AS WITH most of us, my past offers itself either as a
serial that promises to run and run, or as vignettes that are
complete in themselves. I am idling around the childhood market
town when a VR letter-box says: "Halt!" Two schoolmistresses are
passing. They are sisters, the Miss Crossleys. They wear small hats
and lisle stockings, and they carry armfuls of red
According to the present notion of them, suffering from a
shortage of men - it is the 1930s - they will stay spinsters. But
since they will lose their profession if they marry, being a
teacher might be a preferred choice to that of wife. They swing
along in strap shoes, and with ready smiles.
"Good morning, Miss Crossley. Good morning, Miss Crossley," the
boys and girls cry. To which Miss Crossley?
They live in the dusty shade of monkey-puzzle trees in a brick
villa named after the Prince Consort. It has flashing plate-glass
windows and heavy drapes, and no pupil has ever entered it. In
August, it is locked up, deserted. It is then that the Miss
Crossleys go on great travels - Snowdonia, or the Wash. "Do you
think they take their tuning-fork? Their box Brownie?"
No one has seen their snapshots, their going, or their coming
back. And the monkey-puzzle villa looks the same whether it is
occupied or deserted. And Mr Hurst, the postman, empties their
letter box three times a day, whether they are there or not. They
smile as they swing along to the elementary school, and have low,
"Walk, don't run, children."
"Yes, Miss Crossley."
Minute sweetshops were oases on the way. Respect rather than
love floated them along. It made conjecture out of the question. So
what did go on in the monkey-puzzle villa out of class? Library
books, ludo, prognostications. Catherine would do well; Aubrey
would not. The blackboard stars foretold it.
All this was brought on by discovering a photo of the
monkey-puzzle which Thomas Hardy had planted at Sturminster Newton
in the autumn of 1876. And, as with the Miss Crossleys, too near
the house. He and Emma were newly married, but while their
unmarried servant became pregnant, she did not. He was in his early
thirties, and writing Far From the Madding Crowd. She
said: "Your novel seems sometimes like a child, all your own and
none of me."
Thunderous weirs in the neighbourhood provided a way out, should
his characters find life impossible. My childhood river was the
Suffolk Stour; his the Dorset Stour. My early water-meadows had
been half-flooded town-lands since the Middle Ages; his a territory
for desperate remedies.
In a wet year, you might find it hard to find where our river
began and its pastures ended. Enormous trees such as the
monkey-puzzles, planted as striplings, threw their weight about in
small streets. And, of course, in the Miss Crossleys'dry patch of
massively walled-in garden.
Both here, and in Hardy's garden, they announced social
confidence, light not gloom, a ground-to-sky magnificence. They
rose in pairs before double villas, anything from 50 to 100 feet
whose inhabitants need say no more.
"Araucaria Imbricata, speak for us! We will put up with
your everlasting Chilian dust and shade." But Hardy and Emma moved
on, until their worst tree-planting ever at Max Gate. Here the
author of The Woodlanders planted so many pines that he
could not see out. He wrote a complaining poem about this.