Spectral breach

Fiction or other: The Holland Park ‘May Trees’

In this post we examine Annabel Freyne’s short story ‘The May Tree’ (1923), and ask to what extent the author drew on her own experiences for this single foray into supernatural fiction.

Mounted on a mock Georgian terrace near Holland Park’s eponymous public gardens is a blue plaque: Annabel Freyne (1873 – 1936), author and hay fever sufferer, lived and died in a house on this site.

While it is unclear why the writer’s seasonal allergies are referenced, Freyne certainly suffered from the summer affliction more than most. Her reluctance to venture outside between April and June was at the root of a lifelong reclusiveness. The author blamed a culprit familiar to urban dwellers round the world: the London plane tree.

The London plane is thought to have originated by chance when the 17th Century botanist John Tradescant placed an American sycamore close to an Oriental plane in his plant nursery, not far from the famous Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

Prized for its resilience to pollution, it was planted widely in London in the 18th Century. Its pollen – or the release of microscopic hairs by its leaves – has agitated Londoners ever since.

Annabel Freyne’s own dread of the London plane is reflected in her 1923 story, The May Tree.

The May Tree is told (via the framing narrative of a family doctor) from the point of view of a young writer living with her older, emotionally distant husband in a large house in Holland Park.

The unnamed woman describes symptoms redolent of agoraphobia. She has suffered severe hay fever since childhood and is fixated on a ‘dark avenue of plane trees’ on the grounds of Holland House, in view of her garden.

On a still, bright day in May, she sits at her writing room desk by a large, opened sash window. Feeling a familiar catch at the back of her throat and ‘the threat of discomfort’ in her eye, she stands to close the window. What she sees as she glances towards the plane trees stops her short.

Pollen is falling from the trees like a waterfall, drifting across her sunlit lawn as if carried on a strong breeze. This is an unnatural movement on a windless day – the writer feels a ‘chill grip of fear’.

Spores stream through the open window, flood the room, alight on her arms, face and collarbone. Lungs and airways tighten, eyes stream, sinuses swell; she is ‘blinded and bound’ by the white haze around her. On the edge of delirium, she passes into unconsciousness.

The story here enters a short pastoral phase. The woman awakes amid ‘the sweet scents and taut grasses of an English summer meadow’. The avenue of plane trees is there, and appears dappled and pleasant in this new world: ‘Nothing ill pours from those broad green leaves’. Of the city, only Holland House remains, in a landscape of fields and copses.

Finding that her hay fever is gone, she takes a long, clear breath of air. Then there is movement. On the ground beneath the plane trees something is seeping from the roots.

At first she takes it to be white smoke, rising along the row of trees. But the vapour takes form. Soon, wisp-like beings, a little taller than she is, are moving across the ground towards her.

All manner of Freudian literary theory has been brought to bear on the following passage’s prose.

The spectres surround the writer, reaching out to remove her clothes, wrapping their long, wispy arms around hers, ‘in the manner of May ribbons’. A wide circle is formed. As it slowly swirls, spores rise up from the ‘petal soft’ bodies of the beings. The woman recalls that, ‘while they clawed my throat, engorged my airways, pricked tears from eyes’, her body and mind remained calm.

A bright, all-encompassing light envelops her, entering her eyes, mouth and nose, as she loses her ‘earthly senses’ and is carried to a place ‘yet further than this world beyond our own’.

After immeasurable time she awakes, dazed, on the floor of her writing room.

The May Tree has long excited debate, much of which surrounds the obvious discrepancy between the story and not just the life of its author, but the bulk of her written work.

Freyne was the creator of amateur detective and art critic Henry Brunswick. The fictional murders he solved – taking place mainly in the London art world – seemed to exist mainly as a platform for the conservatively-minded Freyne to pour scorn on the culture of her era. This may have been reactive: Her parents were Victorian bohemians, patrons of the Holland Park art scene of the late 19th Century.

Disliked by the modernists, Freyne was a strident participant in the suppression of works which attempted to broaden the social and interior lives of women.

For these reasons many literary scholars – whether or not they recognise a latent or repressed sexuality in the work – express caution with regard to claims that The May Tree is ‘proto-feminist’ or might be compared to Freyne’s contemporary Virginia Woolf in terms of examining gender.

But for another kind of scholar – PoL‘s kind – there is a simpler explanation for the contradictions: The May Tree is not fiction.

The idea that this may be the case can be traced back at least as far as a 1960s article in The Evening News, and was taken up enthusiastically in a 1996 episode of Ghosthunters which set out to find evidence of ghostly ‘May dancers’ in Holland Park.

But it is the striking – and sad – resonances within the story’s final paragraphs which fuel much of the speculation.

For those who knew Freyne, the doctor-narrator’s account of the protagonist’s long, lonely years, waiting for the coming of May; her feeling that the ‘visible world’ is suffocating and void of meaning; and not least, the circumstances of her death – her thin body found at the foot of a plane tree by a Holland House gardener – carry the indelible mark of prophesy, self-fulfilling or otherwise.

Freyne’s house was bombed in the war. The streets have since knitted themselves tightly round the now public grounds of Holland House, which today serve a diverse and vibrant population. Some plane trees remain, alongside the Japanese gardens, the tennis courts and the resurgent wildflower meadow.

  • Candidate: Holland Park May Trees
  • Type: Spectral rift
  • Status: Unknown

Images from the mural, Garden Party in the Grounds of Holland Park, by Mao Wenbiao

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