‘We follow WH Auden into the closed, cruel worlds of the boarding school and Helensburgh polite society’
David Robinson Reviews: Larchfield
By Polly Clark
Published by riverrun
I saw Auden once. He had only months to live and was sitting in an Oxford café looking out of the window with a bored expression; I was on my way to an interview at a college around the corner, an 18-year-old bundle of nerves and expectations. That’s all it was: a wordless glance through a café window before he went back to his coffee and newspaper. Though fictional, the Auden that Polly Clark gives us in her wonderful debut novel Larchfield, is far more vividly realistic than my own briefest of brief encounters with him.
The Auden it introduces us to is not much older than I was back then; it’s 1930, he has finished Oxford, and has just taken a teaching job at Larchfield, a prep school in Helensburgh. And though we are taken completely into his life in this repressive, bourgeois redoubt – “the Wimbledon of the north” according to Cecil Day-Lewis, his friend and predecessor at the school – we only enter it through the mind of another poet. Dora Fielding – also English, also from Oxford, also isolated – has moved there nearly 80 years later, and the point about Dora’s mind is that she fears that she is losing it. Post-natal depression and neighbours from hell are pushing her further towards the brink. Finding out more about Wystan seems to be the only thing that can save her.
So we follow him into the closed, cruel worlds of the boarding school and Helensburgh polite society (“You seem awfully nice in person” Wystan is told at one party, “and I’m sure your next book will be much better”). There are moments of escape, and we follow him there too – to brief holidays with his Christopher Isherwood where he makes the most of the soon-to-vanish freedom of Berlin’s gay clubs, and into a love affair with a working-class lad back in Scotland. And, of course, into poetry, although not quite as much as you would think considering that this is a book about two poets and written by a poet as well (Clark has three collections of poetry to her name and has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize).
The story-telling is layered, clever, captivating. But half-way through, Clark takes a huge risk with her parallel plots. She merges them. Dora wanders into Wystan’s world and the novel starts performing its magic. There’s the sheer wonder of turning back time when those worlds join; when they threaten to split, you can almost feel the cold wind of reality rushing in again, like those scenes in films (and possibly real life: you tell me) when people who are drunk or on drugs are suddenly drawn back into stone-cold sobering reality.
The meeting between Dora and Wystan is such a dazzlingly high-wire act that I needed to check with Clark whether mentioning it would be a spoiler. “Not at all,” she says. “It’s a massive part of the book. And it needs to be real so the reader would wonder whether Dora actually met Wystan. The tension in the story is whether or not she stays in his world.”
Clark is the literature director of Cove Park, a writer’s retreat near Helensburgh, where she has lived for the last four years, as well as in the surrounding area for a further seven. Ever since she arrived – like Dora and Auden, from Oxford, where she had worked for a publisher – she had known about Helensburgh’s Auden connection, that the poet had taught at Larchfield for a couple of years and that his first major collection, The Orators, was written while he taught there. Her daughter is a pupil at Lomond School, which is on the site of Larchfield. “Although the building in which Auden lived while he was there has been converted to flats, the façade is exactly the same, and in the photographs I’ve got of him with the boys, the background hasn’t changed. Helensburgh hasn’t altered too much either. I really didn’t need that much imagination.”
“This was such a formative time in his life,” she says, “yet nobody has really written about him in Helensburgh. But I didn’t want to write a biography, so for years I didn’t have any kind of hook on which to hang my knowledge of him. I used to wish it had been a completely different poet, someone I could relate to more – like Ted Hughes, say – because I didn’t think I had anything in common with Auden. He’s posh, he’s gay, I didn’t like his work so much – though I do now. I just didn’t see any connection.”
“Then I realised we had everything in common. We were both outsiders. Neither of us could be ourselves any more, we were both hiding who we are.” Or, as she explains on the proof (though not the finished) copy of the novel: “I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went. I couldn’t drive and became very isolated. When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read Auden’s The Orators. And its poems changed my life.”
They are, I mention, fairly impenetrable too. “It’s a bonkers book,” she agrees. “But if you are living in Helensburgh and in some sort of extreme state, it makes absolute sense. When I read it, I thought ‘This is somebody who is absolutely repressed, trying to talk about things they can’t talk about, and all their brilliance is squeezing out in all these funny directions.’ But there are Helensburgh landmarks all over in it – Loch Long, the ferry, the railway station – and when I came across them, the poems seemed to explode in my mind. And I just knew that if I had met Auden we would have been friends.”
We are, I feel, getting to the core of why Larchfield works so well. Although Clark downplays the importance of any anti-Englishness both Dora and Auden encountered, she can clearly imagine it, along with antagonistic neighbours (nothing to do with real life, she insists) exacerbating the worries she clearly felt ten years ago as the mother of a premature baby daughter. “Dora isn’t me, but certainly it’s easy to imagine young mothers going off their rockers at such a time, when your whole sense of who you are is completely obliterated. I took things a lot further than my own experience of new motherhood. With her, I could let the madness leak out.”
And so the madness leaks, time spills, and readers no longer know for certain which decade they are actually in, only that everything is impeccably drawn, far more believable than it ought to be. To me, it’s like being able to go into an Oxford café, decades later, and sit opposite a bored-looking genius poet, and know – if not quite everything about him – at least enough to know the answers to many of my questions. No-one else, I reckon, could have written such a fine novel about Auden’s time in Helensburgh. And after Larchfield, I don’t think anyone else will even dare to try.
Larchfield by Polly Clark is published on 23 March by riverrun priced £14.99.