Hovel in the Hills – Elizabeth West

Last year I read, and very much enjoyed, The Egg & I by Betty Macdonald (and discovered that there is a thriving Betty Macdonald community out there).  Although the very thought of going to run a farm with a recalcitrant stove and marauding animals fills me with horror (and I am very much a country boy – albeit one with a fondness for electricity), I very much enjoyed reading her witty, self-deprecating take on her adventures.  It is non-fiction disguised as fiction.  And I was hoping to find its equal in Elizabeth West’s Hovel in the Hills (1977).  Well, er… it didn’t work out quite like that.

Elizabeth West and her husband certainly have many of the same difficulties.  They decided to move from the ratrace to the bleak middle of nowhere in Wales.  At high altitudes, with wind, rain, and cold being bitterly present throughout much of the year – with very little money to boot – this could easily have been an Egg & I Mark 2.  The obstacles – from wallpaper which grew mouldy with alarming alacrity, to the difficulties of crossing vast distances without a car – are funds for much wry laughter and rolled eyes.

But, although the cover assures me that the contents will be ‘warm, funny, [and] moving’, Elizabeth West seems to have (had?) almost no sense of humour.  Obstacle after obstacle is raised, with the smug solution given.  Almost every page drips with self-satisfaction.  They clearly feel an immense sense of superiority to all the fools in the world who wouldn’t know how to run a stove, or make a salad out of weeds, or have the curious weakness of preferring a flush toilet to a hole in a shed.

Perhaps it is just a weakness in me, but I found it hard to warm to a writer who had all the answers.  Her husband was worse – the sort of irritating person who fixes everything with little more than a spanner and a stern glance.  Self-deprecation is one of the qualities I find most endearing in fact and fiction (I am British, after all) and the Wests don’t have a drop of it.

I was on happier ground when she turned her attention away from their achievements and towards nature.  Particularly when she wrote about the birdlife of the area –  that was endearing and almost witty.  True, she wrote about how good they were with animals and birds, but that couldn’t get in the way of how fun it was to read about the wildlife and the personalities they displayed.  I was strongly reminded of Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water during these sections.  Here is a bit about the great tits which visited them:

We fed them on fat and peanuts as well as oatmeal and it soon became obvious which was the male and which was the female – from their behaviour as well as the slightly larger size and broad bely stripe of the male.  Pinny was always completely trusting, and quite at ease when feeding from our hands.  She flew to them without hesitation, ate daintily, and landed and took off with very gentle feet.  Podger, her mate, had an entirely different personality.  He only plucked up courage to come to our hands because he had seen Pinny do so.  But he made a great fuss about it.  Dashing in with great bluster, he would land with a clunk of clawed feet, grabbing what he could and making off with it straight away.  We went to the door with peanuts as soon as we saw the birds at our window in the morning.  If Podger arrived first he would sit on a nearby bush churring and chinking fussily until Pinny arrived to feed.  He was probably kidding her that he was being a gentleman, but we know that he needed the reassurance of seeing her feed first.
Besides the chapters on birds, I did also enjoy her descriptions of the wrangles they had experienced with the local council when they bought a caravan for holiday lets.  Everyone enjoys a tale of the small-mindedness of little people wielding power – so long as the tale is happening to someone else, of course – and West does give the whole saga amusingly.  Her sense of superiority feels justified here, at least – and there is an excellent coda to the whole rigmarole, which I shan’t spoil in case you decide to read the book.

But, as you’ll have gathered, I found that the irritating outweighed the enjoyable in Hovel in the Hills.  I’m probably just too cynical to enjoy the story of someone being better than everyone else.  Give me Betty Macdonald accidentally setting fire to things any day.

21 thoughts on “Hovel in the Hills – Elizabeth West

  • January 13, 2014 at 8:24 am
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    I don't know Elizabeth West, but just wanted to add my love of Betty Macdonald. She's wonderful. Have you read 'The Plague and I'?

