February Poems

Here are my February poems.  The task I set myself at the beginning of the year, to write a poem or two for each month of 2018,  has proved to be arduous and we are only two months into the year! These February poems try to capture the fleeting promise of Spring that is elusive at this time of the year when the weather can be so dull, cold and wet.

My inspiration comes from the wider landscape and my garden here in this corner of the south country.

February

Fragile flakes of February snow
Encrust ploughed frozen furrow.
Bleak skies cloud heavy grey,
Riven by single sharp piercing ray.
Unrelenting knife keen wind
Attacks with a stabbing icy cold.
Raven wing carves circles in the gloom
Yet catkins speak of spring to come.

February – through the kitchen window

Colour is returning to the garden beneath the window.
Nodding daffodils silently unfurl petals of gold
While snowdrops dangle above the mossy wall.
February fill dyke is dripping and damp
As hellebores hang shy water beaded heads.

Twigs and branches silver teardrop shimmering.
Earth squelching, sucking at the drizzling rain.
Undeterred the birds swing on feeders and fat balls.
Blue tits, great tits, robin and sparrow fight for food,
While rotund pigeons and blackbirds scavenge
Among the sodden, rotting, rusty leaf litter.

While I complain about the cold, wet, clinging
Grey grim clouds and dank drenched land,
Nature prepares and promises
The growth of another Spring.

 

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Green Apple Harvest Sheila Kaye-Smith

