14 Matryoshka - Fragments from a Fiction


Companion to Women Writing on the Devon Land
A fiction sequence (number 1)

I conjure the image of the Russian nesting doll, 
the matryoshka.
As she negotiates her own voice
within the curvature of the outer shell of echoing chambers,
each writer retreats further into the hidden past,
snugly settling into the space allocated for her.
But, as we return deeper into that past,
those sigils and signs diminish into the far distance -
can we cup our hands behind our ears 
and hear her?

       Before I began to write the early drafts of the manuscript of Women Writing on the Devon Land I occasionally wrote a fragment, a snippet, of fiction, as a way of organising research material that I'd collected. Somehow, doing this helped to fix an idea of the real woman who wrote behind the story - especially when she had lived in an earlier century, like C16 Anne Dowriche, or C17 Lady Mary Chudleigh. Gradually, I collected a number of such fictional reinventions and later still, in the process of writing drafts for Women Writing on the Devon Land, decided I'd try and put them together in a chronological sequence. I hoped that the fictional pieces might complement the non-fiction version of the story; provide a three-dimensional version of the time and characters.

      I wanted to weave a story that presents the transmission of a sequence of related texts up, along and across the subliminal context of the canonical literary historical chain, then to watch as it reaches up through the C17 and disperses into a plethora of different writing, becoming lost in the miasma of modern multi-texts. However, I hoped also  to suggest that beneath the palimpsest layering of time, the ‘original trace’ of text is there. In chronological order, the ‘story’ is of a lost text; at its heart is a mystic-figure, the rose, a symbol that I chose because for many centuries it has been an emblem of mystery, of hermetic meaning and love.
     The first of the fictional fragments begins with Singing with Flints, a fragment from the Mesolithic Era about the woman who's spinning her threads as she kindles her fire. 

Singing with flints

The flints in Croyle (or Crow’s) Hill 
above the little Dart tributary to the Taw
where once Devonian ancestors walked and loved in the burning circle
are shining
she with them built fires
striking flints
for the first flame in January
when even with furs
her family is shivering with cold & numb
fingers strike again again again
composing words with strikes
each flame speaking
a discourse
she is struck with her flaming vocabulary
her only dictionary and thesaurus that which is exchanged
hand to mouth camp to camp
voice to voice
 & echoes reflecting eddies in the dark
yet she knows as many words
which ones to choose as she knows the kinds of flowers & plants to pick
those that will charm & heal that hurt & kill
the selection is the same
she hums
the fire is lit
her children run up from the stream below
huddle beside her & her fire
she will recite to them they will learn her spells
and pass on up the years to their descendants and those to come
one day several centuries to come
an/m/other one mother will write the poem down on a wax tablet
and ...


Companion to Writing Women on the Devon Land

A fiction sequence (number 2)

an excerpt

        The fragmented narrative in Heliodora is set in Roman times. A lady who’s living in mid-Devon in Roman times, influenced by her readings of Greek women poets, has inscribed a text on a wax-tablet ...

Green lane just north of North Tawton

No, you do not need to remind me, I know there were not supposed to be any Roman villas west of Exeter – but in recent years evidence of their existence has come to light. There was one for example near Crediton (not far from the site which is now Tesco). At the time of writing, although there are currently talks about future plans to do so, no archaeological dig has yet happened at Nemetostatio - which some believe to be the Roman fort at North Tawton; yet, as I write exciting finds are being found just along the road at Okehampton. I believe there may be reason to consider the possibility that wives of high-ranking soldiers based at the large fort at North Tawton may have lived in the complex. In my imagination they stroll alongside the river Lyd-taw, the Taw, which runs alongside the camp's edgelands. Being of high status, the women would have been literate and avid readers; they may even have written. 

Looking toward Dartmoor from a gate south of North Tawton,
near Nemetostatio,
     Heliodora is a cameo of what could have been. Names fit the known facts; the names and texts of earlier women writing in Greece also are factual. The Dumnonii most probably re-established their kingdom as a power in its own right by the time of Magnus Maximus, for, in AD 383, the latter prepared Britain's defences prior to establishing his own claim for control of the Roman Empire. Dumnonia was fully independent by AD410; it incorporated the former territory of the Durotriges. Elen Luyddog was daughter of a chieftain of north Wales named Eudaf or Eudwy, late C4, who married Magnus and became Empress/Queen of England after his death. Known mostly for her work on roads in Wales, she was a friend of Martin of Tours; Broadnymet church in the area, is dedicated to him. Elen appears to have been influential in the early church. No, there is no evidence that she stayed in the mid Devon region, but in my imagination and in this story, she did...

