recently, rather surprisingly, in the Guardian Books Blog Mary Webb has been re-assessed as 'brighter and better' - than Hardy with his Dorset associations. Willcocks is a writer who should by rights be re-established as one of Devon's foremost writers of fiction in the early 1900's. You should find here several reviews of the time which indicate how Willcocks - labelled in 1913 as 'essentially of the School of West Country novelists' - was viewed by contemporary critics; it is incredible to think that a writer of her then status should have been erased from the local literary canon so rapidly.

I came across Willcocks by means of serendipity when I was in one of the Devon libraries looking up someone else; a poster had been left asking if anyone was interested in Devon's 'lost feminist writer'; of course I was and I have to thank Bob Mann for this introduction to the writer. He has since written of her in several local magazines and as far as I know is the only person at present promoting her and her books. You should find details of his book on Ivybridge which gives an account of the novelist's life and books. There was an article in The Devonian Yearbook in 1913 by the then City Librarian of Exeter, H. Tapley-Soper, which assessed her work up until then and as Mann himself noted, a box of manuscripts and letters about the writer is held at the Devon Record Office.

Mary Willcocks was born on a farm at Cleave, near Ivybridge and many scenes from her novels are set in that part of the county - although the geographical range of her fictional landscapes extend far from her home county. What particularly interests me are the ways that novelists negotiate the boundaries between the real and fictional in their choice of place and character names - some disguising completely any link between a real life or place and its fictional representation; some enhancing the original names and others deliberately playing on encoded symbolic links so as to intensify dynamics of the plot and narrative. Willcocks frequently makes use of the novelist's ploy of shuffling around names and places so that real people and places are not always easily identified and yet special significance is often encoded within her cleverly chosen names. The title of her first book Widdicombe for example - which was published in 1905, when the writer was in her thirties - ingeniously incorporates the ambiance of the famous Dartmoor village (actually spelt Widecombe) whilst not in fact being set there. (Interestingly there is a Widdicombe (hamlet?) which is a mile or two south-west of Torcross). Perhaps Willcocks guessed that selecting that name as a title would attract readers, who would assume the book to be about Dartmoor's most famous village. Perhaps also she intended to deepen the emotive connotations associated with this village at the heart of the moorland. In the novel the plot evolves around the family of the elderly curate Mr Rosdew, his daughter Genefer and his nieces Silphine and Rosemary, all of them well-differentiated and richly portrayed; the surrounding rural landscapes are throughout evoked as reflections and projections of a character's inner-scape.

Mann and Tapley-Soper identify Willcock's 'Widdicombe' as based on the village of Yealmpton a village just to the south of the writer's childhood home. Liskeard and the surrounding area - as Liskerret, (which was I understand the original designation of that town)- also features later in the book when Silphine, the main character, moves there. Apparently Willcocks stayed there many times. Did she, I wonder, actually stay at St CleerLiskeard) from where 'north and south of the high tableland where the cottage stood was the sea'. The novel is centred around its original source-village of Yealmpton, but the heart of its action features another location which it seems to me (have not come upon anyone else's comments about this) is probably derived from another village close to Willcocks's own roots - Cornwood - which also features in a later book of hers and is to the north of Ivybridge and her home-farm Cleave.

In the novel the locality between Cornwood and Ivybridge is suggested by the manor home of the 'Calmady' family home of 'Foxes Woodland' and the associated 'old manor-house tumbling to ruin [that's] been a farm since the Calmadys removed to Foxes Woodland, where 'Raleigh' was supposed 'to have played bowls and smoked ... and said his prayers in the Chapel' . Scenic details of the locality describe the 'southern edge of the moorland marked by a ring of tors' and it is 'close to the waters of the Widey' (in the novel the river Widey is the Yealm). These topographical sitings fit into the Cornwood location. More than that, the manor of Fardel in the village had a chapel and was associated with the Raleigh family; probably Willcocks had visited the place as a youngster and knew it well.

A similar transferal of names and real people probably happens with the characters in the novel; Willcocks herself admitted that after publication 'the original of Granny Rosdew' (one of the significant of the women in the book - based on the writer's own Grandmother perhaps?) 'sent for me [and] We had a heart to heart talk and she called me an "impudent hussy" ... the twinkle in her eye consoled me, all the same'.

There is at least one character in the novel whose name and fictional representation is one and the same - the writer makes no effort to disguise Dr Budd - whose reputation in the book is described as 'the cult of the famous West Country doctor [which] seems likely to be handed down to children's children'

I could happily continue musings about this novel and writer - there is much to say - but this is supposed to be a blog and I must anyway go and look out another book and forgotten writer for next time. Maybe one or two who find this will be tempted to hunt out Willcocks' first novel and savour its Devon links.


(picture of M.P. Willcocks is reproduced above, Courtesy of Westcountry Studies Library, Exeter.)