Textual Landscapes of a Devon Childhood

      Writing Women on the Devon Land

Textual Landscapes of a Devon Childhood

     In Land as Language, I've written about how, in our 1950's rural childhood in mid Devon, the surrounding landscape frequently merged into and with the texts we (my friends and I) read. As a girl I was not aware that Devon had its own women writers, but I was immersed in the worlds of many female characters in children's fiction, most of them authored by men or occasionally women from far away, in other countries. If a book drew me in, as I identified with its child characters then, no matter who the author was, I was caught up by sensual perceptions of my own environment as they infiltrated and in turn were affected by the places in the books.The fictional textual-sites became layered as montage, on top of our own home-lands, setting out imaginary manuscript-maps of an interior dreamland.
Childhood books , the Local Landscape & Imaginary Worlds
Photo Julie Sampson

        This complete immersion in books led to an unbreakable bond between text and site that meant total enthralment with the fictional world enclosed within the real environmental world. Admittedly, identification with each character and place in a book was only temporary; fragmentary; loyalty and love for one heroine (or hero) soon transferred to another; I inhabited a slice of life with one book-child, then switched to the next. But, sometimes the mirroring of identity returned later on, when a sequel, with the same child character popped up in the town library. My best friends shared the fictional fantasy world; we enjoyed many shared happy summer-day adventures exploring our territories and re-inventing them in terms of what we were reading. Enid Blyton was (of course) ubiquitous. I can't see many children of our era not having some kind of literary connection with her cast of characters. But, as well as Blyton's Famous Five and Secret Seven and Malory Towers girls, we had Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. Unfortunately, we did not have lakes near, us only the river Taw, which was at least a mile down in the valley; so for us it in the pond we found in the local woods of the nearby deserted estate that we imagined our boats and Swallows and Amazonian paraphernalia. If my memory serves me well, we had to keep re-reading the first volume of his sequence, for rarely were any others available in the local library. 

     Then, we had Malcolm Salville's Lone Piners. They captivated us and we were avid clubbers, sending for the badges and the newsletters. I still have my copy of The Secret of Grey Walls, read over and over again, its pages now yellowed and stained. The Lone Piner's fictional locations became interwoven and transformed into the fields of our farm as well as layered on those further afield - the Ashridge woods, the hedge-banks, and the summer-house over in the depths of the rhododendron maze, at Ashridge, with its wooden-table set right at its centre.

       Journeys out into the rural landscape, walks over the fields around our farm, through the woods, to Ashridge, down to the town, the river; drives with our parents to the moors, the sea or even to the towns, Okehampton and city of Exeter; all became peppered with and infiltrated by an enchantment of texts. By the time we left that house and neighbourhood, there could not have been many natural features which did not have at least one link-with-text; some hooked into several; some stood alone. Sheds and farm buildings merged with a variety of books. The top level of the barn was Heidi's Swiss home; or segued into the school-rooms in Little Men. A snow-drift blanketed field was the bleak of The Long Winter. A cluster of fir-trees on a hill-rise on the distant horizon; a pebbly-beach by a Dartmoor stream; a little dell in the heart of the garden, where snowdrops sprang in spring; a pine-needle hammock in the crock of low branches of the Douglas fir; a hollow concave in the clump of branched sticks in a hazel hedge along the road - all at one time or another were sites of various Famous Five, Secret Seven, Lone-Pine Club or Swallows & Amazons exploits.

    The central heart-beat, the magic centre of our interior world was made of this twofold axis of place and text.

Finding for ourselves the Sites of Central Mystery
          Gradually, this mutuality evolved into a sense of emotional fidelity to a particular place, site or ritualistic centre, and a series of searches or journeys or quests for other similar special secret sites. We were finding for ourselves the place/s of central mystery; we wanted to re-enact the adventures of the group of children who had preceded us in their texts.

