Friday, 23 January 2015

Couching at the Door ~ D. K. Broster

Dorothy Kathleen Broster (1877-1950) was a successful historical novelist, best known for her popular Jacobite Rebellion Trilogy, the first volume of which, The Flight of the Heron, was published in 1925. Little is known about Broster's private life, as she was an incredibly private person. Some resources claim that it came as a surprise to critics and readers to find out, when she died in 1950, that Broster was a woman. That's not exactly true; in the 'Can You Tell' quiz in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, in July 1929, Broster's full name and sex was the answer to one of the questions, and newspapers as far back as 1919 were referring to her as 'Miss Broster', so the information wasn't top secret. There was a charming article in the Dundee Courier in June 1928 entitled 'Miss Broster Comes to the Highlands', in which the reporter comments on the writer's lovely speaking voice. As he also points out, she was 'by nature and by education a historian', having studied history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, from 1896 to 1900.

Couching at the Door was published in 1942 by William Heinemann Ltd., under wartime economy restrictions. A slim volume of just 130 pages, the stories in the collection are: Couching at the Door, The Pestering, From the Abyss, Juggernaut, The Pavement.*

In 'Couching at the Door', it is the summer of 1898. Augustine Marchant, a scandalous, decadent writer with a reputation for being wicked, has not long returned from a trip to Prague. Whilst abroad, though not truly a believer in the dark arts, Marchant played at sorcery and dabbled in black magic, with disastrous consequences. Now, back home in England, he discovers that something has followed him home.

In 'The Pestering', Evadne and Ralph Seton have purchased an old cottage at Timpsfield known as Hallows. Evadne decides to start offering teas as a way of making an income from the local tourists, as the couple are a little short on cash. But late one afternoon, as the light is fading and Evadne is home alone, a strange old man, who she takes for a visitor wanting tea, shows up asking for a chest. 'Have pity on me, sweet lady,' he says, 'and let me come in and fetch it away!' Though Evadne manages to turn him away, she soon discovers that he's not one to give up easily.

In 'From the Abyss', Stephen Ellison's fiancée Daphne Lawrence is involved in a motoring accident in the south of France. Daphne returns home with nothing more than cuts and bruises, and it is thought that she was thrown clear of the car before it plunged down a precipice, but she remembers going down with the vehicle to the bottom of the gorge. And on her return home, Daphne is not quite herself.

In 'Juggernaut', Miss Flora Halkett writes thrillers under the male pseudonym Theobold Gardiner. She has sprained her ankle badly and is staying with her niece, Primrose, in the seaside town of Middleport for a short change of air. Wanting to hire a bath-chair for her aunt, Primrose approaches an old bathman by the name of Cotton, but he won't carry anyone in his chair, as Mrs Birling, who died two years ago, wouldn't like it.

'The Pavement' is a Roman one at Chasely, the mosaic flooring of a triclinium, uncovered by a ploughshare during the late seventeenth century. The elderly Lydia Reid has been its custodian for fifteen years and she has come to think of the figures depicted within it as her friends. She is particularly fond of the image of a young woman, thought to be Hebe, and she converses with her regularly. But Lydia is not just fond of the pavement, she is quite obsessed with it, in the end much to its detriment.

I really enjoyed this collection of stories. 'Couching at the Door' is the most well-known of the tales, and it's probably my favourite one too. I go back and forth between that one, which is very crepy, and 'Juggernaut', which is funny. Here's an example from 'Juggernaut' regarding the boarding house at Middleport.
'Miss Flora Halkett looked appraisingly round the comfortable ornament-bedecked sitting-room of Bêche-de-Mer - for Mrs Wonnacott's husband, after reading a novel about some Pacific island, had bestowed this singular appellation upon his dwelling under the impression that it was the French for 'sea-beach'.**
Couching at the Door had quite a low print run and is now a rare book. A fine copy in a similar dust jacket is incredibly difficult to find and will cost around three hundred pounds at the moment (that's about $500).

Ash-Tree Press published a limited edition hardback in 2001 (shown left), which added stories from Broster's earlier collection A Fire of Driftwood. A fine copy costs around thirty pounds upwards ($50). Wordsworth Editions published a paperback version in 2007, and that costs a few pounds. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't currently any Kindle version available.
* 'Couching at the Door' (Dec 1933) and 'The Pavement' (Jan 1938) first appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. 'The Pestering' was originally published in Good Housekeeping (Dec 1932). 'From the Abyss' (Dec 1940) and 'Juggernaut' (Jan 1935) were originally published in Chambers's Journal.
** Bêche-de-Mer is French for 'sea cucumber'.

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