In common with many other people I watched the Passchendaele centenary ceremonies at Ypres and Tyne Cot. As I listened to the various tributes, readings and speeches I was reminded of what the poets Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon had said motivated them to join the fight. When Thomas was asked why he choose to risk his life he replied by picking up a handful of earth and stating that it was “Literally, for this”. Sassoon related his own reason for volunteering in Weald of Youth when he explained that after riding a bicycle across the Kent and Sussex countryside he realised that “The Weald had been the world of my youngness, and while I gazed across it now I felt prepared to do what I could to defend it”. Like Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Tom in Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Little England comes to realise that his “country was only a little field-corner that held his wife and his home, but as he sat under the stars, he felt in his vague, humble way, that it was a country a man would choose to fight for, and for which perhaps he would not be unwilling to die”.
As the War ragged on Sassoon and others, in both the armed forces and on the Home Front, became rather less enthusiastic about the conflict. After watching the TV coverage I was drawn back to a little known work of Sassoon’s published in 1945 – Siegfried’s Journey – in which Sassoon sets out to tell of his journey through the latter part of the War on into the aftermath. The slim volume covers his experiences from 1916-1920. My first surprise in my rereading was when I found that Sassoon had made several visits to Rye, it seems, primarily to play golf. In November 1916 Sassoon records that he was staying at the Dormy House and that his games of golf had been “something snatched from a circumvention of the War”. In late 1918, or perhaps more likely in early 1919, Sassoon was again back in Rye, and again playing golf. Tired of the fuss being made of him as a ‘war poet’ and eager to escape from post-armistice parties, he found a “sense of escape” in his few days in Rye. He found that with his companion, a man he had known from his youth, he was able to revert to the unaffected individual he remembered he once had been. Although acknowledged as an illusion, he felt that Rye “had ceased to concern itself with the agitations of the outer world”.
It is in this volume that Sassoon records his many encounters with the various writers of the time. He notes that after the Armistice he made a number of “excursions to the homes of celebrated authors”. One of these was John Galsworthy. Along with being asked by Galsworthy to contribute a poem to the magazine Reveille, Sassoon had received an invitation to dine at Galsworthy’s home. Apart from Galsworthy and his wife the only other guest was a “shyly uncommunicative young lady writer” who may well have been Sheila Kaye-Smith. In 1916 Kaye-Smith had written a short text on the life and work of Galsworthy and he in turn had commented on Sussex Gorse. On February 24th Galsworthy was reading Sussex Gorse and noted that it was “striking and very good”, however in March, when writing to Edward Garnett, he stated that the novel “has very good things in it – though its marred all through by the romantic conception of the central figure – a great pity”.
Whilst reading Sassoon and other writers of the First World War that the remembrances of Passchendaele had taken me too, I also began to wonder where my grandfathers had been in 1917. My paternal grandfather, Edward, a non-commissioned officer in the Horse Division of the Army Service Corps, was married in June 1917 but I expect returned to active duty shortly afterwards. By the end of 1917, or early in 1918, he was in Italy so perhaps he had missed the awful events of Passchendaele. My maternal grandfather, Albert, was a Private in the Royal Sussex Regiment, and although some of this regiment seem to have been involved at Passchendaele I have, as yet, to find out if he was there. Regardless of their involvement in that particular battle they did both see active service in France and Belgium and it is to such as they that we all owe a debt of gratitude. For their generation the First World War was forever present and it left a scar that was never erased. Like most other survivors neither of my grandfathers spoke of the war but it remains a constant amazement to me that they could come back and take up life, raise families, work hard and live into their nineties. Perhaps they both coped because they both spent the rest of their lives working the land and, as Kaye-Smith characterises such men, they were contemplative countryman in solitary communion with their land and their God, much as Maas Vuggle is in Susan Spray. “Every Sunday he would take his dog and walk up to the gate in the Hill field, where he would stay for an hour or more, leaning over the gate and gazing at the earth, the spaniel crouched beside him, both of them as still as earth itself. Then at last he would straighten his back, light his pipe, call to his dog and walk off home”. It was not unusual to see either of them walking across the land, deep in thought. As Kaye-Smith observed, in Three Ways Home, such a man would stand “on a Sunday evening [and] lean(s) over a gate and gazing down at the earth feel(s) more than he can think”.