         Looking back now, as adult writing this, I believe that our search and our need to re-live these books was archetypal. The children (mostly girls) in the texts and the places in which they existed became model icons for us of our own inner developmental needs to identify with children who had appropriate psychological traits to draw out our own reciprocal qualities. Yet, even for a fifties girl, these archetypal icons were not necessarily straightforward, or simple: on the contrary, they were a complex of split and contradictory identities.

      One archetype was that of the suffering girl; such was Ellen, in The Wide Wide World. (See Land as Landscape. Usually moralistic in intent, the girl in these kind of stories was dealt a blow of fate, such as an accident, or the loss of a parent; more often than not, in the course of the narrative, she developed an inner strength of character and poise and resourcefulness that was supposed to imbue her with sufficient moral integrity to last the rest of her life. This kind of girl-character inevitably conformed to the, usually, Christian norm and often, but not always, her existence and movement was within a restricted environment; frequently this was in the house, where she became helper, carer, student. Often her most important pastime (perhaps sole occupation) was reading; books were often essential to her well-being. 

        But, for another, opposing archetypal-type girl, anything to do with literature or the book world was to be avoided because the Artemis figure’s text was the outside landscape, whose territory was hers. Her wild exploits led her to participate, often with a group of friends, for whom she was inevitably the leader, in a series of quests pursuing some kind of mystery. This adventurous girl was not afraid to speak out for herself, or to argue and be resolute in her individuality and right to be different from the crowd. She could move freely around from place to place and tended to be at her best in outside, wild places, not coping so well when she had to be cooped up in her home. Petronella - see Saville's Lone Pine Club, or Nancy of Ransome's Amazons, were such girls.

    The third archetypal icon frequenting these childhood fictions only surfaced occasionally. As a personality, she lay somewhere between that of suffering girl and the Artemisian. Brave and adventurous, her wayward nature was complemented by a more poetic trait, which took her into the realms of female icons of fairy tale. Such was 'Titty' in Swallows and Amazons, who was more introverted and imaginative than the more robust Nancy, yet had the courage to delve into the darker realms of the territories into which the children’s quest took them.Titty had no qualms about entering the dark wood of the Swallow dale landscape. Allowing herself to be immersed into its magical esoteric folds, she found her way through and out of it; she was a person with special powers, who responded to the magic of nature. She could easily have been a poet, or author. 

   What interests me now, looking back, is how we children negotiated these contradictions in our projections of dual pursuits of place and personality. I can't speak for my friends Jenny, Shirley and Helen; sadly, I lost touch with them years ago. But, for me, the ambivalence of the archetypal figures has remained and over the last ten years or so has returned diverted on to the task of my project to seek out a significant part of my home county's forgotten history; the lost past, missing wild heart-beat of the county’s women writers.

     And now it seems uncanny that the muse or model of Artemis was there at the roots of childhood in these fifties fictional childhood texts; for ‘she’ is enfolded into the very fibre at the heart of the mid-Devon landscape itself.

View over toward Cosdon from above North Tawton

         I now see her (Artemis) as connected with Ariadne with her questing skeins; Ariadne's ability to find a way through the intricate maze, is part of the fixture of the intermingled Devonian warrens of this part of the country and the labyrinthine scenery of the literary lives and texts I have uncovered. The textual landscape that ‘she’ or ‘they’ inhabited is reflected in the local scenery: it’s a wonderfully wild pastoral one, whose mysterious and enchanting atmosphere provides a background aura of textual rurality enhanced by ancient, often pagan forces; an environment entirely reflecting that of the captivating mid-Devon territory.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome!

Featured post

Talking about Tavistock: Mary Maria Colling; A C19 Maid-Servant Poet

Writing Women on the Devon Land  A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places Tavistock canal Talking about Tavistock: Mary M...

Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Cottage at Cheldon

The cottage holiday-home of author Elizabeth Stucley in the 1960s. See Her-Story at Hartland.

Cheriton Fitzpaine Church

At Cheriton Fitzpaine church where Jean Rhys is buried. Gravestone on left of porch. See Caribbean Seas at Cheriton Fitzpaine.