Posts Tagged ‘Cornwall’

The Dark is Rising

May 14, 2013

The Dark is RisingI began re-reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising quintet at Christmas. I was staying at my Mum’s and one night I found I was unable to sleep, having snoozed through most of the afternoon. Looking through the bookshelves of my childhood, filled with Beatrix Potter, Swallows and Amazons, the multi-coloured Children’s Britannica, and other nostalgic delights, I alighted on this slim collection of novels with way-out fantasy covers. I remember being so terrified by the cover of The Dark is Rising (the second in the series) that I couldn’t sleep with it turned upwards by my bed, and always had to leave it face down, preferably safely hidden underneath another book.

Over Sea Under StoneThat night I re-read, cover-to-cover, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is the first in the series. It is about the three Drew children who go on holiday to Cornwall. They stay in an old house, where they discover an old map and they soon find themselves on a quest for King Arthur’s grail. Funny how in children’s literature, when you go on holiday you tend to find yourself on a very exciting quest, whereas in adult literature, you go on holiday and either fall in love or discover something about yourself. Even now I’m a grown-up, I’d rather my holidays followed the first plot line.

This family adventure story that’s set in a Cornwall steeped in Arthurian legend is great fun, but it doesn’t begin to prepare you for the books that are to come.

The Dark is Rising, which I read a couple of weeks later when feeling poorly, is a terrifying coming-of-age story. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve, the night before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday:

It was then, without warning, that the fear came.

The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger … there was only a dreadful darkness in his mind, a sense of looking into a great black pit.

It’s a brilliant description of terror, which we soon learn is an expression of the Dark. Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of The Old Ones, a force for the Light. He is about to embark on his first quest for the Light, helped on his way by Merriman Lyon, who we met in the first book.

This gives a new resonance to children’s common fear of the dark. Throughout the books, the Dark’s presence is often felt psychologically – a dark fug of fear not a million miles from J.K. Rowling’s Dementors – rather than physically. The Grey KingThis idea is explored again in the character Caradog Prichard in the fourth book of the series, The Grey King. Caradog is clearly not a good person, but Will suddenly understands the awful full implication of this:

Will was filled with an overpowering compassion: an awareness of what must inevitably overtake Caradog Prichard if he were not checked, now, for always, in this passion before it was too late. Stop he longed to call to him: stop, before the Grey King sees you and puts out his hand in friendship, and you, unwitting, take it and are destroyed…

Man’s ambition and weakness can be taken advantage of by the Dark for its own terrible ends.

In The Dark is Rising, Cooper is very good at depicting the challenges and contradictions of Will’s double life. One minute he’s the youngest child in a big family, sparring with his older brothers, saving up pocket money for Christmas presents, feeding the rabbits. The next he’s on a terrifying magical quest, trying to save the world from the forces of the Dark.

Of course Will’s situation is greatly exaggerated, but I remember a similar feeling from childhood of having a whole complicated imaginary world which was completely separate from adult reality. Whether it was from reading books, or playing games, or organising midnight feasts, there was always something going on which felt top secret, that the grown-ups wouldn’t understand and that had to be concealed from them at boring moments like supper or home-time. Cooper brilliantly captures this feeling of a child’s life being an intersection of different worlds.

GreenwitchThe Drew children re-appear, alongside Will Stanton, in the third book, Greenwitch, which is a kind of feminine Wicker Man. Then there’s The Grey King – every bit as terrifying as The Dark is Rising, when Will stays with some cousins in Wales, where he meets the mysterious albino boy Bran. Finally, there’s Silver on the Tree, which brings all the characters together in the ultimate test of good versus evil.

There is much to enjoy in this quest-filled quintet, but above all, I love the way the series is so firmly rooted in the British landscape, inspired by British stories and traditions. The Grey King, for instance, centres on Welsh tropes. At the heart of the story is the Brenin Llwyd, traditionally a Celtic King who lives in the Snowdonian mountain Cader Idris. Cooper casts him as a force for the Dark. Will has to find a golden harp – a Welsh object if ever there was one – and there is even an important sheepdog.

Silver on the TreeIn Silver on the Tree, the tree of the title is in the Chilterns. This is the scene when they find it:

Then the last of the mist blew away, and in the dim light beneath the lowering sky they saw a line of trees before them, a wood of beech trees capping a round chalk hill – and, gradually appearing on the slope in front of the wood, a single huge tree … It was an oak tree, more vast and ancient than any tree they had ever seen.

I’m not sure there could be a more English landscape!

These books are about oak trees and other trees and the folklore of English wildflowers and Welsh mountains. They are about Celtic myth and Arthurian legend, and about the Old Ways – ancient paths through the landscape that have magical powers of protection (Robert Macfarlane should take note).

