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Sir Christopher Ondaatje

What binds someone to a place or locality? Christopher Ondaatje fell in love with the West Country through the writings of some of our greatest authors. Here he explains how Hardy, Blackmore and du Maurier got into his soul

When I was sent to England from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) over half a century ago to “get a decent education” I was a sallow, thin, frightened 13 year old boy who was very uncertain of where I was or indeed why I was here.  I was literally transplanted from a wild carefree life on my father’s tea plantation in the Kandyan foothills and shoved into Blundell’s – that famous West Country boarding school.  My parents had certainly clothed me well, but I had no idea how to behave or speak properly.  It was a terrifying foreign world and English schoolboys can be very cruel to strange looking new boys who were almost immediately subjected to a raft of traditional rigours and test like “Bim-shaving” where first termers were forced to push a collar stud with their nose along the entire length of a low cut floor beam in the large junior dormitory.  If we pushed the collar stud off the beam we had to start again. .  It was a painful experience. We also had to learn, and were tested, about the school.  What was the height of the school tower?  72 feet.  When was the school founded?  1604.  Who was the head of the school?  Robert Nind.  What happened when the River Lowman flooded the school foundation stone?  The school automatically got a half-holiday.  Which Old Blundellian wrote a famous West Country novel?  R.D. Blackmore:  Lorna Doone.

I began to love English literature as a subject.  Even in the junior Lower IV B form we had two very good English teachers, Peter Brooke-Smith and S.H. “Sam” Burton.  They introduced me to Thomas Hardy and R.D. Blackmore, and later to one of Daphne du Maurier’s books

It was a matter of sink or swim, and two things saved me.  First – cricket.  Thank God for cricket.  I was crazy about the game as is everyone in Ceylon, and I had a natural ability for the game.  I became somebody.  It didn’t matter how I looked or how I spoke.  The other thing was English.  I began to love English literature as a subject.  Even in the junior Lower IV B form we had two very good English teachers, Peter Brooke-Smith and S.H. “Sam” Burton.  They introduced me to Thomas Hardy and R.D. Blackmore, and later to one of Daphne du Maurier’s books.  I owe my love of literature to them.  They taught me everything – particularly the power of the written word, the joys of reading, and eventually how to express myself in writing.  It was from them too, and the books we studied, that I acquired my love of the West Country of England.  I never got it out of my system even though I emigrated to Canada in 1956.  Thirty-eight years later I returned to England with my wife and bought Glenthorne – an isolated pre-Victorian manor house in the north-east corner of Devon, perched on a cliff hovering over the swirling Bristol Channel.  It is where we live today.

The first Thomas Hardy novel we had to study was The Mayor of Casterbridge, written in 1886, where the author proved his ability to handle tragedy in a self assured way.  Character was the key word and Hardy shows his respect for his main exponent– Henchard.  I think it is the first book in which Hardy explored tragedy in the form of the novel.    It is characteristic of the text’s narrative. Fear somehow seems more obviously associated with the narrator than with Henchard – the protagonist.  Tragedy pervades The Mayor of Casterbridge.   It was a tough beginning for a young student of English but it nevertheless introduced me to Hardy and to Wessex, Hardy’s creation of a fantasy country which until then was merely an historical term defining the south-western  region of England that had been ruled by the West Saxons in the Middle Ages.  Understanding Wessex the place, and Wessex the culture, are of prime importance in coming to grips with all Hardy’s novels – everyone of which is entwined in the Wessex conformation.

After The Mayor of Casterbridge I read Far From the Madding Crowd, which was written earlier in 1874, and which novel’s success enabled Hardy to give up architecture for writing, and to marry his first wife Emma Gifford – a marriage soon to produce intolerable strains.  What Far From the Madding Crowd gave me was a vivid appreciation of what the artisan community meant to rural villages.  The brotherhood of interests shared by workers on the farm in the end provides the fertile context that embellishes the love stories of Bathsheba Everdene, introduces Gabriel Oak, and firmly ratifies the newly created Wessex in readers thoughts and understanding.  It certainly ingrained itself in me to a point where I have since compared every English novelist to Thomas Hardy.
The other book that Blundellians had to study at school was R.D. Blackmore’s classic Lorna Doone which he published in 1869.  He too was educated at Blundell’s School.

Initially called to the Bar, his occasional epileptic fits, caused almost certainly by his beatings and bullying at Blundell’s, forced him to take up country life, first as a schoolmaster, then as a fruit grower.  Happily married, but with no children, he produced several volumes of poetry and thirteen other novels but his fame endures entirely on Lorna Doone.  All Blackmore’s novels lovingly described the climate, wildlife, vegetation, and some history of the West Country.  He was a reserved and eccentric man with an amazing gift for dramatic story telling.  I suppose I owe something of my present life to Blackmore because Glenthorne (which he mentions in Lorna Doone) lies below and next to Yenworthy – the Ridd farm, and “up-over” from Oare Church where the wicked Carver Doone shot Lorna on her wedding day.

The other West Country novel that influenced my thinking was The King’s General – the first novel that Daphne du Maurier wrote while living at Menabilly – the reclusive Cornish house outside Fowey where she lived and worked for seventeen years.  She loved the house and also used it for the setting of Manderley in Rebecca.  The King’s General, set during the time of the English Civil War (1642-1646) described how the war affected Devon and Cornwall.  It fascinated my young mind, as did the story of its beautiful heroine, deformed by a tragic accident, who falls in love with Richard Grenville, the proud and otherwise insensitive King’s General in the West of England.  It is a spellbinding story, steeped in romance and history.  There is a touch of du Maurier in every West Country novel.

We are surrounded by literary drama, and by the great works of Hardy, Blackmore, du Maurier and other West Country writers.  Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble live only seven miles down the coast from Glenthorne in Porlock Weir; and Victoria Glendinning is not too far away in Gilcombe near Stourhead in Somerset.  My brother Michael wrote a great part of The English Patient one summer at Glenthorne; and I suppose a lot of my own work including Woolf in Ceylon was done in the haunted first-floor study looking down the North Devon coast in the early hours of the morning.  There is nowhere else on earth that I would rather be.

– Sir Christopher Ondaatje is the author of Journey to the Source of the Nile and Woolf in Ceylon.  He is a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.
Source: The Sri Lankan ANCHORMAN – Toronto, Canada