I received a copy of the beautifully designed Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer for my birthday, after hearing many wonderful things about it – Town and Country, for example, describe the novel as ‘a celebration of a life spent immersed in nature’, and Country Life deems it ‘a great pleasure for birders and readers alike’. Bird Cottage has been translated from the original Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett, and is printed in its English edition by Pushkin Press, a publishing house which I always gravitate toward.
Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len. Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty . In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds. From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books. With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’
The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden. When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual. It feels as if someone is strangling me.’ We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music. As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.
Len makes a home with the generations of birds which inhabit her garden; indeed, they soon come to inhabit her home, too. On the decision of some Great Tits to nest inside her cottage, she observes: ‘Their choices were not always happy – they would roost between the curtain rods and the ceiling, or in the frame of a sliding door, which meant that it could no longer be closed – and so I began to hang boxes on the walls, or old food cartons, or small wooden cases.’ Such a glorious sense of place is created, and soon, Len’s cottage, with all of its little quirks, feels rather intimate. I loved the descriptions of the outside world too, of which there are many: ‘The red in the sky has turned lilac, then purple, then dark blue, the shadow of the earth silhouetted against the pink, and now it’s become a blanket full of stars, little openings that let the light shine through.’
The first person perspective which has been used throughout works so well, as does the present tense which is continually used. One is made aware, almost immediately, of how much Len cared about the birds whom she essentially came to plan her life around. Everything is seen through Len’s kind eyes, and the birds become characters in their own right. She observes: ‘The Great Tits are sunning themselves in the front garden, their wings outspread. Jacob and Monocle II are sitting next to each other, very fraternally, as if they don’t usually spend the whole day quarrelling. It’s the heat that has made them so placid… Jacob’s oldest son is perched on a low, broad branch. He is a little slower than the others – too much feeding at my bird table.’
I very much admired Meijer’s interpretation of Len Howard, and would dearly like to learn more about her. Meijer notes that very little about Len’s life has actually been preserved, and that she pieced together the novel with the use of sparse known facts, and Len’s own work. Unfortunately, Len’s books appear very difficult to get hold of affordably, but I can only hope that they are reissued at some point in the near future. I am sure that the many delighted readers of Bird Cottage would love to read Len’s original work.
Such warmth suffuses Bird Cottage, and it is such a delightful novel to read. The translation has been seamlessly done, and the prose is often achingly beautiful. Bird Cottage is charming and delightful, and provides a wonderful piece of escapism from the fast-paced world in which we live, where many people often forget to take notice of the little things around them. Bird Cottage is a novel to savour.