Author: Ann Moray (1909–1981)
Publication: William Morrow & Co., hardcover, 1964
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Early 20th century Wales Description: Catriona is just nine when this story begins. Orphaned very young, she was brought to Wales where her guardians installed her at a remote estate, under the supervision of an austere governess, Jane Withers. Starved for affection, Catriona turns to the Llanberis villagers who love her energy and capacity for friendship: Nana tells her all the wonderful legends of Wales; Myfanwy Jones shares the miracles of a farm and gives her a puppy, and Archibald is her true ally from the moment they meet on Guy Fawkes night and he slips hot chestnuts into her hand. As well as the magical outdoors, Catriona loves the books in the estate’s old library – history, poetry, and folklore, disapproved of by Miss Withers. When she is forbidden to read, she breaks into the library and, although she is punished, Catriona finally benefits from an adult in her life who values her individuality and academic potential – a young tutor, Bernard Morgan.
My Impression: This is a very unusual and charming coming of age story, recommended by my Betsy-Tacy friend Donna Meen in Edmonton. It is rare to have a character who loves both nature and books so extravagantly and, even in an era where girls were not encouraged to study, Miss Withers’ disapproval of Catriona’s reading and what she gleans from it seems unreasonable, especially in a governess:
“You know, the child uses the most outrageous language,” Jane was saying, and I stopped behind the Japanese screen which was outside the drawing room door. “Sometimes I hardly know what she is talking about.”
“Her eyes, too,” the Vicar’s wife said. “It can’t be good for her eyes, all this reading.”
“Such tiny print . . . and all the horrible words in those musty old books. Really, I’m so worried.”
“Yes, the fine print is very injurious. My dear brother, Sir Philip, you know, he blames absolutely the studying he did in his youth for his bad eyesight now."
“But your brother is such a handsome man, the eyeglasses don’t matter in the least. For a girl, it’s different . . . If only there were no library in this house . . . all those books . . . far beyond her years.“
It’s no wonder I grew up with a glasses complex! Although I didn’t read this book as a child, similar sentiments appeared elsewhere.
Morgan, the tutor, is a fascinating character. He is just twenty-five with a master’s degree from Oxford, and spent time in a monastery but did not take vows. Miss Withers, although she must be much older, is immediately smitten but they have nothing in common. From the first, there is a meeting of the minds between him and Catriona, although he is the type of person who makes her strive for nearly unachievable perfection in mind and body. The part of the book I found disturbing is Morgan’s insistence on certain high-minded behavior from Catriona, who worships him and wants to live up to his expectations, first, when a brutal riding instructor is hired for Catriona and engineers a painful accident for her. Although she was endangered and the man is a menace to others, Morgan insists she forgive the man – or at least, not expose him, even though she is frightened. There is another situation where Morgan insists Catriona get back into a car with someone who sexually assaulted her, promising she will be safe; however, he should not have allowed her to be in either situation. I suppose, in part, he had to pick his battles so Miss Withers, jealous of his bond with Catriona, would not dismiss him. It is also quite obvious no one would have believed Catriona was in danger if she had shared her fears.
Like Catriona, the author grew up in Wales and was deeply interested in the ancient world and its myth and legend since childhood. Perhaps if I had read this as an adolescent I would merely have seen Morgan as a romantic figure and not been disturbed by this behavior. At the end of the book, Catriona is 17 and summoned by her guardians for what – introduction to society? travel? It is unclear but at least this will give her a chance to meet new people and determine if she really loves Morgan (who may return to academia) or if it is an adolescent infatuation. Here is part of what the New York Times said when the book came out:
Ann Moray's is touch is sure when she is dealing with children, animals, rustic revels and mountain scenery, but her skill fails in the depiction of adults. The governess and groom are figures from Victorian melodrama; the unseen guardians are as arbitrary as fate, and the tutor is a bore. One can understand his appeal to his lonely, sensitive pupil—but his insistence that in a crisis she should always be better than good is maddening, and why any university should want him is incomprehensible.
It’s hard to figure out exactly when this fascinating book is set but it takes place in northwest Wales, in what appears to be a real village, Llanberis, on the southern bank of the lake Llyn Padarn and at the foot of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. Emma, the cook, has a tea caddy with pictures of King George and Queen Mary on the front so it has to be after the coronation in 1910. Basil, the obnoxious nephew of the Vicar’s wife, has a Bentley and dashes proudly about in it, but Bentley wasn’t founded until 1919. If you accept the presence of this sports car, I suppose it has to be set after the war, although it has more of a prewar atmosphere.
There are quite a few coming of age stories with “lark” in the title. Think of The Lark in the Morn and The Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont, two of my absolute favorites; The Skylarks’ War; The Lark and the Laurel; and Lark Rise to Candleford. This is my fifth book in the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
This review is also for the Wales Readathon sponsored by Paula at Book Jotter. I hope someone participating in that challenge reads one of the Fiona Griffiths books by Harry Bingham but I am all caught up. I would like to return to Wales as I have only visited Cardiff and Penarth.
Names: The heroine in Run Away Home, which I recently reviewed, also turned out to be named Catriona and had been known as Catri when she was lost as a toddler. When she said her name, it was interpreted as Cathie. This Catriona is usually called Catti. And the vicar’s cook in this book is named Mrs. Eyeball! That doesn’t sound very Welsh, plus it may be the most peculiar name I ever heard. Can you top that, outside of Dickens?
Source: InterLibrary Loan from the Bangor, Maine library. Don't you love old bookplates? When I looked up Llanberis on the map, I saw there is a Bangor in Wales too, so wondered about the coincidence. It is a cathedral town and is the oldest city in Wales. I wondered if Welsh settlers were involved in Bangor, Maine but it was apparently named after an Irish hymn.