Laurie Lee –Florence Tuck, Loose Women and the Power of Projection

On a scorching Sunday I recently met with Lisa Fitzgibbon for the second of our walks exploring the characters and locations of Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider With Rosie’ as part of her ‘Down In The Valleys’ song cycle project. This time we were on the trail of Florence Tuck, or Miss Flynn, as Lee renames her, the subject of the second of the songs in the cycle. 

The walk took us along Slad Lane, over Swifts Hill, through Elcombe, where Florence lived, and then down through fields and woods and on to the nearby mill pond – or ‘The Drowning Pond’ as it became know after Florence’s untimely and mysterious death at the age of 42.

As in our previous walk where we explored the murder of a returning, boastful colonial ex-pat, it is clear that Lee’s version of events is heavily fictionalised. Lisa had obtained the coroners report of Florence’s death and it makes for a stark contrast.

We set off, chatting in easy companionship, catching up on our lives, our work, and the heat with the two dogs Fen and Dufus trotting along beside. It is very hot, but we know that much of our walk is shaded and there will be ample opportunities to rest, cool off and drink for both them and us.  I find walking along country lanes easeful – there is an easier, more regular rhythm to my stride for my body to drop into than the more staccato, jazz, slip-and-slide scrambles of off-road tracks – and as often happens when walking in pairs, mine and Lisa’s stride unconsciously fall into step, crunching on the dust and dry dirt.

Lisa is expert in the landscape of the Slad Valley as described in Cider With Rosie, and can match each location in the book to its real world equivalent. Walking with her is therefore a true education, weaving together place, history, literature – all brought to life by her love and enthusiasm for this place and its stories.  As we go, we dissect the differences between Lee’s fictionalisation and the stark reality of the coroner’s report.

In Lee’s version, Miss Flynn is known as strange. She hangs around her garden gate in Elcombe wearing loose, floaty clothes; she is a pale beauty with long flaxen hair; she makes strange, gnomic utterances and darts out to hug those known to her, and strangers. There is an unspoken, possibly shameful, secret here too – a local women who alludes to it as ‘a shame’ is quickly hushed ‘Shhh!’ the other women.  I had assumed that this was the shame of a mental disability of some kind, but Lisa says that she was known to be promiscuous.

Florence Tuck’s house in Elcombe

She is discovered lying dead in the pond by the milkman, Fred, early one morning as he is on his rounds. Lee describes this so romantically – she is floating, Ophelia-like, face up a foot or so under the surface, hair and white nightdress floating out, surrounding her, drifting, Peaceful, almost. Fred at first thinks she is ‘a swan’. that most elegant of waterfowl. In fact Fred quickly becomes the main focus of the tale, Miss Flynn left to drift away, and ultimately the scene is quite callously played for laughs – the stereotypical rural local making the most of the fleeting fame that such a discovery brings, milking the telling for all it’s worth to Lee’s many sisters.

The coroners report makes for a stark and brutal contrast. Florence is found slumped kneeling at the side of the water naked, head submerged. Ugly, undignified, raw, more a heifer dropped by a slaughterman’s bolt than a languorously drifting swan. Certainly not an image suited to a light-hearted paperback window onto a bucolic life.

As we climb the flank of Swift’s Hill, we move on from ‘the facts’ as we start to share our own personal and emotive responses to Florence.

We have both been powerfully struck by her story, and it becomes clear that we both feel a kinship and identification with her.  And yet, fascinatingly, it becomes clear that we have a similar but distinctly different sense of her, and why and how she may have met her death, and how she may have experienced her desperate, final walk to the pond.

Lisa talks of Florence as an outsider woman, trapped physically and spiritually by the geography and mores of a tiny remote hamlet. The coroner tells us how she had fallen down the stairs some 4 years previous to her death, and suffered from headaches as a result. Florence lived with her husband and son, and Lisa believes this ‘fall’ may be hiding a story of domestic violence and abuse. Another trap, this one with steel teeth of fear and misery and abasement and despair. 

To Lisa, her death is a suicide – not necessarily a tragedy in itself (though the circumstances leading to it certainly were, in this narrative, and continue to be for many women) but more the ultimate escape from a miserable existence through the only door that seemed open to her, if she was brave enough to step through it.  A key piece of circumstantial evidence pointing to a suicide theory is the coroner’s observation that there were no signs of violence on her body, whether sexual or otherwise.

The method of death is important to Lisa here, and as evoked movingly in her song, with water being a cool, peaceful, soothing element that washes away pain  and brings solace and rest. 

My gut theory is rather different.

What I feel in Florence is also a sense of entrapment and despair, but one that comes from within, not without. For me, Florence’s tale is one of a gothic, old fashioned madness. I think of a brain tumour, swelling and extending greasy, malignant tendrils along neural pathways, creating an ever-increasing and intolerable painful pressure and accompanying erratic behaviour including her promiscuity.  I imagine a woman beating her head against a wall to try and relieve the pain, and the desperation she must have felt. I picture her careening around her tiny house and beyond, falling down stairs and bouncing off walls, unable to control her increasingly strange and delusional behaviour – a tiny, still-sane kernel of herself peering out terrified, a ghost woman trapped cowering.  I imagine the suffocating claustrophobia of Florence, her husband and son all trapped in the house with the presence of a despotic madness, because illness of the mind is not kind to families and all suffer.

