Thursday, January 07, 2010

Devon women writers, Lives and Texts: Some 2010 anniversaries

The Poems and Prose of Mary, Lady Chudleigh (Women Writers in English 1350-1950)Three hundred years ago, the poet Mary Lady Chudleigh, (who should be one of Devon's treasured writers) - known for her poem To the Ladies - died in Exeter on 15th December 1710. She had been an invalid, confined to her room for several months and was buried in Ashton without any monument or inscription. The second edition of her poems had been published the year before she died and was reprinted several times. My edition of her Selected Poems was published by Shearsman last year. Also see Ezell's edition published in 1993.
One hundred years ago, in 1910: the novel The Way Up was published by John Lane; it was written by the then acclaimed local writer Mary Patricia Willcocks. Here is a contemporary review of the novel from The New York Times. Willcocks' translation of L’Orme du mail (The Elm-Tree on the Mall) by Anatole France - part one of his L’Histoire contemporaine (A Chronicle of Our Own Times), came out the same year. Also 100 years ago, Voices of the Vision of the Night, a mystical book/essay by Mary Leopoldina Williamson, using the pen-name of West J. Quiddington, was published. Williamson was an aunt of the more famous Henry Williamson. Look at the Henry Williamson site  for information about how her text became a formative influence on his writing. And, Jessie Pope, (see Poor Old Jessie Pope), the Daily Mail's favourite patriotic world war one poet, died at Broom Hill House in Chagford, in December 1941; it's not known how long she lived in Devon. Her illustrated book of verse for children Babes and Birds had been published in 1910.

Back in 1860, 150 years ago,  Over the Cliffs the only novel by the writer Charlotte Chanter (who was known for her Ferney Combes which came out a few years earlier; see an earlier blog entry here), was published and was reputedly a best-seller. You can read a contemporary review of the novel published in The Westminster Review
Coming a little closer to the present, fifty years ago in 1960, and a trio of significant entries, given that the three women writers concerned are the most acclaimed and recognised by the default canon: Jean Rhys moved to 3 Landboat Bungalows in Cheriton Fitzpaine, in Devon and there completed Wide Sargasso Sea, the prequel to Bronte's Jane Eyre, by 1966.
Rhys stayed in Devon and died there almost twenty years later. There are so many sites about Rhys and her work and I am not going to add to them here, but will instead link to my previous post on the writer.

A collection of Agatha Christie's short stories, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrees was published on October 24th 1960. It was the only Christie first edition to contain stories involving both of her two most famous detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple, and sold in the UK for 12 shillings and 6 pence. The collection contained several cases, including: Mystery of the Spanish Chest; The Under-Dog; Four and Twenty Blackbirds; The Dream and Greensham's Folly. Christie, Devon's most famous woman writer died 12th January 1976.
... And, a pertinent end, given the present prevailing icy weather - two texts by  Sylvia Plath were published, 1960 - the collection Colossus was published on October 31, by William Heinemann and a limited copy of a single poem 'The Winter Ship' published by Tragara, an Edinburgh press.
Plath and her husband Ted Hughes had not yet moved to North Tawton in Devon, but their daughter Frieda was born in April that year and by the following August they had bought and moved to their new home, Court Green in that market town and their son Nicholas was born there in January 1962. Some of Plath's late poems, such as 'Winter Trees', were directly inspired by local seasonal scenic phenomena, which she must have noted during the winter of 1962, for by the following notorious Big Freeze of 1963 - that lasted throughout that January and February - she had left Devon, for good. Several sources suggest she had planned to return to Court Green in Spring that year. In 'Wintering', one of her last poems, the poet muses on winter as metaphor -''Winter is for women/ ... her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think' and meditates on the house she has left behind, hibernating in Devon - 'Will the hive survive' ... where gladiolas are storing their 'fires' for another year:

'What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the Spring.

The poem's ironic painful poignancy and Plath's tortured absence  is picked up and emphasised by Hughes' much later and intertextual  'Robbing Myself', from Birthday Letters, in which Hughes/poet-persona describes driving along the A30 during the 'worst snow and freeze-up for fifteen years', to steal into the abandoned house 'in the blue December twilight'; there he 'inspected my gladioli bulbs', then 'crept through the house ... a ghostly trespasser ...  made newly precious to me/by your last lonely weeks there, and your crying'.
    The fate of the marriage is already sealed as the poet shuts himself out again from the house, which is 'shuttered by wintering boughs', locks the door and peers back into through the keyhole into the 'darkened, hushed, safe casket', unaware that he, (and Devon), 'had already lost his treasure'.

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