A few months before his thirteenth birthday, the young and miserable Gavin Maxwell crept out of St Wulfric’s prep school to send a ‘thoroughly hysterical’ letter to his mother. At the end of it he wrote, ‘For God’s sake take me away from this awful place.’ She answered his plea, and he was whisked away in the middle of the Spring term, ‘a quaking jelly of misery and self-pity’. He went straight home, to the House of Elrig – the house he grew up in on the edge of the vast Monreith estate in Galloway, surrounded by woods and peat bogs and heather. I was also a quaking jelly at school. I would long for the holidays, when we would pack up and drive to Scotland, to be dragged through ever thicker rain in search of ever rarer birds. My friends saw the sun in August. I saw the Shetland wren. So I find Maxwell’s books deeply comforting: none more so than The House of Elrig (1965), which describes in lucid detail the impossible social awkwardness of school, and the irresistible freedom of the natural world.
The childhood he describes in this memoir is at once strange and totally familiar: there are trees to be climbed, things to be learnt, and games to be played. But there are also governesses, shooting parties and an Uncle Percy – or rather, the Uncle Percy, Duke of Northumberland. It takes place between the wars: Maxwell was born in 1914, three months before his father was killed at Antwerp. The House of Elrig covers his first sixteen years, moving through his earliest memories and blissful days at home to his patchy school career, which ends quite suddenly with a rare and near-fatal illness that has him bedridden on his sixteenth birthday. He’d snuck out of the dormitory at dawn that day, to go rabbit shooting:
A dull grey dawn with the dew sopping on deep summer grass and nettles. Everything smelled wet and green, and the air was intimate with the calling of jackdaws awakening from their hollow oaks and Palladian ruins.
Instantly familiar to anyone who’s woken up early to the smell of dawn in July; strange, perhaps, for the Palladian ruins. But this is Stowe, Maxwell’s public school, where even the jackdaws are well accommodated. He and his accomplice shoot a rabbit, and he takes enormous satisfaction from the discovery that the other boy doesn’t know how to gut it: ‘I showed him, expertly and with contempt.’ And there you have Maxwell’s skill in autobiography: capturing not only the events of his childhood, but also the emotions and mindset of his younger self.
The House of Elrig begins with a journey home, and Maxwell’s easy, captivating style is immediately apparent. We see the house in the first line, although it’s not particularly welcoming: a ‘gaunt, grey stone building on a hillside of heather and bracken’. It’s almost unreachable, sitting at the end of a road in a stark landscape of coarse grass, bracken and stunted trees whose heads ‘seem to be forever bowed and straining towards the land’. It’s not in Elrig itself, but on the very edge of the habitable world, and beyond it stretches ‘the untamed land of peat-bog and heathery hills, of sphagnum moss and myrtle and waving bog cotton’. The prose is thick with the detail of a landscape that might be wild and unforgiving but is nevertheless full of life. The bog is ‘sweet with the haunting trilling of curlews and the wild notes of tumbling lapwings’, and there, in the centre of it, is the boy Maxwell:
After a shower of rain the air smells of the bog myrtle, and big black slugs come out on the edges of the untrammelled road. I walk home at the opposite side of the road from my nurse; my mother, watching from distant windows of the house, worries that we have quarrelled, but we are counting slugs in competition.
It is beguiling, and instantly appealing – he delves into the broad magic of a landscape, only to home in on a tiny, everyday detail: the slugs. In this style of subtle humour and intricate detail he explores his childhood, the origins of his interest in the natural world, and his penchant for collecting unusual pets.
Maxwell made his name with a pet otter, of course – but the otters came later. In The House of Elrig we see his early impulse to domesticate whatever wild beasts happen to fall into his lap. His sister has a series of goats, which behave like ‘reasonably well-behaved dogs’ when the children take them on long walks – only displaying their goatishness with skittish avoidance of recapture, ‘and occasionally munching on a pocket-handkerchief ’. Then there are the more outlandish pets: a family of rooks, several hedgehogs (‘disappointing’), a pet jackdaw and a heron.
Maxwell’s fondest memories are of Andrew, the owl. He plucked him from the nest as a little puffball when he was out hunting for birds’ eggs one day. Andrew grew to be quite affectionate, and would ride the handlebars of their bicycles, perch on their shoulders and come to their call – ‘sweeping down from the leafy gloom of some great tree’. And then, in a sudden and devastating tragedy of the natural world meeting the human, the owl is battered to death with a stick when, ‘in our absence at school, he alighted on the push handle of a pram belonging to a stranger, who believed the bird to be attacking the baby’.
