FRANCES PRESLEY: Hazel Eardley-Wilmot: a search for origins

Hazel Eardley-Wilmot: a search for origins

I first became interested in Hazel Eardley-Wilmot when I came across Ancient Exmoor in Minehead public library.  I was intrigued by her description of the Neolithic stones on Exmoor, especially the unique ‘stone settings’ in their extraordinary geometric patterns: ‘Quite different from either the long rows or the circles are the small stone settings, Exmoor’s special puzzle. Nearly thirty are known, but none are understood’.

However, as I continued my research, I realised that I was attracted as much by the quality of Eardley-Wilmot’s writing as by the subject matter.  There are other books on the archaeology of Exmoor, and some more professional and scientific, but none were as well written as hers in terms of literary style, as well as reference to literature, etymology, and the classics.  In the preface to Ancient Exmoor she describes herself as an Oxford graduate in English, who does not claim to be more than a serious amateur archaeologist, with a variety of experience in other professions, both in England and abroad, and ‘some acquaintance with the vagaries of language’.  She had spent nearly fifty years gradually becoming familiar with the moor.

In a collaborative writing project with the poet Tilla Brading, I have explored Neolithic sites and spoken to archaeologists, some of whom remembered Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, and a larger than life character began to emerge.  There were even rumours that she had been a spy during WW2!  We learnt that she would boldly go out waving her stick while you followed in her wake – this was the famous walking stick with a six inch nail used to prod for stones.  It was two or three years after beginning our research that we made contact with Hugh Thomas, Eardley-Wilmot’s friend and literary executor, and discovered what a wonderful archive exists of her papers and artefacts.  Some of these are held at the Thomas’ house, while the bulk of the papers she considered important are held by Oxford University, mainly at her old college of St Anne’s.

Born in 1910, Eardley-Wilmot went to St Anne’s in 1928.  Looking through her papers, I was very surprised to discover that there were three unpublished books, all dating from the late 1940s. I hadn’t known how serious she was, when young, about becoming a novelist, and how much she achieved in a burst of energy and writing, which all relates to her six years work with the Czechs for the British Council.  The books consist of The Broken Curve, an historical memoir of post-war Prague before the Communist take over in 1948; a satirical novel, Coffin’s Burden, about Britain’s cultural ambassadors abroad; and  Thursday’s Child or The Traveller, an allegory of the state of Europe in the mid-twentieth century, and the heroine’s (her) attempt to find a place within it. All three books represent a creative, dynamic phase in her life when she was at the centre of European politics and culture.

Set in the fictional country of Missaloonia, Coffin’s Burden satirises the neo-colonial attitudes of many in the British Council, while the heroine, Kate, fosters close relations with the local artists and intellectuals, incurring the wrath of her superiors.  There is a portrait by a Czech artist of Eardley-Wilmot holding a phone, and in Coffin’s Burden the Council staff are constantly on the phone, while Kate and her journalist boyfriend are aware that their phones may be tapped.  The head of the British Council, the eponymous Coffin is notable for his colonial attitudes, as well as his obsession with rigid method and linguistic pedantry: he disapproves of his underlings’ use of the colloquial.  The Irish consul fears that Coffin will drive Missaloonia into Communism.  Eardley-Wilmot parodies the Council’s promotion of a simplistic (upper class) view of the English countryside as representative of English culture in general: ‘the happy simplicity of the English countryside”.  The natives are encouraged to make daisy chains, sing ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’, and watch films about sweet baby lambs.  On the other hand, she also mocks the socialist lecturer who talks about the People and ‘the enclosure of the common’.

Thursday’s Child seems to have been the most ambitious of the three books, and the one that mattered most to her.  It is a re-working of the Odyssey, in which the heroine, Rosalind, travels down a river – the central metaphor of the novel:

The river had flowed a long way from its source in the unfrequented hills, before it came to the town of Duality and was ignored… The river served only to divide the town: there was one bridge, but it was hardly ever used.

Thursday’s Child also made me think of Pilgrim’s Progress, for its moral concerns, if not its theology, and of Albert Camus’ great war-time novel of the city, La Peste. Wars take place between people on both sides of the long meandering river, and attempts to unite them seem doomed to failure.  After a terrible storm, in which many people are killed, Rosalind is marooned on an island, and then, finally, rescued by her childhood friend, Sylvia, the farmer of Whitelands.

