October

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

 

October

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.

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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.

October

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.

 

Shepherds in Sackcloth – Sheila Kaye-Smith

After the First World War Sheila Kaye-Smith turned to religion in the form of the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Anglican Church. She was married to an Anglo-Catholic priest – Penrose Fry – in her local church in Hastings in the 1920s. Fry subsequentially took up a position as a priest in a London parish.

Shepherds in Sackcloth

While living in London in the late 1920s Kaye-Smith was home-sick for Sussex and she questioned her ability to continue writing when she was “so far away from the fields which were not so much background to my novels as the soil from which they grew” (TWH 174). Kaye-Smith wrote about the Kent/Sussex border because it was the place she knew and had known. This knowledge had its roots in her childhood holidays on a farm and in adulthood had become inextricably linked with all that she counted as important in her life. Enumerating what this countryside meant to her once she was in ‘exile’ in London she says it was important to her for
My books, of which it was more than a part, my friendships and love affairs, which were also memories of roads and trees and marshes, my religion which had been unable to clothe itself either in prose or verse without the mirror of this same country- side, of its months in whose changes heavenly wisdom is reflected as in a glass, of its fields where the saints must walk before I can see them clearly (TWH 174)
To begin with Kaye-Smith did find it challenging to write as she had prior to her marriage, but at the suggestion of W.L. George she wrote what she called a monograph on Anglo-Catholicism. This was followed by Saints in Sussex, a slim volume of verses and two short mystery plays. The emphasis on Anglo-Catholicism and more especially her and her husband’s growing disillusionment with the Anglican church led her to write Shepherds in Sackcloth (1930) in which she takes as her central characters an Anglo-Catholic village priest and his long suffering wife. Kaye-Smith points out quite firmly in Three Ways Home that the story was inspired by her growing dissatisfaction with the Anglican church as she was forced to experience it every day through her husband’s work and her own role as the curate’s wife. The novel reflects not only a sympathy for the plight of the clergyman and his wife in their struggle to conform to the edicts of the Bishop when they are at variance with their own beliefs, but also a tenderness and longing for the countryside of Sussex.
Securely rooted in the countryside on the Kent/Sussex border and, unlike any earlier novels, the location central to the narrative, the village of Delmonden, is easily recognisable as the hamlet of Newenden. Just as Newenden has the river Rother that defines its boundary from the neighbouring parish of Northiam so Delmondon lies just in the county of Kent with the Rother forming “a boundary line between Kent and Sussex” (SS16). The proximity of Northiam is highlighted when on a Sunday “The major scale of Northiam bells and the minor scale of Delmonden, which down here on the marsh had sounded like a lusty song and its sorrowful echo” (SS 39/40) could be heard. Kaye-Smith begins her novel with clear descriptions and references that place the text in time as well as place. At the start of the novel Mr Bennet and his life appear to be hardly touched by the outside world with its “spring of industrial storms and ecclesiastical strife” (SS 7) however this slight reference can begin to date the setting of the work and as the narrative proceeds Kaye-Smith gives the reader a clear indication of the continued time setting as she documents Mr Bennet’s growing concerns with the Anglican church’s mode of worship and organisation. The secular world of industrial unrest makes little impact on the lives of those who inhabit Delmonden but the reference does enable the reader to date the beginning of the narrative to the late spring/early summer of 1926 and more specifically to May 1926 when the General Strike took place. Other references including those to the strife in the Anglican movement also date the text. The Anglo-Catholic movement had been in the ascendancy in the 1920s with its rituals that included the reservation and adoration of the Sacrament, the use of the prayer book from 1547, the use of candles and incense, Confession and if possible, daily Mass. An attempt was made in 1927/28 to address the divisions in the Anglican church by suggesting a revision of the Prayer Book. The proposed revisions included a suggestion that the Sacrament should only be reserved in churches in densely populated urban areas and it is this provision and its attempted enforcement by the Bishop of Maidstone that causes Mr Bennet his greatest difficulty. Mr Bennet is of a Tractarian persuasion and has suffered some difficulty because of his beliefs in the past. As the novel begins he has established his own version of Anglo-Catholicism in Delmonden that suits him in his vocation to minister as a shepherd to his flock and which also sits well with the villagers. He has always reserved the Sacrament so that he can celebrate the Mass in the homes of any villagers who cannot attend church or for those on the point of death who desire the last rites. He has also established a routine so that every Saturday evening he would make himself available to hear confession or give spiritual advice. While waiting for those who rarely if ever came Kaye-Smith has him reading from The Hidden Life, a nineteenth century devotional work much admired by the Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics. Kaye-Smith uses Mr Bennet’s dilemma in his disagreement with the Bishop over the reservation of the Sacrament to date the events of the text so that the reader can discern that the narrative begins in May 1926 and finishes in the early Autumn of 1928. To re-enforce the dating she has Mrs Bennet make reference to the bad winter that is comparable with 1909 and such a winter occurred in the south of England in 1927/8.
Just as Kaye-Smith uses the novel to document the problems in the Anglican church during the years of 1926-28 so she elaborates, in Three Way Home, on this controversy and the way in which it affected her and her husband in those years. They found themselves caught up in a storm of discontent and in-fighting that she notes, once she had converted to Rome, was “downright silly” (TWH 198). Where she found these difficulties irksome her husband found that the revision of the Prayer Book and the ensuing controversy “filled him with disgust and disappointment” (TWH 202). Slowly throughout this time both Kaye-Smith and her husband became increasingly disillusioned and when Penrose Fry experienced a crisis that deprived him of his voice they embarked on a holiday to Italy to aid his recovery. Unlike Mr Bennet’s crisis this one did not result in death but it did result in each of them recognising the Roman Catholic church as a living church and as Kaye-Smith records after a visit to the Cathedral in Palermo, “this place was really providing religion, and providing it not only for the pious few, but for the many, for the workers, for that man in the street to whom Anglicanism gives such a raw deal” (TWH 208). By the time Shepherds in Sackcloth was published at the beginning of 1930 both Kaye-Smith and her husband Penrose Fry had been received into the Catholic church.
