Durham Book Festival 2020: Inside the Archives: Writing Durham with Dr. Laura McKenzie


“The horror of Gothic architecture is not in the mere suggestion of a growing life, but in the suggestion of an energy supernatural and tremendous… [the child] dreads the shapes because they seem alive, yet he does not know how to express his dread.” This is the effect that Durham Cathedral had on a young Lafcadio Hearn, and highlights the complicated relationship between a writer and their environment that Dr. Laura McKenzie has been investigating. In the Barker Research Library archives at Palace Green, she explored the intimate connection two nineteenth-century writers had with Durham City, the complex impression it wrought on their young minds and the macabre shadows it left within their literature.

Lafcadio Hearn, born in 1850 on the Greek island of Lefkada to a Greek mother and an Irish father, was abandoned by both of his parents and left in the care of his aunt in Dublin by the age of seven. After an unhappy education in England, he eventually settled in Japan. While employed as an English teacher, he wrote books on Japanese culture and translated Japanese folk tales into English.

These two writers, almost half a century apart, shared an uncannily similar experience of Durham.

Born in New Zealand in 1884, Hugh Walpole spent a tumultuous childhood across several countries. In his later life, he ignored his father’s intentions that he become a clergyman and instead pursued a career in writing. Despite moving in the same literary circles as Henry James and Virginia Woolf, Walpole was an overlooked writer of his time. He wrote prolifically and even enjoyed mainstream popularity, but was derided by critics and never achieved literary acclaim.

These two writers, almost half a century apart, shared an uncannily similar experience of Durham. Both moved here at the age of thirteen and would remain here for four years of tragic and profoundly formative experiences. Hearn was sent by his aunt to study at St. Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw, a Catholic seminary near Ushaw Moor. Walpole, forty-four years later, was enrolled at Durham School; his family relocated to Durham after his father was appointed head of Bede college.

Hearn, as well as suffering facial disfigurement from a cruel game at Ushaw, was left with deep and subtle psychological scarring from the Catholic priests who educated him. His distaste for Catholicism manifested itself in several of his works, one of which Dr. McKenzie focused on in particular: The Boy Who Drew Cats.

To Dr. McKenzie, the death of the goblin-rat symbolises Hearn’s overcoming of the punitive Catholicism that terrorized his youth.

Printed on beautifully woven bamboo pages, The Boy Who Drew Cats is an English translation of a Japanese folk tale. In the book, a boy training to become a priest spends too much of his time drawing cats instead. He is sent away by the priests, and warned about the power of these drawings. Ignoring this advice, he draws his cats in an abandoned temple where they come alive and kill a goblin-rat that had haunted the building. He is hailed as a hero and lives his life as a famous artist. To Dr. McKenzie, the death of the goblin-rat symbolises Hearn’s overcoming of the punitive Catholicism that terrorized his youth. It demonstrates how, to him, art was something dangerous but efficacious in countering evil.

Walpole also suffered greatly during his education, mostly at the hands of his fellow pupils. As a day boy at Durham School, he was relentlessly bullied by the boarders. His time in Durham  seemingly led to terribly low self-esteem in his later life. “I was a complete failure at school in every possible way,” he writes. “No one liked me… and I do not in the least wonder at it.”

In The Apple Tree: Four Reminiscences, Walpole’s experience of Durham is symbolised by a garden full of “gnarled and sterile apple trees” attached to Bede college, looking out over the peninsula and the cathedral. The city looms over him as a threatening and overwhelming place; he describes the “inescapable loneliness, as though one were caught into a cruel net flung over one by a malicious power.” His reminiscences hint that he was exposed to some profoundly traumatic events that fed into works like Portrait of a Man with Red Hair, in which the protagonist, a lonely and self-pitying man, suffers at the hands of a sadistic lunatic.

A replay of Dr. McKenzie’s Inside the Archives event is available here: https://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/inside-the-archives-writing-durham/


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