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.



Starbrace – Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith
In Starbrace, another historical novel, the setting moves from Sussex to Kent and the same romanticism that featured in The Tramping Methodist is repeated in this work. With a focus on a single character, his wanderings and fall from grace, this novel is reminiscent of the eighteenth-century novels that Kaye-Smith enjoyed reading.
In Starbrace Kaye-Smith adopted and adapted a simplified form of the picaresque narrative structure when she made her central characters take to the road, and as a result of his questing travels he was able to achieve a clear sense of his own identity. This narrative format presents the reader with a young male protagonist who, through a series of journeys and adventures, eventually achieves an understanding of his own place in the world, both physically and spiritually. In essence it is a questing narrative that has at its centre an evocation of the Sussex/Kent countryside that firmly roots the narrative in a specific topographical location. The presentation of these rural settings owes much to the pastoral tradition of Romanticism and regional Victorian fiction, with the protagonist standing apart from the environment as an ‘outsider’, as an observer of the landscape and the natural world. This novel, along with The Tramping Methodist, illustrates the first tentative suggestions of a religious philosophy that links the natural world, humanity and God the Creator.
Starbrace is a romantic and tragic picaresque novel that tells of the adventures of Miles Starbrace from the age of ten to his death at the hands of the Jacobites in 1745 at the battle of Prestonpans. Essentially a ‘wayfaring’ novel, Starbrace relates the physical, mental and emotional journeys of Miles as he searches for a sense of his own identity. In a series of contrived and coincidental twists and turns, the plotting of Miles’ encounters and exploits emulates the structural pattern of eighteenth-century fiction.
Miles Starbrace is a young boy living with his impoverished father in a humble cottage in the Sussex village of Westfield. His chance meetings with Theodora Straightway, the daughter of a gentleman, and Michael Daunt, a mysterious scoundrel known locally as “the wicked Squire of Sheep’s Castle” (S 25), gradually introduces a cast of characters that will prove to be influential in Miles’ life. One reviewer’s suggestion that Kaye-Smith has created an individual who is a “sort of inconsistent blend of romance and realism” in her characterisation of Miles is borne out in the sections of the narrative that tell of his response to changes in his life. Miles’ reaction to being sent to live with his rich grandfather Sir John Starbrace, the squire of Souledge, is to rebel against the strictures and conventions of behaviour dictated by his new life as a gentleman. Entirely different from his old life of poverty, this new life is not to his liking. His reaction to this alien environment begins to establish Miles as an individual who has no desire to better himself and who is responding in a believable realistic way that makes him an anti-hero.
To emulate her eighteenth-century models of the ‘wayfaring’ novel, Kaye-Smith uses Miles’ rebellion as a structural device to allow Miles to take to the road. When the restraints and discipline imposed by Lewis, (the chaplain/tutor) prove too much for Miles, and he is threatened with a flogging, he lashes out and “The clergyman staggered from him, clutching at the air, then fell with a crash, his head striking the corner of the fireplace” (S 111). Thinking he has killed the tutor, Miles makes his escape. While on the run he falls in with a gang of highwaymen led by Michael Daunt. Miles’ adventures on the road lead to his arrest, a capital conviction, a pardon and a return to the strictures of life with his grandfather and Mr Lewis. Unable to tolerate the harsh discipline that Lewis imposes, Miles is again mindful to escape. When an opportunity arose “He hesitated no more, but penniless, foodless, conscious of no desires, except to be free and to be alone, went into the night, while across the white meadows came the bleating of the ewes” (S 289). The novel ends with the final melodramatic, tragic death in battle of Miles and his beloved horse, Pharisee.
As is the case in Fielding’s Tom Jones, Kaye-Smith has used allegorical names for several of her characters, most notably Miles Starbrace, Theodora Straightway, Frank Power Lewis and Michael Daunt. Miles travels many ‘miles’: physically across the Sussex/Kent border and on to Romney Marsh, mentally in his journey to find a sense of who he is and where he belongs in society, and emotionally in his relationships with Theodora Straightway and the natural world. This relationship with nature, as in The Tramping Methodist, is focused on the night sky. Characterised not only in name (Starbrace) by the stars, Miles rides beneath a sky “lit up by stars” (S 204), “star-ridden” (S 174), full of “starlit spaces” (S 174) and, at his death when the “fold-star hung in the south” (S 297), his spirit is strengthened by the peaceful night. Theodora Straightway follows a straight and narrow path of accepted behaviour as might be expected of a gentleman’s daughter. Strong in her moral opinions she is insistent that while Miles may love her, his lack of self-control means she cannot trust him. Theodora, while being drawn to Miles, cannot pledge “herself to the headstrong rascal who had robbed men, women, and children in home-county byways” (S 187). Constrained by convention she is looking for a husband who is a “good, honourable man” (S 187), who should be “brave, loyal, and tender, free from vice, and fired with noble ambitions” (S 104). Her ‘straightness’ is most fully illustrated when she rejects Miles. She claims; “For the second time you have failed me, and I cannot recover my trust. I do not doubt that you love me, but your love has no power over your life . . . it can’t control your impulses or your passions” (S 282). Frank Power Lewis is frank and unbending in his dealings with Miles. He wields physical power over Miles by locking him in his room and beating him. Characterised in much the same way as Thwackum and Square in Fielding’s Tom Jones, Kaye-Smith’s Lewis is a diluted amalgam of the two with his emphasis on religious observance, rigorous teaching of the classics and a harsh rigid disciplinary regime.
Sir John Starbrace is easily taken in by Lewis and accepts that he knows how to deal with Miles much as Squire Allworthy approves of Thwackum and Square. Likewise Daunt, the squire-turned-highwayman, can be frightening and intimidating. When first robbed by Daunt, Miles is daunted and filled with “superstitious dread” and “horrible terror” (S 123) and when Miles wants to give up the life of a highwayman, Daunt succeeds in making Miles apprehensive enough to dismiss the idea. Set against this, Daunt is shown to have a “mixture of swagger and sympathy which had won him the title of “good feller” among the Sussex farmers” (S135). His desire to continue with one more hold-up certainly shows him as undaunted in the face of danger and difficulty.
The use of symbolic names and the structure of the narrative are not the only things that make Starbrace a pastiche of an Eighteenth-century novel. Kaye-Smith has used a manner of speech for her characters that she believed to be appropriate for the period and the ‘underworld’ that they inhabit. She peppers her conversations among the highwaymen with exclamations such as “Zounds” and “Egad” and has them use the argot of thieves and brigands along with the accents of Sussex as they describe smuggled goods as “mackerel”, law officers as “hornies”, jewellery as “glitters” and women as “morts” or “dells”. Kaye-Smith acknowledges the influence of The Newgate Calendar (1816), which first appeared in the eighteenth-century, and which documents the lives and crimes of notorious thieves, highwaymen and murderers.
A number of incidents in the novel reference this text. Miles’ flight up a chimney appears to have been inspired by an escape made by John Sheppard recorded in The Newgate Calendar, while the accounts of Miles’ and Daunt’s hold-ups seem to be based on the highwayman activities of Richard (Dick) Turpin. The descriptions of Miles in Newgate jail, and the visits to condemned criminals by the richer members of society, also seem to be informed by The Newgate Calendar, as do references to Jonathan Wild, “The Prince of Robbers” (Newgate Calendar 136), and a hero for Daunt and his companions.
In Three Ways Home Kaye-Smith noted that “the critics of Starbrace easily guessed my predilection for Fielding and his contemporaries, to say nothing of the Newgate Calendar”.
The depictions of the countryside and the weather are used to enhance the emotional tension and to reflect the circumstances of the characters. When Miles is a happy and carefree boy the description of an autumn afternoon has an idyllic quality as “The air was sweet with the scent of drenched and decaying leaves, and a rainbow stretched from Coghurst to Guestling Thorn” (S 1). As in The Tramping Methodist, the reader is presented with expansive pastoral vistas but, unlike Humphrey, Miles does not stand as an observer. He enjoys the freedom that the Common offers as it “stretched gorse-golden from the yard gate, on the west it was splashed with the red of the cottages of Stelling, to the east it swelled into chalk-hills, while to the south rose the chimneys of Wildage in a thicket of alders and yews” (S 75). Miles is linked with the environment in its provision of physical freedom and liberation of the spirit. When riding at night, his morale rises with the exhilaration of cantering “up the long white hill, between the dark hedges, with the rushing wind and clouds and stars above” (S 174). The environment can also be threatening, as when Miles is hiding from the Revenue men. He hears “the sob and sough of the wind” (S136) and “the splash of horse’s hoofs in the quag, and the wind moaning through the reeds” as “some creature plunged into a dyke, while at intervals a bird uttered a harsh, croaking note, like a cracked bell” (S 131). While the link between Miles and the environment is implied, rather than stated, the closeness of humanity to the natural world is most obviously exemplified in Miles’ relationship with his horse, Pharisee. Throughout the narrative the horse is his only true companion and the only living thing with which he has a meaningful relationship. When Miles first goes on the run his concern is for the welfare of his horse. In a foreshadowing of the end of the novel, he sleeps beside the horse so that Pharisee “touched his cheek with his nose” and “breathed on his cheek” (S 114). Miles finds the physical closeness and “companionship of something living and loving”(S 115) soothing. This physicality is continually noted in frequent references to Miles caressing and hugging the horse’s neck. The vitality of the horse becomes his own: “his spirit never failed to rise once his horse was between his legs; the warmth of the animal under him, the cock of the shapely ears before him, the delicious creak of the saddle-leather, and the jar of prancing hoofs were as new wine to him, body and soul” (S 174). At the end of Starbrace Kaye-Smith has adopted a romantic, tragic fatalism that Jonathon Rose suggests was a feature of some late Victorian writers. Miles has become a prisoner of circumstances that are of his own making but are “shaped largely by [his] heredity and [his] environment” (Rose 96). Miles is reunited with his horse Pharisee, and in a final melodramatic tragedy the novel ends with the simultaneous deaths of Miles and his horse. The unity between man and beast is made plain in the rendition of their dying moments as