While Kaye-Smith was writing Shepherds in Sackcloth she was living in London and her husband was the curate at a church in Kensington. Not only was this church of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion but as she mentions in Three Ways Home those that belonged to this church were “the most extreme type of Anglo-Catholic, known to their detractors within the Movement as the Ultramarines” (TWH 198) who took a very dim view of the 1927/28 controversy over the Prayer Book and its revision. Kaye-Smith and her husband grew increasingly uneasy with the continuing upheaval and her husband was particularly distressed by the wrangling and compromise over the Prayer Book as he had hoped that any new way would allow him to “set his conscience at ease both with the Church of England and with ‘the undivided Church’ ” (TWH 202) but this was not to be. Her depiction of Mr and Mrs Bennet and their concerns with the Anglican Church certainly seem to reflect those of Kaye-Smith and her husband and as such Shepherds in Sackcloth represents Kaye-Smith writing a form of the fantasy fictional self albeit one set in a very real present.
Her focus on a clergyman and his wife is drawn from life and she makes much of the relationship between the Bennets. Although their conversation does focus on the work of the parish and the difficulties, there is also an authenticity to the common place domestic conversation. Mr Bennet is at pains to have tea ready for his wife when she returns from a shopping trip and the ensuing conversation is concerned with the purchases she has made and the relative merits of a new green coat. Kaye-Smith takes care to not only show the way in which the difficulties of the Church might have an impact on the lives of the clergy but she also wants to show those clergy and their wives as being just like other couples. Their conversation and daily lives do centre around the parish just as other couples lives centre around their respective professions but clergy wives, do also, concern themselves with new clothes and all those other issues of domestic life. Kaye-Smith felt that “the clergymen of modern novelists are nearly all caricatures. They seem either to be a perverted company of sadists and sex maniacs, or else they are revoltingly smug” (TWH 223). She wanted to redress the balance in her portrayal of Mr Bennet to reflect a more balanced picture of a clergyman as an ordinary person “with normal thoughts and affections, leading for the most part prosaically normal lives” (TWH 223) and thus seems to have based her characterisation of the couple upon her own personal picture of herself and her husband.
Mrs Bennet spends much of her time in supporting her husband in practical ways, such as delivering the parish magazine or in attending church when nobody else turns up, but she also acts as a sounding board and giver of wise advice when Mr Bennet is vexed by the behaviour of such as the Bishop or Mrs Millington at the Manor. She is able to calm his worst furies and to distract him from what might be catastrophic reactions. She is capable and forgiving as she extends charitable and practical succour to Mrs Millington’s niece when she arrives at the Vicarage about to give birth to a child that her aunt knows nothing of. Just like Mr Bennet she is ordinary. Kaye-Smith has tried to create an individual who is much closer to the truth of the average clergy wife rather than the vicar’s wife of novels who, she feels, is usually “represented as stupid, domineering, interfering, a gossip, a busybody and uncharitable” (TWH 179). The value and support of Mrs Bennet to her husband is emphasised at the end of the novel when a few months after her death he decides that he will defy the Bishop and reinstate the reservation of the Sacrament. In the subsequent conversations with his Bishop he casts all restraint and caution to the wind and says exactly what he thinks. Whereas Mrs Bennet had always countenanced caution and compromise if possible without her measured approach Mr Bennet challenges the Bishop when he states that “We’re talking of how we can sacrifice the good and holy to bolster up the respectabilities of official religion. You kill my saints as you’ve always killed them. Caiaphas!” (SS 309).
Kaye-Smith, in writing the self, in the sense that she was writing from what she knew and what she perceived to be a true reflection of her life as she saw it, was paying tribute to “two of the worthiest and the most misunderstood members of the community – the English clergyman and his wife” (TWH 224). In many ways Shepherds in Sackcloth is a sympathetic character study of an old parson and his wife and of Kaye-Smith and her husband as they might have been had they lived and worked in a country parish into old age.
Although the text is dominated by the religious concerns of the characters alongside them Kaye-Smith has recreated the countryside of the Kent/Sussex border. The evocation of the rural environment that surrounds the village of Delmonden provides a complimentary and sympathetic backdrop to the lives of the human characters with Kaye-Smith’s descriptions of the land and the seasons. Certain elements of pathetic fallacy and feelings of nostalgia are present in the text in that the seasons and descriptions of the weather subtly reflect the mood of the characters but also the longing that Kaye-Smith herself must have felt for the countryside that she could no longer reach easily. The opening descriptions of a calm early summer evening when “the marshes were yellow with sunshine and buttercups, and on the hills the young woods lifted torches of green fire to the sky” (SS 16) has an idyllic quality of remembrance and recall. The same hint of wistful longing for the countryside is present throughout the text as Kaye-Smith describes season after season – Autumn comes as “the fields lay brown and bare, their furrows veiled by the mists that clung no more to the river’s course in a ribbon of haze, but stole inland, creeping into woods and brooding over the fields” (SS 130/1). “Winter came swiftly that year. An October frost snapped the leaves from green to red, and blackened the roses that lingered in Delmonden gardens. Fogs hung salty and half frozen above the Rother” (SS 256). While “Summer came, and the swallows returned – wheeling and swooping over the low, yellow fields of the Rother” (SS 248). The use of weather and the seasons to reflect the moods and circumstances of the characters is illustrated in the plight of Theresa as she realises that she is pregnant. The realisation of this fearful circumstance is made more dreadful by the weather as “The March sky hung lower over the fields, grey and filling itself with rain. As it filled and darkened, the earth also became dark and terribly clear” (SS 158) The pall of rain and darkness over the land foreshadows the impending death of Theresa in childbirth with the light sucked from the land and the hills left “leaden grey, with iron-black woods and hedges” (SS 158). Similarly, after Theresa’s death Mr Bennet feels he should go and talk to her bereaved suitor but the lack of desire to face this encounter hangs over him much as the clouds hang over the land so that “All the greens were a little grey, all the yellows a little brown, and the first white of the hawthorn seemed shadowed in the hedge” (SS 212).
Although Shepherds in Sackcloth is firmly rooted in the Anglo-Catholic movement it does reflect Kaye-Smith’s growing disillusionment with that brand of Anglicanism. It was the last novel that she wrote as an Anglican and she later viewed it with affection for she felt that “it has more tenderness in it than any other novel of mine except, perhaps, Little England” (TWH 2220). Kaye-Smith never considered it as any kind of farewell to Anglicanism but rather a tribute to the long suffering clergy and their wives. She readily admitted that the novel was drawn from personal experience and it is easy to see the older and imagined country dwelling Kaye-Smith and Penrose Fry in the Bennets.