I get the impression that when Eardley-Wilmot failed to get published, and had to earn her living, first as a teacher, then as an education officer, she lost faith in her future as a professional writer.  I wonder whether she was also unsure how to situate herself in the post-war political landscape of this country. She had witnessed the ruthless battles of fascists and communists in Europe, and the extinguishing of freedom in Prague with the Communist coup d’état.  She had become deeply involved in Czech politics and seen the terrible fate of Jan Masaryk.  In her journal of 1947 she writes:

Drained now by two days in which it has been impossible for me to think or feel anything but this – his own suffering, and this for Anna and for all Czechs and how it is for the whole human predicament.  His longing for one human world – still trying for that, for some vestige of freedom for his own people, till five minutes past the hour – then no hope of either – the world irrevocably split.

Eardley-Wilmot was eventually to enter a new phase of creativity and reinvent herself as the author of books on Exmoor’s history.  One of the continuities, between the two most creative phases of her life, is her love of nature.  I think it must have been shortly after leaving Oxford in 1931 that she spent some time as a governess in South America.  She was a keen horse rider and enjoyed life on the pampas.  She was also perhaps influenced by the novelist and naturalist W. H. Hudson, who grew up in South America, and whose work she admired.  We know about the South American connection from a photo album in the Thomas’ archive, and from articles she wrote under the pen name Anne Marow.

More significantly much of her writing in the late 1940s was done while she was staying on Exmoor. There is an attention to the natural world in Thursday’s Child, and the heroine’s childhood is spent in a rural landscape, near the source of the river.  She has an intimate knowledge of flora and fauna: ‘She would look for the tiny grey-green trumpet of lichen, with its scarlet drum-knob of flower, a sentry motionless at his post on the boulder of live quartz.’

However the heroine, Rosalind, like Eardley-Wilmot, is drawn to the city – first the City of Fair Learning (clearly meant to be Oxford) and then to the city of Duality, which is divided between the haves and the have-nots.  Eardley-Wilmot lived both in Prague and London, but ultimately returned, as Rosalind does, to the country.  She writes in her journal:

(Rosalind) should draw on this country continuity – piercing quietly through to it wherever she is…’, and, ‘trees – here – in Czia – this intense feeling of the life of each tree, stronger in winter than in summer – the sense of vitality in pause.

Like other pioneering women writers of the last century, such as Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson, Eardley-Wilmot reaffirmed her sense of self through an intense and joyful affinity with the natural world.  Eardley-Wilmot knew and admired the work of Virginia Woolf and she corresponded with E.M. Forster.  Her closest literary friendship was with the politically engaged and successful novelist Storm Jameson, with whom she had a long and warm correspondence from the 1940s onwards.  She may not have read Dorothy Richardson who had sunk into obscurity by the 1940s, and she did not pursue ‘stream of consciousness’ or other more experimental modes of writing.  Yet she shares with Woolf and Richardson a desire to explore the female consciousness discovering itself in ‘a rapturous and animistic compact with the natural world’, to quote Carol Watts’ study of Richardson.

There is an absence in Eardley-Wilmot’s work of religious doctrine, which may have been partly due to her education, and also, perhaps in reaction to her father, who was a vicar. Nor is she tempted, as many others were, by mysticism. As she writes in the crucial chapter from Thursday’s Child, when Rosalind is alone on the island, with the world on the verge of total war, and the risk of a barren planet:

If this was mere human resilience, said the soul, was that so ‘mere’?  And to disparage this obstinate resurgence as animal … what hubris was that?  Rosalind could not feel so separate from animal or bird, flower or tree.

And later:

She sank to her knees and bowed.  To what?  She could not have said; but for the glimpse into a depth past sounding, in reverence simple and undivided, there was no other position possible.

This is the closest she can come to prayer, to a ‘depth past sounding’, which is ‘merely’ the depth of human, and natural, history.

Eardley-Wilmot retained her interest in humanity, and if she distanced herself from the crisis of twentieth century politics, she was still able to take a long view of society as an archaeologist.  In her last book Yesterday’s Exmoor, published in 1990, when she was 80, she also paid tribute to the community on Exmoor, where she finally made her home.  Recently, with the help of Richard Westcott, we have interviewed friends and neighbours of Eardley-Wilmot in and around North Molton, who still have vivid and affectionate memories of her.  Tilla Brading has used the interviews and the archive for a visual and text presentation called ‘Indent’.  We are also collaborating on a series of grid poems, the first of which was hand-made for Dusie publications in 2010.