I am also struck, as we walk, by this idea of a ‘loose’ woman. Not just in the way she dresses, or the way she acted, but loose also as in untethered, not anchored firmly to this good solid Gloucestershire earth, not quite of this world.  I can imagine how it must be easy for a woman like this to slip away.

On the other side of the hill as we start to descend into the woods above the pond, Lisa asks me which path I think Florence would have chosen.  In a twist on psychogeographic walking, which we have spoken about before, she asks me what my ‘psychic walking’ practice tells me about this.  I have to be clear, I am no psychic, though it is very easy to slip sideways through time and imagination  into these stories I find.

When I think of Florence, rising in the early hours to set off on the walk to her death I do not feel her to have had any agency in this.  It is not choice, or a conscious act or even a purposeful one.  Rather I feel her to be utterly disempowered, either compelled or impelled to do this thing.  Pushed or pulled towards the pond, I can only think she must have made as direct a line to it as humanly possible.  I am not sure that human things such as footpaths, fences and boundaries (if they even existed then) would have even registered with Florence. All she would or could have known was one overriding imperative, blinding her to all else.  I cannot see this pond as a place of solace for Florence. I see it as a place of dark obsession, the clouded, silt-bottomed, weed encrusted home of Jenny Greenteeth. A lonely place, to be inhabited in an as yet unthinkable future by The Spirit Of Dark Water.  And further, a place to dump old, unwanted, redundant things – flytipped detritus. 

When we reach the pond, I am entranced by a small sundog dancing on a trickle of one of the many springs that feed into it, and it doesn’t take much to think that maybe Florence followed one of them here, dancing along behind the sprite.

And as to her actual death? There is something about the suicide theory that doesn’t stack up for me, and it is the position in which she was found. I am not entirely sure whether it is possible for one to drown oneself in this way, literally by sticking your head under water. When I think of her at the waters edge, naked, I think of the picture of a young girl who died suddenly in her bedroom from a drug overdose, kneeling in a foetal position, all curled over on herself.

So what I think, as we stand on the track by the place where she was found, is this. That Florence’s death was the finale to a last and conclusively final attach of brain fever, of madness, driving her towards the waters edge where she may have stood, stripped for whatever reasons made sense to her, swaying, for seconds or minutes, before a colossal and catastrophic neurological disaster (aneurysm? Tumour?) exploded in her poor, tired, overheated brain, and she simply collapsed where she stood, folded like a puppet with its strings cut.

(I have an alternate version – that her husband and son, themselves worn to a shadow by the strain and shame of living with such a one were driven to do away with Florence, to be free of the tyranny of her madness; and that just as with the murder of the colonial, the coroner and the village colluded in silence to hide this from the outside world. Village business. But that is another story for another day).

We will never know what happened to Florence on that day to cause her death, but what is clear is that this is another ‘bare bones’ story of a woman that in it’s very cloudiness offers a powerful hook for us to hang our own stories on. I know that for myself my view of events is informed by my own experiences of mental illness, and this is where my fascination with her lies. Other women will have other theories informed by their own lives. She is more hidden than most women

It is also clear that Lisa and I,  in the very act of telling our stories, are further muddying the tale of Florence. Just as Laurie Lee has, we are obscuring her, assisting in the erasing of her, like successive waves washing away footprints on a beach. Our perception of empathy may be in actuality moving us further away from her selfhood rather than closer to it, and our ideas of her death are simply more fictions that may become more real than reality.  We may well be helping her not to be forgotten, but we cannot guarantee that it is actually ‘her’ that is being remembered.

On one hand I see this as tragic and tiring– just another burden for a woman to bear, that even in death we cannot escape other people’s idealised perceptions of how we should be, whether that be as beautiful as a swan, or as romantic and wild as a gothic heroine, or as a symbol for all outsider woman, regardless of their differences. On the other I see it as cunningly, wise-womanly powerful – that no matter what people think of us, or say about us, that it is possible to slip through all the stories and run free, laughing, leaving our secret selves remaining ultimately unknown and unknowable.  This aspect of Florence’s tale is that of a heroine, rather than a hero.

We continue on to loop back through Slad village and The Vatch to home, and it is as if by leaving the pond we are stepping away from this otherworld of death and speculation, and returning to a more prosaic reality. And with thanks, because if we stayed in that imaginative space for too long we would end up as mad as poor Florence Tuck, away with the fairies forever. We meet a holidaying couple who want to map-check their route, and we give them directions while all the dogs introduce each other. We sit on the verge in the shade to eat an apple, drink water, take a breath. Fen dances with a goose – she loves to tease geese and swans, who tower over her. I find a beautiful buzzard feather, fragile and hidden beneath a shadow.

When I return home, I look at my photographs from the walk. I never take as many as I mean to on these walks – too busy chatting, learning, exploring, sharing.  Synchronously, I realise that many of the filter options on these photos remind me of what I feel Florence’s state of mind (if she even had one by then) to be. Saturated. Overexposed. Bright. Heated.  And so the few photos I have are a manifestation of the walk, not just in the images they capture but in what their treatment says about my feelings of Florence, on that overly hot day in July.

More about the Down InThe Valley project here:
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