Miles feebly put up his hand to the dying horse’s face. “My beautiful lad . . . my dear boy . . . it’s been good to have you . . . at the last”. He felt the animal’s breath on his fingers, and caressed him.”We’re in at the death Pharisee . . . you and me . . . after our last run . . . Maybe you’re sorry . . . I an’t . . . It doesn’t hurt like I thought it would . . . ” (S 298).
In the portrayal of Miles’ death, Kaye-Smith utilises a combination of images that are conventional and that follow Christian tradition; they speak of death as peace, union with those who have died, and associate death with the night sky, and freedom. Miles’ heaven is the peaceful night sky lit by the “sliding fold-star”(S 298). The Christian symbolism of the good shepherd, and God as a loving father, provide the imagery of Miles’s final moments. In a visionary experience he sees his own father as a shepherd who, having folded his sheep, lifts him in his kind arms for Miles to feel his warmth. Comfort comes from putting “his arms round his [father’s] neck”, with “his cheek resting on the rough brown hair” (S 298). In the manner of some Victorian writers, Kaye-Smith utilises authorial intrusion to end the novel with a quotation from the Psalms (Psalm 124:7) – “Our soul is escaped, even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we are delivered”. – to reinforce a Judaic-Christian view of death as a release from suffering and a deliverance to a better afterlife.
In this novel matters of religion are peripheral, but when they do appear they exhibit a Catholic bias and in so doing begin to place Kaye-Smith in the tradition of the Victorian Tractarian writers as well as hinting at a positioning of her as a Catholic novelist. The condemnation of the Anglican church, in The Tramping Methodist, as worldly and unconcerned with spiritual wellbeing, is reiterated in Starbrace in the person of Lewis. There is little true Christianity in the harsh discipline and unbending behaviour and attitudes of Lewis. His mechanistic view of faith meant that “a lad who could not say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and answer the questions of his short catechism was a type of youth and iniquity unknown to the Rev. Frank Power Lewis” (S 78). Lewis is described as a man who is harsh in his faith and who will let “loose a flood of fire-and-brimstone theology” (S 253), and he lacks any understanding of humanity and cannot comprehend why “No lectures, no quoting of Scripture, no appeal to morality or to reason seemed able to convince his [Miles’] dull soul that his life was not his own” (S 274). In contrast to this judgementally-prescriptive austerity of faith, Miles’ father, Gerard Starbrace, describes his finding of faith in a French Catholic church. When seeking a place to rest Gerard enters a church and finds himself witnessing “a beautiful service with lights and flowers, and bells and great blue clouds of incense” (S 231). This manifestation of Christianity is described sympathetically and concentrates on the universality of faith along with the reassurance of a close, omnipresent, loving God. Gerard finds comfort and solace and explains that “God was as close to us on His Altar as He was in olden days to the shepherds ” and that “It was so sweet to think about, it made religion seem quite different” (S 231-232). To demonstrate the compelling nature of this faith and the presence of God, Kaye-Smith reiterates that “‘He was there'”, “‘God was there'” and “‘He had come that we might worship Him, have Him close'” (S 231). In a further hint at Kaye-Smith’s Catholic leanings this perception of the universality of the Catholic faith demonstrates the availability and mysterious operation of divine grace.
This perception of the universality of the Catholic faith becomes a recurring theme in many of Kaye-Smith’s later novels. Linked with this concept of the equality of all human beings, Starbrace is a pointer to future novels that are concerned with social class, class divisions and the constraints society places on the individual. Through the development of the relationship between Miles and Theodora, Kaye-Smith reflects on the class divisions of the eighteenth-century and by implication those of Edwardian society. This double perspective allows her to give a strong contemporary relevance to her narrative with its thinly-disguised criticism of the middle-class prejudices of her own time. The rigidity of the Victorian class structure, which continued into the early twentieth century, is amplified in the contrasting social class differences between Miles and Theodora. Kaye-Smith establishes Miles’ working class circumstances at the beginning of the novel. He is uncouth, and when seen through his father’s eyes, he is “growing up a village boor, with a broad Sussex accent” and is delighted by “low pleasures, and a stolid acceptance of all that was vile and degrading” (S 10). He is happy and accepting of his humble social status and enjoys sitting “in the public house with drovers and shepherds” and he “never panted to be free of his drab surroundings or of his slavery at Lankhurst” (S 37).
In stark contrast, Theodora Straightway is a distant figure who rides to hounds, is curious about the “unknown world she saw through cottage windows” (S23), and is surprised that Miles is happy with his life of “coarse food, scanty clothing, or insufficient hours of sleep” (S 24). As a young adult she is perceived by others to be a “‘stuck-up Miss'” who was “capable of great hardness” and “unable to excuse shortcomings or make allowances” (S 37) for others. Miles, in adulthood, dresses like a gentleman but has a “dreadful Sussex accent” (S 91), looks “unkempt”, and has a face that “totally lacked refinement” (S 97). In contrast, Theodora’s “chief characteristic was her refinement of manner, voice, and feature – her presence brought an atmosphere of intellectuality and high breeding” (S 97).
Constrained by the conventions of social class, Theodora is presented as an unsympathetic figure, with little understanding of other human beings, an unwillingness to accept Miles for who he is, and a determination to change him. She decides that “He was ignorant, but he would learn; he was wild, but he could be tamed; he was sulky, but she could make him smile” (S 105). Miles, despite his impulsive behaviour, humble beginnings and lawbreaking, is seen as an attractive, romantic, adventurous, free spirit who is unconstrained by the rules of polite society. Theodora voices the restraint imposed by society when she realises that she and Miles are “an ill-assorted union” (S 285), and that if they were “Two different people under the same circumstances” then it “would have had quite a different story” (S 287).
These differences in character and attitude to life, rooted in social class, are illustrated by Theodora and Miles’ differing attitudes to their studying and reading of Euripides’ Hippolytus. Theodora’s concentration on a section of the tragedy that is concerned with love as a snare, where the “‘thunderbolts of Zeus'” are preferable to “‘the shaft of Eros'” (S 105), equates love with sorrow and a dread of the unpredictability of love. In her nervous distress at the changeability and untrustworthiness of emotion Theodora exemplifies the social convention of her class that dictates that a restrained disregard for personal feelings is to be expected from the landed gentry. Conversely, Miles is able to become completely absorbed in his reading of the play and as “he poured over the pages, he forgot his loneliness” (S 272-3). His enjoyment of the narrative comes from his reading of it as an exciting adventure and as a “story, stalking to its inevitable catastrophe” (S 27). This attitude illustrates his unrestrained nature that seeks freedom and has a disregard for those conventions of society that exert influence over Theodora.
Kaye-Smith admitted in Three Ways Home that the characterisation and plotting of Starbrace owed much to the stories she had written as a girl. Her assertion that “her male characters are better realized and less wooden than the female” (TWH 70) is certainly true in this context if Miles is compared with Theodora. In the characterisation of Miles Starbrace, Kaye-Smith has subverted the convention of the heroic romantic rogue from poor beginnings, who is discovered to be of gentlemanly origins and is eventually restored to his rightful place in society. Placed in the narrative as the ‘other’ – the outsider – Miles never really belongs within the culture of the highwaymen or in the upper middle-class society of his Grandfather. Rather than grasping the advantages that his status as heir to Sir John Starbrace confers, Miles rejects the conventions of gentlemanly society, along with worldly wealth, to return to a life of poverty that he has come to equate with freedom. In an attempt to combine romance with some elements of reality and moral probity, Miles does not represent “the free heart of youth, or the sheer love of life, or the high spirit of the gentleman born perverted to adventurous crime”, but is rather an anti-hero figure seeking “to be free and be alone” (S 289). Kaye-Smith claims that at first publication the critics were encouraging, but later reviews, when Starbrace was re-issued in 1926, were less flattering. Nonetheless, Cornelius Weygandt notes that
“Her lyric descriptions of the countryside have already that surety of phrase and that power of complete realisation of mood that marks the work of her maturity. She knows her landscape if she has much to learn of her people. Starbrace is a ‘prentice work, but the ‘prentice work of one who was destined to mastery in the well trodden way of the realistic story of country life.”
In her own Foreword to this 1926 edition, Kaye-Smith comments that Starbrace was the “work of a young girl, whose experience of life was small though her appetite for it was immense”.
For all its hotchpotch of influences – Eighteenth-century novels, Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1813), The Newgate Calendar, and Greek tragedy – Starbrace contains strong clues to the themes that were to dominate Kaye-Smith’s later novels. Her realisation of the countryside 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 places the novel in a distinct region of Sussex and Kent that was to become the setting for most 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.



