From the Devon Ridge where a Book Began
The manuscript is currently titled Writing Women on the Devon Land: The Lost Story of Devon's Other Women Writers, until circa 1960, but that is just a working-title and likely to change.
In 2015, I was thrilled when an earlier draft was shortlisted for the Devon based Impress Prize.
Prior to that, but I'm not sure which year now, I had been lucky to receive funding from the then South-West Arts for a 'free-read' of an excerpt from an earlier draft of the manuscript by a reader from The Literary Consultancy. My reader, Sara Maitland commented, 'I feel a bit humbled at the task of critiquing this complex imaginative and scholarly text ... there are some exquisite passages ...This is an important piece of work...'
More recently, I've also been very fortunate to have my manuscript backed by several other authors.
Well, to return to the present day. A long rewrite and edit of the manuscript took too much of my time in 2016 and, in consequence, the already neglected scrapblog more or less stopped completely. Rather than returning to write more posts on that blog, it seemed the apposite moment to start a related blog.
I want the blog of Writing Women on the Devon Land: The Lost Story of Devon's Other Women Writers to fill in backgrounds and contexts for the book itself, so that if and when it is published there will be extra material available, online, to which readers can turn for more supplementary information and discussion. If I'm unlucky and can't find a publisher I can self-publish and if not then some of the material will be here, online, for future researchers.
I intend also that this blog will fill in gaps in my manuscript. There are so many!The book is long and one of the challenges I have had over the last year is of shortening and abbreviating it. Inevitably I have not been able to include all the writers and texts that I'd like to. Instead, they will eventually feature on this blog.
Also, I hope to use this blog to expand on various ideas and information in the main book. I intend that it will include extended commentary on other writers who DO appear, but because of space, not in as much detail as I'd like.
I'd like to use the blog to help crystallise and clarify various thoughts and passages in the book.
Last but not least I would love to gather valuable feedback from you who might stumble upon the blog.
So, on this introductory page I need to tell you just a little about Writing Women on the Devon Land: The Lost Story of Devon's Other Women Writers' background.
The beginnings of the story of Writing Women on the Devon Land go back several years. Back to the time when I completed and was awarded a PhD at Exeter University. I stop to consider this now and realise it was twenty years ago! Toward the end of 1997, when still gripped with euphoria of the achievement, needing a break from the years of intense study and writing, but by this time addicted to the processes of research, I began to haunt local archives. and second hand bookshops, gathering material about women writers from Devon. Looking back it seems a snail's progress, but to start with it was a time to chill, to revel in the variety of writers, texts, places and a trail of serendipitious discoveries. Having spent those PhD years concentrating on the life and texts of a particular writer, H.D., who though I loved and will always turn to her visionary work, it was as though coming out of a locked room to open a new door, or many doors, of discovery. After all H.D. herself did have some input in my journey to new ventures down in the southwest. She had spent some months in Devon during 1916 and aware of her fondness for the south-west and that during all the years of research about her I had not yet had sufficient space to look in more depth at her links with the county, I had her in mind when I began to open pages to finding out about other female authors and Devon.
I tell more of the story behind this in the book's beginning chapters. Suffice here to say that at this stage I had no idea that this research was going to take up so many years of my time. The venture began more as a way of gentle kind of 'post-script' to those years of studying and writing up at Exeter University. I couldn't let go. I'd grown to love literary and historical research. I thought I'd maybe write up a few articles, feature and poems, from my new discoveries, but had no intention of writing a whole book. At that stage in the project the thought of drafting yet another 80,000 words of a cohesive manuscript did not appeal.
Over a space of two or so years taken up with visits to The Devon Record Office, now Devon Archives and Local Studies, to Exeter University Library and many other local libraries, the Devon and Exeter Institution and a host of online sites, I had accumulated an overload, a veritable labyrinth, of actual author names, real titles of books (many of which were out of print) and other texts; yet, paradoxically, again and again I was struck by the absence of names and texts in prevailing accounts of the county's literary history. There was a contradiction between what must have once been in existence and what was still available to read or study. Did no women in Devon write before say the C19? Why weren't more female names mentioned in literary assessments of the county?
With these and other questions buzzing round my head, I began Scrapblog from the SouthWest, starting to write up some of my research discoveries and ideas for it, then created the website South West Women Writers. I drafted poems about some of the writers, a sequence of which has been published in the collection Tessitura. I was asked to edit a collection of poems by the C17 Devon poet Mary Lady Chudleigh and papers on the C16 writer Anne Dowriche were published by the Devonshire Association, in 2009 (See DA Abstracts). Most recently, in 2017, South West' s Sea-Thyme, a sequence of poems commemorating H.D.'s time in Devon during 1916, has been published in Shearsman 111/112 .
Meanwhile, as I came upon more and more new names and went out and about Devon's byways and criss-crossed lost-lanes on a quest after the homes of some of these writers, struck by the complex inter-relationships of land and landscape with writerly activities, I was becoming drawn back into the landscapes of my once home mid Devon territories. And concurrently, I found that as well as still reading H.D., I turned to Sylvia Plath, arguably, one of the few famous female writers associated with Devon, for metaphysical guidance. The poet had, both explicitly and implicitly, inserted features and creatures of my childhood home's surrounding territory into her now iconic texts:the church; the trees; the school; the moor; the lanes; the fields; the sheep; our sheepdog. I could not help but fall back into the spirit of the place, and then as my plans developed, use it as a pivotal point to begin and eventually, uroboric like, to end, my own book.
I was born in Wildridge, a house built by my paternal grandfather on a ridge overlooking North Tawton, which happens to be a parish positioned right in the centre of the county. From the ridge just north of the parish you can see a veritable panorama, which takes your gaze right across, then over the town, staring seven crow-miles north into the distance, towards Cawsand or Cosdon, with the blue-waves of Dartmoor receding into the far west horizons toward Cornwall.
The town of North Tawton happens also to have a special and rather mysterious history, because of the once important Roman site on its outskirts and the recently identified and enigmatic nemetona lands (see for example Roger Deakins' Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees).
On one of my return visits to my home-town it came upon me that I must begin to write all my material into a proper book. I knew I wanted to share what I have found and encourage others to follow up and find more about our neglected female writers and their place within the palimpsests of our treasured county landscapes.
... My plan is to write up this blog at least once a week, beginning with an ABC of Devon places linked with the book. But I will admit it may be heard to keep to this pledge!
If you click on the first post of this blog you will find it begins with Ashridge, an old estate just eastwards along from the ridge of my childhood home and Ashton, the married home of one of Devon's most important woman writers ...
copyright Julie Sampson