September

My New Year resolution to write at least one poem for each month of the year has proved to be something of a challenge. As you can see I have managed to complete an acrostic poem for each month so far and I have succeeded in writing a sonnet for each season. With each month I have tried to encapsulate something of the essence of the particular month as it has occurred here in the countryside and landscape of Romney Marsh. Below is the offering for September.

September

Sloes blue black bloomed hang in abundance
Encrusting each thorny hedgerow twig and branch.
Pearl bright misty morning dawns slowly change
To high mare’s tail clouds hung in noon’s azure sky.
Eager gulls scream and wheel above furrowed fields,
Meandering cows munch silently on dewed grass as
Bleating sheep echo across the marshland meadows.
Evening glowing sunset illuminate berried hedgerows,
Reflecting a golden haze from darkening trees.

 

Sheila Kaye-Smith; A Ploughman’s Progress

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).

Autumn Poem

As we are now officially in Autumn I have decided to post the last in my four seasons  Sonnets. However I shall still continue to post at least one poem for each of the months left for 2018.

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.

 

 

August

A few days ago the weather here changed quite dramatically. June and most of July had given us a summer  with high temperatures and clear blue skies. Sometimes oppressively hot although it seemed churlish to complain. However, gardens and fields were scorched, animals searched in vain for shelter from the unfamiliar, seemingly endless, heat. Earth was crazed with cracks and fissures or reduced to dust that clung to feet and shoes. Each day we searched and scoured the weather forecast for signs of rain. Then in August the rain came. Thunderstorms and beating showers pounded the ground and brought back to life our lawns, plants and crops. This weather, we are told is not unique. Rather the summer of 1976 was similar and I remember being told by my grandfather that the summer of 1920 was equally hot and dry. So much so that on Romney Marsh the ditches (dykes) dried up and sheep wandered into adjoining land making the work of the Lookers (shepherds) much more difficult.

The rain came as a welcome relief to many of us but for the farmers trying to gather in the harvest it is, perhaps, not quite so pleasing. With this in mind I have centred my August acrostic on the change in the weather.

August

At last the rain has come.
Unrelenting heat banished beneath
Grey pewter blanket of cloud.
Urgent torrential showers pour,
Soaking and quenching parched land.
Tonight sun’s arrow rays pierce through.