The Tramping Methodist – Sheila Kaye-Smith

In this latest post I have returned to the fiction of Sheila Kaye-Smith with an article on her first novel – The Tramping Methodist.

In The Tramping Methodist and other early novels by Sheila Kaye-Smith the elements of rural regionalism and the descriptions of landscape owe a discernible debt to Richard Jefferies (1848-1887). Keating maintained that Jefferies’ influence was evident “in a good deal of late Nineteenth and early Twentieth-century literature” (Keating 335) and this is clearly demonstrated in Kaye-Smith’s approach to landscape. Keating’s identification of key characteristics in Jefferies writing; the “loving, detailed exploration of human and animal life” that ranges “from the radical to the sentimental” (Keating 335), can be seen in Kaye-Smith’s writing of nature that places human beings at the centre of the natural world. Like Jefferies she can be contextualised as a regional writer in her creation of the unique conditions of a particular place and time while populating that setting with characters who are only content when they live their lives in tune with nature. Although Kaye-Smith often uses rather more poetic language than Jefferies her evocations of the natural world concentrate on the detail of the particular. For example, echoing Jefferies description of a sun set when the “bars of golden and rosy cloud gradually lost their bright colour, but retained some purple” (Jefferies 103), Kaye-Smith describes a summer evening as “violet clouds were veiling the red scar” of the setting sun (TM 150). As Jefferies notes the beauty of the natural world with closely observed descriptions of plants, birds and the changes of the seasons, Kaye-Smith invests her characters with similarly rendered reflections. Humphrey Lyte tramps “convulvulus-netted lanes” (TM 130-131), reflects on the beauty of nature in the sound of “the wind in the larches” (TM 131) or the “trill of a nightingale” (TM 148), and notices that the grey sky is as “beautiful as a wood pigeon’s wing” (TM 172). In The Tramping Methodist she evokes the spirit of place and time with descriptions that utilise simile and metaphor to exhibit a careful observational knowledge of nature. Clouds are “like feathers about the sky”, alongside hedges there is a “waving mist of hemlock, chervil, and burnet”, and a bird flew with “outspread wings into the face of the moon” (TM 102). Keating’s observation that Jefferies writing of the rural combines the concept of a human “mystical communion with nature” along with the assertion that country life was superior to “anything that modern science, technology, or the city, could offer” (Keating 335) is echoed in Kaye-Smith’s earliest novels. For Lyte the sweet smell of flowers and the beauty of “wet grass and trees” has his “heart bounded with joy” (TM 148). He finds “comfort in Nature” (TM 148) and as the sun rises his despair is “blown to heaven with the incense of the flowers” (TM 148). Kaye-Smith’s continued admiration for Jefferies writing is attested to by her agreeing to unveil a plaque in his memory in May 1939.
In The Tramping Methodist the protagonist takes to the road and makes a physical journey to achieve his ends as we see in Chapter 6 when he begins his life as a Methodist preacher. In the later novels the ‘journey’ is not so literal. Kaye-Smith maintains that in this novel, “Of character-drawing there is hardly a vestige – the characters, men and women alike, are all dressed-up schoolgirls” (TWH 49), but two features of all the early novels are constant and ever present – the countryside of the Sussex/Kent borders and issues of faith. The presentation of these aspects of her writing is only changed over time by the development and use she makes of the rurality and religious content of her fiction. The early novels were heavily influenced by those eighteenth-century and Victorian works that Kaye-Smith had read, and was reading as a young woman. It is evident that in her evocation of landscape and humanity’s relationship with the environment Kaye-Smith was influenced by George Eliot and the Brontës as they, along with the Romantic poets, provide a pattern for the rural and regional aspects of the novels. However, the picaresque, questing nature of the narratives owe a debt to eighteenth-century writers such as Tobias Smollett, Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding. Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) may have had some influence on Kaye-Smith’s realisation of her protagonist Humphrey Lyte in The Tramping Methodist, for Lyte is, like Clinker, poor, naive and inclined to preach wherever he can gather a crowd. The Tramping Methodist also exhibits the influence of popular writers. Among these is the Victorian novelist, Edna Lyall, who Kaye-Smith claimed provided the pattern for her protagonist. Kaye-Smith described Humphrey Lyte as having “nothing masculine about him except his name and his clothes” (ABML 52). One reviewer felt that the melodramatic qualities of the narrative owed much to “the hero-villain-and-mystery manner of Smugglers and Foresters”. Likewise George Etell Sargent’s Hurlock Chase; Or, Among the Sussex Ironworks (1876), may have influenced the depiction of John Palehouse, the preacher. Sargent’s novel features an itinerant Methodist preacher named John who, like Palehouse, turns the protagonist from his errant ways. In adopting a mode of presentation that is somewhat old-fashioned and derivative, Kaye-Smith has rejected the contemporary approach of her peers, and written in a “vein uncommon now” and returned to the “dignified ways of fiction”. In so doing she has remained true to her emulation of those works that were her professed preferred reading, and demonstrated the considerable influence they exerted in the development of her early novels.
The Tramping Methodist is set in the 1790s and is a first-person narrative related by Humphrey Lyte, the son of the Rector of Brede, who tells of his love of the countryside around his home, his childhood at the Rectory and his young adulthood as a Methodist preacher. Kaye-Smith uses Humphrey’s desire to escape the strictures of his home life to introduce social criticism of the Anglican church, by painting a picture of the Rector’s home as violent, hypocritical and uncaring. Lyte’s father “took off the priest with his surplice, and lived the life of a fox-hunting squire”(TM 1), the brothers are “coarse and rough”, the sisters “vain and would-be-genteel” while Lyte’s “mother neglected” him, and his father and brother “kicked and beat” (TM 2) him. His only solace comes from walking in the countryside and a search for a church where the worship is to his liking. Unsuccessful in his quest, Humphrey finds himself lost as darkness falls. He stumbles upon a humble cottage and is offered shelter by a poor Methodist, Peter Winde, and his daughter. Staying with them is the itinerant preacher, John Palehouse. Humphrey becomes a Methodist, and this causes him to be rejected by his family. Intertwined with the narrative of Humphrey’s life as an itinerant preacher is a subplot in which he meets a young Anglican clergyman, Guy Shotover, and falls in love with Shotover’s sister, Ruth, but is then imprisoned after being falsely accused of the murder of John Palehouse. Once his innocence is established, he is released from prison, marries his sweetheart and the couple take to the road to preach the Gospel.
Kaye-Smith’s rather lightly-drawn protagonist in The Tramping Methodist vies for attention at the centre of the narrative with the countryside of the Kent/Sussex borders and the Rother Valley. Not just a back-drop for the human characters, the vivid descriptions of landscape speak to the regionality of this novel. The focus of the first-person narrative moves quickly from the description of Lyte’s family and circumstances as a child growing up to a realisation of the natural world and landscape. His first recognition of the beauty of the countryside is as the sun
“shed his beams on the pasture. Then I noticed for the first time how lovely was the country round my house. I saw the Brede River winding through emerald marshes, like a string of turquoise on a woman’s green gown. I saw Spell Land Woods with their foliage gilt right royally, and the glorious scarlet of the roofs of Dew Farm” (TM 2-3).
Kaye-Smith’s descriptions of the countryside from a character narrator, who compared the sights to women’s jewellery, are impressionistic and idyllic. The peacefulness of this Wordsworthian pastoral focuses at the beginning of the novel on the night sky: “the stars shone mistily, like pearls under a woman’s scarf, and farm-lights dotted the country, as if the fields reflected and magnified the star. A little moon hung between the gables of Shoyswell” (TM 20). This echoing of Wordsworth’s Prelude, where the poet records his observation of the stars that, “Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west / The orange sky of evening died away” (Wordsworth 14), places Humphrey as an observer of the landscape and the natural world. Similarly while walking in the fields he notes that “The sun was setting fast, and hung low in the sky above Witherenden – a scarlet wafer on the brink of a cloudy chalice into which it was rapidly sinking” (TM 14). In using the religious metaphors of ‘wafer’ and ‘chalice’ to describe this dramatic sunset, Kaye-Smith has given the first hints of a religious philosophy that links nature and religious faith, and that begins to sacramentalise the landscape, but her human protagonist remains a spectator of the natural world. The most telling reflection of this distancing occurs as he observes the view from Tenterden Church tower. He appreciates the panorama before him but has no significant relationship with the land. The view becomes a three dimensional map as Lyte sees
