Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Countryside

What price progress for the peasant farmer?

Harvest by Jim Crace

harvest crace

Harvest should mark a time to celebrate a year’s bounty, but right from the start of Crace’s atmospheric new novel, there’s a hint of underlying darkness to come. When strangers come to the village, announcing their arrival by a smoking fire, normal life is upset. When the Master’s dovecote is set on fire it becomes too easy to pin it on the newcomers rather than drunken post harvest high jinks.

Walter Thirsk narrates the events – he is an incomer to the village himself and even after twelve years still doesn’t feel entirely as if he belongs. He came as one of the Master’s men, but fell for a local girl and was permitted to become a farmer. But Cecily died, so Walter alone again. The Master has troubles of his own; he’s a widower too, and having married in, is not the rightful heir to his late wife’s Manor – his cousin-in-law is on his way to claim his inheritance. He wants to enclose the wheat fields for sheep, and that needs less people. It seems that everything must change.

Through Walter’s eyes, we witness the disintegration of the village in just one week, as friendships dissolve into suspicion once the new Master arrives with his entourage. This small village, two days ride from the nearest town, has never known such emotional turmoil, and Walter is well placed to commentate on the events in both camps, those of peasant and squire.

Crace’s rich prose is hypnotic, laden with summer sultriness. His evocation of the countryside at harvest is truly beautiful, contrasting against the oafish behaviour and poisonous gossip of its inhabitants.

It struck me as I read, that this novel is very much a fable and can be envisaged as a reflection upon our current changing ways of life in the country; thus Walter is the parallel of Harvest‘s author.  This novel, which Crace has declared will be his last,  is one of his very best, and like Walter, he’s now moving on to something else.

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harvest by Jim Crace, Picador Hardback, Feb 2013, 320 pages.

A 'Hardy' Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

jude Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

A “perfick” entertainment…

It’s not often that you can successfully combine a phrase and idea from a Shakespeare sonnet – number 18 as it happens. You know the one that begins:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”

… with the sort of family that TV’s Del and Rodney Trotter from Only Fools and Horses would be proud to be descended from – and make a big-hearted comedic story that really works! Well, that’s what H.E.Bates did in his 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May.

The Shakespearean title refers to the Kent countryside at the start of the fruit-picking season, and there’s more Shakespearean resonance in the central family of the book who could be picked straight from the ‘rude mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Larkins are a big family with a lust for life, and a flair for wheeling and dealing – they could be the Trotter’s country cousins, which brings me back to the TV. For you see, Del Trotter, Peckham wide-boy, was played by David Jason for over a decade from the early 1980s. In the 1990s he went on to play Pop Larkin in a TV adaptation of The Darling Buds, (which also featured a young Catherine Zeta Jones).

I didn’t watch the TV adaptation, I only caught little snatches of it. Call me a snob, but in those days I watched little TV on the commercial channels! I probably missed a gem, for when reading this book, it was David Jason, Pam Ferris, Catherine Z-J and Philip Franks I visualised as Bates’s main characters –  and I was delighted to find that they didn’t jar at all!  They were actually pretty close to the versions in the Beryl Cook painting on the cover of my paperback – which actually came after the TV series. But now on to the book itself…

‘Perfick wevver! You kids alright in the back there? Ma, hitch up a bit!’
Ma, in her salmon jumper, was almost two yards wide.
‘I said you kids alright in there?’
‘How do you think they can hear,’ Ma said, ‘with you revving up all the time?’
Pop laughed again and let the engine idle. The strong May sunlight, the first hot sun of the year, made the bonnet of the truck gleam like brilliant blue enamel. All down the road, winding through the valley, miles of pink apple orchards were in late bloom, showing petals like light confetti.

Scene set, we’re introduced to the Larkins, all tucking in to huge ice-creams and bowling their way home.  They have six children, five girls and a boy – all with idiosyncratic names.  They live in what could only be described as almost a rural idyll – a big cottage with bluebell wood, stream, chickens scratching in the yard – and a muddy scrapyard on the side.

Their eldest child, Mariette was named for Marie Antoinette, but Pop thought that was too long, so they shortened it.  Mariette thinks she’s pregnant, but her parents don’t seem too bothered about it, although it’s soon obvious they’d like to get her paired off as soon as possible. An opportunity soon presents itself with the arrival of the taxman!

Mr Charlton, a young and impressionable civil servant sent to get Pop to fill in his tax return, is instantly smitten by Mariette. Pop will do anything to avoid paying any tax, and he, Ma and Mariette turn on the charm offensive big-time, wooing Charley, and before he knows it, he’s virtually part of the family.

This central story is interwoven with many sketches from the Larkin’s lives – fruit picking, Pop doing a deal on an old Rolls Royce, Pop saving the local gymkhana by offering his field for it, more shenanigans with the neighbours, and, all through the book is Ma – loving her kitchen and producing huge mountains of food for everyone. Ma and Pop regard their brood with great pleasure, and their relationship is rock solid, earthy and loving …

A moment later she turned to reach from a cupboard a new tin of salt and Pop, watching her upstretched figure as it revealed portions of enormous calves, suddenly felt a startling twinge of excitement in his veins. He immediately grasped Ma by the bosom and started squeezing her. Ma pretended to protest, giggling at the same time, but Pop continued to fondle her with immense, experienced enthusiasm, until finally she turned, yielded the great continent of her body to him and let him kiss her full on her soft big mouth.

The Larkins are irresistible and irrepressible! It was lovely too to see Mr Charlton gradually lose his inhibitions and join the gang who were never going to take no for an answer.

In keeping with the book’s Shakespearean roots, the Larkins are all nature-lovers. They all know, however, that the chickens in the yard will end up on the table sooner or later, they’ll have had a good life though.

This short book was absolutely charming, full of good humour with some sparkling dialogue.  It’s a top class gentle comedy, and the good news is that Bates wrote five Larkins novels, so I’ve got four more to look forward to, as I fell in love with this cheeky family. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. Penguin paperback 160 pages.
The Darling Buds of May

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