Cooper often transports her characters from the present day to an ancient time, while keeping the place the same. It is a wonderful way of capturing the layers of history encapsulated in the landscape, or as Macfarlane would put it, the land’s ‘storiations’.

Susan Cooper wrote Over Sea, Under Stone when she was working at The Sunday Times in London. The rest of the quintet came later, however, once she’d moved to America. Cooper was very homesick and in an interview on her website she says:

I was so homesick that when I went home to Wales to visit my parents a few months after moving, my husband later said he was afraid I wouldn’t come back … My homesickness never went away. It bubbled up into The Dark Is Rising, a fantasy about the Light and the Dark that is at the same time intensely English, every inch of it set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.

Perhaps this vivid conjuring of British landscape in the books helped to ease her homesickness. It certainly transports the reader to the various settings, making me long to go to Cornwall, Wales and Buckinghamshire.

I loved re-reading these books from my childhood and found they had definitely stood the test of time. I find children’s books are best read when feeling a little overtired or poorly – there is something about the imaginative quests and the elemental background of good versus evil which really takes hold of my mind when it’s already feeling somewhat unhinged from reality. I think next time I read The Dark is Rising sequence will be when I go on a staycation to Wales, Cornwall or Buckinghamshire. They would definitely bring a new resonance to the landscape and who knows, perhaps the holiday would take a more adventurous turn.

And for those of you who are either terrified by the old Michael Heslop covers or unimpressed by the current Penguin ones, you might be tempted by these completely beautiful editions with illustrations by Laura Carlin, recently published by The Folio Society.

Folio Society editions of The Dark is Rising

Walking and Talking at Port Eliot

July 23, 2012

I have just returned from a glorious few days at Port Eliot festival in Cornwall. What a fun time we had! Beautiful landscape, inspiring talks, dancing-a-plenty – made all the better by being, for the most part, blessed with sunshine.

I was at Port Eliot to do my walking book club – which involves going for a walk and talking about a book.

In this instance, I did one walk for The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and another for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, both books that fitted in nicely with Port Eliot’s big house and beautiful grounds. Quite thrillingly Radio 4 were interested in the idea and broadcast a report on it on The World Tonight. Here it is – the piece about the walking book club is 37 minutes in.

It was probably because I was there to walk, but I found that walking greatly influenced my experience of the festival. As well as gleaning walkerish thoughts from Robert Macfarlane (barefoot on red sandstone is a winner) and Juliet Nicolson (her grandfather Harold Nicolson went on a rather more highbrow walking book club in France), I went on a literary walk with Duncan Minshull, who has edited a treasure trove of a book about walking. A group of us walked down a pretty path to a field golden with wheat, stopping every now and then for Duncan to read us a thought on walking from someone literary.

My favourite was a letter from Soren Kirkegaard to his sister-in-law:

Do not on any account cease to take pleasure in walking: I walk every day to preserve my well-being and walk away from every sickness; I have walked my best thoughts into existence, and I know of no thought so heavy that one cannot walk away from it.

Apparently she was something of a couch potato and he was trying to coax her into taking a little more exercise.

Duncan also pointed out how walks are often written into literature, as a writerly device. Think Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, for instance. Of course my mind was abuzz with thoughts about The Go-Between and Rebecca and yet, somewhat idiotically, I hadn’t yet stopped to think about how much walking goes on in them. Of course Leo is a prince of walkers, traipsing less and less merrily between Brandham Hall and Ted Burgess’ farm, carrying messages between Marian and Ted. There is also rather a good walk from the Hall to the Church. Leo trots alongside Marian, when he sees Trimingham approaching:

I felt compelled to say: “Triminham’s coming after us,” as if he were a disease, or a misfortune, or the police.

“Oh is he?” she said, and turned her head, but she didn’t call to him, or make a sign, and his pace slackened off, and when he did come abreast of us he passed us, to my great relief, with a smile, and joined the people who were walking in front.

Could Marian be any more tepid in her feelings towards Trimingham? Especially when compared to the passionate ‘Darling, darling, darling’ written to lowly farmer Ted. Trimingham comes across as every bit the noble gentleman, his pride may be wounded and yet he masks it with a smile. The marriage planned between Marian and Trimingham – her money for his title – is certainly one of convenience, not motivated by love or affection. All this conveyed in a walk.

Of course in Rebecca it is while walking with Maxim in the grounds of Manderley that the new Mrs de Winter first comes across Rebecca’s fateful boathouse. Maxim is furious with her for following the dog over there, and strides crossly up the hill, back to the house for tea, revealing that the boathouse is every bit as sinister as she fears.

