Devon’s forgotten feminist

Expanded from an article written for ‘Dartmoor – the country magazine,’ summer 2002.

Of all the early twentieth century authors who set novels and stories wholly or partly on Dartmoor, one of the most interesting is the one who has fallen into the most complete obscurity, her books long out of print and unread, her name never mentioned in even the most comprehensive of literary reference books.

The works of Sabine Baring-Gould and Eden Phillpotts are still widely collected and written about; John Trevena enjoys a smaller but enthusiastic following, while ‘Jan Stewer’ (A. J. Coles) has a permanent place in the Devonian consciousness, as does Beatrice Chase. A society even exists to celebrate the Buckfastleigh writer Elliott Plain. But how many readers have ever heard of M. P. Willcocks, the South Devon farmer’s daughter who became a pioneer of the radical feminist novel? Yet her vision of the world and commitment to her art are at least as interesting and worth exploring as any of theirs, and more so than some of them.

I have been looking into her life and work now for many years, since I first saw her named, in an old guidebook, as an author who set work in the area, and then came upon a shelf-full of her books, all signed, in a Plymouth bookshop. Since then, without really intending to, I seem to have become the world authority on her.

Mary Patricia Willcocks (1869-1952) was born at a farm called Cleave, in the wooded hills above the Erme between Ermington and Ivybridge (the actual house has since been rebuilt). Her family had been yeomen farmers in this corner of Devon for generations, and she always retained a deep love of country life and its traditional culture. In 1938, in an interview in the Western Morning News, she reminisced happily about her childhood, describing how ‘as a shadow’ she would flit about the old kitchen listening to the farm folk and gazing up at the sky through the great chimney. ‘In the winter evenings men gathered about the blaze, as huge logs crackled on the open hearth. Often I think of the huge mug of cider that passed from hand to hand until the time came for its refilling. It was rather a ceremony, this cider drinking. The mug was set amidst the hearthside ashes and the cider became quite warm.’

In her second novel, The Wingless Victory, (1907), she memorably evokes the atmosphere of a Dartmoor farmhouse kitchen, with ‘the smoke of burning peat, mingled with the scent of new bread, the quiet falling of ash from the quiet fire: peaceful security… and the dead and gone generations.’

In the same novel a character walking on the moor hears the church bells coming up from Widecombe: ‘faint, far off, yet clear, through the tracery of leafless branches – ancient bells… telling of the bygone centuries and the simple life that had passed. Sunny afternoons when the bees hum in the heather, winter mornings when the snow lies white, childbirth, the passing of the old, the throbbing bliss of marriage peals; it is of these things that the bells speak, of centuries of simple English life.’

Such vignettes appear throughout her work. Writing in appreciation of Thomas Hardy, she observed that ‘a sense of the quick passing of the generations, combined with a feeling of the revolving seasons, gives an air of dignity to the simplest tale,’ and she sought in her own stories and novels to show men and women acting out their dramas against an ancient, well-loved landscape. But she was no sentimentalist: she knew all about the cruelties and restrictions of country life, as well as its more innocent delights. She also understood the strangely anarchic quality of the local rural culture, contrasting the solid respectability of George Eliot’s Midland countryside with the ‘lawless winds of the spirit that blow through West Country farm life.’

She was taught to read by a miller’s daughter using biscuits shaped into letters, and later said that her writing career began at the age of six, when a gypsy predicted that she would one day write a book; in fact she produced twenty four, in a career lasting over forty years.

She attended Plymouth High School for Girls and a Young Ladies’ College, before qualifying as a schoolmistress and working in Jersey, Edinburgh and Leamington Spa. In the evenings she wrote, but she was over thirty before her first novel, Widdicombe, was published in 1905 by John Lane’s Bodley Head. It was said that Lane, himself a Devon man, would always look favourably at work from unknown West Country authors. He willingly took her into his stable of writers, and clearly respected her talent and opinions. His private name for her was ‘Rabelais in Petticoats,’ not, I think, because she drank by the barrel and told coarse jokes about farting and belching (though she might have done, of course); it is the title of a chapter in The Wingless Victory. But she was certainly one of those mystically-inclined authors of the period – I think immediately of John Cowper Powys and Arthur Machen – who found, in Rabelais’ exuberant acceptance of physical existence, a liberation from their repressive Victorian upbringing, though being a farmer’s daughter she would have known all about the realities of physical existence anyway.

Widdicombe is set, not at Widecombe in the Moor, but in the South Hams village of Yealmpton, on a large, decaying farm which had once been a manor house.

The Wingless Victory, the best known of her novels during her lifetime, was translated into several European languages. Its success enabled her to give up teaching for the life of a full time writer. She settled in the Pennsylvania area of Exeter, a region of pleasant red-brick terraced houses (now mainly student accommodation), where she remained for the rest of her life. It could be this isolation, in a provincial city, far from the literary gatherings and publishers’ parties of the capital, that helped to marginalise her. She developed an interesting, rather guarded, friendship with another Bodley Head author, Stephen Reynolds, whose writings about his life with a Sidmouth fishing family caught the Edwardian imagination.

