Kaye-Smith saw The Ploughman’s Progress as “a sort of half-hearted sequel to The End of the House of Alard” (TWH 250). Where the narrative of the Alards concludes in 1922, The Ploughman’s Progress is set in the same geographical location and begins in 1924. In contrast to The End of the House of Alard, this novel focuses on those who work the land rather than those who own it. Taken together the novels are a socio-historic ethnographic fictionalised case study of the effects of the post-war depression on a specific rural community, the lasting influence of the war, and the fundamental changes that occurred in society’s attitudes after the war, delivered through strong characterisations. The title and structure of The Ploughman’s Progress owe a debt to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in the depiction of Fred Sinden, the ploughman, whose life becomes a series of ups and downs in his progress from the old world, in which his skills as a ploughman were valued, to his acceptance of change and delight in a new life of freedom. In a secular mirror image of the sub-title to Bunyan’s work, “From this World to That Which is to Come”, on his journey to a better world Fred “had learned the new pleasures of change and independence . . . yet the things he had loved in the old life were with him still . . . He had found much and he kept all he wanted” (PP 343). In the creation of her characters, Kaye-Smith has followed Coleridge’s advice on character creation and conceived “figures who are a kind of intermediate step between Actual Person, and mere Personification”, and because of this the majority of the minor characters lack definition and become types. However where the “personages be strongly individualized”, as occurs with Fred Sinden and Jim Parish, they become realistic and knowable and engage the interest of the reader.
Each of these representatives of country dwellers is used as a fictionalised case-study in this chronicle-like novel. To add authenticity to the central thesis the localised regional narrative of everyday life is bolstered by intermittent references to the changes taking place in the wider world. There is mention of the National Government, the establishment of Marketing Boards, the possibility of coming off the gold standard, the drop in the value of War Loans, and the passing of the Wheat and Agricultural Acts. All of these anchor the narrative in a contextual time frame and reflect the intrusive, unfathomable and disruptive influence that the state had begun to exert on people’s lives. For example, the yeoman farmer Vincent sees no good in any government: the “‘Conservatives, they think of nothing but rich men and foreigners; when it’s Labour, then they don’t call us labour at all . . . when it’s Liberal, as they used to be years ago, they meddled and meddled till they’d smashed up everything'” (PP 87). Jim Parish blames the state of agriculture on external forces over which he has no control – “The European War, the slump in land values, the financial World Crisis, War Loan conversion, political neglect, Queen Anne’s Bounty, free trade and Building Societies” (PP 342). While Fred Sinden wonders “Why didn’t the government do something for the countrymen? They called themselves Labour, but it was only labour in the towns they thought about” (PP 215).
The entire narrative is driven by Kaye-Smith’s political agenda. This is particularly reflected in the realisation of the minor characters. Each of them becomes an allegorised type, lacking in individualism, and unable to sustain interest for the reader for any discernible time. The most obvious example of this is the above mentioned Mr Vincent. Socially and hierarchically sandwiched between the gentry and the farm labourers, his sole purpose in the narrative is to illustrate the plight of his kind. In that capacity we are shown that he has to constantly lower wages for his work force, cannot repair Fred’s cottage because “‘That building society interest comes heavy every year'” (PP 3), and eventually he is forced to sell his farm. Vincent’s place in the narrative is peripheral and despite Kaye-Smith’s articulation of his struggle with reference to the war – his “struggle was ended” (PP 193) , he had “lost” the battle, he no longer needed to “fight”, he had retreated “inch by inch” – the reader soon loses interest in his allegorical significance.