Rather luckily there is a boathouse at Port Eliot, so for the Walking Book Club we wandered down there, paused in our discussion and regrouped. I thought it a good spot to read out Daphne du Maurier’s description of Rebecca’s boathouse, when the new Mrs de Winter first sees it on her walk.

We all collectively shivered in spite of the warm sunshine at the description of the ‘damp and chill’, ‘dark and oppressive’ boathouse, with its rat-nibbled sofas, cobwebs and ‘queer musty smell’.

We moved on, wandering along the estuary, wondering aloud whether or not Rebecca really is the villain that Maxim de Winter says she is.

Many of us found a new respect for Rebecca. Plenty of us found ourselves irritated beyond belief with the new Mrs de Winter. Someone said she was desperate to shake some sense into her. Maxim de Winter was accused of being vile and dreadful, although not without his attractions.

But my greatest surprise was hearing someone say that she quite liked Mrs Danvers. Oh, Mrs Danvers, ghoul of my nightmares! Feeling that I needed du Maurier’s own words to back up my case, I waited until we were gathered by the house before reading out a scene thick with horror, to my mind one of the most ghastly scenes in all of literature.

The ball is about to begin, and the new Mrs de Winter has overcome her habitual, irritating shyness to get dressed up, rather excitedly, after one of the family portraits … thanks to Mrs Danvers’ suggestion. Standing in the shadow of the house, it was easy to look up to the upper windows, and imagine the young new Mrs de Winter up there, giggling with her maid as she got dressed. Then she walked along the corridor and told the drummer to announce her. And then:

I came forward to the head of the stairs and stood there, smiling, my hat in my hand, like the girl in the picture. I waited for the clapping and laughter that would follow as I walked slowly down the stairs. Nobody clapped, nobody moved.

They all stared at me like dumb things. Beatrice uttered a little cry and put her hand to her mouth. I went on smiling, I put one hand on the banister.

“How do you do, Mr de Winter,” I said.

Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white. I saw Frank go to him as though he would speak, but Maxim shook him off. I hesitated, one foot already on the stairs. Something was wrong, they had not understood. Why was Maxim looking like that? Why did they all stand like dummies, like people in a trance?

It continues along these lines until …

Then I saw that the door leading to the west wing was open wide, and that someone was standing there.

It was Mrs Danvers. I shall never forget the expression on her face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exulting devil. She stood there smiling at me.

And then I ran from her, down the long narrow passage to my own room, tripping, stumbling over the flounces of my dress.

What a haunting piece of writing, and how wonderful to be haunted by it standing there, by the wall of a house that might as well have been Manderley itself.

Re-reading: The Go-Between and Rebecca

July 18, 2012

 I am terribly excited to be going to Port Eliot Festival tomorrow. I will be hosting my Walking Book Club, first to discuss The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley and then Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. They are two of my very favourite books and, in preparation for Port Eliot, I’ve had rather a wonderful week re-reading them.

Re-reading a book is so very different to reading something for the first time. Second time round you know, more-or-less, what’s going to happen, roughly how everything will end up. This time I pay much more attention to what the writer’s doing. Oh that’s clever, I think, noticing a little trick of the narrative, yes that’s just what’s needed. You know where the story’s going so it’s all the more fascinating to see how the author’s going to get there. I suppose it feels closer to writing the novel yourself. Your knowledge is more aligned with the author than the characters – you tend to know what will happen before they do.

The funny coincidence with Rebecca and The Go-Between is that they are both told by a narrator who is looking back over past events. Rebecca opens with that infamous dream of Manderley, and then we join the narrator as she recollects herself, back then, when she ‘drove to Manderley for the first time, hopeful and eager’:

I can see myself now, memory spanning the years like a bridge

The whole book is one long memory, and every now and then we get reminded that it’s all in the past, it’s all happened once already, the events have unfolded before.

In The Go-Between it is Leo who revisits the past – that ‘different country’, in another infamous first line – when he opens his diary kept for decades in his old red collar box.

If you’re reading these books for the first time you are at a narrative disadvantage – the narrators know what’s going to happen and you don’t. But if you’ve read it already, really you’re not so different from the narrators, you could almost be telling the story yourself.

What I like most about re-reading is seeing what different things lodge themselves in my mind, compared to the last time.

When I last read Rebecca a year ago, I was obsessed with Manderley, the house in it. Perhaps rightly so, for the house is described in so much detail, conveys such hope and such menace by turn, that it is in many ways a character in its own right. As some of you might remember, I’m also writing a novel about a derelict house, which was in part why I was re-reading Rebecca and so my eyes stared all the wider whenever a ‘house bit’ came up.