The war had a profound effect on Kaye-Smith, as with many of her generation. Looking back with hindsight in 1937, she notes that she had never felt such “fundamental relief than that which came to me when the bells rang out on the signing of the Armistice. The world seemed to have begun again” (TWH 124-125). For her, the overwhelming intrusion of the war into daily life had been like having “a picnic on the edge of an abyss” (TWH 125). The novels Kaye-Smith had written during the War had brought her professional success with complimentary reviews in several publications, and her private life was happier than it had been for a long time, but she maintained this was the very reason why she felt the need to turn back to religion, and why she became an Anglo-Catholic at Christmas 1918.
In Green Apple Harvest the setting acts as a backdrop to the central concern of the novel: the nature of salvation and religious faith. Kaye-Smith utilises images of the natural world, most notably light and water, as well as descriptions of the countryside, as evidence in her development of a religious philosophy that links humanity, nature and God. Through her central character, Bob Fuller, Kaye-Smith presents the uncertainties of the immediate post-war society that, haunted by the frailty of life, lived for the moment but was searching for something to believe in, and for a meaning to life. Katherine Mansfield noted in her review for The Athenaeum that “It is a novel divided against itself, written with two hands – one is the country hand, scoring the dialect, and the other is the town hand, hovering over the wild flowers” (Mansfield 252). This comment highlights the bifurcated nature of Green Apple Harvest as Kaye-Smith attempts to present a rural regional narrative that tries to wed reality with lyrical descriptions of nature while preaching a particular religious polemic. These elements of division and disorder in the novel make for a muddled narrative. These confusions in the story reflect the difficulty of post-war society’s efforts to come to terms with the disorientation, uncertainty, and changes that were to be part of the 1920s. Green Apple Harvest is set in the present and follows the life of Bob Fuller, the son of a Sussex Methodist farmer, on his redemptive journey to salvation. Bob is something of a rebel and is easily led astray by women, alcohol and the persuasive words of others. In his search for a sense of identity he becomes infatuated by a gypsy girl, Hannah Iden, and when rejected by her, he turns to drink and gambling. In an effort to redeem himself he undergoes a number of conversions to faith which he later regrets when they prove false and unsatisfactory. Similarly, his marriage to a town girl is doomed to failure, primarily because the couple are incompatible, and Bob feels a compulsion to continue his search for a meaningful religious creed. This persistent quest for salvation leads Bob to become an itinerant preacher, and he is eventually fatally injured by villagers who duck him in a pond for what they believe is his hypocrisy. The characterisation of Bob Fuller as a passionate, fervid, fanatic in matters of love and religion is set in opposition to the characterisation of his brother Clem. Unlike Bob, Clem is depicted as a steady, simple and charming country boy/man. He falls in love and marries Polly, a straightforward country girl, who is used as the voice of wisdom and common sense. Clem and Polly are satisfied with a life that is uncomplicated and stable and they have no sympathy with any organised or proselytising faith. Their world is one in which “everything lovely and homely” (GAH 15) and meaningful is to be found in the natural world around them.
Kaye-Smith gradually builds the justification for her eventual assertion, that the bond between God, the natural world, and humanity is not “pantheism or nature worship; it is Catholicism – God in all things . . . It is the ground of the sacramental system, through which by the operation of the Holy Ghost nature gives birth to that which the whole world cannot contain” (TWH 139). To prove this proposition Bob must undertake a spiritual journey in which he frequently strays from the path of acceptable conduct, and in which he must learn, by experience, that salvation must come from within. His first attempt at achieving salvation leaves him disappointed as he feels “no more saäved [sic] than a potato-trug” (GAH 19).
Kaye-Smith contrasts the severe doctrine of Calvinism with her own interpretation of Catholic Anglicanism that is based on the concept of the loving God of the New Testament. To highlight the difference between these two forms of Christianity, Kaye-Smith invests her depiction of a Calvinist Christianity with a terrifying harshness, that uses imagery of a wrathful Old Testament God who condemns those who are not of the Elect, and therefore cannot find redemption, not being predestined for salvation. This hellfire form of faith is illustrated in the person of Mr Beeman, a “Peculiar Baptist” (GAH 146). Beeman persuades Bob that he is “outside the mercies of God” (GAH 150), that “If God sends [him] to hell, it’s because it’s right” (GAH 155), that he is ” in fur the Wrath to Come” (GAH 145), that there is no “sign that he had put on Salvation” or that he has any “token of the Lord’s favour” (GAH 148). Set against this condemnation is the comfort provided by the natural world and a philosophy of a loving God. To illustrate this and accentuate a stark contrast, Kaye-Smith presents the loving God through the first-person narration of Bob as he describes how,
I climbed over into the field, fur I felt mazed and tired, and I laid down on the grass among the dead leaves that had come from the wood . . . All I cud think on wur God, and I thought ‘He’s wonderful. He’s the wonderfullest thing thur is, and if I cud feel I wur Chosen of Him, thur be naun else I’d want beside’. . . . then it all happened. It wur lik a shining, silver light, and it seemed to come all over me, and my heart went light wud peace and gladness, and summat in me seemed to say, ‘I have loved thee wud an everlasting love’ (GAH 164-165).
Initially, under the influence of the Calvinist doctrine of The Chosen, Bob “distrusted a yearning for the beauty of the fields” (GAH 181) believing it to be the work of the devil. The peaceful contentment that can be found for a troubled soul in communion with creation is illustrated in Kaye-Smith’s utilisation of a traditional imagery of heaven as a starlit night sky. When Bob is rejected by those he had chosen to preach to, he finds solace and comfort from a perceived closeness to God. When looking at the night sky it was “as if he could touch it with the swing of his sleepy arm, and rake down the shimmering stars of the Lamb of God into the field beside him. Drowsily content, he turned over” (GAH 201).
Unlike the early pre-war novels, Green Apple Harvest displays a coherent and fully developed religious ideology in which a mystical evocation of the land is given a sacramental significance. In the immediate post-war world, Kaye-Smith suggests stability and a meaning to life can only be found in a spiritual attachment to the countryside. In the narration of Bob’s attempted suicide, the text speaks in a variety of potentially oppositional voices, as Kaye-Smith combines, and juxtaposes, lyrically-idealised descriptions of the countryside with dialectically expressed thoughts, references to Christian theology and biblical imagery. The description of Bob’s eventual revelatory experience that brings him to a true understanding of his unity with God is told by refracting his experience through a combined lexicon of the Christian symbolism, and imagery of water and light. The light of dawn is used as a symbolic metaphor for the spiritual enlightenment that is to come. In an idealised country scene, the gleams of dawn “swept up the fields in a soaring light – the water courses gleamed, the windows of farmhouses burned, the wood seemed to change colour, and the subdued chatter of birds among the trees swelled into a song” (GAH 271). Bob suddenly and unexpectedly recognises that it would be a wrench for him to leave “this quiet country of the Rother Valley, which all his life had been so much to him” (GAH 271). In describing the revelatory experience of God, that leads to Bob discover that “He’s love . . . and He’s beauty . . . He’s in the fields mäaking the flowers grow and the birds sing and the ponds have that lovely liddle white flower growing on ’em” (GAH 275), the text references the most mystical and spiritual of the Gospels, that of St John, as it speaks to the symbolism and imagery of God being love, and Christ as the light of the world.
The imagery of breaking dawn and the advent of sunrise knits together Bob’s memories of the countryside with descriptions of the immediate natural world as he walks towards the pond. In a continuation of the symbolic use of light motifs, Kaye-Smith links a series of light images with remembrance of the past that is centred on the countryside and the illumination of that natural world with “fields tilted to the sunset”, “ponds like moons”, “villages in a twilight thickened and yellowed by the chaffy mist of harvest” and the “glory of big solemn stars” (GAH 272). Each of these images is of muted or reflected light, indicative of Bob’s lack of understanding of the nature of God. As he comes near to the pond, however, the quality of light is more intense, dramatic and immediate and is used to herald the actual presence of the Almighty rather than a manifestation of him in his creation. The intensity of this light is such that the surface of the water “gleamed from the sunrise”, “was lit up and aflame” as the whole scene became part of “the fanning, flooding sunrise” (GAH 272). Kaye-Smith uses language that resonates with biblical allusion, but is also somewhat clichéd, and once Bob had recognised and accepted the loving nature of God, his face “shone in the sunrise”, he was “transfigured and gleaming” (GAH 273) in the light of God’s countenance as it poured from the sky.
The use of water imagery in this section of the text is less intrusive and more subtle. The water images centred on the pond form a symbol that signifies purity, the washing away of sin and initiation into a new life. The prosaic water of the pond is transformed by the reflective light of the sunrise, so that a “yellow light gleamed” from its surface, it appeared to be “aflame” (GAH 272), and the sunrise caught by the water “striking up from the broken ripples of the pond” (GAH 273). In an echo of Christ’s baptism God speaks to Bob with the voice of a Sussex yeoman, to remind him that
I am your God – doan’t you know me? Did you think I was away up in heaven, watching you from a gurt way off? Didn’t you know that I’ve bin with you all the time? – that every time you looked out on the fields or into your kind brother’s eyes or at your baby asleep in his bed you looked on Me? (GAH 273).
Like Graham Greene’s Scobie in The Heart of the Matter who hears God telling him that “I made you with love. I’ve wept your tears. I’ve saved you from more than you will ever know” (Greene 258) the God that speaks to Bob is the loving God of the New Testament, who loves with the unconditional love of a parent. In the fields at sunrise God questions, “‘Why woan’t you look and see how beautiful and homely and faithful and loving I am'” and “‘How could I ever cast you out? I’m plighted to you wud the troth of a mother to her child'” (GAH 273). The presentation of the all-encompassing nature of this loving God comes to dominate the end of the novel. Set in contrast to the ‘conversions’ to faith that had come to Bob through fear, this conversion is presented as genuine and inspired by a realisation that “‘God aun’t shut away from us in heaven, but He’s down here – He’s in the fields wud the young corn and wud the animals caring for their young, and He’s in you and me'” (GAH 276). This direct and individual, unmediated contact between humanity and God, through contact with the natural world, and universally available to all humanity, Kaye-Smith states, “expresses a belief which was fundamental to my religion then, [at the time of writing Green Apple Harvest] as it is to it now” [in 1937 when she had converted to Roman Catholicism] (TWH 139).
Having alluded to Christ’s baptism, Kaye-Smith continues the tangential and tentative referencing of the New Testament in her telling of Bob’s death. Convinced of his own salvation, Bob, like Humphrey Lyte in The Tramping Methodist, feels compelled to preach that “God is love and all things lovely are part of His love” (GAH 284). In a further echo of The Tramping Methodist, the Gospel narrative, and Bob’s experience at the farm pond, the villagers attempt to teach him a lesson by ducking him in the mill pond. The metaphoric imagery utilised in the recounting of his illness and death is that of sunset and fading light. As he grows weaker the sky becomes ‘pale’ and “translucent with a dying sunset”. When he is at the point of death “It was dusk, and the warm mist of May hung in the garden”, the air was “stirless in the grey light” and with his last breath Bob murmurs of the “‘shadders of trees on the road'” (GAH 285). To affirm the belief that true universal Catholicism is available to all, Kaye-Smith presents Bob’s faith as classless, non-judgemental, mystical, concerned with a belief in the supernatural, and has a firm belief in an after-life. For Clem, Bob’s death in May seems “unaccountable hard”. Bob’s response encapsulates the essence of the personal and clearly-developed religious philosophy that the novel sets out to demonstrate. He explains: ” I’ve a feeling as if I go to the Lord God I’ll only be going into the middle of all that’s alive . . . If I’m wud Him I can’t never lose the month of May’ “(GAH 285).
Green Apple Harvest is dominated by Bob’s search for salvation but the text also presents the reader with two strong women, Hannah Iden and Polly Ebony. Hannah Iden, a gypsy girl, is used to lure Bob into a dissolute life. Kaye-Smith establishes her as the villainous character of the novel. Identified as the ‘other’, Hannah belongs to an extended family who are proud of their difference. In the characterisation of Hannah and her family, the narrative utilises the dichotomous trope of Victorian fiction in which gypsies are romantic figures, free to roam unconstrained by the norms of society, while embodying values that subvert those norms of behaviour. As such, Hannah is romantically and sexually attractive to Bob but she acts as a catalyst to create instability in Bob’s relationship with Clem and his family. The villagers view the gypsies as “thieves” and “furriners”, who “poached” and “stole horses and could never be brought to justice” (GAH 28), and who were known to be steeped in the “deeper dye of Egypt” (GAH 51). For Bob her attraction lies in her sexuality and physical allure. He sees her as “lovely . . . her mouth makes my mouth ache . . . she smells of grass . . . and her eyes in the shadder – they mäake me want to drown myself” (GAH 30). In her subversive availability, she represents the immediacy of a readily accessible physical gratification that characterised the post-war desire to live for the moment.
