Moor Mire - The 'Hayfiddians' of Hayford Hall

(excerpt from longer piece)

The strangest Dartmoor linked literary thaumaturgy happened approximately twenty years or so after M.PWillcocks penned her Dartmoor novels, in the early 1930's...
         Hayford Hall is at least a mile down a remote moor lane and several miles away from the nearest small town of Buckfastleigh. Hayford had already sheltered at least one other woman writer, for, in 1888, Mary W. S. Hawkins, then owner of the house (and probably a descendant of the famous explorer) wrote a book about the heroes of the Plymouth Armada. But it's unlikely that the hall had harboured any such gathering as that which descended on it during the summers of 1932 and 1933, when the millionaire and American arts patron Peggy Guggenheim rented Hayford for several months, with her then lover John Ferrar Holmes, and a coterie of female writer friends including Djuna Barnes, Emily Coleman and Antonia White, their children and a steady stream of other visitors.
Lud Gate
near Hayford Hall
cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Guy Wareham -
        Guggenheim's captivation was instantaneous; finding the old mansion to be a 'place of spirit', the cabal immediately succumbed to the moorland aura:

 Hayford Hall's back door gave out on to Dartmoor. Its front entrance was approached by a driveway of monkey puzzle trees ... Although situated on the edge of Dartmoor, Hayford Hall had its own vast gardens which were half cultivated and half wild ... on the whole one had the impression nature had not been tampered with and that this place was still part of the moor...The moor is hard to describe; it was so varied and so vast ... ground was strewn with bones and skeletons. The only plants that grew were bracken and heather...[i]
        During those two summers Hayford became a social, intellectual and literary salon for Guggenheim's entourage. Pursuing a complicated, intoxicating mix of erotic entanglements, they rode, roamed and pony-trekked on the moors then spent long summer nights writing, talking, and drinking. Even in terms of Dartmoor's vast empty wilderness and given the hall's remoteness, the inevitably claustrophobic atmosphere, only relieved by walks in the garden, or long rambles and pony rides out onto the wildscape of almost autumnal moorland, must have helped set in motion the bizarre blend of sexual, social, intellectual and artistic happenings, that unfolded in this remote moorland spot. In the Great Hall, where the 'Hayfiddians' tended to gather, in an environment that was 'at once exciting, exhilarating and avant-garde',[ii] there were 'brilliant' and  'literary and metaphysical conversations';[iii] 'Games of truth fuelled with laughter and alcohol' were played every night,'[iv] 'psychoanalysis [was] done in public',[v] which no doubt helped to fuel the intense 'sexual rivalries',[vi] many of them centring on the sole male of the party at the hall, the 'godlike' John Holmes. It was reported that 'Conversations were ribald and Rabelaisian, spilling uproarious laughter over the darkened moors of this quiet corner of Devon'.[vii]
      The confused intensity of the Hayford women's briefly merged lives produced a complex and interchanged concoction of texts, an experimental interplay of life, aesthetics and writing. Academics now view the literary productions of the (coined) 'Hangover Hall' group to be representative of a 'new female kind of lived Modernism'.[viii] The texts written by Guggenheim, Coleman, White and Barnes introduced an important supplementary strand into the complex web which became known as the Modernist movement. 

       The women's contributions to the radical upheavals which shook the foundations of literary conventions in the second and third decades of the C20, included innovative fiction and transformative journalistic life-writing. Hayford texts include Guggenheim's memoir Out of this Century; White's Journals (Antonia may also have been working on her novel The Lost Traveller); Coleman's extensive Diaries (she was also writing Tygon a novel, which, as yet, remains unpublished); and Barnes' singular Nightwood, which is now considered a seminal feminist text.

       Whilst she was at the hall Emily Coleman was journaling, venting her creative energies into daily diary maintenance, then crafting her words into art. Coleman's Hayford experiences turned into a 'book of life'.[ix] Insisting that the diary must eventually be published, she was challenging rigid distinctions between art and life; her journals confirm feminist arguments that women authors of that period didn't only write, but also 'lived' their 'Modernisms'. Coleman's diary has left the legacy of an on-going daily narrative of the Hayford period, an invaluable document, which is also useful for anyone interested in Devon, and in particular, about Dartmoor's neglected literary links with female authors.
        The diary begins with her arrival at the Devon mansion:

John drove so fast I was sick and had to talk to them. Then I saw moors, something like Clun Forest. Began to feel pleasant again. We turned into the drive and stopped before the house. The house is low and white, in Tudor style ... A brook runs through the garden, making a fall at the side of the house... Great beeches all covered with moss, every twig. Beyond this semi-formal garden, the moor. (August 26, 1932)[x]

Then I heard a lovely piercing little song and saw a robin. He was sitting on a reed .... I went out on the moor. I was straight away in ecstasy, the dew on the pale heather, and the smell, and the morning sun. (August 27, 1932)[xi]
         The following year, in 1934, staying at another Guggenheim rented house in Havant, reminiscing about Hayford, Coleman summed up the transformative effect the Dartmoor episode had on the writers who'd stayed there those heady summer months:

Hayford Hall was a different place. Hayford was a dream place, a lovely, heavenly poetic garden, a Paradise, far from nowhere, deep in the trees beneath the moor. Nothing could ever be like that again.[xii]
Coleman's diaries recorded many verbal communications exchanged with (or overheard) between other participants at the hall;

She used her diary to ensure that Hayford Hall would always be just as it was for herself and her friends; a theatrical site on which they played briefly and a theatrical text in which they lived perpetually.[xiii]
With her journalistic legacy, the two Hayford summers became preserved in a textual time-capsule.