When I read The Go-Between, I was working very low down at a very big publishing house, and I was very much in awe of my boss. He told me to read it and so read it I did. I raced through it thinking it must certainly be a work of genius if he thought so. I remember thinking hard about all the classical allusions, the ‘Golden Age’, the ‘delenda est belladonna’, being very impressed with all the French passages – telling myself that my boss wouldn’t have to look up any translations in the notes – and part of me wondered if my boss had been at all like Leo as a boy, slightly awkward, keen to get things right, intelligent in a bit of an odd-ball way. Of course I didn’t say that to him, but I mined the text for what I hoped might be little parallels and clues.

I suppose what you notice in a book says rather a lot more about you than the book. (That’s why the Walking Book Club – where all sorts of different people discuss the book in a very relaxed, meandering fashion – is such fun!) So this time round, older, wiser, having written more myself, what did I notice?

For one thing I felt rather envious of Daphne du Maurier’s masterful building of suspense. Having recently spent a while thinking about Hitchcock for my novel,I wonder if the reason he made films out of so many of her books was because he spotted a fellow master of it. I also noticed how devastatingly effective the ending of The Go-Between is by the shocking thing (I’m not going to give it away, don’t worry) being mentioned so quickly, in just a single sentence which is set as a paragraph on its own. It reminded me a little of the end of A River Runs Through It. Less is more, I tell my writerly self, fiercely.

I noticed the weather. All this grey rain we’ve been having made me long for the scorching summer of The Go-Between, and Leo’s obsession with checking the thermometer chimes with my endlessly checking the BBC weather website for signs of improvement. In Rebecca, it’s raining when the narrator drives down with Maxim to Manderley for the first time. But Maxim assures her:

“This is London rain … you wait, the sun will be shining for you when we come to Manderley’’; and he was right, for the clouds left us at Exeter, they rolled away behind us, leaving a great blue sky abover our heads and a white road in front of us.

Please God let that be the case when we drive down to Port Eliot tomorrow! There’s also the smothering fog that causes the fateful crash of the ship and that wonderful thunderstorm near the end, with the weather building and refusing to break and then the rain falling just as everything threatens to fall apart …

But above all, I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’ve noticed tea. Not tea, as in a cup of, but tea as in high tea, with all the trimmings. Both novels are set in big country houses around a hundred years ago, when tea was nearly as important a meal as lunch.

In Rebecca, tea at Manderley is served at precisely half-past four. This is so fixed that, on returning from a walk, the narrator thinks:

I would ask Robert to bring me my tea under the chestnut tree. I glanced at my watch. It was earlier than I thought, not yet four. I would have to wait a bit. It was not the routine at Manderley to have tea before half past.

When tea is not under the chestnut tree, it is served in the library, ‘a stately little performance’:

The solemn ritual went forward as it always did, day after day, the leaves of the table pulled out, the legs adjusted, the laying of the snowy cloth, the putting down of the silver tea-pot and the kettle with the little flame beneath. Scones, sandwiches, three different sorts of cake.

At other times there are ‘dripping crumpets … tiny crisp wedges of toast … that very special gingerbread’ and ‘angel cake, that melted in the mouth, and his rather stodgier companion, bursting with peel and raisins.’

YUM!

The teas in The Go-Between aren’t described in the same sort of gluttonous detail but they still play an important role. On a seminal visit to Ted, Leo is anxious about missing tea at ‘the Hall’ but in the end stays and has tea with him in his cottage, with tea-cups:

deep and cream-coloured, with a plain gold line round the outside and inside at the bottom, worn by much stirring, a gold flower. I thought them rather common-looking … It was odd to see a man laying the table, though of course the footman did it at the Hall.

It would seem that how one has one’s tea reveals rather a lot.

Oh how I long to live a life where tea was served everyday at 4.30, which I find is just the time one feels a little peckish. How I would love to be brought a buttery crumpet and a cuppa to stave off the tummy rumbles until a late, civilised dinner, rather than resorting (as I too often do) to gobbling a Tracker bar on the way to meet a friend for an after-work drink. I’d settle for tea not even being served to me, on a special cloth-covered table, but having the time and inclination to make it for myself. Even a piece of toast would do it.

All week I’ve been feeling faintly resentful of this yummy, sensible old English tradition being more-or-less wiped out, at least from my life. But then, this morning, I realised there’s nothing to stop me from having tea if I so desire. And today, at half-past four, this is what I concocted:

Not remotely up to Manderley’s standards, but it was still perfectly delicious. Long may the noble and terribly literary tradition continue!