As I returned from my walk yesterday I noticed four green woodpeckers fly from a tree across the lane and into the trees at the bottom of the vicarage garden. Their half laughing, half screeching call was distinctive enough even if I hadn’t seen the flash of bright leaf green as they darted like red headed arrows on their well chosen path. The general dialect, and somewhat onomatopoeic, word for both the bird and the sound it makes is ‘yaffle’. But the old dialect word in Sussex is gallybird, and this is the title that Sheila KayeSmith gave to her historical novel that was published in 1934.
By 1930 Kaye-Smith and her husband had moved from London to the countryside that had featured so prominently in her earlier novels. They had purchased a converted oast house,Little Doucegrove, on the edge of the Sussex village of Northiam and for the first time in her life Kaye-Smith was living amongst the people and places she had described. For her and her husband the move coincided with their conversion to Roman Catholicism. Like many converts they both embraced their new faith with considerable devotion and commitment. Influenced by her faith and the locality in which she was living, Kaye-Smith began to plan and write a series of novels that were to make up a family saga which never actually came to fruition. In Three Ways Home Kaye-Smith records that she decided to write “an immense book which should give the story of the neighbourhood from the banishment of the Mass in 1559 down to the return of the Mass in 1930. The story should not be only religious, but historical and social as well; I would show the changes even in place-names …….I would also show the history of my own home, tracing its foundation to Robert Douce”
This “immense book” would be the story of the Alard family – the family who had been at the centre of The End of the House of Alard (1923) – with the first novel set at the time of the Elizabethan persecution of Catholics and subsequent narratives tracing the history of the Alard family. Only two novels in the proposed series were produced; Superstition Corner (1934) and Gallybird. Gallybird is an historical novel set in the late seventeenth century and in the immediate geographical area around Kaye-Smith’s home in Northiam. Like Superstition Corner this novel is set at a time of religious intolerance at the end of the seventeenth century at the time of the Glorious Revolution and at the beginning of the reign of William and Mary. As with Superstition Corner Kaye-Smith sets out to write an alternative view of a time of Catholic persecution n England. She maintained that she wished to redress the balance by telling her story not from the Protestant perspective, as she maintains almost all historical fiction presents the past, but from the alternative view of a practicing Catholic.
Kaye-Smith has created a double stranded narrative that explores the story of a French born Catholic woman, the dowager Lady Alard, who must follow her faith in a clandestine way for fear of persecution, and the more central narrative of Gervase Alard, Lady Alard’s brother-in-law. At the start of the novel Gervase Alard is a widowed, Anglican clergyman who in all conscience feels he is unable to take the Oath of Allegiance and Supremacy and therefore is forced to resign his living. He is presented as a worldly figure who is entranced by his books, who eventually losses his faith and becomes seduced by the study of the occult. When he unexpectedly inherits his older brother’s iron making furnace he finds himself ill equipped to take on the business. Drawn as a sympathetic character who has lost his way, Gervase Alard is manipulated by his unscrupulous iron master, Douce, and is besotted by the young woman he marries to save her from poverty and the cruelty of her very puritan family.
The narrative setting is focussed on the Manor of Conster and its iron industry. Kaye-Smith makes plain, from the start of the novel, that the iron furnace at Conster is doomed. It’s future failure is foreshadowed in descriptions of the natural environment and the references to the gallybird. Seldom idyllic but rather gloomy and often featuring the winter or autumn months, the countryside and natural surroundings at Conster are dominated by the woods and trees that provided the fuel for the furnace. However, these same woods and tress are either not thriving or have a malevolent quality that means they cast “shadows [that] lay dark against the sunlight”, and around Conster house “the back and sides was darkness – heavy crests, branches thrust forward against windows, trunks pale and gnarled”. From the start of the novel the gallybird becomes a herald and symbol of the end of the iron industry and the fortunes of the Alard family. The “rocketing laugh” of the woodpeckers is heard breaking the silence of the woodland. Douce states that the trees are “infested with gallybirds”. While Kaye-Smith demonstrates her own knowledge of the natural world, and specifically of the woodpecker, when she notes that “a gallybird never goes to a sound tree” and as most of Conster trees are rotten “the gallybirds are in most of ‘em”. Gervase’s ignorance of this fact and his subsequent gladness at hearing the gallybirds at work in the trees links his doom with that of the iron industry. By the end of the novel Gervase has died and the furnace is finished.
