I’ll be presenting a paper on the life and work of Barbara Newhall Follett as part of the Forgotten Lives/Biographies symposium being held at USQ on April 28th this year. This paper developed out of a research interest that informed the writing of Dying In The First Person, in particular, children who have created paracosms (fully imagined alternative worlds), particularly those who have created languages for those worlds, and/or written stories set in them.
The earliest known instance of a child who created a paracosm is that of Thomas Malkin, (30 October, 1795-1802). Malkin’s father, Benjamin Heath Malkin, published an account of his son’s life and work in A Father’s Memoirs of His Child (1808). Thomas’s father gives an account of his son’s development of the civilisation he called Alleston, from the birth of its first king of whom the child Thomas wrote:
He had no mother, or father, as he was the first Allestonian born. He could not certainly receive great instruction, being without parents: but as soon as ever he was able to begin learning, he practised as much as he could (pp.97-98)
Thomas wrote a series of stories set in and around Alleston. His letters regarding the kingdom, and the stories, are included in the memoir, along with oddities such as lists of men’s and women’s names (“E Earia (comfort)”), lists of ‘remarkable events’ in Allestonian history (“Lord Chancellor and King Adoleo the Third and Queen Othalia the Sixteenth, died, 3 Jan. 16”), music (notes regarding a comic opera), maps, and so on.
The account of Thomas’s life ends with a detailed and heart-wrenching account of th
e days and weeks leading up to his death, at seven years of age, on Saturday, July 31, “a little before 12 o’clock, he sunk in the arms of his mother without a struggle or a groan” (p. 140).
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s son, Hartley Coleridge, invented the paracosm of Ejuxria, and, according to at least one critic/biographer:
Hartley never really relinquished the keys to his personal paradise. He never, as he puts it in his poem, ‘Leonard and Susan’, ‘dwell[ed] within the gaol of sense’ (Complete Poetical Works, 50); in other words, he would never really commit himself to adulthood.
This is a persistent theme in biographies about children who invent paracosms: that they either do not survive childhood (like Thomas Malkin), survive it only barely (Barbara Newhall Follett), or as adults continue to be somewhat childlike in their desire to avoid or escape the realities of their adult lives and worlds. This idea is something of a contested theme in my own novel about twin boys who create their own paracosm of Nahum:
Nahum was a nation of solitary men–island men. Each man lived alone on his island, since no island could bear the weight of more than one man’s heart. Between the islands there were wide stretches of water, but the men only crossed to each other’s islands once year–during winter when the water froze over–to sit on the ice and trade, and talk, though they were not good at talking …We mapped the tides and the winds, the land and its creatures, the paths of its explorers, of the great ships that had sailed there and the ships that had been lost. The ruins of a lighthouse on the Island of Wyeth; the strange stones arranged in rows on the Island of Solitude.
I was hugely inspired, in giving Samuel and Morgan this experience of creating another world, by the story of Thomas Malkin and his father’s heartbreaking biography of his son, by the childhood paracosm of Ejuxria and other works created by Hartley Coleridge, and by the life and work of Barbara Newhall Follett, who invented the paracosm of Farksolia, and set her first novel, The House Without Windows, in her magical fairyland. The abstract for the paper I will be presenting is below, and below THAT, a list of a few other child-created paracosms you might like to explore.
“invisible for ever to all mortals”: paracosms of the self in the life of Barbara Newhall Follett
In February, 1927, 12-year-old Barbara Newhall Follett published her first book, the critically acclaimed novel, The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There.
Twelve years later, on December 7, 1939, 25-year-old Barbara quarrelled with her husband and left her apartment in Boston with $30 in her pocket, and a notebook. She was never seen again.
As a young girl, Barbara created the paracosm of Farksolia, and a language spoken there, Farksoo. A language she continued to work on into adulthood. The House Without Windows, while set in a realist natural setting*, ends with the metamorphosis of the titular character, Eepersip, into a ‘fairy—a wood nymph … invisible for ever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see’.