This seems to foreshadow the horrifying scene in Ring of Bright Water, in which a malicious neighbour kills Maxwell’s pet otter Mijbil. Maxwell became famous for that book: it’s one of the bestselling nature books of all time. It inspired a whole generation of naturalists, and played a significant part in the birth of conservationism. And in The House of Elrig we see where it all began. Leaving aside the death of his animals, Maxwell’s pre-school childhood was a happy, isolated one, spent in the company of his three siblings, his mother and a long line of governesses. He had a parade of aunts as eccentric as anyone on the outskirts of the aristocracy could wish for, but one of them, Aunt Moo, was also a serious research zoologist. It was she who ignited Maxwell’s passion for the natural world – showing him the excitement of ponds and rock pools, and also the hours of joy to be found in discovering the inhabitants of every square yard of the garden.
The House of Elrig divides very clearly into Maxwell’s childhood at school and his childhood at home. Indeed, the two ‘were so utterly unrelated that it seems now as if they must have run parallel in time and been lived by two different people’:
I used to think of life like telegraph wires watched from a train window – in the holidays they would soar up until it seemed they would climb the sky, only to be inevitably slapped down by the next telegraph post – the term.
Until he went to school he had never met anyone his own age – he had no idea how to function in a group of aggressive schoolboys, and the process of making a friend baffled him. The masters made it worse by emphasizing his status as a minor aristocrat, giving his peers all the more reason to single him out. But amidst all the misery – the beatings, the pinched buttocks, the boxing – there were occasional flashes of interest. Mr Sillar taught drawing and geography, and was a devoted naturalist. Just before Maxwell’s abrupt exit from St Wulfric’s, Mr Sillar tells him that ‘no one can understand complicated things like their own lives and other people unless they understand simple things like animals and birds’.
For Maxwell, school was an alien place of unfathomable social rituals. So once he had escaped the torment of St Wulfric’s for good, he eliminated the memory of it from his mind, and returned to the sort of education he was used to:
[Spending] long days with Hannam the gamekeeper as he went the rounds of his distant traps, close at his heels as a shadow while with the wisdom of a lifetime he outwitted birds and beasts classified by his rules as vermin, listening to the low rumble of his voice as, sheltering behind a stone dyke from some blinding hill shower, he would try to impart to me his intimate knowledge of wild life.
These days at home with the gamekeeper rehabilitate him. Hannam is the sort of father figure that Maxwell had always lacked; showing him the deep pleasure of long days in the woods, on the hills, and by the fire at the end of the day. Then his brother returns from school for the Spring holidays, and they are back to their usual routine:
The perilous climbing of an infinity of trees . . . the thorny, tweed-tearing grip of hawthorn trees with the basket of a magpie’s nest at the top; the raw red bark of a great Scots pine into which the bite of shoe-strapped climbing-irons was as satisfying as the crunch of a biscuit; the slow, cautious, often terrifying descent carrying the plundered eggs in the peak of a tweed cap. Whatever it was, and no matter how much blood was drawn, it was home.
This is Maxwell’s prose in full flow – and it is what makes the book so captivating. He moves from the very large to the very small, from the infinity of trees to the crunch of his boot against the bark of the Scots pine, from the giddying descent to the neat, snuggled eggs in a tweed cap. He builds rhythm in the semicolons, links the general to the particular, flows from one image to the next and the next until, with the satisfying clunk of a natural close, he comes home.
It is a brief hiatus, but it’s a turning-point. His next prep school is much better, and when he goes to Stowe, he begins finally to fit in. Stoics are allowed to keep dogs, and there is a relaxed attitude towards education, although not so relaxed as to allow rabbit-shooting before breakfast. The other boys don’t mind as much when faced with how different he is, and he is accepted, a little awkwardly, as ‘a sort of Mowgli with a gun’.
Then comes the illness, and he is trapped for months in various sickbeds along the south coast – unable to travel far, cut off from the one place he wants to be: Elrig. When he finally makes it home in the last few pages, we share his sense of freedom and release. This is a beautiful, sparkling book, a brief glimpse of a wild childhood that is recognizable even in its strangeness – he has captured the essence of youth, that delicate balance of happiness and misery.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 47 © Galen O’Hanlon 2015
This article also appears as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 31: Gavin Maxwell, The House of Elrig