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A Well Full of Leaves

by Elizabeth Myers
Persephone book no:

142 143 144

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263334

A Well Full of Leaves is about a family of four children growing up somewhere in the north of England, with an utterly vile mother who is cruel to her children, self-centred, and deplorable.

It isn’t everyone who has a mother like ours. She was a specialist whose specialities never touched the kind, the gentle, or the constructive. She was at her best when she was toppling the entire scene. All her dislike of us and the world in general was extended into whatever she was doing. Under her hands soapsuds were angry, clothes sneered, steam menaced, crockery raved…

The book is saying, rather like Dorothy Canfield Fisher in The Home-Maker (1924), PB no. 7, that without nurturing and kindness, a child’s growth is stunted. The rather coy 1943 subtitle to A Well Full of Leaves was A Story of Happiness but we have abandoned this because it has such an old-fashioned ring and indeed we would want to substitute A Story of Unhappiness; because each of the four children is inevitably damaged in some way. Because the novel describes the struggles of a young girl who eventually succumbs to tuberculosis, it is in part autobiographical – auto-fiction years before the term was invented. Written in a strikingly adventurous style, it divided critical opinion from the beginning: the Saturday Review of Literature commented that 'Myers possesses that extraordinary and unaccountable thing that we sometimes call genius', but the New York Times described it as 'unwittingly burlesque'. Everyone, however, admired Elizabeth Myers’s descriptions of the natural world, which are truly unforgettable. She writes with a purity – an honesty, if you like – that is surprisingly rare.

The child who is at the heart of the book, Laura, survives her abusive mother through her intense, overwhelming love of nature, as did Elizabeth. She is able to discover happiness in the simple things of life. 'She remembered how, as a small child in the backyard of her home in grimy, smoky Ancoats (a suburb of Manchester), a cluster of dandelions transformed the yard for her into a beautiful garden of fragrant blooms.’ There was a strong streak of mysticism in Elizabeth Myers, reminiscent of Gerald Manley Hopkins. As she wrote, ‘no man, not even a Catholic, can understand the holy sweetness of God who does not recognise the holiness of a blade of grass or of a little town sparrow.’

First published in 1943, A Well Full of Leaves was almost immediately reprinted as a Penguin and went through several editions, but after the end of the decade it was never revived. Why not? Is this connected to Myers’s death in 1947, or is it ‘dated’, or is it just one of the peculiar anomalies of the publishing industry? Certainly some will adore this novel, some will not, but we hope that enough people will appreciate the unconventional, beautiful, unruly joy of it.

Also available: a Persephone Napkin in the fabric used for the endpaper for this book.


The endpapers are taken from the fabric for a 1930s overall designed by Phyllis Barron for Rosebank Fabrics in Greater Manchester. (It is available to purchase from Borderline).

Picture Caption

Dora Carrington (1893-1932) 'Dahlias' undated.

Read What Readers Say

A Persephone reader by email

Wow!! Just had to let you know how amazing this book is. I'm at page 103 and trying desperately not to gobble it up at once. It’s utterly compelling and Myers is a master wordsmith. Crazy and genius at the same time.

A Persephone reader by email

Honestly one of the most bonkers books I have ever read, and/but I loved it! Like a sort of whirling dervish of a piece of writing – utterly original, so startling, so strange and intense.

atinyjourney via Instagram

The writing is exquisite…. The descriptions are beautiful…

Categories: Childhood Family Mothers Woman and Home

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