But The Wooden Doctor has been another splendid read from Welsh women's press, Honno. First published in 1933 and like Eunice Fleet by Lily Tobias, this novel also met with enthusiastic reviews,
'an astonishing story...Heavens! What characters and what a plot!...This young woman can write.'
Sales never quite met up to that enthusiastic critical reception and yet another book went the way of lost classics.
And The Wooden Doctor is an astonishing story.
Narrated in the first person by Arabella, a tormented young girl who, emerging from a childhood blighted by a violent, alcoholic father and with veiled implications of much darker abuse, finds herself seriously ill at the age of twelve, an illness for which her mother ominously blames her father. Dr Flaherty pays a house call and Arabella develops an infatuation for him that develops into an obsession from which she can find no release. More serious illness follows and with it an exploration of the impact of Arabella's unrequited love for the doctor.
It's the first person narrative that does such a fine job here, locking the reader into Arabella's thought processes and her illness, described as a fox clawing away inside her and requiring all manner of delicate and painful investigations, hospital stays and long periods of convalescence, all requiring more of the hapless doctor's professional and often unchaperoned attention.
Margiad Evans' use of imagery is wide-ranging and frequently creates a wonderful correlation between landscape and Arabella's state of mind,
'Autumn, wild, angry, tumultuous, riotous autumn; killing. cleansing, ushering autumn, stripped of the gorgeous colours and the placid fruits, undimmed by hazy bonfire smoke, unseen but heard and felt in bitter storm alone at black midnight.'
and likewise the imagery of pain,
'In the night the pain came back. It was like a fox in a bag scratching and rending to get out. My spirits trailed in the dust. The claws penetrated my sleep; dragged me awake...I knew that I was ill.'
Pain not easy to describe and I'm reminded of my read of Mikhail Bulgakov's White Guard where the pain likewise leaped right off the page.
As the years move on, and Arabella's unchecked obsession gathers force, profound depression, that 'black dog', sets in and Arabella turns to the therapy of writing to help assuage her passion becoming compelled, driven and possessed as she commits everything to paper. Thus divested of the sharpness of her grief and having perhaps shed that obsession for Mr Wrong, might this be an opportune moment for Mr Right to come along?
If so, can Arabella's emotional state allow her to fall properly in love and can she sustain the demands of a grand affair?
Who will do a runner?
Arabella or Mr Right?
Or will there be wedding bells?
Well, I couldn't possibly comment but I hope you can see that Margiad Evans has set the scene perfectly for yet another Honno ending that ratchets up the pressure on the reader in those final pages...yet again I have to implore you...DON'T READ THE LAST LINE until you get there.
But who was Margiad Evans, a name that lends itself to a wonderful Welsh lilt if you pronounce it Marg-y-ad ?
Well I hate to disappoint but Margiad was actually Peggy Eileen Arabella Whistler, born in Uxbridge, Middlesex in 1909, and quite possibly I might be more Welsh than Peggy with my Griffiths ancestors.
A childhood visit to Wales left a lasting impression on Peggy and eventually the family moved to Ross-on-Wye. But the clue really lies with Peggy's second middle name, Arabella, because this book is autobiographical fiction and with that knowledge emerge all those complex issues of identity which Sue Asbee's excellent introduction explores in some detail. Much of that which is recounted happened to Peggy and it is her own interesting picture that graces the cover of the book, and how revealing that is when you look closely and see that clawing fox.
I'd have sold a cat (perhaps) to have been at this one day centenary conference on Margiad Evans earlier this year, because for me books like this gain huge ground with the application of some twenty-first century evidence-based theories of attachment and bonding. Much interesting evidence now also available that reveals the potential impact of an abusive childhood on adult behaviour and Margiad / Peggy / Arabella's mental health unwittingly offers clear signs of that impact.
There is plenty to speculate over concerning Arabella's obsession with the doctor, perhaps the first gentle man she had ever known in her life
'All that I craved, all the things existence had so far denied me, I found in him and him only...'
and then fascinating to look at the original illness, seemingly genuine and excruciatingly painful and trying to identify when and whether that develops into something fabricated.
Was this attention-seeking behaviour?
Was it all a cry for help from a desperately and deeply disturbed mind?
Had Arabella been so abused that she had taken few coping strategies into adulthood and was this reflected in her inability to enter into normal relationships and the resultant recourse into serious and life-limiting obsession ?
Using those themes there is a great deal to explore and debate in The Wooden Doctor and I've had a rare old time talking it over with myself in the absence of a one-day conference.
In reality Margiad Evans' demise was a sad one, diagnosed with epilepsy in 1950, a brain tumour was discovered in 1956 and she died in 1958 at the age of forty-nine but she did leave us the legacy of this amazing book.