In Barbara’s (auto)biography, The Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius (1966), written by Harold Grier McCurdy ‘in collaboration with Helen Follett’ (Barbara’s mother), the authors wonder: ‘Can we be far wrong in substituting Barbara’s name for Eepersip’s in the closing scenes of [House Without Windows]?
In this paper, I grapple with the formal and ethical challenges of writing about Barbara Newhall Follett, and the ways her family and others have approached the problem of writing her unresolved life story: a child raised and educated in solitude, a celebrated ‘natural’ child author, a young woman whose disappearance remains unsolved. The paper will explore the ways in which adults write the stories of children’s lives, as nostalgia and fable, as fairytale and paracosmic narrative, and the ways in which Barbara’s biographers have, consciously and unconsciously, created biographical concordances, or paracosms of the self, in seeking to make meaning of her life’s story.
Some other child-created paracosms:
Friedrich Nietzsche and his sister created a kingdom of squirrels, which she describes in her autobiography:
My brother and I … created an imaginary world of our own in which tiny china figures of men and animals, lead soldiers, etc., all revolved round one central personality in the shape of a little porcelain squirrel about an inch and a half high whom we called King Squirrel I … It never for a moment entered our heads that there is nothing regal about a squirrel; on the contrary, we considered that it had a most majestic presence … this small king gave rise to all sorts of joyous little ceremonies. – Everything that my brother made was in honour of King Squirrel; all his musical productions were to glorify His Majesty; on his birthday … poems were recited and plays acted, all of which were written by my brother. King Squirrel was a patron of art; he must have a picture gallery. Fritz painted one hung round with Madonnas, landscapes, etc., etc. A particularly beautiful picture represented a room in an old monastery in which an old-fashioned lamp burnt in a niche and filled the whole apartment with a quaint glow.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (and his sister) created Das Königreich Rücken (The Kingdom of Back) while riding in the back of a coach (something they did for nearly 4000 days during Mozart’s life). The kingdom was entirely populated by children, and (according to Anna):
its inhabitants were endowed with everything that could make good and happy children out of them. Little Wolferl himself was the king of Back, and became so immersed in its administration that he persuaded Sebastian Winter, our family servant, to make a map of it and dictated to him the names of all the cities, villages and market towns
Thomas de Quincey and his brother, William, invented not one, but two imaginary kingdoms, which were constantly at war with each other, Gombroon and Tigrosylvania. William ruled Tigrosylvania, and Thomas Gombroon. He once wrote: “I lived for ever under the terror of two separate wars in two separate worlds, one against the factory boys, in a real world of flesh and blood … the other in a world purely aerial, where all the combats and the sufferings were absolute moonshine.”
Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell Brontë’s Great Glass Town, a Verdopolis somewhere in Africa, and the offshoot created by Emily and Anne (Gondal), and another by Charlotte and Branwell (Angria). You can read much of the stories the children set in these lands in the anthology Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal: Selected Writings.
* With thanks to Stefan Cooke, Barbara Follett’s half-nephew, for pointing out that the inspiration for the setting in The House Without Windows is Little Lake Sunapeee, New Hampshire. Stefan maintains a wonderful blog dedicated to Barbara’s life and work at Farksolia, as well as a FaceBook page. He is also the editor of the comprehensive and enormously moving Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life in Letters, which you can purchase online.
Additional Reading on Barbara Newhall Follett:
In addition to visiting Stefan Cooke’s fabulous website, Farksolia, you could read Paul Collins’s excellent article in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vanishing Act. You can also listen to Paul talk about Barbara and her work in this NPR interview.
Laura Elaine Smith, a journalist from Brooklyn, has written a biography of Barbara, due for release some time this year.
Do you have a favourite paracosm, or did you (perhaps along with a sibling or friend) invent one of your own?