Rose Deeprose by Sheila Kaye-Smith

Kaye-Smith, despite her earlier suggestion that she didn’t like writing novels with female central characters, produced a number of works in the 1930s that did explore the roles of women in society. Like Susan Spray, Rose Deeprose is a flawed young woman who is seeking some contentment in her life. However, “Rose Deeprose” is in many ways a depressing novel that lacks a real sense of reality.

The contemporary reviews were mixed in their response to “Rose Deeprose”. Most recognized that it was a psychological study of a girl, wife and mother. The novel is a work of unrelenting tragedy with a focus on the varieties of love experienced by human beings, and with a similar emphasis on socio-political issues that had become a concern of Kaye-Smith’s novels of the 20s and 30s. Set in the present and in the rural regional setting of the Sussex/Kent border, centred on the villages of Shadoxhurst and Bladbean and the town of Ashford, Rose Deeprose was reviewed as Kaye-Smith’s return “to the English South Country and the Hardyesque manner of her earlier novels”. Through the narrative of Rose’s life from the age of sixteen to twenty five, Kaye-Smith looks at the position of women in contemporary rural society, their relationships with both men and women, the psychology of motherhood, attitudes to mental disability in children, the workings of the legal system and the search for an identity in a changing world.
As with “Susan Spray” this novel is a Bildungsroman. Rose Deeprose charts the life of the eponymous heroine, the daughter of an alcoholic farmer and a down-trodden submissive mother, from her sixteenth birthday when she is taken to the cinema and tea in Ashford by her mother, to her mid-twenties, when she takes her young half-brother, Ronnie, for the same treats. In the intervening years Rose has left school to work on her father’s farm and inadvertently caused the death of her mother in a road accident. She marries her cousin Townley who commits suicide. She becomes friends with, and possibly the lover of, Christian who becomes her step-mother, but blames herself for Christian’s untimely death. Beyond all this she has given birth to a mentally-disabled daughter, causes the death of that daughter in a failed suicide attempt and is tried for murder. When released from jail, she settles back at her childhood home to look after her aged father and her young step-brother.
Concerned with showing differing generational views of a woman’s place in society, and attitudes to sexuality, Kaye-Smith’s characterisation of Rose’s mother presents a traditional pre-war outlook of subservience and acceptance of male domination. Mrs Deeprose deceives herself and Rose by excusing her husband’s alcoholism as an illness: “your father’s never actually drunk”, “his stomach’s weak and can’t hold much liquor – that’s why he’s so often ill. He really is ill, though, of course, it’s the drink that makes him so” (RD 4). She dismisses her husband’s abuse by characterising men as more emotionally vulnerable, and weak of character, with less sense than women. Therefore, “Life is more difficult for men than it is for women” (RD 15). Mrs Deeprose urges Rose “never to be hard on him” rather “to be kind” because “There may be a time when I’m not here, and your poor father has only you to depend on” (RD 5). Representative of older women who could not see beyond the domestic role, Mrs Deeprose views Rose’s criticism of both her father and her cousin, Townley, as harsh and ungrateful. Presented as a one-dimensional character, she is the symbol of the repression of women in her belief that “‘It’s natural for a man to be ‘superior’ as you call it and to show off; he makes life easier for himself that way, just as women do by keeping quiet'” (RD 26). Rose Deeprose and Christian Lambert represent two differing portraits of the modern young woman. When she leaves school Rose is not prepared to accept the conventional role of a young woman by “helping . . . mother in the house”(RD19). As she defiantly explains to her male cousin, Townley, she intends to do “a man’s work” on the farm. After the death of her mother and the incapacitation of her injured father, Rose relishes her role in running the farm, and as Joanna Godden had done by introducing “modern ways in farming” (RD 74). Reversing the neglect of the land she works hard to make the farm prosperous. Kaye-Smith is thus able to establish the credible empowerment of a woman working in a traditionally male sphere, but it is through the depiction of Rose’s relationships with Townley and Christian that she explores and investigates the dilemmas of the modern woman’s sexuality. Through the depiction of Rose’s relationship with Christian, Kaye-Smith scrutinizes the boundaries between sexual relationships and friendship, while suggesting that the modern woman need not be bound by conventional heterosexuality. Rose is characterised as an innocent naive country girl who has never experienced any close female friendships or any romantic liaisons. Christian is a feminine, worldly wise, urbanite who has pursued a series of love affairs, and is happy to go out with any men that take her fancy “to pass the time”. She is looking for a “nice, respectful, handsome, ignorant man” to marry, who will be “solid and warm and comforting” (RD 117). The relationship between the two women, and the heterosexual relationships between Rose and Townley, and Christian and Rose’s father Wally, are focused through the lens of Rose’s perceptions of friendship and love. In all of her interactions with those she believes she loves, she is constantly buffeted by opposed emotional forces. Her attraction to Townley is denoted by a desire for the physical contact of a love-making of romantic kisses. This idealised, somewhat conventionally Victorian, concept of love is juxtaposed with Rose’s views on marriage. As a modern woman she will not accept a role in which she is “efficient at housekeeping with a dash of subservience” (RD 124). She espoused a modern view on marriage as “an affair of male and female”, in which “she would not trail behind his striding figure”, “nor should her husband be her master” but instead “They would be friends and go through life side by side” (RD 138), therefore Kaye-Smith rejects the traditional Victorian view of marriage and affirms a perception of marriage as a partnership. Similar conflicting emotions figure in Rose’s comparison of her love for Christian and Townley. As both relationships develop, they are a source of potential conflict for her, as she sees in each aspects of the perfect bond between two human beings. In her own rationalisation of these relationships Rose persuades herself that
they belonged to two different sides of her life, pulling her in two different ways. “Townley stood for love, strength and virility, Christian for companionship, laughing sweetness and a helplessness that called for cherishing. “To love and to cherish”. . . she loved one and cherished the other, and when she thought of them together she was torn” (RD 122).
Although the portrayals of the marriages between Rose and Townley, and Christian and Wally, are initially figured as stereotypically traditional, Kaye-Smith acknowledges in the novel that for many women the acceptance of marriage also meant the acceptance of subservience, submission and a loss of individual identity. Rose becomes a submissive wife, fulfilling her housewifely duties as her mother had told her she should, but she has lost her independence of person and acknowledges that “She felt that her edges were less clear, that she merged into him” (RD 156). Christian’s marriage is doomed from the start being never a partnership. Christian’s youth and selfishness, and Wally’s drinking and middle-age are quite correctly perceived by Rose to spell disaster. The breakdown in that marriage rekindles an even-more intense friendship between Rose and Christian. Kaye-Smith’s writing of this relationship is suggestive of intimacy but perhaps, mindful of the Radcliffe Hall obscenity trial, she is careful to couch the relationship in terms of friendship. Rose sees Christian as a “goddess”, and she is pleased to be in a “half-worshipping, half-cherishing relationship” (RD178). When waking up and “realising that the sleeping figure beside her was Christian” (RD 178) there is no suggestion of intimacy. When the women go on holiday together they each day-dream of an imagined life together. Christian declares herself “really sick of this man-and-woman business” (RD 204). She imagines them being “perfectly happy living together” (RD 208). Rose shares this dream, imagining a life in which they could be “two women alone, happy, lively and at rest” (RD 210). This relationship is equated with goodness and perfection while the heterosexual relationships of the women become synonymous with evil. Rose reasons that
“Male and female created He them . . . but it was the devil and not the Creator who had coiled up male and female with all the lies and treacheries and animosities in which they had struggled and stumbled ever since” (RD 210).
At the core of the novel is Kaye-Smith’s Christian belief that the only love that will stand the test of time is that founded on selflessness, and consideration for others. The first two sections of the text, entitled ‘Daughter’ and ‘Wife’, establish a pattern of love “triangles [that] form and reform” in a complex patterning that speaks to a Christian symbolism and imagery of the trinity. The ‘Daughter’ section explores the possibilities, and vagaries of love, within a mother, father and daughter relationship, while the ‘Wife’ section concentrates on romantic heterosexual relationships and a close same sex friendship. The final section of the novel is entitled ‘Mother’ and in this Kaye-Smith analyses, through Rose’s experience, the vicissitudes of a mother’s love for her child. Rose, like Susan Spray, is a complex character. She acts rashly and is demonstrably an example of the adage that the person who acts in haste will repent at leisure. As a pawn of fate and perpetually in search of a love that is real, meaningful, and lasting, she is brought into conflict or betrayed by those for whom she cares. Her friendship with Christian and her marriage to Townley are irrevocably soured by their affair. Her hasty, ill-thought-out behaviour has brought about the deaths of both her mother and Christian. However, Rose’s love for her daughter, Madge, who is mentally disabled and will “always be more or less a child” (RD 316), is by far the strongest love depicted in the text. Unlike Townley she sees the child’s disability as reason for a greater devotion in which “Her life was dedicated to Madge, to her welfare and happiness” (RD 320). To emphasise the devoted nature of this love, Kaye-Smith has employed the imagery associated with the life of a religious order. Caring for the child is an atonement for past mistakes. Nun-like, Rose will “dedicate” her life to the child; together they would live an “enclosed” life, be “separated” from the world and live in the “convent” (RD 320) of the farm. This contained love, being smothering, isolationist, possessive and all-consumingly selfish, is doomed to fail. The triangulation of this love – between Rose, the child and Townley – reflects the conflicting triplication that had brought about the failure of Rose’s other attempts to love. Throughout the text those manifestations of love that are destined to fail are characterised by conflict. Her smothering love for Madge meant that she “was no longer at peace with her love of Townley, but bitterly at war” (RD 320). The clash between her love for child and for husband mirrors Rose’s experience when her love for Christian had been opposed by her love for her husband, as well as reflecting the fractured incompleteness of her love for her parents. Rose “had never loved her father, so her love for her mother. . . had never been complete” (RD 320).
