It has been a little while since I posted anything on this blog, particularly any articles on Sheila Kaye-Smith’s fiction. However, I have now decided to write a sort of conclusion to the articles I have previously posted on her work. In this article I aim to provide an overview of the work I have discussed on this blog and place that fiction within a context of Kaye-Smith’s life, the times within she lived and her place in the writing of the first half of the twentieth century.
Since the second half of the twentieth century, Sheila Kaye-Smith’s fiction has suffered the fate that she ascribed to those novelists of her youth who had fallen from favour with the readership of the 1950s. She felt that no injustice had been done to those whose work had been forgotten because they had “provided a past generation with entertainment and had received in return their meed of praise” (ABML124). Nevertheless in the articles posted on this blog I have aimed to make it apparent, through this retrieval and reappraisal of Kaye-Smith’s fiction, that among her prolific output there is much that is of interest and relevance for a modern readership. From the publication of her first novel, The Tramping Methodist, she marked her work as regional with the use of the Sussex/Kent border countryside as her setting. She was never to veer away from this regionality, not least because from her earliest childhood, it represented all that was her “heart’s delight”, “always had been . . . and always would be” (TWH 3). Apart from her strong emotional attachment to this area, in later life she turned that love of the land into a physical bond by living on a small-holding in the Sussex countryside. A more pragmatic reason for her regionality is signposted in her own assertion that she was a regional novelist by reason of necessity. She “felt at home in that country” and saw herself as a child of Sussex. She needed to write about that area of land that she knew intimately, for a sense of place was essential to her novels. All her work demonstrates this primacy and spirit of place, so much so that in many of her earlier novels, most notably Sussex Gorse and Joanna Godden, the landscape is of greater importance, or is “at least as important as the people” (TWH 174). Nevertheless in most of Kaye-Smith’s fiction the regionality of the narrative is applied with a light touch. The place names that she uses can be found on a map, but Kaye-Smith tampers with the geography of her chosen region and relocates farms and villages to suit the purposes of her storytelling. Her characters often have the names of people who actually lived in and around her chosen location but their lives bear little resemblance to lives that Kaye-Smith attributes to them. Her descriptions of landscape are those of a gentle south country, but the only real anchors in a specific area come from her references to the Downs, Romney Marsh and a countryside dotted with oast-houses and hop fields. Not all her novels incorporate dialectal idioms and the manners of speech peculiar to Sussex, but those that do, most notably Green Apple Harvest, confirm Kaye-Smith’s regionality and her desire to preserve at least some of the “racy Sussex dialect, with its affinity with real English” (Egerton viii). Once her work became popular during and after the First World War, and with the growing popularity of regional fiction, both her publishers and her critics began to dub her the ‘Sussex Hardy’ and placed her as a distinctly regional novelist. However, Kaye-Smith’s regionality as a writer is inextricably linked to her positioning as a novelist of the rural.
Throughout Kaye-Smith’s fiction the writing of the rural demonstrates the development of her growing skill as a novelist, and her changing interests and concerns during her adult life. Her early works are illustrative of a writer feeling her way as a novice novelist, and as an observer of the countryside from the perspective of an occasional visitor. The portrayals of the regional countryside are panoramic and pictorial, and are rendered in the language of an idyllic pastoral style. Thus she described the Weald as a patchwork of images with its scenic “white-capped oasts and black barns, emerald pastures, olive-green hop-fields . . . patches of garden . . . and above all the blue sky” (TM 121). Combined with these wide expansive views of landscape, there are detailed and carefully observed descriptions of the natural world. These narrations of nature, influenced by her reading as well as by detailed observation, idealise the particular. For example, a spring day is characterised by earth that “was damp and soft, and smelled sweet, and primroses and dog-violets starred the turf” (TM 42). However, as Kaye-Smith’s writing developed, she combined these two aspects of the rural to present a generalised impression of countryside that speaks to the regional in its imagery, but is also no longer reliant on the visual senses alone. For example in Susan Spray the countryside is depicted in a variety of sensory terms with the “clop of the horse’s hoofs upon the valley lane, and the dim, stealing smell of hops, which blew in invisible smoke down the September twilight from the cowls of the oast-houses” (SS 367). In the early novels the landscape and the natural world take centre stage and the human characters are placed as interlopers or outside observers for much of the narrative. They are, like Kaye-Smith, urbanites, “just townspeople living in the country” (TWH 95). Not until the writing of Sussex Gorse did Kaye-Smith begin to place human characters at the centre of her narrative and start to develop her theory of the relationship between the rural environment and humanity. In this novel and those that followed she concentrated on how characters are shaped by their environment.
