The untamed heart

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The House Without Windows
by Barbara Newhall Follett,
introduced and illustrated by Jackie Morris.
Penguin 2019 (1927)

This is one of the strangest books I ever remember having read: written a century ago by a precocious child of twelve, it doesn’t slip easily into any neat category. Neither fable or fairytale, morality tale or narrative of magical realism, it instead speaks of a yearning that supercedes any adherence to a life of accepted norms, a selfishishness that cuts itself free from social contact and familial ties.

And what is this windowless house? Why, it’s the great outdoors, Nature’s boundless domain; and this tale tells of a delight in the variety contained in the wild and — as the original subtitle announced — Eepersip’s Life There. Eepersip is a child of Nature, forsaking family and friends to dance and sing, and watch and listen, and merge with vegetation and living things and landscape in this house without boundaries, its ceiling the ever-changing sky.

In reality that yearning to be at one with wild creatures and natural elements was in part a reflection of the author’s own desires: after The House Without Windows was published, she even briefly tried the life of a cabin boy, using her experience in an adventure story (published as The Voyage of the Norma D.) on her return in 1928, when she was still just 14. The story of her own life reads as equally fantastical, but her first novel gives as good an impression of the vividness of her inner life.

The author aged around 8, in 1922:

Eepersip Eigleen resides with her parents somewhere similar to the New England of the author, in a cottage in the foothills of a mountain, amid countryside bursting with colour and life. But she doesn’t like being hemmed in, so one day she packs some food and steals away east, towards the mountain, settling in a verdant meadow. Her parents are desperate to have her back, however, and with the help of neighbours try to capture her, with mixed results.

In the meantime Eepersip has been making friends with wild deer, butterflies and a chipmunk, living off berries and roots and sleeping in a foxhole, and has no intention of returning to live within four walls. And bit by bit she is becoming more wild, more fey, clothing herself in woven ferns and flowers, going barefoot, living free; whenever the ecstacy takes her she sings and dances in the open, bathes in pools, explores her surroundings. Then, from the top of Mount Vacrobius, she spies the sea and so much longs to go there.

Her time in the meadow takes up one part, and that is followed by further time — months and years again — first by the sea and then in a range of snow-capped mountains. She sees few people, in fact she aims to avoid them, but she would also like to have like-monded friends if they exist. Will young Toby fit the bill? And what of the new sister, Fleuriss, she hears about when she eavesdrops on a conversation? Can she, a little like Peter Pan, entice them to join her?

Perhaps she had made a mistake in taking Fleuriss away. Maybe it was true that they had to go in different directions — that she herself could not live at home, and that her little sister could not live elsewhere. And even in Eepersip’s untamed heart there was a bit of pity. And she found that that pity just kept growing.

III. The Mountains

My edition of this novel calls it “a visionary work of feminist empowerment,” and it certainly feels like it — an extraordinary work in any period but especially then, when women were expected to be tied to the home, in a building with windows. The artist and writer Jackie Morris recognised that power in the introduction she wrote and in her own distinctive inkwash illustrations of birds, flowers, animals, insects and landscapes, all as delicate as Chinese paintings, which adorn the pages.

My impressions are these. Though there are descriptive passages which might feel repetitive they are actually like leitmotifs in a piece of music, especially when Eepersip takes to her free-spirited carolling and dancing. I detected parallels with Peter Pan and also with the nature-writing in Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, but in truth The House Without Windows feels virtually sui generis, particularly because the voice of the author is very much her own, child-like but never childish.

Does Eepersip ever return to her family after her life in the wild? Or, having successively taken on many of the characteristic of dryad and naiad, will she forever remain a nymph, existing in a Faërie which she has created for herself? Unlike the mystery of the author’s disappearance in her twenties there is finally an answer, and it’s in the pages of this novel.

© C A Lovegrove

27 thoughts on “The untamed heart

    1. I absolutely agree, Jan, quite a family and quite a life! As well as the Wikipedia page I’d recommend, maintained by a step nephew of hers: named from Barbara’s juvenilia — when she invented her own paracosm with its own language — the website includes a detailed biography, a gallery of family photos and details publications by and about her. A truly remarkable if, ultimately, a tragic life. I wonder now what you’ll think of the novel…


  1. This is a book which has wandered in and out of my awareness for several years. Every time I am intrigued and decide to read it and every time I’ve been deflected. But with Jan Morris on board as well, it may be that this time I’ll succeed. Barbara was a remarkable free spirit.


