History Group Talk December 2012

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Phillip Page gave the meeting an interesting talk on “Eden Phillpotts”, a prolific author and recorder of the social life of the time.

Phil started by saying that after moving into Yarner near Bovey Tracey, he came upon a book written by Eden Phillpotts titled ‘The Forest on the Hill’. Written in 1912, very interesting but he found it a bit ‘heavy going’!  He persevered particularly through the second half of the book but ultimately found it very rewarding. Phillpotts had a way of describing what he saw with great detail and this appealed to Phil, the places he mentioned, the buildings he saw and also his apparent delight in recording in detail the plants that he saw while walking and researching material for his books.
Phil being interested in the natural history around him was drawn to this author, a forgotten writer was how he describes him.
Virtually all his books are now out of print but they can still be found in second-hand book shops. The most famous of which are the 18 Dartmoor Novels, referred to as ‘The Dartmoor Cycle‘ written between 1898 and 1923. Some of them have been turned into plays. Possibly ‘The Farmers Wife’ being the most well known. Made into a film by the late Alfred Hitchcock and revived at The Little Theatre in Exeter during August & September 2010 and based on his book Widecombe Fair, possibly his most read book.
Phillpotts co-opted into his writings what was happening in the world in which he lived. the social, political,  sometimes manipulating aspects of life of that period. Born in India in 1862 he died in 1960 after a colourful life. He wrote of the activities of the suffragette movement, political activities, the women’s rights and how many marriages were marriages of convenience. Many were arranged marriages, where neighbours increased their estates by the joining together with like minded parents, simply manipulating their offspring, for the sake of “the Family’s Wealth”.
He wrote about 250 works of various forms but Phil mentioned “The American Prisoner” 1904 as being amongst his favourite novels.
At the end of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, George V came to the throne and EP, as he became affectionately known, wrote of the social aspects of a more ‘free and easy’ way of life for the favoured classes that is!
Kenneth Day in 1981 published a book “Eden Phillpotts on Dartmoor”. As a friend of EP he gave an insight into the man and his “Dartmoor Cycle” with a résumé of each volume.
Phil mentioned that it was while reading the “The Forest on the Hill” he became aware that it was set in and around Yarner Wood named in the book as “Garner”. The gamekeepers, copper mine, plants like the Heath Lobelia, all fitted nicely into Yarner. In many of his novels it is quite easy to work out where and how they fitted into Dartmoor places. With only slight adaptation of place names and family names the reader can find his/her way around the moors. It is thought that he spent a lot of time in the local pubs, quite likely at The Carpenters in Ilsington, listening and talking to the locals. Getting ideas for his novels, and the lie of the area helped him with his descriptions. Mention was made of the gamekeeper, possibly living at that time in the little cottage at the top of Yarner Woods, not the present named Gamekeeper’s Cottage. Names of these men included Len Evans and Mabel his wife, the dew pond that was Len’s idea of a bathroom, Fred Toby, another and Major Hole who owned the Parke Estate.  Other books “The River” 1902, that mentioned the Saracen’s Arms at Two Bridges, Wistman’s Wood, all very descriptive.
Thief of Virtue, the Secret Woman 1905 - a very controversial story. A little like Thomas Hardy - recording things as they were then - giving the reader of today an insight to life one hundred years ago. A very detailed account of the times that makes interesting reading a century on!
He married Robina and his eldest daughter Adelaide was an author in her own right. She collaborated with her father in Yellow Sands and others it is believed.  He captured the atmosphere of Dartmoor and perhaps it is fair to say that he is not as well known to the readers of today that he ought to be. He was a keen observer of all things around him and this can be seen by reading his books and learning  from them. 
Phil Page concluded with the thought that EP is underrated as an author and should be re-discovered by those that love Dartmoor. What he saw he interpreted into his novels and the social history that can be read in his lines give the modern reader a chance to understand how things were a hundred years ago and more.

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