The Owl’s House by Crosbie Garstin (1923)

Crosbie Garstin was a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life.

He was born in Newlyn – my father’s home town – the son of an artist, late in the reign of Queen Victoria, he travelled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-tree years old.

His fiction is deeply rooted in his own experiences, and this book – the first of a trilogy – draws on both his adventures and his love of his Cornish home.

The story opens  1752, when John Penhale had just been told of an ultimatum in the will of his Aunt Selina: “Marry within the year or lose your inheritance.” John was the last of the Penhales, and had inherited the farm that tree generations before him had built up; and his aunt was proud of her family heritage and wanted that family to thrive and prosper.

7cdfa2be773b628597435586741444341587343 He didn’t want to lose his aunt’s farm, further up the county, but he was reluctant to marry. John’s face was horrible scarred; the result of an accident with a shotgun. An attempt at matchmaking by his aunt some years earlier had ended in tragedy and he had retreated from the world, throwing himself into the management of his farm.

Fate took a hand before John had time to think about what he should do.

On his way home he had to fight off an attack by a highwayman; and when he reached home he found that he had been followed by a gypsy girl, who told him that as he had enabled her to escape from her cruel master she had come to serve him.

He tried to send her away but she wouldn’t go.

Teresa, who’d had the hardest of lives, saw the farm as a land of plenty and she loved living and working there. John’s scars didn’t bother her at all; she came from a world were men fought for dominance; that they had scars was a fact of life.

John loved her vitality, and the joy that she found in farm life.

Teresa found a chest of clothes in the attic, and she loved to dress up.

“He stepped nearer, peered round an oak, and saw a sight which made him stagger and swear himself bewitched. There was a marvellous lady dancing in the circlet, and as she danced she sang, twanging an accompaniment on a a little guitar.

She was dressed in a straight-laced bodice, stitched with silver and low cut, leaving her shoulders bare; flowing daffodil sleeves caught up at the elbows, and a cream-coloured skirt sprigged with blue flowers and propped out at the hips with monstrous farthingales. On her head she wore a lace fan-tail, but her feet were bare. She swept round and round in a circle, very slow and stately, swaying, turning, curtseying to the solemn audience of tress.

If not a sprite, where did she come from?

There was not her like in the parish ….”

That was the encounter that made all the difference. John and Teresa were married, they found themselves very well suited, and she bore him two sons.

I was swept away by their story; it was so very richly told and so very engaging. And Crosbie Garstin captured my part of Cornwall – the people, the places, the speech patterns, the way of life, everything – absolutely brilliantly. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that he loved his world, his story and the telling of it.

Now, you may have noticed similarities between this and the beginning of a more famous series of novels set in Cornwall. Yes, there are noticeable similarities, and I don’t doubt for a moment that Winston Graham read and was inspired by Crosbie Garstin, but this is a very different story.

I had been looking forward to following their story, but I found that this wasn’t their story.

It was the story of Ortho, the elder of their two sons.

John died suddenly; struck down in his prime.

Teresa was shattered. In time she found comfort in playing the grand lady, going to market and shopping, entertaining her admirers in the local hostelries. She didn’t realise how they saw her, and it was heart-breaking to watch the coarsening of one who had been such a vibrant young woman with so much promise.

Meanwhile her sons ran wild. Only their love of their home and the world around it stopped them going off the rails too.

Ortho fell in with gypsy horse traders, and with local smugglers.

His brother, Eli, had a very different temperament. He was more thoughtful, and when his brother went out to look for practical solutions to their problems he looked for answers in books. They worked together well, managing their mother and managing the farm.

Ortho wanted more though. He wanted adventure. He wanted to see the world.

He got his wish. He fled from a raid on local smugglers and he fell into the hands of corsairs and was taken to be sold into slavery.

He had such adventures – as a slave, as a soldier, as a spy, as a sailor – before he made his way home again.

That story was very bit as vivid, every bit as real, as the story back in Cornwall.

It was a wonderful, swash-buckling story, but it is not without problems. some of the secondary character are a little stereo-typed and there are a few comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

There isn’t so much that it should deter you from reading the book, but you should be aware.

Incidentally, the main street in my town that Teresa often visits is called Market Jew Street and it derives its name from the Cornish “Marghas Yow” which means Thursday Market. Nothing do with Jewish people ….

(There is a ‘cleaned-up’ reissue available, but I read an older edition from the library.)

Teresa was heart-broken to lose her son. Ortho was her golden boy, and the steady, sensible Eli bored her. She really couldn’t see why everyone around her thought so well of him; she couldn’t see that he was keeping the farm going and that she would be lost without him.

When Ortho came home she was jubilant, and when she saw a chance to keep him close and send Eli away she took it.

But there were consequences to her actions that she didn’t foresee.

That set things up beautifully for the second part of the trilogy.

I have it on hand.

4 thoughts on “The Owl’s House by Crosbie Garstin (1923)

  1. I haven’t heard of the book or the author, but this sounds like something I would probably enjoy. I hope the next two books in the trilogy live up to the promise of the first.


    1. I think you would like this Helen. The next two books seem more focused on Ortho’s travels, so I might miss Cornwall but the story of Ortho’s foreign adventures in this book says to me that Garstin has the ability to do them justice.


Comments are closed.