The following is from Edward Carey’s Edith Holler. Carey is a novelist, visual artist, and playwright. His previous novels include The Swallowed Man, Little, Alva & Irva, and Observatory Mansions. His writing for the stage includes an adaptation of Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice, a continuation of the Pinocchio story. Born in England, he now teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, where he lives with his wife, the author Elizabeth McCracken, and their family.
In Great Britain, in England, on the bump on the right that is about halfway down the country, by which I mean the rounded bit that has a pleasant and generous look to it, something like the handle of a favorite teacup, or the curve of a lovely ear, is East Anglia. The top of that bump is the county of Norfolk. A little to the right of the center of Norfolk is a city called Norwich. Norwich, seen upon a map, is roughly the shape of a leg of mutton. In the centermost point of Norwich, around the tip of the shank, is a castle called Norwich Castle. It was built by the Normans and is the type of castle called a keep. Ten minutes’ walk from the castle is the Holler Theatre. I have lived here, upon Theatre Street, my whole life. There are side streets around the building, they are called Chapelfield East and Chantry Road, and there is our neighbor the Assembly House and a little beyond that the church of St. Stephen, and that is the whole box around the theatre. I was born here and have not been anywhere else since, not even once.
The city of Norwich is visible to me from the theatre roof. The cathedral spire I can see, for example, and the castle on its high mound.
Under the mound there is supposed to be a king called Gurgunt. Some say he founded the city, and that he waits in the deep with a whole army ready to rescue Norwich should it come to great peril. It is just a tale certainly, but a wonder tale nevertheless—it makes you feel that magic is local. Finally, I can see the back of the Bethel Hospital, founded in 1725 for curable lunatics.
I see all these buildings because they are tall and large and declare themselves well. But I have never once stepped inside any of them. I don’t go out at all, but stay in perpetual. For a better understanding of my life, you may buy a miniature Holler Theatre in card form, from Jarrold & Sons, the stationer, 1–11 London Street, which can be assembled at home. It is a beautiful toy and with it you may mount your own in-house performances; Price 6d. But I live in the actual building.
There is a sign outside the theatre, the real theatre, that stays there day and night. No matter what play we are playing, still this sign stays the same; even when the theatre is dark, it remains. The sign says the holler theatre, home of the child who may never leave. Just next to the sign is a large plate glass window, and through the window can be seen a little room where the child who may never leave sits and is observed.
It is in this room that I have often performed my one-person dumb shows for the people of Norwich. I get into costume and act out all the parts. The people of Norwich come and watch me, and on a good day I may raise a crowd of fifty or more. Here have I been the mangy ghost dog of Norfolk mythology, Black Shuck, who roams the desolate coastline and the graveyards filled with Norfolk dead; indeed, the sight of the hound is a warning of imminent death. As Shuck, I growl and howl (without making a sound) at the people. Or else I am Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, holding in my hand the head of a Roman soldier (got from the props room); or else, more quietly yet, I am Julian of Norwich, who was a woman who lived not ten minutes’ walk from here, long ago, back in the fourteenth century, and was an anchorite, voluntarily walled up inside the church of St. Julian, on St. Julian’s Alley in the district of Richmond on the Hill.
She was the first woman to write a book in English, the very first. (We are both writers, Julian and I. I always keep a notebook and pencil about me.) She had visions, she did, and I act them out for Norwich, Norfolk.
I have visions, too, of a kind, when I let my imagination go as wild as Black Shuck. I have stories and tales for every day of the week. But most of all I am the discoverer of terrible secrets, I am Norwich’s detective, and I have uncovered something dark and wicked—which I shall come to by and by, and for which afterward I may be blessed or cursed.
When I am done with my performance I draw the curtains, so that Norwich may know I am no longer available, and that the spectacle is done with—and then it may seem to them that I have died, or that perhaps I was never truly there. Sometimes, fairly often, when I am not at my post, a doll of me, the hard face made by the theatre’s puppet mistress, Mrs. Stead, the cloth body by the wardrobe mistress, Aunt Nora, sits there in my place. (When the doll of me needs to be replaced, if I have outgrown it or it has been accidentally damaged, its material is always taken apart and used elsewhere—nothing does go to waste in this theatre and all must be useful.) (On occasions I pretend to be the doll.) (And sometimes the doll and I sit together and we are twins. I make the doll move more than me, just to confuse.) (It must seem to Norwich that I don’t really exist at all, that I am only a person-sized puppet or doll. And perhaps I am, I think that sometimes. Father says it’s good they are not certain, it is an excellent device.)
I am Edith Holler. I am twelve years old. I am famous.
The year is 1901. The month is March, by which you’ll understand that the Christmas decorations have long been put away and that the pantomime season is quite ended. And what is most nationally pertinent is that the old queen is fresh dead. And the new king, Edward, looks like he has only a little life left himself.
My confinement is for my own safety. I cannot go out, for to go out would kill me.
I have been ill much of my childhood, laid often in my sickbed. They thought I should not last. It was diphtheria and it was meningitis and it was pneumonia; one woe, as they say, did follow on another’s heals. I was ill at my birth, and my own dear mother did die then—and so death is never far away. I should have died, I lay lost to the world in my bedroom, and they fussed over me. I have always been frail, Father is terrified for my life, and so I must keep indoors, and so I do.
And, which is even more: not only do my illnesses keep me inside, but there is also in addition a nasty curse from an unhappy old actress, which was given to me at my christening. But, though I do not travel, yet there is much to wonder over from my confinement, both within and without. From the walls of the Bethel Hospital, I do hear the dismayed inhabitants often enough. The hospital is just across Theatre Street, and from time to time I watch as the inmates in their courtyard act out their own strange one-man shows. Sometimes some of our actors suffer from a persistent confusion and they have need of the Bethel Hospital. I have known actresses to go across the road, as we call it, and never come back again. Never once.
From Edith Holler by Edward Carey. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2023 by Edward Carey.