Feb. 6, 1927 – THWW reviewed by Henry Stuart in the New York Times

A Mirror of the Child Mind

THE HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS AND EEPERSIP’S LIFE THERE
By Barbara Newhall Follett. 166 pp. New York: Alfred
A. Knopf. $2.

Reviewed by Henry Longan Stuart. New York Times, February 6, 1927

In a “historical note” appended to “The House Without Windows” the father of the young author lets us into the secret of the happy accident to which we owe what may prove to be the most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase in plastic intelligence. “Almost above all,” says Mr. Wilson Follett (he has been telling of such special circumstances as a home education between child and parents in the great out of doors), “having used a typewriter as a plaything for a time she cannot remember, who was able to rattle off an easy 1,200 words an hour, without any awareness of the physical process, years before penmanship could have developed half the proficiency, even with intense concentration on the physical process alone.” Among all the implications to which this truly remarkable little book will give rise, the hint that a drudgery which invention has outdated may be slowing down mental processes at a critical mental age deserves at least a place.

In the mere theme of “The House Without Windows”–a little girl who escapes from her home with the entire heartlessness and heedlessness as to how others may feel about it which is so astonishing a trait in the immature, and becomes by turn a dryad and naiad in the woods and sea–there is no suspicion, as Mr. Follett very accurately points out, of precociousness. The mind of childhood is pantheistic. It invests the living creatures which come under its observation with all the qualities that its own little code of conduct have taught it to consider praiseworthy. It has a passion for smallness and snugness that is its subconscious defensive reaction to the girth and bulkiness that hems in its own little life and swoops upon it menacingly at bedtime and mealtime. The nest in the fork of the tree to which no grown person can climb, the squirrel’s hole or the mole’s run, at whose entry the grown person stands helpless, appear to it the most delicious retreats possible, and a conviction that it has been given the freedom of this diminutive world as a main element in the genesis of the fairy story, so far at least as children have invented it for themselves.

What is the most remarkable in the story of nine-year-old Barbara Follett’s heroine is that recourse is never once made to this order of fairy folk, who can, as it were, deputize the craving of a child to enter into the freer life of nature. From the moment of her escape on “the foothills of Mount Varcobis” to the last line of the book, Eepersip is the protagonist of her own adventure. No attempt is made to invest the birds and beasts that become her friends with any human attributes, far less human speech. An unbridled imagination is checked at every moment by a literalness of description that is apparently the amazing fruit of keen first-hand observation. On the one hand, the feeling of liberation can grow at times to something very like ecstasy. “The farther she went the more her heart began to leap within her joy in the life she was finding for herself” … “It seemed to happy Eepersip that all the wild was ready to make friends, as if nothing were afraid of her.” … “Great waves of happiness were flowing through her all the time.” On the other hand, at the moment when she is taking up her quarters in “a snug bedroom about five feet square and four and a half high” in a fox burrow, there can be the prim note: “The cordary berry grows during the Winter and is at its best at New Year. The seeds have sweet meats,” &c. The strange mingling of an extravagance which sets natural law is defiance and of the most minute descriptiveness is particularly noticeable in the chapter entitled “The Sea.” Eepersip, at home in the water from her first plunge as any fish, not to say mermaid, loses no opportunity to describe her new ambient. She notes that the loose sand is “like pepper,” a simile that alone is a guarantee of authenticity. Lying on a rock, she watches the gold and silver fish swimming across its shadow: “She observed how they nosed down and fed on the cozy sea plants on the bottom, which were covered with silver oxygen bubbles.” Barbara Follett may live and write to 90. But she will never give us the flight of sea birds more truly and vividly than in these dozen and a half words she wrote at the time: “Strong, narrow wings that beat down the air as the birds rose again, to hover and swoop and plunge.” “Beat down the air” for the motion of a hovering gull is more than an adequate phrase. It is the “inevitable” word upon which so many words have been spent. Here and there, too, like the silk thread of water mark on real paper money are the adorable naîvetés which remind us a child is writing: “Before long all the birds loved Snowflake–something that few kittens have attained!”

It is hard not to wax enthusiastic over this wonderful little book, bearing, as it does, every evidence, even in its meticulous literacy, that it is the fruit of one of those impulses which, as the young author’s father notes, “mostly fade into the light of common day a year or two before the dawn of that amount of mechanical articulacy which is necessary for a tangible expression of them,” and which, consequently, “are almost never expressed.” There can be few who have not at one time or another coveted the secret, innocent and wild at the same time, of a child’s heart. And here is little Miss Barbara Follett, holding the long-defended gate wide open and letting us enter and roam at our will over enchanted ground. And a typewriter did all this!

