Monday, August 10, 2009

Going Back to the Findlaters

On my recent Edinburgh visit I sought out the old home of the then rather famous early C20 novelist sisters, Mary and Jane Findlater. Harlawhill House is in Prestonpans - it's still standing and has Historic building status, but is in rather a sorry state.
Before the visit I found that the sisters had moved down to Torbay and lived and wrote in Paignton for several years. The opening of their co-written novel Crossriggs (written in 1907 and published just over one hundred years ago in 1908) was begun whilst they were living in Devon. The novel evokes a powerful spirit of place, (not that of the Devon countryside but that of the Lowlands to the East of Edinburgh). It is an intriguing possibility that for some (displaced) writers the imagination works harder and produces more intense and vivid presentations of the recollected past when the person writing is living in another place; or as the Findlaters put it themselves at the start of the novel:
Romance I think, is like the rainbow, always a little away from the place where you stand. So the old days at Crossriggs may have been no more interesting than the present – perhaps it is only the distance of years that makes the picture so vivid. Yet surely certain places, certain periods of time are touched with interest independent of the glamour of the past? O cold north wind from the sea, did you ever then blow through the tree-tops without the twang of a musical note in your sound! Was the winter sunshine not suffused with some magic even on the fallow fields, or when it fell across the broad, irregular street?
You can find some thoughtful insights on this novel, and the sisters (plus photos), at this Rough Draft blog. I guess the opening scenes of the novel, although not specified, were based on the Lothian locality.
The vividness of the dual authors' opening evocation of their novel's setting in  Crossriggs suggests that they were able to take a narrative plunge into scenic re-enactment, from the vantage point of authorial distance and time. There is a suggestion of an intense magical transfusion, which has made it possible for the writer/s to escape into the inner regions of the lost and beloved landscape of her/their childhood and to cross-project that place on to the blank-screen of the canvas of her/their present – which for the Findlaters at that time seems to have been the dining-table in the room of their home in Torbay - far from their Scottish roots!
The sisters first came to Devon in 1899, when it was decided their mother needed a warmer climate. After taking a cottage at Beer, where they stayed in a 'shabby old villa' they moved on to Torbay, living variously in both Torquay (Mount Stuart and Higher Woodfield Road) and Paignton, at Southfield Mount. They loved the little house in Paignton, with its 'little courtyard an minute garden [which was] raised like a balcony'.
Some years later they moved to Sussex and eventually returned to their Scottish roots, back to Perthshire, in 1940.

Info. re the sisters is to be found in Eileen Mackenzie, The Findlater Sisters; Literature and Friendship (Murray, 1964).

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