Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Countryside Writers - Part II - Alison Uttley

View from the top of Bannau Sir Gar (Carmarthen Fans).

I think that Alison Uttley is perhaps my favourite countryside writer, though she and Mary Webb are neck and neck. I have half a dozen of her books and would like them all. My girls enjoyed her childrens' books when they were small and we still have them.

If you haven't yet discovered Alison Uttley, or haven't read her for a while, you are in for a treat. Here are extracts from The Farm on the Hill (which cost me an exhorbitant £18 at an antiques fair), Country Hoard and The Country Child.

The Farm on the Hill - Alison Uttley, 1949, Faber & Faber.

"It was late afternoon and the April sunshine brimmed the woods and fell in quivering, dancing drops on the dead leaves of last year. The smooth beeches held up their glass-clear leaves to the sun, and the light strained through them like water through a sieve. Pools of rain lay on the earth in black hollows under the trees and thick carpets of moss covered the naked roots. By the walls and in the wood field young bracken raised its thousand curled fists, and the rough-haired stirks nosed among it seeking the bitter-sweet grasses. Sheltering under the fox-coloured fernballs grew primroses, and the striped cups of wood-sorrel. The sweet warm breath of spring was mingled with the odours of winter, but already the spikes of bluebells had pierced the earth and the pale green buds showed in the rosettes of stiff leaves."

"She looked round the whitewashed attic with its green-painted wooden bed, shaped like a house gable, and the tumbled sheets and blankets. The summer patchwork quilt, made of pieces of print frocks flecked with little flowers and spots and stars, lay in a crumpled pile, tossed over the bottom gable. There was an old carved chest, unpolished and rough oak, with iron lock and heavy hinges, under the low dipping eaves. Susan glanced at it with distain for its lack of beeswax. It was scrubbed like the attic floorboards, and the wooden pegs for clothes. Upon it was set of doll's house furniture, with chairs and tables made of horse-chestnut and cradles of rushes, and screens of Christmas cards. The penny dolls dressed in scraps of silk and velvet reclined in various attitudes on the tiny chestnut couch and the frilled bed, but Susan had lost interest in them. She had outgrown their attractions, and they were now museum pieces, if Susan had known anything about museums. She arranged them, and added to them a delicate shell, a feather, or a cherry-stone basket, but they were no longer toys for her delight."

Country Hoard - Alison Uttley, Faber and Faber, 1949

"March and April were better months, for they brought spring with them. March winds and April showers Bring forth May flowers. They sprinkled the lanes with golden-eyed celandines, whose bright enamelled petals glittered like glass. They brought bird's-eye, to stare at the sky with blue innocent gaze, and the fine threads of Star of Bethlehem, white as silver, and little scented white violets to peep from the encircling leaves in banks and hedges. They brought rain, beating across the hills, blotting out all we knew, and winds which nearly swept me off my feet. The lambs ran races and played in the same old places as other generations. They leaped over the fallen tree, and sprang from the little hillock. They formed a band with a leader, as they scampered back and forward in a worn path under the wall. Daffodils nodded in the orchards and down in the river meadows. Primroses starred the banks. The first flowers were miracles of wonder and delight March and April were good months for birthdays."

The Country Child - Alison Uttley, Nelson, 1936

"The dark wood was green and gold, green where the oak trees stood crowded together with misshapen twisted trunks, red-gold where the great smooth beeches lifted their branching arms to the sky. In between jostled silver birches - olive-tinted fountains which never reached the light - black spruces with little pale candles on each tip, and nut trees smothered to the neck in dense bracken.

The bracken was a forest in itself, a curving verdant flood of branches, transparent as water by the path, but thick, heavy, secret a foot or two away, where high ferny crests waved above the softly moving ferns, just as the beach tops flaunted above the rest of the wood. The rabbits which crept quietly in and out reared on their hind legs to see who was going by. They pricked their ears and stood erect, and then dropped silently on soft paws and disappeared into the close ranks of brown stems when they saw the child.

She walked along the rough path, casting fearful glances to right and left. She never ran, even in moments of greatest terror, when things seemed very near, for then They would know she was afraid and close round her. Gossamer stretched across the way from nut bush to bracken frond, and clung to her cold cheek. Split acorns and beech mast lay thick on the ground, green and brown patterns in the upside-down red leaves which made a carpet. Heavy rains had swept the soil to the lower levels of the path, and laid bare the rock in many places. On a sandy patch she saw her own footprint, a little square toe and a horse-shoe where the iron heel had sunk. That was in the morning when all was fresh and fair. It cheered her to see the homely mark, and she stayed a moment to look at it, and replace her foot in it, as Robinson Crusoe might have done. A squirrel, rippling along a leafy bough, peered at her, and then, finding her so still, ran down the tree trunk and along the ground.

Her step was strangely silent, and a close observer would have seen that she walked only on the soil between the stones of the footpath, stones of the earth itself, which had worn their way through the thin layer of grass. Her eyes and ears were as alert as those of a small wild animal as she slid through the shades in the depths of the wood. A mis-step made her iron heel catch a stone, and the sharp ring alarmed a blackbird dipping among the beech leaves, but it frightened the child still more. She gasped and held her breath, listening with all her senses, her heart beating in her throat. A little breeze rustled, lost among the trees, seeking its parent wind, fluttering the leaves as it tried to escape. Then it flew out through the tree-tops and was gone, and she was alone again."

I bet that made you hold your breath . . . it is one of the most beautiful and evocative pieces of writing and whilst you read it, you ARE that little girl . . .


Nan said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I've copied it for my book ideas folder. I want to read more and more of her work. I love it.

Rowan said...

I love Alison Uttley and have a lot of her books. Have you read 'A Traveller in Time'? It's one of my favourites. The farm where she lived as a child isn't all that far from here really, maybe 45-50 minutes drive to Cromford. It has a wonderful (but expensive!) secondhand bookshop. So far I haven't tried to find Castle Top Farm, though I know it still exists.Her writing is wonderfully evocative though isn't it?

GeraniumCat said...

Lovely, and your pictures are perfect. I have Little Grey Rabbit beside my bed...

Allotment Lady said...

Wonderful - just wonderful - I never tire of your blog.

Guess who is coming to Wales in April?

Morning's Minion said...

I'm not familiar with Alison Uttley, but think I'd like to find her books. Her description of the spring woods is very reminiscent of April or early May in New England. There is that same lovely medley of scents--fresh green things emerging from the earth in sunshine and then coming upon a hollow or the north side of a slope where snow still clings and the smell is cold and dank.

Arlene Grimm said...

The picutre above the Country Child looks very much like North Ga where I was raised. When I see your pictures Jennie, I know why so many, Scottish, Irish and Welsh immigrants settled in the Appalachians.