At the centre of almost all of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels is an engagement with the rural and regional countryside of Sussex/Kent that is used for the setting of her work. The early novels – those written before the First World War – often focus on the landscape and the natural world to evoke the spirit of place at a particular moment in time for the reader. In “The Tramping Methodist” Kaye-Smith describes how on a particular evening there is no human disturbance of the peace as “Evening moths, fat and white, fluttered heavily in and out of the fennel and chervil, waving like fragile spooks in the light of the first stars”. The stillness was broken by “the sough of the wind through the grass and spurge”, while an “owl raised his note of sadness”, and “bats’ wings troubled the brooding air” (TM 278). She uses the same technique in “Starbrace” when her protagonist finds the environment less peaceful and, perhaps, rather more sinister and threatening. When hiding from the Revenue men he hears “the sob and sough of the wind” (S136) and “the splash of horse’s hoofs in the quag, and the wind moaning through the reeds” as “some creature plunged into a dyke, while at intervals a bird uttered a harsh, croaking note, like a cracked bell” (S 131). While in “Isle of Thorns” there is a more dramatic depiction of a moment in time as Kaye-Smith gives a mystical quality to the sun set. Her central characters watch as “The sun was dipping to the west” (IT 311) and “the thorn bushes glowed in a bath of crimson radiance, in which it was hard to say which was the most mysterious, they or their shadow.” (IT 311)
From the early 1920s Kaye-Smith moved away from what might be considered rather romantic views of the countryside. Instead she used 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. By this time 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 “Sussex Gorse” when Reuben Backfield’s resolves that when he dies he “‘shan’t be afraid to lie in it [the earth] at last'” (SG 462). He has devoted his life to the soil and his life long ambition has been to tame nature and make the land productive. His contentment is only to be found in his relationship with the land and the natural world. The same sentiment is also reflected in “Green Apple Harvest” when Bob Fuller’s asserts that in dying in May he was “going into the middle of all that’s alive” and he, therefore, “can’t never lose the month of May” (GAH 285). Bob Fuller finds his way to God and contentment through an idealised country scene. As the gleams of dawn “swept up the fields in a soaring light – the water courses gleamed, the windows of farmhouses burned, the wood seemed to change colour, and the subdued chatter of birds among the trees swelled into a song” (GAH 271).Through this experience Bob discovers that God is “love . . . and He’s beauty . . . He’s in the fields mäaking the flowers grow and the birds sing and the ponds have that lovely liddle white flower growing on ’em” (GAH 275).
In what was to be Kaye-Smith’s last novel – “The View From the Parsonage” – she uses the Isle of Ebony as her setting. Her central character, Parson Chamberlin, narrates the story of his parish from his early years as a new priest to the present time when the Second World War has just begun. In “The View From the Parsonage” Kaye-Smith continues to present the stable dependability of nature in a peacefulness undisturbed by human activity. Much as she had in her early novels she shows the spirit of place. The narrator observes that in June the fields of the landlocked Isle of Ebony were “rusted over as the sorrel reddened the darkening hay and the warm, motionless air thickened at dusk into crimson bars at the western edges of the sky” (VFP 74). While on a calm summer evening he is able to stand and drink in “the dew cooled-air . . . watching the strange alteration of light as the moon crept up . . . and shone into the dying fires” of the setting sun (VFP 75).
However, Kaye-Smith also continues with her contention that those who have a spiritual and mystical relationship with the natural world are the most contented. Parson Chamberlin recognises that Adam Cryall has an attachment to place. Cryall is defined by his umbilical connection to the land and in particular the landscape of Ebony. Cryall accepts “death as a part of Nature” (VFP 216). Like the changing of the seasons, it is “one of her [nature’s] processes for cleansing and remaking the world” (VFP 216). Like Sam Holman, “a good old man” whose “painless, peaceful end had been in true affinity with the fields where the wheat slumbered and with the trees that revealed their beauty in their leafless boughs” (VFP 56) Adam Cryall’s desire is 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 in “The End of the House of Alard” recognises hope for the future in the “starry beds of wood anemones” and “the first occasional violets” (EHA 332) of spring, while Fred Sinden in “Ploughman’s Progress” 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). Reuben Backfield, Bob Fuller, Adam Cryall and Fred Sinden were portrayed as men who worked the land, understood nature’s harshness as well as its beauty, had an affinity with the natural world, and who found their God in their communion with the soil.
In her final novel, however, published in 1956, Kaye-Smith conjures up an idyllic imagined countryside in which the seasons are characterised by a perpetual immutability. A summer day ends when the “motionless air thickened at dusk into crimson bars at the western edges of the sky” (VFP 74), the early autumn is a time when “the misty gold of the hedges had become clear splashes of yellow, red and brown” (VFP 99), and winter is “bringing cold winds from the marsh and fogs which lay around the isle like another sea” (VFP 102). The rural environment in this novel is no longer the harsh landscape of “Sussex Gorse”, nor is it the working countryside of “Ploughman’s Progress”. The narrator, Harry Chamberlin, is town-born like Kaye-Smith and the majority of her readership, and his perceptions of the countryside speak directly to the nostalgic dream of England as a green and pleasant land. Ebony and the surrounding area is “a world of green pastures and shallow waters and long dreaming days” (VFP 10). There is nothing the same as “sitting by the White Kemp Sewer through all the long, hot, drowsy afternoon, with the marsh sun-hazed behind me and the hawthorn brakes like ghosts beyond the buttercups” (VFP 267).