The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray (1926)

Only the very hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by this beautifully wrought and utterly poignant account of a life damaged by war and by circumstance.

It is the story of Helen, who looks back at her earlier life when she is in her forties.

Her childhood was, in many ways, idyllic; with her time divided between the London home of her grandmother and Yearsley, the beautiful Georgian manor house in the country that was home to her cousin Delia, Delia’s husband, John, and their two sons, Guy and Hugo.

The children’s life in the country was happy and secure; they had the freedom to roam through gardens, meadows and woods; and there was one particular tree that they always returned to, naming it ‘The Happy Tree.’

The two boys had much in common, but their natures were quite different – Guy was bright and confident, while Hugh was quiet and sensitive. Helen and Hugh were particularly close; and as they grew up, it became clear that their feelings were much deeper than those of siblings. Neither of then knew quite what they should do, or how to speak of what they knew, and so they just went on with life and found themselves pulled in different directions.

Happy TreeThe boys went away to school and then they went up to Oxford, while Helen was educated at home, with the unspoken assumption that she would remain there until she married and had a home of her own.

She enjoyed visiting  Guy and Hugh, in Oxford at first and then in London. She was drawn onto their sophisticated and intellectual circle of friends; but there was still a distance between her and Hugh. That troubled her, and as neither of them had either the wish or the confidence to speak or act, she drifted into a relationship with a man on the fringes of their circle.

Walter Sebright was an earnest and serious-minded academic, it was clear that he adored Helen, and she accepted his proposal because she knew that and she didn’t quite know how to say no, and could only hope that his love for her would allow her fondness for him to grow into something much deeper.

The match left her family and friends both surprised and disappointed, but because Helen didn’t share her true feeling with anyone, all any of them could do was assume that it was what she wanted and that she saw things in her fiance that they did not.

Helen was to find that Walter’s outlook on life was quite unlike that of her family and friends, and that his less wealthy, middle-class upbringing made him disapproving of the easy path through life her cousins and the lack of thought they gave to their good fortune.

When war broke out, Helen had to watch her  cousins and friends go off to fight, while her husband stayed home, because he was medically unfit and carrying out work that was important to the war effort. She struggled with childcare and with housework, with no help, because even finances allowed there were no domestic servants to be had. Helen was totally unequipped for the life she had to live, she struggled with the consequences of the wrong decisions she had made, and as news of casualties and deaths arrived she grieved for the people she had loved and for the world that she had loved and that she knew could never be the same again.

The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read I couldn’t look away.

And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much…I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.

Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.

It made me think how our family situation can affect us for the whole of our lives. Helen’s father dies when she was very young and her mother left her in her grandmother’s care while she moved to America to pursue her career. Had Helen’s mother been close at hand maybe she would have questioned her engagement in a way that Cousin Delia didn’t feel she could. And had she been raised to think that she might have higher education, that she might have a career or a purpose of her own, that being a wife and a mother need not be everything, what a difference that made have made.

It made me realise that no matter what our circumstance our, lives can be thrown off course by things that we can’t control, leaving hopes and dreams shattered, and leaving lives adrift.

It made me realise that it is so important to speak and communicate honestly.

All this is the story of one life, told in a voice that always rings true.

The Continuing Story of Ortho Penhale: Proud Cornishman and Bold Adventurer.

I’ve written about Crosbie Garstin, a Cornishman who lived a remarkable life, before, when I read the first of his three novels about the life of Ortho Penhale; and when I caught sight of a new biography of the author I remembered that I had never written about the second and third books of the trilogy, and I thought that I really should.

The author was the son of a noted artist, and he was born in Newlyn, late in the reign of Queen Victoria. He traveled the world, he fought in the Great War, and then he returned to Cornwall  and published poetry and prose, fact and fiction, before dying in a boating accident when he was just forty-three years old.

I say this again because, while Ortho Penhale’s story is fictional, it is clearly deeply rooted in Crosbie Garstin’s own experiences, and it draws on both his love of travel and adventure and his love of his Cornish home.

‘High Noon’ opens in the West Indies, late in the 18th century. Ortho had been press-ganged by the Royal Navy when he went down to see what was happening in a small cove not far from his home. At first he had been philosophical; delighted to be at sea again and earning good money, but chafing a little under the restriction and at having to take orders from younger and less experienced men.

When his ship reached St Lucia, Otho decided that he’d had enough, and that he would jump ship and find his own way back to Cornwall. He wondered if he had made a bad mistake when he was drawn into a trap laid by a seductive woman, who he slowly realised was terribly dangerous; and it was only by using all of his charm and experience that he managed to get away.