“the wonderfully contrasted yet wonderfully blended colours of the weald – red and yellow farm-houses, with their white-capped oasts and black barns, emerald pastures, olive-green hop-fields, green-bice woods nearly black, glorious variegated patches of garden, brown and purple commons, where the gorse flared, and above all the sky across which the clouds were scudding. Due south stretched a strip of apple-green, with a blue ribbon winding along the centre. It was the Rother Marsh, with the Rother. And on the further side huddled the fields and woods” (TM 121).
This concrete feeling for a locality and the sense of the continual movement of the eye across this landscape creates a distinctive spatial awareness. The scene has a visual order in colour, shape and the designation of the natural and man-made in a harmony that evokes a strong sense of place. There is a certain similarity between this bird’s-eye view and one in Adam Bede with “swelling hills, muffled with hedgerows and long meadow grass and thick corn . . . some homestead with its long length of barn and cluster of golden ricks, some grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees” (Adam Bede 62). The difference between the two narratives lies in the treatment of the human engagement with the landscape. Where Eliot moves from this vista to focus on humanity as an integral component of the pastoral world of landscape, Kaye-Smith keeps her characters physically apart from their environment although tentatively suggesting a developing emotional connection as “each sight brought the intensest longing” (TM 121). As well as portraying the natural world in detailed, closely-observed impressions that place Kaye-Smith in the tradition of “idyllic realism” (Edwards 2), the narrative links nature with religious belief. This linking of nature and faith in The Tramping Methodist echoes Mary Russell Mitford’s identification of the “immeasurable majesty of nature, and the unspeakable goodness of God, who has spread an enjoyment so pure, so peaceful, and so intense” (Mitford 126). Once Humphrey Lyte has been introduced to the beliefs of Methodism, his contemplation of the natural world of the stars and the night sky brings him peace through this congruence of contentment, religious faith and nature. Humphrey observes that “The moon and stars shone on me where I lay, too happy to go to sleep” (TM 21). Humphrey feels at peace as he walks under the night sky and sees that “the first stars were flickering above the Kent Ditch, and my lady moon was blushing over Appledore, kerchiefed in the mist” (TM 30). The idyllic perfection of nature is illustrated in the closely-observed description of a Sussex Eden in which the earth was “damp and soft, and smelled sweet, and primroses and dog-violets starred the turf and borders” (TM 42).
This association of nature and an implied religious experience, however, can be read in two ways which at first glance appear to be inconsistent or mutually exclusive. The setting of Humphrey’s experiences against a natural backdrop can make his life seem of little consequence when it is contrasted with the vastness of space and the natural world or he can be seen as living in step with, and as an integral part of, God’s creation. As Kaye-Smith develops her philosophy of the association of nature and religion it becomes apparent that these two interpretations are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. At the same time as Humphrey recognises that the sky “swaddled in stars” (TM 279) reflects the immensity of God’s creation Kaye-Smith places him at the centre the natural world when he walks through a hop garden where the “wind gently bowed the overweighted vines, while the steamy scent crept into [his] nostrils, soothing and sweet” (TM 279).
The descriptions of Humphrey’s wanderings in the countryside, before he has attained faith, are characterised by a sense of distance from the natural world around him. While walking through the countryside, he is insignificant in the wider vista as he observes that “gradually the dawn woke, and veiled the stars in her wavy skirts of flame. The Rother valley was yet dusk, but on the hills that flanked it I saw the sunrise lying, and suddenly the mist rolled back from the village on the crest of the southern ridge” (TM 41). However, by the end of the novel when he is a confirmed Methodist, and has gained the human companionship he sought with Ruth, the couple are part of the natural world. Ruth promises that she will be with Humphrey in the “sweetness and sunshine” and the “bitterness and rain” (TM 278). This equation of human emotion and the weather illustrates the change in the relationship between humanity and nature. To further emphasise her belief that a oneness with nature is linked with the attainment of religious faith, Kaye-Smith’s description of the Methodist couple crossing a field makes them an integral part of the landscape. There is no human disturbance of the peace as “Evening moths, fat and white, fluttered heavily in and out of the fennel and chervil, waving like fragile spooks in the light of the first stars”. The stillness was broken by “the sough of the wind through the grass and spurge”, while an “owl raised his note of sadness”, and “bats’ wings troubled the brooding air” (TM 278). Although still an observer of the natural world, Humphrey is now part of this environment and no longer stands apart from it. Instead he understands his relationship to the immediate natural world, and has come to recognise his place in that creation.
Dubbed by a reviewer as a “novel of theology and dogma” and as a work that has a “foundation of theology”, much of the text speaks to the influence of Kaye-Smith’s Christian beliefs and knowledge of Biblical theology. Saturated with the imagery and symbolism of Christian theology, the description of Humphrey approaching Guy Shotover’s garden, after a night of wandering, combines a referencing of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) with the imagery of Christ’s suffering in the Passion. Humphrey’s “naked feet were bleeding . . . A bloody bandage was fastened round [his] head, and channels of blood were dry upon [his] cheeks” (TM 42). While these allusions are carefully incorporated, other thinly-disguised Biblical referencing and Christian allegorical elements are often crudely sewn into the narrative. In common with Eliot’s recognition in Adam Bede that “Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration” (Adam Bede 470), Humphrey must suffer before he can attain the renewal of spirit that acceptance of Methodism will bring.
After his conversion to Methodism, Humphrey accompanies Palehouse, on his mission to the Kent villages. Through Palehouse, Kaye-Smith introduces a direct linking of religion and nature. Palehouse has “two loves – God and Nature”, and his faith is based on “the Bible and the green earth” (TM 111). Kaye-Smith makes no attempt to disguise her use of a Biblical narrative when Palehouse is stoned by angry villagers. Humphrey observes that John Palehouse “made me think of Stephen, as he knelt, bruised and blood-stained” (TM 135). Palehouse is a fearless preacher of sermons that “were stern, rugged and ruthless” in their depictions of “death, hell and judgement” (TM 118). Palehouse’s preaching is set in contrast to that of Humphrey, who spoke of “Christ and endless life” with “God as the Father, loving and beloved, showing mercy to thousands” (TM 118). By placing the Old Testament hell-fire of Palehouse against the New Testament message of universal love preached by Humphrey, Kaye-Smith alludes to the difference between the message of John the Baptist and that of Christ. Humphrey’s strong belief in a universal loving God is the first indication of Kaye-Smith’s belief in the all-embracing Christianity that she would develop in her later novels.
A tentative allusion to the influence of the Bible continues throughout the novel. The significant characters are given Biblical names that reflect their purpose in the story, and some of Humphrey’s experiences in his journey to faith echo the Gospel narrative. Humphrey’s night of wandering recalls Christ’s temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-2), his imprisonment on spurious charges echoes Christ’s arrest, while Humphrey’s incarceration in solitary confinement is related in terms that evoke Christ’s burial and resurrection. He is condemned to “three days’ imprisonment in a dark cell” (TM 230), but “At last the third day came, and the blessed light streamed in” (TM 231) as he was released.
The Tramping Methodist is a hotchpotch of influences, a “combination of several time-honoured models”, with the nature writing echoing that of Jefferies, the rural description emulating that of Eliot and the picaresque questing of the central character following the pattern of some eighteenth-century fiction.

