In a house full of books, the majority of them old, you wouldn’t think it would be difficult to find a book from 1924 that I wanted to read, would you?
I found a few books that I’d read too recently to re-read, I found a couple that I wanted to read one day but knew that the time wasn’t right, and I any number of books that were published in 1923 and 1925. But nothing that said ‘read me now!’
That was why I started searching in the Cornish Room of the Morrab Library, in the hope of finding an interesting local author. And I did!
I’d read the first of C C Vyvyan’s memoirs, I’d read a little volume of her short stories and sketches; I’d loved them both, I’d meant to read more of her work.
She’s very obscure these days; I can’t find much biographical information and I can’t find a hint of a bibliography, but because the first of her books that I read was a memoir, I can tell you a little about her.
Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, was born in Cornwall in the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign. She had a happy childhood, and she fell in love with books and with the natural world around her.
When she grew up she wanted a sense of purpose, so she became a social worker. She discovered a love of travel when she made her first trip abroad, to visit a brother who had settled in Australia.
When the Great War broke out she returned to England, and when two of her brothers became casualties she went home to Cornwall to support her parents. That was when she began to write and that was where she met and married the heir to one of Cornwall’s ancient houses situated on the Lizard Peninsula …..
There were a good number of her books; more short stories and sketches, travel writing, a novel. The second one I picked up was published in 1924. Success!
‘Cornish Silhouettes’ is a collection of short pieces, inspired by real stories, real people and real places. Their author explains that she calls them silhouettes because she took an outline from life, and then she drew the details as she chose. She did that so well. I believe that her Cornwall is the same Cornwall that my grand-parents and great grand-parents new; and I believe that they people she wrote about lived and worked alongside them.
Many of the pieces are simple character sketches. I was very taken with a gardener who was always a little out of step with the world. I loved Old Zackie, who was both sportsman and poet. I was amused by The Fool of the Family, who wasn’t foolish at all, he just appreciated the simple things of life in a way that his grand family never would.
I was particularly struck by accounts of two ladies. One way young and spent as much of her time as she could out on the cliffs; she was happy to be alone and she was happy to encounter others, sharing her knowledge and learning more from them. The other was frail and elderly; she found going out difficult but she loved to have visitors, and she took a great deal of trouble to entertain them and to find interesting things to talk about. There was something that told me that these two women had helped to shape the author’s philosophy of life.
There were many of these sketches, and some of the people I met haven’t quite stuck in my head, but I did enjoy meeting all of them.
The handful of sketches of the natural world are a little less strong. I loved the author’s powers of description, I loved her obvious love of what she was writing; but there was a hint of contrivance, a slight feeling of the essay for school about them.
There were two longer pieces – not long but longer. You might call them short short stories .
The account of the difficulties of staging a Christmas social was so funny, and horrible believable.
And the story of a tea for an eightieth birthday, where neighbours who didn’t speak were brought together so cleverly by their hostess was a little gem.
There was something about the opening of that story that made me wonder of the young Elizabeth Goudge, who would have been living just a little way up the coast in Devon when this story was published, might have read and enjoyed it.
“She was dressed early and had put on her pale grey shawl and pinned a pink bow on her front, for it was her eightieth birthday and ‘company’ would be dropping in. She lay as usual on the couch drawn close to the window of the bed-sitting room; without raising her head she could watch the clouds and the movement of the tide over the mud-flats; and the flight of water-birds, white or silver against the dark soil of the creek; her ‘picture show’ she called it.
The black-headed gulls, white with their winter plumage now, would wheal and scream in flocks or settle on a sandy spit that ran out into the middle of the creek, defying the high tides.
And if you looked closed you might see a line of ghostly brown forms, still, huddled, attentive, a parliament of curlews waiting for the time to feed, ready to take wing if any human form came near. Miss Priscilla always blessed intruders, for she loved to see them rise in a cloud and to watch for their white rump feathers and their curved beaks against the sky.
Sometimes a flock of sanderlings would sweep by like driven snow-flakes against the mud, and then turning would be suddenly lost to sight, mere grey specks against a neutral background.
And at low tide the redshanks would step daintily, picking out food with their long beaks, each one mirrored in the shining mud so that, what with the birds and their shadows, all the wet ground seemed full of movement. On days when the wind was in the west you could plainly hear their piping note far away up the creek and the piercing wail of the curlews.
Day after day Miss Priscilla sat there, she would speak her thoughts to the clouds and the water and the birds, and they always seemed to answer her in just the way that she required, giving her a sense of peace and reassurance rather than any articulate reply to her comments.”
I loved this book of sketches, by an author who so clearly loved everything that she wrote.
She would write for many more years, she would produce more polished books, but this book has a charm that is entirely its own, and it catches a time and a place so very well.