… he’d travelled widely, he’d published a number of books under his real name – Arthur George Henham – but a few years into the twentieth century his health began to break down, and he retired to a country cottage on Dartmoor.
He found a wonderful new world to write about it and he adopted a new name – John Trevena – and began to write books that were quite different to the stories of the occult he had published in the past.
I couldn’t resist the title of his first Dartmoor story – ‘A Pixy in Petticoats’ – and when I started reading I could tell he loved his new surroundings. Really loved them.
Some people look at a hedgerow and see just that. A hedgerow. But others see more: a network of different plants, signs of the wildlife that live there, evidence of what the weather had been doing. John Trevena saw those things and he was able to bring that to life on the page, to pull his readers into his village and over the moors.
His story draws on his own life. It tells the story of John Burrough who lives a quiet, life on Dartmoor. He is in his thirties, he is consumptive, and he believes his days of romance and excitement are over.
He writes and he walks for hours across the moors. And one day, far off the beaten trail he is surprised to see signs that someone else in nearby. And even more surprised when he realises that someone must be a woman. A woman who wore heels so small and fine that a half-crown would have covered the marks left by their points!
She is, of course, the pixy in petticoats. Beatrice Pentreath, a young descendant of Dolly Pentreath – who was said to be the last native speaker of Cornish – who has come to visit her aunt.
Beatrice was a free spirit, completely in love with life and the world, and as they spent time together, exploring the country, showing off their knowledge to each other, telling tales both old and new, Burrough fell in love with her.
It was lovely to watch and listen, to be drawn completely and utterly into their world, to want to be out on Dartmoor too.
Beatrice led her lover a merry dance, not because she didn’t care for him, but because she was so very alive, because she couldn’t possibly stay still.
“She knew she would marry some day, to find out what it was like. She knew also that the moor and the sea would call her always. She could not leave her open-air. She must have her gorse, heather and bracken, and the salt breezes of her wild Cornish coast. Love and marriage she regarded as interludes between the acts. Her husband would be the hero of only a few scenes of her life. During those acts she would take a passionate interest in him and his work; and she would be as sentimental as any man could desire. But the chief things in life would be her splendid health and strength, and her love for moor and sea.”
An accident on the moor changed everything. Then, as now, the army used Dartmoor for training accidents, and Burrough was caught in the crossfire. He was terribly injured and he wasn’t expected to live. He did live, but he was badly disfigured.
Beatrice went home to Cornwall, but he couldn’t let her go. He followed and the dance went on.
“The scene grew wilder as the train swept on; trees and hedges were left behind; there were no more cornfields, nor cottages with bright flower gardens; the end was approaching, the Land’s End; and soon there would be nothing, except the granite and stunted gorse, and the foaming waste of sea. It was like a beautiful woman growing old; South Devon was youth; Eastern Cornwall her early married life; then at Truro middle age; and so on into the desolation and decay of old age. Burrough wondered whether he too had left behind the trees and flowers; whether he too had passed through the flowering woods and the luxuriant lanes; whether he might be coming, in more senses than one, to the untrodden wastes; to end at length among the cruel rocks and the stormy sea.”
She became more elusive, because though she cared she didn’t know if she could cope, but he couldn’t give up.
The story worked well because there was joy and sadness, and because John Trevenna so clearly understood both Beatrice and Burrough. He made them, and their situation, real and complex.
And so I found myself bewitched and beguiled, by two wonderful characters I had come to care for, by their story and most of all by their world that was so wonderfully, wonderfully painted.
The obvious comparison is with Thomas Hardy whose stories were set not so many miles from Dartmoor. John Trevenna’s writing is simpler and his words have fewer subtleties, but the two have much in common. The way they bring the countryside to life, the way they draw relationships between their characters …
And, like so many of Hardy’s stories, this story ends with a tragedy.
It was inevitable, it was dramatic, it was emotional, and it grew quite naturally out of the tale that had been ending.
But if ever a sad ending was right this one was.
I borrowed a copy of ‘A Pixy in Petticoats’ from the Cornish Library Services fiction reserve, and I suspect that I will be going back there for a few more of John Trevana’s books.
It’s in print, courtesy of Valancourt Books. Their books are always beautifully produced, with informative introductions and background material, and I’m sure that this one is no exception.
Or alternatively, if you’d like a free trip to Dartmoor, the text is available online.
‘A woman who wore heels so small and fine….’ I think by that bit you had reeled me in, Jane. I’ve never heard of this author before, with either name, so thank you for the introduction! We’re in the midst of a monster snowstorm today, hunkered down with an all day fire, a book like this would suit perfectly.
So are we! I love seeing my 19th-century neighborhood with no cars on the road. Now I just need a 19th-century book. 🙂