This book took me places I didn’t expect it to. Firstly, I assumed it would be a biography: of Len Howard, who left everything behind in London to pursue a life dedicated to studying the behaviour of garden birds. I was intrigued. Then, when I discovered it was a fictional re-imagining of her life, I was less enthused. But as the book progressed, and the reasons for – and consequences of – her decision played out on the page, it became more interesting than I could have hoped.
Len (Gwendolen) Howard was born in 1894. Bird Cottage, by Dutch author Eva Meijer, alternates between snapshots of Howard’s life – sometimes months, more often several years apart – and anecdotal studies of the birds that she lives among in her Sussex cottage. The windows and doors are kept open to allow Great Tits and Robins easy access; she recognises and names individuals, and follows their lives over several years: their battles for food and mates, their constant struggle to maintain territory and, almost unbelievably, her attempts to teach them to count.
Howard was born into a comfortable upper-middle class household. Her father is a poet, often distracted, well-regarded but struggling to make a creative leap forward as the world enters the modern(ist) age. Len’s mother is perenially ill, and shows little love for her offspring. This bothers Len, but in time she proves to be more like her than she realises. From childhood she loves birds, treating them as equals (and finding them more steadfast than most humans).
She moves to London from the family’s Welsh home to become a violinist. Despite a desire to travel (or at least to leave home), London unsettles her. The presence of birds – eagerly sought, even the urban pigeons – helps to stabilise her life.
Even at an early age she is reluctant to let others get too close, but the first World War brings trauma when her beloved brother Kingsley goes missing. The news prompts the book’s one moment of violence: distraught, and unable to confide with others, or share emotion, she reacts by smashing a pigeon to pulp with a brick.
Len is stubbornly independent, but the book reminds us of the position of women in the early 20th century, at the mercy of men’s whims. Later, she worries that her research isn’t taken seriously not just because she isn’t a scientist, but because she’s a woman.
London proves too much for her: she feels “stifled” and “can only breathe normally again when I’m in the train”. She finds a cottage in Ditchling, near Brighton and moves in. Here, she can devote her life to studying bird behaviour. She puts up signs to keep people out lest they disturb the birds (it can take hours, or even days, for them to recover from a shock). She lets her connections to other humans – her family in particular – wither. But it’s 1938, and she can’t fully escape the human world.
Wartime shortages cause her anxiety, more for the birds’ sake than her own. As she despairs to her local grocer (and one of her few remaining friends) Theo, “I can hardly get enough butter for the birds. And without that, my research can go to blazes”. Incredulous, Theo responds
“Gwen, millions have died on the continent. Ordinary people. I don’t want to deny the importance of your research, but what’s happening there is of an entirely different order”
She sends her findings to journals, and is encouraged to turn her research into books. The books are popular, are translated into several languages (including Dutch) and Howard receives fan mail, of which she is dismissive:
“”Dear Miss Howard, your marvellous book describes something so familiar to me. I have the sensation that we know each other well, that we’re old acquaintances.” I return it to its envelope.”
In an interview she observes that “brick by brick my answers build a wall around me, all neatly mortared”. Yet the birds will perch on her shoulder, and she knows an intimacy with them she never experiences with another human.
As she grows older and spends less time with people (“there are always things that take precedence”), Len becomes increasingly eccentric. Her wartime solipsism grows into something darker. The signs around her house are now explicitly to keep people away, not just to avoid disturbing the birds but even the spiders. Meijer shows this descent as inevitable and logical but handles it delicately: we are in Len’s head, and can see where she’s coming from.
A few months ago, in a piece on nature writer Mike Tomkies, I wrote about the misanthropy that can underpin an immersion in nature. Len Howard’s life (as told by Meijer) certainly seems to follow a similar pattern to both Tomkies and Gavin Maxwell.
But even before she tries to sunder herself from society, Bird Cottage is a novel in which communication is problematic. Len despairs of
“words that barely or don’t reach their targets. Words that simply express habit, that hardly mean anything else at all…words are just husks, carriers of something else”
As she strives to communicate with birds, ultimately she finds that they’re capable of understanding her: they can judge her mood and intent and react accordingly. And their brief, contingent lives offer her a philosophy:
“we always think there’s a goal, a reason, that somehow or another everything is for the best, that there’s some kind of point. But most lives are little more than an accumulation of chance happenings”
This is a worldview that her experience of society only reaffirms. For all that the birds console her, the lessons they teach are shockingly bleak. There’s a dark heart to what in other hands could have been a very twee story.
Eva Meijer is a Dutch “author, artist, singer, songwriter and philosopher” and Bird Cottage was nominated for prizes in her native Netherlands. The Dutch title is Het Vogelhuis: “The Birdhouse”, which has the same meaning in Dutch as in English. I’m curious as to why it was re-titled: cottage as an architectural term has connotations that the plainer “house” lacks, but then that’s the difference between the more egalitarian Dutch language, and the class-ridden English. What we have then is a story whose prose – given the middle-class milieu – is perhaps less fussy than if it had been written by an English-language author. Antoinette Fawcett retains the plainness of Dutch, to the book’s credit.
However much Meijer has invented, she is to be commended for bringing Len Howard into the spotlight in this poignant tale of a life spent on – and long-since consigned to – the margins.
Bird Cottage is published on May 30th. My copy was supplied for review by Pushkin Press.
Meijer, Eva: Bird Cottage (Het Vogelshuis) tr. Antoinette Fawcett, (Pushkin Press, 2019)