Throughout her writing of the 1920s and 1930s Kaye-Smith continued to develop and refine her presentation of this relationship. In her pre-First-World-War novel, Isle of Thorns, she had tentatively begun to explore the affiliation between humanity and the environment with the added dimension of religious belief. The use of the rural environment as a manifestation of God the Creator, with God in all things, and a belief in a universal Christianity based on these tenets was tentatively explored in her early novels; it became the driving philosophy that informed all of her writing during and after the war. By the 1930s Kaye-Smith had come to recognise that although her writing was regional by necessity, it was her love of the countryside that really lay at its heart. For Kaye-Smith it is evident, throughout all of her fiction, that “The country and my writing are really two different parts of the same thing” and that religion is “the third strand in the shining cord” (TWH 5). From the time, in 1918, that Kaye-Smith became a devout Anglo-Catholic until her death, when she was an equally devout Roman Catholic, her fiction is informed by her faith. In those works where this is overtly evident, such as her proselytising propaganda for the Anglo-Catholic movement that lies at the centre of The End of the House of Alard, or in the preaching of her own religious Catholicism that makes up much of Green Apple Harvest, the narratives overwhelmingly speak to a Christian culture. However, while the majority of her work is informed by her beliefs, the Christian message is implied rather than obviously and openly stated in her later work. Kaye-Smith’s novels do, nonetheless, provide a record of her personal changes in faith and belief. Those works that pre-date the First World War reflect her own searching for religious belief and a questioning of her parents’ Protestantism. In them her protagonists’ rejection of the constraints of Anglican Protestantism, with their exploration of a spiritual replacement by a form of mystical union with the natural world, echoes Kaye-Smith’s own quest for a meaningful religious dimension to her life. Her conversion to Anglo-Catholicism marked a significant change in her life and work that came at the same time as a rise in her popularity. With the zeal of the convert she gave her central characters an assurance of faith that combined her own belief in the union of humanity, nature and God with a Catholicised Christianity. Her final conversion to Roman Catholicism marked a concluding change in her fiction. She no longer felt the necessity to preach or proselytise, and while her work reflects her own Catholicism, this is covertly presented through the everyday lives of her characters. The only religious philosophy that remains constant, but is refined and developed throughout her oeuvre is the belief she had from childhood: that of the unique relationship between God, nature and humanity. This is illustrated in her often repeated motif of a human being leaning on a gate staring at the natural world while experiencing a universal mystical spirituality that is beyond words.
Kaye-Smith’s religious beliefs lie at the core of the other concerns and issues that are the focus of the majority of her fiction. Her work gained in popularity after the publication of Sussex Gorse, but it was not until the end of the First World War that she became a truly popular novelist. Her popularity is attested to, not only by the sales figures for her fiction, but also by the number of interviews and articles that appeared in the newspapers, by the lengthy reviews that appeared in a number of publications both in Britain, and particularly America, and by the recognition she gained from her fellow novelists. In the inter-war years critics recognised that her concern with social issues, particularly the place of women in society, and her positioning as a rural regional writer, placed her alongside a wide-ranging collection of her contemporaries including Rose Macaulay, Clemence Dane, Rebecca West, Storm Jameson, Hugh Walpole, John Travena and Constance Holme. However, it was not popularity alone that gained her acceptance in a wider literary milieu. D. H. Lawrence, in a letter to Charles Lahr dated 7th October 1929, concerning the publication of Pansies (1929), suggested that “you might ask Rebecca West, Sheila Kaye-Smith – a smart woman or two” (The Letters of D. H. Lawrence 516) to give an opinion on the content of the poems, thus defining Kaye-Smith as a woman of some literary eminence and sound judgement in his estimation. While a twenty-first century readership might not wish to subscribe to the opinions and judgements of Kaye-Smith’s contemporaries, such material is pertinent in the placing of Kaye-Smith in a context of the middlebrow literary landscape of the 1920s and 30s. What set Kaye-Smith apart from her fellow writers of rural regional fiction and many of the women middlebrow novelists, was her concern for the rural working classes: those who worked on the land and the issues that affected their lives.
