James Fergusson, Raleigh Trevelyan - Slightly Foxed Issue 26

The Diary in the Attic

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From the outside it looks like a children’s book. Indeed, the dust-jacket drawing is by Charles Stewart, well known for his illustrations for Barbara Leonie Picard and Nicholas Stuart Gray. A curtain parts to reveal a humble interior – a Little Red Riding Hood figure surprises a ragged-bearded St Jerome. The saint, if he is a saint, is reading by the light of a candle; his empty dinner-plate lies on the floor beside him. Inside the book there are endpaper and other maps drawn by another Charles, Charles Green.

A Hermit Disclosed cost me £5 in George Ramsden’s Stone Trough Books in York. When I went into his bookshop before Christmas – just moved to new, more gentlemanly premises down the road from Fossgate – he had an even nicer copy. Perhaps it cost less than mine, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. I settled into the upstairs sofa, by the coal fire, to read; and then bought two more books by the same author, Raleigh Trevelyan – one of them a copy of his very well-received first book, The Fortress: A Diary of Anzio and After (1956, new edition 1972), with his tender presentation inscription.

Trevelyan began writing, or at least working on, A Hermit Disclosed before he joined the Rifle Brigade and went to Anzio. In a sense, it starts as a child’s book. During the Second World War he and his family were living in an Elizabethan farmhouse in Essex, Sawkins in Great Canfield, not far from Dunmow. Up in the attic, where the bats were, he found some buried treasure. At least it seemed like treasure to him, aged 18, for, tied up in twine beneath a pile of dead grass and straw and feathers, was a diary kept in the 1890s by a former inhabitant of the house, a figure legendary in the district and already an object of particular fascination for Raleigh and his younger brother, John. This was Alexander James Mason, ‘the Hermit of Great Canfield’, who had shut himself up in a hut, it was said, for sixty yea

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About the contributor

James Fergusson deals in old books. He was founding obituaries editor of The Independent, 1986–2007.

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