Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I discovered Gavin Maxwell’s books when newly exiled from a rural Scottish childhood. The first of his books that I found was Harpoon at a Venture. Drawn in by the cover illustration (people in a small boat with a large bit of shark), which seemed familiar, exotic, and horrifying all at the same time, I was hooked. I found his Otter trilogy and The House of Elrig in the school library, from where I should probably be more ashamed than I am to admit I pinched them. On one level all of those books dealt with homesickness, loss of the familiar, not fitting in, and intended for younger readers or not they were immeasurably helpful in dealing with my own homesickness. The battered school library copy of The House of Elrig disintegrated years ago, so this chance to re read the book was irresistible, the Slightly Foxed edition is suitably handsome in its blue cloth cover, and as a hardback much more durable. The size, perfect for slipping into a pocket, is also a bonus.
The House of Elrig examines Maxwell’s earliest childhood up until he’s around 17 or 18, and it’s a curious book to revisit. What I remember of it was, inevitably, his descriptions of homesickness, of longing for the country, and the complete bafflement that suddenly finding yourself in a large school causes when you’re not used to it, but there’s much more to it than that.
First published in 1965, five years after Ring of Bright Water had made him a household name, Maxwell undoubtedly knew there was a market for his childhood reminiscences. Born in 1914, three months before his father was killed at Antwerp in the October, he was the youngest of four children. Early years were spent almost exclusively within the family unit, either at the beloved house of Elrig in Galloway or sharing houses with various unmarried Percy aunts. The Maxwells seem to have been solid country gentry; well off, well connected, very establishment. Due partly to a religious quirk (both families were Irvingites which seems to have been what bought them together) Gavin’s mother, Lady Mary Percy, daughter of the Duke of Northumberland, was a somewhat grander proposition. Percy and Maxwell status do not always seem easy to reconcile.
From the earlier books, dealing with his later life, there’s already a clear sense of Maxwell as a contradictory figure, and the roots of that are all to be found here. He’s not necessarily a narrator to be entirely trusted; there are hints of a something nasty in the woodshed moment, which he then deliberately drops, and he also talks a lot about his own sexual innocence at school, which isn’t entirely convincing. In 1965 it was probably a wise precaution for a man with secrets to keep.
The trials of prep and public school life are well enough documented elsewhere, but are approached from a slightly different angle here. None of the masters, or even the bullies, seem to have been particularly sadistic but you do get a sense of what fundamentally odd places these boarding schools are with their customs and rules, and how difficult it can be for a child to navigate through them. More interesting is Gavin’s relationship and attitude towards the Percy part of his family. Maxwell is a snob, it comes through in all his books (or, to be fair, the ones that I’ve read) and is part of his charm. Here he’s exploring, maybe unwittingly, what it is to be just outside the inner circle. There are occasional invitations to grand occasions – excruciating trials for a gauche schoolboy, which reinforces a sense that this was his mothers world and not entirely his. It’s the point at which I most felt the lack of a father figure for him, which leads in turn to his relationship with the memory of his father and what that absence might mean. A not unusual absence for Maxwell’s generation, or the one that followed him.
Also interesting is how he chooses to discuss a growing awareness, or a growing determination to ignore his awareness, of sex. In 1965 to be caught in a homosexual act would still have been a criminal offence in England (if I read Wikipedia correctly it was even later in Scotland). Maxwell, described as privately homosexual, talks about platonic friendships strained by the suspicions of school masters, but there is one angry passage where he talks of a particular friend: ‘Poor precocious, charming Craith, all that nature intended him to be condemned as dirty, unacceptable, dangerous, contaminating….’, which in the end leaves no room for doubt about where he stood on the matter.
For a Maxwell fan the appeal of The House of Elrig is obvious. Of course you want to know more about the charismatic figure in those later books. If this is to be a first brush with Maxwell, and even if you care nothing for maverick otter keepers in general, it’s still a fascinating book.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader, she is a big fan of otters, wide open spaces, and colourful characters.
Gavin Maxwell, The House of Elrig (Slightly Foxed: London, 2015). 9781906562762, 256 pp., hardback.