Keating, Peter. The Haunted Study. A Social History of the English Novel 1875-1914.
London: Fontana. 1991.


The Comport Family

The Comport family.

As readers of this blog will, by now, be aware my interest in Sheila Kaye-Smith’s writing has led me to look at Sussex, Northiam, hop growing and much more. In the village of Northiam (where Kaye-Smith lived for most of her later life) I came across the Unitarian Chapel – now a house – and in its grounds are the graves of several members of the Comport family. Kaye-Smith makes mention of this Northiam family along with others that she notes have surnames that indicate a French origin. Kaye-Smith suggests that the Comports, Poiles, Papillions, Hansons, Gassons and Perigoes were from families that originally came to England as Huguenot refugees. While she may well be right about some of these families – Hanson family members are recorded in the Rye records as being Huguenots who sought refuge in Britain – the Comports appear to have a history in this country that dates back into the Middle Ages, although they may still have a French ancestry. In Gallybird Kaye-Smith uses her own, slightly altered spelling, of the Perigoe and Comport surnames for two young French emigres. Perigoe becomes de Perigault and Comport is de Champfort.
However, Kaye-Smith is not the only novelist to use the Comport family as an inspiration for characters. There is some controversy over which set of Comport graves Charles Dickens used as the inspiration for the graves of Pip’s brothers and sisters in Great Expectations but it is most likely that the row of lozenge tombs in Cooling churchyard, that are ranged on either side of a large headstone commemorating Michael and Jane Comport, provided Dickens with the idea for the “five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row … and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine….” These graves commemorate infants who range in age from 3 months to 17 months at the time of their deaths. The oldest grave is that of Mary Comport, who died in infancy in 1767, and the latest is that of Thomas Comport, who died in 1800 at the age of 3 months. Dickens often used to walk from his house in Higham to Cooling and he particularly liked the church and the churchyard. He is supposed to have had family picnics in the churchyard, laying out the family meal on the large table tomb next to Pip’s Graves that also commemorates members of the Comport family. The author’s son, Charles, said that his father loved Cooling more than any other church.
Although Cooling is the excepted location for Pip’s graves, there are also similar Comport graves in High Halstow churchyard. Beside the entrance to the church there are six small lozenge tombs that commemorate Comport children who died in infancy. These are of a later date than those at Cooling, but the latest of them does predate Great Expectations by some two years. The extended Comport family were farmers on the Hoo Peninsula in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century.
Dickens makes a much more specific mention of the Comport name in The Uncommon Traveller Chapter lX – “City of London Churches”. On an unspecified Sunday Dickens records his visit to a “dim church” in the City. Occupying a family pew he curiously browsed through a heap of prayer books that he found in the corner. The books dated back to 1754 and seemed to have belonged to the Dowgate family. “Jane Comport must have married Young Dowgate” for he seems to have given her a prayer book and “recorded the presentation in the fly-leaf”. Dickens conjectures that “Comport, had taken him, Dowgate, in a flush of youthful hope and joy”.
It is certain, from the numerous graves for members of the Comport family, that Comports lived on the Hoo Peninsula and that other branches of the family lived in the nearby Kent parishes of Ryarsh, Shorne, and Cobham. It is more difficult to find specific proof for the early ancestry of these families. Hasted and Ireland, in their histories of Kent reference Ralph de Curva Spina, a Norman knight, is recorded in Domesday as residing at Comport or Comford in the parish of Birling. Perhaps, those living near this manor adopted its name or referred to themselves as de Comport. Hasted places this manor in the North East part of the parish approximately half a mile east of Birling Place. On Speed’s 1610 map the manor is marked as Camford while on Drury’s map of 1769 it is recorded as Comforts. Close to Birling is the larger settlement of Cobham and from the early 1700s Comports were living in Cobham. Later in the Eighteenth century they appear in the church records of the nearby parishes of Shorne, Ryarsh and Offham. Comports had appeared in written records from the late fifteenth century with a John Comporte mentioned in a Deed in Addington in 1481. Comports also appear in Sussex – an Ambrose Comport appears to be a steward to Sir Anthony Browne on his Battle estates and is mentioned in documents that refer to the Sussex Iron industry in the Tudor period. More notorious is the John Comport accused of murder. In Crowhurst on Wednesday 28th August 1532 one Robert Grame was murdered and subsequently John Comport was accused, with his servant, of the murder. John was never convicted and seems to have disappeared from history. recounts the details of the law case.
My particular interest, however, is in John Comport of Northiam. My research in census returns, death records and his Will indicate 1784 as the year of his birth and have led me to a John Comport who was born in Ryarsh in 1784. The son of a Glazier, George Comport, and his wife Martha nee Pawley, John was the eldest of seven children. However his subsequent appearances in written records raise a number of questions. By 1810 he was in Northiam, working as a Plumber and Glazier and marrying a local girl, Elizabeth Elliott. How, why and when he went from Ryarsh to Northiam is a mystery. In 1812 John and Elizabeth’s son William was born. William lived out his life in Northiam. By 1818 Elizabeth was dead and John married another local girl, Elizabeth Perigoe. The records indicate that she gave birth to two sons – Alfred (born 1821, died 1846 in Malling) and Frederick (born 1823, died 1878 in London). In 1826 the widowed John Comport married Ann Bredin. The marriage took place in Northiam although she had been born in Pevensey but was presumably living in Northiam. Ann gave birth to a daughter, Adelaide who died as a young girl, and a son George Pryor who eventually emigrated to Australia.
John is listed in the 1841 Census, is on the Poll returns as a voter in 1820, 1832 and 1837, worked as a Plumber and Glazier, and the Tithe return indicates that he was the owner of property and land as well as renting land in the village. The Tithe return indicates that he grew hops, had pasture land, owned more than one property as well as garden and orchard.
He died in 1846 leaving a detailed Will. This Will mentions that he has various businesses, among which was a business that made fine quality hop tokens for his own use but also for neighbouring hop growers. His goods and chattels, including his silver, is left to his wife but to be sold or divided between his living children after her death. I can find no record of his place of burial but as his family were committed Unitarians I strongly suspect he is buried in the graveyard at Northiam Unitarian Chapel in an unmarked grave.