Kaye-Smith’s constant and unrelenting desire to emphasise her message that love must be selfless is bolstered by the deaths of all those Rose loves. Rose’s mother’s death, as the result of a road accident, might not have happened if Rose had not tampered with her father’s car in an attempt to keep her mother at home. Christian would not have died as a result of exposure to cold and rain if Rose had not invited her into her home and then turned her out into the night. Madge would not have died if Rose had not attempted to drown both of them in the river, in the ill-considered belief that then they would be together forever. Townley would not have committed suicide if Rose had not been tried for the murder of her child. The end of the novel spells out the Christian moral of unselfish unconditional love. Rose learns that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that selflessness can bring salvation, joy, happiness and above all else love. In an act of simple kindness to her much younger half-brother, Ronnie, (the child of her father and Christian), in the purchase and giving of a pencil sharpener to replace one he had lost, Rose becomes aware of “the happiness she knew that she could both give him and find in him” (RD 449). This realisation that selfless acts of kindness are manifestations of the love she had always sought are reinforced in her dream of Madge and her recognition upon waking that “the dream had been about Ronnie rather than Madge”. It is seen by her as “nothing less than a divine revelation” (RD 449). Much as Waugh and Greene placed the demonstration of the mystery and power of divine grace at the centre of many of their Catholic novels, Kaye-Smith has covertly adopted the same focus for Rose Deeprose.
The teaching on the nature and efficacy of Christian love continues for Rose with the equation of selfless giving with “pyschological release” (RD 449), and her determination that Ronnie should have “all the happiness he was capable of savouring” (RD 450). In the final scene of the novel, the narrative ties up all loose ends as it comes full-circle back to the tea shop with which it had opened. Rose, as sister-mother to Ronnie, has taken him for tea to the shop she used to go to with her mother. The reflections of Ronnie and Rose in the tea shop mirrors allow Kaye-Smith to utilise the Christian symbolism of darkness and light to contrast Rose’s past life of darkness and inward search for love with her new revelation of the ‘light’ and the realisation that love comes from the outward act of giving to others. In the tea shop Ronnie wonders what is happening to them in the dark parts of the mirrors on the wall. Rose, however, concentrates on “‘our adventures here in the light'”, affirming that the here and now presents them with hope for the future and “‘no idea of the nice things you’re going to see presently'” (RD 452).
By setting Rose Deeprose in the 1930s Kaye-Smith is able to depict and address selected current social issues while giving a picture of rural life in the Britain of this time. Townley and the doctors voice the prevailing attitudes to mental disability of the male-dominated society of the 1930s. Townley finds the child repellent, and in his inability to relate to her, he labels her “‘ a little devil'”. He is determined that she shall be locked away in “‘the county asylum'” . . . because “‘she deserves – to join the pauper idiots'” (RD 354). Equally harsh is the judgement of others, including the doctors, who categorise the child as a “natural”, an “idiot”, “a half-wit, or “mental”. She is “backward”, “childish” or like “‘ an intelligent dog'” (RD 346) and will “‘never be very different from what she is now'” (RD 311). The manner in which Kaye-Smith writes of this heartlessness illustrates the enlightened empathetic compassion of a writer with a well-developed social conscience. The reader is drawn to sympathise with Rose and to condemn those who show no sympathy for either the child or her mother. Illustrative of changing attitudes towards women in society, the treatment that Rose receives at the hands of the women prison staff and her own lawyer are set in stark contrast to the lack of understanding exhibited by the judge. The wardresses in the prison are “kind”, “respectable”, “quiet”, they thoughtfully “pulled down the blinds” (RD 395) on the car taking her to the court. Rose’s lawyer is understanding of her mental anguish and is determined that the death of Madge shall be seen as an accident. Presented as a kindly, perceptive and enlightened man, he condemns the law as “‘ a rotten law that puts her through all this just because she failed to carry out half her intention'” (RD 424). The judge, representative of a pre-war repressive attitude to women that dictates they should be entirely subject to their husbands, praises Townley’s desire to institutionalise the child as “laudable” and condemns Rose’s attempted suicide as purely an act “to spite her husband” (RD 419).
Throughout the text Kaye-Smith makes reference to the technological changes in travel and communication that had affected the lives of those living in rural areas. Townley and Rose’s father have cars, and both households have telephones. As symbols of urban modernity they are associated with unsympathetic characters, disastrous events, and the destruction of the time-honoured ways of the countryside. Although they offer considerable advantages, their use often leads to misunderstanding, disruption, distancing and destruction in the relationships between human beings and between humanity and the natural world. Rose’s mother’s death, caused by a car’s headlights frightening the horse that is drawing the trap she is travelling in, speaks to the disruption and destruction of a traditional way of life in the countryside. Those individuals who relish the speed and luxury of car travel are invariably those characters who have little sympathy or empathy with the natural world. These machines are figured as symbols of male domination and virility and as such they perpetuate the subjugation of women. The close association of maleness with machine is seen in Rose’s father because “The car seemed to be an extension of himself; to criticise it was to hurt him personally, to praise it was to puff him up with pride”. When he was driving “His maleness was more like Townley’s than Rose had thought” (RD 29).
The telephone is a luxury item that is inextricably linked to urbanisation. Christian, an incomer to the countryside from the town, wastes no time in installing a telephone in Wally Deeprose’s farmhouse in an effort to modernise it. Townley has the telephone installed in his home because his summer paying guests from the town demand this modern convenience. For country dwellers like Rose the telephone, like the car, can be useful but it remains an alien machine. In her use of it Rose is taciturn and “never fluent in conversation”, she “found herself almost paralysed by the mouthpiece at her lips” (RD 174). Telephonic communications invariably foreshadow misunderstandings, disaster and death. Christian uses it to summon help when she is threatened by Wally Deeprose, Rose hears of Christian’s illness and death in a series of truncated calls, and Townley warns Rose of his impending suicide in a short call to say goodbye. The potential for the misinterpretation of these distanced communications is realised in Rose’s reaction to Townley’s call. Her first reaction is one of frustration believing that “He must be mad, she thought – ringing her up to talk this painful nonsense” (RD 440) but upon reflection she realises that “he as good as told me he was going to kill himself” (RD 441). The realisation comes too late and Rose’s attempt to reach him before he can shoot himself is in vain. With this presentation of technology Kaye-Smith has established a simple dictum: modern, urban and mechanical is bad, whereas traditional, rural and natural is good.
Kaye-Smith’s rendering of the natural world in this novel is no longer that of a landscape of benevolence and comforting spirituality. When the weather and the landscape are brought into a sharp focus it is as a crystallisation and reflection of the mood and circumstances of the characters. On occasion the landscape is nostalgically idyllic, for example when Rose has returned home and is contented at the farm of her childhood. As she looks at “Plurenden Woods, huddled against a soft grey sky with sunshine behind it. Her heart began to unaccountably sing” (RD 424). At other times the malevolence and harsh qualities of the natural world are depicted in an exaggerated realism. In the relating of Christian’s attempt to get home across the fields she “lost her way” (RD 254), her ordeal in the darkness has resulted in her being ‘unconscious’ and ‘raving’ while the undergrowth has left her “with only a few rags on her” (RD 254). Terrified, she is “wandering about in the darkness, in the bog and the rain” (RD 255). When Rose runs away from Townley, with Madge, the countryside she must get through is a “tangle of branches” (RD 365), she “floundered among the brambles” (RD 366), the woods are marshy with “marsh gas bubbling between” (RD 366) the tussocks. The flooded river, which drowns Madge and nearly drowns Rose, is depicted as a deadly manifestation of nature. The water’s effect on Rose is overwhelmingly and physically powerful. As though in the grip of a monster, Rose is “struggling”, and “choking”, to fend off its grasp, her lungs are “bursting”, and the air must be “dragged” into them as the water is “clutching” her and “roaring” in her ears.
The essential rurality of this novel lies in its setting in the countryside, with a farming community that acts as a backdrop to the narration of Rose Deeprose’s life. This rural setting provided the basis of criticism for some reviewers who were beginning to see rural fiction, and this novel in particular, as representative of “a backwater tradition”. They sarcastically lampooned Rose Deeprose for being a work that was “mulched in the soil, invariably bring[ing] . . . a picture of the black loam of muddy lanes and apple scents of Autumn”. Arguably, in this concentration on the setting, these reviewers have failed to see it as integral to the development of Rose as a liberated woman. Although the rurality of this novel is evident, the text does also address the domestic concerns that were a distinguishing feature of middlebrow fiction in the depiction of Rose’s role as a housewife. Unlike the protagonists in some other domestic middlebrow novels where, as Humble states, the central female character is “firmly contained by” the “despised domestic” (Humble 127) role, Rose is shown to have attained a freedom of spirit in her decision to return to her father’s home. Unlike those middlebrow novels that place the female protagonist in a primarily domestic role, and with a happy ending of marital bliss, this work illustrates the fulfilment that women can achieve in living a life in which they do not need to rely on men. Rose has gained her independence, and is single and contented with the freedom she has attained, as an equal partner with her father, in the working and running of the farm.
None of the contemporary reviewers acknowledged any religious message in the novel, and Kaye-Smith had not felt it necessary to include any overtly religious matter. Yet it is apparent that the text can be read as an extended parable like discourse that demonstrates the truth of one of the central tenets of Christian belief, that above all else, selfless love of other human beings should lie at the centre of a good Christian life. Through a series of tragic events that have resulted from hasty decisions, moral dilemmas and a somewhat selfish search for personal love, Rose learns that the contentment of true love only comes through giving selflessly. Kaye-Smith uses Rose to illustrate the Christian scriptural tenets that “‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself””, St Paul’s plea to the Ephesians that they should remember “the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'”, and St Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians that “faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”. In her desire to promulgate this teaching Kaye-Smith has produced a novel that is contrived and unconvincing in much of its plotting and structure. As one reviewer notes, the unmitigating string of tragic disasters that befall Rose is “wanting in reality and cohesion” while “as the record of one life [the novel] lacks conviction and the requisite stamp of inevitability”.
Like “Susan Spray”, “Rose Deeprose” is a psychological study of a young woman as she grows from a teenager to adulthood. It explores the conflicting emotions and identities that she experiences as a daughter, wife and mother, while illustrating the principle that childhood experience is influential in forming the adult. Although it is a novel that is all about the central character and her fate, Kaye-Smith explores Rose’s life not with a preconception that she is fated to a certain destiny, but rather through a depiction of Rose as one who is exercising her free will in her search for an identity. Her decisions are often governed by haste and impetuosity and she only learns through making mistakes – many of them catastrophic and tragic. Contemporary comment on the novel noted that “The psychology is penetrating”, that this “is a study in sanity”, and that Rose is “like a mouse in a psychologist’s maze” who bruises herself in “many blind alleys” but eventually “finds the way out”.


