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.