He appears to have been a literate man – in 1826 he was a subscriber to a book of poetry. As this was the year of his marriage to Ann Bredin is it too fanciful to wonder if this was a marriage gift? Rural Lays by Mary Ann Plomley is a work of religious and nature poetry that makes a direct connection between the natural world and God as creator, but also touches upon more social and moral issues such as Slavery, which is heartily condemned, and philosophically explores the joys of solitude and the human contentment that is to be gained from communion with nature. Of variable quality as literary works, the poems are of interest because they give us an insight into the attitudes and concerns of a young woman in early nineteenth century rural England as she discusses the social, religious and moral issues of the time. As far as I can discover Mary Ann Plomley was a local young woman and probably a Unitarian. The scant official records that mention her, and her attitudes in the poetry, point to the often liberal and humanitarian views of the Unitarians.
Although it is impossible to know if John subscribed to Mary Ann Plomley’s views on slavery I very much like to think he was liberal and open minded enough to endorse her condemnation of the English who kept slaves.
Below is the last section of the poem entitled The Negro Slave.


Oh England! England! Why so vainly boast
Thy tarnish’d laurels and polluted fame!
Remember you art offspring of the dust…
Thy deeds enshrined in characters of flame!

Shall commerce prosper on thy pejur’d coast,
While still thou dost thy brother man enslave?
Shall thy proud sons, – so cruel, – so unjust,
Be ranked among the great, the truly brave?
Oh think that human-kind, though black or brown,
Have minds as great, and feelings like your own!

If anyone reading this blog has any information about the early life of John Comport I would love to hear from you. Is he the John Comport born in Ryarsh? When did he move to Northiam? Why did he move to Northiam? How did he manage to amass a variety of businesses and become a man of some substance?

Burmarsh – Romney Marsh

The history of Burmarsh is an ancient one – although there is little evidence of a settlement in Burmarsh in Roman times there is some evidence on the northern side of present day Burmarsh that the Romans established salt pans. Between Burmarsh and the cliffs and shore line that housed Portus Lemanis was the sea water estuary of the river Limen and the marsh side of this might well have housed salt pans. Another element of possible evidence to indicate some association with the Romans is the inclusion of a number of Roman bricks in the structure of the church and the discovery of fragments of Roman pottery. However, this may just indicate the removal of building materials from the Roman fort once the Romans had abandoned it.
There is much stronger evidence for the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Burmarsh. Again fragments of Saxon pottery have been found and although it is difficult to date the true inning of the land here we do have documentary evidence of occupation in the form of Saxon Charters that mention the land at Burmarsh. In a charter of approx 850 King Aedbald gave, for payment, a portion of land to Winemund. This land was located in Burwaramers Halfsaeta and was subsequently gifted to the Abbot of St Augustine’s abbey (Canterbury) and presumably formed the nucleus of the manor of Abbot’s Court also known as the manor of Burmarsh. The northern border of the land was the river Limen just as the same area forms the parish boundary today. The second charter is known as the Gamdanwyrthe Charter of 946 in which King Eadmund grants land to Ordhelm and Alfwold. Possibly the present Gammon’s Farm. A later reference to Burmarsh appears in a marriage settlement when (Earl) Godwine made an agreement with Brihtria in approx 1016/20. In this agreement he gave his bride to be 150 acres of land in Burmarsh, 30 oxen, 20 cows, 10 horses and 10 slaves. A further indication of the early use of the land for agriculture is the highly irregular shaped field systems within the parish that indicate a piecemeal enclosure and drainage of land, unlike the more regulated field systems that can be seen in Walland Marsh for example.
From 1066 onwards and throughout the Norman period there is both visible and written evidence of occupation. The clearest visible evidence of occupation of Burmarsh is to be seen in some elements of the church building. It is probable that there was some kind of place of worship in Burmarsh in Saxon times given the Charter references to the place but the present day building’s earliest visible work dates to the Norman period. The door within the porch has a rounded Norman arch and the chevron carving is similar to that around the door in New Romney. There is also a Norman window in the North Wall as well as crudely carvedGargoyle heads from this period over the door in the porch and a rather badly eroded one over the window above the west door. Ferocious in appearance, these heads were designed to frighten away any forms of evil. The Norman areas of the building are constructed from Caen stone that was brought from Normandy probably by the monks from Canterbury who commissioned the extension and enlargement or replacement of an existing Saxon church. Later work from the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries is constructed of Ragstone. The tower and nave were rebuilt in the 14th century and it was then that the walls were given crenellations and the buttresses were added to strengthen the building and prevent subsidence. Three of the bells date from the medieval period with the cracked bell that is kept on the floor of the church dated to 1375. Although there is little if any documentary evidence for the habitation of Burmarsh after Domesday, in the later medieval period the church and the changes that took place to the building attest to the continuing importance of the village to the monks of St Augustine’s in Canterbury.
While the church demonstrates occupation during Norman times the Domesday Book gives us further evidence of what this occupation looked like. Burmarsh was held by the Abbot of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and is taxed for 2 Sulungs and 3 yokes with land for 12 ploughs. Both of these measurements were used for assessing the tax rather than a measurement of acreage. In Burmarsh there were 44 villagers and 5 smallholders. Valued at £20 before 1066, later at £10, and by 1086 £30. As at the present time it would appear that the majority of land within the parish was under cultivation. There is no mention of a church in Domesday, and therefore it seems logical to suppose the monks were instrumental in re building a stone church. In the reign of Richard II the manor was estimated to have 204 acres with the Abbot granted free warren over his lands.


