My second read for my Mary Hocking reading month. The Meeting Place was Mary Hocking’s last novel published in 1996. It is certainly rather different from the other Hocking novels I have read so far, taking as its theme witch hunts (of varying kinds) passion and prejudice in women’s lives across five hundred years.
Sixty nine year old former headmistress and artist; Clarice Mitchell arrives at an isolated moorland farmhouse to join an amateur theatre production of Pericles, one of the Beacon theatre company is Alan a quiet, gentle man she has been having a relationship with. Clarice is staying in the old farmhouse – a place where many years earlier her own headmistress’ grandmother had lived, a house filled with old furniture, diaries, and ghosts. This is a place that Roberta Wilcox – the headmistress who inspired much of her life had talked about, and Clarice is instantly affected by it. The farm is standing on land once occupied by a priory in the time of the War of the Roses, a place now long gone, but whose shadow still falls over the farm.
“Immediately in front of her, blown grass on the hillside and the moving shadows of cloud. Far below, land laid out in patterns of activity; marshy levels that were ancient, the lay-out of fields that was medieval, intersected by roads and bridges, farm and hamlet, river and estuary; she observed how tracks, thin as veins, allowed passage through the marshes, and her eyes followed the line of a disused railway that had been superseded by a motorway serving the industrial needs of the distant city to the north. She saw the remains of an old fort sticking out of a field like a broken tooth, the restored water-mill that she had inspected only yesterday, and far on the horizon the chimneys of a power station.”
On the day of her arrival Clarice, sees a woman watching her, a woman in Victorian costume who seems to appear and disappear without anyone else seeing her. As the Pericles company rehearse in one barn, another amateur company rehearse The Crucible in the adjacent barn. At first Clarice thinks the woman is one of the actors from the other company – whose costume leaves something to be desired. As she starts to suffer dizzy spells Clarice starts to wonder if accepting the invitation by the theatre company was a good idea, along with the woman in Victorian dress, Clarice catches sight of a wild haired woman up on the moors. Clarice comes to realise she is seeing Rhoda Tresham – her headmistress Miss Wilcox’s grandmother – from the mid nineteen hundreds. In the 1850’s Rhoda is stifled by the strictures of her Victorian family, attracted to a local clergyman, while the community is horrified by the death of a local child, and the hunt for her killer. Along with the stories of Clarice – recovering from the errors and consequences of her own past, – and Rhoda, is woven the story of Joan, a woman from the fifteenth century – labelled a mad woman and caught up in the superstitious and turbulent times around the years of the Wars of the Roses, taken in by the nuns at the priory.
“The peasants were in a desperate plight and in their despair they turned once more against the priory, claiming that witches were harboured there had not the mad-woman been sent to them with food and medicine, had she not nursed some of the sick, yet she herself remained untouched by the sickness? “
The interweaving of these women’s stories gradually help Clarice to make sense of her own disturbing past, the memories of which seem to overwhelm her again while she is staying at the farm. Clarice feels a strange connection with these women, who only she seems aware of. The lives of these three different women, living in very different times comes together beautifully and poignantly at the end. The scope of this lovely time shift novel belies its 212 pages – and is testament to Hocking’s skill as a writer. Mary Hocking has skilfully woven the stories of these women together within a landscape recognisably English, recreating the dramatic ancient country that has changed little in generations.
I am so enjoying my Mary Hocking reading month – how sad that she seems so little known and talked about. Please remember to let me know if you are reading Mary Hocking this month, and please feel free to leave links to reviews in the comments so I don’t miss them.