The Challenge to Sirius

The Challenge to Sirius
Where the early pre-war novels of Kaye-Smith explore ideas of faith “The Challenge to Sirius”, written during the First World War, begins to establish particular concerns with religious belief that were to become the central focus in later novels. This novel is a Bildungsroman with the emphasis on the spiritual and religious development of the protagonist. The narrative is the ‘life’ story of Frank Ranger from childhood in the 1830s to old age in the 1880s. Frank’s childhood is spent living with his father and the Coalbran family on a farm in Sussex. Educated by the local clergyman, Frank has a childhood sweetheart, Maggie Coalbran, and begins his adult life working on the farm. When his father commits suicide he decides to go to London to work as a writer. His failure as a writer, a failed love affair and his love of the countryside bring him back to the farm but, with Maggie married, he decides to join her brother as a soldier fighting for the Confederates in the American Civil War. During his escape from the Union forces he is washed up on the shores of Yucatan and is rescued by a Roman Catholic priest. After many years acting as a servant to the priest, and after the priest’s death, Frank decides to return home. In old age he marries the widowed Maggie.
Frank’s journey to a contented life is beset by difficulty. Frank’s education from the village clergyman, Bellack, whose name suggests that he is ‘lacking’, is portrayed as sufficient in his knowledge of secular matters, but in religious concerns is perceived to be lacking any heartfelt or strongly held convictions. Unsure of his own direction, Bellack explores, in his writing, concerns over the direction of his religious belief in a series of unpublished articles that reflect and echo the very same questions that Kaye-Smith had highlighted in her early novels: ” ‘Is a Return to Nature Desirable?’ . . . ‘Is Religion a Diversion of the Sex Instinct?’ . . . ‘A Hundred Good Reasons for Going over to Rome and a Hundred Equally Good Ones for staying where I am’ “(CS 8). After the suicide of Frank’s father his search for a meaning and direction in life leads him to seek guidance from Bellack. The inadequacy and vacillating nature of the clergyman in his reply to Frank as he suggests ” ‘The great question of all choosers and adventurers is ‘Was it worth while?’ – and whatever else you may expect of life, don’t expect an answer to that’ ” (CS 46) begins to portray Anglicanism as a faith that lacks direction. Building on this initial impression, Frank’s move to London and his job as a journalist on a religious paper entitled ‘Dr Protestant’, an anti- Tractarian ( The Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement, was a form of High Church Anglicanism that began in the 1830s in Oxford, and later became known as Anglo-Catholicism. Its founders included John Henry Newman and Edward Bouvrie Pusey.) publication, is used to contrast ‘low’ church Anglicanism with that of the Tractarians or Puseyites. ‘Mainstream’ Anglicanism is characterised as full of “spite and calumny” (CS 85) and set in stark contrast to the Anglo-Catholic church where Frank is able to find peace and contentment. Stress is placed on the sensual quality of the worship in the Puseyite churches. In this environment Frank found
“a kind of peace in those dark interiors, with their crooning organs, and the etiolated voices of their faithful. There was beauty, too, in the lights that shifted and swayed round the altar, glowing on marble and cloth of gold, while the blue smeeth of the incense rocked up from the censers, and young boys in scarlet and white grouped themselves against the shadowy backgrounds” (CS 84).The whole experience is related in terms of a spirituality that “at once enticed and disturbed him” (CS 84).
In the search for a philosophy that gives some meaning to ‘life’ through religious conviction, Frank is convinced that “it was beauty and colour which were good in life”, that “the only beauty and brightness in his London life would be found in [an Anglo-Catholic] church” and that the alternative provided by ‘low’ church Anglicanism was a “dinginess and repression” that was “mistaken and evil” (CS 87). To reinforce the case for Anglo-Catholicism and to demonstrate the lack of individual religious conviction in the ‘low’ church, Bellack feels that the ultra Protestant leanings of Anglicanism are “fast driving me to join the Puseyites” but he is unlikely to make such a commitment “until my Bishop does likewise” (CS 115).
In this novel Kaye-Smith begins to develop a more holistic religious philosophy in which she tentatively starts to combine her approbation for the Catholic form of Anglicanism with her belief that God can be experienced through the natural world. Using the stars as representative of creation, their remoteness in the heavens enables God the creator to be presented as the wrathful, uncaring, indifferent God of the Old Testament. God’s distance from man is seen in “the stars [that] had no part in earth or in him [Frank], they belonged to a consciousness which stood above and beyond his pain” (CS 188); heavenly judgement appears to be dispensed by a greater than human power when “A meteor fell slowly among the stars; he [Frank] saw it drop into the woods, cleaving the sky like a fiery sword” (CS 201). The indifference of God, to the fate of humanity, is symbolised by the Dog star, Sirius; the star “they call Orion’s Dog, and though it is the brightest of all stars it bodes no good” (Homer 397-8). When he is in America, while waiting for the attack on Look Out Mountain,