Susan Spray

Here is a somewhat lengthy and detailed analysis of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novel “Susan Spray”.

Many of Kaye-Smith’s novels had featured strong and resolute women but only Joanna Godden had placed such a woman at the centre of the narrative. During the 1930s her novels were particularly characterised by a feeling for social history, and with Susan Spray she returned to an investigation of the changing role of women in society. In Susan Spray (1931) Kaye-Smith explores the need for women to have control of their own destiny, the right of women to have a sense of their own individual identity, and “the importance of the human being when that being happens to be female” (Beauman 70). Writing at a time when gender roles were still in some state of flux, and when society was still coming to terms with the traumatic transformational changes that had taken place after the First World War, Kaye-Smith adopts an ‘old’ feminist approach. She argues for women to have the chance to experience self-fulfilment, self-determination, and equality of opportunity as she had in Joanna Godden. The novel follows the pattern of a traditional Bildungsroman in which the individual faces extreme challenges, discovers that life is not easy or simple, suffers from doubt about her own purpose and beliefs, and is continually searching for freedom, within the context of a society in which women are constrained by male societal norms. In the novel Kaye-Smith has applied a modern psychologically contextualised understanding to this genre of coming-of-age fiction. In her empiricist assumption that we learn from past experience, she reflects the spirit of the age. Equally, these novels highlight the dilemma that Kaye-Smith faced in reconciling herself to a modern method of narration. This conflict is characterised by the writer vacillating between elements of pastoral writing that recall her earliest work, and a more modern mode in which she investigates the psychology of the characters’ thoughts and actions. This oscillation is mirrored in the presentation of Susan. She faces a struggle to reconcile the old ways of their youth with the attainment of their ‘new’ desired mode of adulthood.

