Sheila Kaye-Smith’s ‘Little England’

A week or so back I wrote about the 1929 Manchester Guardian competition in which readers were asked to predict which living novelists would still be read in 2029. (Galsworthy came top with 1180 votes.)
The top six on readers’ lists were all men, and the highest-scoring woman writer was Sheila Kaye-Smith, with 198 votes. As a comparison, only 21 rated Virginia Woolf’s chances of being read a century hence.
These days, Kaye-Smith does not often feature on lists of significant twentieth-century novelists. A literary society in St.Leonards keeps her local memory alive, but her fame does not seem to go far beyond the region. According to Amazon a couple of her books are available on a print-on-demand basis; otherwise, she seems to have disappeared from the literary map.
Curious about this, I have taken a look at her 1918 novel, Little England, and I am tremendously impressed by it. (I warn you that the following account will contain plot spoilers.)
The novel is about the effect of the war on the ordinary people of a small community in East Sussex; it conveys very well the atmosphere of a dispiriting time when in the local shop:

the bottles of sweets had vanished long ago, and the empty spaces were filled with large cardboard posters, displaying Thyrza’s licence to sell margarine, and the Government list of prices.

The main characters are the Beatups, a family of small-scale farmers, Thyrza,a shopkeeper, and Mr Sumption, a hellfire preacher at the local Bethel.
The book begins with two men going off to War. Tom Beatup is a conscript, unwilling to go because he fears that his drunken father and scapegrace brother will not be able to manage the farm without him. Jerry Sumption is the son of the minister and a gypsy woman who died after his birth; in contrast to Tom, Jerry is a wild and restless character who volunteered for the Army on a restless whim.
In the Army, these two have contrasting careers. The unwilling Tom tackles the job positively, and from being a soldier gains the confidence and courage to propose marriage to Thyrza the shopkeeper; Jerry, on the other hand, is a bad soldier, slovenly and ill-disciplined. In a central incident, he comes close to murdering a girl who has spurned him. In Kaye-Smith’s book the War does not change soldiers fundamentally, but brings out the qualities that were latent within them.
It is the civilians who are most changed by the War, especially Tom’s brother Harry, who stops larking off to the woods and takes on the responsibility of the farm, and makes a success of it. His life changes when he looks at a local newspaper and reads ‘a very solid article on wheat-production and the present needs’:

In many ways it was a revelation to Harry. Though he had been a farm-boy all his life it had never struck him till then that grain-growing was of any importance to the nation, or imagined that the Worge harvests mattered outside Worge. The fields, the stock had been to him all so many means of livelihood, and the only motive of himself and his fellow-workers the negative one of keeping Worge from the auctioneer’s. If he ever realised his part in the great adventure, it was only when he saw his duty to keep the place together for Tom to fight for. This was his newest and highest motive, and when he refused the call of distant woods, broke with the Brownbread rat-and-sparrow club, and paid no more than a business visit to Senlac Fair, it was so that Tom’s sacrifice should not be in vain. But here was a chap making out that a farmer was very nearly as important as a soldier, and that it was on the wheat-fields of England as well as on the battlefields of France that the war would be won. . . .

The biggest transformation, however, happens to Mr Sumption, the Particular Baptist minister who had been born in a smithy, and whose young imagination had been inspired by fire and drama of the forge:

He became ” queer.” He spoke his thoughts, and in time preached them to the men who brought their horses to be shod. His father jeered at him, his mother was afraid, but the minister of a neighbouring chapel took him up. He thought he had found a rustic saint. He invited young Sumption to his house, taught him, and encouraged him to enter the ministry. The parents were flattered by the pastor’s notice, and he found little difficulty in persuading them to let their boy leave the forge and train as a minister of the Particular Baptists.

In Mr Sumption, Kaye-Smith creates a character full of a passion that he can only inadequately express. When a young man he fell in love with a gypsy girl, and married her despite widespread disapproval. After her death he brought up their child Harry alone, with a mixture of indulgence and severity, and has watched the boy go wild. Meanwhile, Sumption serves as a minister at Little Bethel, delivering a strict and cruel faith to a small group who see themselves as the elect worthy of salvation. The contrast with the Beatups is made clear. They are a family rooted in the land, and the land is their salvation, despite the failings of individual members of the family.

Sumption’s great test comes at the end of the book. Telegrams arrive at the village, announcing the death of various soldiers. The one that comes to Sumption is oddly worded, and is followed by a letter from Jerry, written from the condemned cell. He will be shot for desertion, but it is made very clear that this was not a matter of cowardice, but of waywardness; he went away with a French woman while his comrades went off to the trenches.

This revelation has a great effect on Sumption. He had planned to hold a church service in memory of some of the local men who had died, and he turns it into an occasion where he speaks about his son, and justifies him. If the other soldiers died to save England, then Jerry, shot as an example, died to save others from following his path. It is an odd confused theology, and causes indignation among his narrow flock. Sumption walks away from his church, and enlists in the Army Veterinary Corps, where his skills as a smith and horse-doctor will be useful.

This is a book that looks backward to the old rural England. Its concerns – the relation between the farmer and his land, the sympathetic examination of lives limited by rural ignorance, nonconformist religion, seem to belong more to the nineteenth-century novel than to the twentieth. Is that why we have written Kaye-Smith out of our literary history? On the basis of this book, she is a very good novelist.

2 Comments

  1. Posted October 21, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    I thnk a few times towards the end there you wrote ‘Harry’ when you meant ‘Jerry,’ at least if I’m following the plot correctly. Interesting. Was Kaye-Smith trying to write a Wessex-in-the-trenches novel, do you think?

  2. Posted October 21, 2009 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Whoops! Many thanks for pointing out the mistake. It’s corrected now.
    I think that what Kaye-Smith was attempting (with much success) was a depiction of the impact of the War on rural life (not Wessex, but East Sussex). She is pretty even-handed about it. Tom grows as a man because of his war service, but is shot. Harry develops a vision of the farm as the ‘Little England’ that is worth fighting for, but at the end of the novel he too is conscripted, and the farm must be left to its fate.
    Yesterday I went to a lecture at Birmingham that illuminated the novel. As part of the University of Birmingham War Studies Seminar series, Dr Michael Snape was talking about ideas of immortality during the War. One of his main points was that the eschatology of both Anglican and nonconformist churches shifted in emphasis significantly during the War, with far less emphasis on Hell than in previous years, so that a Liberal theology, by which the virtuous could attain grace, became far more widespread than the idea of Hell for all but the elect. This shift was found especially in the teaching and preaching of Army chaplains, who propagated the view that the virtuous soldier who did his duty bravely would find his way to Heaven (though some at the time grumbled, and said this was more of a Muslim than a Christian doctrine.)
    In Kaye-Smith’s novel, the execution of his son shakes Mr Sumption’s narrow faith, and he comes close to the idea common at the time of the soldier as a man performing a heroically redemptive act for the sake of the rest of the nation (think of John Oxenham’s poem, ‘Christs all!’.) Jerry is even more of a scapegoat figure, because he has been shot as an example to the other soldiers, to keep them from straying – so he’s a saviour of the saviours, as it were. The logic is strained, but this is a distraught man trying to find consolation in a terrible situation.
    Dr Snape’s paper yesterday made it clear that Kaye-Smith was describing not just the crisis of one man, but a crisis of faith within a whole culture, where the mass deaths of (mostly rather irreligious) young men were calling into doubt traditional religious ideas.


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