|Explore the English woods with intrepid Dorothy Hartley|
I’d begun writing a post in homage to the wandering wonder that was Dorothy Hartley before I heard about #readwomen2014 – a call from both men and women to redress the imbalance of attention paid to women writers despite the healthy proportion of women amongst the published (there’s a good piece explaining how/why this is happening in the Guardian here). I would have encouraged you to read her books anyway, but now you have an extra reason.
I’d turned to Hartley in the name of research. She trawled England in the early twentieth century recording the pre-industrial crafts and skills of the countryman, believing that many of these were dying out. It was as much the language associated with these activities that I was after, almost always evocative Anglo-Saxon words. Here, for example, is a question set in a timber merchant’s examination: ‘Explain the meaning of: Scanfin, riftgrain, double wrack, cup shake.’
Made in England, which was published in 1939, contains details of crafts intended to dignify workers already viewed by the world as inferior to those acquainted with industry and office work, illuminating their complexity but also their beauty.
Part of the joy of reading Hartley’s accounts is seeing how deep this lone female explorer would dig into each distinct world. She can tell which man made each of a set of wooden bowls just by the marks of their tools. She tracks down a timber cutting camp in Buckinghamshire ‘through noticing a chip of fresh-cut wood sticking in the mud on the foot-rest of a stile. It was a piece of white beech, near heart wood, so freshly cut that it was still damp; so I went into the nearest beech wood...’
Not only is she intrepid, she writes beautifully about the world she explores. On her way to observe a hazel coppicing site: ‘Up on the hill-side the bleached primroses trembled stiffly, and there was crackling cat-ice in the cart ruts. The freezing weather had dried every scrap of moisture off the wrinkled surface of the earth. Starving birds followed me, for my footsteps broke the ice on the tiny frozen woodland pools and they could get water... The whole landscape was frost bleached, colourless, flat, even the black tarred Kentish barns had a dull bloom over them, like the colour on a sloe in November.’
There is a matter-of-factness, a directness, in her writing about the countryside that is so refreshing compared with the self-consciousness that verges on smugness which I find so difficult to stomach in many modern nature writers. Hartley clearly didn’t care what other people thought of her, pitching up out of nowhere at work camps where there would be only local men and getting on with her recording. This lack of self-regard and desire purely to describe rather than boast comes through again and again, and allows her to write passages such as this, the kind of flight of fancy that lets you know she would laugh to read it too. She is describing a beech wood camp where the workers make tent pegs:
‘To hold the water there was a had-been-white-enamelled Oxford hip bath. (I don’t suppose they’ll ever bother to take that hip bath back; it will sit for ever now in the Buckingham beech woods, and the leaves will drift into it, and the rain will puddle, and the little birds will bathe in it, until the bottom gives out. And then the ferns will grow through it, the rim will drop off, robins will nest in the opulent ornamental handles, and finally the ghost of that Hip Bath will go flapping back, thin as the wraith of its vanished enamel, to the Pump Rooms of Bath and the upholstered hotels where hip baths belong. And the other hip bath ghosts, and the foot baths, and all the properly plated H’s and C’s will see the chips in its hair, and the ivy leaves upon its brow, and think how one respectable Hip Bath brother once lived a wild life, and went to the bad in the Buckinghamshire beech woods.)’
A flying ghost of a hip bath, buried in amongst the faithful cataloguing of tent peg production, is just one of the many gleaming and incidental gems in Hartley’s writing. So, if you are looking for women writers to add to your heap for 2014, track down Made in England, or Food in England, or The Land of England, and be transported.