(The Battle of Lookout Mountain was a skirmish in a much bigger campaign for control of the Tennessee River and was fought on November 24th 1863 as part of the Chattanoga Campaign. The Confederate army was forced to retreat from Lookout Mountain by the Union forces.) Frank recognises this star as “Sirius, symbol of the Divine Indifference. That huge remoteness, that vast Unknown and Unknowing, had never disappeared in all the latitudes of his wandering. The Divine Indifference hung as surely over that Isle of Oxney as over the mountains of Tennessee” (CS 281-2).
However if the remoteness of the heavens is indicative of God’s detachment from the fate of humanity, closeness to the earth can provide comfort in the alien world of America. Frank finds that the “close scent of the earth was the same as at home – soil, leaf-mould and violets . . . perhaps it was this homely fragrance which kept him asleep” (CS 219). Not until Frank is rescued by Father Cristobal, in Yucatan, is an explicit link made between Christianity and the natural world. The simple Catholic faith that is encountered by Frank in the Mexican forest “was not a moral system, it was a natural religion; and perhaps this was why for the first time he felt religious instincts and cravings stir in his heart” (CS 384). Here the spiritualism of Anglo-Catholicism and the concept of a God of creation takes on a universality that, in its simplicity, allows Frank to understand ” the secret of the mystical union which he had felt existing between the Church and the forest” (CS 384). Not distanced from the worshippers, but part of their everyday life, the crucified Christ is horrific in His realism, not “the peaceful, almost elegant death it was represented in [the] ecclesiastical art” (CS 373) of Anglicanism. The immediacy and relevance of the Crucifixion rests, not only in its brutal realism but also in its depiction of an Indian Christ so that “It ceased to be an unapproachable mystery, but became a common spectacle” (CS 374) and therefore spoke clearly to all.
Frank’s ‘conversion’ to faith is almost imperceptible but once he has discovered “the secret of the mystical union . . . between the Church and the forest” (CS 384) the universality, through time and space, of this manifestation of Catholicism is recognized as being “as old as man’s first knowledge of himself as victim and priest” (CS 383). Through this realisation and his contemplative kneeling “for hours before the Indian Christ on the north wall” (CS 384), Frank comes to realise that he now
“saw a God who did not merely absorb experience through him but shared it with him. There was not one pang of his lonely wandering life, no throb or ache or groan of his, up to that moment when the light of his eyes and the desire of his heart were taken from him at a stroke, that had not been shared by God. For if man has known the stars, so God has known the dust” (CS 384).
In this depiction of Catholicism in action the universality and tolerance of the faith is highlighted in Father Christobal’s arduous journey to answer the summons of a dying brigand who “as a true son of the Church asked for Unction and Viaticum” (CS 385 ). (Unction and Viaticum along with the sacrament of Penance make up the three sacraments that constitute the Last Rites for the dying.) The Rites are administered without question or judgement of the man who is dying. This non-judgemental attitude is in stark contrast to the stance that is adopted by the Parson in Sussex, on Frank’s return. The Parson is narrow and judgemental in his faith and labels Frank a heathen because he doesn’t “think much of his [Frank’s] churchmanship” (CS 420). The Parson has no conception of a God of creation or of tolerance for those who come to faith by differing routes.
Frank’s decision to return to England and Sussex after the death of the priest is motivated by a simple philosophy in which he believed that “however scientific and complicated life might be it must inevitably return at last to the simple primitive things from which it came” (CS 393). This referencing of creation and the inference that those ‘simple primitive things’ are the uncomplicated world of nature, foreshadows the belief that Frank comes to adopt once he is back in Sussex. The attraction of the Catholic church was its timelessness, inclusivity, and a route to God through nature. These qualities of faith are shown in Frank’s longing for the natural world of home in which he finds comfort and peace. The changelessness and tranquillity of the countryside along with a “communion with the soil of the Isle of Oxney” (CS 414) provides the focus for a belief in which humanity can establish a relationship with the God of creation. In the final chapter, Kaye-Smith describes this almost mystical communion with the countryside when Frank and Maggie sit
” on the bench against the house, their nostrils full of the evening scents of the garden – Lent lilies, soil, and mist – looking down at the marsh that spread all vague and grey to the foot of Tenterden Hill” (CS 416-7). Throughout “The Challenge to Sirius”, Kaye-Smith has begun to develop and refine the relationship between humanity, the Divine and the natural world. The evolution of this belief is inspired by the perceived universality of Catholicism and that faith’s ability to accommodate a variety of routes to an understanding of the meaning of life. Kaye-Smith professed to have no particular religious faith during the War but also admitted later that on re-reading “The Challenge to Sirius” she could see that “there are signs in the book that I was already on the way back to Him . . . I had turned round – I was looking in His direction, even though I saw Him as nothing more but a far-off, indifferent star” (TWH 121). The religious philosophy that dominates the end of the novel; that through contemplation of the natural world humanity can attain direct communion with God, becomes central to the religious ideology of Kaye-Smith’s “Green Apple Harvest”.