Throughout the novel Hannah is defined by others in terms that equate her with evil intent. Kaye-Smith uses a number of lexical devices to reinforce Hannah’s heinous character. Her appearances in the narrative are associated with the gloominess of dusk, or darkness and with the sharp starkness of the “twigs and spines of the thorny hedges” (GAH 55) in the wet weather of autumn. Like Jerry Sumption in Little England, Hannah is inextricably linked with the cruel wildness of nature. She has “shining dark eyes, more the eyes of an animal than of a human being” (GAH 213), while her beauty is that of “the wild and harsh and lovely earth, or of nature in some petty, savage mood” (GAH 214). On occasion, when with Bob, she behaves like a “wild animal in his arms” (GAH 219). He recognises that “she’s a bitch” (GAH 29), but cannot resist her. Hannah’s intrinsic deceptiveness hides her harsh cruel nature with an appearance of coquettishness and is “like the bitter kernel of a ripe, sweet fruit . . . the hard stone in nature’s heart” (GAH 55). Hannah holds no fascination for Clem, but is a threatening, exotic ‘other’ who in her appearance subverts and destabilises the traditional patterns of rural behaviour to which he subscribes. In a ruralised caricature of the young post-war women known as ‘flappers’, her appearance disrupts and disturbs the conventional traditional values of decency. She wears a “bright shawl” and a “crazy hat full of feathers”, has “black and smouldering” eyes, a “red mouth” and a “humming voice, so unlike the drawl of the Rother villages” (GAH 27). Hannah’s ‘otherness’ is not just wild and exotic; Bob recognises that his association with her will take him “straight to the devil” (GAH 30). Like Alec D’Urberville in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, who is seen as Satan by the light of a field fire, she is shown surrounded by darkness, with her face illuminated by the hellish “red glow of the brazier” so that she looks like a “soul in hell” (GAH 218). Clem is also aware of her “crude physical power” that spoke of her desire to “torment him”, and that to him indicates a “perverse depth of mortal cruelty” (GAH 55). There is a certain romance about Hannah’s appearance and her taking to the road as and when she pleases, but Kaye-Smith is consistent in her portrait of her as a “bad lot” (GAH 50) when she is arrested for “fencing – or receiving stolen goods” (GAH 233). The establishment authority figure of a policeman is used to condemn all gipsies and to assert the ultimate inadequacy of their attempts to thwart the conventions of society, as he reinforces their ‘otherness’:
them gipsies is like animals, and you can’t hold them responsible for their doings as you would ordinary human beings. I’ve seen a deal of ’em, there being plenty in these parts, and always in court for something or other (GAH 233).
Just as, in character and demeanour, Bob is the antithesis of Clem, so Polly Ebony is set in direct contrast to Hannah. Polly subscribes to the expected and customary rules of conduct in this rural society, and like many women in the post-war years, accepts the vicissitudes of life without question. Her courtship with Clem reflects this as it takes place in the fields, under “A faint yellow moon” where the couple are part of the “honey-coloured stain on the mist” and where they innocently stand “hand in hand” (GAH 11). Demanding little of life, Polly’s simple delight is watching Clem working in the fields, as she is sitting “on the sun dried clods”, “contemplative, in the peace that often came to her” (GAH 23). She is happy to settle down to living with a farm labourer, her only concern being that she should “prove her fitness to be Clem’s wife” (GAH 65). Subdued in appearance, her clothes are simple and often down-at-heel, and she is unconcerned with the acquisition of wealth. Polly becomes the voice of moderation based on common sense, her life rooted in the natural world and her own wise perceptive instinct.
Her judgements of other people reflect her own honesty and awareness of the world around her. The antithesis of those who subscribe to a modern materialism, she has little time for material fripperies, and realises that people are more than the sum of their outward appearance. As a representative of the reliable rural working class she is quick to condemn those who adjudged country people as “a very common lot” (GAH 115) because they are unconcerned with the latest smart clothes, fashionable furnishings or precise etiquette. Rather Polly is motivated by kindness and love for her fellow human beings, regardless of their social status. When Bob is set on marrying a town girl (Mabel), Polly is against the match because “‘She äunt his style . . . And he doän’t love her'” (GAH 108). When Mabel criticises the roughness of Polly’s hands her reply that “‘I’d sooner have an honest, working pair of hands than a pair of useless white ‘uns'” (GAH 117) illustrates her pride in good honest toil and a contempt for the falsity of outward appearances. Her fatalistic acceptance of the vagaries of life has no place for extremes of behaviour in either love or religion. In matters of religion, Kaye-Smith uses Polly as the voice to condemn the Calvinist hell-fire Christianity that Bob has adopted. She wishes that “he hadn’t got hold of such a Salvation sort of religion”, and believes that “he’ll find as much trouble on his way to God as ever he found on his way to the devil” (GAH 166) and in his relationship with Hannah.
Polly represents the best of a simple authentic philosophy of life engendered by a closeness to the natural world and grounded in the cycle of the seasons. Her kindness and consideration for others manifests itself in a cheerfulness in times of trouble, a desire to “make [Bob] happy” (GAH 245) when he is rejected by the rest of his family, and in helping Clem to line Bob’s “grave with late primroses and cuckoo flowers and buttercups” (GAH 286). Kaye-Smith leaves Polly to sum up Bob’s life:
‘Sims to me as Bob’s life’s lik a green apple tree – he’s picked his fruit lik other men, but it’s bin hard and sour instead of sweet. Love and religion – they’re both sweet things, folks say, but with Bob they’ve bin as the hard green apples’ (GAH 235).
As the voice of country wisdom and common sense, Polly is given the final word when, after Bob’s funeral, she states that “‘if Bob had only had sense he might have come to be a saint'” and “‘if he had had sense he’d be alive now'” (GAH 287).
Although Kaye-Smith noted that as soon as the war was over the “natural desire was to get back to normal life – to dig a deep grave for the past” and that “desperate efforts were made to forget it [the War] (TWH 124), the narrative of Green Apple Harvest betrays vestigial concerns with the horror of war. In her tangential condemnation of the hell-fire preaching of Mr Beeman and extreme Protestantism, Kaye-Smith introduces images that are reminiscent of descriptions of the shell bombardment of the First World War combined with a traditional representation of hell. Bob’s discovery of horrific pictures of destruction in a Calvinist Bible with “black and burning” buildings, “fire raining down from a black and thundering sky” while “people ran about in confusion” (GAH 142) references the battlefield and the destruction of cities, such as Ypres, that were razed to the ground and left in ruins, or the bombing of London by zeppelins and Gothas. Bob’s dreams are characterised by the destruction of fire as he is haunted by visions that recall the devastated landscape of Flanders. He imagines the roofs of Weights Farm “seared and gutted with fire”, “the windows broken, and the road littered with black spars and rags” (GAH 145) while “he was among those who ran hither and thither” (GAH 144).
While the novel addresses religion and utilises a rural regional setting peopled by working class characters, in Green Apple Harvest Kaye-Smith introduces another theme which she would go on to develop in later works. By having Bob marry Mabel Powlard from the nearby town of Bulverhythe, she highlights the differences in attitude between town dwellers and those from the country. The narrative emphasises the honest reality of country people in contrast to the superficiality and materialism of those from the town. With her up-to-date clothing, her make-up, her insistence on rigid rules of behaviour and her superficially flirtatious ways, Mabel brings the exciting yet alien “atmosphere of streets and shops and picture houses” (GAH 92) to the countryside. Having none of the robust rebelliousness of Hannah or the common sense of Polly, she is a character lacking in tenacity and concerned only with the frivolous pretence conferred by the wearing of the latest fashions. She is considered pretty but “a trifle anæmic” (GAH 92), her hair is “pulled down fashionably over her ears” (GAH 93), and with her tasselled “boots and her handbag and the powder on her nose” she makes Polly “feel all dowdy and common” (GAH 95). Mabel’s view of those from the country is patronising and snobbish, so that she considers herself far superior to Clem and Polly. Instead of spending time on having “clothes washed and mended . . . and dinner cooked all as a matter of course” (GAH 117) she would rather spend her days dusting vases and ornaments.
The ‘otherness’ of the urbanite is reinforced in the descriptions of Mabel’s feelings of alienation in the countryside. She becomes “an exile from [the] warm, lighted streets, adrift in the solitude” (GAH 114). Mabel perceives the natural world to be “strangely and terrifyingly lonely” (GAH 114). Mabel’s experience of the countryside is rendered in a vocabulary associated with animal menace so that she hears the “moan of the water” in the ditches, feels that the woods have “crept down to the marsh” and that the fields have a “savage remoteness”, while the entire countryside contains a “dim threat” (GAH 114) of alienation. To add to the strangeness and discomfiture of her circumstances, Mabel realises that her husband belongs to this “dark, unfriendly country” and that he is “part of its clay” (GAH 114). To highlight Mabel’s complete estrangement from all that is natural, Kaye-Smith contrasts her uncaring attitude, as a mother, with Polly’s loving motherliness for Bob and Mabel’s child. Once Mabel has left Bob and returned to the town she is more than willing for Clem and Polly to “keep the child” (GAH 262) for she “did not want him” (GAH 285). Viewed from the perspective of Bob’s country values, Mabel is a complex mass of contradictions. She is “provoking, enticing, repulsing, disappointing, suffering, repining” (GAH 264) and is only happy in an urban environment “with her furniture and her piano” (GAH 265). To emphasise the difference between town and country, Kaye-Smith juxtaposes a prosaic description of Mabel sitting at the piano “which she could not play”, picking out “with one finger the opening bars of the Waltz Dream”, with an idyllically lyrical account of the countryside at dusk:
The air thickened as it chilled, smudging the few faint stars that were hanging round the chimney of Pookwell. Down at the rim of the eastern sky above the woods, there was a wan kindling, showing that soon the May moon would rise and call the buttercups, and the chervil and the roads with the feathery dust, out of the darkness into her white peace (GAH 263).
Such contrasts between town and country and the identification of the countryside with the peace to be gained from solitude and communion with nature is echoed in Vita Sackville-West’s “The Land”. In the section that depicts the countryside in winter Sackville-West notes that townsmen “have lost, in losing solitude,/ Something, – an inward grace, the seeing eyes,/ The power of being alone;/ The power of being alone with earth and skies” (Sackville-West 31).
Throughout the novel, Kaye-Smith uses her evocations of the natural world to illustrate the efficacy of such an environment and to preach her own religious philosophy. For those who cannot see beyond the material, the countryside is threatening. For those who can appreciate the beauty of nature, and who understand their place in creation, the countryside has a spiritual significance and is reflective of the Christian teaching that “God is love and as all things lovely are a part of His love” (GAH 284), and that humanity can come to a unique closeness to God through contemplation of the natural world.
This novel is divided against itself in that the narrative is driven by Kaye-Smith’s desire to promulgate a specific religious ideology, and as a result plotting and characterisation are repressed and made subservient to her doctrinal position. Bob Fuller is the device she uses to extrapolate this theology as she engineers a case for a particular ‘brand’ of Christianity. Mansfield is critical of Kaye-Smith’s depiction of Bob Fuller, and the characterisation of him throughout the text suggesting that if Kaye-Smith intended Bob to be the hero and that this “is the story of [his] lusty youth, [his] broken prime, [his] bitter harvest. . .” (Mansfield 251) the writer has failed to effectively realise her intention. However, Mansfield’s assertions take no account of Kaye-Smith’s use of Bob not just as a hero figure but as a vehicle for the exploration of the nature of religious belief. Kaye-Smith believed, in hindsight, that “the religion expresses my own deeper feelings more surely if less clearly than anything” (TWH 142) else she had, or was to write. In her estimation the novel “was immediately successful” (TWH 141).
The reviews were mixed. Mansfield’s review condemns the novel for the rural regionality that continually emphasises Sussex. Most particularly she objects to the dialect that is “so faithfully recorded that words with double dots, double vowels, buzzing, humming words, words with their tails cut off, lean words grown fat and stodgy words” (Mansfield 250) that it overpowers much of the narrative. Where Mansfield sees a mismatched presentation of rurality and characterisation in the text, Punch hailed Green Apple Harvest as “genuine and of the soil” and as a work that was “redolent of earth”. Similarly the review in The Observer detected the authenticity of the novel as ‘country’ writing and noted that Green Apple Harvest expressed a “plain kinship with elemental natural things, as a husbandman looking over his ploughed field”. At a loss to explain why Kaye-Smith was not a more popular novelist, the reviewer recognises that the work deals with the “basic facts of human nature and spirituality” while praising it as “art of that passionate rightness that belongs also to natural things, like sky and sea and open fields”. More recently, Glen Cavaliero has recognised a religious dimension to the novel in his assertion that Kaye-Smith’s own Christian convictions are “subdued to a more general concern with the values of a Christian humanism” (Cavaliero 76). However, in this generalised comment he has overlooked her belief in the mystical spiritualism of a catholic Christianity that looks to a relationship with God through communion with creation, which lies at the centre of the narrative.
While the narrative and characterisation in Green Apple Harvest are dominated by the rural regional setting and the religious disputation, there is an underlying sub-text that references the legacy of the war. Bob’s desire for immediate physical gratification from a dissipated lifestyle, alongside his ardent searching for a meaning to his life, the descriptions of war-torn landscapes, the characterisation of Hannah’s subversion of behavioural norms, Mabel’s materialism, and Clem and Polly’s rejection of all that speaks of a changed world, highlight the lasting effects of the disruption of society brought about by war. While reflecting the concerns of contemporary society, Kaye-Smith’s depiction of the accessibility of God may well have resonated with, and provided reassurance for, a readership who were mourning the dead of the First World War, and seeking for something to believe in. She believed Green Apple Harvest to be “my best novel, and in this I have the support of no less an authority than George Moore” (TWH 141). However, it is debatable if Kaye-Smith has managed to reach beyond a preaching insularity, to achieve the universality suggested in Moore’s dictum that “art must be parochial in the beginning to become cosmopolitan in the end” (Moore 3). Although a careful reading argues for the ecumenicalism of faith, the presentation of the rural regionality, and a narrow, rarefied interpretation of Christianity, constrain the novel to a provinciality from which it is unable to escape. For a twenty-first century readership, religion and its presentation, mediated through the use of a dialect language that dominates the narrative, means that at best, Green Apple Harvest appears to be an unconscious form of proselytizing propaganda for a particular religious philosophy.