Hardy’s use of a rustic chorus in Under the Greenwood Tree (1872) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), is emulated in The Ploughman’s Progress by the group of farm workers who meet at the Queen’s Head. As an allegorical symbol of the common working man, and as a device to provide a continuity of narrative, this ‘chorus’ of characters lacks a clear delineation of any individual. The chorus is used purely as an informative tool and their observations and analysis inform the reader of the background to the present situation. Although ill-defined as individuals they are rendered in terms that evoke empathy in the reader. They understand the farmers’ predicaments. They know that “‘rates and taxes and all that building society rent; that’s what comes heavy.'” and they “‘reckon all the farmers are feeling the weight of their farms, . . . leastways all that bought theirs at the Alard sale'” (PP 14). They are used as informers and witnesses as they discuss the local background to the present situation. Conservative in their outlook, unwilling to accept any form of change, and ignorant of the wider world, they believe in a tradition of landownership that means that Gervase Alard should have accepted that “‘The place was his, and he should have stood by it'” (PP 15). Their judgement on Alard’s desire to return the land to the people is criticised as unrealistic naivety. In a blunt simplistic statement of reality the rustics “never knew as it [the land] was theirs” and if it once had been they “ain’t got it, anyway; the farmers have got it, or rather the building societies” (PP 15). As a voice for Kaye-Smith, and others who believed in the traditional paternalism of the squirearchy, the rustics would rather “the Squire owned the land than the building societies” (PP 15), as they recognise that the fate of the farmers is inextricably linked to their own as farm workers. Invested with a rustic wisdom and an instinctive astute fatalism, members of this bucolic chorus act as foretellers of the future. Pannell foresees that farms will not sell and that “‘there’s bad times coming . . . Prices are going down . . . Folk think the high prices are going to last, but they ain’t, of course they ain’t'”, although times are not bad now, “‘they’re going to be'” (PP 17). Their primary function is to move the narrative along and to supply the necessary information to bridge the gaps in the reader’s knowledge. They recognise that the malaise in agriculture extends to all landowners. With some irony they note that Jim Parish farms two thousand acres but “‘Two thousand’s [more than] enough when you’ve got no money to spend on it. The Parishes are as broke as the Alards'” (PP 16). What makes Parish unique is his relationship with his land is that he “‘uld never sell the place,’ . . . ‘however broke he was'” (PP 16).
Although Jim Parish fulfils an allegorical function, and as his name implies he represents a parochial paternalism, he is also a strongly-drawn individual who has a believable realism that retains the interest of the reader. Kaye-Smith presents him as a squire who cares for his land and his workers. Unlike John Galsworthy’s squire, Sir Gerald Malloring, in The Freelands (1915), who is an aloof minor figure who believes that he has the “Divine right of landowners to lead ‘the Land’ by the nose” (The Freelands 67), Parish is central to Kaye-Smith’s discourse. He is depicted as a man who believes he has a duty to the community to be “a sort of hub of things” (PP 27) that holds everything together, a person to look to for advice and help. This paternal function is illustrated in Parish’s dealings with both Mr Vincent and Fred Sinden: Vincent’s financial troubles lead him to “go to Mr Parish and talk things over with him, in the clear yet fragile hope that he might guarantee an overdraft” (PP 85), while Fred Sinden finds he can discuss his most domestic private affairs with him. Non-judgemental and unencumbered by class prejudice, Parish is a comfortable and reassuring presence, he “was a good chap, he knew how to hold a conversation in the proper way . . . like an old lane . . . not going anywhere in particular, but getting there safely in the end” (PP 158). Parish’s view of life is characterised by a binary opposition between the actuality of present everyday reality and an idealistic nostalgia for the past.
Parish acts as a synecdoche for the generation of adult countrymen who mourn the passing of a way of life that was unchanging and certain. The present is contrasted with Parish’s vision of the eighteenth century “Golden Age”, when “The Squires flourished and so did the farmers” (PP 30). This fantasy dream world of the past is conceived by means of a lexicon of positivity, immutability, and prosperity. It was a time in which human beings had an emotional attachment to the land, in which the land had a “beauty” that was unchanging, a time of “high yields”, “flourishing” farming, “stirring”, “cultured”, and “adult” in outlook. Above all it was a time of “prosperous, tolerant, kind, progressive men” (PP 112) who were in control of their own destiny. The idealised good past is set in stark contrast to the bad present, as it is realised in a vocabulary of negativity, financial depression, and disillusionment. The economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s is Parish’s present reality of an ever-advancing agricultural slump. Kaye-Smith characterises this time as one of disintegration, “demoralization”, and “delusion”, it is “uncivilised” and “childish”, a time of “mortgages”, “bankruptcy”, “falling prices”, “unemployment”, where there are “thistles and empty pasture or ‘land for sale ‘ boards” (PP 29), and where “‘the banks’ or ‘the government’ have taken the place of the weather and the soil as influences of prosperity” (PP 105). The natural order has been disrupted and fractured in the aftermath of the war, and as a result the age-old certainties have disappeared to be replaced with uncertainty in all aspects of life. Through Parish, we see a world of farming that has lost everything and gained nothing. It was an era in which there was
“no reckoning – no barometer to foretell change . . . Agricultural life was losing its substance and becoming a dream, in which the dreamer has no power over his environment, but must drift at the mercy of the terrifying unknown” (PP 105-6).
