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F is for … (from the Caribbean Literary Heritage Forgotten Caribbean Books Series)

Alison Donell of the University of East Anglia in the UK and its Caribbean Literary Heritage project started running a series on forgotten Caribbean writers on social media during the pandemic. She followed that up with a series on forgotten books (in progress at this writing), recruiting writers like me to research, draft, and submit entries  for this series. The series kicked off with a book by Antiguan and Barbudan author Jamaica Kincaid (A is for Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie, Gwen, Lilly, Pam, and Tulip, 1983, by Keja Valens). I revisited an author whose literary history I had done my best to cobble together over a series of posts here and on my jhohadli blog. it was the necessary prep for this article which I am archiving here now that it’s already run in the series.

F is for The Fountain and the Bough (1938) by Eileen Hall

By Joanne C. Hillhouse

Eileen Flora Hall, b. 1903, remains mostly unknown to not only the Caribbean but Antiguan and Barbudan literary canon. Her sole collection The Fountain and The Bough, dedicated to her husband Dr. Michael Lake, was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1938 (per a biography by a family member there may have been earlier editions – 1935, 1936; American Mercury Inc., Harriet Monroe).

The Hall family is well known in political circles in Antigua and Barbuda. Eileen’s brother, Sir Robert Hall, was a founding member of the Progressive Labour Movement, the country’s first parliamentary opposition, and the elected government between 1971 and 1976 during which time he served as deputy premier and the first minister of agriculture. Hall’s father’s family is from Oxford while her mother’s side was Irish and French. Her family’s presence in the Caribbean dates back to the mid-17th century. She migrated to America, via Ellis Island, at age 19.

Hall’s writing was well received in its time. Ford Madox Ford, an influential figure in the literary world, was reportedly among her friends and champions (another was reportedly T. S. Eliot). She spoke French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Greek, and Latin. “Her translations of works by short story writers; and her own poems from earlier issues of prominent literary journals including Harper’s, Poetry, and American Mercury, show the breadth of her literary engagements…Her short stories and translations of other women’s work are strewn in small publications on both sides of the Atlantic,” the A & B Review said. On the point of translations, much of that is lost to history, but a couple of found credits include her translation of Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner and the 1956 Penguin edition of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi.

The alumni magazine of Antigua Girls High School, then a school for elites, celebrated her on her book’s release as “an authentic poet who writes high, restrained verse, with austerity and bitterness…poetry of sorrowful but undoubted music.” Poetry magazine’s review reads, “Not often in a first book does one find structural mastery: the clean, spare welding of word and phrase that gives logical shape and direction to a poem.” It continues, “Eileen Hall’s poems are never glib and facile, always compact, meticulous, assured”. The Poetry review, however, chided her writing’s lack of “adventure…audacity…wit”, its over-attention to discipline and form.

Yet Hall was, in some ways, boundary pushing. While most of The Fountain and the Bough is written in standard English, the book is noteworthy for its use of Creole/local vernacular in several of her poems. The A & B Review commented that her author’s note in her 1938 collection re this aspect of her writing is today “invaluable; while full of irony: ‘the poems in Part IIII, referring to Antigua, West Indies, contain words and allusions that may be unfamilar.’ A rich glossary of ‘the negro dialect of Antigua’[sic] follows, illuminating those six poems – two of which are in the reputed ‘dialect’: (Obeah Woman, and Lullaby).”

From Lullabye: ‘Fool neber ‘fraid w’en moon look bright,/Say, ‘Crab and jumbie lub dark night.’/Jumbie like moon as well as we—/Dey comin’ waalkin’ from de sea./Deir foot tu’n backward w’en dey tread,/ Dey wearin’ body ub de dead/ Dat fisher-bwoy dat wu’k on sloop,/He watch dem waalkin’ from Guadeloupe./Dey waalk de Channel, like it grass;/Den, like rain-cloud, he see dem pass./ Dey comin’ steppin out ub Hell,/Wit burnin’ yeye an’ a sweet smell.”

Clearly, she references not just the language there but the folklore and mythology of home, Antigua. This is even more evident in the short and cutting Obeah Woman: “So lef’ me, ef you waan’a feel/How p’isin sting from manchineel./De bruk leaf blister w’ere ‘e touch./ Who tek lub easy, no’ lub much./Ef you min’in’ gal dat talk so neat/An’ ack so lollice in de street/Goin’ pung de root ub a pepper tree/Fu’ t’row wit’ sugar in yo’ tea./A’ done wit’ studyin’ right an’ wrang./So ‘memba, me no ‘fraid to hang.”

Consider that this was long before there was anything resembling a standard for writing this largely oral language spoken largely by the Black Creole community (Hall was white), and that acceptance of this language as a legitimate form of communication – and not just bad English – remains a work in progress to this day. It’s not known what, if any challenges, Hall encountered publishing in Antiguan vernacular, in the 1930s, especially with non-Caribbean publishers, but she makes it look and read quite effortless. It holds up; powerful imagery, well expressed.

And even with her more standard fare, Hall’s writing casts its eye to the island she never again visited after her father’s death in 1952.

“The dates and names of death no more are seen,
Obliterated by the living green.” (Graves on Barton Hill: Antigua)

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

Bio by Eileen Hall’s niece, Robert Hall’s daughter, Yvonne McMillan: – bio link https://jhohadli.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/marie-eileen-flora-hall-lake-by-yvonne-macmillan.pdf

“Biala’s beautiful friend Eileen Lake, ‘long of limb’ …and ‘lithe of back’” from Ford’s work, as referenced in the 2005 biography Ford Madox Ford and the Regiment of Women: Violet Hunt, Jean Rhys, Stella Bowen, Janice Biala by Joseph Wiesenfarth.

The Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books 2012 edition Volume 5 Number 1 which spotlighted women writers, excavating, per the words of guest editor Edgar Lake, no known relation, “a small part of what lies forgotten in libraries and museums around the world”.

Susan Stan writes in Heidi in English: a Bibliographic Study (New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship Volume 16 Issue 1 – 2010, p. 1-23) that “little else is known about her (Hall). This translation, along with Edwardes’, is one of the two most widely disseminated today and may be the translation most contemporary British children have grown up on. In both the U.S. and the U.K., if one were to look for a new copy of Heidi in paperback, this would be the likely option.”

Poetry review of The Fountain and the Bough was published in January 1939 and written by Ruth Lechlitner, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 223-225. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20581627

CREATIVE SPACE 15 of 2018. November 6th 2018. https://jhohadli.wordpress.com/creative-space/creative-space-2018/creative-space-15-of-2018-antigua-and-barbuda-an-art-history-culture-tour-3

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