The full title of Susan Spray – The History of Susan Spray, The Female Preacher – calls to mind the titles of eighteenth century works of fiction such as Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749), with the incorporation in the title of a short pointer to the focus of the novel. This titling along with the transparent structuring of the novel into four parts – each recording the doings of Susan in her various personas as Susan Spray, or when married Strudwick, Clarabut and finally Pell – leaves the reader in little doubt of who and what will be the central concern of this novel. Susan Spray is a fictionalised biography of a young woman from birth, in 1834, to her adulthood in the 1850s/60s. The eldest daughter of a Sussex agricultural labourer Susan’s formative childhood years occur in the period known as the Hungry Forties. She was brought up in extreme poverty, as a member of a small localised, non-conformist, Biblical Protestant sect, the Colgate Brethren. Susan is represented as a child with a vivid imagination ignited by her recall of the Sunday scripture readings which gave her a means of escape into a fantasy realm that had “a glamour which was not of this world” (SS 7). The application of her imaginative powers to her retelling and interpretation of everyday events establishes her as a visionary who had seen “the Lord in a vision at Beggars Bush” (SS 15). Anxious to escape from poverty, the young adult Susan soon finds that she can improve her own circumstances by preaching. She is married three times, firstly to Dan Strudwick, a skilled agricultural worker, secondly to Charley Clarabut, a gentleman confidence trickster, and thirdly to David Pell, a self-made wealthy man who was willing to establish Susan in her own church. With each marriage, Susan improves her personal circumstances. In her portrait of Susan Spray, Kaye-Smith presents the reader with a complex psychological study of an individual who is the product of the place, time and circumstances into which she was born. Her childhood of deprivation, combined with a determination to be independent and successful, make Susan Spray not a “nice woman nor a heroic one” but rather one who was “vain, selfish, greedy of money and recognition; jealous of her sister Tamar, vindictive towards her and wilfully self-deceived” (SS xii-xiii).
Kaye-Smith’s accuracy in her depictions of social conditions, in both time and place, is revealed in her meticulously researched background to Susan’s childhood years of the 1840s. Using hard historic facts to establish a background for her narrative, Kaye-Smith informs her reader of the effects of the Corn laws, the Game Laws, and the power of the Established Church on the life of Adam Spray, and others who “were miserably poor, being all men of the labouring class” (SS 4). A detailed social history of the 1840s is humanised and personalised as Kaye-Smith narrows the focus of her discourse to concentrate on the daily life of Susan Spray. As a child of six, she must work alone in the fields to scare the birds from the crops, she has dirty ragged clothes, lives in a tumble-down cottage, and as the food becomes scarce she steals and eats raw turnips. In a continuous catalogue of disasters, illustrative of the fate of many rural families, Susan Spray is orphaned, put in the workhouse, separated from her siblings, until she is “without care or hope” (SS 77). Her past life has become “haunting shadows in a little chamber at the back of her mind” (SS 77). Hardened by her experiences, she has no emotional attachment to her siblings and when she is sent into service she “felt almost glad to be rid of them and indifferent as to whether [she] ever saw them again” (SS 77). Susan’s circumstances are only improved when, as a teenager, she begins to work on Hendalls Farm and is shown considerable kindness by the Colgate Brethren family who own the farm. As a fictionalised social history of conditions for working-class rural families of the 1840s, Susan Spray provides a humanised, accurate ethnography. In the future development of the character of Susan, Kaye-Smith adopts a stance – that subsequently becomes the readers’ – of pity for Susan’s circumstances, understanding of her motivation, and recognition that she is a reprehensible, amoral individual.
Throughout the remainder of the novel Susan is motivated, in all her encounters and decisions, by an overwhelming ambition to continually improve her material circumstances and never return to a life of poverty. Kaye-Smith’s plotting of the fulfilment of Susan’s complex psychological desire to succeed is saturated with coincidence and contrivance, as well as evident structural weaknesses. Kaye-Smith works out Susan’s determination to “‘live a man’s life – alone like a man'” so that she “‘could live [her] own life [in her] own way, just as a man does'” (SS 113), by replicating a device she had used in Joanna Godden. Just as each of Joanna’s love affairs exponentially contribute to the final establishment of her as an independent woman in control of her own destiny, so Susan’s three marriages perform the same function in this novel. The manner in which each relationship starts, continues, and comes to some conclusion, often lacks believability and is laden with artifice. The substance of this novel lies in the realisation of the heroine, whose encounters are primarily used to explore, illustrate and interrogate the incentivisation and psychological complexity of Susan as a victim/product of her environment.
It is to Dan Strudwick, who would become her first husband, that Susan reveals her need for solitude, when she states “‘I want to be alone. I’m tired of having folks always around me'” (SS 113). Envious of the freedom that society affords to men, Susan maintains that “‘A woman can live alone as well as a man'” (SS 113). Strudwick’s initial purpose in the novel is to facilitate the articulation of Susan’s ambition and the feminist agenda of the text. Although Strudwick finds Susan a pleasing companion at their first meeting, he is taken aback by her admission that she wants to be ” a great preacher and forget the curse of being a woman” (SS 117). Strudwick, a skilled farm workman, is rendered in terms that make him appear more genteel and perceptive than the average farm labourer. He is therefore more appealing to Kaye-Smith’s middle-class women readers. To fulfil his function in the text as an informer and observer, he is presented as a one man rustic chorus. There is no need for him to be realistic and believable. Instead he is constructed as a contrivance to illuminate the complexity of Susan’s character. He recognises that Susan has “beauty and kindness, with at the back of it a sort of striding fear, an unwomanly wildness” (SS 113). He is afraid of her. Although her preaching “moved him powerfully” (SS 125) it is her physical presence that attracts him. Recognition of him as an enlightened ‘modern’ man is apparent after their marriage when he “was well pleased that Susan should preach” (SS 135). His motivation is straightforward and simple in that he loves her, while hers is complicated, and manipulative. Her conception of love is founded on the need for control: “the more she could assert her superiority over him the more she would love him” (SS 132). This psychological need for control over her circumstances is breached, both when her child dies and her husband is killed. Her subsequent uncharacteristic childlike emotional vulnerability is related in a vocabulary reminiscent of Victorian melodrama – she “collapsed”, she is “a frantic dishevelled woman” (SS 145), “raving”, her fists are “clenched”, “her sobs jerked her whole body” (SS 164).
To demonstrate the development of her character as a woman who needs to be self-reliant, can stand alone, and who is adept at self-deception, Kaye-Smith goes on to imbue Susan with a renewed strength and resolution for self-advancement and the acquisition of material wealth. To develop the narrative and to maintain the intricacy of Susan’s characterisation, Kaye-Smith has, in the manner of many rural novels, used an unlikely sequence of chance events to engineer the plot. Susan has an initial meeting on a train with the parson’s son, a down-on-his luck confidence trickster, Charley Clarabut. His subsequent interest in her, although he knows she is of humble birth, is the stuff of a subverted fairy tale in which the rich handsome man pays attention to the poor girl, combined with faint echoes of Tess’s encounters with Alec D’Urberville. Susan’s relationship with Charley Clarabut is a purely material and worldly one, based on sexual attraction, a desire for social advancement and the trappings of wealth, but her ability to manipulate a situation to her own advantage is thwarted by Clarabut. Informed by her past experiences, but with the paradoxes inherent in her character, Susan is presented as an individual who is divided against herself. Her growing popularity as a preacher vies with her need for the security of feeling loved and having sufficient wealth to feel safe and comfortable. The possibility of “a happiness she had never known” (SS 258) is offered by Clarabut, along with the unique luxury of “the French clothes he had promised, a gown, a mantle, a bonnet, and a parasol” (SS 259). For a woman who had spent her childhood in poverty the life of a travelling preacher, even a very popular and independent one, was no match for such material wealth and security.
Carefully drawn as a far-from-pleasant individual, Clarabut is considerably more perceptive, selfish and adroit at manipulating those around him than Susan. Where Strudwick is supportive and naive, Clarabut is exploitative and knowing. The naivety of Susan as she judges Clarabut to be a lord because of his clothing is set against his certain belief that she is of “lower bucolic rank” or a “servant-girl on a spree” once she opens her mouth to speak. Clarabut fulfils multiple functions in the development and delineation of Susan’s character. At the core of Susan’s success as a preacher is her ability to convincingly deceive herself and others. In his destructive summation of Susan’s character he negates the sympathy that the reader may have for her in his affirmation of her self-centred and self-deluding nature. He maintains that her religion is “only a way of making yourself out more grand and important”, she is “the lowest, meanest little hypocrite . . . hard-hearted and revengeful and immoral”, she has never performed “a kind action” or spoken “a kind word” (SS 285). He notes that her utter self absorption means that
You just care for nobody but yourself – whatever you happen to be wanting most at the moment- money, or excitement, or success, or love. You don’t care anything for religion – you used it only to make yourself get money and admiration out of your yokel friends, and when you found something you wanted better, when you wanted love, your religion was all so much mud . . . you’ve only one God – your wretched, vain, immoral, obstinate, heartless self (SS 285).
Clarabut might have added to this list her ability to lie and believe her own lies, an adroitness in the creation of religious-based fantasies, jealousy of those who appear to be more fortunate than herself, and little or no concern with the consequences of her actions as they might impact upon herself or others. In ascribing such behaviour patterns to the adult Susan, Kaye-Smith has exemplified a simplified version of the Freudian theory of psychodynamics. She “began to read Freud” when “near middle age” (ABML 178) and concluded that Freud’s methods and theories were of “more use than those of other psychologists” (ABML 178).
Clarabut is pivotal in revealing other facets of her character as well as her selfish materialism. He is instrumental in laying bare the fantasy of her prophetic preaching, both to Susan herself and to the reader. By branding her ministry of judgement and doom as “gaff”, “nonsense” and “humbug” and her as a “charlatan”, and a ‘fraud’ he is the mechanism by which Kaye-Smith can bring Susan to the revelatory self-awareness that
none of the things she said had happened to her had really happened at all. She had not been given any special command to preach Judgement, nor had she seen the Lord, either in a cloud or in a bush. She had made up the first to save herself from a beating, and she had made up the other (SS 243).
