Larchfield - Polly Clark ****
Polly Clark's Larchfield is partly a fictionalised account of W.H. Auden's brief spell teaching in the small community of Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland when the poet was 24 years old. The two and a half years that Auden spent at Larchfield would appear to be a fairly minor and obscure period to base a novel upon, even if you are familiar with Auden's poem 'The Orators' that was written around this time. The author however gives the story some contemporary relevance and interest by contrasting and linking the story in alternate chapters with a modern day story of a young mother who has recently moved into the same area and also feels the pressures of being an outsider in a small community.
This method of contrasting past with present is a familiar literary device and it does serve to draw out deeper underlying themes, but Polly Clark's beautifully written novel manages much more than this. Even on a superficial and literary level however, it's a tricky enough proposition to make both stories equally interesting, never mind being able to successfully connect them. Aside from the simple, beautiful prose, Clark crafts two very different main characters who nonetheless have something in common, something which the individual reader - each likely also of a very different character - might also identify with; they are both concerned and troubled that they don't measure up to society's expectations.
In 1930, on the recommendation of his friend Cecil Day-Lewis, Wystan Auden takes up a position as teacher of English and French at Larchfield in the small Scottish west coastal town of Helensburg. It's a school that reflects the values of the local community, with a rather traditional view on what constitutes 'manly' behaviour. A recently published poet, from an entirely different background and class - to say nothing of his sexual inclinations which soon become a matter of speculation around the town - W.H. Auden faces some initial prejudice and difficulties adjusting to his new post.
You would like to think that there might be a more enlightened attitude towards such matters in the present day, but recently married Dora Fielding is also struggling to fit into the Helensburg community many years after Auden lived there. Dora and her husband Kit live on the lower level of a divided dwelling that they share with an older couple with strong religious affiliations in the community. Relations between the two families break down soon after Dora gives birth to her first child Beatrice. The baby is born premature, which causes concerns for Dora, but petty disputes and gossip around the town begin to make life almost unbearable for the young woman.
One obvious commonality that Dora and Wystan share is that they are both writers. This is an important point that certainly connects the two stories, but it's not a distinction that precludes the reader from identifying with the situation they each find themselves in. As a poet, Dora is delighted to discover that Auden once lived in the same area that she now resides, and she considers researching the local history with a view to writing a book about Auden's time there. Attempting to imagine the life he must have led and considering the difficulties that she now faces, Dora inevitably feels a strong connection to the poet. And, as their stories start to overlap, it's perhaps something even more than just simple identification.
Doubtlessly inspired by Polly Clark's own experience of the area, and as a writer herself obviously, the question of literary self-exploration and examination is certainly very much in evidence, but it's not the whole point of Larchfield. Dora struggles with questions of self-confidence about herself and her writing, is pushed close to breakdown and is subject to uncontrollable urges that result in a kind of 'fantasy' where she can turn to W.H. Auden for reassurance. Along the way however, the process by which an author strives to overcome their own insecurities, loneliness and, yes, even instabilities and paranoia, allows the reader to identify with the wider concerns that anyone faces when they challenge the conventions and behaviour of 'decent' society.
Polly Clark does this in a way that manages to transcend the rather domestic nature of Dora's experience with bad neighbours and child rearing, and any mere literary conceit of tying it into the youthful life experiences of W.H. Auden. Partly that's down to the beautiful prose that is filled with wonderful little observations, insights and delightful turns of phrase, but there are bigger issues confronted within this. Certainly the author strives to confront universal questions of "paranoia and repression" (as Clark describes the themes of Auden's 'The Orators' in the book's liner notes) and the struggle of the individual to free themselves from the tyranny of others, but there's much more to Larchfield than that. The novel also considers the necessary idealism of the writer to be able to imagine that a better society is possible, and that there must be a belief on the part of the reader to place their trust in that vision.
Larchfield by Polly Clark is published by Riverrun on 23rd March 2017
Larchfield - Polly Clark ****