The atmosphere that Crosbie Garstin created was extraordinary. I loved the way that light suddenly turned to darkness and that he put me right there at Ortho’s side and had we wondering how on earth he could possibly escape this time.

When he got back to Cornwall, Ortho found that much had changed. His brother Eli told him that he couldn’t go on managing his farm as well as his own. The lovely girl he had planned to marry had married another man and was the mother of a young son. And his mother, Teresa, had died in strange circumstances.

Ortho understood his brother’s concerns, and he set to work straight away. He had always loved his home and the life he led there; and, though he and Eli were very different, they had a great deal in common and they understood each other well.

He realised why his lovely girl has married in haste as soon as he saw her young son.

And an encounter with a horse trader helped him to understand how and why his mother life had ended. John Penhale had rescued her, a gypsy girl, from a cruel master and she came to love him and to love the farm that she saw as a land of plenty. When he died she took comfort in rich food and drink, and in extravagant living. As she grew older that left her vulnerable, and one day her past caught up with her.

That completed a circle; there are a number of circles begun and completed over the course of this trilogy.

The story of Ortho’s return to Cornwall was wonderfully well told, firmly rooted in places I knew well; and I found it so easy to believe that the Penhale family lived and breathed and that the stories I read really happened.

He wanted a wife, and when he met Nicola, the daughter of a wealthy Penzance family he thought he had found her. She was bright and vivacious, she was brave and adventurous, and all of her family loved the tales that Ortho had to tell. They wouldn’t accept Ortho as a suitor though, and so they began to meet in secret and they ran away to get married.

Ortho realised too late that they should never have married, that Nicola would need to be cared for and protected for the rest of her life, and that her family had stood against their romance for the very best of reasons. He accepted that he had to accept the consequences of his actions, that he had to accept the responsibilities of a husband even though the woman he had married would never be a wife to him.

Though he didn’t always live within the law, Ortho had firm principles, he was a man of his word and he accepted that he had to deal with the consequences of his actions, for better and for worse.

He put arrangements in place, and then he went to sea because that was the only way he could earn enough money to pay for everything that was needed. Fate took him back to St Lucia, and a second encounter with the woman who might have been – who might still be – his nemesis.

This second volume of the trilogy built very well on the first volume and left interesting possibilities for the third.

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‘The West Wind’ was published just a year after ‘High Noon’ but it is clear from the start that something has changed. An elderly ship-owner tells his daughter stories of Ortho Penhale, who he knows has lost his own boat and hopes might come to work for him.

He accepts, and there are more adventures, but Ortho is aware that he is growing older too and that he must look to the future. While he remains married to Nicola he will never have a legitimate son, but he knows that he cannot abandon her. He would have happily left his farm to his brother’s son, but Eli’s wife lost a child after a difficult pregnancy. She had nearly died too, and she would never be able to conceive another child.

Ortho was pragmatic. He decided that he would intervene to make sure that his illegitimate son was educated, that his work would give him a chance to rise in the world. His plan worked, but it worked too well. The young man became an officer in the Royal Navy, and he was appalled to find that his sponsor was a rough seaman who was often at odds with the rule of law, whose friends were smugglers and horse- traders.

It seemed impossible that father and son would be reconciled, and that the son would accept his legacy.

As this story played out Ortho continued to run his farm, to play an active part in local life, and to travel when he could. He encountered old friends and old enemies, and he began to feel the consequences of the life he had lived and the choices he had made.

This is a more thoughtful book than the two that came before, the author considering his hero’s mortality, maybe because he was considering his own after his father’s death. ‘The West Wind’ is dedicated to the ‘dearest of fathers, wittiest of companions, best of friends.’

There is still room for high adventure, wonderful storytelling, and a great deal of Cornish colour.

In the end Ortho’s luck finally runs out. The parallels between the author and his hero have always been striking, and Ortho’s demise is a strange foreshadowing of Crosbie Garstin’s, just a few years later.

Eli and his wife Mary, who always had a soft spot for Ortho, are left to pick up the pieces and to encourage his son to accept his legacy.

It’s the right ending for this series of books, and the right ending for Ortho Penhale.

He was a man of his time, and there and there are some comments – about race and about women – that are probably a fair reflection of attitudes of the time but will touch nerves today.

That shouldn’t deter anyone from reading these books. That are full of wonderful stories, those stories are so vividly told, and I am still happy to believe that the Penhale family lives not so far away from where I am now and that we have walked the same streets and looked at the same landscapes. I read an old library copy but there are newer, cleaned-up editions available.

It’s a while now since I read the last page, but the story and the characters are still living in my head.

And I know that there’s a new biography of Crosbie Garstin out there. I really must find a copy, because I would love to know more about him, and about how much of his own life he used to tell the story of the life and times of Ortho Penhale.