Integral to the intricacy of the presentation of Susan’s character is the feminist sub-theme of equality between the sexes. Clarabut is presented as the epitome of male superiority. Like Andy Baird in Isle of Thorns he fulfils the Victorian trope of the dominant male who objectifies women. Clarabut believes that the natural order dictates that “a man must support his wife and a woman must live where her husband chooses” (SS 239). It is his responsibility to “look after” Susan, give her “lovely clothes to wear, and everything” (SS 239) she wants. He believes that he should protect her from “struggles and trials” (SS 239). Although Susan Spray is set in the mid-nineteenth century, Kaye-Smith frequently reflects not only the mores of that era but also the prevailing attitudes and behaviours of the early 1930s. In line with the depiction of single women in fiction of the inter-war years, and as a prevailing perceived expectation, it was assumed that any woman would give up a career “to fulfil herself as a woman” and that it was “important for her to sacrifice, to dote and – eventually – to self-abnegate” (Beauman 82). In her relationship with Clarabut, Susan’s sacrifice of her life as a preacher fully illustrates this convention, rendered in the clichés of popular romantic fiction. In her doting and self-abnegation she becomes timid and reliant, she “tasted a happiness she had never known”, she “could hardly bear her joy” (SS 258). While Kaye-Smith is willing to reflect, in part, the expectations of her predominantly female readership with the inclusion of romance, she is undeviating in her depiction of Susan as a damaged, “selfish and hard-hearted” (SS 279), thoroughly mixed-up and deluded individual. In the presentation of a climactic moment of self-awareness for Susan, Kaye-Smith utilises a free indirect style to speak as Susan. In a “road to Damascus” moment, Susan realises that she has lost the autonomous identity that she had attained through her “preaching – and the folk – and the meeting; and Hur Colgate, and God’s Holy Word, and all the lovely things I used to think and know” (SS 282). The last part of the novel recognises that at the root of such a protean personality is the need for security and acknowledgement. In Susan’s case this could only be fulfilled by a return to her visionary religiosity where the visions that inspired her preaching “may not have happened, but they’re true” (SS 282).
In Susan Spray’s final relationship, with David Pell, Kaye-Smith upholds her core contention that the events of childhood irrevocably control the behaviour of the adult. Susan has learnt that a sexual relationship, such as the one she had with Clarabut, is a threat to her self-control and more importantly to her vocation as a preacher. Compatible with the Freudian theory of psychodynamics that asserts that the deprived child grows into a manipulative adult who is determined to write and act out the script of their own life, Susan has learnt from her experiences. With Pell she has found a man she can dominate and use to securely establish her life as a preacher with her own church, thereby achieving her ultimate dream. Her relationship with him is configured in a lexis denoted by dominance and control. She ‘smote’ him with her will, he was “crushed”, he “surrendered”, he gave her “security of possession” (SS 356), he was her “slave”, he is “consumed” and willingly “enslaved” by her. In the telling of this final relationship Kaye-Smith allows Susan to achieve the attention, superiority, dominance, material wealth and security that she had always craved. Kaye-Smith’s awareness of the complex psychology of her heroine dictates that the presentation of her should necessarily be equally complex and comprehensive. Within the structure of the text the dreams and visions that are integral to Susan’s perceptions of her identity are conceived as her imagined scripting of her life.
Kaye-Smith had suffered from bad dreams as a child and was, for most of her adult life, fascinated by dreams. Her greatest interest was with precognition, extra-sensory perception and areas of psycho-analysis that looked at the unconscious mind, particularly dreams. Her curiosity with the workings of the mind, the imagination, mysticism, and ways of seeing the world that were beyond what the eye can see physically, was initially informed by her reading of William Blake. Her particular inspiration came from the last few lines of Blake’s poem To Thomas Butts 22 November 1802, and her reading of this eventually lead her to the work of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and J. W. Dunne. The influence of her reading, and her own beliefs, can be clearly seen in the sections of Susan Spray that relate the visionary mystical experiences of Susan from childhood to adulthood.
From an early age Susan has a vivid imagination, fuelled by the Old Testament stories she has heard at the Colgate meetings, a sense of theatrical melodrama that comes to inform the re-telling of her visions and her preaching, and a sense of her own difference, as one set apart. The countryside in which she works, scaring birds from the crops, becomes in her imagination an apocalyptic Biblical land where “the woods were worn in tunnels by angels’ wings, and garden gates are closed with fire” (SS 9). Her faith in the wrathful, judgemental God of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, a need for approbation and acceptance, and an egocentricity that leaves no room for self-doubt, form the trinity that motivates her Blakean “fourfold vision”. As a young child, her telling of her first vision is engendered by fear: fear of a thunder storm, fear of God and fear of her parents that “become one in a terrible trinity” (SS 11). The telling of the storm and the re-tellings of the event all utilise the imagery of Scriptural judgement. In the structure, form and narrational devices used in the rendition of this incident, in which Susan is seen utilising her dreams, visions or recollections in her preaching, Kaye-Smith establishes a format that she embellishes and develops as Susan and her ministry mature and flourish throughout the novel.
Susan’s journey to adulthood is presented as a psychological study in which Kaye-Smith uses three interrelated voices. These are the voices of Kaye-Smith as the third-person omnipotent narrator, Susan as the teller of events that have been re-defined by her desire to deceive herself and others, and Susan as a preaching expositor who fancifully embroiders her own experiences. Following this threefold patterning that Kaye-Smith has inaugurated with the ‘trinity’ of Susan’s fears, and with Susan’s three husbands, the narration is presented by means of interrelated voices. The overarching and most pervasive of these is Kaye-Smith’s own omniscient narratorial voice while the other two voices are those ascribed to Susan. The initial description of the thunderstorm is presented by the third-person authorial voice. The first framed narrative of the event, delivered by Susan to her parents, is presented as her perception of the occurrence, filtered through an interpretation of the facts, and engineered to deceive both herself and her listeners. The second sees Susan as a preaching and interpretative agent, delivering to the Colgate Brethren an extended and embellished imaginative account of her experience in the fields. It is this manifestation that establishes her with the Colgate Brethren as a child who has “seen a holy vision” (SS 13) and as one who “had seen the Lord” (SS 16).
In a complex description of the storm, Kaye-Smith combines metaphor, simile, and biblical imagery while referencing the senses, to evoke the overwhelming fear that Susan feels. Like a threatening creature the storm is “muttering” and “rolling” towards her and is “breathing all the air” (SS 9). The ensuing rain is “hissing” on the leaves, and the wind is “screaming in the hedge and rustling in the corn” (SS 10). Throughout the description the link between the natural world and Susan’s fear is maintained with recurring reminders of the birds she is supposed to be scaring away from the crops. The darkness of the storm is caused by a large black cloud “like a great wing”, a flying flock of starlings meant that the “air seemed full of evil wings” (SS 9), and the corn makes a noise like a “thousand wings”. As Susan remembers scraps of Scripture the imagery of fire, represented as lightning that “split” and “rent” the darkness with “horrible gleams like fire” (SS 9), and that of water evoked by the falling rain, become intermingled with the Biblical imagery of judgement. These twin oppositional elemental symbolic images, of fire that consumes, and water that quenches, become the dominant images of the novel when they form the basis for all Susan’s preaching.
The extended triple narration of Susan’s experience of the storm is used to lay the foundation for the construction of her as an imaginative, deceptive, manipulative and theatrically-aware individual, who understands the power she can wield with her oratory. To escape from punishment, Susan quick-wittedly claims that “‘The Lord is in that field'” (SS 12). She is persistent in sticking to her story, and determined to survive, as her experience becomes, in its telling, a “holy vision” as she invokes the emotive imagery of judgemental fire. The God she has seen is “all red and fiery”, sits on a “fiery throne” and carries “a bunch of lightnings” (SS 12). In line with a Freudian psychodynamic reading of the text, Susan is self-deceiving. Each embellishment, as usual inspired by scraps of remembered Scripture, adds to the account that she “entirely believed herself” (SS 13). Kaye-Smith uses the Colgate meeting to establish a symbolism for the images of fire and water that will characterise the whole of Susan’s ministry. In the Colgate Brethren meeting the fire imagery that had been associated with God is transposed by Susan to the blacksmith when he questions the validity of her vision with eyes that “blaze” at her. His recognition of the truth was”‘searing” over her, “burning” her up as she “fell into the fire” so that she “would disbelieve herself” (SS 17). Fire as a symbol of judgement and damnation becomes a tool in Susan’s adult armoury as she pursues her ambition to become a renowned preacher. The more she needs to delude herself, and the more she is doubted by her audience, the more ferocious the images become. Always destructive, fire will “eat up the world” (SS 180), “burn like a furnace” (SS 222) and there will be “a sheet of fire” (SS 182), that will blow in a “scorching” gale as it “seared” the sinners and doubters in its path.
Kaye-Smith’s use of the Biblical imagery of fire as a symbol of judgement is balanced by her use of water imagery to symbolise life, a cleansing purity that acts as a quenching force to the fire of judgement. Fire is synonymous with hell and water with heaven. The Brethren believe that Susan’s initial vision of swift-flowing water that issues from a temple-like building is proof of her having been “snatched away to visit Ezekial’s temple” (SS 18). The images of the water and the temple become the touchstone for self belief, the rightness of her ambition, and form the basis of her vision for her own church. Water, which throughout the novel quenches fire, is beautiful, engenders a sense of wonder, and brings comfort. When Susan acquires her own church, the building is modelled on her vision of Ezekial’s temple; the small stream that runs under the oast building is representative of the “the waters of life” (SS 374) in Susan’s attainment of her envisaged heaven.
To emphasise the material worldliness and self-deceiving fakery of Susan’s preaching, Kaye-Smith has extended the symbolic imagery to the clothes that Susan wears. When Susan preaches of a fiery hell and damnation she is “tall in her black gown” (SS 281). As a fictionalised manifestation of Freud’s damaged adult, Susan must believe her own fantasy. When she preached in her black dress she became “a high personage, in a high place, wearing garments worthy of her honour, as a Parson wore surplice and stole” (SS 178). In her eyes, and that of her audience, her widow’s weeds give her authority and become part of a theatrical performance designed to impress. In her own church, her preaching is of hope and the New Jerusalem. Here, consistent with the message of optimism, “she would not wear black, but white. She would be no minister in black, but a high priest in white, and she had made for her a long white robe like an angel’s” (SS 362).