During the 1920s Kaye-Smith was at her most prolific. Like many of her generation she had been greatly affected by the First World War, and her writing of the 1920s and early 1930s reflects this. Several of her novels, either directly, or through the metaphorical imagery of destruction and battle, reference the war and illustrate the lasting, damaging legacy of that conflict. Much of her fiction is preoccupied with the changes in society that followed in the wake of peace, as she adopts a political agenda that is reflected in the subject matter she addresses in the novels of this time. From the early 1920s Kaye-Smith uses her rural and regional settings to explore a number of social issues and to make socio-economic and socio-political observations. These included discussing and documenting the changing roles of women in rural society, the economic effects of the agricultural slump on the lives of the rural working classes and the gentry, the encroaching urbanisation of the countryside, and the loss of traditional country ways of life and skills. Not always critical of this brave new world, her contention throughout is that while change is inevitable, and sometimes for the best, each individual must work out their own destiny and freedom within society. Her religious beliefs and her love of the countryside inform her contention that human peace and contentment can only be attained by a spiritual and mystical contemplative communion with the natural world. What matters most to those characters, who are cast as admirable, is the contentment that comes from an acceptance of their lot in life, and her oft repeated central theme, of humanity’s place within the natural world. This is most aptly reflected in Reuben Backfield’s resolve that when he dies he “‘shan’t be afraid to lie in it [the earth] at last'” (SG 462), Bob Fuller’s assertion that in dying in May he was “going into the middle of all that’s alive” and he “can’t never lose the month of May” (GAH 285), and in Adam Cryall’s desire to have his ashes spread “upon the dust of the stubbled wheat” (VFP 224). For Kaye-Smith’s characters, in an ever changing world, stability comes from the dependable and predictable cycles of the seasons, the weather and the farming year. Their joy, solace, and optimism for the future, comes from their observation of nature combined with an implied recognition of their own place within the natural world. Stella Mount recognises hope for the future in the “starry beds of wood anemones” and “the first occasional violets” (EHA 332) of spring, while Fred Sinden perceives that even in a much-changed world the things that meant most to him “were with him still – the earth and its changes, the fields and their fruit” (PP 343).
While her earliest novels only tentatively approached an exploration of women’s place in society, her fiction that featured female protagonists from the 1920s and beyond is uncompromising in the presentation of women who are robust, determined and resolute in their desire to make their way in male-dominated worlds. The dilemmas that face Susan Spray, Joanna Godden and Rose Deeprose have relevance for a twenty-first century female readership. As Janet Montifiore suggests in her Introduction to Susan Spray, the focus of “The woman’s questions have a resonance now that her [Susan Spray’s] creator probably did not intend” (SS xii). Kaye-Smith champions the right of women to compete with men, and to stand as equals, in whichever field of activity they choose to pursue. To strengthen and reinforce her case she has allocated traditional male preserves as the chosen careers for her heroines, with Joanna Godden and Rose Deeprose finding satisfaction in farming, and Susan Spray as a female preacher. In the novels of the 1940s and 1950s, female characters still stand at the centre of the narrative, and although they are strong, steadfast and tenacious in their pursuit of a path in life, they are less overtly ambitious and competitive. All of Kaye-Smith’s female characters exemplify the central thematic strand that is woven throughout her fiction: they all find solace, peace and contentment in the countryside and it is to the natural world that they turn when they are in need of tranquillity. Equally, in common with many of her male protagonists, her female characters are ‘questing’ or ‘wayfaring’ individuals in search of a path to follow that offers them an understanding of who they are, and that gives a meaning to their lives.