Parish is sustained throughout by his abiding love of the land. Ultimately, Kaye-Smith reiterates the philosophy of the land that features in all of her novels, when she suggests that the change that is visible in the landscape, and which has affected everyday life, is ephemeral when compared with the unchanging permanence of the natural world. Parish’s hope for the future comes from his realisation that the modernisations that had appeared in the countryside were
“a mere palimpsest upon the unchanging manuscript of the earth – under their fading, transient scrawl were the mysteries of summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, unchanged and unchanging” (PP 319).
Parish’s identification of the timelessness of the countryside provides a reassuring escape from the modernity of urbanisation for Kaye-Smith’s readership. Such identification of an unchanging countryside played into a rhetoric of Englishness, which in turn inspired much of the conservationist sentiment that saw the expansion of The National Trust and the founding, in 1926, of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England.
Where Jim Parish is a hybridised exemplar of the effects the agricultural slump had on the squirearchical middle-class, Fred Sinden is a symbol of the destruction of a way of life that disappeared in the increasingly mechanised and urbanised inter-war period. Sinden functions as an allegorised representative of the rural working classes but is realised as a knowable individual on a pilgrimage to a new way of life. Sinden’s journey is mental, physical and emotional as he tries to come to terms with constantly-changing circumstances that bring poverty, unemployment and homelessness. Through him Kaye-Smith channels her often promulgated notion of the relationship between humanity and the land. Presented as a typical farm worker, he is at his happiest and most contented when he is working the land and following in the traditions of his father. When ploughing the hop garden Fred acknowledges that “at least it was skilled work, the kind of work his father had done and he had been bred up to do. He was used to hops, and now the corn was gone they were his only comfort” (PP 181). His affinity with the natural world is evident in his care and diligence as “the hedge of ash and hornbeam carefully ‘laid along’ by his fingers” is finished, and he is “almost loving to be at such work again” (PP 213).
When Sinden’s work as a farm labourer comes to an end, and he and his family are turned out of their tied cottage, his purchase of a caravan brings him into a different and closer contact with the natural world. Sinden becomes an integral part of this enduring natural world as he walks across the field to his caravan – “Down by the brook the owls were calling – hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo – and from Dodyland shaw came the song of the nightingale. Things had not really changed much . . . the same stars and the same smells . . . What could he have done without these things” (PP 235). Unlike Parish, Sinden is only concerned with his immediate family and his journeying in the caravan broadens his horizons. The changes in society have allowed him to be resourceful, and independent and to learn “new secrets, new ways” and make “new friendships” while retaining the “the things he had loved in the old life . . . the earth and its changes, the fields and their fruit” (PP 343). Parish views Sinden’s life in the caravan as something that wasn’t his fault, “He was a victim of his times” (PP 341), but Sinden views his circumstances in a far more positive light. As a secular rural imitation of Bunyan’s Christian he has reached his better world in which he treasures his independence, has embraced his new life, “He was his own master, he was free and he was safe . . . He had learned the new pleasures of change” (PP 343). As well as being a symbolic representation of those who survive by adapting to changed circumstances, by the end of the novel Sinden is also a symbol for a traditional way of life that has been lost:
“The sunlight that poured after him down the field lit up the pattern of ridges under the knotty, weed choked grass, and sent his shadow heeling down to the wood’s edge. The ghost of a ploughman walked ahead of him over the ghost of the furrows. Then the sun dipped behind the hedge and the shadows were lost in twilight” (PP 344).