The inspiration for Susan Spray came from “the recent visit to England of a notorious American evangelist” (TWH 232). Kaye-Smith, who had recently become a convert to Roman Catholicism, believed that she could write about an evangelical preacher with “the detachment necessary to prevent the novel being reviewed as propaganda” (TWH 232). She records that some reviews deemed her unsuccessful in this endeavour. The reviewers read the novel as one of Catholic propaganda, in which she had set out to expose the evils of Protestantism while simultaneously attacking women preachers. In opposition to this view, other reviews hardly touched on the religious content or ascribed it to part of Kaye-Smith’s realisation of a character and the period she had chosen as a setting. In one review, Jonathan Daniels suggests that Susan Spray’s self deceiving “religious hypocrisy is a child’s defence and a child’s acting for applause, but her religious fear is deep-rooted in the reality of her child’s imagination”, and is therefore a central part of Kaye-Smith’s characterisation. While agreeing that this is a novel of character, The Tablet believes it to be “a tale about religion” and “religious in the letter and the spirit of telling”. This reviewer’s not unexpected stance, that this novel sets out to rebuke all those Protestant ‘egoists’ and ‘megalomaniacs’ who through their “false teaching . . . do harm to blameless dupes”, makes a partisan and erroneous judgement similar to those that condemned the novel as pure propaganda. Susan Spray may be seen as a religious novel because it uses religion as a motivating force for the protagonist, makes obvious and constant reference to Biblical stories and events, and uses the narrative, the imagery, symbolism and language of Christianity and the Bible. Susan’s faith is presented as a hotch-potch of remembered Scripture rendered in a pastiche of Old Testament language, overlaid with a mystical charlatanism of self-deception and melodramatic theatricality, using the transposition of Biblical stories to match or reflect her life.
Kaye-Smith demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the Bible and an insightful understanding of the power of a traumatised child’s impressionable imagination in the portrayal of Susan’s transposition of the events of her life to a Biblical context. In Susan’s imagination, when she is dealing with fear and loneliness, it is quite possible for the Old Testament God to manifest himself in Sussex and to appear to a young girl, just as it is possible for her to be adopting the personas of the Patriarch and re-enacting their experiences. In the thunderstorm, as the sky darkens, God appears as a “pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night” (SS 9) as he had to the Israelites. As she leads her siblings into Horsham, with the hope that there they will find shelter and food, she has brought them out of “the Land of Egypt into the Land of Canaan”. The trials and tribulations of a life on the road are over – “The Red Sea and Jordan were both behind her. She was no longer Moses now, but Joshua, whom the Lord had raised up to bring his people into the Promised Land” (SS 63). Kaye-Smith shows an equal insight into human behaviour in her depiction of the religiosity of the adult Susan whose only education has come from the Bible. Using language that is a “conflation and concatenation of Holy Scripture in Susan’s sermons”, the preaching is couched in a language and phraseology redolent of Scriptural judgement muddled with references to agriculture. The branch of an elm tree that falls and kills Strudwick is a “Sign of the Lord’s judgement” (SS 166), “they of Kemp Town ull [sic] be gnashing their teeth and praying” (SS 182). Susan’s vision of hell combines Dantesque images of “scorching gales”, “whirling souls”, and “fire that belched and seared” with “boiling souls like turnips in a pot” (SS 334).
To complete the picture of Susan’s preaching Kaye-Smith uses the language of drama, with a description of appearance and gesture, that provides a cinematographic performance. At Dan Strudwick’s funeral she is “dressed all in black except for pale touches of lawn” that reflect the “dead white” of her face, and she has her “eyes fixed upon a moving sky of torn grey clouds” (SS 165). She appears “at least a foot taller” in her widow’s weeds. Her appearance commands attention as do her physical gesticulations, when she lowers her eyes to “blaze” on her audience, raises her arms so that her cloak droops from her shoulders, and announces “‘I am a Sign unto you'” as her mouth was “twisting strangely” (SS 165). Susan’s development as an actor is fully realised in her final appearance as a preacher in her own church. In comparison with the earlier performance, Susan is now an individual who has learnt how to give a professional rendition. She is now “in the land of Canaan”, has attained her “triumph”, is “majestic, imposing – tall”, “erect and proud”, dressed in a “white robe, like an angel’s pinions” (SS 374). The complex fourfold imagery of her head-dress, as a “turban”, a “mitre”, a “crown”, and a “halo”, references Blake’s fourfold vision, while simultaneously speaking to the power exerted by the exotic, ecclesiastical, secular and angelic.
Although the preaching of hell fire and damnation establishes a public identity for Susan, the complexity of the characterisation presented in this novel means that there are other facets to the beliefs of the central character. In a contrived engineering of the plot when Susan finds shelter from the rain in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Southwark, Kaye-Smith is unable to resist using the episode to promote her own belief in the all-encompassing, comforting nature of the Roman Catholic faith with the image of God as the protective Father. Despite Susan Spray’s alarm at being in an alien environment, once a service begins she feels as though she is in a meeting of the Colgate Brethren with the “same comforting, familiar smell of human beings, the same continual scrape of chairs and shuffle of feet that made the silence seem alive and familiar” (SS 290-291). The revelation of God that she experiences in this church changes her perception of the Almighty from a God of judgement and damnation to a God who is “fatherly and protecting”. It seemed that “The Cathedral was full of him, a mighty, kindly, brooding presence, and she was once more his child, his chicken, safe under his wing” (SS 292). This revelation combined with an act of kindness from strangers, when Susan is robbed in the street and left dazed and bleeding and taken in by two poor women, echoes the parable of the Good Samaritan, and is utilised in the narrative as a turning point in the development of Susan’s character. These episodes and the subsequent plotting rely on contrived coincidence to bring the heroine to the point where she can establish her own church. Such a contrivance reunites Susan with her sister, Tamar, and David Pell. Pell had been known to her as a child but now his wealth and connection with a religious sect that is in need of revival all provide the basis for Kaye-Smith to move towards a culmination of the narrative in a countryside Sussex location. As with her other novels, Kaye-Smith uses the countryside and nature to establish a mystical spiritual calm for her characters. It is in the countryside that Susan finds solace and peace but it is also where she achieves her dreams.
Reviewers noted that this novel “excels as the poetic interpreter of a particular land” and “The setting and the feeling are pure Sussex”; it has “A solid earthy quality” and is rooted in “real earth” . This is a rural and regional novel because of the evocations of particular Sussex rural locations and the people who live and work there. However, the narrative is anchored in the Sussex countryside with a light touch. The sparse use of place names, references to “the South Downs [that] drew a wavy, knotted line along the horizon” (SS 89), the oasts and hop gardens that were a feature of some areas of Sussex, and the dialectical speech of the country characters, allow Kaye-Smith to designate a general setting. Unlike in earlier novels the use of a specific dialectic lexicon is restricted to those who work the land, and concentrates on allowing the reader to hear the voices. Characterised by stressed and elongated vowel sounds, the use of words such as ‘wur’, ‘gurt, ‘tur’ble’ and ‘döan’t’ convey the gentle Sussex burr without overwhelming the text with an incomprehensible vocabulary, as arguably Kaye-Smith had in Green Apple Harvest. The rurality of the text is conveyed most evocatively in the descriptions of the countryside, which are used to convey the unique bond that links humanity with the landscape. As with her other novels, Kaye-Smith concentrates on this relationship and its mystically spiritual significance.
The much repeated motif of spirituality, of the contemplative countryman leaning on a gate, in solitary communion with his land and his God, is represented in Susan Spray by Maas Vuggle who, every Sunday
would take his dog and walk up to the gate in the Hill field, where he would stay for an hour or more, leaning over the gate and gazing at the earth, the spaniel crouched beside him, both of them as still as earth itself. Then at last he would straighten his back, light his pipe, call to his dog and walk off home (SS 87).
With this image Kaye-Smith has encapsulated, and returned to, the essence of her belief that God is “in all things, no matter how simple and seemingly insufficient” and that “nature gives birth to that which the whole world cannot contain” (TWH 139). This belief that God can be known through humanity’s solitary communion with the natural world, and that such an intimacy can bring contentment and peace is emphasised by repetition in the telling of Susan’s solitary wanderings in the fields. When she stands by the brook in the evening the quiet brings her “sweet contentment”, (SS 90) and “saturate[s] her soul in peace” (SS 89-90). The descriptions of the natural world are presented as idealised pastoral images that are heavily reliant on the senses of sight, sound and smell. The brook has a “soft hesitant drone”, the bank is covered with “a golden studding of wild daffodils” (SS 89), and there is the “drowsy pipe and mutter of the birds” (SS 108). When Susan’s dream is realised, her contentment is reflected in her “growing peace” and the imagery of fruition, when a purely idealised countryside bathed in a perpetual sunshine is scented by the “stealing smell of hops” (SS 367), and where the smell of harvest comes from the “stubble fields” (SS 369).
The religion, rurality and regionality of the novel all act as a background and frame to the centrality of Susan Spray. This protagonist, like Joanna Godden, is an ambitious woman who feels that “The common destiny of women was . . . an infinite humiliation” (SS 99) and she is unwilling to tolerate the constraints placed on her by society. In stating “I wish I were a man” (SS 113) Susan sets out her determination to be independent and “live [her] own life [her] own way” (SS 113). Susan’s struggle for selfhood can be read subjectively as a portrait of a woman who uses her talents to gain her goal – she establishes herself as superior to all around her only by duping her husband and her congregation. Viewed objectively Susan is morally deficient and has betrayed her abilities in her hypocritical peddling of a spurious religion that she herself knows is purely for self-aggrandisement. Unlike Joanna Godden, Susan will not accept the constraints of society and establish a sense of her own identity within those restraints. Although Kaye-Smith is never critical of her heroine she does acknowledge throughout the narrative that Susan is marred by her childhood environment.
Contemporary reviews recognise that “the story is told with an attractive straight forwardness, and Susan, . . . is the whole of it”. Her “childhood completed the pattern of Susan Spray. It shaped her into the woman . . . [who] makes the world give her exactly what she wants” in Kaye-Smith’s “rich characterizations . . . seen with tenderly ironic eyes”. While this is undoubtedly true, the Susan that is presented to the reader is “not a nice woman, nor a heroic one” (Montifiore xii). Rather she is manipulative, a “humbug”, a self-deceiver, an attention seeker, “bitter and passionate”, “cruel and sweet”. The rendition of Susan owes much to Freud’s theory of psychodynamics where the traumatised child’s experiences are instrumental in shaping an adult’s understanding of the world.
Susan Spray was a commercial success and, for a while, was instrumental in re-establishing Kaye-Smith’s reputation as a popular writer. Kaye-Smith followed this success with two volumes of fiction that were loosely based on her own childhood, The Children’s Summer (1932) and Selina is Older (1935), and two volumes of historical fiction that told of the persecution of Catholics in Tudor and Stuart times; Superstition Corner (1934) and Gallybird (1934).