Here is my second November poem – inspired by the wet, windy, cold weather we have been experiencing in the last few days.



New dawn brings buffeting blasting wind.
Outside, barren naked trees, skeletal black,
Violently lash at grey blanketed skies.
Eddying waves of copper leaves whirl,
Murmurating across the lawn and lane.
Birds flock, swirling, diving behind the plough.
Earth furrowed, dug dark and deep welcomes
Rain that drives arrow sharp and cold as steel.

Remembering in November

Here is the first of my November poems. On this centenary of the Armistice it was important, I felt, to pay tribute to those who had given their lives in the Great War.

With this in mind, and knowing that a young man who had lived just down the lane from where I now live had made the ultimate sacrifice in that war, I decided to walk the lanes and fields that he must have walked in his daily life as a farm labourer. He enlisted at the start of the War and was fatally injured in October 1914 and died of his wounds on 25th October 1914, aged 29. He left behind a widow and four young children.

The poem below tries to pay tribute to him and to document my walk across the fields on a November day.


Remembering in November

Tread softly as you walk
Lanes and fields they walked.
Listen to the whispering reeds
As they did before the War.

Fingers of sunlight creep and crawl
Across the field mists of dawn.
Ricocheting rattle of magpie chatter
Echoes and cracks the silence.

Last scarlet leaves twist and tumble
To lie trampled in muddied pools.
Gathering gusts of wind roar and rage
Blasting and battering the blackthorn.

By the gate barbed wire brambles
Clutch, grasp, ensnare and hold,
Razor sharp, eager to maim,
Loth to relinquish their prey.

Gunmetal grey clouds, silver rimmed,
Lowering and sullen, threaten rain.
Crow black skeletal trees scratch and claw
Scarlet gashed clouds until
Evening sun bleeds into the land.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”
(From For the Fallen – Laurence Binyon)

Four Seasons Poems

As we edge towards the end of the year I thought it would be a good idea to bring together my four seasons poems into a post for the blog. In each of them I tried to capture something of the essence of the season from the environment around me.

Spring Day

Blustery breezes, sunshine and sudden shower
Banish hoary-handed winter from the land.
Burgeoning buds and lancing leaves appear,
With stark trees gowned in gossamer green.
Deep snowflake drifts of blackthorn bridal lace
Burden tangled twigs and naked branches.
Below the hedgerow, among the grasses,
Tapestries of violets and primroses,
Cascading stars in vivid verdant sky.
Magical, mystical hares box together
As strutting pheasant with loud screeching cry
Levers high aloft with flapping feather.
The silent, dark, descending cloak of night
Takes from the earth its sparkling sapphire light.
Summer Storm

