In this strange little novel translated from the Dutch by Antionette Fawcett we are introduced to Len Howard. Len was a real woman born at the turn of the 20th century and she lived her early life in South Wales. She developed an interest in birds from very early on and apparently watched them, rescued them and kept her own notebooks compiled of general notes and “stories”. But in her “real” life as a daughter of a well heeled professional family, expectations of behaviour for a girl from a “respectable” family were laid on her. Her mother regarded the family as “cultured” so Len studied both the piano and violin and was expected to perform (at home). Her requests to go to Music College were blocked until she came of age at 21. She then joined the London Orchestra of a family friend and, in spite of the war, developed her life there. Increasingly in the turmoil of the city not just her music but her study of birds brought her comfort. When her father died, inheritance allowed her to buy a cottage in Ditchling in Sussex where she lived for the rest of her life. A life that was centred on studying “her” birds – primarily great tits.
The book falls into two parts, the first Meijer’s fictional account of her family, her life, in the orchestra and then in her village community. As a woman of a certain generation the depiction of expectations on a young woman of her class are painfully shown. The vagaries of living in a family with damaged or “eccentric” others are quietly nudged into the picture. Her own ways of dealing with life that are certainly not of the common run are hinted at sympathetically. As a woman who has not studied science her writings on her studies were not taken seriously in “academic” or “expert” circles; but with earlier articles in country magazines after the Second World War she will be persuaded to write books on her birds that then developed an international readership. But she also led the way in identifying early threats to bird numbers at that time and trying to set up protective areas. As she aged she became more isolated, was considered eccentric and her conservation importance became overlooked.
But interleaved with this main tale are “episodes” cleverly derived from her research notes and books on her favourite Great Tits – mostly a female “Star” – in her garden and cottage. She could identify individuals and named them, she followed their lives and breeding patterns, researched their song and tested their intelligence (considerable, variable but she believed greater than most birds) helped by her willingness to allow them into her cottage.
If you are one of the many people who take pleasure in simple bird watching in your garden no doubt these sparky and visual vignettes will resonate with you. If you have a deeper interest in conservation or how the movement developed this is a subject lesson. The claims of academic ownership of specialist knowledge or expertise is one that still runs, but now set against the awareness of long term studies by others that provide the bedrock of our current understanding of whole species survival and risks. But of course Len was interested in the birds as individuals and “characters” too and that is engaging.
Melding the two types of presentations is quite unusual and it is possible that not all readers will appreciate what is offered, perhaps wanting more of either half. But nonetheless I found this is a compelling book and a good introduction to an exceptional woman who has previously faded from history.
Hilary White 5/5*
Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer
9781782273950 Pushkin 2020