Friday, March 11, 2022

"Perhaps not only the house destroyed": DOROTHY CLEWES, I Came to a Wood (1956)

I could see her quite plainly, but her face was turned away, looking out over the fields. Heronswood must have been destroyed during the war, I thought, the words had been spoken so bitterly. And perhaps not only the house destroyed—

I read and reviewed several of Dorothy Clewes' novels for adults (she was more famous for her children's fiction) back in 2020 (see here) and enjoyed them enough to be inspired to create "wants" on Abe Books for her other novels that I couldn't get hold of. When I awoke one morning three or four months ago to the news that a copy of I Came to a Wood had finally appeared for sale, I didn't hesitate, and after a typical delay before I could find time to read it, I recently spent a happy weekend with it.

Ford Neilson, 40-ish and recovering from a heart attack with three months of rest and lack of stress, goes for a drive into the scenic surroundings of his town, hitherto unexplored because he was working all the time (hence the heart attack). He comes across an idyllic spot once occupied by a stately house, of which barely any trace remains now, and there meets a charming young American woman, Frea Blake, walking a friendly dog, whose eagerness gives Ford a return of his palpitations. Frea helps him, and he feels an immediate affinity for her (of course). He returns to the site on another day, seeking a second meeting, but this time encounters her aunt, Dorcas Blake, a bestselling novelist with a mysterious connection to the missing house.

Dorcas invites her back to her village nearby, where he meets John and Jencie, a young couple with two energetic children and a third on the way, blissfully happy except for the presence of Frea, an old flame of John's, who has determined to win him back. (The connections of all the characters are rather complicated or else I was rather dense—it took a long time for me to grasp that Dorcas is living next door to John and Jencie, treated as one of the family, but her niece is American, because John and Jencie are first cousins, children of siblings one of whom emigrated to the States while the other remained in England, and John and Frea grew up together in the U.S. Married first cousins might make us cringe a bit these days, but this scenario is a considerable improvement to my first, mistaken belief that Frea was desperately in love with her own brother…). 

Since all of this wasn't sufficient drama for Ford, he also becomes involved in a blackmail attempt against a close friend's son, which has implications for the friend himself, and encourages said friend's daughter in her ambition to be a writer, though her later encounter with Dorcas, one of the most amusing passages in the book, might not quite fall under the heading of "encouragement" but I'm sure could undoubtedly be seconded by lots of writers working today: 

"Oh, but she was wonderful," Lyn said. "She said it was because my writing was good she was going to say everything she knew to discourage me. She said I could prepare myself to be disappointed and disillusioned, to have worth-while effort spurned and see work without merit taking the prizes. I would slave for long hours on writing that might never see the light of day and if it did be crushed with misery at the way it was received, or more often ignored. And in any case, in ten years' time, thanks to radio and television, there'd be nobody left who could read."

"She certainly gave you a pep-talk," I said.

"She said not to expect to make any money, real money; and if l did I'd find there were dozens of little people who could immediately think of a thousand ways of taking it off me. And if I still felt like taking up writing as a career after that—there was no career like it in the world."

At the risk of sounding like one of the condescending male critics who so often damned the books I love most with faint praise (or like Queenie Leavis, which might be worse), I would have to say that I Came to a Wood is definitively a "nice" novel. It's a light melodrama peopled primarily with nice characters, with some tragic circumstances casting shadows from the past, but none overly threatening now, a hint of mystery, and two nice families who come entertainingly into the plot. It's not played for laughs, but there's also not so much hand-wringing as to be offputting for me, and the characters are likable and feel like real people (with the exception of Ford's first-person narration, which is far more sensitive and understanding of women—not to mention noticing of decor and fashion—than any heterosexual man who has ever breathed air). 

I enjoyed the book (and there's a brief recurrence of the main characters from The Blossom in the Bough, Clewes' earlier novel which I enjoyed even more), but I felt it never quite came alive and fulfilled its potential. This was one of Clewes' final efforts at writing adult fiction, and her more lucrative career as a children's author had already begun, so perhaps she felt distracted or less passionate than previously, or perhaps it was the challenge of using a male narrator, not quite successfully, that drags this one down a bit. Leaving it merely a pleasant and "nice" story, but, alas, not a buried treasure.


  1. What a tantalizing review. It does sound interesting (especially if one can start reading it knowing that brother/sister romance isn't a subject matter.) However, you are unenthusiastic enough to make republication unlikely and it is apt to be expensive and rare. First cousin romance seems to have been pretty standard in fiction in the UK during this time. I can think of examples in Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer to mention just a couple of authors. I don't see it as an issue, it was a different cultural norm than in many parts of the US. And even in the US it is against the law in only some states, so not a universal forbidden topic.


  2. I wish fewer female novelists used male protagonists. Are they afraid that a female lead character would get the book condemned as chick-lit? I've heard the Male Viewpoint all my life, from books, movies, tv etc. I enjoy hearing the female POV (and not a man narrating as a woman, either). In any case, as you noted about this book, it's hard to pull off a narration across the gender gap, so to speak.

  3. Well, and there was first cousin marriage in one of the Forsyte Saga novels, too. I cannot imagine ever thinking romantically of MY personal first cousins, but that may be just my bad luck! Tom


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