 

January Poems

One of my New Year resolutions was to try and write at least one, and hopefully two poems each month of this year. In the poems I aim to give my impressions of that particular month. As a further discipline I am going to try and write one poem each month that is an acrostic i.e. I shall use the letters that spell the month as the beginnings of each line. Any further poem will be of a length and form that suggests its self at the time.

Today I am posting my first two “efforts” – for January. Please feel free to comment – encouragement, observations and criticisms welcome. Remember short comments welcome on my Twitter @theruralwriter.

January

January skies of gloomy grey hang
Arrow pierced by iron black twigged trees.
Nothing moves in the dripping damp drizzle
Until silent stillness is riven by raven wings
Across the charcoal cloud as crow’s caw.
Rain lashes and stabs the sodden ground
Yet evening brings promise of a better tomorrow.

 

 

Day began beneath gloomy gunmetal grey blanketing cloud
As ferocious wind rattled and roared through
The iron black silhouettes of interlaced twigs and branches.
Rain, icy as steel and needle sharp, pierced the soggy fields.
Muddy, expanding pools and puddles invaded and conquered,
While ditches and streams, swollen and raging, burst banks,
As they flow free across ploughed and seeded land.
But rose streaked twilight’s westering sky promises
The crisp, cold, calm of a crystal bright opal dawn.
In the first faltering filaments of subtle searching sunlight
Icy furrowed fields, diamond frosted, glisten with hoary rime.
By noon a cornflower sky, blazing sun with soft cooling breeze
Illuminates skeletal hedgerows scarlet, gold and verdant green.
At last the small promise of future Spring.

 

 

Sciatica – the poem

Just over a decade ago, during the early months of the year, I suffered an excruciating bout of Sciatica. During one particular night, in those lonely hours when all the world seems to be sleeping,  I could not sleep, felt I would never recover, and would  never be rid of the pain. I began to write a poem to try and explain what it felt like.

The other day while trawling through past material on my computer I found a copy of the poem. Here it is. Please feel free to send me your comments.

Sciatica

It arrives silent and invisible
On the wings of the night.
Snatching, tearing, gashing,
Piercing, gnawing, grinding
To the bony core of being.
Pain of exquisite unique refinement
Raw and vicious, imperial and grand.

The tense and anxious victim
Moves with stealth in hope of escape.
Scarce daring to breath
While denied the comfort of sleep.

As the metallic moon drapes the room
The wind moans, and the world sleeps
In a cold frozenness of snow and ice.
The howling wind is the knife’s twisting stab,
Invisible, incessant, omnipresent.
The bed a padded prison
With no release from padlocked agony.

