As did most, I expect, I came to Gavin Maxwell via Ring of Bright Water, a book about otters that enthralled me so much that I followed up with its sequel The Rocks Remain. For some reason, I never got around to the third otter book, Raven, Seek thy Brother, but did eventually pick up Maxwell’s memoir of childhood, The House of Elrig. This time around, I decided to read the books I have in chronological order.
While Maxwell is a skilled writer, there’s no denying that he comes across in this book of his earliest life as, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit whiny. He seems to remember every slight, every misunderstanding, and not only remembered them, to have failed to evaluate almost any of them in the light of adult, objective distance – the one exception being references to sex that passed him by at the time, but that now cast a new light on old interactions.
While it doesn’t make young Maxwell very appealing – in addition to being whiny, he seems to have been singularly unresponsive – it is interesting. He was born in a literal manor, the child of a titled, well-connected family, and went to elite schools – most apparently miserable. The book’s three main subjects are school, relatives – his curious family, and animals – though he admits to an odd dichotomy in his reverence for them coexistent with a willingness to kill them for sport – as evidenced by his first book, Harpoon at a Venture, about a failed shark killing business (or fishery).
On this re-reading, I had a mixed reaction to The House of Elrig. One the one hand, it tells us more about Maxwell; on the other, it’s frankly fairly dull after a while, especially once he goes off to school. The book ends rather abruptly, though there’s no sign he ever intended a sequel. While I started here for this re-read of his work, I can’t recommend that to others. If you do, you’ll never get past it to the lively mischievous otters of later books. Better to read these in publication order, and only if you wish to understand how the adult Maxwell ended up where he did.