Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Handful of 2012 Anniversaries: Devon Women Writers; Names and Texts.

50 years ago:
Rosemary Manning published a fictionalised account of her school in Devon, which she named Bampfield, in her novel The Chinese Garden (1962); she later wrote an autobiography, A Corridor of Mirrors which was published 25 years ago, in 1987. Manning herself had spent much of her early life in Devon. Her parents often stayed at a rented cottage in the High Street in Clovelly. She later boarded at Bampfield School for Girls, said to be in Somerset, whose name and location disguised the real location of the place at the historic Poltimore College, near Exeter. Consequently a lot of readers since have assumed the book to be set in Somerset, rather than Devon. See A Devon House; The Story of Poltimore by Jocelyn Hemming, for the history of the house and its time as girls' school.
Poltimore gardens in the early C20Acknowledgement to the Poltimore Landscape website  and see here about the latest conservation plans for Poltimore House. Manning’s experience at Poltimore/ Bampfield turned out to be so traumatic that she later turned it into fiction. The Chinese Garden conjures a corrupt school based in a crumbling estate, where ‘the physical standards are those of Dartmoor, the religion perverted, and the games mistress a sadist’ (Chinese Garden, chapter 8).
Manning’s autobiography A Corridor of Mirrors was published 25 years ago, in 1987.

 100 years ago:
Mary Patricia Willcocks’ novel, Wings of Desire was published in 1912. Here is a previous post on Willcocks and here a long poem I wrote after reading Wings of Desire. In the novel scenes extend from Devon’s coasts to the Magellan Straits, yet the crux of the emotional encounter between two key characters, Archer and Molly, happens in the vicinity of what is now Meldon reservoir, beneath what was in the early C20 the atmospheric gorge, under Longstone Hill. The valley, running along the West Okement river, is known locally as Dartmoor’s valley of the rocks; semi-fictionalised by Willcocks as the ‘Enchanted Valley’, it becomes both a place of ‘quietude’ for Molly, (who in today’s terminology is stressed out), as well as a site that is used to mirror the fluctuating emotions of the impending lovers.

Around Meldon and under Longstone 

Rosa Caroline Praed, (1851-1935), Australian novelist, published Our Book of Memories; Letters of Justin McCarthy to Mrs Campbell Praed, in 1912. The book is about her long-standing friendship with Irish politician, historian and writer, Justin McCarthy, who had written extensively to her on the progress of the Home Rule debate of the 1880s. They had collaborated on four books. Praed spent her last years in Devon. She moved to Torquay, Devon, in the early 1920s and lived quietly there with a psychic and medium, Nancy Harward - see a portrait of Nancy at Wikimedia  - until the latter's death in 1927. Then followed a further eight years of loneliness and illness. When Praed died on 10 April 1935, her three sons were already dead and her daughter Maud, who had been born deaf, was in an asylum. (Information on her life from Australian Dictionary of Biography, where you can find a portrait of the writer).

May Sinclair, who earlier in her career had lived in Devon, near Sidmouth –see blogpost on Novelist at Sidmouth – published three texts in 1912. One was  a short story, The Flaw in the Crystal. In her account of this story Suzanne Rait says: that it “describes the inner corruption of healer Agatha Verrall, whose failure to keep her own thoughts chaste allows the evil personality of one of her patients to merge with her own”. (See May Sinclair). Read The Flaw in the Crystal here at ReadCentral and also on many other online web-sites. The story begins:
‘It was Friday, the day he always came, if (so she safeguarded it) he was to come at all. They had left it that way in the beginning, that it should be open to him to come or not to come. They had not even settled … ‘
 The second text published in 1912 was Sinclair’s novel The Three Sisters, which draws on the life of the Bronte sisters. Lastly, In 1912 Sinclair wrote Feminismfor the Women Writers' Suffrage League, of which she was a member. This feminist pamphlet was written in response to an anti-suffrage article that had appeared in The Times, by Sir Almroth Wright. Sinclair later wrote The Tree of Heaven in which Dorothea, one of the  characters, takes part in the movement for suffrage. 
 These three texts taken together sum up Sinclair’s interests and preoccupations during that period:
‘the science of psychology, her participation in the fiery debates on feminism, and her thorough research in the lives and works of the Bronte sisters …’ See James J Miracky Regenerating the novel: gender and genre in Woolf, Forster, Sinclair, and Lawrence, p 168.
May Sinclair was born in 1862, 150 years ago.

