I don’t have the necessary patience for bird watching. My father spent hours observing them from the large picture windows of the house I grew up in. Perhaps that’s why I was attracted to Bird Cottage when I first saw it in the Pushkin Press catalogue. Eva Meijer’s debut novel is based on the life of Len Howard whose work Meijer first encountered when she was writing her dissertation. Aged forty, Howard threw up her life as a violinist in London and took herself off to Sussex to pursue her lifelong passion for birds, determined to devote herself to researching their habits.
Born in 1894, Howard was the youngest of four children. Her parents held regular soirées to brighten the boredom of life in rural Wales, distracting themselves from their often fractious marriage. A talented violinist, Howard made her escape to London where she lived for many years before turning her back on her long affair with an artist and the gossip-ridden orchestra she’d played in, using her inheritance from her father to buy a cottage in Sussex. Here she conducted her research for forty years having long thought that observing birds in their natural habitat would yield the results that laboratory investigation could not. Quietly, patiently, she got to know the great tits who lived in her garden, opening her windows to them and welcoming them into her house, feeding them and naming them. She wrote articles for countryside magazines eventually winning a degree of celebrity as the author of several books filled with anecdotes derived from her observations. Throughout her decades in Ditchling she defended her birds against all comers. When she died in 1973 Howard left her property to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust.
I’d not heard of Len Howard before reading Meijer’s delightful novel but as you’ll notice this is a translated work: in her time Howard’s books – Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds – were well known, themselves translated into many languages. Her research methods were often disparaged by scientists but her work clearly had popular appeal. Using simple, clean prose, Meijer lets her subject tell own story, weaving through it observations of Star, one of Howard’s favourites. It’s a striking way of illustrating the bond which forms between the two through Howard’s patience and the intelligent, trusting response it elicts. Poor Star has her ups and downs, losing several partners, fighting off territorial incursions and eventually falling foul of the neighbour’s cat. Howard was a remarkable character, a formidable defender of her beloved birds, whose writing found a hugely appreciative audience. I’m only sorry that Bird Cottage did not become the sanctuary after her death she’d hoped it would.