Her mother is given as a bondservant;
her husband as a colleague of Magnus Maximus;
it was said she was a forgotten kinswoman of Elen Luyddog
and that she married a friend of Magnus.
Was it true that she was named after the female poet Heliodora?
Was she the aunt of Sevira?
Like Elen, she was given the avatar of Celtic mystic goddess,
nevertheless, she remained in England 
after her husband’s departure to Rome

and returned to her father’s lands in Wales

(but her children were reputed 

to be progenitors of the kings of Dumnonia).

Elen, it was said, always spoke highly
of her friend’s literary talents and rhetorical skills
and of the aptitudes - 
the lilt of her recitations
from her favoured Greek precursors.’[i]
Indeed as an influential wife of a powerful man,
Heliodora had a voice of her own ...

'We were supposed not to live here
in the outpost of the sacred groves
in the middle of Nemetostatio
the shrine within the sacred space.
Nothing is sweeter than Eros’
Because they do not mention the women.   
And anyway,
there was not supposed to be a villa here 
not so far west  
'We were then as silent as the water-glide of the quiet river,
the  ‘led-taw’ sinuous in the valley beneath our villa.

Nor do they know of the roses,
those roman roses
loved of love beloved,
our gallicas wreathing the colonnades of our halls.
Look, see our villa sheathed with green glass,
dressed in the finest marble statues
and set away from the precisions
of the main battalion complex
set alongside and above the quiet river'...

She’d wander away from the tessellated pavement
towards the edge-lands of the site
and beside the quiet reeds
at the edge of the water, the Led-Taw...[ii]

How Heliodora and Elen Luydoog laughed together
at the tempestuous nature of that woman, 
yet indulged her for her responses.
Sometimes they conversed

on the nature of pagan Hypatia’s recent commentary 
on Neo-Platonist philosophy; 

which captivated them.
Following the snake-shifting silent-river curves
both women wore inscribed bronze bracelets
loose over their arms
swirling conjugal figurations
snakes and serpents,
all told a tale in the fabric of the women’s life

the clear sheet of water
just below the oak saplings on the bank, 
footprints on the track ...

[i] The wording of this 'hagiography' is mostly taken from the book by Peter Berresford Ellis, Celtic women: women in Celtic society and literature (Eerdman's Publishers, 1996).
[ii] See A. Non, Classic Women's Poetry (Summersdale Publishers, 2002).


Companion to
Women Writing on the Devon Land

A fiction sequence (number 3)

     Elen's story is based on legends about the C5 British Prince, Brychan, whose many sons and daughters were said to have colonised north Devon. The siblings included St Nectan and St Morwenna. Elen (or Helen, Elined, or Luna), was one of the other sisters. St Elen, (ca. 490), is thought by some to be the source of dedications of the ancient church inscriptions at Croyde, Abbotsham and Lundy. The legend is that the saint established St Helen's Chapel up on the high ground west of Croyde (which is now in Cott Lane) and she is said to have blessed Holywell across the tiny lane; it soon became a popular place of Christian pilgrimage.

Hobb's Hill, Croyde
Cott Lane is the road on the right
      As I read little fragments written about Elen and her siblings I began to think about the textual modality of the palimpsest, how over time, the remnants of names, sites and textual fragments become layered upon and over one another and how the original, seemingly occulted scripts, can seem as though erased, although with time and effort they can be reassembled. I wondered how the names, favoured places and writings of the authors from the last two hundred years or so, who I was re-imagining, might re-surface in future writers' texts, over another long time span.