Eardley-Wilmot may have abandoned fiction, but her interest in language, and the ‘vagaries of language’, grew stronger over time.  She was a keen linguist and etymologist, compiling a dictionary of Exmoor dialect words and exploring the significance of names, whether of settlements, trees or Neolithic longstones.  Giles Goodland has transcribed her dialect dictionary and it will appear in the Transactions of Devonshire Association.

Landscape is integral to Yesterday’s Exmoor, and the theme of trees also recurs in an article on tree names, ‘Oak, ash and thorn’ (1984):

Exmoor was such a wild wind-swept waste that a single tree was a notable landmark; and on the old commons outside the royal game-preserve, where the land was a little easier, tree names still recall lost woodlands and old ways of life.

In one passage she speculates about ‘hazel’:

What of the hazel, though?  That has been here from time immemorial and has left no obvious names – no Haslemere or Haseley or Hesleden.  But a clue appears in dialect, in the reversal of sounds, so prevalent in the south-west – haps for hasp, crips for crisp.  Halse for hazel is one of these.

It’s an article which I have used as the starting point for a sequence of tree poems.  There is, of course, one about ‘hazel’, with a visual design by Glenn Storhaug for a Five Seasons Press broadsheet.

Although Eardley-Wilmot is now known primarily as a local historian of Exmoor, she deserves to be seen in a much wider context.  We have only skimmed the surface of the archives, and there is a need for more research as well as reassessment and publication of some of her earlier work.  This would give us a much more complete sense of a remarkable woman and writer.

Frances Presley


Ancient Exmoor: a study of the archaeology and prehistory of Exmoor, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot   Dulverton: Exmoor Press, 1983

Yesterday’s Exmoor, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot   Exeter: Exmoor Books, 1990

‘Oak, ash and thorn’, Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, Exmoor Review, 25, 1984, pp 43-44

Dorothy Richardson, Carol Watts  Northcote House: 1995

Lines of sight, Frances Presley   Exeter: Shearsman: 2009

Stone settings, Tilla Brading and Frances Presley   Minehead & London: Odyssey Books & Other Press, 2010

For more discussion of the Stone settings project see ‘Interview with Frances Presley’ by Edmund Hardy  Intercapillary Space October 2006

An earlier version of this article appeared in Exmoor Review, 52, 2011

Frances Presley was born in Derbyshire, grew up in Lincolnshire and Somerset, and now lives in north London. She studied modern literature at the universities of East Anglia and Sussex, writing dissertations on Pound, Apollinaire, and Bonnefoy. She worked as a librarian, specializing in community development and anti-racism projects and, more recently, at the Poetry Library. Publications of poems and prose include The Sex of Art (North and South, 1988), Hula Hoop (Other Press, 1993), and Linocut (Oasis, 1997). She collaborated with the artist Irma Irsara in a multi-media project about clothing and the fashion trade, Automatic Cross Stitch (Other Press, 2000); and with the poet Elizabeth James in an email text and performance, Neither the One nor the Other (Form Books, 1999). Somerset Letters (Oasis, 2002), with drawings by Ian Robinson, explored intersections of community and landscape. The title sequence of Paravane: new and selected poems, 1996-2003 (Salt, 2004) was a response to 9/11/2001, and the IRA bombsites in London. Myne: new and selected poems and prose, 1976-2005, (Shearsman, 2006) takes its title from the old name for Minehead in Somerset. Her latest book, Lines of Sight, published by Shearsman in 2009, includes ‘Stone settings and Longstones’, an approach to the Neolithic stone sites on Exmoor, part of a multi-media collaboration with Tilla Brading. Presley has written various essays and reviews, especially on innovative British women poets. Her work is included in the anthologies Infinite Difference (Shearsman, 2010), and Ground Aslant: radical landscape poetry (Shearsman, 2011)



  • Chris Lewis-Jones

    Never heard of Eardley-Wilmot, let alone (Frances) Presley (though i have been to Exmoor a few times)! Delightfully written exploration of the ways in which literature is informed, influenced and inspired by landscape (and a sense of place)… and Eardly-Wilmot herself. I shall look forward to investigating both writers further. Isn’t the internet great! Well done Lyn!


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