According to his biographer, Reynolds and Willcocks recognised each other’s homosexual nature; he presumably bases this statement on something Reynolds wrote or said. Some people did, it is true, describe her as rather ‘mannish,’ and she lived for many years with a female companion, a Miss Storey. We cannot, of course, know the nature of their relationship. In a letter, now in the Devon Record Office, she addresses her friend as ‘My Star,’ which suggests to me a degree of intimacy as well as affection. But such ladies (if such they were) in those days, in small cathedral cities, had to be discreet.

The Wingless Victory is set mainly in Brixham (called ‘Challacombe’), but features Totnes (‘Dodonesse’), Dittisham (‘Stoke Michael’) and the Cornish coast, with major scenes near Grimspound and Leusdon near Ashburton. Wings of Desire (1912) depicts Dartmouth and Brixham, with a journey to South America. In The Way Up (1910) she places a futuristic commune beside the Exe at Topsham. Other works are set in North Devon and Cornwall, and, in one case, the Dorset village of Corfe. In all these local books the granite uplands of Dartmoor, ‘windswept, cloud-chased, the gathering place of rains between the two seas,’ are never far away.

But her imagination was never tied to the West Country. Her favourite of all her novels, The Sleeping Partner (1919), takes place mainly in Warwickshire and London, only reaching Devon, and the mouth of the Erme, right at the end. In Delicate Dilemmas (1927), one of her most interesting though not one of her best books, she describes a pilgrimage from Brittany to Cornwall via Paris and London; in all four places she gathers a ‘bundle of tales’ illustrating moral problems. Many of the stories are actually quite weak, but her evocations of the different environments are masterly.

Real artists use whatever material is around them, and reading carefully through her works, even those without a local setting, it is possible to find memories of her South Devon farming childhood embedded in her use of names, dialect words, even incidents. In Husbandry in Heaven (1936), located in Scotland, with scenes in Italy and even Africa, she mentions the discovery of a stone with ancient ogham lettering, and the superstition this arouses in the local people; I suspect she was thinking of the similar discovery at Fardel, a mile or so from her old home, a few years before she was born. A small point, perhaps, but when an author has left so few personal traces, it is the little touches like these which enable us to get close to her.

Her style is Romantic and intense, sometimes rather opaque, but capable of great clarity; I get the sense she may have been short-sighted, as her descriptions are usually close-up views as opposed to wide-angle ones. Her ideas were advanced for the time: she was a socialist, pacifist and feminist, with a broad, generous philosophy of spiritual evolution. She had a deep interest in mysticism and what we now call ‘human potential,’ while other concerns included education and animal welfare. She sensed that ‘through the vast texture of life there runs a common consciousness,’ and that ‘life is an ocean of being on which we are all carried, star-systems, birds, beasts and men, the living and those who are to them but names on a tombstone.’

Most of her novels show strong, determined women struggling against weak, selfish men and a society that denies them basic rights, but they are never crudely simplistic or mere tracts about specific issues. She wrote at a time when the novel was seen as a vehicle for high moral purpose, and her situations bring out many subtleties of psychological insight. The fullest expression of her philosophy of life, however, is in Between the Old World and the New (1925), a study of temperament in a wide range of 19th and 20th century literature. She also wrote biographies of such varied figures as Mary, Queen of Scots, Bunyan, Fielding, Madame Roland and her beloved Rabelais.

She was, according to a faded newspaper article I once found inside one of her books, a formidable lecturer and debater, and she took practical action as well as writing and talking. In June 1913 she joined hundreds of West Country women in a suffragist march from Penzance to London. Years later, remembering the hostility they attracted on the way, she described how they were ‘stoned in Totnes’ and how, at Tiverton, the mayor himself escorted them through the town to prevent any violence against them. After the First World War she bought a cottage at Sticklepath and installed a hand-loom, hoping to revive a local craft industry, but the venture was unsuccessful.

I do not claim that she is a neglected genius, or that we should rearrange the canon of English Literature to make room for her. Her novels can be long-winded and mannered. But as a thinker and critic she is certainly worth knowing about, and anyone interested in Devon’s literary inheritance should have her in mind whilst searching the shelves of second-hand bookshops. She is particularly good at evoking a sense of place, in both novels and biographies. In the ‘My Star’ letter, written while she was on a trip to London, she talks of discussing with her publisher a book about literary places around the country; a book I certainly would have cherished, but then the Second World War came, and the idea was obviously dropped.

I am told that she became rather sad as she aged, not least because she thought that women were not making the most of their hard-won freedoms. But there is no sense of this in her last book, the Rabelais biography, written in her eighties. The Laughing Philosopher (1950) expresses a serene, joyous acceptance of life in all its absurdity. Like her subject, she clearly feels that ‘we are but travellers, and the world is our inn. It is in general a good inn, well furnished with wines and meats, and full of jolly comrades to make us good cheer.’

She died on 22nd November 1952. I don’t know if she was buried or cremated, or what happened to her books and manuscripts.

If you would be interested in the Longmarsh Press putting together a selection of M. P. Willcocks’ writings, please get in touch.