Review: Autobiography by Margiad Evans
Sometimes words fail you as a reviewer, such as when a book comes along that reconfigures what you know or reaches levels of accomplishment that leave you simply gasping. Margiad Evans’ Autobiography – an experiment in what she called ‘earth writing,’ covering just three or four years in her life – is one such book. It is indubitably one of the very best nature books and then some. It’ will therefore come as a remarkable discovery for many readers who might equally well be bowled over by its superb evocations of such things as flocks of crows, ‘black as demons and separately huge’ and moon vapours and violets that ‘smell of rain.’
But it’s so much more than a nature book. It’s a glimpse into a writer’s life, heck, into a writer’s very being as Evans both details and probes a period when she was waiting for her husband to come home to from World War II. Examining her own inner life and her sense of connectedness to the natural world. Autobiography is written in prose that variously dances, soars or illuminates the world as if there’s an extra sun brought into play.
And Margiad Evans paints too, availing herself of a rich and glorious palette of prose, including local Herefordshire words such as “glatting” for mending a gap and “brent” which is a unit of measure for a hundred yards hoed. She brings vivid landscapes to life in all weathers, from the sharp stubble points in the fields to ‘the flattened molehills, and at last a soft and brilliant land, dark with wet colours.’
That often drenched and sodden colour-scape includes the dark-red kralls of molehills,’ or the hue of a greenfinch, ‘the bird itself…a grass long, shaped like a leaf for the wind’ and then oaks of a ‘strange, green darkness, the limes, farther south, pure naked black.’ Then this astonishing artist-writer seemingly puts down her brush and reaches for the palette knife, to deepen and give, well texture to the colours. After sunset, for example, there is the ‘immense green light of the sky and its enormous even space bending the corners of the black earth outwards like the opening of a flower or the binding of a book held too near the heat.’ She fills her Herefordshire canvas with great splashes of colour and she is fantastic at depicting the settling of snow, the hiss of wind and the fall of rain.
Then there are fields that are ‘neither white, nor brown, nor grey but all of these at once.’ Evans is very good at depicting trees and capturing their inherent beauty, such as the ‘position of the alders, the bending to pour shadow into the clear water, the tenderness in the stoop,’ and ‘the indigo elm trunks clumped about the land under clouds glimmering like the edges of the moon.’
Evans is also very good at capturing the sounds of the countryside near her home in the borderlands near Ross-on-Wye. A stream’s ‘small stringed music seems to carry a vast impending symphony.’ ‘The thrush calls again and again, shooting his polished rods of notes over the valley from its perch in an orchard bush.’ Starlings, meanwhile, gathering in a holly tree ‘make a noise of bubbling and smacking, like wet lips.’ Or, sublimely, Margiad Evans evokes the song of a lark, the notes hovering, ‘never falling but sounding in the sky where the beat of his wings was inaudible, the very music of the clouds.’
By the half-way mark of reading Autobiography this reviewer has written down so many judicious quotes that there was a danger that the review would actually reproduce the majority of the text. So let me just give you a superb encounter with a stoat, spotted on a ‘small vivid emerald patch of sward, no larger than a man’s dinner handkerchief’:
But this one! turning and winding, as if with an invisible companion to his joyous pattern of flow and bend, keeping always within the boundaries set by the little patch of green, best grass, how softly and silently his feet fell! As silently as the sunlight descends on the ground his four pads touched it. Like a shadow, a rift, a spirit creature without colour or sound. He must have been brownish or silvery red, but I didn’t notice. All I seemed to see was silence, innocence, delight: silence in contrast with movement, and movement against still ground.
But lest you this is just a ticker-tape of nature observation the book also describes the sheer hard work of the countryside, such as back-breaking days picking beets or sweaty afternoons chopping wood. It also charts the inner reaches of loneliness and tells us how nothing beats living in the moment and how writing about something that has happened loses some of life’s pulse.
Margiad Evans’ pulsing, invigorating words in this marvellous volume are ineffably beautiful, tellingly honest and strikingly true and Honno have done us all a service by bringing it out as the 33rd volume in their Welsh Women’s Classics series. It deserves to be read as widely as can be so that many, many readers can delight in hearing her authorial voice carry over the land like a plover’s and admire Evans’ simply abundant gifts as a writer:
The bees flew broadside carrying fertility. All, all in sight and hearing was Nature pouring itself from one thing into another, spending and creating, running like the wind over the body of life, and flowing like blood through its heart. All changed, and nothing changed. If I may keep this knowledge, this perpetual life in me, anybody may have my visible life; anybody may have my work, my smile, if I may go on sensing the thread that ties me to the sun, to the roots of the trees and the springs of joys, the one and separate strand to each star of each grand constellation.
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