With thanks to Bruce for sending me his copy of the review.

June, 1927 – Barbara Follett Writes a Book, in The American Girl

In: The American Girl, June, 1927
Barbara Follett Writes a Book
by May Lamberton Becker

I have just been reading a book by a girl: it is called The House Without Windows (Knopf) and is by Barbara Newhall Follett, who is twelve years old now, but was nine when first she put this story upon paper. It was scarcely completed when it was destroyed in a fire from which her family had to run for their lives. One would have thought the story was quite gone, for the hardest thing to do with the memory is to bring back something that you have once written down and lost. But Barbara worked at it for three years; by that time it had grown into a longer and even more lovely story, and the author had come to the edge of her ‘teens.

It is the tale of a little girl named Eepersip, who lived with her parents in a house with a garden, pretty enough but set in a countryside far more interesting. So one day Eepersip packed a little lunch basket and started out.

“… She went east from her home on a shady path through beautiful woodlands, with her and there a grove of great massive pines. And as she walked she sang merrily.

“After quite a while she stepped out of the woodlands onto a large lawn. Close to the path there was a pool, with some tiny gold-fishes swimming about it in. Then she knew that she was nearing a house, and instead of pacing slowly along the path she began to run; for she was afraid that someone would see her and send her back home. But after a few minutes she grew tired and settled down to a reasonable pace. And as she slowed down she came into an enormous field of rhododendrons, lavender, white and brilliant red. Oh, what a gorgeous place that was! As Eepersip walked along, an oriole sang from a bush; she peeped into a hummingbird’s nest with two tiny white eggs in it; she startled a vireo from its nest in a low clump of grass, and, peeping into it, found three baby birds. The farther she went the more her heart began to leap within her for joy of the life she was finding for herself. Her loneliness decreased and she was free and happy as the birds or butterflies.’

A little further on she crosses a brook.

“She paused on the path suddenly, then drew back, for a doe and her daisied fawn were grazing close by. Eepersip took from her basket a lump of sugar, and held it out to the beautiful creatures. Very hesitatingly the doe moved forward, followed by her fawn, and at last took the lump of sugar from Eepersip’s fingers.

“… Could it be a dream, she thought? Eepersip had experienced the delightful sensation of the doe’s slightly rough tongue around her fingers, and suddenly she felt as if she could never leave them–as if she must stay  always and play in the woods. Already she had become acquainted with a doe and a fawn, and they were not afraid of her!”

And this, to put the story in a nutshell, is just what she does do. She never comes back, though the family tries continually to entrap her, and once does manage to keep her within doors for a little while. But she escapes, and this time they realize that they can never keep her. She lives first in the meadows, then beside the sea, then upon a mountain: her companions are a squirrel and a white kitten that never grows to be a cat, just as Eepersip stays the same age though three years pass. There is one little boy who comes out to play with her, and then her own sister whom she induces to stay for awhile, but who grows to homesick to remain. But Eepersip is never homesick, for she is really more a fairy than a child; she is the fairy that lives in a little girl’s mind in those years when anything that grows out-of-doors is worth more to her than anything that can be found within walls, even of a palace. With most of us the fairy goes away before we are ten, and goes so completely that it is hard for us to remember it was ever there. But Eepersip becomes more and more a fairy, until at length, one day when she is leaping high in the air, happy and free, a gold and black butterfly alights on either wrist, and as they wave their wings Eepersip rises, rises, until she is at last lost to sight. She is a wood-nymph now, a spirit of nature.

As I read Barbara’s book, I thought about you, and I realized that some of Barbara’s experiences will be very interesting whether you intend to write or not. The first special thing is the means by which this book was written: I mean the mechanical means. Barbara has “used a typewriter as a plaything from a time that she can’t remember.” As a result, she wrote this book directly on the keys, scarcely aware of the process of writing. So her thought could flow freely, unhampered by the strain of cramped pencil or pen. Most of us tried to write a book when we were little and gave up because our hands gave out. Of course the typewriter did not provide Barbara with the story, but it made it easier for her to give the story to us.

