Our search for the house where Margaret Laurence and her children lived for ten years in England began in a car on the A4 under a sky pregnant with water. The drive was not long, and was basically: get out of London, get on a busier highway, get off of it, drive through some towns, get lost in Beaconsfield. A bit like going from Ottawa to Carleton Place but without the empty spaces in between. And with narrower lanes.
Arriving in Penn, Buckinghamshire, we pulled up behind a row of cars parked next to some grass. The Common included a small pond, on which ducks quacked temptingly. Across the road sat the Red Lion, a pub mentioned as an amenity in The Life of Margaret Laurence by James King .
After a cup of tea I went down the lane to The Cottage Book Shop. Entering a shop that Margaret Laurence likely entered in 1964, and going to the counter to speak to the grey-haired woman who is likely the age of Laurence’s children and therefore may have known them at school, I felt like either a trespasser or a time traveller. Add to this that the bookstore is itself a living history, as if it too were out of time, crowded with people, and children leaving with many books hugged against their chests. The front window displays rows of hardcover children’s books with gold lettering, such as those by Frank Baum, Arthur Ransome and Robert Louis Stevenson. Inside, the shop is small, and stacked with second-hand books in small alcoves joined by narrow passageways. Literally stacked to the rafters, as science books were upstairs.
I hauled out my copy of the biography and opened it to a picture of the house, which belonged to Alan Maclean when Laurence rented it. “I am looking for Elm Cottage. Do you know it? The McLean house?” The first woman called over a second, and a third joined in. They were kind and helpfully directed me to some Elm cottages in Rays Yard, which turned out to be the opposite direction from the cottage I sought, explaining that there were three small ones in a courtyard and a large one on a corner.
Knowing that the English like to name their houses, I was not surprised to learn that there is more than one Elm cottage in Penn. To be certain which this one was, I let myself in the gate of the first Elm Cottage we came to, the one on the corner, and knocked the knocker. A woman holding a telephone came out and informed – well, no, she did not inform me of anything. She said she was visiting her parents and they were indisposed. She knew nothing of the house in the picture but was certain it was not this one. I did not enter the courtyard of the smaller cottages as they were clearly too small to be the one in the photo.
Onward we walked to the back Common and around to the front Common, where I asked two women walking dogs if they knew of it. No, no, but one thought she’d gone by it recently. That road over there was Elm Road, she pointed out, so the house must be on it. But Elm Road has big houses, bigger even than a five-bedroom cottage. I crossed the road and had a look, and took this picture of Three Elm Cottage. No one answered the door. …to be continued