Oppressive ponderous heat of summer
From a glassy azure vaulted dome beats down.
The dusty earth hard with crack and fissure
Languishes exposed to August sun.
Pewter-black dragon clouds spread pinion wing
And breath sheets of forked ferocious flame
Rumble, roar and rage in their thundering.
Clawing the heavens ragged, onward come
Steel nails of rain pounding, piercing, stabbing,
Hammering deep into parched arid land.
Refreshed softer warmth returns again,
Busy buzzing bees and butterflies abound,
Until dusk when fiery sunset glow forsakes
The world to the silent, silken, swoop of bats.
Autumn Bonfire

Hips and haws hang heavy flaming, burning
Amongst the sear foliage of gilded trees.
The dun fields of fresh furrowed ploughing,
Sounds of tractor humming, seagulls screeches,
As I bend to light piles of twigs and leaves.
Scarlet serpent fangs sting, lick and flicker
And slate grey smoke curling, billows and swirls,
Sharp, acrid, stinging eyes with scorching tear.
Crackling and spitting, galloping fire gnaws,
Devouring detritus of summer past.
Keen gusts breathe new strength as the blaze renews,
Then the final glimmer of smouldering grass
Extinguishes. Just leaving weightless ash,
Dusky twilight and lasting loneliness.
A Frosty Day

With glacial etching by winter’s marble hand
A frosty firmament of glittering stars appears.
Whilst on another pane a ghostly land
Of silent sentinel stems and icy flowers.
Beyond the obscurity of the frozen filigree
Bleached and blackened branches scratch and splinter.
Arrow flights of swans pierce an armoured sky.
Sculpted lapwings stand in the hoary spear
On an opal wasteland of a fecund field.
Water lies imprisoned in granite walls.
Soundlessly the midnight flocks soar and wheel,
While silence is shattered by a fox’s screams.
The twilight winter world is moon pallid
When darkness envelops the biting cold.

Burmarsh Fallen 1914-1918

At this time when we remember the Armistice that took place 100 years ago and in so doing remember those who gave their lives in the First World War, it seemed fitting that I should  compile the details of those who made that sacrifice from the village of  Burmarsh, Romney Marsh, Kent.



Lest We Forget
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
(Laurence Binyon – For the Fallen)

The village of Burmarsh lost four men in the First World War. Two of them, Simeon Beale and Albert Butcher, are commemorated on the Rood Screen in the parish church of All Saints which was dedicated by the Archdeacon of Maidstone at a well attended service on Thursday 2nd August 1923. Roland Wratten has a grave in the church yard at Burmarsh and Ernest Rayner is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial at Zonnebeke Belgium.