In the second place, read over the little bit of the story that I have quoted, and see how the words, even in these few sentences, impress you as appropriate, and arranged with simplicity and grace. Now words do not come into our heads by themselves: we have to get them from somewhere. Barbara’s father says that when she was nine her vocabulary was made up of “deposits from the works of Walter de la Mare, George MacDonald, W. H. Hudson, Mark Twain, Shelly and Scott. No books meant more to her, between the ages of six and ten, than The Three Mulla-Muggars, A Little Boy Lost, and The Princess and the Goblin.

I know these books well; I know with what felicity the words in them are chosen and used. When you are gathering the words for your vocabulary, those words that you will use all through life–for most of us lay in our stock of words while we are young–it is important that you should become accustomed to beautiful English. Lord Dunsany, when he was a little boy, read Shakespeare, the Bible and old ballads: he did not know there was anything else to read. His English was formed by these influences: he writes like no one but himself, but his words are dignified and expressive, his sentences move like music, and he speaks sincerely, not in phrases that mean nothing. Suppose he had been brought up on comic strips that say “wanna” and “gotcha,” and on stories for boys whose style is without form or comeliness? Perhaps you have no idea of writing. But why be content with even talking like the Rover Boys, when your language may be like that of the girl in the fairy story who dropped pearls every time she spoke?

The third point is, not to be afraid to use beautiful or new words, once you have made their acquaintance. Try them on the family, if you are afraid  the girls at school may think you are “stuck-up,” but try them on someone. Use them in sentences, not only in your exercises in English class, but in your everyday conversation. Every new word that you can really use is a new idea, no matter how near it may come to another word. When you come upon one that looks attractive, don’t let it stop upon the page: take it out for exercise. And be sure that the books you read most often are those whose sentences are like music, or whose words arouse your imagination and make you wish to make them part of your vocabulary–which means part of your life.

Feb. 19, 1927 – The House Without Windows reviewed by Lee Wilson Dodd

Saturday Review of Literature
February 19, 1927

THE HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS. By Barbara Newhall Follett.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1927. $2
Reviewed by Lee Wilson Dodd

This strange, delightful, and lovely book was written by a little girl as a present for her mother. When Barbara Follett has a birthday, she always gives her mother a present. Unhappily, one cannot commend this gentle custom to other children, since it loses all charm if not originally thought of by the giver. Barbara thought of it and adopted it; and when she was nine, she decided that on her tenth birthday she would make her mother a special present. [In fact, Barbara finished her story a few days after her ninth birthday, not her tenth.] So she set to work on her own typewriter and wrote down the story of Eepersip’s life in the House Without Windows. Fire destroyed the first manuscript in a jealous house with windows which, as I am convinced, burned itself to the ground out of sheer malice. That, I submit, would have settled the matter for most children–and for most adult authors, too. But Barbara (as Carlyle did, after John Stuart Mill’s famous housemaid incinerated the first draft of “The French Revolution”) set to work again. It is a second draft of Eepersip’s story, completed when Barbara was twelve, which is now before us.

If I mention these circumstances, it is because they are interesting in themselves, and not because I am soliciting grown-up indulgence for a fanciful story by a precocious child. In the first place, it is the contention of Barbara’s parents that she is not precocious. They believe her imagination to be that of a normal child of her years (granted her upbringing) and her extraordinary ability to record her imaginings in artistic prose to be due to the system of home-education which they devised for her and put in practise from her birth. In the words of her father:

She is not excessively gregarious and has not been regimented in schools and groups: therefore nothing has as yet standardized her, or ironed out her spontaneity, or made her particularly ashamed of it. She has been given plenty of time to know herself. And, almost above all, having used a typewriter as a plaything from a time she can’t remember, she was able to rattle off an easy 1,200 words an hour, without awareness of the physical process, years before penmanship could have developed half the proficiency, even with intense concentration on the physical process alone.

Well, it may be so… though I am not at all convinced that “The House Without Windows” can be attributed to any system by the mysterious system of Nature. However, I am not going to argue my way into the thorny thickets of “child psychology.” All I care about as a critic is that Barbara is somehow Barbara, and that her book, being beautiful, is its own excuse for being.