Unsurprisingly, given Kaye-Smith’s determination to redress the balance when telling this story of Catholicism, Lady Alard, the ‘under cover’ priest Mr. Parsons, and Catholicism in general are shown in a sympathetic light. Gervase abandons his occult views at the end of his life and finds comfort from Lady Alard’s crucifix upon which he focuses as he breathes his last breaths. Where the depictions of Anglicanism and the strange occult beliefs of Douce and Gervase are shown to be restricting, limiting, and lonely, the faith of Lady Alard and Mr Parsons is shown to be liberating. At the end of the novel the characters that have embraced the Catholic faith have attained freedom and are looking “over the marshes, partly inned for pasture, partly overflowed with great pools and saltings”. They are released from the dark trees and woodland that surrounds Conster and have come out into the light.
Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956) was a rural regional novelist who set all of her novels in the countryside of the Sussex/Kent border – in theWeald and on Romney Marsh.
When war was declared in 1914 Kaye-Smith, along with many others, thought it would be short lived and follow the pattern of previous conflicts. When this proved to be unlikely she began to undertake a “certain amount of war work” in her home town of Hastings which amounted to making swabs and bandages and selling tea and doughnuts. She claimed that in the early years of the war she was somewhat distanced from the agonies that many other women suffered: she was brother less, her father was elderly and her ‘best boy’ was not in khaki. However, she did assert in her memoir of 1937 that she had little sympathy with those who distributed white feathers or with the pacifist cause. Neither did she wholeheartedly approve of the war and as it progressed, in company with many others, she began to question the continuation of the conflict.
Throughout those early years of the war she was absorbed in writing Sussex Gorse – ostensibly a rural based novel set in the Sussex countryside in the early 1800s that tells the life story of Reuben Backfield from the age of 15 to his 80s and his determination to own and make productive large areas of local moorland. Kaye-Smith used this novel as an escape from the warmongering and jingoism and contended that she was not influenced by the war yet the sub title of the novel is “the story of a fight”. Although critics at the time of publication heaped praise on the novel as a masterpiece of characterisation and an authentic rural work they seem to have never seen it as a war novel. I would contend that this is a war novel and that it shows clearly the influence of the conflict. Throughout the narrative it is clear that Kaye-Smith was unable to escape from the atmosphere of war. The descriptions of Backfield’s successes and failures echo the British forces advances and retreats at Mons and on the Marne. Some descriptions of particular incidents reflect the conflict in France directly – a riot over enclosures and the blowing up of a tree root and the resulting injury to Backfield’s brother use the language more readily associated with trench warfare. In the enclosure battle, Reuben “screamed, half suffocated” and “choked and fell into darkness” while after the explosion there was a “smell of smoke and gunpowder” and the “ground was charred and trampled” and there was “a pool of blood”. The novel is divided into sections that also reflect Kaye-Smith’s contemporary world – e.g. Treacheries, The Woman’s Part, The Victory. A general vocabulary of imperial war abounds with a frequent use of words such as conquer, subdue, struggle, battle, fighting, campaign and enemy. At the centre of Sussex Gorse is the concept of necessary sacrifice to achieve a desirable end. At the end of his life Backfield believes his sacrifice has been worthwhile reflecting the propaganda of the early years of war that preached that the sacrifices made in war are worthwhile to attain the final victory.
After her success with Sussex Gorse – published in 1916 – she seems to have become disillusioned with the attitudes of those who lived in rural and provincial England. She was drawn to London where in the summer of 1916 she found that soldiers and civilians alike had an immediate awareness of the war and the shadow it cast. By this time the war had come to the civilian population in the form of Zepplin and Gotha raids. Back in Hastings, at some time in 1916 Kaye-Smith experienced what she described as an emotionally unhappy time when she hints at a problem with her mental health and recalls that her head was “a mass of jingling, juggling lines … full of misery” and that she needed to escape. In a letter from Rebecca West to Sylvia Lynd, dated October 1917 West states that she has heard that Kaye-Smith (along with G B Stern and Constance Holme) has had a nervous breakdown. For six months in 1917 Kaye-Smith returned to London to work on the Death Lists at the War Office and and it seems probable that she was writing to relatives and collating lists of the war dead during the battle of Passchendale. During her stay in London she experienced first hand a terrifying Zepplin raid which for someone who was normally easily frightened by load noises must have been particularly horrific.