The feminist message is not the only politically motivated strand that characterises Kaye-Smith’s fiction of the 1920s and beyond. With her abiding concern with the traditions of the countryside and her love of the Sussex rural landscape, it is not surprising that the focus of her socio-political and socio-economic criticism is directed at the changes wrought in agriculture and farming life by the agricultural slump that occurred in the aftermath of the First World War. She is accepting of the inevitability of change and modernisation and sees much that is beneficial to those who live and work in farming communities. She is saddened and angered by the loss of the paternalism of the gentry and in The End of the House of Alard makes plain her condemnation of Gervase Alard’s sale of his inherited estate. She abhors the indiscriminate house-building that attracted town-dwellers to the country and that blighted Sussex with sprawling urbanisation. She is at her most outspoken when condemning the pain and suffering that has been caused to those who have lost their jobs and livelihoods because of prohibitive taxation, government policy and a general centralisation of control over rural affairs that means the destruction of traditional farming methods. Her political advocacy for the countryside as a “place of business, of hard work” (KF 203) became explicit in her writing by the middle of the Second World War when she was living in the heart of the Sussex countryside. As an ardent advocate for the farming industry she felt that in the national political outlook farming should be regarded as on the same footing as other large industries, and as such should “have its place in ‘progressive’ political programmes instead of being regarded by the protagonists as the symbol of Tory reaction” (KF 203). Her eloquent and heartfelt call for a fair-deal for the countryside has a resonance for the twenty-first century when considered in the light of modern organic and environmental movements that campaign for food security. Kaye-Smith’s constant, informed love for the countryside is most powerfully and passionately stated in her assertion that “The day we lose our countryside as a real thing – a working thing, an independent thing, a self-respecting thing – we lose our soul” (KF 204). All of her fiction attests to this staunchly-held belief.
Her fiction reflects the spirit of the age. Often her early work appears to relate the perceptions of an outsider overlooking the world of the countryside, but in her later novels she is “much more than a detached observer” (TJA 18) of the countryside and the current of events that affect the lives of those around her. As she had commented of Jane Austen, Kaye-Smith was “watching the stream of history flow” (TJA 18) but her observations of the times in which she lived were not viewed from a distance, but rather she found herself “carried along ” (TJA 18) by the tide of change. Although she abhorred some aspects of the modern world she viewed much of that change with sympathy, recognising that change was inevitable. However, during the interwar years she became aware of the national mood and a nostalgia for an Englishness that had become identified with the perceived traditional ways of the countryside.
With a careful balancing act, Kaye-Smith stayed true to her agenda of realism by presenting the hardship and harsh reality of rural life, but she combined this with sufficient idyllic pictures of the landscape to allow her readership to retain their fantasy of country life as wholesome and timeless. Her desire with her fiction was to provide a “form of escapism” that allowed her reader to experience a world that was “enough like [their] own to be real” but “unlike enough to be stimulating” (TJA 208). By the 1930s and through to the post-war years, Kaye-Smith was using her “nostalgic views of rural life . . . in the service of a political intervention” ( Head 121). Her mission was to persuade those in a position of political authority to recognise that the countryside is “the scene of one of the most vital, most neglected, most maltreated of our national industries” and to argue that “Any great extension of its present occupation by urban fundamentalists would mean the end of farming except as a hobby” (KF 203). By the late 1930s this nostalgic conception of the countryside, that her urban readership saw as quintessentially English, was linked with the patriotism of popular culture. For example the popular song “There’ll always be an England” (1939) promoted the notion that there will always be an England “While there’s a country lane. Wherever there’s a cottage small/ Beside a field of grain” . Throughout her later fiction Kaye-Smith presented her readers with rural life rooted in realism while allowing for an escape to a fantasy world that was not threatened by the mechanised forces of war or modernity.
