Landscapes of the Mind - M. P. Willcocks

Between Cornwood and Harford  M/P. Willcocks' home territory
Between Cornwood and Harford 
M/P. Willcocks' home territory

      Landscapes of the Mind -
Finding Devon's Forgotten Feminist
an excerpt

         One morning, leaving the Devon and Exeter Institution, after an hour in the zone with Anna Eliza Bray's Fitz of Fitzford, I'd noticed a flyer lying on the entrance table. Forgotten Devonian Early Feminist Woman Writer. I didn’t know the name; as far as I knew, Devon did not have any woman writer commemorated for penning feminist texts. The flyer invited interested parties to get in touch. That was how the journalist Bob Mann, from Ivybridge, first drew my attention to the writer who I now believe to be the most significant of air-brushed-out Devon women writers from the early C20.  
        In the first decades of the C20 acclaim for Mary Patricia (or M.P.) Willcocks almost equalled that for Thomas Hardy, the then 'God' of Westcountry novelists. Willcocks’ early novels, The WinglessVictory and A Man of Genius were published over a hundred years ago, in 1907/1908. Willcocks went on to pen a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In those days her novels frequently featured in local newspapers; stressing they were meant ‘to last’, reviewers commented on what they judged as outstanding writing. In Essays on Modern Novelists, published in 1910, W.L. Phelps,  comments that ‘thousands of reverend pilgrims, on foot, on bicycle, and in automobile, are yearly following the tragic trails of Mr. Hardy’s heroines’. Phelps also refers to the Devonian writer EdenPhilpotts, and then concludes: ‘if Mrs Willcocks writes a few more novels like The Wingless Victory and A Man of Genius, we shall soon all be talking about her – just wait and see’.(i) 
            I began to ferret for this unknown author's books. Although now, in the second decade of the C21, one way or other most books are easily obtainable, when I started to look for them M.P. Willcocks’ novels were not easy to find. Years out of print, they were languishing in a dusty corner of one or other basement archive, in such repositories as that of the Exeter City Library, or a local Devon town library store. (I have to say that as I write up latest drafts of this manuscript the situation has changed somewhat as some of her work is available online at such sites as Internet Archive Digital Library).
           Yes, and I  know this is a cliché, but when I did find a copy of Wings of Desire, followed by Widdicombe and The Wingless Victory, time stood still. Finding this writer was my literary Devonshire Eureka. I began to understand the symbiosis between landscape and literary texts in a new way. I started to see territories of the mind. 
Cover of M.P. Willcocks, The Wingless Victory
Cover of M.P. Willcocks, The Wingless Victory
(pub: John Lane)

          Walking through the landscape of her stories, which often figure a local Devonshire woman herself wandering through typical Devon territories - crossing bridges, in damp woods, under trees, on the moor - noticing the vistas spread before her, I found myself re-living the days of our Devonshire ancestors, especially those of my own obliterated foremothers. Ranging across the spectrum of the county’s topographies, Willcocks' novels offer snapshots of Devon's lost corners.

       Her novels reminded me of Mary Webb, whose fictional writings capturing the geni-loci of her home county are synonymous with Shropshire’s very character. Willcocks’ fiction is to Devon as Webb’s is to Shropshire. Just like Webb, who was her contemporary, the Devon writer was born and spent most of her life in her home county; both women’s fiction focuses around the distinctive features of their respective home county’s landscapes. Willcocks’ work often has a backdrop of moor and sea, whilst her stories are awash with local (late C19/early C20), mostly rural characters). Preciously old-fashioned, but providing nostalgic, secure representation of an ordered world, her fiction resonates with a sense of place, a space in which generations of ancestors lived and worked; they’re replete with what her fan Bob Mann calls ‘a mystical sense of the inseparability of past, present and future’. (ii) Willcocks’ female characters project inner warmth, integrity and strength; the ethos of their very being crucially depends on an interior awareness of the longstanding rootedness of their own female ancestral inheritance within the county’s wildest landscapes, over which during the course of each novel, the women roam freely, frequently breaking free of societal expectations:

On the landing Anne paused, bright-eyed and mis-chievous. Leaning over the rail, she contemplated the hall below. It was as silent as the ancestors on the walls. Only the clattering of plates came from behind the baize-covered door that led to the older part of the house ... "Dare I?" said Anne to her sister, putting her head on one side like a bird when he raises a song to the god of raspberries. The next moment there came a slithering noise of skirts followed by a thud; Anne had slid down the ban- isters. Demurely Sara followed, wondering why Anne retained the jolly ways of a child or a man. But she knew, for Anne had been out in the world where one does things. She had not stayed at home listening to the wind in the trees, to the noise made by the footsteps of the future. It was the best thing that Sara had ever done, that sending of Anne into action. Very warm at heart, she followed the girl into the drawing-room, where Mr. Knyvett was still acting as a conduit. ' ' Harmony, ' Mr. Hereford was saying with his fingers neatly fitted in the shape of a pointed arch, "harmony is the thing we neglect in modern life. We must not jar, we must vibrate in unison.(iii)

            I wondered if my unknown Devon female foremothers were made of the same stock as the tough and resilient female characters to which Willcocks gave voice and presence. With Mary Patricia Willcocks, my grasp of the local literary canon was gradually turning on its head.
(An earlier version of this passage about M.P. Willcocks appeared in my other blog)

i William Lyon Phelps, Essays on Modern Novelists (The Macmillan Company 1910). There were several local women writing fiction in Devon during the early years of the C20, from the start of World War One to the early 1920s, including E.M. Delafield, whose early novels, Zella Sees Herself and The War Workers were written during the same decade as those of Willcocks. However, I did not know about Delafield's fiction then. That was to come later.
ii Bob Mann, 'In Search of Devon's Forgotten Feminist', The Dart, June-July 1996, Number 95.
iii M.P. Willcocks, Wings of Desire (John Lane, 1919). 30.


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