The Cornish poet Charles Causley, born 1917, was known to generations of schoolchildren for his shrewd humour and mastery of poetic form making him a staple of the English curriculum for decades. In his later years he became a notable literary figure and a friend of Ted Hughes, but unlike the younger poet seemed to lead a life devoid of emotional upheavals. An only child, he never married, had no children and for many years lived alone with his mother, Laura. Basing his latest novel on the formative years of Causley’s seemingly uneventful life, Patrick Gale has delved under the apparently tranquil surface to offer a new perspective on this shy, reclusive writer.
In writing a fictional narrative about a real person, the novelist has to tread carefully. Gale has explained in interviews how alert he is to the sensibilities of surviving relatives, such as descendants of Laura’s siblings. Granted access to the poet’s private papers, he has nonetheless crafted an alternative to the bland accepted narrative that feels emotionally true.
Her husband Charlie Causley having died of TB after coming back from the first world war, Laura threw herself into bringing up their bespectacled, timid yet gifted son. Gale has clearly done his research into the gruelling labour her life as a washerwoman would have involved. Devout yet pragmatic, she takes in sheets from the local bordello and highly resents a prim parish ioner’s interference in the matter.
Meanwhile young Charles is first bullied then befriended by the butcher’s athletic son, the first inkling of his attraction to hardier physical types. As a teenager, more than curiosity is aroused by the regular influx of sailors in the town, though he’s not as bold as his friend Ginger in making a move. Instead, Charles turns his energies to the theatre, as a wannabe Noel Coward who longs to lounge in silk dressing gowns.
Causley’s time as a riaval coder in the second world war provided much of the subject mat- ter of his later poetry, and Gale thrillingly evokes the dirty, noisy, masculine world of fear and camaraderie on board ship, and the brief moments of respite and exhilaration ashore. But Laura is just as much the focus of thisdeeply moving novel, creating a haven for her adored boy while putting her own life on hold, and remembering without rancour her own brief moment of happiness. The portrait of a complex relationship that constricted as much as it sustained is brilliantly done, as Gale skilfully flows between their two perspectives.
It was Laura’s death that finally freed Causley to become feted beyond the confines of Cornwall, but that’s another story, outside the horizons of this heart-warming and credible portrait of a writer’s youth.