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Schoolhouse in the Wind by Anne Treneer
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Schoolhouse in the Wind

by Anne Treneer

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Anne Treneer was born in 1891, in the small village of Gorran in England’s Cornwall (hotbed of so many writers and creative types), the very much unplanned-for sixth child of the family, born after the family of four boys and a longed-for daughter, Anne’s older sister Susan, was thought complete. The baby carriage had long been given away, so Anne was trundled about by her older brothers in whatever other conveyance was handy:

"My brothers say they brought me up in a wheelbarrow, and that this accounts for certain bumps in my forehead and generally scrappy appearance. When I was small they used to tell me that old Mrs. Tucker brought me one winter night in a potato sack and left me on the front step; and that I squalled so loud that my father said to my mother, ‘For God’s sake bring the little Devil in and see if she’ll stop that noise’. So in I came and stayed…"

Anne’s father was the local schoolmaster, and Schoolhouse in the Wind is an affectionate, humorous and occasionally poignant evocation of a small corner of Cornwall at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Gorran School, with a house for ‘master’ glued to it, stood strong and symmetrical, without beauty but not mean, triumphantly facing the wrong way. It might have looked south over the distant Gruda and the sea; but this advantage was forgone in favour of presenting a good face to the road. Master’s room in school, the big room as we called it, caught the north wind while the closets at the back caught the sun. I have heard that Mr. Silvanus Trevail, the architect, who designed many Cornish schools, committed suicide in the end; but whether out of remorse for his cold frontages I do not know."

That last comment at the end of the book’s first paragraph filled me with quiet glee – obviously this was not to be a completely sweetly sentimental memoir, but something with a bit more bite! - and I read on with high expectations. Those expectations were well met and frequently exceeded.

This book was recently reissued along with its two companion memoirs, Cornish Years and A Stranger in the Midlands, as a one-volume trilogy. It should be fairly readily available in libraries - at least in British ones - and there are a number of copies available through ABE.

The first chapter of Schoolhouse in the Wind sets the stage, as it were, introducing the physical setting of the chapters of reminiscence to follow, and though it will perhaps be of greatest interest to those familiar with the area, even to me, a reader who has never visited England, the picture it draws is vivid and memorable. Also vivid are the character portraits the author paints of her family; with a few well chosen words they come alive on the page.

An internet search brought up a very few references to Treneer. Though she is described as a “prolific” writer, there appear to be few of her titles now available, aside from Schoolhouse in the Wind and the other two memoirs. Schoolhouse is also full of brief snippets of poetry; one assumes these are samples of the author’s work. Some are quite lovely; others seemingly aimed at perhaps a juvenile audience, which is understandable as Anne Treneer spent many years as a schoolteacher.

Anne Treneer never married, and seems to have led a happy and rather individualistic single life, pursuing her many interests with passion and good humour. She died in 1966.

This excerpt of a short biography is from Maurice Smelt’s 2006 book, 101 Cornish Lives.

"Anne Treneer pulled off a difficult trick; she wrote an autobiography that succeeds in enthralling despite its almost relentless happiness. Most writers would not even try, reminding themselves that ‘happiness writes white’. It came out as three books over a period of eight years – Schoolhouse in the Wind, Cornish Years, and A Stranger in the Midlands – and it runs from her earliest memories to a day in her late 50s when she went to America to visit her brother.

"From her father’s village school she went to St Austell County School, then to a teacher training college in Truro and then taught in various schools in Cornwall. Ambitious to read deeper and wider she took an external course at London University during the First World War, later spent a year at Liverpool University, later still took a postgraduate degree at Oxford as a mature student. Her longest spell at any one school was a seventeen-year stint at King Edward’s in Birmingham, ending in 1946 with a year’s sabbatical leave. She had by then already written Schoolhouse in the Wind two years earlier, and her future was to be a writer, exiled but coming to her beloved Cornwall when she could. In those twenty post-war years she lived mostly in Devon. She was never married and died in 1966.

"One reason why her life seems so tranquil is that she was so eccentric, and at the same time so commonsensical that she records what she did as if doing it were the most obvious thing. For example, she loved air with a passion. It is a word of power in her books, her poems especially; there it is, in slight disguise, in the title of Schoolhouse in the Wind. Hence her whizzing about the country in her young days on a Velocette motorbike, the air streaming past her nose like high-speed champagne. As a teacher in Birmingham she spent a summer term commuting (by Velocette) from a tent in Shropshire on Clent Hill. Tents also feature in later summer holidays in Gorran with her sister Susan – three tents, one for each of them and one for the saucepans… Her outdoorsness gave her the keenest eye for the particularity of place, and she could see several worlds in a single Cornish parish.

"She claimed to hate crossings-out and third thoughts, but one would never know it as her books are easy reading, usually a sign of art concealing graft…"

This one gets a “hidden gem” tag. ( )
  leavesandpages | Jul 6, 2013 |
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