Toward the |Lodestone




       
       When she was on the cusp of adulthood Mary Coleridge may have come up against a life defining moment playing tricks on her mind, which were continually reinventing themselves in her later poems. Other women writers experienced sensory inspiration after meditative moments spent in a variety of Devon locations. Just as Penelope Fitzgerald demurred, on the bridge of stepping stones on the edge of Dartmoor, earlier women visitor writers to Devon also lingered, gossiped, reflected and mused, while rambling through its labyrinthine lacings of ancient and high-hedged lanes. For some, the scene was transformative, taking them down other avenues into the exploration of new genres of writing; sometimes a location inspired the enchantment of a novel or story. Others fell into the spell of the place and then refigured its focal characteristics into compelling fiction. Ritual submersion in the territory heightened the writer’s perceptual awareness; induced intoxication.


      The Devon redland territories and the hills circumventing them configure an ideal walking landscape. It may be the physicality of walking, for, as you walk, as landscape surrounds you (kind of landscape virtual-headset), you enter its rolling curves. You walk into and become part of the view you have been looking at. Then, you can turn back and gaze at the scene that is left behind, turn around again and imagine what you cannot see behind the hill, which is obscuring your way. You can catch your breath as you spot a spectacular moor view between a filter of green leaves in the high hedge on the green-lane you happen to be on; for Dartmoor's tors are visible from most of its bordering lowlands.


       Dartmoor is as a lodestone for many who live in Devon; it lures us. When we return from foreign lands scrolling up and over the horizon we look urgently for its undulating peaks and troughs; its curves and tors can be viewed from almost every direction. Several moor loving writers have lived beneath the distinct tors within the green-laned foothills; their vista to moor scapes blocked; but a glance through a tree-fork or over a bank might reveal that frisson of 'moor'. 


      Several authors living at a site somewhere along the laced viewing-path across to Dartmoor may have found their creative sensibilities affected by the outlying prospect of blue-layered undulating tors. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is not located in England’s Westcountry; but though the novelist was reputedly hostile to her local Devon surroundings, Rhys’ introjections of distant Dartmoor's wave-like curves from her cottage in Cheriton Fitzpaine may have impacted on her novel:


We pulled up and looked at the hills the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was a soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing. Those hills would close in on you.[i]



            Similarly, looming moor influenced Sylvia Plath’s poetry written in the foothills, at North Tawton. Dartmoor's ridge of tors seen from the town are an implicit transposed backdrop, a ‘blue distance’ in some of the poet's later poems, including ‘Sheep in Fog’, ‘Ariel’ and ‘Winter Trees’:

                Stasis in darkness. 
                Then the substanceless blue
                Pour of tor and distances.[ii]



            Turning the moorland tables, if you look back from the plateaux of Dartmoor, you can see across to the north moors of Devon. And vice versa. This fact has proved useful for several women authors. In the mid 1960s, Doris Lessing, who at the time was living in the Dartmoor village of Belstone, drafted several novels, including Children of Violence, in the converted shippen of her longhouse; its large picture window enjoyed panoramic views across the paddock, not toward the high moor, but further away, into the distant northern vista, of Exmoor.

            Then there was Sylvia Townsend Warner, who found she could easily manipulate her readers via swopping Devon's moorland scapes in their minds; Warner's stories don't always match background scenery with real place. For instance, the story ‘A View of Exmoor’ was originally titled ‘A View of Dartmoor’, but after the publisher informed her that many people associated ‘Dartmoor’ with ‘prison’, Warner promptly swapped titles and places.[iii] Scenic features in the stories were less than precisely identified, there were, ‘ten foot hedges’ and ‘a falling meadow, a pillowy middle distance of woodland and beyond that, pure and cold and unimpassioned, the silhouette of the moor’.[iv]



[i] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin, 1968), 58.
[ii] Sylvia Plath, “Ariel” from Collected Poems.
[iii] See in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Selected Stories (Hachett, 2011).
[iv] Ibid. When put alongside the other defining feature the ‘moor mist’ is actually more suggestive of Dartmoor, but still, presumably, Warner's readers were satisfied that the 'view' in question matched with Exmoor.

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