They left the wood, crossed the River Garth, and came out on to moorland. Here, for the first time Jeremy smelt the sea; the lanes had been hot, but here the wind blew across the moor, with the smell of sea-pinks and sea-gulls in it. The grass was short and rough, the soil was sand . . . Jeremy’s excitement grew. He knew now how every line of the road would be . . .
I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy, but I think I was 9 or 10, for I had just gone away to boarding school, and I can remember the stab of longing that that description of the Cole family, on their way to their annual holiday at a seaside farm in the West Country, gave me. Exiled in a red-brick prep-school on the flat and muddy coast of the Bristol Channel, I dreamed with a desperate, nostalgic homesickness of the Devon lanes and cliffs and sandy beaches I’d left behind, and the sound and smell of the sea – the proper sea. The school holidays couldn’t come soon enough, and I knew exactly how Jeremy felt.
I understood how Jeremy felt about most things, and coming back to him all these years later he still seems entirely real and solid to me, and the trilogy of novels in which he appears just as magical, though sadly, like many of Walpole’s books, they are barely remembered today. It’s a pity, for I can’t think of a better account of growing up, capturing with great psychological subtlety as they do both the ecstatic, here-and-now happiness of being young and the miserable isolation of it too.
It’s the morning of Jeremy’s eighth birthday, in December 1892, when he’s first introduced to us, ‘a small, square boy with a pug-nosed face’ sitting up in bed in his father’s rectory in the cathedral town of Polchester, glorying in the thought that there are sausages for breakfast, and that now – by prior agreement – he has the right to sit in a particular wicker chair in the nursery that has hithe
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