Thursday, September 17, 2015

The House of Elrig - Gavin Maxwell

Any regular reader will know I'm a fan of Gavin Maxwell, specifically his autobiographical works. I do have copies of 'A Reed Shaken By The Wind' and 'God Protect Me From My Friends' but have not yet read them for the shallow reasoning that I'm more interested in Otters, and Scotland, and colourful but self destructive minor aristocrats than I am in the mafia and marsh dwelling communities.

The passion for Maxwell started when I was trying to make sense of rural Leicestershire after far more rural Shetland in my early teens. No two ways about it moving down south was a hell of a culture shock, and I was desperately homesick a lot of the time. The film version of 'Ring of Bright Water' was possibly the way in, though I also vividly remember buying my first copy of 'Harpoon at a Venture' in a small bookshop in Rugby (it's fallen apart now which is a testament to how often I read a book that must always have been slightly odd reading for a 13 year old girl). The first copy I had of 'The House of Elrig' was shamelessly stolen from the school library (sorry), and has now also fallen apart so I'm delighted that Slightly Foxed have chosen to republish it in a neat little hardback edition.

'The House of Elrig' deals with Maxwell's earliest childhood up until he's around 17/18. It's a curious book to read again now. What I remember of it, and what I would have understood, from when I first read it was his descriptions of homesickness, of longing for the country, and the complete bafflement that suddenly finding yourself in a large school causes. The year group in the school I left was 14 (unusually small, but still the average class size) in the school I went to it was in the hundreds and a completely alien environment.

'The House of Elrig' was published in 1965, 13 years after 'Harpoon at a Venture' (which I think is the best of the lot of the autobiographical ones) and 5 years after 'Ring of Bright Water' had made him a household name, so undoubtedly he knew there was a market for his childhood reminiscences - you need to be a celebrity to get away with this kind of thing.

Maxwell was born in 1914, 3 months before his father was killed at Antwerp in the October - a depressingly early casualty of war - the youngest of 4 children. Early years were spent almost exclusively within the family unit, either at the beloved house of Elrig in Galloway or sharing houses with various unmarried aunts. The Maxwell's seem to have been solid country gentry - well off, well connected, very establishment. Due partly to a religious quirk (both families were Irvingites - a catholic apostolic sect) Gavin's mother came from a much grander family; she was Lady Mary Percy, daughter of the Duke of Northumberland.

From the earlier books, dealing with his later life, there's already a clear sense of Maxwell as a contradictory figure, the roots of that are all to be found here. He's not, I suspect, a narrator to be particularly trusted - there are hints of a something nasty in the woodshed moment which he then deliberately drops and which I assume is a bit of a red herring. He also talks a lot about his own sexual innocence at school in a way which isn't entirely convincing - though in 1965 was probably a wise precaution.

For a Maxwell fan the appeal of the book is obvious. He always writes well and of course you want to know more about the charismatic hero of those later books. If this is to be a first brush with Maxwell though, and even if you care nothing for maverick otter keepers in general it's an interesting read.

The trials of prep and public school life are well enough documented elsewhere, but They're approached from a slightly different angle here. None of the masters, or even the bullies, seem to have been particularly sadistic but you do get a sense of what fundamentally odd places these boarding schools are with their customs and rules, and how difficult it can be for a new boy to navigate through them.

More interesting is Gavin's relationship and attitude towards the Percy part of his family. Maxwell is a snob, it comes through in all his books (or, to be fair, the ones that I've read) and is part of his charm. Here he's exploring, maybe unwittingly, what it is to be just outside the inner circle. There are occasional invitations to grand occasions - excruciating trials for a gauche schoolboy which reinforces a sense that this was his mothers world and not entirely his. It's the point at which I most felt the lack of a father figure for him.

Also interesting is how he chooses to discuss a growing awareness, or a growing determination to ignore his awareness, to sex. In 1965 to be caught in a homosexual act would still have been a criminal offence in England (if I read Wikipedia correctly it was even later in Scotland). Maxwell, described as privately homosexual (Wikipedia again) talks a bit about platonic friendships strained by the suspicions of school masters, but there is one angry passage where he talks of a particular friend: "Poor precocious, charming Craith, all that nature intended him to be condemned as dirty, unacceptable, dangerous, contaminating...." Which in the end leaves no room for doubt about where he stood on the matter.


  1. I'm a fan of Gavin Maxwell too and read this book several decades ago but now I must read it again after reading your review. It was this book that encouraged me to first visit Galloway and so glad I did ... it's beautiful. Now I regularly go back. I've also been on the trail of the ring of bright water at Sandaig ... it's less accessible but well worth the effort ... and all because of the book read while I was still a schoolgirl. Sadly, I didn't spot one otter while I was there but the cottage was and it was easy to imagine they were nearby somewhere :)

  2. I should add that the cottage that is there at Sandaig is not Maxwell's - it burned down in 1968 - it is Raef Payne's. I wouldn't anyone who made the effort to visit Sandaig to expect to see Camusfearna still there!

    1. I'd quite like to visit the sight one day, and also Soay as like you, the books made a huge impact on me. Otters I've seen plenty of - I have family in Shetland where they're fairly common. If you keep an eye out you're almost certain to see one. Last year there was one in the garden pond playing with a decoy duck...

  3. Thank you for your review. My husband likes reading Maxwell Gavin. So I ordered already this book as a birthday present.
    Kind regards

  4. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I mentioned your blog for the Information about Slightly foxed.

  5. Many thanks, and I very much hope he enjoys it. Maxwell's books are favourites so it's always good to hear of others who share the same enthusiasm.

  6. Another Maxwell nut here ! You should definitely read ' Maxwell's ghost' and ' the saga of ring of bright water ' both excellent insights into the man . Clive

  7. Another Maxwell nut here ! You should definitely read ' Maxwell's ghost' and ' the saga of ring of bright water ' both excellent insights into the man . Clive

  8. He's a fascinating figure. I'm tempted to read more about him but also a bit wary of having to much insight into such a complex figure. Some of what turns up might be hard to take. I did however listen to a 2 part radio 4 thing about him a while back which was fascinating. I think it was built around an interview with terry Nutkins and replayed just after he died. It had his own memories as well as interviews with Lavinia and some others. It was an interesting mix of honest and protective. Whatever his faults people clearly had a great deal of affection for the man. If you haven't read it (and you probably have) Tex Geddes' book Hebridean Sharker makes an interesting counter point to Harpoon at a Venture and Ring of Bright Water.

  9. For anyone who would like to know more about Gavin Maxwell, his books, or books written by other people who knew him well, there is a now a Facebook Group "The Gavin Maxwell Society." New members welcome!