 150 years ago:
Beatrice or Beatrix F. Cresswell, historian/writer, was born in 1862. Cresswell was evidently a prolific writer and you will find names of texts by her dotted all over cyberspace. For example, here is her Amazon Author page. Unfortunately, Cresswell’s evident productivity is not matched by any corresponding outpouring of information about her, her life, her writing, or her family. As yet I do not even know where she was born, or anything about her, other that her father, Richard Cresswell, was a clergyman. SHE is missing amidst the dark holes of lost Devonian history, even though the time-scale of her career is not long ago, for her death was apparently in 1940. She is of the same generation as my grandparents, just a stone’s throw of time away, so the absence is strange and only to be explained by the fate of so may female writers, which is to disappear from the face of the canon of literature.  At times in my own research Beatrix Cresswell’s writing has been both serendipitous and a godsend at a critical moment when some detail of a life or place is elusively absent. Her piece about Umberleigh Chapel  for example, filled me in with vital historical contexts and fascinating facts about that site when I was working on the Bassetts’ correspondence. As well as books she wrote many papers for the Devonshire Association, which were published in their Transactions and others which were placed in Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries - see on Devon History Society Page.
One day, when I have more time, I intend to begin a Beatrix Cresswell quest. It will start at the Devon Record Office, where I know they keep her manuscripts, journals and other documents (See lists on the National Archives site). Meanwhile, if anyone out there can begin to fill in some gaps about her life please let me know and I will begin to fill in her so far almost blank-page on my list of blog-posts.

 Elizabeth Rundle Charles, (1828-1896): Charles’ Chronicles of Schonberg Otta family, was first published in 1862. This fictional account of a German protestant family who followed Martin Luther out of the Catholic church was very popular in its day. Written in the form of journals Chronicles has multiple narrators, who voice the story from different perspectives.
 Elizabeth Charles was born and spent her early life in Tavistock. See this page about John Rundle, MP, her father. The family lived at the Bank in Market Street, then from 1838 they lived at Ferrum Hill House (now I understand called Brooklands) which is behind the foundry in Parkwood Road. The family moved there so as to be able to look after her grandfather John Gill, a banker. (Infomation on her homes, from  Dartmoor Literary Links. Elizabeth Charles wrote an autobiographical account of her years in the town in Our Seven Homes.
"To know how to say what other people only think is what makes men poets and sages; and to dare to say what others only dare to think, makes men martyrs or reformers, or both". Elizabeth Rundle Charles.

 250 years ago
 Mariana Starke was born in October 1762. There is an excellent web-site featuring her here. Starke returned to England in 1811 and settled in Exmouth, going back to Italy between 1817 and 1819 in order to research her "Travels on the Continent," published by John Murray in 1820. She wrote plays and became well-known for her early Travel Guides, as well as letters and poems.


  1. Hello, Just wanted to let you know that I have been a reader of your blog for some time now . Your blog is fasinating and the only one I am aware of that deals with the single subject of English women writers and who mostly hail from the S.W of England. Hope you will continue to post your lovely evocative photos along with all very interesting info. regarding the authors and the landscapes they wrote about and lived in. I so enjoy stopping by to see when ever you have a new posting. Best to you in all your endeavors.

  2. Hello Valkrye
    I've just come across your lovely comments on my blog. Thanks so much and I am so pleased that you enjoy the blog. Just at the moment I do not have too much time to write more pieces, but hopefully will be doing so when I can, throughout 2012.
    Thanks again!


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