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:52 pm
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      So far I've only read the one Macdonald book, but I have plenty on my shelves, including that one – hurrah!

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:54 pm
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      I certainly found her irritating – but it might well be my sense of inferiority!

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    • October 18, 2017 at 11:18 pm
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      It is a wonderful book and honestly, not smugly or irritatingly, written in my opinion. She has a dry sense of humour and writes in a painterly way of the countryside and flora and fauna. I found it fascinating and I was there, with them! Make up your own mind and don’t be brainwashed by another person’s impression: we are all different after all.

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      • February 11, 2018 at 8:28 am
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        I politely disagree with you I really enjoy Elizabeth West’s books, I find them humorous and not at all smug and have reread them upteen times.

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  • January 13, 2014 at 5:04 pm
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    Mm, Betty Macdonald. Add me to the list of her many fans. (Though I recently did see somewhere that she has taken some flak from the political correctees for her occasional comments re: some of the Native American characters in The Egg & I).

    Anyone Can Do Anything is fabulous as well. Actually all four of her autobiographical books are grand. Onions in the Stew is possibly my least favourite of the lot, but it's still darned funny and very much worth reading.

    Re: Elizabeth West – though I haven't come across this book, my hopes would have been the same as yours. Smugness is no fun in these sorts of books. I completely agree with your requirements for gentle self-deprecation to make such autobiographies fully sympathetic to the reader.

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:55 pm
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      There are definitely some uncomfortable moments in the Egg & I, but I'm a big believer in not rejecting books of the past for not adhering to standards of the present. And I think I have all four of her autobiographical books, so must binge sometime!

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  • January 13, 2014 at 10:41 pm
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    That passage you quoted about the birds makes me think about the feral cats I used to feed on my front porch. The boy cats would always let the female eat first and I too thought they were being gentlemanly. But maybe they were just terrified instead?

    Anyway, sorry the book didn’t turn out to be totally entertaining, but your review was very entertaining, if that is any consolation!

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:58 pm
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      Thanks Ruthiella, it is rather!
      During my finals revision, there were a pair of ducks which hung out around the quad (we named them Alfred and Isodora) and Isodora always shoved Alfred out of the way when food was on offer…

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  • January 14, 2014 at 1:40 am
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    Hello Simon, I read this one many years ago and I had quite a different impression of it! I really liked it and was amazed how they could cope living under such circumstances ( I remember being appalled at the wet walls). I read another one of hers called Garden In the Hills. Perhaps I didn't feel the same about their ability to cope as my father is one of those men who can figure out how to do most anything, although he's never smug about it! I admired their desire to break away from the rat race and work hard to make their new life work. There were a little bit ahead of the crowd in taking up the self-sufficient lifestyle, before it became an in-thing. I just had a different impression about it, so maybe some others might not find them as annoying!

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm
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      Hi Lori – I hope people spot your comment, because if they might like this book they should definitely give it a go! :)
      The last house I lived in had wet walls… it was pretty miserable.

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  • January 14, 2014 at 4:06 am
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    If I'm going to read about farming, restoring, etc, I want it to be funny! Or inspiring, but inspiring with humor.
    This reminds me a bit of The Guynd by Belinda Rathbone about an American woman who moves to her Scottish husband's decrepit ancestral home. It was interesting, but not funny enough to make it bearable – the tragedy and disappointments overwhelmed the triumphs. Depressing.

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    • January 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm
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      Oo, depressing is a stop even further in the wrong direction… I'll stick to Betty M, I think!

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  • January 14, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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    The Egg and I remains the funniest book I've ever read, and I have searched in vain for anything else to come close. (I think that's why I can't appreciate Cold Comfort Farm as I should; I wanted it to be hilarious.) In my quest, the books that have come closest may not appeal to everyone, but I thought I'd mention them just in case they aren't as well known in the UK as they are here in the US: Shirley Jackson (yes, of "The Lottery" fame) wrote two autobiographical books about parenthood, and they're both excellent: Life Among the Savages and its sequel, Raising Demons. Worth a peek.