As well as reflecting her own interests and concerns, Kaye-Smith’s fiction often adopts or emulates the prevailing trends of the time. During and after the First World War her rural writing echoed the Georgian poets interest in an Englishness that rested on images of landscape, nature and a love of the English countryside. Like Vita Sackville-West she celebrated the beauty of the Kent and Sussex countryside and the lives of those who lived and worked there. Kaye-Smith’s novels of the 1920s and more especially the 1930s and beyond, with their preoccupation with aspects of religion, place her among convert Catholic novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Unlike Waugh and Greene her novels were never explicitly Catholic but her characters are invariably portrayed as wayfarers, pilgrims, in transit, or on a journey metaphorical or actual that will lead to a sense of self-understanding and a spiritual awareness. Like Waugh and Greene she illustrates the mysterious workings of divine grace and a universality of faith and hope that is only offered by the Catholic church.
While it is plain that Kaye-Smith’s fiction was primarily rural and regional, and that on occasion she placed a strong emphasis on a religious dimension, her work also represents a strand of the middlebrow that has been neglected by those who have chosen to foreground women’s middlebrow writing in recent years. Her readership and popularity in the inter-war years places her securely in the middlebrow, albeit a middlebrow that encompasses a wide spectrum of genres. She fulfils Woolf’s criteria of being ‘betwixt and between’ the bestseller and literary fiction, and Kaye-Smith had no pretensions about herself as a novelist or reader; she felt that in both she was “average middle-brow . . . [her] brow is not high, neither is it narrow” (ABML 171).
The carefully chosen selection of Kaye-Smith’s fictional writing that is considered here illustrates the development of her writing as a regional, rural and religious novelist but there is still scope for further work on her fiction. There is considerable scope for further deliberation and exploration of Kaye-Smith’s fiction as writing of the self, and the lasting effects of the First World War on her writing, could offer interesting lines of enquiry. In addition the ethnographic and historical uses that could be afforded by her Alard novels might fruitfully add to academic enquiry into the agricultural slump.
Although she stayed true to her championing of a regional rural agenda, with a socio-political, religious and moral message, Kaye-Smith’s novels from the late 1940s and the 1950s were increasingly old-fashioned, out-dated and parochial, when compared with the work of other popular writers. Among these were Rumer Godden, (a Sussex writer who eventually bought Little Doucegrove from Penrose Fry), Daphne Du Maurier, George Orwell, Ian Fleming, William Golding and J. R. R. Tolkien. Kaye-Smith’s publishers traded on her reputation from the past, but the sales for her later works were modest. After her death Cassell’s noted that Kaye-Smith “became the literary hit of the Twenties and best-seller followed best-seller”, but by the Fifties the critics were only able to praise her characterisation and her nostalgic recreation of country life. Although a twenty-first century multi-cultural readership might well find the overtly religious aspects of a few of her novels unappealing, some of Kaye-Smith’s fiction has a resonance for a modern audience. Her overall emphasis on, and concern for, the rural environment voices a nostalgic view of Britain that speaks directly to a sense of parochial identity in a globally focused world, and the stereotypical escapist dream of life in the countryside. With this in mind I think it would now be timely for a re-issue of a number of Kaye-Smith’s novels. Joanna Godden and Susan Spray, her novels that are concerned to show the dilemmas faced by women in society have a real relevance for women today, while her two war novels Little England and Tambourine, Trumpet and Drum are unique in their dealings with war from the perspective of those on the home front, particularly women, and therefore each of these is worthy of re-publication. Those novels that take farming life as the focus of their narrative, and/or have their basis in the agricultural slump of the 1920s and 30s, have a value not only as a fictionalised record of those times but also as historical ethnology, and as such there is good reason for a re-print of Sussex Gorse and The Ploughman’s Progress.
Kaye-Smith’s fiction addresses issues that are universal and timeless and they do, therefore, possess a lasting value. Always true to her subject matter, her work springs from “some fundamental wisdom and tolerance as old as the earth itself, and as indisputable”.
Her dedication to her literary work and her overwhelming reason for writing fiction was considered by her to be a vocation driven by her religious beliefs and informed by her life-long love of the countryside of Sussex and Kent.