Tag Archives: 1928

The Outermost House by Henry Beston: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Cover imageHenry Beston’s The Outermost House is something of an American nature classic, an account of the year he spent living on a beach near Eastham, Massachusetts not far from the very tip of Cape Cod in the 1920s. This new edition comes with charming illustrations by Pete Smith who also designed its beautiful jacket.

An ambulance driver in World War One, Beston was a writer of fairy tales who decided to build himself a two-room summer house on the five acres of beach he bought in 1925, making sure to include a fireplace and an oil-fired stove. At the end of what was to be a two-week stay in September 1927, he decided to live in Fo’castle for a year, observing the rhythms of nature in this remote often harsh yet beautiful place. Apart from weekly tramps to the local stores for fresh supplies, occasionally helped by friends, and nightly calls by the coast guards as part of their patrols, Beston had little contact with other people but never felt lonely. From marvelling at the glorious night sky, with none of the light pollution that most of us hardly notice obscuring his view, to having his feet tickled by a shoal of fish on a nocturnal walk through the sea, to watching the comings and goings of migratory birds, Beston had much to occupy his year which ends fittingly with a night spent sleeping, albeit rather fitfully, under the stars

The Outermost House comes with an introduction by Philip Hoare which neatly sketches in details of Beston’s life, adding Hoare’s own description of the beach on which Fo’castle stood for a decade after Beston died until it was washed away by a storm in 1978. Beston’s reverence for nature and its importance to humanity is clear from the outset. Although there’s no mention of religion, there’s something of the spiritual about his attitude which resonates throughout the book.

Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man

Beston writes lyrically about the world around him, his awe at the land and seascape’s grandeur clear from the outset.

Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of the world  

The language and cadence of his writing transports you to Cape Cod with its crashing breakers, bird cries and shifting sand dunes. The book is studded with gorgeous word pictures, lovely descriptions which are a product of writerly skill and keen observation.

Silvery grey-green all summer long, in autumn it puts on gold and russet-golden colourings of singular delicacy and beauty

One of the most effective passages is Beston’s description of the sound of the sea, the constant yet changing soundtrack of his year

I listen to the rushes and the bursts, the tramplings, and the long, intermingled thunderings, never wearying of the sonorous and universal sound  

I fell in love with this timeless, beautiful book, as you can probably tell. Impossible to read it, without thinking of climate change. There were man-made hazards in Beston’s day – he describes futile attempts to rescue birds from oil-spillages – but such incidents seem almost trivial given what we now know. Beston ends his book with the exhortation:

Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man  

Relevant then, and even more so now.

Old Baggage by Lissa Evans: Votes for women, all of them

Cover imageI’d heard lots of good things about Lissa Evans’ Crooked Heart but hadn’t got around to reading it by the time Old Baggage turned up. Given that it’s a prequel I thought I’d give it a miss but Ali’s review persuaded me it could happily stand alone for which I’m very grateful. Evans’ new novel tells the story of Mattie, once met never forgotten, picking it up in 1928, ten years after British women who met a property qualification were enfranchised. For many in the women’s suffrage movement the battle’s over but not for Mattie.

Mattie lives with Florrie, affectionately known as The Flea, in the house she bought with her inheritance. Mattie and Florrie were comrades in the fight for women’s suffrage, undergoing forced feeding in Holloway, abuse from the public and brutality from the police. At the beginning of 1928, Mattie can vote but Florrie cannot. A privileged member of the upper classes, Mattie is forthright, free with her opinions and utterly determined she’s right while Florrie is tactful and quiet, a hard-working health visitor who understands poverty and deprivation at first hand. A dramatic event on Hampstead Heath brings Ida into their lives. Poor, bright and sassy with it, Ida finds herself dragooned into Mattie’s new endeavour: a club for young girls which will educate them in preparation for voting while teaching them practical skills and physical fitness, a counterpoint to a fellow veteran campaigner’s Empire Youth League which reeks of fascism. Agreeing to a competition on the Heath, Mattie is determined that the Amazons will trounce the League but an error of judgement leads to lasting repercussions.

Evans’ novel is an absolute treat. Her story romps along replete with period detail, wearing its historical veracity lightly while exploring themes of social justice with wit, humour and compassion. Set in 1928, the novel never loses sight of the fact that while some women were given the vote in 1918, the vast majority were not, nor that when they are the battle will still be far from won. Evans is a sharp, witty writer with a keen eye for characterisation. There are many very funny moments throughout her novel – most provided by Mattie, undoubtedly the star turn and at back of the queue when tact was assigned – but these are balanced with poignant moments the sweetest of which was Florrie’s congratulatory card, opened on the day of the 1929 general election, the first in which she’s able to vote. The end sets up readers who’ve not yet read Crooked Heart nicely for Mattie’s new project. I loved it. For those of us struggling with the current political climate, Old Baggage is a happy reminder that things can get better.