Back in Hastings towards the end of 1916 and during the early winter of 1917 she wrote her second war novel – The Challenge to Sirius. As with Sussex Gorse the research for the novel and the writing of it acted as an escape from the misery of the war. Set at the time of the American Civil War and for much of the narrative in the southern states and Mexico, with sections at the beginning and end that feature Sussex, this work marked a temporary departure from her purely rural regional novels. Although when writing the novel she imagined she was taking herself away from the conflict she did later admit that much of it was influenced by the European war in 1916 (presumably most notably the Somme). Meticulously researched, with the Civil War sections are told from the point of view of a young Sussex farm worker who has gone to fight for the Confederacy. When the narrative is concerned with battle the only thing that places this warfare in the US and the1860s is the sections of copied research material that reads as though it has been filched from a history book. When her character recounts his experiences, however, the language and imagery could easily be transposed to an account from a soldier fighting in the trenches. Unlike Sussex Gorse, Kaye-Smith does not just use the language of war in an unrelated context, but rather gives the reader graphic detail of death and destruction that is only too reminiscent of the Somme. Using the major battles of the Civil War as a framework for her narrative of war, Kaye-Smith uses the Battle of Shiloh to describe how the road was “churned into broth”, “the men’s boots were heavy with mud”, and in an attack “the air split, screamed, roared, and earth rose up in a sheet of flame”. Later the picture of warfare is even more reminiscent of the trench warfare of the First World War. Each description calls to mind the pictures that we have become all too familiar with – trees are “snapped trunks [that] ended in grotesque tassels of splinters”, shells burst around the combatants so that they have to take “refuge in half dug trenches”. Like the mine that was exploded on the Somme at the commencement of that battle, at the Battle of Vicksburg Kaye-Smith has a mine explosion that fills the “air with earth and roots and pieces of rock”. While the Battle of Atlanta is a “nightmare of chaos, noise, hurry, glare and darkness”
Back in Hastings towards the end of 1917 Kaye-Smith began to write her final war novel – Little England. With this novel Kaye-Smith was ready to tackle the war itself. Not in France but as it affected those who were left behind and living in the Sussex countryside that she knew well. With a focus on a couple of families in a small village she looks at the attitudes to, and experience of, war for the family members, most especially the women. She questions what makes a hero while tackling and highlighting the issue of those who were “shot at dawn”, and for her characters who fight in the war she adopts the premise that both Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon advanced as their reason for fighting – namely that they were not just fighting for England but were, more especially, fighting for their own little patch of rural England.
As she explores the attitudes of women her focus on young women reflects a variety of points of view. One of the young women takes advantage of the new opportunities for women to gain independence and becomes a tram conductress in a nearby town, her rather more educated sister who is portrayed as the stereo-typical supporter of the war, subscribes to the propaganda of heroism and sacrifice but ends the war irrevocably damaged by the loss of her independence, her brother and a failed marriage. Equally Kaye-Smith’s third young woman is probably more representative of the average rural woman – she wants her young sweetheart/husband Tom to come home safely, and when he is killed she struggles with her grief, realises there is nothing she can do, but accepts the position and makes the best of it while remembering that he died for the small piece of England that he loved. While others see him as a hero she sees him as no different to all the others who have died and she equates his death with that of a boy from the village who was shot at dawn. The only other woman’s reaction to the war that Kaye-Smith considers is that of Tom’s mother. At first the war is an inconvenience to her but when Tom is conscripted her advice indicates her position. She tells him to stay as far away from the fighting as possible and when he is killed she sees his death in terms of a dog in a muddy farm yard. He is expendable, replaceable and his death lacks all dignity, is for no purpose and is certainly not heroic. She does not subscribe to the ‘Little Mother” attitude nor does she endorse the propaganda posters that illustrated mothers pointing away from home, set against a rural backdrop, and captioned – “Women of Britain say go”.