Simeon Beale.
Private, L/6554
Simeon Beale was born in St. Mary’s in the Marsh and was the son of Seaman Beale and Betsy Beale (nee Boulding). He first enlisted in the army at Lydd on the 4th March 1901. At this time his family lived at Poplar Cottage, Eastbridge. His father was listed in the 1911 census as a Farm Waggoner. Simeon served in the Buffs (East Kent Regiment) Mounted Infantry until 3 March 1913. On 31 October 1910 Simeon married Hilda Elizabeth Russell at the parish church of Dymchurch. Simeon was a qualified marksman and a veteran of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Simeon was recalled to the army as a Reservist at the start of the First World War. Between leaving the Army in 1913 and his recall in 1914 Simeon was employed as a farm labourer on Romney Marsh, at Swingfield and Godmersham. He served in the 1st Battalion, The Buffs and was stationed at Fermoy, Ireland at the start of the Great War. The battalion left Ireland in August 1914 and transferred to Cambridge and from thence to Southampton for embarkation to France on 7th Septemeber 1914. Simeon served with the British Expeditionary Force and following the fall of Antwerp (9th October 1914) this Expeditionary Force and their French allies found themselves vastly outnumbered. On 12th October the Buffs were moved from the Aisne to Cassel. Simeon was seriously and fatally wounded while serving in the trenches on 13th October 1914. He died on 25th October 1914. Simeon was originally buried at Haubourdin Communal Cemetery but after the Armistice his body was moved to Lavantie Military Cemetery. In 1913, when Simeon was recalled to the Army he lived with his wife and three children at Abbotts Court Cottages, Burmarsh. On 2nd September Simeon’s wife gave birth to their fourth child and the child’s names were chosen from the names of senior Army figures. The child was named John (for Sir John French), Kitchener (after Lord Kitchener), Dorrien (after General Smith-Dorrien) Beale.
Simeon’s family also lost another son, Charles Lewis Beale, on 20th July 1915. He was also serving with the 1st Battlion, The Buffs and he is commemorated on the Dymchurch War Memorial.
Albert Henry Butcher
Lance Corporal, G/1000
Albert Butcher was a Lance Corporal in the 1st Battalion, The Buffs (East Kent Regiment). In 1911 his family lived at Newchurch and his father was employed as a farm labourer, as was the then 19 year old Albert. Albert enlisted in the army for one year’s service on the 2nd September 1914 stating that he was 23 years of age. He initially served in the 3rd Reserve Battalion in Canterbury and at The Citadel, Dover. In February 1915 Albert was posted to the 1st Battalion, The Buffs. He was appointed Lance Corporal (unpaid) on the 19th January 1916. In September Albert was serving on the Somme. Albert’s battalion was engaged in a major action at Morval. On 15th September 1916 Albert’s battalion moved forward from the frontline trenches and attacked a heavily fortified enemy redoubt known as the Quadrilateral which is located on the edge of Bouteaux Wood. This was the first occasion on which tanks were deployed. The lead formation of the battalion started its advance to attack up muddy slippery slopes at 6.20 am without any artillery support. The battalion was soon checked by heavy enemy machine gun fire. Most of Albert’s group were pinned down in shell holes and they suffered substantial casualties. 6 officers and 53 other ranks were initially reported as killed and an additional 123 were wounded. Albert’s battalion sustained the highest number of casualties of those who took part in the attack. Under cover of darkness the battalion withdrew to a trench running south east close to the remains of the village of Guillemont. Albert died during that engagement on 15th September 1916. At the time of his death his parents, Richard and Emily Butcher, were living at 3 Pain’s Cottages, Burmarsh. Albert is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, Somme, France (Pier and Face 5D) as well as in the parish church.

Ernest Albert Colin Rayner
Private, 31099
Ernest’s birth was recorded in the Romney Marsh Registration District during the first quarter of 1887 and took place in the parish of Burmarsh. His parents were Alfred and Emily Rayner . In 1901 the family lived at Orgarswick Farm and Alfred was employed as a Farm Bailiff. Ernest married Ellen Mary Pilcher in Dover in 1908. Ernest Medal Index Card shows he died on the 10th November 1917. Ernest was in the 1st Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment and he enlisted in Dover. Although he is listed as dying in action it is possible that he died as the result of illness. Ernest is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial and it is very likely that he was buried in a grave that was subsequently lost during the conflict.


Roland Glover Wratten
Private, 241550
Roland was the son of George and Sophie Wratten and George’s place of birth was Burmarsh. In 1901 George and Roland (15 years) were employed as a general labourers. In 1911 the Wratten family lived at West Hythe. Roland served with the 3rd/8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. He died on the 21st August 1971, aged 31, and is buried in the church yard at Burmarsh.


Here is my second October poem written after a walk across the fields.



Overhead night black crows caw and quarrel,
Cracking the silence of field and lane.
Tentative squirrel rustles in brazen leaves as
One lone, solitary figure traverses the path.
Blackened twigs etch clouded skies while
Edging prayer flag reeds fly brassy gold
Rippling and whispering in blustering breezes.

October poem

Here is one of my October poems – inspired by the weather and my walks in the countryside and my gardening at the moment. There will be an acrostic October poem that I will post nearer the end of the month. Meanwhile please feel free to comment on this one – writers need readers and I welcome your feed back on my work. Thank you for reading this blog.


Silent softly crimson petals fall in misty dawn.
Sun’s furtive fingers gleam on field furrows,
Leaves golden crisp twist, tremble, tumble
Gently weightless to verge and lane.

Domed sapphire skies contain endless horizons.
Blood red hips and haws hang bunched bright,
Overspread with webs of diamond dew
Amongst copper coins of fragile foliage.

Smells of autumn persist; dusty lanes, bonfire smoke,
Juicy overripe plums and apples fruitily invasive,
Bitter, biting sulphur resinous hops rubbed
By fingers – all recall times past.