As a writer, reading is hedged about with difficulties – every book read takes time away from time writing (even when travelling, these days, although the book-to-read-on-the-train is still an honoured tradition), and there is the danger of absentmindedly siphoning off themes and even style, I am easily influenced by a good writer. And, except when researching, I tend to find it hard work reading non-fiction. So it is out of character for me to be reading what I have read over the summer.
Hancox, by Charlotte Moore is described as the story of a house and a family, and is based on the extraordinary archive of letters and diaries and other papers squirreled away by Moore’s family in the cupboards and attics of the house, Hancox.
I found myself actively jealous of the resources at Ms Moore’s disposal, during the Edwardian period in particular it would seem the family barely moved a muscle without recording it, and threw nothing away. It makes A’s paternal ‘broody box’ look very half-hearted.
Moore tells of madness inherited, lovers thwarted, uncles estranged, aunts accommodated and aunts avoided; men who explored the arctic and women who never went further than the next village. The complexity of family loyalties and betrayals over a wide-flung family tree are expertly examined, I never once got confused as to who she was writing about. Inevitably almost no-one behaves well, and every selfish act and foible each unthinking slight and angry word is documented. Sibling rivalries and dependencies are exposed; the efforts to which the women have to go to eke out independence is breath-taking: the woman responsible for bringing Hancox into the family going to the lengths of letting it to a society for the relief of inebriates rather than share it with her needy sister and her overbearing husband, who completely failed to understand that she wanted to run the farm herself.
And sitting toad-like on the south downs and in the middle of this narrative is the house itself: a house with a history written into its fabric, and stuffed into its drawers and cubbyholes. It was the house, and the fact that it was on the downs, that drew me to the book and put it on my wish list, (fresh from the Eric Ravilious exhibition at the Towner and enthused by his images of the down and farmhouses thereon); but a couple of months after reading it, it is the people I remember, that and the matter of fact way people thought nothing of getting the train to the (not very near)est station and then walking for several hours to visit family, then turn round and go back, the same day.
Complementary but contrasting is Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, which uses the creation of a garden (at Morville Dower House in Shropshire) as its centre piece, diving off into the history of the land the garden is growing in, the house that sits adjoining it, and the people who once lived there; and equally into Katherine’s own personal family history. It’s hard to say what works best, she is marvellous on geology, medieval history and has an ability to step outside her relationships and be brutally and movingly honest about her parents.
The book is framed by the catholic medieval church hours, in that elastic time when the hour shortened as the year got dark, and lengthened again into the summer. In some ways this is the difference between the two books, Moore takes a slice through a few years of the life of a house and family, stopping abruptly as she reaches people who are still alive, Swift delves as far back as she can go and is aware that she stands on the lip of the future, barely a mote in the blink of history. Despite the potential for workaday in what should be a gardening book, The Morville Hours is a work of imagination, and Hancox emphatically is not, the wealth of evidence Moore has at her fingertips leaves little room for speculation.
Which leads me on to a book about London: An Acre of Barren Ground by Jeremy Gavron is described as a novel. It isn’t, quite. It is a series of interlinking stories and slabs of research, taking Brick Lane in East London as its jumping off point.
As wide-ranging as The Morville Hours, it takes in Saxon history and the Victorian temperance movement, immigration from Eastern Europe and Bangladesh; comic books and medieval woodcuts; weavers and murderers, mudlarks and crooks. It is so random and tangled I wondered occasionally if what was being presented as research was actually fiction. It reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s London, the biography; but what I found endearing about it was how characters from one story popped up in another. Hugh the purchaser of the original brickfields in a narrative poem Le bryk place wandering through the wreck of the priory (St Mary Spittal) sees an old woman… in the retelling of the medieval woodcuts, Snecockswell, we discover Hugh’s back story, and find out who the woman is. (This is a fascinating piece of writing, describing each imagined picture in turn; it is only when the writing on the papers within the pictures is reported that we realise who everyone is. Were it not for those few words it would be a perfect example of how to tell a story using only visual language.) I’m tempted to use another subset of brackets but I will restrain myself and uses dashes instead – Gavron has an odd habit of not using speech marks, which makes me feel that the words are coming from a great distance, and are echoing, very disconcerting. –
East London Female Total Abstinence Society strips away the artifice and shows the process of research and how each new nugget of information informs the development of character and plot, and gives you the story that would have been written without quite writing it. I particularly liked the way the flood of beer released in this story invades another.
Like any London street that has been around a while, An Acre of Barren Ground is a bit of a mixed bag, some things work better than others, but it is a book I will come back to, just as I get great satisfaction from walking through London, taking in the layers and layers of history and life that make it the city it is.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011