Will morning never come?
Slowly, slowly, very slowly the sounds and sensations fade.
Light leaks through the window
From an infinitesimal crack in the carapace of heaven.
The victim rouses to another dawn.

Fear, panic and doubt have sat beside me,
Like some frightful trinity,
Force feeding my mind in the dog watch of the dreadful night.

John Comport

John Comport (1784-1846) – Another piece of the puzzle

Although I have not discovered why or when John Comport went to Northiam I have, I think, discovered how he became the owner of a Plumbing and Glazing business that would later become a substantial building business under the ownership of his eldest son, William.
At the age of 26 John was married to Elizabeth Elliott and her father Thomas Elliott was a Master Plumber with a business in Northiam. It is not too rash an assumption to make to believe that John was working as a Plumber and Glazier for Thomas. John’s father, assuming John originally came from Ryarsh in Kent, was a Plumber Glazier and therefore it is likely that he followed his father into the same trade. Certainly John’s younger brother George did exactly that. I wonder if John had been Thomas’s Apprentice – certainly the dates would fit if that were so.

Elizabeth Comport nee Elliott gave birth to a son, William, in 1812/3. Elizabeth’s mother died in 1813. Elizabeth died in 1816 and her father the following year. It would appear that Thomas bequeathed his business to John and Elizabeth and their heirs. In his Will John indicates that he has honoured some kind of agreement of this nature when he states that he is leaving nothing to William because he has already given him his business. William also benefitted from Thomas’s generosity when he inherited, along with some of his Elliott relatives, land in Northiam at The Limes.

After Elizabeth’s death John re married. In 1818 he married Elizabeth Perigoe. They had two sons – Alfred born in 1821 and Frederick born in 1823. Alfred married Elizabeth Coppinger in Northiam in 1843 and died in Malling, Kent in 1846. He left two daughters – Louisa b1845 and Elizabeth b1846. By 1851 his widow was living back in Northiam and in the Census of that year she is described as a Glazier’s widow and a pauper. Frederick married Jane Milham in Northiam in 1864 but by 1871 he is recorded in the Census as living in Bermondsey working as a ‘Colour Man’. He had two children Frederick and Elizabeth and he died in London in 1878.

By 1826 Elizabeth Comport nee Perigoe was dead and in that year John married Ann Breden (1789-1865) in Northiam. Although she was born in Pevensey, the daughter of Pryor Breden, but she seems to have been living in Northiam at the time of her marriage. Ann and John had two children – George Pryor Comport -born 1829 – who eventually emigrated to Australia, and a daughter Adelaide who died aged two years. At the time of her death Ann was living with her son George and his family at 23 King Street Maidstone.

John’s death in November 1846 was recorded in the Registrar’s district of Beckley stating that he died in the Parish of Northiam, was aged 62 years, and that his occupation at the time of his death was Farmer. The cause of death was Typhus Fever. The Summer of 1846 was hot and dry but the Autumn and Winter that followed were cold, frosty and snowy with gale force icy winds. Added to the bad weather in November there was a Typhus epidemic throughout Britain. It seems that John was a victim of this epidemic. Typhus fever is a bacterial infection contracted from the bite of an infected arthropod such as a flea, louse, mite or tick.

John was a Unitarian and they promoted education and literacy for all including women, who they suggested should be educated because they would have the greatest influence over the children in a family. The Northiam Unitarian church had a library by the time John died. John was a literate man – he subscribed to a book of poetry in 1826. According to a Comport family legend he was the original owner of three Georgian silver punch ladles perhaps demonstrating his liking for the finer things in life. In a diary written by a Mr Pinyan in the 1840s John is said to have gone with his wife to a local farm house, Morley, for tea and to have been part of a group that enjoyed music making.

 

 

A Frosty Day

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

 

