On the Other Side of the Latch by Sara Jeannette Duncan ~ 1901. American title: The Crow’s Nest. This edition: Methuen & Co., 1901. Hardcover. 266 pages.
My rating: 7/10
I am very fond of Sara Jeannette Duncan, or, as she is styled in brackets on the title page of this and a number of her other books, Mrs. Everard Cotes. Duncan was a world-travelling Canadian who confidently pushed the gender limits of her time, despite that traditionally matrimonial sub-name which appears on most of her earlier works.
I recently read her 1890 travel book, A Social Departure: How Orthodocia and I Went Round the World by Ourselves, in which our Sara embarks upon an unchaperoned journey round the world with a female friend. I thoroughly enjoyed that journey-book, so much so that I won’t say anything more about it now, saving myself for a future re-read and review.
Looking around for my next Sara Jeanette Duncan – for in addition to A Social Departure I’d already read An American Girl in London and The Simple Adventures of a Memsahib – this one jumped out as me, concerning as it does the author’s time spent out in the garden of a mountain house in Simla, India, as she undergoes a rest cure for tuberculosis.
Whereas the other books I’ve read by Duncan are hectic with social activity, On the Other Side of the Latch is almost comatose in comparison, and this makes a lot of sense, as the lively traveller and always-busy career writer was forced to sit quietly from morning till night, unable to take part in whatever social whirl there might have been in that Anglo-Indian summer retreat.
There is an attraction about carpets and curtains, chairs and sofas and the mantelpiece, which is hard to explain and harder to resist. I feel it in all its insidious power this morning as I am bidding them farewell for a considerable time; I would not have believed that a venerable Axminster and an arm-chair on three castors could absorb and hold so much affection; verily I think, standing in the door, it was these things that made Lot’s wife turn her unlucky head. Dear me, how they enter in, how they grow to be part of us, these objects of ordinary use and comfort that we place within the four walls of the little shelters we build for ourselves on the fickle round of the world! I have gone back, I have sat down, I will not be deprived of them; they are necessary to the courage with which every one must face life. I will consider nothing without a cushion, on the hither side of the window, braced by dear familiar book-shelves and the fender. And Tiglath-Pileser [Duncan’s whimsical nickname for her husband throughout the book; her sister-in-law is styled “Thisbe”] has now come, and has quoted certain documents, and has used gentle propulsive force, and behold because I am a person whose contumacy cannot endure, the door is shut and I am on the outside disconsolate.
I would not have more sympathy than I can afterwards sustain; I am only banished to the garden. But the banishment is so definite, so permanent! Its terms are plain to my unwilling glance, a long cane deck-chair anchored under a tree, over-head the sky, on the four sides the sky, without a pattern, full of wind and nothing. Abroad the landscape, consisting entirely of large mountains; about, the garden. I never regarded a garden with more disfavour. Here I am to remain — but to remain! The word expands, you will find, as you look into it. Man, and especially woman, is a restless being, made to live in houses, roaming from room to room, and always staying for the shortest time moreover, if you notice, in the one which is called the garden. The subtle and gratifying law of arrangement that makes the drawing-room the only proper place for afternoon tea operates all through. The convenience of one apartment, the quiet of another, the decoration of another regularly appeal in turn, and there is always one’s beloved bed, for retirement when the world is too much with one. All this I am compelled to resign for a single fixed fact and condition, a cane chair set in the great monotony of out-of-doors. My eye, which is a captious organ, is to find its entertainment all day long in bushes — and grass. All day long. Except for meals it is absolutely laid down that I may not “come in.” They have not locked the doors, that might have been negotiated; they have gone and put me on my honour. From morning until night I am to sit for several months and breathe, with the grass and the bushes, the beautiful pure fresh air. I don’t know why they have not asked me to take root and be done with it. In vain I have represented that microbes will agree with them no better than with me; it seems the common or house microbe is one of the things I particularly mustn’t have. Some people are compelled to deny themselves oysters, others strawberries or artichokes: my fate is not harder than another’s. Yet it tastes of bitterness to sit out here in an April wind twenty paces from a door behind which they are enjoying, in customary warmth and comfort, all the microbes there are.
And so on.
After a chapter or two of rather wallowing in ever-decreasing stages of self-pity, Sara Jeannette Duncan then turns her gaze to the garden in which she is exiled, and the gardener who oversees it, Atma.
Into my field of vision comes Atma, doinjg something to a banksia rosebush that climbs over a little arbour erected across a path apparently for the convenience of the banksia rosebush. Atma would tell you, protector of the poor, that he is the gardener of this place. As a matter of fact his relation to it is that of tutelary deity and real proprietor. I have talked in as large a way as if it belonged to Tiglath-Pileser, because he pays for the repairs; but I should have had the politeness at least to mention Atma whose claims are so much better. So far as we are concerned Atma is prehistoric; he was here when we came, and when we have completed the tale of our years of exile and gone away he will also be here. His hut is at the very end of the shelf, and I have never been in it; but if you ask him how long he has lived there he would say “Always.” It must make very little difference to Atma what temporary lords came and give orders in the house with the magnificent tin roof where they have table-cloths. Some, of course, are more troublesome than others, but none of them stay. He and his bulbs and perennials are the permanent, undisputed facts; it is unimaginable that any of them should be turned out.
I am more reconciled to my fate when Atma is in the garden; he is something human to look at and to consider, and he moves with such calm wisdom among the plants.
This is a memoir of description, not of action, as the writer remains in her prescribed chair, doing as little as possible. She reads – and oh! how soon the pleasures of uninterrupted reading pale! – she naps, she cranes her neck to see who is passing on the precipitous road down the mountainside, she watches the birds and the insects, and she writes in her journal the passages which will become this book.
The narrative soon turns itself almost completely over to a sometimes-pithy appreciation of the changing seasons in the green world; it becomes a decidedly fascinating gardener’s account, for, much as Duncan gives credit to Atma for being the overseer and hands-in-the-soil, she herself has more than a little input into the ornamental plantings, and she reveals herself as being an opinionated plantsperson with undoubted years of experience of floral cultivation, with an artist’s eye for the larger effect, as well as a fine attention to details of petal and pollen. Days, weeks, months fall into pattern, faithfully described with abundant digressions of a mostly humorous sort.
This memoir reminds us of the pleasures of our own small patch of ground, the joys of our own set of rooms inhabited by our familiar things, our books, our most-cherished belongings, the chair that we most like to sit in, the cup that we most like to drink from, and – not least! – the people whom we most love.
I found I liked this book more and more as it went along, and after finishing it I felt I knew this witty and confidently opinionated writer on a much more intimate level, and my readerly affection for her, already well established, has grown accordingly.
And regarding that rest cure, it appears to have been reasonably successful, for after seven months of sitting outside under a cedar tree, through all sorts of weather including the annual monsoon, Sara Jeannette Duncan was allowed back into the “micobe”-infested house, and a return to the greater world.
She was to live another twenty-one years, dying in 1922 in England, at the age of 61, of “chronic lung disease”.
Sara Jeannette Duncan’s literary legacy was a respectable twenty-plus novels, as well as numerous journalistic articles. In 2016 she was designated a Canadian National Historic Person, a recognition which is decidedly well-deserved.