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    • January 18, 2014 at 3:00 pm
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      If you look at my review directory, you'll see that I LOVE those Shirley Jackson books! Indeed, they were among my top tens in the respective years I read them. So very, very funny. They're not at all well know here, which is a shame.

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  • February 17, 2014 at 2:31 am
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    Betty MacDonald is beloved all over the world.
    Betty MacDonald fan club got fans from 5 continents.
    It's too sad Betty MacDonald passed away at the age of only 50.
    Wolfgang Hampel who interviewed Betty MacDonald's family and friends is working on a new Betty MacDonald biography and documentary.

    Linde

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  • October 27, 2014 at 8:25 am
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    Simon, I have just, last night, finished Hovel in the Hills and enjoyed it immensely. I wonder if your dislike is partly because of your age, I'm guessing under 40, partly because grew up in a town and time when everyone had indoor plumbing and central heating, and cannot conceive of a life without such luxuries. You are one of the person that Elizabeth West is indeed mocking, and I found it very amusing.
    I also love it because I live only 15 miles from where her hovel was so can generally relate to most of it.
    She chose to reconnect with nature and was prepared to forgo your necessities to have the time with the birds and the land. I envy her greatly.

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    • October 27, 2014 at 10:36 pm
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      I'm glad you liked it! I confess to being under 40 (28) but resent the 'town' bit – I am a proud country boy!

      I certainly couldn't cope without plumbing, but I loved Betty MacDonald's book without for a moment thinking I could live in that situation. It was the lack of humour in this book that I couldn't cope with. But – horses for courses! As I say, I'm v pleased that you did like it, especially with the site being so close. And you found it amusing, no less!

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  • December 14, 2014 at 3:02 pm
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    I enjoyed her novel too. I live not far from Denbigh in rural Denbighshire and have seen the place and was surprised to find it by a B road, no doubt the 'lane' in the mid 60's would have been a lot quieter, but in those days the village shop (Nebo) is less than a couple of miles away! (although Llanrwst and Pentrefoelas were in cycling distance) It must be more remote now as like so many rural areas such as were I live, the village post office has sadly gone. When I moved up to North Wales in 1964 (as a mid teen) there were village shops in plentiful supply!

    I was astonished about him falling out over a fence (I think at Mrs Horsefields the watermill Pentrefoelas it's the only place I can think of I use to love her whole wheat porridge meal, please correct if I'm wrong) as local jobs are so hard to find I would have gone well out of my way to hold on to it.

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  • December 29, 2014 at 5:55 pm
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    I first read "Hovel in the Hills" as a 9 year old on holiday in N Wales and loved it. 35 years later I still love it. Elizabeth West is not smug, and she is self-deprecating (look again at the passage when she talks about her problems with the lights when her husband is away; anyone who admits to ending up preparing the veg in the bedroom because she's inadvertently set the radio to play there and now can't get it to play in the kitchen is not smug!), and whilst her husband is terribly good with a spanner, his faults are also presented (look again at his attempts to build a wind proof letter box and the effect this has on the gate!) As a 9 year old townie I wasn't that struck with her nature notes, but I was whisked away by the opening to a wild and rugged landscape quite different from the enclosed woodland landscape of Kent. Of course, the Wests were good at what they did: if they weren't they wouldn't have survived life in Hafod long enough for Elizabeth to write a book. Enjoy it for what it is: two people trying to live according to their lights and recording the things that go wrong for all of us (but more so in isolation) with humour and charm.

    Incidentally, whilst "The Egg and I" is funny, "Onions in the Stew" is even funnier. I read it as a 15 year old, and greatly annoyed the commuters travelling in my compartment on the train by laughing uproariously for the hour journey up to London. This book can still reduce me to uncontrollable hysterics.

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