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Terence James: Writers in the landscape

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: August 27, 2014

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I have just spent a glorious week walking the lanes, footpaths and hills of tranquil Dorset. I find it easy in this beautiful county to experience it through the poetic eyes of Thomas Hardy, an author I have loved since school.

Here are the very lanes travelled by Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Egdon Heath of The Return of the Native and the footpaths of Tess of the D'Urbervilles in her fruitless search for happiness. You can hear the hymns in village churches that were sung years ago. Hardy was a genius at re-creating place.

I was sitting on top of Hambledon Hill, recently acquired by the National Trust, and here the views are magnificent. My eyes could see beyond Somerset in the west and find Devon, the visibility was so clear.

Suddenly and inexplicably another West Country author came to mind. He wasn't, by any means, as popular as Hardy but he was much more prolific.

His name was Eden Phillpotts. Little known when he was alive and hardly mentioned now, it is estimated that he wrote more than 250 books, articles and plays in his long lifetime (1862-1960), including 22 volumes of poetry.

Phillpotts ran the gamut of literary styles. He wrote mysteries, fairy stories, plays and essays, as well as poetry, but his most important contribution to West Country literature is undoubtedly his series of novels about Dartmoor, which focus on the local communities of the moor and their relationship with each other and the land. There were 18 novels in the series beginning with Children of the Mist, first published in 1898, and ending with Widecombe Fair, published in 1913.

These novels are all characterised by simple straightforward dialogue suited to the simplicity of the characters, combined with his flair for capturing the local dialect that brings the characters to life. Does this description ring any bells? It could be describing the novels of Hardy himself. Phillpotts also gives us noble landscapes; honest, faithful and impressive. Before beginning a novel he would always go and spend time where he wanted to set the story, so he could be sure to capture the true essence of the landscape he was writing about, as well as the characters. In fact he would often take the names of the characters from gravestones in Dartmoor cemeteries.

As a student I adapted, together with a colleague, Helen Elson, one of his books from the Dartmoor Series called The Forest on the Hill as a television script. Apart from my love of the novel, I was aware that despite his popular output, only one novel The Farmer's Wife had ever been visualised and that was as a silent film in 1927 by none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

Like Phillpotts I travelled to Dartmoor and experienced the novel from the countryside where the drama played out. It was a magical experience.

His novels serve as a preservation of old customs and an old way of life that has all but disappeared. He set down the record of a country village in Devon much the same as Hardy did in Dorset and in a way similar to Jane Austen in Bath, in her record of the lives of country gentry. The philosophy is the same – the belief that nothing in life is too small to be discounted.

I came down from Hambledon Hill, making a promise to myself to seek out my script and make a second draft of it. At the foot of the hill was an inn. There was a conversation at the bar as I sat down with a beer. The talk was of the harvest. It could have been lifted from the malt house scenes in Far From the Madding Crowd. I was back with Thomas Hardy again.

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