The Valiant Woman

In her novel “The Valiant Woman” Kaye-Smith explores the role of women in the years directly prior to the Second World War and the differing attitudes of three generations to the modern world.

The Valiant Woman
Kaye-Smith had first shown her concern with the despoliation of the countryside, the urban sprawl of house building and the occupation of such housing by those who came from the towns, in A Ploughman’s Progress (1933). In The Valiant Woman she returns to this theme. In the year prior to publication of this novel Kaye-Smith had been a contributor to Britain and the Beast (1938). In her contribution to this work she was in agreement with the other contributors and the editor, Clough Williams-Ellis, that England, and more especially the English countryside, is “a land where disorder, ugliness, and inefficiency are generally accepted” (Britain and the Beast xv). Kaye-Smith’s contribution to the debate centred upon the apparently arbitrary building that was being erected by those who wished to escape to the country. Using examples from her own local area she cites the use of agricultural land for the building of bungalows, some with no facilities or access to the road, the conflict within these developments and with the local community when she describes “The social atmosphere of these new settlements is sometimes rather tense” (Britain and the Beast 40) and the appearance of a “modern villa set up like a match-box on end, with the bungalow coloured pink that can be seen nowhere else save in boiled crustaceans, with the garage of corrugated iron, the castellated shop-front (Britain and the Beast 35). Kaye-Smith’s depiction of the development of the Trulilows estate in The Valiant Woman makes the same points that she had made in her article.
Kaye-Smith’s own views, that she had expounded in Britain and the Beast, are shown most clearly in the person of Oliver Sadgrove and his attitude to the Trulilows estate. His objections to the ‘incomers’ are based on aesthetic and practical farming grounds. He sees the development as a blight on the landscape and when pressed describes it as “‘bungalows like hen-houses, villas like matchboxes on end'” continuing that “‘There’s no proper road through the Estate, no drainage – it’s just a rural slum'” (VW 11). He is equally scathing about the Reddinger’s who have bought the farm house, displaying a unsubstantiated prejudice against them as “‘they’re Birmingham vulgarians – know nothing about farming, let the whole place go to ruin and call it Trulilows Manor'” (VW 11). These objections are so fiercely held because he felt “that love of his home, of his land, of the village and the countryside where he had been bred and the people who lived and worked there'” was “‘in some ways the strongest emotional force within him'” (VW 13) and the destruction of that environment is seen to hurt him deeply. It is not only the building that is cited as objectionable, the new residents have blocked access to a traditional right of way across their fields necessitating a much longer journey for Oliver Sadgrove’s work men. Oliver Sadgrove’s mother is the only other individual who has strongly held views about the new owners of the Trulilows farmhouse and Kaye-Smith uses her to represent the Victorian/Edwardian pre-war snobbish view of the squirarchy when she refuses to call on Kay Reddinger commenting that she has heard that “‘they’re quite impossible – not an aitch between them'” (VW 16).
In an effort to show that the condemnation of all ‘incomers’ to the countryside is generalised and that each person should be judged on their merits, Kaye-Smith makes Kay and Paul Reddinger the focus of the text as she shows their differing effects on other members of the community. Kaye-Smith portrays Kay Reddinger as a person who is eager and willing to fit in to the community and more than willing to contribute. Oliver Sadgrove is disapproving of the changes that have been made to the old house but does recognise that the Reddingers “must have some taste”(VW 41) when he sees the interior of the house. He is somewhat confounded by Kay Reddinger when she is more than willing to reinstate the right of way and also when she tells him she intends to make the place a farm again he is only too willing to help. The friendship with Kay Reddinger develops and strengthens because, despite their differing backgrounds, Oliver Sadgrove comes to recognise that “She was a contemporary in the wider, middle-aged sense of the word. Though she must be ten years younger and totally different from him in tradition and education, she was fundamentally akin to him in aims and interests”. The bond that develops between them has nothing to do with background but is founded on the shared experience of the war. Oliver Sadgrove recognised that both of them belong to a generation that sets them apart from the old and the young; “She saw the post-war world with his eyes, and because of that he felt that she must be sincere, whereas secretly he felt that the younger generation posed and that the older were humbug” (VW 128). Because both of them are people of principal but have none of the certainties in their lives that the young or the old seem to have the relationship between them remains a friendship. Kaye-Smith uses the text as a whole to explore the differences, misunderstandings and friction between the generations. Oliver Sadgrove and Kay Reddinger highlight the feelings of those members of society who had lived through the First World War and still bore the scars and are “The generation which is stamped with the memory of four lost years” (VW 128).
Whereas Oliver Sadgrove and Kay Reddinger are portrayed as having few certainties in their lives, the younger and older generations are seen to be full of certainty. Kaye-Smith uses women to contrast the views of both the older generation and the younger one. The older generation is represented, primarily, by Mrs Sadgrove. An elderly widow who lives with her son and his family at Lordine Court. Her manner of dress, attitudes and behaviour belong to a bygone Victorian age and as such she is unable to understand the modern time and is unwilling to try. Kaye-Smith illustrates her lack of understanding for the post war era when Mrs Sadgrove condemns the modern novel, citing Cold Comfort Farm (Cold Comfort Farm was written by Stella Gibbons and published in 1932. The novel parodies the rural, regional, doom laden romantic novels that had made Sheila Kaye-Smith a bestselling author.) as “too ridiculous and impossible for words” (VW 133). Instead she looks back to the novels of Rhoda Broughton and Mary Cholmondeley believing that “They understood Life. Nobody wrote like that now” (VW 134). Set in her ways and intolerant of the younger generation she is unable to relate to either her son or her grandchildren.
There is more emphasis on the younger generation as represented by MarigoldChallen and Lucia Sadgrove. Each of these young women is used to demonstrate facets of the ‘modern woman’ and the changes in attitudes to the place of women in society. Marigold Challen is shown as a liberated young woman who plays golf and drives the family car but the first real introduction to her is when the reader is made aware that she has gone away with Paul Reddinger. This behaviour brings shame and distress to her parents and in depicting this Kaye-Smith returns to the ‘middle’ generation’s perceptions of the differences between town and country. Using her father as a mouth piece she shows that he is unable to accept the modern attitudes while acknowledging that “She might be the modern girl Oswald had called her, but she was a country girl too; she was no London bitch, casual and promiscuous in love affairs” (VW 29). The generational differences are made plain in Marigold’s insistence that she is in love with Paul Reddinger and that he will get a divorce and marry her. Her parents generation find such an attitude difficult to understand.
Lucia Sadgrove is also depicted as a liberated modern woman. She is a budding novelist who is writing a novel that is set in town slums and which she describes as a “proletarian novel” (VW 14). Kaye-Smith lampoons the modernist novel and novelist as Lucia uses the sound and sight of machinery for her characters as “the accompaniment of everything they did or said or thought”(VW 136). Implying that such novelists know little if anything about their subject matter Lucia makes the erroneous distinction between the slum dwelling worker and the country worker when she designates one as “the true worker as distinct from the agricultural kind” (VW 136). The publication of Lucia’s novel and the subsequent family discussion about it are used to show, through the thoughts of Oliver Sadgrove, the ‘middle’ generations views of the young when he sees her as “smug, invulnerable, self-satisfied” (VW 264).
The condemnation and lack of understanding of the younger generation is not restricted to the Challens and the Sadgroves. The farm workers also have their generational differences of view. Fred Backshell wants the old ways to continue and is annoyed and dumbfounded by his son’s rejection of a farm job in favour of a job with a local builder. Jim Backshell sees his work as a builder’s labourer as a route to a glorious future in which he can provide a modern house for his future wife. The belief that the modern and new far outweigh the old and traditional is fully illustrated by the conversation between Jim and his girlfriend Doris. She looks forward to “‘having a modern bungalow instead of one of those damp old places like what we live in now'” while Jim announces that “‘I’d never let you keep house in one of those. Leave ’em to the gentry, who think they’re so pretty'” (VW 164).
The differences in attitude to modern life is also demonstrated among some of the other male characters in the novel. Oliver Sadgrove feels that he is a middle generation that has little in common with either the older generation, represented by his mother, or the younger generation as represented by his children. When he begins to read Lucia’s novel he is struck by the fact that there was much in common between each of the generation; “for the young toughness and proletarianism were the same glamorous unreality as high-born romance had been to their grandmothers” (VW 207) but he also recognises that his ‘unrealities’ “were simple, kindly people and lovely English scenes” (VW 207). In a philosophical discussion with his son, Bill, he comes to realise that his generation is romantic rather than tough. Kaye-Smith illustrates the differences between generations in the discussion of war between the two men. Oliver recalls the First World War and that his generation of young men blamed the old men for the suffering but he believes, that on the eve of the Second World War, “it’s the young people who want to go to war – at least, it seems to me – and the older ones who don’t. If ever we go to war again I bet it’ll be the young men’s doing” (VW 208). Bill sets the young apart from previous generation in their attitudes when he intimates that the patriotism of his Grannie’s generation is ‘bunk’ and that the ideals and patriotism of his father’s generation was “inclined to make one cynical” (VW 208). He believes that his group are different because “the young men will fight in their own war” (VW 208) and because, although they have ideals, “we don’t most of us believe in God” (VW 209) as Oliver’s generation had and did.
Although in the exchange between Oliver Sadgrove and his son Bill the question of religious belief is mentioned the main focus for a consideration of faith is Kay Reddinger. Throughout the ordeal of her husband’s infidelity it is her Roman Catholic faith that provides her with the strength, comfort and resolve to reject divorce as a solution and remain true to her marriage vows, even though this means she must decline the chance of happiness with Oliver Sadgrove. When attending Mass at the makeshift chapel in Lady Jennings’ home Kay Reddinger finds a section in her Missal from Proverbs that refers to and details the characteristics of a ‘valiant woman’ . This section of the Bible is used by Kaye-Smith to justify, for Kay Reddinger, her resolve to devote herself to her land and her home. Setting herself the task of becoming the ‘valiant woman’ she equates her purchase of land and provision of work on that land with the verses that detail that the valiant woman “hath considered a field and bought it” and “hath opened her hand to the needy” (VW 93). In her interpretation of this section of Proverbs Kaye-Smith promulgates the Christian teaching of unselfish love that is far greater than that which is experienced in a married relationship. Kay Reddinger believes that “Simple, homely, hard-working people will love her because she has given them back what they are fast losing – work on the land” (VW 94). Once resolved to remain married to her husband a further consideration of this section of Proverbs is used to illustrate the connection between suffering and love. Kay Reddinger’s experience has taught her a further Christian truth that it was “the intensity of suffering that had begotten the intensity of love” (VW 351). Recognising that she had come to the countryside for purely selfish reasons, without any consideration for her husband and that love is more about giving than receiving, she realises “that she wanted to be given that chance” (VW 350) to re-establish her relationship with her husband and that “This time she had a real hope of succeeding” because she had “something to offer him” (VW 350).
Kaye-Smith uses Kay Reddinger and Colonel Parslow to illustrate the ways in which a Roman Catholic religious belief can bring people to a clearer understanding of themselves. In Kay Reddinger’s case she not only understands her relationship with her husband but she also realises that despite her best efforts to integrate into the rural community she does not belong. She comes to understand that the loyalty of her farm workers is not to her for giving them a job but “their loyalty was to the land she represented. Their loyalty was to the land on which their fathers had worked since the first plough was made in Sussex, and she received it as the owner and representative of the land, the incarnation of a primitive necessity” (VW 348).
Colonel Parslow is also an ‘incomer’ and a Roman Catholic who comes back to the faith after a life threatening experience. The priest that visits him teaches the forgiveness of the church but also the need for him to learn from his experiences. Parslow has lied about who he is, but the priest believes that Parslow is a living exemplar of the devil making work for idle hands. Gainful employment is seen as a practical way for him to achieve salvation and forgiveness for his past sinful life. Kaye-Smith uses Kay Reddinger and Parslow to Illustrate the Christian teaching of salvation through good works
The Valiant Woman, like Rose Deeprose, illustrates Kaye-Smith’s determination that in her writing she should “learn to look not inwards but outwards” (TWH 255) to the people, countryside, events and way of life that she saw around her. In The Valiant Woman, she echoes her own experience as an ‘incomer’ to the country and in Kay Reddinger she tangentially references a number of circumstances that seem to also come from her own experience. Just as Kay Reddinger agrees to re-route a right of way around her property so Kaye-Smith agreed to the re-routing of a footpath that originally crossed the area of land that she made into a garden. Her picture of Pilfold, the gardener, chimes in essence with her description of her gardener as she describes him in Kitchen Fugue (1949) .
With The Valiant Woman, Kaye-Smith has explored the position of women in rural society in pre-Second World War Britain through her consideration of generational differences of attitude. With a focus on three generations she is able to document the varying attitudes of each group to their own circumstances and to the views of others. The oldest generation is represented by Mrs Sadgrove who is clinging to the past and refuses to acknowledge any other possibilities of behaviour. The middle generation (the generation of Kaye-Smith) is realised in the persons of Kay Reddinger and Oliver Sadgrove and they are perceived as “‘Like jam between two pieces of hard, dry bread'”(VW 208). Marigold Challen and Lucia Sadgrove are the female representatives of the younger generation. They, along with the young men in the text, have a similar certainty of purpose to that of the older generation and demonstrate the desire of their generation to have control over their own lives. The rural setting of this text is important because it provides a backdrop and context for events but unlike many of Kaye-Smith’s other novels The Valiant Woman does not provide any detailed description of the countryside. The regionality of the text is entirely superficial in the sense that the places referenced are fictionalised in their location and topography and very little detail of these places is given so that they could easily be located in any part of southern England. Unlike Rose Deeprose, this novel uses one character’s religious beliefs as a focus for her decisions. Faith is shown to be a source of comfort, security and the basis for a meaningful life. Kay Reddinger finds her own identity through her faith, adherence to her marriage vows and her understanding of her inability to settle into the rural environment. Lucia Sadgrove is able to achieve independence with the publication of her novel but Marigold Challen finds that Paul Reddinger is not the liberal minded ‘modern’ man that she had hoped for, that the urban environment is alien to her and that she needs to stay in the country where she belongs. Mrs Sadgrove believes that there is no place for her in the modern world and retreats to her own memories and imaginings of the world of the past. Each of these women ends the novel with a self-awareness that they have had to learn and accept.

Shepherds in Sackcloth

Here is the first of my posts on the fiction of Sheila Kaye-Smith for 2019.

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

The Paris Photo – Jane S. Gabin

I  have just finished reading “The Paris Photo” by Jane S Gabin. It was splendid in every way – interesting construction of the novel  with the narrative of an American soldier’s time in Paris just after the Second World War framed by a present day narrative featuring his children. I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline, characterisation etc but more than that I learnt a great deal I didn’t know. I had no idea about the fate etc of the French Jews under the Nazi regime and here Gabin seamlessly weaves their story into her own so that the reader is able to exprience the privations of ordinary Jewish families at this dreadful time for them.

Jane has posted a number of photos of her father in Paris on Twitter that would seem to indicate tha the novel is based, in part,  on his experiences in WW2 and because of this the narrative is all the more poignant and personal. It is easy to hear Jane Gabin’s voice throughout the novel and her very personal connections to the subject matter.  I particularly liked the divisions in time in the settings of the novel – both sections had a real and believable authenticity.

December Poems

The two poems posted below complete the task that I set myself at the start of the year. I have  posted at least one poem for each month of 2018 and for many months I have posted two poems. In each of them I have tried to give an impression of a particular day or specific time in that month. All of the poems are inspired by the countryside environment of Romney Marsh.



Cawing crows in casual conversation
Swoop and glide across azure sky.
First frost crisply sparkling, silver
Rims spears of grass and fallen leaves.

Mist, suspended, white waved,
Leaves trees floating above.
Below sheep silently graze,
Fleeces glistening in diamond dew.

Heron levers soundlessly from
Yellow seared whispering reeds.
With elegant ease, arrow straight,
Gracefully gliding he flies aloft.

Another day bitter biting blasts
Rampage and roar, rain soaked.
Trees bare, barren, twist and bend
Clashing branches creaking.

Razor sharp iron black twigs
Scratch and slash pewter clouds
Until spear sharp icy rain
Relentlessly beats down.