Isle of Thorns – Sheila Kaye-Smith

Isle of Thorns – Kaye-Smith
Kaye-Smith’s realisation of the countryside in The Tramping Methodist and Starbrace has an assured accuracy that would become a feature of all her work as she began to develop the concept of a link between humanity and the natural world. The use of recognisable place names and accurate topographical features that place the novels in a distinct region of Sussex and Kent was to become the usual setting for much of her later fiction. Essentially a tragic adventure story, Starbrace hints at a sympathy with Catholicism and a concern with the lives of the rural working class that would become central to much of Kaye-Smith’s fiction after the First World War.
Advised by her agent that “The public did not really care for historical novels” (TWH 72) Kaye-Smith set Isle of Thorns in the present. The novel is unique among Kaye-Smith’s pre-1920s fiction because the central character is a woman, Sally Odiarne. In naming her character it is likely that she used the surname of a family that appears in Northiam records. Unlike any other of her novels, we are provided with a unique insight into her writing process and character building from a series of letters she wrote to Robert Nichols. Whereas for her views on the rest of her work we have to rely on Three Ways Home and All The Books of My Life, which by necessity provide a much-edited and perhaps misremembered view of events, these letters were written directly after publication and have a relevant immediacy. In Three Ways Home Kaye-Smith acknowledges that this text is “more personal than any other that I had written hitherto, and the heroine is in many ways myself as I would have liked to be” (TWH 90). In a letter to Nichols, soon after publication, she wrote “how bright of you to have seen a ‘devilish lot’ of me in Sally” (LRN 34). However, once Nichols had finished reading the novel he seems to have sent Kaye-Smith a second letter or ‘lecture’ of his thoughts and opinions of the work. In her reply Kaye-Smith acknowledges that there may be much of her in Sally, but that “Sally is mostly pure imagination” and “what you must not do is to take her to represent me, to be my mouthpiece” (LRN 36). The depiction of Sally as unconventional was not for its own sake, but to facilitate a “better chance of working out her own personality on the roads” (LRN 37). Equally Kaye-Smith took exception to the portrayal of Sally as a “‘study in feminism'” and suggests that she was a “study in a certain, and luckily rather rare, type of feminism” (LRN 37). In Kaye-Smith’s estimation Sally stood for “the necessity of having one’s moral code based on experience” (LRN 37). With a similar picaresque ‘wayfaring’ format to that of The Tramping Methodist and Starbrace, Sally and the other central characters in Isle of Thorns travel the countryside of Sussex seeking a sense of their own identity, salvation, redemption, faith and freedom.
This novel, as with previous works, owes much to Kaye-Smith’s reading. The most obvious influence comes from George Borrow’s Lavengro: The Scholar, The Gypsy and The Priest (1851) with the descriptions of Sally’s wandering life amongst travelling show people. Sally’s reading of Jakob Boehme’s Mysterium Magnum (1623) informs her developing philosophy of faith and sense of identity, and acts as a justification for her itinerant wanderings. Like Boehme, she believes that God is evident in the natural world and
“that the old mystics were wrong when they spoke of the mystery of God. God is the clear morning redness – it is we who are the mystery. When I look up to God I seem to see infinite simplicity, infinite candour; when I look into myself I see nothing but fire and fogs. That’s why I’m on the roads, for I hope that this utterly new life will help me to get a peep into myself” (IT 26).
A more subtle but nevertheless important intertextual connection is to be found in the resemblance of some sections of the plotting to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1892). Kaye-Smith has reproduced the love triangle that is at the centre of Hardy’s novel, replicated the use of landscape to complement human activity, and adapted incidents to suit her plotting. To reinforce the links between Isle of Thorns and Tess, Sally sees her flight with Moore as “like Tess Durbeyfield and Angel Clare”(IT 263) when they attempted to escape from the law.
Alcorn suggests that the pastoral genre has “always concealed beneath its placid surface highly charged comments on political and social issues” (Alcorn 16). Isle of Thorns exemplifies this in its exploration of the role of women in society, the nature of love, and an individual’s sense of their own identity in a changing social order. The novel charts Sally’s relationships with Andy Baird and Raphael Moore from early spring through to autumn. Sally is dissatisfied with her life and has abandoned her existence in London to tramp the roads of Sussex so that she “‘might find [her]self again'” (IT 10). She is travelling with Andy Baird who runs the shooting gallery in Stanger’s World-Famous Show. While camping in a semi-derelict cottage on the Isle of Thorns, in Ashdown Forest, she has a chance encounter with Raphael Moore, a clerk who walks across this area of the forest to get to his work. Each of these people has escaped from a former life: Baird, “a weird mixture of the Scotchman, the gipsy, and the journalist” was once a clerk, Moore had left London with his young son when his wife died, and Sally had left London because she felt she would “‘lose [her] soul'” (IT 9) if she stayed. In a series of twists and turns the narrative traces Sally’s difficulties in reconciling her feelings for Baird, who represents a dangerous freedom, and Moore, who is far more conventional. In a sequence of adventures on the road Sally becomes ill and is rescued by Moore; once restored to health she returns to the show and Baird. She is followed by Moore and his young son as he seeks to tell her of his feelings for her, and she stabs Baird when he attempts to make their relationship a sexual one. Finally she meets Moore again, and acknowledges her feelings for him. Unlike Hardy’s Tess, the novel ends with the couple together.
Sally is a complex character with confused ideas and opinions about her place in middle-class society. At the start of the novel she points out to Moore that she has left London because everyone there has “got the same deadly conventional way of being unconventional” (IT 9). Rather naively she believes that with the freedom of the fields and the open road she can pursue a life unfettered by such conventionality. Her idealistic view of the ‘Show’ people and Baird in particular – who she sees as “the best of the whole thing” (IT 11) – highlights her positioning as the ‘other’ in this sector of society governed by conventions she neither knows nor understands. Moore, placed as a dispassionate middle-class observer of her position, sums up the seriousness of her plight when he suggests that “your affair’s more serious than I thought. First you tell me you’re alone, which is bad, then that you’re with a travelling show, which is worse, then that you’re with a man friend, which is worst of all” (IT 12). In the first indications of a feminist assertion of independence along with a suggestion of criticism of the middle-class restriction on the lives of women, Sally categorises the average British male of the time as one “who doesn’t like to see his female walk five miles alone, or have tea in an A.B.C. without a chaperone” (IT 12).
In this novel of Kaye-Smith’s exploration of the place of women in society, Sally’s confusion becomes focused on her emotional life that is crystallised in her attraction to both Baird and Moore. Baird is a ‘devil may care’ bohemian whose louche physical appearance places him as an untrustworthy villain. His striking face, “strongly cut nose and chin” and “slight moustache” along with the “velveteen suit and leather gaiters” (IT 31) make him unconventional when compared with Moore. He is dangerously attractive because he has rejected the societal norms of the middle-classes, but when his physical advances go beyond holding hands or a chaste kiss, Sally finds him fearful. Like Hardy’s Tess, Sally is seen as ‘sexual property’ in her relationship with Baird. Baird is used to highlight the plight of women in Edwardian, male-dominated society, as he sees women as sexual objects to be used and controlled by men. As such he represents the brutal reality of an attitude towards women that had not changed from that seen in Alec D’Urberville, albeit that Baird’s claim of superiority does not have any of the financial clout that supports that of D’Urberville. Patronisingly proprietorial, he argues that he has every right “‘to be furious if you were unfaithful to me and love someone else . . . but it’s quite different with me – with men'” because “‘A woman’s love is all of the same sort, a man has distinct kinds'” (IT 233). In Hardy’s narration the murder of D’Urberville takes place behind closed doors, but Kaye-Smith allows her reader to be present when Sally stabs Baird. The unpremeditated act is engendered by Baird’s rough unwelcome embrace as he “gripped her closer and closer against him” and the realisation that “at his feet lay her dead adventure” (IT 236) as a liberated modern woman, and the equal of any man.
In contrast to Baird, Moore is a stereotypical middle-class clerk, well-dressed in a sober country way, who believes it is dangerous for young women to tramp around the countryside unaccompanied. He is a man of “fastidious refinement and a perfect breeding” (IT 15). His name, Raphael, alludes to the archangel and the concepts of virtue, faith and healing salvation. While Baird represents the exciting and dangerous rejection of the “stormless, featureless life of the middle-classes” (LRN 21), Moore is the safe, reliable, prosaic man to whom Sally is attracted because he offers her “the one hope of safety” (IT 78). His treatment of her is in stark contrast to that of Baird. He is a polite, perfect old-fashioned gentleman, makes no physical advances and addresses her as Miss Odiarne. He apologises if he inadvertently touches her, and believes that “‘No decent man would kiss a woman against her will'” (IT 79). Sally is torn between her desire to be a free woman, which she mistakenly believes is possible with Baird, and her need to feel cared for and respected, which is possible with Moore. Unable to resolve her dilemma, she alternates between the two men.