         Whilst Emily Coleman was journaling exhaustively about the Hayford hangout, her friend Djuna Barnes was recasting drafts of her novel, Nightwood. Despite the almost incessant drinking and sexual high jinks at Hayford Barnes wrote and reworked much of the manuscript whilst at the mansion. During her first Devon visit she was still vulnerable after the breakup of her long-term relationship with the sculptor Thelma Wood and at the time of her next visit, in 1933 was recovering from an abortion after a fling with the French painter Jean Oberlé. Recovering from recent emotional trauma, Barnes needed to recuperate and, at least during its early stage, Nightwood may have been at attempt at writing therapy. 
Unlike the other Hayford writers Djuna rarely explored the magnificent moorland setting round the hall; indeed, she barely ventured outside; Dartmoor terrified her. Hayford mornings for Djuna were spent in bed writing her manuscript, then mid-afternoon, she'd mull around the gardens to pick a rose for her hostess, Guggenheim. In any case, Djuna is said to have had no suitable country clothes, her moorland wardrobe consisting of a couple of 'very beautiful French gowns',[xiv] which she'd wear in the evenings when the group sat round in the Great Hall discussing her latest writings in Nightwood; the novel inevitably became central focus of many of the Hayford set's intense conversations.

            Remembered now as one of the first fictional texts to depict explicit homosexuality, passages about an abortion and the torments of a torrid relationship break-up between two women, the bizarre and brilliant novel is neither an easy read, nor an uplifting story; nor does the narrative complement Dartmoor's reputation as a place of bewitching inspirational beauty. However, in tune with moor's gamut of dark forces - its headless horseman, its 'spectral hounds', its 'large black dogs' and its 'Devil' - the novel could have more in common with the territory than at first seems possible. 

    Barnes may have been directly inspired by the legendary maleficence of the landscape. It has been suggested that Hayford was possibly the site chosen by Arthur Conan Doyle as model for Baskerville Hall [xv] and Peggy Guggenheim and John Holmes must have known Hound of the Baskervilles (published in 1902) and probably would have found out about the connection between place and book before their arrival. It's possible, attracted by its atmosphere of eerie spectrality, they chose Hayford for that very link, Accounts about the couple's choice of the Dartmoor estate stress that, after travelling from France and driving round Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, viewing a variety of properties, it was Holmes who made the decision to go for the Devon mansion, when following their arrival back in Paris, he finally committed to Hayford. When they did arrive at the hall, the pair had Djuna Barnes 'in tow'. Possibly Guggenheim's partner was intrigued by the homophonic link between his name and that of the famous author. The couple's already notorious novelist friend possibly also succumbed to the infamous story pervaded with Gothic supernatural horror and the diabolical hound, swirling around it. Djuna's supposed fear of moor could have stemmed from what she had heard of the novel and Hayford's alleged association with it. As one commentator remarked:

It would not have been hard to imagine ... unearthly distant screams of a moorland pony perishing in quick sand late in the night as the wind hurled about the hall.[xvi]
         Set in 1920's Paris, ostensibly Nightwood could not contrast more with the bleak moors of the South West, where much of it was written. And yet, there are certain chiming features between novel's textual-scape, place of writing and Conan Doyle's story. The novel establishes its own strange world (just as Dartmoor is an idiosyncratic territorial space), whilst Nightwood's pervasive atmospheric gloom, peaking with passages of horror, is reminiscent of the Hound's Gothic underworld. There must be much yet to explore about the provenance of this unusual and important novel's textual backdrop. 
         The literary experiments of the C20 that happened under the ivy-strewn roof and tall towers of Hayford Hall during those two years in the third decade are still largely uninvestigated, especially in respect of their links with the bleak landscapes surrounding those who found themselves to be participants.
          In April 1996, nearly fifty years after the last of the Guggenheim writer's entourage left Hayford, Canadian author and scholar Elizabeth Podneiks ventured on a quest down Dartmoor's remote southerly lanes. Wanting first hand experience upon which way to re-introduce the forgotten Hayford crowd back into the lost female literary canon, she was preparing to edit the book Hayford Hall; Hangovers; Erotics andModernist Aesthetics:

I was in the process of editing Coleman's early diary and had come to the point where she made her first trip to the estate; I felt compelled to go with her ... after a lengthy tour through Buckfastleigh it became apparent that we would need a new plan ... We drove in what seemed like gyres, circling the border of town, widening our circle with each successive lap, but to no avail.[i]

        Eventually, Podneiks and her companion located Hayford and went on reccie there; yet another layer was added to the palimpsest of place, document and woman writer now beginning to be associated with the remote Dartmoor hall.

See also Little Zeal


I must mention and thank my friend and ex fellow PhD student, Dr Sandra Jeffery, without whose informative conversations about the Hayford crowd back in the 1990's I would not have known of their existence.
Elizabeth Podniecks has recently compiled Rough Draft; the Modernist Diaries of Emily Holmes Coleman, 1929-37 (2012)
[i] Elizabeth PodnieksSandra Chait, Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Modernist Aesthetics (SIU, 2005), Introduction.
[ii] Ibid., 14.
[iii] Ibid., 4.
[iv] Ibid., 151.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid., 14.
[vii] Ibid., 150
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid., 9.
[x] Ibid., 90.
[xi] Ibid., 91.
[xii] Ibid., 21.
[xiii] Ibid., 115.
[xiv] Ibid., 11.
[xv] That theory has now been disputed; the location is thought to be Brook Hall, a mansion nearby.

[xvi] Mary V. Dearborn Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 87.


Popular posts from this blog

Remembering Edith Dart, Crediton’s Edwardian Novelist and Poet; 'As a novelist in “Miriam,” in “Likeness,” in “Rebecca Drew,” and especially in “Sareel,” Devon lives again':

H ... Her-Story at Hartland

Yelverton: Edith Holden, the Suffragists and the Victorian Occult