At the age of 40, violinist Gwendolen ‘Len’ Howard (1894-1973) exchanged the company of humans for that of birds. Having given up her seat in a London orchestra, she moved to Ditchling, a tiny village in Sussex, where she took up residence in ‘Bird Cottage’ and began studying the behaviour of the birds in her garden, gaining insight that was well ahead of its time, which she published in articles and two books that became bestsellers in their day.
Eva Meijer’s new novel is inspired by the life and work of Len Howard. Born to a wealthy family in Wales, Len acquires a love of birds and music from her father, with whom she performs at soirees, where he recites poetry, accompanied by his daughter on violin. Even then, Len struggles with the future marked out for young ladies in her day. She finds the thought of marriage and children discomfiting. And so she sets off to London, to devote her life to music.
Despite being one of the stars of the orchestra, Len finds it difficult to cope with unfettered city life, the gossip among musicians and her own insecurities, particularly about men, fuelled by her lover’s infidelity. The world of humans constricts her, much like the dresses her mother made her wear as a child. Life in Ditchling is like a breath of fresh air. Literally, because she keeps the windows of her remote cottage open, so that robins, tits and blackbirds can fly in and out as they please.
She becomes something of a recluse, even denying the postman access to her garden, where she lets the birds pick thread off her socks to line their nests. Meijer composes a serene portrait using scenes from Len’s youth, her time in London and everyday affairs at Bird Cottage, which are woven together with the story of Star, Len’s favourite great tit.
Meijer’s soothing sentences lovingly sketch Len’s extraordinary relationship with birds. Particularly with Star, who even learns to count, but also with Baldy, One-Eye and Tinky, who each display their own behaviour and peculiarities. ‘Star always devoted a great deal of time to raising her young, feeding them longer than most tits and teaching them various handy tricks. One thing she taught each new nest was that there was no need to fear me.’
‘No one looks closely enough,’ Len muses as she negotiates London’s busy streets. But that is certainly not the case in The Bird Cottage, a novel free of noise and interference, so that the twittering and fluttering of birds is rendered crystal clear and almost audible.