The Dovecote, by Violet Jacob: A Fairy Tale, Rediscovered

In a wide stretch of pasture, in the middle of a lonely field, with its back to the bleak north blast which swept over the shuddering grasses, making them hum and sing like complaining voices, stood a Dovecote.

There are few literary experiences more strange and poignant than reading an utterly forgotten children’s book, especially a copy that once belonged to actual children, whose names are still legible in the book. They have since grown into adults, after all, and then grown old. (And then died, of course.) When I used to read a story like that to my kids (back when they were of the age), it was like visiting another world, one which only we knew. My kids may be the only children alive today who know and love this story, I would imagine, as I read.

Golden Heart
Original 1905 cover art for The Golden Heart, by May Sandheim

Thirty years ago or so, I pulled Violet Jacob’s 1905 story collection, The Golden Heart, from a dusty shelf in a used bookstore, somewhere out there in the world. The book was long out of print, utterly unknown. When, at the very end of the last century, my kids entered into our household, one story in this volume, The Dovecote, became a haunting favorite of ours, for a while anyway.

It’s an especially vivid story, about intrigue in the king’s court that explodes into a full-blown civil war, turmoil in the countryside, a royal couple made refugees in their own kingdom. A shape-shifting queen is injured in battle, a real rebellion breaks out, peasants choose sides, and a witch named Maddy Norey gives the Monarch and his Queen sanctuary in the well-hidden dovecote that gives the tale its title, nurses them back to health, and then seeks to engineer their return to power. By the end of the yarn, when the dovecote’s doors close, locking Maddy Norey away forever, we are reminded of many ordinary citizens who have changed history in some small way, and who have then vanished from sight, remembered if at all only for their relationship to the world’s rulers. As Jacob wrote, heartbreakingly:

“Looking straight southward towards the pastures, the sloping ground at the foot of the trees was all one fertile cornfield, as yet uncut, and, half-way up it, where the hill was steepest, stood three elms, growing close together and making a dark spot of shade in the middle of the yellow grain. These were called ‘Maddy Norey’s trees.’ What Maddy Norey’s history had been no one alive knew, but tradition said that she had lived in a small cottage under the shadow of the elms, and men ploughing the field in the late November days had run their ploughshares against deeply-embedded stones at their roots, and told each other that they had struck the foundations of Maddy Norey’s house. They did not know that the witch, Maddy Norey, was alive still, and living hardly out of the sound of their voices in the Dovecote.”

Dovecote
May Sandheim’s illustration of the dovecote

Violet Jacob is remembered today, somewhat, as a 19th century poet, which is not entirely surprising. She recalls a bit Evelyn Sharp, a fairy tale writer who is instead more renowned (which means, sort of obscurely noted) for a novel called At The Relton Arms, and even more prominently (that is, just barely) as a suffragist and journalist. While Sharp’s book of fairy tales, Wymps, is more whimsical than The Dovecote, Sharp reminds me of Violet Jacob in a few ways.

They are both authors who have grown obscure with the years, and they are both remembered now (where at all) for things other than their writing for children; they both wrote children’s stories that transcended the genre of the time, Jacob by creating a tale of alliances and battles that anticipated later children’s fantasy stores, like the Hobbit, which then begat adult fantasy novels; and Sharp by locking her fairy tales together and building a fairy tale world of some complexity; and, like Elizabeth A. Lyn, author of brilliantly kinky and celebrated adult S/F books and one little-known fantasy novel for the very young (The Silver Horse), when Sharp and Jacob wrote for children, they were both unable to rein in their imaginations, to disguise their intelligence, or to dumb down their stories.

The Golden Heart remained utterly obscure for a hundred years and was finally brought back to the public by a Scottish press in 2011, which jettisoned the cover’s fleeing princess and heart-strewn motif and instead decorated the cover with a photograph of violets, and a subtitle that described it as “Scottish Womens [sic] Fiction,” which it decidedly is not, with or without the missing apostrophe.

As of this writing, it has received not a single Amazon review and sold not a single copy. The Dovecote can periodically be found online, where one might read it for free. Needless to say, it is worth seeking out.

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