In her attraction to Moore, she recognises that she needs more than the physical excitement she experiences with Baird; the latter’s sexual physicality is insufficient as she yearns for a more spiritual dimension in her life. This distress is manifested in her plea for guidance to a picture of G. F. Watts’ ‘Rider on a White Horse'(1878). Watts’ work incorporates the imperial concepts of conquest through strength, power and majesty, but also suggests the judgement of God on those who lack moral strength and rectitude. It is significant that Sally finds prayers that were the “sweet worded translations of the holiness of some Latin saint” (IT 40-1) insufficient and unsatisfactory. Rather she needs this powerful natural image of the horse – named “Faithful and True” by her – to aid her in her search for salvation and direction. Traditional Anglican worship causes her confusion for it highlights a stark difference between Sally and Moore. He has “pure prayers” and a “clean heart”(IT 44), but she cannot remove her perception of her own sinfulness by partaking of the Eucharist. Physical faintness and a heart “beating violently” (IT 44) demonstrate her heightened awareness of her own immorality.
In a series of contrived coincidences, Sally ricochets between dangerous physical encounters with Baird and safe spiritual reconciliations with Moore, but she is not the only character who is searching for a meaning to her life and whose resolve is tested. Moore’s doubts and fears are put to the test when he undertakes an epic tramp from Ashdown Forest to Chichester in search of Sally. In this section of the novel, and in the final chapters, Kaye-Smith brings together the association of the natural world, humanity and faith. The weather reflects the circumstances and moods of the characters, and Kaye-Smith utilises the early autumn stormy rain to reflect the hopelessness that Moore feels in his search, and she descends in to pathos to describe how
“He was walking, or rather shuffling, southward. The wind was rising again, and blew quickly, as if laden with wet. He had no ideas, no hope left. He would find another barn, and lie wet and hungry, glad to have a wall between him and the wind, or he would plod all night, for fear of taking cold by sleeping in his soaked rags” (IT 175).
Similarly the connection between nature and humanity is illustrated when the couple are reunited back at the cottage on the Isle of Thorns. Here, safe and secure, their contentment is reflected in the isolating and cocooning fog that “still lay round Isle of Thorns, stifling all the sounds of the dark Forest” leaving them “sat in the midst of silence . . . in a fiery island washed by a sea of night” (IT 297). Images of red light, in a variety of guises, are used as a metaphor that signals a growing passion between Sally and Moore. Shortly after meeting Moore, Sally sees him in the light of the stained glass window. His face is “flushed in the light that streamed through the crimson wing of an angel in the window at his side” (IT 43). The redness of fire is a symbol of their growing physical passion. Moore kneels “reverently . . . by the remains of a fire” (IT 115) lit by Sally, the evening “swam in a fiery mist” (IT 229), while from the firelight “A redness shot into the fogs” (IT 302). As they finally come together the “Red, glowing embers, tossed against the walls, suddenly flamed up and flickered” (IT 306).
Part IV of the novel brings together mystical images of nature, the sacramentalisation of sex, and the symbolism of Christian ritual. Moore and Sally both come to recognise that the natural world is imbibed with “the spirit of God” (IT 300). Moore achieves this through his contemplation of “the woods of Lindfield and Ardinglye, with the sun-warm fruit in the hedges, the smell of frosty stagnant dew, the taste of the thick evening air”, while echoing the experience of Humphrey Lyte and Miles Starbrace, Sally’s recognition comes as she dreams of “a sky, shining with a myriad stars” ( IT 300). For both Sally and Moore the sea becomes a physical symbol of liberation. Kaye-Smith equates the sea with freedom. Sally’s association of the sea with her childhood foreshadows her reconciliation with Moore when they dance, childlike, on the shore. The sea engenders sensory “memories of sand and shingle, silt, salt and brine” (IT 206). Later, the sea represents the Christian orthodoxy of redemptive freedom attained through baptism. Sally’s sensory experience of “the sight, the sound, the smell, the touch, the taste of the sea” as she plunges into the waves brings her to the realisation that the “great cosmic glory of water and light” (IT 209) brings her freedom of spirit and a new life. Once she and Moore are reconciled in a mutual love, the sea is “calm and clear . . . There’s no foam and fury” (IT 252). The implied sensuality of the couple’s experience in the sea foreshadows their sexual encounter depicted in the final chapters.
The sexual act, instigated by an initially reluctant Sally, is characterised as worldly, natural and religious; “the highest adventure [the world] has to give”, a sacramental “Holy Communion together” (IT 306-7). To emphasise the sanctity of sex the couple partake of a Eucharistic last meal together, again at the instigation of Sally. Adopting a priestly persona she “broke the bread . . . and held it to his mouth” (IT 311) while Moore “took the bread – making the sign of the cross” (IT 312). In an amalgamation of symbolic imagery, Kaye-Smith links this eucharistic act with the natural world and the couple’s physical union. Moore’s priestly action takes place as “The sun was dipping to the west” (IT 311) and “the thorn bushes glowed in a bath of crimson radiance, in which it was hard to say which was the most mysterious, they or their shadow.” (IT 311). After the mystic communion administered through sex and the breaking of bread, the couple are ready to be baptised into a new life by the drenching rain. Their ‘resurrection’ into a new life begins with them running out into the sunlight as “The wind sang in their ears and the sun was on their faces”. As they continued to run “the twilight swallowed them up” (IT 313).
While Isle of Thorns seems to owe much in its plotting to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the end of the novel does not subscribe to the despondent tragedy that characterises Hardy’s novel. In a subversion of the purely idyllic or romantic, Kaye-Smith chooses not to adopt a stereotypical ‘happy ending’; rather the narrative concludes with a practical solution as Sally and Moore intend to hand themselves in to the authorities. Sally will confess to the stabbing of Baird, while Moore will admit to aiding and abetting her in her escape from the crime. This resolution is characterised as a final adventure, when they optimistically and literally run full tilt into this new life. Moore believes that their prison sentences will be short, and so they should “Think of our life together – think of the great new experience we shall share. We shall know and understand things which we could never have grasped before” (IT 312). The novel hints at the modern in its rejection of an ending that answers all the reader’s questions. As the couple ‘run out’ of the narrative the reader is left to make a conjectural guess about the possible fate of Sally and Moore.
In this and her portrayal of Sally’s identity crisis, Kaye-Smith reflects much of the spirit of the 1910s. The Edwardian era was characterised by restlessness, questioning and changes in society brought about by a militant suffragette movement, the emergence of the Labour Party and Trade Unionism, and advances in scientific research. Kemp’s assertion that individuals and society as a whole were exhibiting a growing anxiety with “what was good, what was right, where duty lay, what the direction of man should be” (Kemp xiv) is illustrated in Isle of Thorns in Kaye-Smith’s rejection of established Victorian faith systems and social conventions of behaviour. Expressing a similar opinion A.C. Ward states that the age “may have been unflawed on the surface, but to twentieth-century minds . . . seemed to lack any core of personally realized conviction – to be mere second-hand clothing of the mind and spirit” (Ward 3). Ward’s implication that the immediate pre-war years were characterised by a superficiality of conviction and certainty that was not necessarily felt by the individual is explored in Isle of Thorns. Kaye-Smith depicts the prevailing uncertainty felt by many in her presentation of the dilemmas that face Sally in her desire to have a sense of her own identity and an individualised faith that is not reliant on the past. Similar preoccupations with the unpredictability of life can also be seen in works by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Shaw, through Major Barbara in Act 3, highlights the changing nature of society when Barbara explains that she feels that life is like standing on a “rock [she] thought eternal; and without a word it reeled and crumbled under” (Major Barbara 170) her. (Major Barbara was first performed in 1905 but was first published in 1907). Chesterton, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), with a certain poignancy, characterises the age as one of “strange indifference . . . this strange loneliness of millions in a crowd” (Chesterton 149) echoing Sally’s loneliness. Sally has lost her moral compass in these rapidly-changing times and in her search for direction she feels that she must reject the accepted mores of an outdated Victorianism and experience the ‘adventure’ of life. In one of her letters to Nichols, Kaye-Smith explains this when she states of Sally:
“Experience did not teach her to be ‘unconventional’ – I don’t know that it ever does – and in her case it bore out all the old stereotyped maxims, but at the same time made them alive, so that she could accept them and live in them without cramping her soul” (LRN 38).
Again Kaye-Smith’s intentions in her writing would seem to be in sympathy with
Rose’s contention that Edwardian writers became almost obsessed with ‘Life’ and that they believed that life should have “a mysterious spiritual quality that endowed human beings with identity, consciousness, a moral sense, and free will” (Rose 74). The depiction of Sally and her search for direction and meaning in her life reflects just such a concern for an individual identity that is not constrained by strict social conventions. Sally’s questing for such an identity echoes Dorothy Richardson’s emancipated woman in Backwater (1916), who goes “‘out into life, scored and scarred, but alive and changeable, able to become quite new'” (Richardson 214). Kaye-Smith means Sally’s emancipation to be spiritual, a “labour and adventure of the soul” which should not be rejected “because it means pain and fighting many things we hate” for “then we are cowards” (LRN 38). In this declaration Kaye-Smith rejects the contrivance that had characterised the lives of the central characters in The Tramping Methodist and Starbrace and adopts a new realism. Rejecting the fatalism that is evident in The Tramping Methodist and Starbrace, her depiction of Sally illustrates Rose’s argument that Edwardian “life novels” chronicled “the struggle of the individual to master his fate” (Rose 102). Rose argues that the New Realists showed in their fiction that “life could . . . be a succession of disappointments and frustrations” but that “by sheer effort of will” the soul of man “could prevail against any material handicap or social restriction” (Rose 102). Kaye-Smith’s depiction of Sally’s rebellion against the social norms of society, her thirst for adventure, and her learning from experience places this novel securely within Rose’s designation. However, as well as a concern with the physical and emotional aspects of life, realist writers such as Kaye-Smith were anxious to show that it was the spiritual elements of life that give life its reality. Sally’s search for a satisfying spiritual dimension to her life is at the centre of the novel and Kaye-Smith demonstrates Waugh’s contention that “the new realism of the Kingdom of
