REVIEWS Hermits West

Raleigh Trevelyan: A Hermit Disclosed. London: Longman, 1960 & New York: St. Martin's 1961; reprinted by Xanadu, 1985, Faber & Faber, 2011.

Local histories, memoirs, biographies, and genealogies have a circumscribed audience: either the reader has lived in the area described or is a dogged antiquarian. Such books can read like gossip, and that is a first impression of Trevelyan's 300-page book, wherein the first three-quarters deal with a simple, neurotic man's youthful diary found in an attic by the then curious adolescent Trevelyan, who painstakingly copies out the diary and shelves it for years. Interest picks up in the author's infectious obsession to identify the motives of Jimmy Mason of Great Canfield, near Essex, England, the protagonist of this willful record. Jimmy's diary, psychology, and daily life are disclosed in magnified detail.

The conventional version of why Jimmy turned hermit maintained that it was due to a woman's jilting. But Jimmy (and his younger brother Tommy) was clearly traumatized by a tyrannical father who beat him and left him outdoors overnight as punishment for imagined infractions. Not unexpectedly, his unstable mother was a nebulous figure in his upbringing. When their father died, Tommy remarked, "none too soon." Legal precedent called for the older brother to inherit the property, the younger brother the personal effects, and the mother nothing at all. The adolescent and pacific Jimmy soon believed that his brother had fallen into a bad crowd and was conspiring with his mother to poison him and steal the inheritance. Always simple-minded, poor Jimmy became, as a psychiatrist later told the author, a paranoid schizophrenic.

Jimmy's diary, even entries into his twenties, record his obsessions. He regularly left gifts of fruit, vegetables, and petty change in bags or baskets at the property gate at night for the local girls, some as young as twelve. Jimmy left notes for them and fretted about what they were doing and thinking, though he never ventured far from the house or met with them. One day the diary ends abruptly, and Jimmy disappears into a hut he had been building on the opposite side of the district, never to emerge publicly, dying 60 years later at 84 in 1942.

Trevelyan's dogged quest to know the facts assembles a Dickensian troupe of local characters, a miniature of 19th-century English village life, but the humor is marginal and the pathos overriding. The author exhaustively pursues every possible lead, unearthing many old newspaper accounts, interviewing dozens of participants (at the time in their eighties and with vague memories), and consulting a psychiatrist, an astrologer, and a graphologist. Trevelyan is a tenacious character, but he demands a tenacious reader who is obliged to find Jimmy Mason's life fascinating enough to require such a thorough-going analysis. Jimmy Mason obviously wanted to be left alone, however impaired his mental state, however eccentric his behavior, however curious the onlookers -- and readers and book writers -- may be. Readers will have to judge if the story is compelling enough. Jimmy Mason was no eremite, no spiritual or wilderness or philosophical hermit, but very much a troubled soul.

The publisher may have outdone prudence in concocting anachronistic cover art (nothing to do with the content) on the original book, and by adding Tommy Mason's photo -- not Jimmy Mason's -- to the flyleaf, suggesting that there is no extant photo of Jimmy. But then so too may have William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies), who praised the book in a foreword to a reprint, seeing in Jimmy Mason "the hallmark of an effective mystical experience." And what but a niche popularity can account for the book being reprinted by no less than Faber and Faber in 2011, perhaps on the later revelation that one of Trevelyan's interviewees was Edith Sitwell, herself a famous eccentric. So Trevelyan's odd narrative remains a quiet favorite, at least among those who enjoy the genre.