I read about Barbara Newhall Follett’s The House Without Windows in a Waterstones newsletter, and thought it sounded intriguing. I did a little more research, and discovered that the book was written when the author was just nine years old, and published when she was twelve, in 1927. The twenty five-year-old Newhall Follett later disappeared in 1939, quite mysteriously, and it is not known what happened to her. I was fascinated by her story, and decided to purchase a copy of The House Without Windows – my first book purchase of 2020, in the month of May.
The House Without Windows follows a young and ‘rather lonely’ female protagonist, who goes by the odd but sweet name of Eepersip Eigleen. She has spent years creating the perfect garden with the help of her parents, but soon tires of it; she is, comments Newhall Follett, ‘not a child who could be contented easily’. Eepersip decides that she has had enough of her family life, and that she is old enough to run away. She plans to live outside, in the company of various creatures, for the rest of her life. In Jackie Morris’ preface, Eepersip is described as a ‘heroine, a runaway seeker’.
As soon as Eepersip steals away from home in the early morning and begins to walk, her mood changes: ‘The farther she went the more her heart began to loop within her for joy of the life she was finding for herself. Her loneliness decreased, and she was as free and happy as the birds or butterflies.’ Everything which she comes across on her subsequent walk feels quite idyllic, down to her feeding a doe a sugarcube, which she just happens to have lying in the wicker basket which she has brought along with her.
As one might expect with such a young author, there is little realism here. On the second day, Eepersip – ‘determined to get her feet toughened so as to go barefoot all the time’ – decides to discard her shoes and socks. She wears none for the duration of her time outside, not even in the snow, and faces no medical problems as a result. She also eats a great deal of roots and berries, all of which are, of course, delicious morsels, and not filled to the brim with poison.
Eepersip’s parents only begin to worry about her after three days have passed, and then randomly decide to give up their house to another couple who are not much liked by others in their village. They then go to hunt for Eepersip; they hatch a plan to hide behind some trees in the forest, and plan to ‘”catch her when she goes past.”‘ What ensues is a cat and mouse-esque game, where Eepersip continually outwits the adults: ‘For hours every day she practiced running, leaping, dancing, and prowling, until she was as fleet as a deer and as soft on her feet as a lynx.’ She can also, apparently, vault a large male deer…
Newhall Follett’s descriptions are both perceptive and beautiful, and it is sometimes difficult to believe that they were written by someone so young. A corner of Eepersip’s garden, for instance, is ‘carpeted with tender anemones, all snow-white’, and ‘the paths through the garden had gracefully bending ferns on each side.’ Eepersip’s asides are quite lovely, too: ‘”Dawn comes to earth sometimes,” she thought, “bringing her flower-clouds and clasping them with pearl seeds.”‘ The prose is often filled with whimsy in this way.
The New York Times comments that the novel is ‘a mirror on the child mind’, and I have to agree. It is fanciful and filled with imagination, and runs along at pace. I found it quite lovely that the edition which I read is presented exactly as it was written by the ‘American child prodigy novelist’. The novel is entirely absorbing, and whilst the modern reader will surely be surprised by some of the events which occur, it is quite a delightful read. Newhall Follett’s prose is old-fashioned, and quite charming, and she demonstrates well how glorious the outside world is. She has a lot of insight, too, about the way in which many people take nature for granted.
The House Without Windows is highly fanciful, and I have not read anything quite like it before. Eepersip proves herself to be a resourceful child, with a wonderful imagination: ‘She could imagine miniature cities in the air, and saw little butterflies and birds constantly going and coming from them. There were cities on the ground, too, where orchestras of grasshoppers and crickets played in the grass.’ Whilst the prose and descriptions here are elevated far above what I would expect a nine-year-old’s writing to be, the plot is fantastical and quite unrealistic throughout; this, I admit, I was expecting. Time passes so quickly in The House Without Windows, and we barrel from one season to the next in a single sentence. In some ways, it must be said that this book is quite remarkable, and it is certainly a worthwhile piece of juvenilia to pick up.