Heaven lies within the soul” (Waugh 206) when Sally is only able to attain contentment once she has embraced a commitment to faith.
Two decades after publication, Kaye-Smith dismissed Isle of Thorns as “in certain
parts extremely silly” (TWH 90). Even so in her letters to Nichols she states that the
novel represents “my honest point of view at the time I wrote it” (LRN 34). While the
letters indicate that Nichols had been critical of certain aspects of the novel, W. L.
George praised Isle of Thorns saying that:
“it moved me, and somehow it made me believe that there is no pain that may not have its anodyne. By itself it was beautiful, Sally like a blackberry bush in August, before it is quite ripe, and here and there you never do see her quite, but just a glimpse of her, as if a nymph ran through the woods and one saw as she went a gleam of a shoulder or flank”. (Letter from WLG to SKS 10th May1914).
The Spectator review choose to ignore the feminist agenda in the novel but concentrated on the pastoral rurality noting that “the descriptions of scenery are more attractive than the descriptions of persons” and that it appeared that Kaye-Smith was “obviously acquainted with the country she describes”. When the novel was reissued in 1924, as part of the “Sussex Edition” series, The Bookman was far less complimentary, but nevertheless perceptive, in the judgement that this novel appears confusing in its message and direction. The reviewer commented that this early work “while being evidence of her beauty of style, is fumbling and uncertain and will add nothing to her reputation”. In contrast a more recent comment on the novel by Glen Cavaliero rightly acknowledges that Kaye-Smith was attempting to write a novel that addressed the contemporary issues of her day by making this work “more determinedly modern” (Cavaliero 72). However, Cavaliero’s assertion that Isle of Thorns “embarrasses as a result” of a “note of high-pitched idealism being matched with a would-be sexual outspokenness” (Cavaliero 72) is unduly harsh and takes no account of the other modern issues that Kaye-Smith has attempted to address. In particularly the place of women in society as well as exploring an individualised religious belief. Isle of Thorns, completed after Kaye-Smith had suffered a lengthy and near fatal bout of pneumonia, marked a change in her fiction writing. Although reliant on Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles for some of its plot devices, this novel differs from other early works because the central character is a young woman. The realisation of Sally Odiarne is more realistic and rounded in its portrayal of a modern young woman who is confused in her search for a sense of identity in a changing world, and the portrayal of a regional countryside no longer dominates the narrative. In this novel Kaye-Smith has moved the parameters of her themes so that aspects of the natural environment become important symbols in the development of a wider philosophical understanding of life and humanity’s place in the natural world. Descriptions of nature have become more expansive and less detailed so that humanity is placed in a generalised context of the wider world of land, sea and sky. Once Sally and Moore are reconciled they both recognise that “They were part of the cosmic dance of sea and sky, and earth and air”
(IT 257). Once she is assured in her relationship with Moore, Sally “seemed to see her
deliverance written on the face of the sky” (IT 270). Orion is “a triumphant and spiritual thing” as she imagines “a great wind of space sweeping among the stars and shaking them like dangling fruit” (IT 271).With this different presentation of the natural world the regionality of the text becomes incidental.
The descriptions of Ashdown Forest present the reader with a reality that is
believable but the other locations are rendered in the manner of a travelogue and used purely as a backdrop to the central thematic concerns of the narrative. Kaye-Smith acknowledges that “[she] did not have to know a part of the country well in order to write about it – one visit and an ordinance [sic] survey map was [sic] enough” (TWH 89). Although she may have considered this to be so, it is not difficult to see the disparity between the descriptions of those settings that were familiar to her and those of which she had limited knowledge. The Down land of West Sussex and the beach areas around Chichester, referenced in Isle of Thorns, present the reader with a weak, generalised and ill-defined evocation of landscape. The beach could be placed in any geographical location on the south coast with its “salt pools” (IT 261) and “moist sand” (IT 264) while the Downs become a great plain “grown with furze” (IT 268) from which the mist could be seen “steaming up in the bottoms” of the valleys so that the “southern meadow-valley was beginning to look like the sea” (IT 268).This generalisation of landscape along with the imagery of water in a variety of forms, most notably sea, mist, steam and fog, links the regional with the spiritual as Sally and Moore find a peaceful sanctuary in a universally realised but temporary rural idyll. Isle of Thorns is also set apart from earlier novels, as rural writing, because Kaye-Smith has chosen to tentatively explore the presentation of the rural in contrast to the urban. Sally abhors the isolationism and superficiality of London believing that it is “death to the imagination” and that those who live there think that “England was all London and nothing else” (IT 9), whereas the countryside presents her with a chance to be free to ‘find’ herself. In this novel Kaye-Smith has begun to initiate her own subtle version of modern writing in which the rural environment allows the strictures of Edwardian society to be lifted. However, by the end of the novel this expectation has not been accomplished and Moore’s view of Sally as “the woman who redeemed me” (IT 313) echoes the stereotypical conclusions of Victorian and Edwardian romantic novels.
Kaye-Smith’s early novels reflect the religious concerns of the Edwardian pre-war
era. Her novels written at this time reflect quite clearly Pericles Lewis assertion that the in the years leading up to the war there was a “renewed concern with spiritual matters” (Lewis 25) in which society sought for a way to “return to the essence of religion” (Lewis 25). Rejecting the rigid constraints of Victorian Anglicanism Kaye-Smith, along with many others sought after an individualised form of faith that addressed the issues of a changing society.
In assessing the referencing and allusion to Christianity within Isle of Thorns, particularly the final chapters, and to place this novelin a context of Kaye-Smith’s early writing and the wider context of fiction of the pre-war era, it is helpful to refer to a letter she wrote to Robert Nichols in 1913. Kaye-Smith notes that if she were to rewrite Isle of Thorns she would “leave out all the parts about Holy Communion” suggesting that they were originally there to illustrate the “sacramentalism” of Raphael Moore. Commenting on Sally her concern is to illustrate a developing spirituality that she characterises as an “adventure of the soul” (LRN 38).
In linking sexuality and a re-enactment of the Eucharist in a natural setting Kaye-Smith explores some of the same religious issues that D. H. Lawrence had and would address in the formation of his own philosophy of life. She, like Lawrence, sought after a personal religious belief that would incorporate her understanding of the natural vitality of life. The vitality with which Sally and Raphael “raced” across the grass, “laughing and panting”, “gasping and floundering” (IT 313) baptised into a new life by the rain having experienced an epiphany through sexual communion, is reminiscent of those sections of Sons and Lovers (1913) in which Lawrence develops a concept of natural religion. He outlined a belief system in which he worships life, alludes to the sheer beauty and grandeur of nature, and associates the sex act with being re-born. The inclusion, by Kaye-Smith, of the thinly disguised allusion to the sexual communion of Sally and Raphael with the associated religious imagery of the Eucharist similarly echoes Lawrence’s writing of sex in terms of religious mystery. While Isle of Thorns displays a thorough knowledge of some aspects of Christian theology, it can be read as an immature personal exploration of spirituality within a Christian context, but as such it adds little to Kaye-Smith’s attempt at developing a mature coherent religious philosophy.
The early pre-First-World-War novels demonstrate Kaye-Smith’s fundamental belief in Christianity but a growing dissatisfaction with the constraints of established religion. In common with many Edwardian writers she is concerned with the concept and definition of what life should be. Jonathan Rose’s assertion that for Edwardian writers “Life represented a demand for individual freedom and self-realization” (Rose 74) resonates with Kaye-Smith’s own assertion that life should be an ‘adventure’, is “perplexing and hideous” (LRN 32), should be made up of “adventures of the spirit, which are the only adventures worth having”, and should be based on a “moral code based on experience” (LRN 38). Once she had rejected the “Outworn Dogmas and Threadbare Conventions” (TWH 78) of establishment Christianity, she felt she had gained “an intense love of life” (TWH 85). In his chapter entitled ‘Secular Religion’, Rose posits the view that writers of this pre-war era “could not do without one or another of the comforts provided by religion, and went on to construct some form of secular faith” (Rose 3). Such a secular consideration of faith does not feature in The Tramping Methodist and Starbrace however, in Isle of Thorns she has dispensed with the formal structures of Anglican Christianity, and while using language, symbolism and imagery that is recognisably Christian, she has constructed a faith for her central characters that owes much to the secular not least in her sacramentalisation of sex. Sally and Raphael’s intimate and private communion is presented as a revelatory religious experience that is rooted in the natural world. They have no need of church buildings, priests or formalised ritual to attain a spiritual union. Through the central characters in each of these novels we can see Kaye-Smith’s inability to dismiss religion from her writing, the beginnings of her construction of a personal faith based on the relationship of humanity, nature and the divine, a leaning towards Christian ritualism, the rejection of ‘Low’ church Anglicanism, and a search for an individualised spirituality.