In keeping with Kaye-Smith’s characterisation of minor characters as representative figures rather than exhaustively analysed individuals, the women – Ivy Sinden, Betsy Parish, Jenny Godfrey and Mrs Parish are lightly drawn. When compared with the strong, forceful women of previous novels, Ivy appears insipid and dull. Her concerns are domestic, her aspirations are simple – she dreams of “driving round in a travelling shop” (PP 338), and her deference to Fred Sinden makes her a mere adjunct in the predominantly male-dominated narrative. The other women in the novel are easily forgotten as mere personifications. Jenny Godfrey as the hard working farmer’s wife, and Mrs Parish as the liberated widow who can at last assert her own personality, appear extraneous to the male narrative. Only in the understated story of Betsy Parish does Kaye-Smith come close to the depiction of a credible woman. At the start of the novel Betsy Parish is the crystallization of a modern single woman. Disillusioned and searching for a meaning and purpose in life, she spends much of her time in London where she knows “lots of gentlemen”, she is considered “a bad lot . . . that no decent fellow would marry” (PP 39) by the local population, smokes cigarettes, wears make-up, and claims she hates the country but doesn’t stay away for long. She is transformed by her relationship with the Rev. John Brady to become “like Jane Austen’s clergywoman, busy with her household, her parish and her poultry” (PP 318). In this delineated vignette of her character Kaye-Smith has followed the example of many of the women writing fiction in the early 1930s by articulating the self through her fiction. The restlessness and racy waywardness of Betsy’s spinsterhood encodes Kaye-Smith’s own perceptions of her single self, while the change in Betsy, once she is married, is written with an authenticity of self-awareness in its replication of Kaye-Smith’s own married life in the country. Betsy’s purpose in the scheme of the novel is less obvious. She seems to have no symbolic significance, she contributes nothing to the debate on the demise of agriculture, or the secondary issue of the urbanisation of the countryside by wealthy incomers, nor is she obviously affected by the legacy of the war.
Kaye-Smith’s pursuance of her state of the countryside agenda throughout the novel makes it a work of propaganda, but her stance on the despoliation of the rural landscape by incomers from the towns politicises the work. She uses exaggerated examples to illustrate the changes to the countryside that are evident in the “suburbanization of our country” (PP 327). A semi-derelict cottage is renovated by developers and “up for sale for four times the money” (PP 216) or “laughing, chattering people” from the town alter the building beyond all recognition. In an unusual authorial interruption to the narrative, Kaye-Smith bitterly castigates the speculative builders who attempt to sell plots that would suit “best those able to live without water, of which there was none” (PP 209). With a bitter irony Parish observes that good growing land has become “a jungle, and a bird sanctuary for such friends of agriculture as jays, magpies, pigeons and hawfinches” (PP 293). Kaye-Smith’s own standpoint is transparently stated here, and is a fictional presentation of the points she would make in her contribution to Britain and the Beast (1937). The effect that the incomers are having on the inhabitants and the environment is encoded in sarcastic and emotive language of war; destruction, dereliction, and invasion. As the countryside becomes “greasily urban” (PP 111) the “neighbourhood is destroyed” (PP 292), the people from the towns are “driving the country people out” (PP 111), farms are being ‘ruined’, the land is ‘desolate’, has “gone out of cultivation” (PP 293), and is now “split up into small-holdings, miniature estates for miniature landed gentry, and building plots” (PP 293). The suburbanites that have moved to the country are the ‘enemy’ or ‘invaders’, and the farm workers are like refugees, “tramping the roads” (PP 294). Like the spectre of the First World War the past, allegorised as the ploughman, still casts a shadow over the modern world: he is “a ghost . . . haunting the fields like a ghost – the ghost of a dead ploughman, haunting the ghosts of the furrows” (PP 292).
Although the war had ended fifteen years earlier its phantom presence continued to possess the memory of those who had experienced it. The Ploughman’s Progress, while ostensibly concerned with the present conditions of the countryside, presents these changes in rural society as the legacy of war. For Kaye-Smith and others of her generation the war continued to be important, not only remembered and recalled but ever present in visible form. There was “Mr Fuller, who suffered from his lungs owing to having been gassed during the war” (PP 39), and William Stubberfield who now suffers from ‘fits’ and has been “on the roads ever since the war” (PP 245). He had been unable to go back to his old job as a stockman after being “badly wounded in the head by a shell-burst” (PP 245).The wandering ex-service men who camped in the fields, were described as settling down to ‘trench warfare’ as they fought the ‘battle’ of life.
If the war was bad then the peace was worse for those farming the land. In the memory of those who were not immediately affected by the war, and who had seen crop prices and wages rise, the war years became a standard against which to measure the present. In this post-war era “war-wages are coming down” (PP 34), and there had been a “general decline from war-time . . . prosperity” (PP 84). During the war corn prices had been high but “after the war prices dropped to nothing” (PP 304). The overall picture of post-war rural Britain is not that of a land fit for heroes. The “Back to the Land” movement, and slogan, of the 1920s is characterised in the text as a misguided clarion call to “deluded idealists among ex-servicemen” who were “commuting their pensions to start small-holdings and poultry farms” (PP 106).