In the death of Tom, Kaye-Smith begins to explore the concept of heroism. While his death is not viewed as heroic by his family, those in the wider community hail it as such with the Anglican vicar preaching the standard stereo-typical line – that his sacrifice was not in vain and that he died for his country. However, it is in the portrayal of Jerry Sumption’s death that Kaye-Smith enters territory that was both contentious and potentially very controversial. Bearing in mind that Kaye-Smith is writing in 1917, and that she has Jerry “shot at dawn” for desertion and then represents him as just as much a hero as Tom, this section of the narrative is unique in the canon of First World War fiction. The writing of this section of the novel, and particularly Jerry’s final letter home, is rendered with a complete lack of sentimentality but with a realistic authenticity. Jerry’s death is presented as a heroic sacrifice in which he gave his life for his community just as all other men had, and with this presentation of his death Kaye-Smith subverts the conventional idea that non-combatants should only honour those who died in battle.
But these deaths are not the only ways that Kaye-Smith brings the war to this rural community. She is at pains throughout the novel to demonstrate that the war affected the daily lives of those on the Home Front – particularly in Sussex. From the start of the novel the sound of the guns in France, although geographically distant, intrude on daily life. They can be heard “pretty plain”, they are unceasing, as they ‘mutter’ and ‘grumble’ with a ‘thud’ and ‘throb’ with a noise that permeates every aspect of life. Like Hardy’s “Channel Firing” they “disturb the hour”. In an echo of Reuben Backfield in Sussex Gorse, and to emphasis the all pervasiveness of the war, Kaye-Smith depicts the day to day workings of the farm in terms of war as she utilises the vocabulary of conflict. Tom’s younger brother sees his work on the farm as war work. He sees the harvest fields as his “field of battle”, the gathering of the harvest is set out as a carefully planned strategy that becomes the “Big Push”. The harvest gathering is the “battle front”, when the storm comes it is with a “screaming howling wind”, the “blasting of thunder” so loud that “no voice could be heard” as well as “choking heat”, while the water courses around the fields “gleamed like [the] steel” of mechanised warfare in the stormy light.
The novel’s concern with the lives of working country people, the issue of ‘shot at dawn’ victims, and the portrayal of attitudes to war, resonate with a realism that does not adhere to patriotic propaganda, or cry for a pacifist solution. Rather, it illustrates an acceptance of the actuality of war while raising moral and philosophical questions that place it at variance with some other writing from the war.
Throughout Kaye-Smith’s war novels she promulgates and develops a philosophy that would go on to be front and centre of her later work, namely humanity’s relationship with the natural world.. Little England has a secure rural setting populated by ordinary country people whose simple lives are governed by the seasons and the cultivation of the soil. While offering an exploration of heroism and sacrifice, the novel depicts a quiet and moving patriotism that is primarily presented as acceptance of the sad facts of war – that the innocent die, that those at home suffer and that life must go on. The novels that Kaye-Smith wrote throughout the war reflect the changing attitudes and concerns of much of the population as the war progressed. Sussex Gorse has at its centre the idea of worthwhile sacrifice, whilst by the time Little England was written Kaye-Smith was reflecting the more sceptical view of war that questioned the continuance of conflict while seeing the death and destruction as futile. Certainly Kaye-Smith’s own attitude to the war changed relatively quickly and she notes in Three Ways Home – by the winter of 1915 she “began to wake up and feel ashamed” she “felt guilty till the end of the war”. As with most of her generation she continued to carry the lasting effects of the war, and that sense of guilt, with her for the rest of her life. Subsequent post war novels – right up to her final work – carry the scars of that experience with constant, albeit small, references to the effects the war had on ordinary people’s lives.
Welcome to theruralwriter blog – I shall be posting, from time to time, on all things rural – most notably rural fiction and particularly the work of Sheila Kaye-Smith, my most recent research on the Comport family of Northiam, the history of a Romney Marsh village and anything else that catches my interest. Please feel free to post comments – I look forward to hearing from you.