  2. This sounds so intriguing–even more so considering her age when she wrote it; I must say, I am rather tempted by the idea of living like her amidst nature, though perhaps not quite ‘free’ to the degree she was. I certainly see the Peter Pan vibes. Onto the list this goes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In terms of not being bound by adult expectations the Peter Pan vibes are indeed there, though her writing and point of view are very different from Barrie’s. Her father, who was an editor with her original publishers, helped prepare the typewritten manuscript (she’d taught herself to touch-type) — what’s extraordinary in that her first copy was destroyed in a fire and she had to retype it all!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a fascinating book and writer! I had never heard of either before your review, so of course I rushed immediately to wiki for more details (hint: I agree with Barb’s mother! There’s something very suscipious about the husband’s actions!).

    It’s amazing that so young a child could write at this level. Although I can think of a few mathematical and musical child prodigies, this kind of talent seems much rarer in literature (there are some very young lyric poets but they’re mostly young adults). Follett’s creation is very different in kind from that of the Bronte siblings’ Gondal/Angria but it seems comparable in the scale of imagination. And with Follett, of course, there’s also the feminist empowerment and love of nature, which as you point out were very rare for her time.

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    1. It’s interesting that you reference the Brontës and their youthful paracosm because — according to — that’s exactly what Follett did, create her own land and, indeed, her own language (the website gives some examples). Except she apparently did it all on her own!

      I suspect she would’ve loved (indeed might have read it) Charlotte’s “’I am no bird, and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will” from Jane Eyre.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It might, Bart, though as it’s a largely self-imposed isolation — she seems perfectly able to cope without other humans, especially when they don’t share her aspriations — it’s almost as if being in Nature insulates more than isolates her.


    1. I wonder what you’d think of it, Jane — I can imagine some readers giving up on it, or being put off by its lack of realism, and others thinking that even if written by a youngster one should judge it by adult standards. Me, I thought it was an extraordinary and, yes, visionary story, especially for being written a century ago.

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  4. Your description makes me think of My Side of the Mountain, which is a book I loved as a child and have reread since (with my own kids). That’s a boy’s version, though, even though it’s written by a female author (Jean Craighead George).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a look at a précis of My Side of the Mountain and see what you mean, Jeanne. But unlike this more modern novel Follett’s earlier work is much less realistic — in fact one could almost call it deliberately unrealistic, pivoting towards dreamlike, sustained towards the only logical conclusion.


  5. This sounds very interesting indeed.

    My mother had a copy of The Young Visiters written by Daisy Ashford when she was nine, and what strikes me now, though I don’t have a copy of the book, is its production values. A book written by a nine year old, had a fine slipcase and expensive boards and papers. What I remember of it was that it had some sharp observations of social class, but its real charm was in its naiveté.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard of the Daisy Ashford book but never seen a copy. That naivety is, I think, largely absent here — I think partly because Follett was one sharp well-read cookie but also because her father was a book editor with Alfred Knopf and prepared her novel for publication with the company.


        1. Unfortunately as her second book was published her father left her mother for another woman, and I gather it hit Barbara hard (according to the very informative — and so not so lucky. 😕


            1. No, or not much, I gather. Barbara and her mother went travelling:

              “The crisis did not dampen her spirit altogether. She persuaded her mother that an adventure at sea was their best recourse, and Harper & Brothers was keen to publish her writing about it. And so, leaving young sister Sabra in the care of a guardian, they sailed from New York to Barbados in September 1928. From there—with no itinerary in mind nor any idea when they might return; with few belongings—a suitcase and two portable typewriters; and very little money (Helen expected Wilson to support them while they were away, but no money ever came)—they explored Caribbean islands for several months.”

              Then they sailed around the Pacific before eventually returning to the States. Barbara’s step sister’s son gives a good bio here, including what happened up to her disappearance aged 25 and the aftermath:


            2. I’m not really surprised. Back in those days divorce usually meant severing access completely and many men just faded into the background and never saw their children again…

              Liked by 1 person

    1. We were acquainted with Jackie’s work when we lived in Pembrokeshire, and of course she has been a regular at the Crickhowell Literary Festival. This seems to have been a personal project of hers, to be the first to illustrate an edition of this unique story.

      Liked by 1 person

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