This book, as you have gathered, tells of Eepersip–who is the small daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Eigleen. They all lived in “a little brown shingled cottage on one of the foothills of Mount Varcrobis,” yet Eepersip was “rather lonely.” Her parents, advised by Eepersip, made for her “the most beautiful garden that was ever seen.” They were satisfactory parents, and Eepersip loved them, no doubt, in her own detached way. “But she was not a child who could be contented easily…” So she packed a small lunch-basket and ran away to an open glade on the upper slopes of Mount Varcrobis, and the first things she saw in the glade were “a doe and her daisied fawn…” Be astute enough to pause over that daisied fawn! In literature, as distinguished from the mass-production of books, it is the happy gift for putting things like that (“sea-shouldering whales,” for instance) that makes all the difference. Literature in any form of composition in which things are called by their right–that is, their essential–names. Barbara knows this quite well. For example, she points out later on that the Brunio twins were rather stupid because “they called their white kittens ‘White,” for her colour.” You see, “Eepersip thought the kitten was an exceptionally late bit of snow left on the grass.” And there is another glimpse of this unhappily named kitten which I prize. “Well, White didn’t care much about being left in the dewy grass, bewilderingly shaking first one paw, then another.” If you have ever owned or observed a kitten, that bit of description should give you the greatest confidence in Barbara’s artistic integrity.

The story of Eepersip is, if Barbara will forgive my stuffiness, a conte philosophique, and doubtless the only one ever written from the standpoint of an unspoiled childhood. It tells of one little girl’s escape from the tiresome world of grown-up mechanisms and compromises. Eepersip went outdoors and stayed there. She made friends with the doe and her daisied fawn, with a chipmunk, with grass and clouds and trees and the waves of the sea. This, obviously, was her world and she saw no reason why she should be asked to give it up. To submit to recapture was unthinkable. Heaven knows, poor Mr. and Mrs. Eigleen, with the help of the Ikkisfields (delightful people, who, when nobody in their village cared much for them, decided to go elsewhere!), did their best to entrap Eepersip again so that they might teach her all the silly, civilizing things the rest of us have learned to our cost! But they were no match for Eepersip and her newfound friends.

When the sun had dried the raindrops and the dew, the families started out to the great field to see what they could discover. The first thing they saw when they got to the edge of the slope was Eepersip skipping around. Then they saw her dance off to the woods and gather some long green branches and blossoms. Very soon she came back to the field, went over to a sleeping doe, and crowned her with the branches; upon which the doe got up and licked Eepersip’s cheek. She danced about in her delight. She was so beautiful, so graceful, that when her parents saw her they were amazed at the way in which her dancing and leaping had improved.

The Eigleens and the Ikkisfields did indeed on one occasion get hold of Eepersip.

But what could they do with her? How could they keep her securely? And, even so, if she was going to continue acting wildly, how much better off were they with her? This was a new question, which no one had thought of. But they decided that, if they could keep her safely, she would become tame and civilized again.

Happily, however, they were mistaken, though they locked her up in their house with windows.

“Eepersip could not go to sleep; she sat on the floor, whining softly in her misery. One of the bucks knocked gently on the glass door with his antler… The sound of breaking glass reached the ears of Mr. Ikkisfield… ‘Get up! get up! Sounds like high doings out there!’–Eepersip, on the little fawn’s back, had vanished toward the field.” So, naturally, “The families, after that adventure, were desperate; and they decided not to make any more plans just then…”

A wise decision, for no plans could have availed them. Eepersip was not as other little girls. She was destined, in the House Without Windows, to fulfil her mystical initiation. Little by little a deep magic is wrought within her. She passes from her meadow to the sea, from the sea to the lifting mountains. And one day she knew that she “was even happier than usual.”

And, when the sun again tinged the sky with color, a flock of butterflies, purple and gold and green, came swooping and alighted on her head in a circle, the largest in front. Others came in myriads and covered her dress with delicate wing-touches. Eepersip held out her arms a moment. A gold-and-black one alighted on each wrist. And then–she rose into the air, and hovering an instant over a great laurel-bush, vanished… She would be invisible for ever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see.

This is very beautiful writing. But there are moments when, for one reader, this book grows almost unbearably beautiful. It becomes an ache in his throat. Weary middle-age and the clear delicacy of a dawn-Utopia, beckoning… The contrast sharpens to pain. One closes the book and shuffles about doggedly till one finds the evening paper and smudges down to one’s element–that smudged machine-record of what man has made of man. Of man–and therefore of childhood! The dyer’s hand–subdued to what it works in… But need it be? Surely, in the words of another Eepersip who escaped: “Water, is taught by thirst.”