Medieval occupation of the land is attested to by the deserted medieval village of Eastbridge and a number of archeological finds. A medieval stirrup, the remains of a cooking pot, various other items of pottery and a lead pilgrim flask and the alteration and extension of the church attest to a thriving small community. The Abbot continued to have possession of the Manor of Burmarsh – it also became known as Abbot’s Court – until the dissolution of the Monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. In the case of St Augustine’s this was in July 1538. The land in Burmarsh passed to the crown but was then granted to Walter Hensley who subsequently passed it to Sir William Finch. By the reign of Charles II the manor of Abbots Court was in the possession of the Dering family who continued to own the land into the nineteenth century. A second manor is recorded in the parish of Burmarsh – Trienstone. Located on the Eastbridge side of Burmarsh this manor and its land was in the possession of Hugh de Montfort after the Conquest but subsequently passed into the possession of St. John’s College, Cambridge in Henry VIII reign. By 1844 much of this land was owned by St. John’s College , Oxford.
Throughout history Burmarsh has always been a small community. In the later sixteenth century 36 communicants were recorded in the parish. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Burmarsh was a purely agricultural village in which the land was devoted to sheep, cattle and arable farming. The marsh as a whole was sparsely populated, and some would argue still is, but by the seventeenth century many communities had almost disappeared. There were a number of abandoned churches, including those of Eastbridge and Orgarswick. By the eighteenth century the rich, educated and gentry no longer lived on the Marsh and Burmarsh was no exception. The majority of the population was made up of Lookers, Shepherds, agricultural workers – most of whom are likely to have taken some part in smuggling activities. The Marsh was considered to be an unhealthy place to live and in 1797 Hasted described Burmarsh as being a place where the “air and water make dreadful havoc on the health of the inhabitants” which in turn led to “short lives”. However the monetary rewards of working on the Marsh were higher than in the rest of Kent. An agricultural labourers wage was 2 shillings a week whereas in other areas it was, on average, 1s 6d. Smuggling, however, was very lucrative with the average earnings per night around 10s 6d. In addition most families on the Marsh received quantities of Gin and Tea. Visitors to the area recorded that even in the most humble homes tea was offered to visitors. In the rest of the country tea was a luxury item only drunk by those who had a wealthy life style. Likewise rumour had it that there was so much Gin available that it was used to clean cottage windows.
Burmarsh residents are recorded as taking part in the smuggling activities in the early nineteenth century although it is likely that many were never caught and that such activity had been riff in the area for many years. In 1824 two Excise Officers (Edward Rayner and John Weston) laid a deposition against the landlord of the Shepherd and Crook (James Seal) for selling foreign liquor without a permit and he was convicted of receiving smuggled goods. The license of the Shepherd and Crook passed to Edward Austen in 1825 and in the same year the same John Weston (Excise Officer) laid a deposition against Austen for hiding smuggled goods. Austen’s other job was as a Looker. Both of these incidents took place when the Aldington Gang, headed by George Ransley, where running the smuggling activities on Romney Marsh. There seems to be no record of the court case but by 1827 Austen is still recorded as the licensee. By 1830 public sympathy was beginning to waning for the smugglers and the leaders of the Aldington Gang had been caught, convicted and transported by mid 1827. Once the Napoleonic threat was passed the government enforced a coastal blockade with the officers stationed in Martello towers as well as on ships of the line in the Channel. One such ship of the line, HMS Talavera, patrolled the local waters in the 1830s. Men and officers from this ship, and the landlord of the Shepherd and Crook, accused one John Day of Burmarsh of involvement in smuggling in August 1830. Of those mentioned above James Seal and his wife are buried in Burmarsh churchyard, John Weston ended his days living in Hythe, Edward Austen lived out his life in Brookland and died aged 82, while members of the Rayner family are recorded living in Rothschild farmhouse, Burmarsh.
Throughout the Victorian period Burmarsh remained a small rural haven where very little of note happened. In the summer of 1831, at the height of the Swing riots in Kent, a gang of approximately 25 men came from the hills above Burmarsh and set fire to a threshing machine in the village. Tithes were collected at the Shepherd and Crook, land described as “rich pasture” was sold and bought, weddings and funerals took place at the church, in summer 1877 lightning damaged the rectory roof, the church was subject to renovation and restoration as only the Victorians could do such work, and in the Spring of 1900 after a great gale and storm a large French kite was found in a field in Burmarsh – it was 3 feet wide and 9 feet long.
Throughout its history Burmarsh had been little touched by war. Momentarily touched by the Napoleonic Wars -with the building of the Military Canal on the borders of the parish and the construction of the Martello Towers at Dymchurch , it is probably fair to say that the resulting influx of personnel probably made little difference to the lives of villagers. Although there had been the ever present threat of Napoleon landing on the coast, that war had provided advantages for the pursuit of smuggling. In the twentieth century Burmarsh residents would feel the effects of war more directly.
Like all small communities Burmarsh was affected by the First World War. The inhabitants and those working on the land would have had there tranquility disturbed by the dull and continual rumble of the guns in France and Belgium to remind them of the conflict. On Friday May 25th 1917, in the late afternoon, at the start of the Whitsun weekend the peace was disturbed by the sound of aircraft. Across the hills at Lympne and heading for Hythe and Folkestone the inhabitants heard and saw a flight of around 20 German Gotha bombers. Although the bombing of Folkestone was the most devastating, the RFC airfield at Lympne was also bombed and Burmarsh residents would have heard the resulting explosions. Before these events however the effects of the war came home to Burmarsh with the deaths of two young men from the village. Simeon Beale was a Private in The Buffs who died on Sunday 25th October 1914 and is buried at Lavantie Cemetery. He had fought in the Boer War and was discharged in 1913 but recalled at the start of the War. At the time he was living at Abbotts Court Cottages. Albert Butcher was a Lance Corporal in The Buffs who died on 15th September 1916 on the Somme. He is commemorated at Thiepval – his parents lived at Pain’s Cottages Burmarsh. It is likely that he was mown down by machine gun fire in the action at Morval when The Buffs attacked a heavily fortified enemy redoubt on the edge of a wood. But these were not the only casualties from the village – Ernest Rayner, a Burmarsh boy, and a Private in the Northampton Regiment died on 10th November 1917 – probably at Passchendaele – he is commemorated at Tyne Cot, Zonnebeke. Roland Wratten, a Private in the Middlesex Regiment, died on 21st August 1917 and is buried in Burmarsh churchyard. He probably died as result of his wounds having been shipped back to Britain.
In the more recent Second World War Burmarsh was in the thick of the defence of the Home Front, and today we have a number of visible reminders of this. Dotted around the village are a number of pillboxes and gun emplacements. At Forty Acre Farm there was a search light and an anti aircraft gun and the metal remains of a German plane are still embedded in the ground. Near Rothschild Farmhouse there are the remains of a large Vickers machine gun post. The remains look like an extended pillbox. Part way down the Burmarsh Road, set in to the side of the verge, is the last remaining vestige of a line of anti tank traps – sometimes known as Dragon’s Teeth – with one large concrete block all that remains. As well as these very visible signs of defence Burmarsh had two underground secret Operational Posts. One – below ground in a field just off the Burmarsh Road – was used by the Royal Observation Corps as an operational centre that acted as a set of eyes and ears for the RAF. The other was an Underground Operational Post for what became known as the Secret Army. These men were local men – shepherds etc – who knew the terrain well and who were trained to become a lethal resistance force should the Germans land. The post is near Eastbridge. A small underground building that would house 6 men and an officer and consisted of 2 shafts, brick walls and a concrete floor. Rudimentary inside, the auxiliary hide has seen little disturbance since the Second World War and is believed to retain its original fittings such as two double-decker bunk beds, a wooden seat, shelves and a water tank. The Burmarsh branch of this Auxiliary Unit had the code name Toadstool.
Those in the unit are listed below.
Sergeant Charles “Don” Symonds, 7.12.1921, Eastbridge House
David Symonds, 24.9.1916, Buckhurst, Dymchurch
Albert J Ovenden, 29.12.1913, North Fording Farm, St Mary in the Marsh
Alfred G Ovenden, 6.12.1905, Westend Villa, Dymchurch
Cecil Watts, 1.11.1910, The Bungalow, Burmarsh
Frank J Watts, 26.12.1906, The Bungalow, Burmarsh
Edward V “Ted” Piddock, 27.8.1904, Orgaswick, Burmarsh

