Today I’m returning to Cornwall, but with Susan Cooper instead of Daphne du Maurier. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is one of my favorites: it has kept its place on my bookshelves through multiple library purges and I reread it frequently. I’ve recently been skimming through Greenwitch, the third novel in the series.
Greenwitch brings together the characters from the first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, (Paul, Simon and Jane Drew) and the second, The Dark is Rising, (Will Stanton) in order to… well, you know, defeat Evil and stuff. (Evil with a capital “E”, of course.) Throughout the entire series Evil and Good collide in a series of escalating conflicts… lots of showdowns, lots of crises, Merlin shows up, it’s all quite enjoyable.
My favorite in the series is the second: The Dark is Rising. Will Stanton turns eleven on a snow-muffled day in late November, and learns his responsibilities as the seventh son of a seventh son. Cooper does such a wonderful job of describing the deep and awe-inspiring silence of a heavy snowfall and linking that silence to a sense of the immense age of the English countryside. A perfect November read, and one I return to on a near-annual basis.
Anyway, the third novel in the series, Greenwitch is the only which features a female protagonist. By virtue of her gender, Jane Drew is allowed to attend the strictly female ritual of the making of the Greenwitch. The Greenwitch is a straw figure that is built and imbued with a sort of Cornish cultural magic during a ceremony, then thrown into the sea as an offering. Jane later dreams of a conscious Greenwitch, mournful in the face of the inexorable pull of the sea as the structure is drawn out into the deeps.
Of course, Jane saves the day by performing to gender type: she empathetically just “knows” the emotions of the Greenwitch, she becomes the caretaker and takes responsibility for those emotions… but even though she is acting through those stereotypical tropes, she still is allowed to be an actor in the drama rather than an adoring onlooker.
That dream is the pivotal point in the book: the primary action occurs while Jane is asleep, safely ensconced in her bedroom.
At the beginning of the book, Jane’s uncle takes her to the bedroom that she is to occupy while they’re in Cornwall, saying that the room is “very small, but the view’s good.”
“Oh!” said Jane in delight. The room was painted white, with gay yellow curtains, and a yellow quilt on the bed. The ceiling sloped down so that the wall on one side was only half the height of the wall on the other, and there was a space only for a bed, a dressing-table and a chair. But the little room seemed full of sunshine, even though the sky outside the curtains was grey. Jane stood looking out, while her great uncle went on to show the boys their room, and she thought that the picture she could see from the window was the best thing of all.
She was high up on the side of the harbour, overlooking the boats and jetties, the wharf piled with boxes and lobster-pots, and the little canning factory. All the life of the busy harbour was thrumming there below her, and out to the left, beyond the harbour wall and the dark arm of land called Kemare Head, lay the sea It was a grey sea now, speckled with white. Jane’s gaze moved in again from the flat ocean horizon, and she looked straight across to the sloping road on the opposite side of the harbour, and saw the tall narrow house in which they had stayed the summer before. The Grey House. Everything had begun there.
Simon tapped on the door and put his head round. “Hey, that’s a super view you’ve got. Ours hasn’t any, but it’s a nice room…
Greenwitch is a “girl’s book”, just as The Dark is Rising is a “boy’s book.” (Please note the campy quotes. I’m not painting the world blue and pink here, I’m reporting the colors.) The Dark is Rising goes into beautiful and exquisite detail to describe the old roads and the forest–all of the out-of-doors adventures that Will gets into while his family is sleeping that enchanted, deep sleep. Greenwitch does the same… for the bedroom. And the view, oddly enough. When Jane is actually outside in that beautiful scenery, it isn’t as gorgeous. The rocks are menacing, the cliffs too steep… but from within her bedroom, looking out onto the scenery, safely sequestered, all is lovely.
It isn’t just Susan Cooper who is at fault here–I love her books and I’m not really aiming at her. Re-read Nancy Drew, or Francis Hodges Burnett, any L. M. Montgomery’s novels, or even (gasp) Louisa May Alcott. The amount of meticulous and loving detail that goes into describing the bedrooms–and that which can be seen from the bedroom–is truly astounding.
(The above pictures are from a special exhibit at the Met that is running through July 4 entitled Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.)