I came across this book while looking for art by Anthony Maitland (having seen his cover for John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow and wanting more). Louise Lawrence was the pen-name of Elizabeth Holden (1943–2013), and this was her third novel, published in the UK in 1974. (It came out in the US in hardback in 1975, but doesn’t seem to have got a paperback edition in either country.)
It opens with the Hennessey family buying a house in a remote spot near the village of Oakers Mesne. Hollies Place, as the house is known, stands atop the Wyndcliffe, an escarpment overlooking the River Wye. As well as Mr and Mrs Hennessey, the family comprises Simon, 22, who’s studying at the Royal Academy of Music; Ruth, 17, who at first thinks moving to so remote a part of the country will leave her cut off from the world, but soon finds that being from London makes her somewhat glamorous and interesting at her new school and it’s not long before she’s set up with a boyfriend with a motorbike; and Anna, 15, who is lonely at the beginning, and remains lonely as she fails to click with her new classmates.
The contrast between Ruth and Anna is set up from the start:
“Only eighteen months divided Ruth and Anna in time, but Anna seemed so much younger, still a little girl who showed no sign of growing up. Anna at fifteen was very different from Ruth at fifteen, and Ruth at seventeen had left Anna far behind.”
Ruth is destined to fit in, while Anna seems bound for the opposite:
“Ruth had always said she [Anna] wasn’t normal and now Anna knew what she meant. Anna didn’t care about pop singers, and Georgie Best, and eyeshadow, and what her hair ought to look like, and what she ought to wear. But worst of all Anna had never had a boyfriend. There was something wrong with her and they all knew.”
But Anna soon finds a friend. John Hollis is a poet and lover of the natural landscape that surrounds the Wyndcliffe, and he’s 22 years old — but he’s been 22 for nearly a century and a half, as he died in 1823. (Lawrence dedicates the novel to Keats, who is presumably the inspiration for Hollis.) Though both dead and insubstantial, Hollis can be seen and heard by Anna; what’s more, Anna can feel his sensations and emotions, and comes to see the natural world around her in an entirely new way thanks to his presence:
“Perfect. Everything was so perfect. Each feathered grass, slender, delicate, separate and perfect. She was afraid to touch them for fear they’d break. Every frond of bracken, intricate, tinted, perfect. Spiders’ webs, filigree strands, complex, woven, perfect. Everything sprang at her, alive, vibrant with colour. It was as if she became part of the sunlight, insubstantial, intangible, slipping through pink flower petals that brushed her face, smooth, china-smooth, strong and cold…”
If this novel is a kind of supernatural teen romance, it’s clear from the language it’s not a romance between Anna and John Hollis so much as it is between Anna and the landscape, which takes her up and caresses her with its poetry:
“She was helpless in the booming wind. It clutched her with hollow hands as it beat on the percussion sky. It touched her with gentle fingers that played the harpstring trees. She was drowning in the sky full of sounds. Sinking and there was nothing to hold. She reached out for the moving wings, the drifting leaves, the propeller parachutes of white whirling seeds but everything eluded her. She was left to sink. But her falling brought no fear, only a thrill for she was buoyant and the wind always held her.”
Where Anna was lonely before, she comes to learn to appreciate solitude — that is, the solitude of being with John and the countryside that surrounds the Wyndcliffe:
“Solitude and loneliness, John had told her they were different. Once she’d been lonely, she’d had no one and she’d found it terrible to be alone. But now she chose it and was glad.”
The Wyndcliffe started by reminding me of other YA novels in which the (often lonely or troubled) protagonist’s coming of age is achieved through contact with a supernatural entity, as in John Wyndham’s Chocky, or William Rayner’s Stag Boy. But whereas Chocky is being told through the sceptical father’s eyes, and he can never be sure, till the final chapter, that Chocky’s not just an imaginary friend, so for most it the whole thing’s treated with a sort of parental indulgence, the second half of Wyndcliffe is all about the very serious struggle to wrest Anna from her relationship with Hollis.
But it’s not her parents who do the wresting. Mr and Mrs Hennessey don’t stay around long enough to establish themselves as characters. Mr H has to go on a month-long-plus business trip to the States, and Mrs H goes with him, leaving Anna and Ruth alone in a new house. Ruth starts to suspect Anna has a boyfriend and follows her to find out who it is, but only sees her sister wandering the countryside talking to herself. When she hears Anna calling out John Hollis’s name, she asks around and though what she hears is clearly folklore, it’s evident this John Hollis is dead. There’s tales of “Mad Edie” who also walked about talking to him, and a story that, because he took the stone to build Hollies Place from the Wyndcliffe, he’s been cursed to haunt that location till he’s driven enough suicides over the cliff’s edge to repay each pound of stone with a pound of flesh. Ruth at first doesn’t believe it, but she can see it’s driving Anna to spend too long in the foul weather, making her ill. She calls Simon back home, and suddenly the pair are like stand-in parents — though far from ideal ones. Simon is condescending, still treating Anna like a little sister half her age and threatening to smack her if she doesn’t simply obey him; Ruth is indifferent and at times doesn’t seem to care if Anna is determined to self-destruct.
But both come to accept, to some degree, that Hollis is real. Both even talk to him, despite not seeing or hearing him: Simon to castigate him for preying on someone who’s still just a girl, Ruth to tell him to face up to reality — the reality being that he’s dead, and ought to act that way.
There are moments when the book teeters on the edge of Owl Service territory, with Ruth unintentionally taking on the appearance and manner of Sorrel Lancet, the girl who Hollis originally fell in love with, and who his attempts to please led to his early death. Is there to be a replaying of past tragedies? But ultimately, John Hollis is not the implacable force that haunts Garner’s Welsh valley, and Anna, by the end, achieves a new depth and maturity, though on her own terms. She doesn’t give in to Simon and Ruth’s demands she behave and fit in, but neither does she become wholly unworldly like Mad Edie. She hardens, but only to the extent of accepting that life for someone as sensitive and imaginative as she is will likely be tough, and not to the extent of giving up on being who she truly is.
Lawrence wrote a sequel, Sing and Scatter Daisies, published in 1977, but it’s pretty hard to find at a reasonable price, so it might be a while before I read it (if I ever get to). Instead, I think I’ll try some of her other books. She clearly has a way with language — she’s brave enough to give us a full poem from Hollis at one point, and it doesn’t fail to convince — plus a sensitivity for the solitudinous, imaginative type of soul that used to so populate 1970s YA.