I don’t know if it’s a reaction to reading the chunkster that was “Wolf Solent“, but I have been very much enjoying plunging into shorter works this month! Of course, it *is* Novellas in November time, so that’s even better, and today’s book is a recent arrival I was very keen to read (and in fact picked up as soon as it arrived) – “On the Pottlecombe Cornice” by Howard Sturgis.

The book is part of Michael Walmer’s Zephyr Books imprint, a series which brings classic short works back into print (although intriguingly, this title has never been released in book form before). I’ve read most of the titles he’s released so far and they really are a treat – handsome slim hardback editions, and some really interesting authors like Elizabeth Berridge, John Cowper Powys and Henry Handel Richardson, to name just a few. Sturgis is an author new to me, and apparently his masterpiece is “Belchamber” from 1904. On the basis of “Pottlecombe…” I may have to search it out…

This novella tells the story of Major Mark Hankisson who’s retired to Pottlecombe, a tiny village on the Devon coast. Here he lodges, and regularly goes for a daily promenade in the locality, including some recently developed streets. One of these is “the Cornice”, named by a celebrated local lady poetess. And during his daily walks, Major Mark (as he is known locally) gradually becomes aware of a local lady who also takes walks, although not with the regularity that he does. The times being what they are, however (the turn of the 20th century), the two do not speak and barely acknowledge each other. However, the Major finds his thoughts increasingly drawn towards the grey lady, as he thinks of her…

Eventually, he discovers that the lady’s name is Miss Agnes Lamb, who cares for a bedridden sister. Agnes seems a little frail, sometimes struggling to deal with the vagaries of the weather; and when the ladies go away for the winter, Major Mark realises how much he is affected by the grey lady. He is delighted when she returns from her absence and he manages to make tentative moves towards acquaintance – but, alas, all is not as it seems as he will sadly find out…

This is a short work (at 55 pages it straddles the line between short story and novella, really) but it’s so beautifully written and such a poignantly told tale. Despite its length, Sturgis conjures vivdly a small village and its gradual move into modernisation, the lonely lives of some of the inhabitants, and the slow recognition by Major Mark of his attraction to Miss Agnes. The end is genuinely affecting, and quite haunting – I hadn’t expected such a slim work to have such impact!

“On the Pottlecombe Cornice” can be read in one sitting, and I would probably recommend that; but it’s a book whose flavour and setting will linger; the story of Major Mark’s passion is a very moving one. A very worthy and welcome release from Mike Walmer, and one which definitely makes me want to read more of Sturgis’s work!

Review copy from the publisher, for which many thanks – you can find more details of Mike’s books here.