It is 1930, and the young poet W. H. Auden takes a train to Helensburgh, a genteel resort in west Scotland, to become a teacher in small struggling private prep school, Larchfield. In a parallel narrative, Dora Fielding, newly married to the architect Kit, and close to the birth of her first child, moves into a large property in Helensburgh. She had been an Oxford academic, and a minor published poet, and is intrigued to learn that Auden taught at Larchfield school. Both Auden and Dora have trouble in settling into their environment. For W. H. Auden it is the incongruity of being a schoolmaster and unsuited to the profession, as well as the pressure of having to repress his homosexuality and find acceptance amongst his Scottish peers and pupils. Along with his frustrations, there is a nasty case of child sexual abuse. For Dora, struggling alone in the house with Beatrice, their new baby, she has to deal with religious hypocrisy and intolerance from neighbours and others in the town—subjects that are often conveniently skated over in relation to sectarian Scottish religious pressures and nationalism. An unlikely coincidence brings both Auden and Dora together over the intervening years, though it is clear that Dora’s increasingly severe post-natal psychological struggles account for this seemingly absurd situation.
This is a beautifully told story. Both W. H. Auden and Dora Fielding are captured with elegance and aplomb, and their dilemmas and struggles are movingly portrayed as they try to find a way of living within the constraints and pressures of society. It is simply a delight to read.