     I wanted to try to reinstate a moment-that-might-have-been in St H/Elen's life; to give her a long-forgotten voice. My fictional fragment includes the notion that Elen finds an inscribed Ogham stone from the Roman era along the north Devon coast. This thought may seem far-fetched, but is based on archaeological evidence; there are several Roman outposts in the vicinity, including one near Martinhoe, just over twenty miles or so east of Croyde, where much more recently writer H.D. stayed in 1916.[ii] There is also an Ogham stone, the 'Long Stone', just north of St Endelion, which has an inscription to Brychan, a Chi-Rho monogram and a faintly inscribed Ogham stone.

     I visualise Elen's discovered stone’s words as coded, inscribed after the writings of a lady from Roman Devon, who lived in the Nemetostatio district, who was herself influenced by her readings of a Greek women poet; as a well-bred Roman lady of her day, there was every reason to believe she may have created her own texts. Elen adapts the enigmatic text and, as a contemplative herself, decides to adapt and use it in her own hermitage prayer.

     I imagined a very different territory from that which pervades Croyde and its bay today, a place where gulls swoop and squawk, sizzling with sleek and tanned surfers, body-boarders and beach goers.Then, in Elen's time, what, twelve centuries or so ago, the bay still swept like a crescent moon round the coast's edge and there may well have been rolling waves...

They agreed that it was only the sea that was the same.
That hundreds of years before
this sweep of coast was heathen as the stars.
The Atlantic swirls grey round their cloaks.
As they turn to the land,
meandering away from the bay of sand
towards the path cut in the slope,
leading to His cell at the Heartland
where they will meet their other brothers and sisters
for the winter solstice,
she’s a tiny chirp of a figure against the bulk of him

and the towering backdrop of hog-backed cliff.

The prayer in her head swirls.
She has it from memory and can recite at will,
'Rose cut in the stone of love '… 

Her father Brychan showed her -
(who he called ' apple of my eye') -
the first stones beside the Hermitage
under running water in Star,
not far from the White Stone,
where her sister Clydai lived,
where she laid her healing hands
on wandering souls and sick hearts.
‘Bluestone magic’ he said,
‘see the written runes;
the cross; the circle.
’That was years before, when she was four,
she left on her first voyage,
with her elder brother Nectan,
who had come to fetch her,
to take her with him on his new mission
and they had rowed south by the stars,
landed in the crescent bay on this new sparkling land
with those giant cliffs
and sweet sweet wooded green valleys
and she had fallen so far in love
with sweetness and love under the stars
and she knew when she saw the stone
under the grove of trees,
the oak, the ash and the thorn -

‘Touchwood touchwood’.

The hobbling old women
who crouched beneath the hood of branches
beckoned her nearer,
'Touch, don’t be ‘fraid me dear,
it’s the faery grotto touchwood’.
But the screamed words in her face.

‘Don’t look’ he said,’ it is Druidic.
It is the devil with his evil message.
Don’t look, it is an omen.’

She knew that he was wrong,
this was a message especially for her.
'Follow me,
follow me with love along the paths
and tell the people the story you have heard,
the lesson you have learnt of the rose loved of love'.

[i] According to myth, a god-daughter of Arthur, Elen may be one and the same as St Helen, saint of the church of St Endelion in Cornwall, who is supposed to have lived at Tregony. Sources notes that Elen (or St Endelienta) was born about 470 and was one of the daughters of St Brychan, King of Brycheiniog. From South Wales, she crossed the Bristol Channel to join her siblings in converting the Cornish to Christianity. She probably began her mission on Lundy Island, where she founded a small chapel (later mistakenly rededicated to St Helen), before moving on to stay with her brother, St Nectan, at Hartland, near today’s Devon border. She finally settled at Trentinney, just South West of St Endellion, but still used Lundy as a retreat for meditation. A chapel dedicated to her survived at Trentinney until the 16th century and it was in an adjoining hermitage that she lived a very austere life, with only a cow for company and its milk and the water from her two wells for sustenance. Her sister, St Dilic (whose church is at Landulph), settled nearby and the two would often meet along a certain path whose grass would ever afterwards grow greener than elsewhere. (See for example, Brycheiniog Vol. 17 1976-1977, The Daughters of Brychan : their importance in the history of Breconshire. Some academics believe that the saint may be the same Elen/Elaine who appears in Tennyson’s Idylls and in the Mabinogion.[ii] My guess is that H.D. would have found out about and even may have visited that ancient site; she would certainly have known Tennyson's Idylls.


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