December Dawn.

Daybreak, stealthily silent, brings
Early glow to fields and trees.
Creeping frozen fingers of light
Extend across the land while
Mist hangs in spectral suspension
Between earth and sky.
Ethereal silence prevails as
Rising roseate orbed sun appears.

The Challenge to Sirius

The Challenge to Sirius
Where the early pre-war novels of Kaye-Smith explore ideas of faith “The Challenge to Sirius”, written during the First World War, begins to establish particular concerns with religious belief that were to become the central focus in later novels. This novel is a Bildungsroman with the emphasis on the spiritual and religious development of the protagonist. The narrative is the ‘life’ story of Frank Ranger from childhood in the 1830s to old age in the 1880s. Frank’s childhood is spent living with his father and the Coalbran family on a farm in Sussex. Educated by the local clergyman, Frank has a childhood sweetheart, Maggie Coalbran, and begins his adult life working on the farm. When his father commits suicide he decides to go to London to work as a writer. His failure as a writer, a failed love affair and his love of the countryside bring him back to the farm but, with Maggie married, he decides to join her brother as a soldier fighting for the Confederates in the American Civil War. During his escape from the Union forces he is washed up on the shores of Yucatan and is rescued by a Roman Catholic priest. After many years acting as a servant to the priest, and after the priest’s death, Frank decides to return home. In old age he marries the widowed Maggie.
Frank’s journey to a contented life is beset by difficulty. Frank’s education from the village clergyman, Bellack, whose name suggests that he is ‘lacking’, is portrayed as sufficient in his knowledge of secular matters, but in religious concerns is perceived to be lacking any heartfelt or strongly held convictions. Unsure of his own direction, Bellack explores, in his writing, concerns over the direction of his religious belief in a series of unpublished articles that reflect and echo the very same questions that Kaye-Smith had highlighted in her early novels: ” ‘Is a Return to Nature Desirable?’ . . . ‘Is Religion a Diversion of the Sex Instinct?’ . . . ‘A Hundred Good Reasons for Going over to Rome and a Hundred Equally Good Ones for staying where I am’ “(CS 8). After the suicide of Frank’s father his search for a meaning and direction in life leads him to seek guidance from Bellack. The inadequacy and vacillating nature of the clergyman in his reply to Frank as he suggests ” ‘The great question of all choosers and adventurers is ‘Was it worth while?’ – and whatever else you may expect of life, don’t expect an answer to that’ ” (CS 46) begins to portray Anglicanism as a faith that lacks direction. Building on this initial impression, Frank’s move to London and his job as a journalist on a religious paper entitled ‘Dr Protestant’, an anti- Tractarian ( The Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement, was a form of High Church Anglicanism that began in the 1830s in Oxford, and later became known as Anglo-Catholicism. Its founders included John Henry Newman and Edward Bouvrie Pusey.) publication, is used to contrast ‘low’ church Anglicanism with that of the Tractarians or Puseyites. ‘Mainstream’ Anglicanism is characterised as full of “spite and calumny” (CS 85) and set in stark contrast to the Anglo-Catholic church where Frank is able to find peace and contentment. Stress is placed on the sensual quality of the worship in the Puseyite churches. In this environment Frank found
“a kind of peace in those dark interiors, with their crooning organs, and the etiolated voices of their faithful. There was beauty, too, in the lights that shifted and swayed round the altar, glowing on marble and cloth of gold, while the blue smeeth of the incense rocked up from the censers, and young boys in scarlet and white grouped themselves against the shadowy backgrounds” (CS 84).The whole experience is related in terms of a spirituality that “at once enticed and disturbed him” (CS 84).
In the search for a philosophy that gives some meaning to ‘life’ through religious conviction, Frank is convinced that “it was beauty and colour which were good in life”, that “the only beauty and brightness in his London life would be found in [an Anglo-Catholic] church” and that the alternative provided by ‘low’ church Anglicanism was a “dinginess and repression” that was “mistaken and evil” (CS 87). To reinforce the case for Anglo-Catholicism and to demonstrate the lack of individual religious conviction in the ‘low’ church, Bellack feels that the ultra Protestant leanings of Anglicanism are “fast driving me to join the Puseyites” but he is unlikely to make such a commitment “until my Bishop does likewise” (CS 115).
In this novel Kaye-Smith begins to develop a more holistic religious philosophy in which she tentatively starts to combine her approbation for the Catholic form of Anglicanism with her belief that God can be experienced through the natural world. Using the stars as representative of creation, their remoteness in the heavens enables God the creator to be presented as the wrathful, uncaring, indifferent God of the Old Testament. God’s distance from man is seen in “the stars [that] had no part in earth or in him [Frank], they belonged to a consciousness which stood above and beyond his pain” (CS 188); heavenly judgement appears to be dispensed by a greater than human power when “A meteor fell slowly among the stars; he [Frank] saw it drop into the woods, cleaving the sky like a fiery sword” (CS 201). The indifference of God, to the fate of humanity, is symbolised by the Dog star, Sirius; the star “they call Orion’s Dog, and though it is the brightest of all stars it bodes no good” (Homer 397-8). When he is in America, while waiting for the attack on Look Out Mountain,
(The Battle of Lookout Mountain was a skirmish in a much bigger campaign for control of the Tennessee River and was fought on November 24th 1863 as part of the Chattanoga Campaign. The Confederate army was forced to retreat from Lookout Mountain by the Union forces.) Frank recognises this star as “Sirius, symbol of the Divine Indifference. That huge remoteness, that vast Unknown and Unknowing, had never disappeared in all the latitudes of his wandering. The Divine Indifference hung as surely over that Isle of Oxney as over the mountains of Tennessee” (CS 281-2).
However if the remoteness of the heavens is indicative of God’s detachment from the fate of humanity, closeness to the earth can provide comfort in the alien world of America. Frank finds that the “close scent of the earth was the same as at home – soil, leaf-mould and violets . . . perhaps it was this homely fragrance which kept him asleep” (CS 219). Not until Frank is rescued by Father Cristobal, in Yucatan, is an explicit link made between Christianity and the natural world. The simple Catholic faith that is encountered by Frank in the Mexican forest “was not a moral system, it was a natural religion; and perhaps this was why for the first time he felt religious instincts and cravings stir in his heart” (CS 384). Here the spiritualism of Anglo-Catholicism and the concept of a God of creation takes on a universality that, in its simplicity, allows Frank to understand ” the secret of the mystical union which he had felt existing between the Church and the forest” (CS 384). Not distanced from the worshippers, but part of their everyday life, the crucified Christ is horrific in His realism, not “the peaceful, almost elegant death it was represented in [the] ecclesiastical art” (CS 373) of Anglicanism. The immediacy and relevance of the Crucifixion rests, not only in its brutal realism but also in its depiction of an Indian Christ so that “It ceased to be an unapproachable mystery, but became a common spectacle” (CS 374) and therefore spoke clearly to all.
Frank’s ‘conversion’ to faith is almost imperceptible but once he has discovered “the secret of the mystical union . . . between the Church and the forest” (CS 384) the universality, through time and space, of this manifestation of Catholicism is recognized as being “as old as man’s first knowledge of himself as victim and priest” (CS 383). Through this realisation and his contemplative kneeling “for hours before the Indian Christ on the north wall” (CS 384), Frank comes to realise that he now
“saw a God who did not merely absorb experience through him but shared it with him. There was not one pang of his lonely wandering life, no throb or ache or groan of his, up to that moment when the light of his eyes and the desire of his heart were taken from him at a stroke, that had not been shared by God. For if man has known the stars, so God has known the dust” (CS 384).
In this depiction of Catholicism in action the universality and tolerance of the faith is highlighted in Father Christobal’s arduous journey to answer the summons of a dying brigand who “as a true son of the Church asked for Unction and Viaticum” (CS 385 ). (Unction and Viaticum along with the sacrament of Penance make up the three sacraments that constitute the Last Rites for the dying.) The Rites are administered without question or judgement of the man who is dying. This non-judgemental attitude is in stark contrast to the stance that is adopted by the Parson in Sussex, on Frank’s return. The Parson is narrow and judgemental in his faith and labels Frank a heathen because he doesn’t “think much of his [Frank’s] churchmanship” (CS 420). The Parson has no conception of a God of creation or of tolerance for those who come to faith by differing routes.
Frank’s decision to return to England and Sussex after the death of the priest is motivated by a simple philosophy in which he believed that “however scientific and complicated life might be it must inevitably return at last to the simple primitive things from which it came” (CS 393). This referencing of creation and the inference that those ‘simple primitive things’ are the uncomplicated world of nature, foreshadows the belief that Frank comes to adopt once he is back in Sussex. The attraction of the Catholic church was its timelessness, inclusivity, and a route to God through nature. These qualities of faith are shown in Frank’s longing for the natural world of home in which he finds comfort and peace. The changelessness and tranquillity of the countryside along with a “communion with the soil of the Isle of Oxney” (CS 414) provides the focus for a belief in which humanity can establish a relationship with the God of creation. In the final chapter, Kaye-Smith describes this almost mystical communion with the countryside when Frank and Maggie sit
” on the bench against the house, their nostrils full of the evening scents of the garden – Lent lilies, soil, and mist – looking down at the marsh that spread all vague and grey to the foot of Tenterden Hill” (CS 416-7). Throughout “The Challenge to Sirius”, Kaye-Smith has begun to develop and refine the relationship between humanity, the Divine and the natural world. The evolution of this belief is inspired by the perceived universality of Catholicism and that faith’s ability to accommodate a variety of routes to an understanding of the meaning of life. Kaye-Smith professed to have no particular religious faith during the War but also admitted later that on re-reading “The Challenge to Sirius” she could see that “there are signs in the book that I was already on the way back to Him . . . I had turned round – I was looking in His direction, even though I saw Him as nothing more but a far-off, indifferent star” (TWH 121). The religious philosophy that dominates the end of the novel; that through contemplation of the natural world humanity can attain direct communion with God, becomes central to the religious ideology of Kaye-Smith’s “Green Apple Harvest”.