As the mundane chores of our daily life have been reduced to infinitesimal fractions of the time they once required, there is a growing sense that we have lost something significant in our mad rush to outsource the experiences of common life. This is by no means a new thought. After all, it was Alexander Selkirk (the real-life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe), who once famously said, after being rescued from his island, “I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.”
T.H. White was himself once a kind of Crusoe, though he was never abandoned on a deserted island. Finding himself a success at the beginning of his third decade, he took the money given him by the American Book of the Month Club for a collection of essays and used it to buy a Jaguar and outfit an old gamekeeper’s cottage in Northampton, England. He also sent away for a hawk.
The isolated cottage was half a mile from the nearest road, and seven miles from the nearest town, which suited White, who seemed not to have much affection for his fellow humans. With only £100 left to his name, White dedicated himself to training the hawk he had received, thinking that he might be able to eventually write a book about the experience. But White’s methods were hopelessly out of date, as he supposed falconry to be a dead science–his principal instructional text was written in the early part of the seventeenth century, and falconry had become less gruelling in the centuries since. But White’s inexperience makes the better book.
The kind of falconry that White employed was incredibly demanding, and like Crusoe’s industry, it was something of an improvisation. Gos, his raving test-subject, his Tarquin and Comedian, his short-winged, intemperate, puffed-up, proud prince, tethered to his jesses (leather thongs attached, via leash, to White’s arm) and carried for twelve or sixteen hours at a time, proved as unpredictable and as moody as a first love. He bated–throwing himself off of his perch on White’s left forearm, where he would hang in a temper until White pulled him up again–incessantly, and without warning, until White–meant to always keep a calm face, and make reassuring sounds, because hawks don’t react well to aggression–would reveal his own bad temper and refuse to let him up again.
The tenderness and frustration White revealed in his inexperienced dealings with the bird proved White to be a man who perhaps had more in common with Gos than he did with his own species. There are few other characters in the book, except for animals, and the humans he encounters are often treated tangentially, if at all. For example, White mentions the postman only to point out that in his impatience to leave him, he found himself mewling to the man–as he’d do to calm down the hawk–in order to quiet him. But Gos is a character as well-developed as any other in literature. Their bond is evident in the rich brushstrokes White paints him with.
Sometimes White would come into the barn where Gos was housed and find that all of his previous training was undone. He was overfeeding him, but, not knowing this, he treated Gos like he were his stubborn child: “He bated when I arrived and while he was being picked up: he bated all the way back to the mews: he bated in the mews, till I popped a bloody kidney into his mouth as he opened it to curse.” Then, reaching over to clean Gos’s beak off, as was their custom, Gos bated again, and again, until, after five minutes of struggling, and Gos in “such a temper that his eyes were staring out of his head”, he had finally done it. He reached between Gos’s legs and began stroking the hawk’s breast, congratulating the bird when I’m sure what he really wanted to do was strangle him. But the move paid off, and we get a sense of the burgeoning falconer’s triumph: “[Gos] cocked an eye as if none of this had ever happened, and finished the rest of that day in a blaze of vernal confidence.”
For reasons that I won’t go into, White put aside The Goshawk before it was finished, and published it only by accident, roughly fifteen years after its principal events. A friend of his, while visiting his house, found the manuscript underneath the couch cushions, read it in bed while he was staying with him and, at the end of his visit, begged White to let him publish it. White was reluctant. Aside from revealing his early inexperience–his “adolescent” fumbling with falconry–the book also revealed much about his own nature that he may have not wanted to share. As a friend, the novelist and critic David Garnett, put it in a note to the publisher:
…Tim is not a lover of humanity or human beings and when he writes he usually writes partially for them, and the wish to please is a pretence. Here he… is writing privately. He is therefore more exact, more honest, more interesting. The battle between Tim and Gos is a masterpiece.
Having not read any of White’s Arthurian novels (The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King), or anything else he’s written, I can’t speak for them. But the private battle, love affair, and obsession he catalogues in The Goshawk is really a masterpiece, and a testament to the kind of rich life one can lead shunning all conveniences, putting oneself wholly into a thing, and living, as White put it, “laborious days for their delights.”
I did this review as part of The Spotlight Series: Small Press Tour. There should be more reviews of nyrb books at that link.