Albert Ovenden, a looker, remembered how he was recruited to this unit.
“Don Symonds came to see me and asked me to join him and he explained as much as he knew or could. He told me it was secret and I was to tell no one. At the time I lived at Sankey Farm, I was looker foreman for Mr Hobbs. My brother Alfred was also recruited by Don Symonds, but we kept it quiet, not even my sister knew until you made the enquiry” [November 1994].
There was only one casualty from the village during World War II – Alma Baker, from Burmarsh, died 21st August 1942 as the result of an air raid on Hythe. While Alma was walking along Prospect Road two German planes dropped bombs and flew low straffing the town with machine gun fire. In September, two years earlier, Burmarsh experienced its own air raids. Mercifully there were no casualties but on September 3rd, 4th and 5th 1940, between 9.00pm and midnight incendiary bombs were dropped in different parts of the village.

Burmarsh is not renowned for its famous residents but there have been a couple who are worthy of note. Edward Coleman (1766 – 1839) born and brought up in Burmarsh , the son of Edward Coleman the Common Expenditor (Treasurer) of the Corporation of Romney Marsh, became the Head of the London Veterinary College. A rather more famous Burmarsh land owner, William Harvey, the scientist who discovered the circulation of the blood, inherited land in Burmarsh from his father and subsequently left it to the Royal College of Surgeons in his Will.

Today Burmarsh is a small, quiet, sleepy Romney Marsh village with an ancient church and a village pub. Surrounded by fields and wide views across the Marsh to the hills the silence is only broken by the call of birds, the gentle chug of a distant tractor, the bleating of sheep and the croaking of marsh frogs in the ditches.


Hop Picking and Growing


When I look at my two hop plants at this time of the year, covered in great bunches of green hops hanging in huge clusters just ready for picking, I am reminded of the fact that hops have always been important in my life. My father and grandfathers all grew hops at some time in their lives. As a small child our lives were regulated by the seasons, the weather and the jobs that needed to be done in the cultivation of the hops. In winter my father would do “hop dressing” – the pruning of the root stock so that only good healthy growth would result. In Spring once the hop plants began to send out shoots the skilled hop stringer would walk along each row with a long pole connecting the coarse string from the metal “screw hook” in the ground to the hooks on the wire work high over head. Four strings were connected to each hook to form an inverted triangle of strings from each plant. The finished hop garden was a complex cat’s cradle upon which the hops would grow. After the ‘stringing’ came the ‘banding in’ when women would connect the four strings with a band of string at roughly shoulder height. Hops would be ‘twiddled’ on to the strings and once they were well above the ‘band’ the lower leaves would be removed. My father and grandfather would spend long hours not just working in the hop garden but also walking among the plants. Checking progress, looking for pests, assessing the possible crop – would it be a good year or a poor one? As August approached I would be woken by a loud whoomping noise below my bedroom window, at about five in the morning, as my father drove a powdering machine down the alleys between the hops puffing great clouds of insecticide powder up through the leaves. The highlight of the year was hop picking. As a small child I lived on a farm that employed hop pickers who came to live on the farm in ‘hoppers huts’ for the harvest time. Considered rough and ready by the locals they gave a certain alien glamour to the countryside with their singing and racousness. My father was the hop dryer – an aristocrat among those who work on a hop farm because of his skill in drying the hops so that they were neither under cooked nor ruined by over drying. Upon the hop dryers shoulders rested the ultimate responsibility for the year’s revenue. He would stay in the oast for most of the week – working through the night, snatching sleep on an old iron bed with a straw mattress when time and hops allowed – only returning home on Saturday afternoon to sleep round until late Sunday morning. On Sunday evening he would return to the oast to prepare for Monday morning. The greatest treat of all was to be able to go and play on Dad’s ‘bed’ in the oast and as a vey special treat eat a rasher of bacon that had been cooked in a dirty looking frying pan over the oast fire. Flavoured with the vapour of dried hops and the sulphur that hung in the air there has never been such tasty bacon.
Hop growing and harvesting has its own language – many of the words are dialect related and differ from region to region. In Sussex we had “hop gardens” where the hops grew, “oasts” for drying, the hops grew on a “hill”, the frame upon which they grew was constructed of “wire work”, poles and “stringing”, the root pruning was “dressing”, hops were picked into “bins”, measured out in wicker “bushel baskets”, tipped in to sacks called “pokes”, hops were dried on a “air” (a cloth made of horse hair) in a “roundel” with a “cowl” on the top. When dried the hops would be carried from the roundel on the “air” and then pushed into a pile with a “scubitt” (a large wooden framed shovel covered in sacking). When cool the hops were “scubbitted” into a large suspended sack called a “pocket” and then pressed tight until the “pocket” was solid with the pressed hops. The top of the pocket was stitched up with a large curved “copeing” needle and two ears are made at the corners so that the lowered pocket could be lifted.
These words were the words of my childhood. Handed down for generations and understood without explanation. They constitute the magic of childhood; the bitter heady evocative scent of the hops when rubbed between the fingers, the sight of a low mist across the fields that will burn off with the heat of the sun, so redolent of September but always to this day referred to as “hop picking mornings”.