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.”