Kaye-Smith is conscious of her own status as an incomer to the countryside, and of her urban readers’ desire for depictions of the “country as it used to be rather than as it is”, a place of “the primitive and unsophisticated” (Minchin 189). She tried to present a picture of post-war rural Sussex that was honest and reflected her own experience. The Ploughman’s Progress illustrates Virginia Woolf’s assertion that women’s fiction of the post-war era is underpinned by “the value of truth and the interest of sincerity”, with the novelist’s attention
“directed away from the personal centre which engaged it exclusively in the past to the impersonal, and her novels naturally become more critical of society, and less analytical of individual lives” (The Forum. “Women and Fiction”. March 1929:182).
Contemporary reviewers gave the novel a mixed reception. Norah Hoult writing in the The Bookman, recognised Kaye-Smith’s mission in documenting the “decay of agricultural England” while suggesting that it was not a work of propaganda, but rather a novel for those who “care about the England that is passing, the England of villages, ploughed land and true tradition” . Less complimentary, The Manchester Guardian was critical of the plotting and character realisation, commenting that both were “subordinated to the fortunes of the land” so that even the most important characters became “pawns in an historic game”. However, the review does reflect the prospective readership’s romantic and unrealistic urban perception of the countryside as a place of serene beauty and contentment. In contrast to this the author is complimented on the “correctness and charm of her descriptions”. Somewhat ironically, considering Kaye-Smith’s desire to highlight the parlous condition of the countryside and the plight of those living and working there, the reviewer has chosen to quote a section of the novel that provides a sanitised, idyllic, and seemingly uninhabited, panorama of Sussex. The weather is perfect and as the hop-picking and drying takes place
“the blue pennons of the newly-lit fires streamed from the cowls, and the air at dusk became full of a troubling sweetness – scents that came and went on imperceptible breezes, that lurked in hollows with the mist, that crept into cottage rooms at dawn and sweetened the stagnant breath of pools at night” (PP 183).
To the reviewers of the day, when compared with The End of the House of Alard or Joanna Godden, The Ploughman’s Progress appeared lacklustre, ‘slight’ and merely ‘workmanlike’. Kaye-Smith acknowledged that the structure of the novel was “a patchwork of local events and observations” (TWH 249), but that the driving impetus behind the fiction was her own indignation at the “battle now being waged up and down England by the forces of the country and the town” (TWH 250). The application of such criteria to the formulation of a credible plot has resulted in a novel that is overwhelmed by the writer’s concern to relay a comprehensive documentary history of agricultural conditions in a specific part of Sussex between 1924 and 1933. The novel suffers from the allegorising of most of the characters so that they become puppets employed to deliver Kaye-Smith’s politicised message. Although Kaye-Smith has attempted to create empathetically believable characters in Fred Sinden and Jim Parish, and has introduced elements of romance with the relationships between Ivy and Fred Sinden, and Betsy Parish and John Brady, the characterisations are subordinate to the central concern of the narrative. As a novel The Ploughman’s Progress is not in any way comparable with Joanna Godden or Sussex Gorse. Lacking flair and imagination, much of the writing is pedestrian rather than inspired. Although in some sections of the narrative the storytelling is plodding, Kaye-Smith should be given credit for her ability to produce a fictionalised ethnographic study of post-war change in rural Sussex that reflects the very localised conditions and is therefore of historical/sociological worth. Regardless of the shortcomings of some of her novels Kaye-Smith did remain popular with the reading public of the middle and working-classes who equated narratives of ruralism with an essential notion of Englishness.
In common with the central theme of The End of the House of Alard, at the core of The Ploughman’s Progress is the inevitability of change. By the end of each of the novels there is an optimism that the future will be better than the past. Modernity is embraced by Jim Parish in his purchase of a tractor, in his ambition to turn his land into a ‘model farm’, and in his dream to farm “scientifically by modern methods, keeping his farms and buildings in repair, employing an army of Sussex labouring men” (PP 319). The novel illustrates Kaye-Smith’s own assertion that there was no point in pretending “that the country is unchanged, neither . . . that it ought to have remained unchanged” (The Legion Book 190).